In a wide-ranging interview at the Senior Bowl this week, Raiders general manager Mike Mayock shared his views on the team with Raiders beat reporter Vinny Bonsignore. Among topics discussed were the draft and free agency, the team culture, the status of quarterback Derek Carr and the relationship between Mayock and head coach Jon Gruden.
Review-Journal: A year ago you were preparing for your first draft. Looking back on it, after putting together a draft class that yielded multiple starters and key free agents, how satisfied are you?
Mike Mayock: What Jon (Gruden) and I were most happy about, the kids that we drafted were who we’d hoped they’d be. And we’re talking about both as people and as football players. The work ethic, the toughness, the passion for the game. And I think people sometimes roll their eyes when we say those things. Anytime you bring in a new coach and a new GM and they start talking about changing the culture, everybody talks about it, but it’s a lot easier to say it than it is to do it. You have to be consistent. You have to have a commitment to it, regardless. And I think that’s something Jon and I spent a lot of time talking about. What kind of people do we want to bring into this building? And the fact that these kids came in, and I’ll use the word “competed” the way we wanted them to compete. I think that helps change the culture and helps set that foundation that we kept talking about a year ago. And again, people can roll their eyes and say ‘eh, whatever. Change the culture. Everyone says that.’ But that first class was important in that regard.
RJ: What is the next step for the rookie class?
Mayock: They have a challenge now because they played so much, and people have tape on all our rookies and the old saying is, you have your biggest jump between year one and year two. So the challenge for our guys is making sure that happens. Don’t be fat and happy. Teams are going to game plan for you. Maxx Crosby gets 10 sacks. Hunter Renfrow has two consecutive 100-yard games at the end of the season. Josh Jacobs could be the Rookie of the Year. People are going to game plan for these kids. And it’s going to be a big challenge for them to take their game from where it’s at today and move it to another level.
RJ: As you look at your offense, there is a glaring need for a playmaking wide receiver. How critical is it to secure that player?
Mayock: You need playmakers in today’s NFL. And I don’t even think you need to put labels on them anymore. That’s some of the things Jon and I talk about. Josh Jacobs can be a playmaker. Darren Waller can be a playmaker. Renfrow can be a playmaker. But we don’t have enough outside speed. People started to load up on Josh and Darren. Our offensive line is a big, strong, tough group that we’re happy with. But let’s be honest. If we’re going to take it to another level, that position has to get better.
RJ: Can this draft yield that kind of player?
Mayock: It’s early, but I certainly think there’s a lot of wideouts in this draft. It’s a deep wide receiver draft. Now, you have to be careful, especially the higher you go. Do yourself a favor and go look at (the history of the draft) and look at first-round wide receivers over the last 10 years. It’s sobering. And I think there’s some reasons why college wide receivers can struggle coming into the NFL. So I think you have to be careful. Everybody thinks if you draft a wide receiver in the first round it’s immediate production. It doesn’t necessarily mean that. Take a look at the numbers. So I think you have to be aware of what you’re facing and I think you have to be smart with what you’re doing.
RJ: How would you assess your defense?
Mayock: I think we’re a long way away on the personnel side. We’re really happy with our two rookie defensive ends, Maxx (Crosby) and Clelin (Ferrell) . We think both can be big, strong, powerful players. Both of them are going to be 270-pound defensive ends. Long. Tough. So we think we have a base in those guys.We think (cornerback) Trayvon Mullen stepped up and got better each week. Johnathan Abram, we think, is going to be a really good safety. But we’ve got to get better. We’ve got linebacker issues, people know that. We’ve got to get better at defensive tackle. We’ve got to get better on the back end. So we have a lot of holes to fill on defense.
RJ: How aggressive do you anticipate being in free agency?
Mayock: I think open-minded is a good way to put it. I think historically you have to go back and look at free agency and say “Are you spending your dollars judiciously?” Yeah, we’d love to get two or three starters out of free agency, for sure. But you have to be careful. You’ve got to know what you’re getting and what you’re buying. Are you overpaying? What are you really getting at the end of the day? I think the history of free agency tells you it’s a little bit of buyer beware. And I think we need to be well aware of that.
RJ: How much did not having Antonio Brown and not having as much explosiveness at that position impact your evaluation of Derek Carr at quarterback?
Mayock: I don’t think Antonio Brown or the wide receivers really change how we view it. I think the challenge at every position is to go in and evaluate the guy and be fair. Be fair to the guy and be fair to the organization. And what I try to tell people, and it’s a boring answer but it’s the way I approach my job, is that every year I’m going to evaluate every position. And if we think we can improve that position, we will. And if we think we can’t, we won’t. And that’s how I look at the quarterback position. I think Derek took a big step forward in year two. Jon’s tough with quarterbacks. Jon demands a lot, man. And Derek’s got the mental acuity to deal with what Jon’s asking him to do, which, trust me, puts him in a small group. He’s got arm talent. I think he took a step forward in year two. His accuracy is over 70 percent. I thought he did a heck of a job helping develop Darren Waller, force-feeding some throws to him to give him chances to make plays. This year was kind of a stepping stone, I think offensively. We solidified the offensive line a little bit. We ran the ball a little bit better. Darren Waller became a player. And now we’ve got to keep adding to that.
RJ: Do you worry that phrasing it that way might be interpreted as a non-vote of confidence for Derek?
Mayock: I don’t worry about it. In all honesty. I understand the fans have a right to their input. But at the end of the day we have to do what’s best for our organization. I don’t think you have to give anybody a vote of confidence at any position. We live in a Darwinian world in football. If we can get better at any position, we will.
RJ: Did the successful draft and the strides you took create more patience to remain committed to being disciplined in how you build this team?
Mayock: It’s an interesting question because on the one hand, Jon and I do want to do it the right way. Build through a certain foundation and bring the right kind of kid in and build the kind of club we envision. But we were 6-4 last year and we lost five out of our last six, and I would tell you that frustrates the hell out of me. We were beat up and injured, but that’s part of the NFL. So I have to do a better job of helping the coaching staff. And to me that’s one of the biggest things. You start looking at what do we have to do to start getting better, and in my mind free agency, the draft, we need to develop better depth. The fans, the media, they want to know who your first-round picks are going to be. I want to go get another Alec Ingold. I want to find another Keisean Nixon. I want to continue to build our depth throughout the draft and free agency. The fans love the first-round picks and the splashy moves in free agency, but to me it’s all important. The seventh-round pick is as important as the first-round pick. We’re trying to do it the right way. We’re trying to do it with a foundation. Brick by brick. And this is a huge offseason.
RJ: You’ve seen football from all different vantage points. What was it like watching it from the general manager’s point of view for the first time?
Mayock: I think, first and foremost, I wanted skin in the game. As much as I loved what I did for the NFL Network and covering games, there’s no substitute for being involved directly and having Sunday mean so much. And so really, that was the biggest thing for me. I didn’t want to walk out of the booth after a Thursday night game and say, “hey I think I did a pretty good game” and then you go home and have a beer and you go on to the next one. The 3½ hours every Sunday now, you’re paying for. They’re exhilarating. They’re painful. They’re everything. And that’s why you do it. So, being involved with Jon, being involved with building a staff of people that I think have become — and I’m talking about the scouts that I have hired — already in one year, outstanding. And managing people. Because really I was only responsible for my own performance for 18 years with the NFL Network. Show up, do your job, do it well and you go home. Now I’m responsible for a lot of people, and to be honest with you, that’s kind of cool. You’re trying to build a team. You’re trying to build a team of scouts and you’re trying to build a football team and an organization, so to be all, that is part of the challenge and it’s what I enjoy.
RJ: Did the leadership part come naturally?
Mayock: I think I’ve always missed that. When I was in college I was the captain of the football team and the baseball team. In high school I was the captain of three sports. I’ve always enjoyed saying “hey, let’s get rolling here, let’s get everyone together and get this thing going.” So I’ve always enjoyed that role, to be honest. I think the word is invigorating to be involved with a bunch of guys that have a passion for the game of football and are trying to get us moving in the same direction.
RJ: How rapidly did the synergy build with you and Jon Gruden?
Mayock: There’s a difference between knowing a guy for the past 15 years — and I knew Jon and we talked a lot of football over the years — but I didn’t know him in a work sense. So, when I interviewed with him we probably spent four hours sitting around his kitchen table. Mark Davis and a few other people were there. But pretty quickly it just became Jon and I looking at each other, and everybody else kind of just disappeared and the two of us just sort of locked in on each other. And it was “OK, what’s your vision? Great, what’s your vision? How do you see it? What’s your process? What’s your grading scale? How do you look at this part of the game or that part of the game?’” And it was really cool because literally, in the first few minutes we locked in and were on the same page. We both just felt it.