HENDERSON, Nev.—Just before noon on Thursday, hours before the start of the NFL Draft, Raiders coach Josh McDaniels popped into GM Dave Ziegler’s office for one last bit of strategy talk. The team’s draft board had been set with finality Wednesday, after three months of debate. The Raiders, after conversations with teams above them about trading up from number seven in the first round, decided to stay in their slot, barring a surprise.
“What we need is for three quarterbacks to go before we pick,” McDaniels said.
It seemed logical, with Carolina going Bryce Young at number one and then Houston at two and Indianapolis at four and Seattle at five all in the QB market. But nothing in this draft after Carolina was a sure thing. All McDaniels and Ziegler knew was that these four non-QBs sat at the top of their board a short spiral away, graded closely:
ANDERSON, Will OLB
WILSON, Tyree OLB
But as Ziegler and McDaniels hashed it out, and McDaniels talked about the latest intel he’d heard about the top six (“I hope I’ll have something coming in on Houston at two, but Nick’s tight,” he said, referring to Texans GM/CIA agent Nick Caserio), they realized they were just like the rest of America: They doubted Houston would pick a quarterback at two, they didn’t know which GM was fixing to pay a ransom to trade up with Arizona at three, they didn’t know which quarterback Indianapolis would choose at four, and they didn’t know if Seattle would go QB or best defensive weapon at five.
No surprise, all this mystery. This is the modern draft, where lips are no longer loose, where mock drafts are a mockery of reality. It sounds counterintuitive, but in the hours before the NFL Draft, the people running drafts for $6 billion franchises didn’t know much more than the rest of us. Ziegler and McDaniels did know by staying put—and they would get a phone call that surprised and tempted them minutes before their pick—they were not in control of their fate. They needed help. The Raiders needed two teams post-Carolina to pick passers in the next five picks. Likely. Not certain.
At 4:43 p.m. Pacific Time, Ziegler was on his way into the draft room, a large square conference room on the third floor of the Raiders’ facility six miles west of the Vegas Strip. He stopped by the floor-to-ceiling photograph of the man who lords over this franchise 12 years after his death, and Ziegler patted the photograph of Al Davis.
“Goosebumps,” Ziegler said. “I feel his presence every day.”
Then Ziegler—47, in gray suit, black Oxford shirt, no tie, white and black sneakers—entered the draft room, where 13 scouts, personnel people, one coach and one owner would plot the immediate future of Al Davis’ team. At 4:59 p.m., 11 minutes before the draft kicked off, owner Mark Davis slipped into the room, in his white satin Raiders jacket and stonewashed faded jeans.
“Gameday, baby!” Son of Al announced to the room.
Gameday, as Mark Davis said. “We’re still undefeated!” Davis said as Roger Goodell kicked off the draft. One wall taken up entirely with the draft board, ranking the players by position from top to bottom, on magnetic cards, the old-school way. One wall, controlled by pro personnel director Dwayne Joseph, with pick-by-pick order and team-by-team needs that change with every pick. One wall, which McDaniels, Ziegler, assistant GM Champ Kelly and Davis face, with three things: a big TV tuned to the draft, computerized pick-by-pick directly from the league, so it’s faster than what you see on TV, and a constantly updated list of trade discussions with draft-trade charts showing trade proposals broken down by a value chart.
Kelly, Ziegler (cell phone to his ear at least half of the evening), McDaniels, Davis, left to right in front of the room, in swivel chairs, able to look ahead at trade possibilities or back at the state of the draft board. Ziegler flitted from senior personnel adviser Shaun Herock to McDaniels to Davis to Kelly to director of football analytics David Christoff to senior national scouts DuJuan Daniels, Andy Dengler and Lenny McGill, having mostly hushed conversations.
5:18 p.m. PT: Panthers picked Young. “This is where the draft starts,” Ziegler, stating the obvious, said.
Four minutes later, the tinny voice from draft headquarters said, “Houston has made its pick. Arizona now on the clock.” All eyes turn to the board where the pick will show up first. C.J. Stroud, QB, Ohio State popped onto the screen. “Oooooh,” someone in the room said. Seven minutes passed. Arizona traded down to 12 with Houston. Big compensation: For this pick and a fourth- this year, the Texans gave the Colts the 12th and 33rd overall picks this year and their first- and third-round picks next year.
5:32 p.m.: Will Anderson to Houston at three. One Vegas target down.
5:33 p.m.: Ziegler on his cell, briefly. Ziegler to McDaniels in a hushed tone: “Arizona wants to trade back up.”
Ziegler and McDaniels stared at the trade-value board in the back of the room, analyzing trade possibilities—the values, plus or minus for the Raiders, based on the numerical values Ziegler assigns to each pick:
1-7 down to 1-12
+177 ARI sends 2-33, LV gives back 4th (109)
+68 ARI sends 2-33 and 6-213, LV gives back 3-100 and 4-109
+30 ARI sends 2-33, LV gives back 3-70
At 5:37 p.m., Anthony Richardson, the Florida quarterback, got picked by the Colts. The third quarterback was off the board. McDaniels beamed. He and Ziegler slapped hands. Now the Raiders were sure to get one of their four guys.
5:42 p.m.: Cards GM Monti Ossenfort called Ziegler. Hushed discussion, presumably exchanging potential offers for the pick. Then Ziegler and McDaniels huddled. Having the 12th and 33rd overall picks, to go along with the Raiders’ 38th choice, would be tempting. “We could get [Oklahoma tackle Anton] Harrison at 12,” McDaniels said. The Raiders loved Harrison—not as much as Johnson, but enough maybe to lose the fourth non-QB they love in order to pick up the 33rd pick. They mulled.
The phone went cold for a few minutes. Seemed obvious Ossenfort wanted Paris Johnson. He had to be dealing with Detroit, trying to get ahead of Vegas to ensure getting Johnson. Smart move by Ossenfort, choosing not to close a deal for the seventh pick and instead dealing for the sixth–ensuring that the Cards would get the tackle they wanted.
5:47 p.m.: Witherspoon to Seattle at five. Detroit up. No action on Ziegler’s phone. Not surprising. Arizona was targeting Johnson.
5:50 p.m.: Tinny voice from Draft HQ: “Detroit has traded its pick to Arizona. Arizona is on the clock.” For Vegas, there goes day-one starting right tackle Paris Johnson.
5:54 p.m. Paris Johnson to Arizona. “Las Vegas is on the clock,” tinny voice says.
So no real drama. The plan was preordained. There was no real debate now, no discussion about moving. Only this:
5:58 p.m.: “Tyree, this is coach McDaniels. We’re gonna turn the pick in here, and you’re gonna be a Raider.”
In a lull in front of the room, McDaniels said quietly: “Our board was right. We needed three quarterbacks to go, and we’re so happy we got one of the four non-quarterbacks who were our top-rated guys on the board. Look, we gotta rush the passer. We gotta go get [Patrick] Mahomes and [Justin] Herbert. That’s four games a year for the next few years against these great young quarterbacks. And the AFC is full of these great young quarterbacks. This is a great outcome for us.”
This is the draft. The Raiders needed long-term help opposite Maxx Crosby (edge player Chandler Jones is 33), and Anderson or Wilson would have been great. Witherspoon would have been great to add to a needy secondary. Johnson would have been great to bookend Kolton Miller. It’s capricious. The choice wasn’t up to Ziegler; other teams decided for him. But the vibe in the room, the smiles, showed this staff loves Wilson, even with the foot injury that made him an iffy candidate to some teams.
In his office 20 minutes later, McDaniels waited to be connected to Wilson to converse. “I mean, hallelujah,” McDaniels said. “His motivation, his drive, how he handles adversity … off the charts. We value the TAP test (a test in the pre-draft process that measures mental toughness, drive and composure under pressure), and Tyree got one of the highest grades on it, a Green plus-plus. He’ll fit in great here.”
McDaniels’ football ops guy, Tom Jones, walked in with a phone. Wilson. “Tyree, welcome to the nation,” McDaniels said. “Dude, I am so excited you’re a Raider. I know you’re gonna help us win a lot of games. So, just wanted to touch base on a few things. You’re gonna talk to the media here in a bit. Wanted to give you a few points. Be humble, which you are. Stay away from predictions—that way, you won’t have to eat them later. Don’t talk about timelines with your foot. You don’t want your draft story to be all about your foot. Now, you got a fan base that’s second to none. They’re gonna love you. Just express how excited you—which I know you are.”
Back in the Raiders draft room, after pick 19, Ziegler said, “Josh, you wanna look at trades?” On the board were four players with similar grades: Georgia defensive end Nolan Smith, Maryland corner Deonte Banks, Harrison the Oklahoma tackle, and Arkansas linebacker Drew Sanders. Close to them: Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer.
But there wasn’t much enthusiasm to deal after Banks and Harrison went off the board. Ziegler made a couple of calls about moving up to fill a hole left by the trade of tight end Darren Waller with Mayer, but never got far—or appeared enthusiastic to do it.
7:36 p.m.: Crosby sent a video message to Wilson, and in the draft room, Ziegler had it and he showed it to McDaniels and Davis on his phone. The tenor of the message: Congrats, Tyree. Now, time to go work, son. “Love it,” McDaniels said.
There are lulls in all drafts, and after Banks and Harrison went at 24 and 27, this was the Raider lull. Davis kept things interesting. When the TV showed a crestfallen Will Levis, undrafted, still in the green room in Kansas City, he said: “Someone should tell him careers are not made on draft day. Tell him this happened to Aaron Rodgers too.” And when he looked up and saw speedy Jalin Hyatt, the wide receiver, still on the board with a high Raider grade, Davis said to McDaniels: “Too bad we don’t have a need at receiver. Can he run?”
“Like the wind,” McDaniels said.
Davis started laughing, like he could sense Ziegler and McDaniels did not want him to start lobbying for the best speed receiver in the draft.
“It’s part of my DNA,” Davis said. “I see a fast receiver, I want him. I can’t help it.” Spoken like his father’s son.
As the round wound down, quietly, I asked Davis what he thought of Ziegler and McDaniels, the ex-Pats, entering year two of their regime. “I like ‘em,” he said. “When we hired them, everybody thought we were trying to re-create the Patriots. That wasn’t it. I was trying to find two great football men. Now, this is their chance to build something. They’re young, they love football, and I’m thrilled with them. It’s a huge weekend for them.
“My dad’s drafts were different—a lot more tense.”
“The tense conversations were already had,” McDaniels said later. “We had them in the last six weeks. We ended up with the board where we all felt it needed to be.”
8:30 p.m.: Two picks left, including Kansas City at 31. Mayer on the mind in the draft room. “If KC comes back to us,” Ziegler said, “wanna do it?”
“Yes,” said McDaniels.
“Best tight end in the draft,” Kelly said.
Short conversation with KC. “Not gonna work,” Ziegler said. KC would have given 31 and 217 (sixth round) for 38 and 70, a net on the points chart of minus-147. “Too many players we like,” Ziegler said. (Ziegler, on Friday, traded from 38 to 35 with the Colts to snag Mayer, the tight end Vegas wanted above all.)
An hour after the round ended, McDaniels and Ziegler unwound in the draft room. Wilson underwent surgery by the top athletic foot surgeon in the field, Dr. Robert Anderson, to repair a fracture last Nov. 21. Six weeks ago, Anderson sent a letter to each team, saying Wilson has responded “extremely well” to surgery. The Raiders expect Wilson to be ready to play this season on schedule. “Our doctors ultimately felt like it was something that we were going to be okay with,” Ziegler said. “If we wouldn’t have felt comfortable with it, we wouldn’t have [picked Wilson].”
In all, the needy Raiders, trying to rebound from a few years of failed top picks, got two likely starters out of the draft—Wilson and Mayer. After that, it’s up in the air, as all drafts are. The Raiders got their presumptive backup to Jimmy Garoppolo, Aidan O’Connell, in the middle of the fourth round—about two rounds earlier than the consensus of where he deserved to go. They got a speed cornerback, Banks’ teammate Jakorian Bennett, with pick 104, and the Raiders hope he plays early.
Mel Kiper, for one, liked the first two picks but the others, not so much. After the top two, Kiper said, “I don’t see value with the rest of this class.”
That’s why they play the games. In three years, we’ll see if Ziegler picked right in the NFL’s 88th draft.
Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column