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Jon Gruden, Oakland Raiders hold the key to the 2019 NFL draft

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USA TODAY

INDIANAPOLIS – Jon Gruden smiled knowingly. But there was no way he was going to reveal even the slightest hint of the Oakland Raiders’ deliberations or desires regarding this spring’s NFL draft.

Gruden held the attention of a large scrum of reporters as he took Podium 1 inside the interview room at the Indiana Convention Center. A reporter asked how attractive Gruden found the first overall pick of the draft – the slot held by the Arizona Cardinals, and three spots higher than his own.

“Pretty attractive,” the coach smirked. “That’s why we’re here: trying to measure every possibility.”

The possibilities indeed abound for the Raiders. In addition to the No. 4 pick, they currently own two other first rounders (24th and 27th) and a high second-round pick (35th). They also boast one pick from Rounds 3-5 and two in the sixth and seventh.

Intrigue surrounds the Cardinals – especially after general manager Steve Keim declined to rule out drafting Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray with the first pick. When asked about Josh Rosen, whom he drafted 10th overall last season, he said only, “Is Josh Rosen our quarterback? Yeah. He is, right now, for sure.”

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But because of their bevy of selections – particularly the three firsts – Gruden and the Raiders possess the ability to largely control this year’s draft while also dramatically infusing their roster with much-needed talent.

The Raiders can accomplish both goals in a variety of ways. They can package picks to trade up. They could use any of those original selections to acquire even more selections. They could use draft capital to acquire veteran players, although that scenario seems less likely. (Gruden on Wednesday joked that he doesn’t like veteran players, poking fun at the critics who took issue with his decision last season to part with pass-rusher Khalil Mack and wide receiver Amari Cooper, among others). But the Raiders do aim to continue the roster overhaul, and a need for youth is the driving force.

“We plan on obviously trying to get younger. We’ll see how it goes,” Gruden did admit. “You never know what trade opportunities will present themselves. Every veteran player comes with a price tag. These contracts are very expensive, so you have to measure the financial part of things as well as (asking), ‘Does he fit your scheme or fit your operation.”

The Raiders have roughly $70 million in salary cap space, but Gruden prefers building through the draft, as he believes it better ensures continued financial flexibility and greater long-term success. That’s a big reason why he hired long-time draft analyst Mike Mayock as his general manager this offseason.

Gruden’s precursor – dismissing well-respected talent evaluator Reggie McKenzie – drew great skepticism. But Gruden is accustomed to that. Virtually every significant move from 2018 sparked criticism as fans and critics have struggled to fully grasp the coach’s vision.

And that’s why Gruden and Co. need a fruitful draft – especially after last year’s overhaul efforts seemed to weaken the roster and factor into the Raiders’ 4-12 record.

Gruden says, “We plan to get better at every phase of football.” But one of the biggest questions relates to whether Oakland’s build-by-draft efforts will include a change at quarterback. Gruden repeatedly said last season that Derek Carr – the quarterback he inherited – remains his guy. But whether fair or not, questions have always lingered about the legitimacy of his commitment to Carr. Some skeptics could envision Gruden trading up to draft Murray.

However, on Wednesday, Mayock declared, “I think Derek Carr is a franchise quarterback. I truly believe that. Now, do I also believe it’s a general manager’s and head coach’s job to keep their eyes open to improve any position on a football team? Sure. But I think it’s really difficult to try and improve over a franchise quarterback like the one we have in our building right now.”

And on Thursday, Gruden noted he agreed. 

“I think that was well-said,” Gruden said. “Yeah, he’s our franchise quarterback, yes. Try to make that clear.”

A trade up and subsequent selection of Murray would make for great theatre. But it wouldn’t address Oakland’s need for talented defensive backs (which Gruden stressed the importance of due to division-rival Kansas City’s dominant passing attack), an edge-rusher (to replace Mack) and offensive play-makers.

“We’ve got obvious needs – offensively, defensively,” Gruden acknowledged. “(Joe) Flacco’s coming to town in Denver. He’s a world-championship quarterback. We know what (Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick) Mahomes just did, and (Los Angeles Chargers quarterback) Philip Rivers is still very dangerous. So, defensively, we’ve got to improve at all three levels, and offensively we’ve got to improve as well. … We won four games. We have a long way to go, and we’re going to there.”

It’s just the how that remains the biggest question.

Follow Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.

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