Raiders draft class reflects Antonio Pierce's desired culture

HENDERSON, Nev. -- Brock Bowers was a two-time John Mackey Award winner as the nation's top tight end at Georgia.

Across the country at Oregon, Jackson Powers-Johnson was awarded the Rimington Trophy as college football's best center. Then there is Air Force's Trey Taylor, feted with the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back.

And don't forget about Dylan Laube, a Walter Payton Award finalist who also was also a first-team all-purpose All-American at FCS New Hampshire and led the nation in all-purpose yards the last two years.

While the quartet represents half of the Las Vegas Raiders' first draft class under general manager Tom Telesco, assistant GM Champ Kelly and coach Antonio Pierce, it also epitomizes a philosophy that permeated the Raiders' draft -- take the best player available, especially if he fits a distinct mold. And, yes, even if the choice raises more than a few eyebrows.

"We didn't necessarily go out to attack the national award winners, but production was important for us," Kelly said this week as the Raiders prepared for rookie minicamp. "Getting guys that would come in and contribute, [who] were selfless and understanding the team concept. ... We're excited to get them here and allow them to get acclimated into our environment."

Now, conventional wisdom dictates that draft classes cannot be judged fairly until those respective players are in their third or fourth year in the league.

But where's the fun in that?

The NFL draft is all about immediate gratification, so when it comes to the honors dripping from the facemasks of the newest Raiders, Las Vegas gets more than a passing grade in this knee-jerk exercise.

In fact, it's one of the most accomplished and impressive draft classes in the NFL when seen through that lens ... for now.

And it's one that, at least according to their pre-draft plan, mirrors the hard-driving and ultra-intense Pierce, elevated from interim coach to the full-time gig by Raiders owner Mark Davis after he guided the team to a 5-4 finish while bringing back a long-lost, recognizable swagger to the locker room.

"Hey, coach," Laube told Pierce on the phone after the Raiders used a sixth-round selection (No. 208 overall) on him, "you got a dog."

"Hey, Dylan," Pierce barked back, "that's our culture here -- just a bunch of dogs."

The 5-foot-10, 208-pound Laube led the nation with 209.5 all-purpose yards per game in 2023 and was second with 18 total touchdowns but projects more as a kick returner after averaging 31.1 yards per return last fall.

"And I'm super excited, man, just because it's just a bunch of gritty, hard-nosed dudes, man," said Laube, who also caught 68 passes for 699 yards and seven touchdowns and said he models his game after Christian McCaffrey.

"It's going to be so fun. I can't wait to suit up in the Black and Gray."

Come again? The what, exactly?

Cut the rookie some slack for his Silver and Black slip-up. He'll get the message soon enough.

Taylor, who somehow fell to the seventh round, felt a similarity between the mountains of the Air Force Academy and the streets of Silver and Blackdom.

"You can tell they run a tight ship, and I love that," said Taylor, a 6-foot, 210-pounder selected with pick No. 223 after intercepting six passes and racking up 205 tackles in three seasons for the Falcons. "I love that ... it fits me well coming from the Academy, and I feel like I'm a killer on the field.

"Like, I have a different instinct when I get on the field and I brought that from the Academy, and I'm hoping to bring it onto this team. And I feel like there's a lot of people who have the same mentality on [the Raiders]."

Still not convinced?

"When you look at our head coach and what he's looking for and his mentality, you've got to kind of match that and fit that culture," Telesco said. "And we feel like most of these guys have that.

"Our scouts who are on the road, they not only have to look at the football player between the white lines, but everything else about the person."

The Raiders also drafted the Big Ten's linebacker of the year -- Ohio State's Tommy Eichenberg -- in the fifth round. Eichenberg, a 6-2, 239-pound thumper, was one of three team captains the Raiders selected, along with Bowers and Laube.

Las Vegas' other three picks checked its old-school boxes of either being big (third-round Maryland tackle Delmar Glaze checks in at 6-5, 323 pounds), fast (Pittsburgh cornerback M.J. Devonshire's 4.45 40-yard dash time helped the 5-11, 190-pound seventh-rounder with a school record-tying three career pick-sixes) or big and fast (Mississippi State cornerback Decamerion Richardson, taken in the fourth round, is 6-2 and ran a 4.34 40 at the combine).

Yeah, the Raiders' draft trend was as palpable as it was vintage.

Because while Powers-Johnson was the nation's best center, he's switching to guard -- the Raiders have an opening on the right side, though he worked exclusively on the left side at the start of rookie minicamp Friday -- and the 6-foot-3, 320-pound road grader with a massive hamburger named after him in Eugene, Oregon, is only too happy to make the switch.

Yes, even with his resume.

"Anywhere that the Raiders want me to play, I'm going to play," said Powers-Johnson, the Raiders' only unsigned draft pick who played guard his first two seasons at Oregon. "If they want me to throw the ball, I'll throw the ball."

He was joking.

Which brings us back to where we started, Bowers, whose first-round selection by the Raiders at No. 13 had many fans and observers wondering if they were being pranked when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell read his name.

After all, quarterback and right tackle were the two top needs on the Raiders' draft board. So after six QBs went in the top-12 selections and Oregon State right tackle Taliese Fuaga there for the taking, the Raiders' pick seemed academic.

Alas ... another tight end?

The consensus No. 8 overall prospect according to ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr., Matt Miller, Jordan Reid and Field Yates, the 6-4, 240-pound Bowers was simply too enticing for Telesco, Kelly, Pierce and Co. after he caught 175 passes for 2,538 yards and 26 TDs in 40 games over three seasons for the Bulldogs.

Yeah, a transcendent talent and three-time first-team All-American at a position far from a need fit the Raiders' mold ... even though the team used a second-round pick on Michael Mayer last year and signed veteran Harrison Bryant in free agency.

"I feel like I'm a hard-working guy and I'm always competing," said the versatile Bowers, who can also line up wide and in the slot as well as in the backfield as an H-back.

"I love to compete. And I feel like that's something I bring to the table every day in practice. I'm going to be trying to just win every rep."

Did we mention he fit the Raiders' mold?