Raiders go for basketball players in draft
AP Sports Writer
ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP) – When Al Davis was in charge, the Oakland Raiders seemed to come out of the NFL draft each year with a track team full of sprinters.
New general manager Reggie McKenzie looked to another sport in his first draft, taking two converted basketball players who are relatively new to football among his five picks on Saturday’s final day of the draft.
The Raiders took Penn State defensive end Jack Crawford with their first of two fifth-round picks and Georgia State defensive lineman Christo Bilukidi in the sixth round, hoping to hit big with two potential projects.
“It helps when you talk about how athletic especially big men are,” McKenzie said. “Do we go in and look for guys who played basketball? No. But when we research and get down into the scouting part of it, yes. That’s part of the process.”
Oakland also took San Diego State linebacker Miles Burris in the fourth round, Arizona receiver Juron Criner in the fifth and Penn State linebacker Nathan Stupar in the seventh.
The Raiders previously took Utah guard Tony Bergstrom with a compensatory pick at end of the third round on Friday as McKenzie had few picks to work with after previous deals had cost Oakland it’s top three picks and two others.
The Raiders are also targeting a potential backup quarterback in free agency, having scheduled a visit with former Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart for next week.
“We set out to try to upgrade the team and by the end of the day we felt like we did that,” McKenzie said. “It remains to be seen just how good they will be, but we anxiously will await their presence here in Oakland and also into camp. We’re excited. It was a good weekend. We feel good about where we’ve come so far.”
Much of the day was spent bolstering depth with Bergstrom likely the only player with a strong shot to earn a starting job in training camp. Burris and Criner figure to be immediate contributors but the two converted basketball players likely need time to develop.
Crawford, who grew up in England, moved to the United States to play basketball in high school and picked up football in his junior year. He then went to Penn State, where he started the past three seasons. He had 6.5 sacks for the Nittany Lions last season.
“It’s a little emotional right now, everybody is crying,” Crawford said. “It’s so unlikely. I told myself coming into this situation that I wasn’t going to get upset if I didn’t get drafted. I have come so far already. I am just so happy. This is one of the best days of my life.”
Bilukidi, whose father was an Angolan diplomat, has even less experience.
He didn’t start playing football until his last year of high school in Canada. He then went to junior college at Eastern Arizona and finished his college career at Georgia State where he had 10 sacks and 16 tackles for loss in two years.
“It’s not like basketball,” he said. “Basketball is physical but football is just another game and it’s more physical. The whole contact about it, just hitting people, that’s what I like to do.”
McKenzie showed his affinity for basketball players even before the draft when he signed former Cal State Fullerton power forward Andre Hardy to a free-agent contract as a tight end even though he hadn’t played football since high school.
“We’re close to having a starting five,” coach Dennis Allen said.
McKenzie said he wanted to target players with a passion for the game and he found another in Burris with the 129th overall pick. Burris had eight sacks, 19.5 tackles for loss, three fumble recoveries and 78 tackles for the Aztecs last season.
“I’m a very versatile player and I pride myself on being tough and playing through every game and practice no matter how I feel and no matter what’s going on with my body,” Burris said. “I’m an explosive and powerful player and I just love the game. I love the violence of it and I just love to go out and compete.”
Criner had 31 touchdowns and 202 catches for 2,770 yards his final three seasons at Arizona but lacks the top-end speed the Raiders targeted in receivers under Davis’ leadership. He was clocked at 4.68 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, which hurt his draft standing.
“There’s a difference between playing on the field and having field speed than straight-line speed,” Criner said. “So, I don’t feel like I would really having a problem fitting into that category.”
Stupar, the nephew of former Raiders quarterback Jeff Hostetler, started sparingly at Penn State and is projected as a special teams contributor and backup middle linebacker.
The Raiders are also looking to fill a void at backup quarterback by scheduling a tryout next week with Leinart. Leinart has a familiarity with Oakland’s offensive system because new coordinator Greg Knapp was his quarterbacks coach in Houston. Leinart also has a relationship with starter Carson Palmer, whom he backed up to start his college career at Southern California.
After winning two national titles with the Trojans and being the No. 10 overall pick in 2006 by Arizona, Leinart has failed to meet expectations. He started 11 games as a rookie with the Cardinals but only seven games in the past five seasons.
He got a chance to start last season with the Texans after Matt Schaub broke his right foot, but Leinart dislocated his left shoulder in the first half against Jacksonville on Nov. 27, ending his season.
“We just want to take a closer look at him, watch him throw the ball and see how his injury has come around,” McKenzie said.
Notes: The Raiders announced that they will donate 10 percent of any new season ticket orders paid for from May 1-June 30 to the Oakland public school system.