Mariotti: Choosing sizzle over sacks, Raiders wisely draft game-breaking WR

They're dreaming of a flame honoring Al Davis, in a stadium with a 120-foot-high cauldron, in a town … oh, seven or eight hours away as the moving van flies. Meaning, it's entirely possible the Raiders drafted Amari Cooper for their eventual new fans in Los Angeles and not for the rowdies in the Black Hole, even as their one-time coach acknowledged them all the way from Chicago.

“A lot of noise back in Alameda,” Jon Gruden said at NFL Draft central. “I can hear them.”

Wherever they end up, Oakland or Carson or the dark side of the moon, the Raiders crave a young, polished, home-run-capable receiver so Derek Carr has a chance to succeed in a league where quarterbacks thrive like never before. Say hello, then, to Amari Cooper, who has been compared to Roddy White and Tim Brown, the last outstanding Raiders wideout a very long time ago. Darrius Heyward-Bey, Cooper is not. Nor is he a bust in the inexcusable enormity of JaMarcus Russell, or a disappointment like Darren McFadden, or a dud like so many Raiders have been on draft night.

Let Cooper tell you where he thinks he's headed. “I'm not thinking about a mansion man,” he tweeted Thursday night when someone inquired about his signing-bonus plans. “I'm thinking about Canton!”

Big goals and dazzling touchdowns are what the Raiders need after a trail of futility that has eroded beyond the punchline stage. Basically, they are trying to survive as an unstable franchise in a league of unprecedented prosperity, and the best way to rally whatever fans remain is via the long ball. Despite those who think football boss Reggie McKenzie should have opted for Leonard Williams, generally the highest-rated player in this draft and a potential Hall of Famer, he plays on the defensive line. That would be a football pick, not a sizzle pick. Seems the Raiders need to keep the ticket-buying public interested in two cities, whether they stay in a dilapidated stadium with no replacement on the political horizon or return to Southern California for a new home with a working sewage system. Sorry for the reference, but Cooper was a Hollywood pick.

“We want to be explosive on offense. We want to throw the ball,” said Jack Del Rio, the new coach. “We have a good quarterback. We're going to do more than throw the ball, but we had to have speed and playmaking ability on the outside. That's a real fine football player we added to the organization. The expectation level should be high.”

Raved McKenzie: “His skill set, I mean, he can run a route. It seems he can do that with his eyes closed. He's exceptionally quick, fast. He understands the game. You can tell the guy's been playing football and playing that position all his life.”

Astonishingly, in a time when NFL franchises hire private investigators to turn up hangnails and parking tickets, Cooper didn't raise a single red flag when the Raiders probed him. Character? Check? Health? Check. Ego? In check. Some grapevine whispers had Williams dealing with a shoulder issue, and he slid to the New York Jets at No. 6. He grew up as a Raiders fan, made no secret of his wish to wear silver and black and certainly would have looked monstrous in the trenches as a 6-5, 302-pound athletic freak. But Cooper, who was targeted for more than 170 passes by Nick Saban and (another ex-Raiders coach alert!) Lane Kiffin last season at Alabama, has a 34-inch vertical leap and a dash of speed that would have made Davis proud. It only makes sense that the Raiders, one of these decades, would draft the Fred Biletnikoff Award winner, regardless of whether the Jacksonville Jaguars left Williams on the board with their choice of defensive end Dante Fowler Jr.

“We kind of know who we liked,” said McKenzie, letting a grin slip. “When Cooper was there, we were excited. There wasn't a whole lot of debate, if that's what you were thinking.”

Now that Carr has targets in Cooper and Michael Crabtree, now that the offensive line is better and decent running backs are in the house, the Raiders have a chance to be entertaining. Not that they'll win much in a division with Denver, Kansas City and San Diego, but they're now back in the conversation for reasons other than their possible L.A. move. Owner Mark Davis seems to spend more time in Southern California — shuttling from a proposed shared facility with the San Diego Chargers in suburbia to Stan Kroenke's planned site in Inglewood — than he does with politicians in Oakland. As time passes without apparent local movement, the Raiders do appear to be goners.

So enjoy your new show-business star, L.A. “I need to be more consistent in my performance,” Cooper said. “I want to catch the ball as many times as it's thrown to me. I just need to do the small things to make me a better player.”

While the Raiders were going for broke, the 49ers were going for a project. Arik Armstead may not play much as a rookie defensive end in their 3-4 scheme, regardless of whether Justin Smith retires. “We're not in a situation where Arik has to come in and play,” said the new coach, Jim Tomsula. This is a rather smug take by a team that will have trouble finishing 8-8 after a tumultuous and embarrassing offseason. How can a franchise with so many needs feel content with a future selection, one who may develop into an elite run stopper but needs more weight-room work at 6-7 and 290 pounds? Sounds like Tomsula got his way again, just as he may have gotten his way in the Jim Harbaugh drama.

As it is, the 49ers are in perpetual upheaval, with their CEO aggravating soccer moms, their general manager unable to answer simple questions, their alternative uniforms in all-black — they couldn't at least wait for the movers to arrive in Oakland? — and their former coach laughing his khakis off. The only way they'll be part of Super Bowl 50, to be played in their stadium, is by securing party passes.

But at least Trent Baalke landed two extra picks, a fourth-rounder this year and a fifth-rounder next year, in trading down two spots with the Chargers, who wanted a glitzy selection in running back Melvin Gordon. The critics, of whom Baalke has many, will be ready to pounce again if the player picked after Armstead — Oakland native Marcus Peters — becomes a standout cornerback for the Kansas City Chiefs. Peters was kicked off the University of Washington team after a series of disagreements with the coaching staff and, in 2011, he tested positive for marijuana. But he never was arrested. The 49ers have had numerous issues with troubled players and opted for a safe choice in Armstead, yet no team comprised entirely of Boy Scouts ever won a championship.

As for the NFL Draft, America survived Chris Berman again. Jameis Winston was drafted No. 1 by Tampa Bay, where he will grow up and start paying for his own crab legs but won't have the success of Marcus Mariota, who will be the biggest thing in Nashville since twanging strings. “Actions speak much more louder than words or what they may have read or what they may have heard,” Winston said of his past. “I look forward to gaining everyone's trust.”

“If he wasn't a good guy,” Buccaneers GM Jason Licht said, “we wouldn't have used the first pick on him.”

Baalke and Jed York may want to develop a similar philosophy: Be wary but don't become a police state in Santa Clara. “Arik runs [40 yards] in the 5-flat range,” Baalke said of his new pick. “He's a tremendous athlete for his size and that position. Four-techniques [defensive linemen] are hard to find, guys who can two gap and play with leverage blocks and control the line of scrimmage. That's what we do here.”

Four-technique? Two-gap?

Give me a guy who can whip past a cornerback, catch a pass in midstride and run 70 yards for a touchdown.

That's Amari.

Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at Read his website at

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