ALAMEDA, Calif. — Reggie McKenzie took a methodical approach to rebuilding the Oakland Raiders when he was hired as general manager in 2012.
He spent most of his first two seasons dismantling the roster to get the salary cap in order after years of mismanagement by late owner Al Davis before building the team back up again starting with the 2014 draft that netted franchise quarterback Derek Carr, elite pass rusher Khalil Mack and other key pieces.
The process has paid off handsomely. McKenzie's Raiders are off to a 9-2 start this season and stand in first place in the AFC West and tied for the top record in the conference with New England. Oakland is assured of its first winning record since 2002 and is closing in on clinching a playoff berth for the first time since that season, when the team went to the Super Bowl.
"We feel good about where we are," McKenzie said Thursday. "We think we built this thing to last."
But the speed of the turnaround from an 0-10 start in 2014 to possible Super Bowl contender two years later is somewhat staggering and a credit to the job McKenzie did building a roster and hiring Jack Del Rio as coach in 2015.
All but three of the team's starters were added since 2014 with McKenzie using successful high draft picks like Carr, Mack and Amari Cooper, key free agents like Michael Crabtree, Donald Penn, Rodney Hudson, Kelechi Osemele, Bruce Irvin and Sean Smith, and numerous finds late in the draft and off the street like David Amerson, Seth Roberts, Jalen Richard and Perry Riley Jr., to build a team able to compete with just about anybody.
"We knew we had some pieces to develop and if we could just add on that, we felt like we'd win some ballgames," McKenzie said. "We had those guys in 2014, they were young, being 0-10 is no fun, but we were 3-3 at the end of that stretch and we were moving in the right direction."
It has all paid off this season as a franchise that seemed to always find a way to lose is pulling out close games. Carr has led five fourth-quarter comebacks already this season as the players and management are confident each week that they will find a way to win.
McKenzie said that started when Del Rio decided to go for a 2-point conversion and a win instead of playing for overtime in a season-opening 35-34 win at New Orleans.
"As many heart attacks as I've had, absolutely," McKenzie said. "It goes without saying, the players, you can feel it. They have an air about them that they know they're going to win and it's good to be around."
The next step for McKenzie will be figuring out a way to keep all his young stars. He has structured most of his free-agent contracts with a pay-as-you-go philosophy meaning that the salary cap shouldn't hinder the team's chances of retaining Carr, Mack and Cooper. Carr can negotiate an extension this off-season and become a free agent in 2018, while Mack won't hit free agency until the following year and Cooper in 2020.
"The premiere players will get paid and we try to keep everything intact as much as we can," McKenzie said. "But that's what happens when you're talented players, play well and their contract comes up a certain time to where they can benefit from it, that's what free agency is all about."
In other topics, McKenzie said defensive lineman Mario Edwards Jr. resumed workouts on the field Thursday for the first time since injuring his hip in the preseason opener on Aug. 12.
Edwards was placed on injured reserve with hopes that he would be able to come back after about eight weeks but the injury has taken longer to heal than originally thought. The next step will be to see how Edwards responds to the workout before deciding whether to allow him back to practice.
"It's a day to day thing for him now," McKenzie said. "See how he comes in in the morning after he did some work today. He's been working out. He's had a good week."
McKenzie also had no update on the status of suspended pass rusher Aldon Smith, who is waiting to be reinstated by the league after serving a one-year suspension for violating the substance-abuse policy.
"They'll let us know in due time," McKenzie said. "I'm sure they're in communication with each other with that. But they don't fill us in on anything in that process."
McKenzie still believes Smith could contribute this season despite being out so long as long as he is in good shape physically and in a good state of mind.
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