SANTA CLARA, Calif. – He stood in the parking lot outside the training facility named for his late grandmother, staring out at the glorious stadium under construction he fought so hard to sire, his words drowned out by the din of cranes on a chilly Thursday night in football paradise.
Clad in a bright red San Francisco 49ers T-shirt, black workout shorts and white sneakers – indeed, looking like he just left Jules and Vincent in one of the final scenes in "Pulp Fiction" – Niners CEO Jed York was the emblem of casual almost-Friday-chic after a stress-free first round of the NFL draft.
"We weren't nervous," York told Y! Sports, 90 minutes after watching general manager Trent Baalke trade up 13 spots in the first round to select LSU safety Eric Reid with the 18th overall selection. "Trent made up his mind yesterday what he wanted to do, and he went out and did it. And if it hadn't worked out, we'd have still had some pretty good options."
So ended another excellent day on the south side of the San Francisco Bay – with many more on the horizon. Armed with 11 additional picks' worth of ammunition in this draft (including the second selection in Friday's second round) and a deep and talented roster, the defending NFC champions are perhaps pro football's most formidable power.
Thirty-five miles up Interstate 880 in Alameda, the Bay Area's less fortunate NFL franchise staged a far more subdued gathering, where a much smaller crew of reporters covered a first-round trade for a defensive back amid significantly higher stakes.
When Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie dealt the third overall selection to the Miami Dolphins, then sweated out nine picks before landing Houston cornerback D.J. Hayden, the scouts and coaches in the team's war room championed the move with far less certainty than their Niners counterparts.
The rebuilding Raiders, after all, may have more needs than any NFL team, and Hayden was hardly an obvious pick: Given that he hasn't played a down of football since suffering a near-death experience after a freak practice collision last November, he is somewhat of a medical risk.
And given that Hayden, as one Raiders source put it, "was taken that high in exactly zero mock drafts," there didn't seem to be much danger of him being snatched up by another team selecting in the top 11.
The fact that McKenzie came within two minutes of using the No. 3 pick on Hayden – before the Dolphins (seeking Oregon defensive end Dion Jordan) called to save the day, making the deal that gave Oakland its second-round selection – made for some tense moments in the war room.
Shortly after picking Hayden, McKenzie took the stage at the media auditorium in the team's training facility and looked more relieved than elated. Fifteen months into his tenure, having already replaced 38 of the 53 players he inherited, McKenzie can't afford to be wrong about Hayden. I asked a question noting the importance of the pick, declaring, "I assume there's no doubt in your mind that he'll be a big-time player."
"[I'll] use your words," McKenzie replied, smiling. "No doubt."
[Related: Winners/losers of NFL draft's Day 1]
It would be wonderful, of course, if McKenzie could power-wash all of the doubt off of Raider Nation's silver-and-black sheen.
Former quarterback Carson Palmer – acquired in the pre-McKenzie trade that cost Oakland the second-round selection it recouped on Thursday – was so dubious about the franchise's direction that he refused a relatively modest pay reduction, triggering a trade to the Arizona Cardinals.
With the coach McKenzie hired, Dennis Allen, coming off a 4-12 rookie season, there's not a lot of legitimate optimism emanating out of Oakland heading into the 2013 campaign. And while owner Mark Davis has publicly insisted that he remains committed to his GM, he seems to share some of the impatience for which his late, legendary father, Al, was notorious.
McKenzie, as one source familiar with the Raiders' inner workings put it, is very much in "show me" territory as he presides over his second draft. At least opening night was relevant this year; last April, Oakland didn't make its first selection until the end of the third round, with the GM using the 95th overall pick on offensive lineman Tony Bergstrom.
Given that snoozer of a debut, it's no wonder that McKenzie conceded Thursday night that "to pick up some [extra] picks was the top priority."
Thanks to the Dolphins, McKenzie enters Friday with a fighting chance to improve his hole-ridden roster, as Oakland has picks in the second (42nd overall) and third (66th) rounds. He'll likely be on the lookout for further trade-down opportunities, which would allow the Raiders to stockpile additional selections.
To borrow from "Animal House," they need the dudes.
Baalke and the Niners, of course, have the opposite problem: Far more picks heading into this draft (13) than players who could realistically make the final roster. That left San Francisco with two obvious and viable strategies: Package picks to trade up for specific players they covet (which was the case with Reid) and/or trade 2013 choices for future selections, theoretically allowing Baalke to deal from strength in 2014 and beyond.
The Niners targeted Reid for obvious reasons, as he addresses their most obvious weakness. With Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson having departed for Tampa Bay last month via free agency, Baalke handed coach Jim Harbaugh a viable replacement. "Jim was very fired up," York said, describing the war-room scene after the trade was made.
"He's a top-shelf guy," Harbaugh said of Reid, a player he heavily recruited while coaching at Stanford. "He has great contact courage. He likes to get from Point A to Point B and go hit somebody."
Whether the Niners will have hit on another high-profile draft pick remains to be seen – that will be up to Reid and the men who coach him – but it's tough to argue with the manner in which Baalke executed his war-room gameplan.
"He was on the phone all day [Wednesday] trying to figure out what was available," York said of Baalke. "Eric was one of the highest guys on the board for us, and [safety's] a position of need. If you know you want the guy, and you have a ton of picks, go get him."
The two most viable trade partners were the Dallas Cowboys, who had the 18th overall selection, and the Chicago Bears, who were sitting at 20. In addition to San Francisco's 31st overall selection, the Bears wanted the Niners' picks in the third and fifth rounds. The Cowboys were willing to settle for simply a third-round pick, in addition to the swap of first-rounders.
Can you say, "No-brainer"?
And, for the fortunate Niners, there's no end in sight: With the second pick in the second round, San Francisco seems ideally situated to make another advantageous deal on Friday. Given that quarterbacks Geno Smith, Matt Barkley and Ryan Nassib are there for the taking, it's possible that one or more teams will be tempted to trade up to that spot.
[Related: Best available players for Rounds 2-3]
That was one of many reasons that York, having changed out of his suit and into his morning workout clothes, was all smiles as he prepared to head home for a night of broken sleep, courtesy of his 6-month-old son, Jaxson.
"There are already teams that are calling us," York said, standing in the Marie P. DeBartolo Sports Centre parking lot, next to the stadium that was being constructed as he spoke. "We might be able to [move down and] pick up that third-rounder we just traded. And it's great going into the second day knowing we've already filled our biggest need."
Up the road in Alameda, McKenzie's mission is far more daunting. One night into the draft that may define him, the GM had addressed just one of his team's many deficiencies – and he needs Hayden to be every bit as good as advertised.
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