Thursday, June 1, 2023 | 2 a.m.
Raiders general manager Dave Ziegler was hesitant to bring up anything that wasn’t of immediate football concern to coach Josh McDaniels late last October. Ziegler doesn’t like taking focus away from his longtime colleague’s on-field preparation, especially not when the Raiders were mired in a difficult stretch that saw them lose five of their first seven games under the first-year power duo.
But he made an exception because there was one scouting tidbit he couldn’t resist sharing.
Ziegler had just watched game film of then Purdue senior quarterback Aidan O’Connell and came away highly impressed. He was sure McDaniels would be too, so Ziegler walked down to the coach’s office and made a prediction about what was going to happen at the end of the season.
“When you watch this kid, this is going to be a guy that you like,” Ziegler remembered telling McDaniels.
Sure enough, when McDaniels began devoting more time to NFL Draft preparation earlier this year, the 6-foot-3, 210-pound O’Connell caught his eye. The consensus interest in O’Connell resulted in the Raiders trading up in the draft’s fourth round to take the 24-year-old with the 135th overall pick last month.
It’s a move that could turn out to have major implications on the Raiders’ upcoming season. As the team continues to partake in its second week of voluntary offseason practices today at their Henderson headquarters, O’Connell is arguably their best current option at the NFL’s most important position.
The only other healthy quarterbacks on the roster are 37-year-old career backup Brian Hoyer, who’s lost his last 11 starts in the NFL, and second-year undrafted free agent Chase Garbers, who spent almost all of last year on the practice squad.
Planned starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is not participating in the sessions. The free agent signed from the San Francisco 49ers not being on the field for the voluntary practices wouldn’t have been a major concern coming off a left foot injury last season if not for additional details unearthed last week.
First, The Athletic reported Garoppolo recently underwent surgery for the injury suffered last December despite the 49ers having initially said it wasn’t necessary. Then, Pro Football Talk obtained a copy of Garoppolo’s near $73 million contract and discovered an added waiver made the deal non-guaranteed if the quarterback didn’t pass a physical and finish at least one regular-season game.
Speaking before the latter revelation last Wednesday before practice, McDaniels declined to get into specifics but expressed confidence Garoppolo would be ready for training camp in July.
“He’s going through the process just like we knew he would,” McDaniels said. “Nothing has happened that would surprise us based on the information we had.”
O’Connell is unlikely to be the Week 1 starter if Garoppolo doesn’t recover as quickly and smoothly as McDaniels expects. Las Vegas could look into a trade or sign a veteran free agent — Carson Wentz and Teddy Bridgewater are considered the two best left on the market.
Perhaps the Raiders could even coax 45-year-old Tom Brady out of retirement and convince him to hold off on his plans to become a minority owner of the team. Offshore betting markets, for what it’s worth, price Brady as the most likely Raiders’ starter if Garoppolo is unable to go.
But O’Connell could at least be in the mix. Given Garoppolo’s injury history — he only played one full season out of six in San Francisco — O’Connell always figured to be likely to see the field at some point as a rookie.
The latest developments only increase those odds.
It’s a good thing the Raiders are so complimentary of what Ziegler called O’Connell’s “neck-up traits” as a smart and hard-working player. O’Connell raved about meeting with the Raiders’ brass at the NFL Draft Combine too after the organization drafted him.
“They obviously love football and are very intelligent,” O’Connell said. “I definitely will come in with a growth mindset, with a learner’s attitude that I want to just soak in as much information as possible. Expectations are just to come in and work as hard as possible to be the best teammate that I can be, the best player I can be, and just squeeze every bit of talent and whatever I have inside of me to try to help the organization.”
Confidence won’t be a problem with O’Connell. Just look at his career as a Boilermaker for proof.
O’Connell walked on at Purdue, which is located about 150 miles South from his hometown of Lincolnshire, Ill., and initially found himself eighth on the quarterback depth chart.
“I think I was just a little bit too dumb,” O’Connell joked about what kept him at Purdue instead of playing at a lower-level school. “If I looked around and really assessed the situation, I probably would have transferred or stopped playing football or something like that.”
But O’Connell stuck it out and became the starter midway through his sophomore season with injuries helping to pave the way.
He never stopped from there and worked his way in to the Purdue record books, including surpassing the likes of former standout pros Drew Brees and Jim Everett in career passing efficiency.
Those aren’t the only big quarterback names recently attached to O’Connell. Analysts regularly compared his style as a pinpoint-accurate pocket passer without much mobility to Brady, and the two also share a similar quick release.
O’Connell will wear No. 4 with the Raiders, the same jersey outgoing starter Derek Carr sported over the last nine seasons. Carr holds virtually all of the Raiders’ passing records, and a debate sparked among fans over whether his number was assigned too hastily after his departure.
It’s still a longshot that O’Connell emerges as Carr’s ultimate successor as the Raiders’ franchise quarterback, but before the draft, McDaniels said “the goal is to try to eventually draft a player at that position that you consider to move forward with and develop.”
The uncertainty surrounding Garoppolo can only add to the opportunity awaiting O’Connell.
“A lot of the things he did at Purdue…there are areas to grow into, but he showed a lot of the things we want from the quarterback position,” Ziegler said after the draft.