Few believe the Raiders did the right thing by trading Khalil Mack last September. The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference nevertheless recognized the trade as being the best of the year in all professional sports.
“I think it was the only award we got last year,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden tells Peter King of Football Morning in America.
It remains a hollow prize, with most non-MIT-types realizing that the purpose of the draft is to turn lottery tickets into rare jackpots, and then to keep the rare jackpots in place without succumbing to the allure of trading them for more lottery tickets. Gruden now justifies the decision not to pay Mack by pointing to this year’s rash of acquisitions.
“If we did come up with the money to make the [Mack] contract happen last year, we wouldn’t have any of these men we’re talking about now,” Gruden tells King. “We would not have [tackle] Trent Brown. We would not have [receiver] Antonio Brown. We wouldn’t have [safety] Lamarcus Joyner. We wouldn’t have [linebacker] Vontaze Burfict and we wouldn’t have [receiver] Tyrell Williams. And we wouldn’t have the three first-rounders that we’re talking about.”
But that’s not accurate. First, teams can do a lot more with the cap than they claim that they can do. While it’s possible that the Raiders were limited more by cash concerns, it’s not as hard as it used to be to create cap space to permit moves that a team wants to make — especially with the cap going by up more than $10 million every year.
Second, as it relates to Mack, the Raiders ended up backed against a financial wall because they incorrectly assumed that Mack would play out his fifth-year option in 2018, and they stubbornly refused to give him a new deal. If they’d realized that he wasn’t going to show up without that new deal, and if they’d paid him before Aaron Donald broke the bank on the Friday of Labor Day weekend, the Raiders surely could have gotten Mack for less than what the Bears paid.
And let’s consider what the Bears paid. At $23.5 million per year, they set a new high-water mark for defensive players even while giving up multiple draft picks to get him. If they could have gotten Mack on the open market, they would have paid somewhere between $25 million and $30 million per year for Mack.
The Raiders, if they’d properly handled Mack a year ago at this time, likely could have had him for $20 million per year, and maybe even a little less than that. (Before Donald got to $22.5 million annually, the highest-paid defensive player was Von Miller, at just over $19 million per year.) That extra $3.5 million per year would have helped pay for their 2019 free agents.
Would they have signed all of them? Probably not. But with Antonio Brown essentially replacing receiver Amari Cooper‘s current and future cap and cash burden, the question becomes whether it makes more sense to have Khalil Mack or Trent Brown, Lamarcus Joyner, Vontaze Burfict, and Tyrell Williams. Even if one or more of those guys could have been signed if Mack hadn’t been traded, it doesn’t take a degree from MIT to conclude that Mack can do far more to impact games and deliver victories than those other four players combined.
The goal when drafting players continues to be finding potential Hall of Famers. When a team finds those potential Hall of Famers, the challenge becomes finding a way to keep them around, for a second contract, a third, and maybe a fourth.
To truly justify the trade, the Raiders need to get a future Hall of Famer with one of the first-rounders acquired for Mack. If they do, they need to figure out how to keep him.