Let's not pretend the Raiders couldn't have kept Khalil Mack, and more trade observations
Here's what the blockbuster deal means for everyone involved
Despite what you hear about ratings and attendance, the business of the NFL has never been more robust, with franchises selling for record prices, the much-beleaguered "Thursday Night Football" package selling for far more than many industry experts predicted and the league now rolling in cash from its streaming deal, too. Mark Davis may not be the richest owner in pro sports, but he's banked $750M in free stadium money, he deemed a coach worthy of a $100M contract and he has minority partners whose wealth knows few bounds.
Davis simply chose to make a business decision – in not ever even engaging in meaningful contract talks with his best player – that quickly led to a football decision, the only binary decision that made sense given the lack of contract negotiations. If the Raiders weren't going to pay Mack then they'd be shipping him to a team that was prepared to shatter the $20M/year threshold for the dominant pass rusher. With Mack prepared to take his holdout well into the regular season if necessary, and Jon Gruden seeking to eliminate distractions and subplots heading into his first season back from the broadcast booth, readers of this space are anything but surprised that this saga ended as it did.
The only real lingering questions were at what point would Gruden put the player up for auction (would he need to see Mack miss regular-season games first?), and which team would make the heftiest offer. I will certainly admit that I did not think the Raiders would land two first-round picks in the package, especially with the bidding taking place so close to the start of the NFL season and given the record contract that would be attached to the transaction. In the end there was one team willing to go that high, the Bears, and kudos to them for somehow getting a second-round pick back in this mega-trade.
But the rest of this transpired as expected. Once the Raiders got serious about sorting through offers it wouldn't take long for things to reach a fevered pitch – 27-year old players of this caliber generally do not become available in this league – and in a matter of one long night Oakland weeded a half-dozen legit suitors down to the winner (the fact that Chicago is in the NFC, and a team the Raiders rarely face, helps matters). The Jets came closest to securing his services, I'm told, but balked in the end at sending multiple first-round selections away.
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The question now becomes, what does this all mean for the various franchises involved?
For the Bears, view this as Mitch Trubisky insurance. General manager Ryan Pace went all-in to get the raw quarterback and surround him with enhanced talent across all the skill positions. But, well, you still never quite know with novice quarterbacks and even with a new staff trying to cater things to the college game and RPOs, there are few sure things. And I wouldn't count Trubisky as one of them.
But now, by adding Mack – a bonafide game-wrecker – to Vic Fangio's defense, it should lighten the load on the kid QB even more. Fangio is a master at scheming his defense into heights that its personnel, frankly, shouldn't seem capable of. With a premier pass rusher finally in that fold now, it opens up new worlds of possibilities, should lead to more short fields and winning situations for Trubisky and it puts some of the fan and media focus on the defensive side of the ball with Mack now the highest-paid non-quarterback in the history of the game. Chicago's margin of error just increased – possibly significantly – and winning 13-10 looks just as good in the standings as 27-10.
This bold move will obviously raise expectations for the Bears, and it saps them of future draft collateral and essentially dictates that this will be the bulk of their core for the next 3-4 season as they try to win a Super Bowl with the quarterback on a rookie deal. Personally, in a stacked NFC – and NFC North – I don't anticipate it taking Chicago to postseason heights in 2018, but I'd call anything less than a playoff run beginning in 2019 as a cause for serious concern.
For the Raiders, the next two drafts will tell the tale of Gruden 2.0. It's hard to fathom the success – or failure – of this experiment not being dictated by the four first-round selections Gruden will make in the next two drafts (or whatever subsequent trades hatch from that collection of top picks). This team isn't going to be very good in 2018, most likely, but it's all about being positioned to be a factor by the time Davis collects on that three-quarter-of-a-billion-dollar check from Nevada and begins playing his football in Las Vegas.
None of this is lost on Gruden and Davis, of course, which I can't imagine bodes well for general manager Reggie McKenzie. Gruden has pointed out Oakland's recent draft futility and it was clear from his remarks this weekend that he isn't that sympatico with the GM and I don't know anyone in the league who believed this was a long-term coupling even before all of this Mack drama spilled over. The long bet has long been that Gruden brings in a young evaluator, or two, to work under him (think Pete Carroll and John Schneider at the start of the Seahawks' turnaround) and execute his plan, and one wonders if changes happen in the Raiders' business operations are on the horizon in 2019, too (rumblings about a Gruden/Davis/Bruce Allen reunion persist in the rumor mill).
Regardless, it won't just be the Raiders' roster that looks fundamentally different by the time the franchise moves east. (As for the Jets, they continue to get creative and search anywhere and everywhere for their missing piece – edge pass rushers – as their pursuit of Mack and Dante Fowler made clear. Keep a major eye on them in the offseason trade and free-agent market; they are seeking to make power moves by this time a year from now when the Patriots might be more vulnerable than they've been in decades).
And, well, I think we all can agree what this means for Mack. By hatching a strong plan with agent Joel Segal and executing it incrementally for months, they managed to accomplish what many considered unthinkable. They topped Aaron Donald's just-signed massive contract, despite having no meaningful offer on the table from the Raiders, and despite requiring a trade to get a contract.
He moves from one storied franchise – albeit one whose recent history is mostly ugly – to another storied franchise in the same category. He goes to a fanbase hardwired to love defense and pass rushers, but one that hasn't had a young pass rushing star to embrace in a decade, and has been prone to trying to squeeze what was left from guys like Jared Allen and Julius Peppers at the end of the career.
The Bears have had one player reach 12 sacks in a season since 1993 (when Hall of Famer Richard Dent led them with 12.5 sacks in his final full season in Chicago), and that was Mark Anderson in 2006. The last few years the Bears have been relying on guys like Akiem Hicks and Willie Young and Lamarr Houston to lead the pass rush (gulp!). In Fangio's defense, Mack, a perennial Pro Bowler, should soar, and he managed to amass 36.5 sacks the past three season despite almost no help by the defensive front, or secondary, in what was a broken Raiders' defense.
Mack avoids having to play through a fifth-year option and potentially two nasty seasons on the franchise tag, which would have taken up right up to that dreaded age-30 season, before ever hitting free agency. Now, that's a moot point, and he is virtually assured of making $91M over the next four seasons. That's historic. It's unprecedented. But don't pretend that Davis couldn't have done the same thing. He's just opting to spend his money elsewhere.
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