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Derek Carr Earned His Payday, and Now Oakland Has to Build Around Him

With cap flexibility out the window, the Raiders enter the next step of team building

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The Raiders just made Derek Carr a very rich man. Whether it’s by total value (a reported $125 million over five years), average yearly value ($25 million), guaranteed money (a reported $40 million guaranteed at signing), or total money paid out over the first three years (a reported $69 million), Carr’s hefty new deal with Oakland ranks him at or near the top of every metric for highest-paid NFL players.

This should be no surprise. As a young, ascending franchise quarterback, Carr is one of the rarest commodities on earth, and was always going to be paid like one. The Raiders need him and were never going to let him hit unrestricted free agency, so getting a deal done now is simply the best for both sides. Oakland avoids going down the drama-soaked franchise-tag road that the Redskins and Kirk Cousins have put themselves through over the past two seasons, and Carr no longer has to worry about contract negotiations and can concentrate on football. The team can now focus all its energy on the next step: keeping the roster around its new franchise cornerstone competitive.

The dynamic in Oakland has now officially changed. The Raiders are no longer building a winner — they’ve arrived. Now they have to figure out how to stay.

Gone are the days when Oakland general manager Reggie McKenzie could go on big spending sprees in free agency. Over the past three seasons, Oakland’s built major parts of its winning foundation on the outside market: This spring, the Raiders added running back Marshawn Lynch (via trade) and tight end Jared Cook; last year, it was guard Kelechi Osemele, pass rusher Bruce Irvin, safety Reggie Nelson, and cornerback Sean Smith. The year before? Receiver Michael Crabtree and center Rodney Hudson.

How were they able to do that? Carr has been playing on a second-round rookie contract over the past three years — he counted just $1.47 million against the cap in 2016, $1.22 million in 2015, and less than $1 million in 2014 — an incredible bargain for a franchise-caliber quarterback and one that gave the Raiders spending power in free agency. With that money, the team assembled the most expensive and best pass-protecting offensive line in the NFL, revamped its pass-catching corps and its secondary, and added a big-name veteran running back. Now, Carr’s going to count $20 million a year or more against the cap, and McKenzie and Co. will have to tighten up their purse strings and be more discerning on the open market.

That’s before we even start to count the $15–20 million per year in cap-hit dollars defensive end Khalil Mack’s impending contract will command. The explosive pass rusher has racked up 26 sacks in the past two seasons combined, and “appears destined to become the NFL’s first non-quarterback to make $20 million per year with at least $75 million in guarantees,” as former agent and CBS analyst Joel Corry recently wrote. His new deal likely won’t happen until next spring — thanks to the fifth-year team option that comes as part of every first-round pick’s rookie deal — but you can rest assured, the team is already building that cost into its salary cap models. Add in a potential deal for offensive lineman Gabe Jackson, who’s played well at the other guard spot opposite Osemele. Locking Jackson up for the long term would be great for Carr and the run game, but it would also mean less money will be available for other key positions, like, say, cornerback, safety, linebacker, and the rest of the defensive line around Mack. That’s where Oakland is going to have to really lean on draft picks and low-cost free agents to build out the rest of the roster; they just won’t be able to afford to go out in free agency and buy many high-priced starters from this point on.

The Raiders join a few other teams in the same predicament. The Seahawks took advantage of Russell Wilson’s bargain-bin price tag the first four years of his career by not only locking up core pieces like receiver Doug Baldwin, cornerback Richard Sherman, safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, and linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright to long-term contracts, but also by going out in free agency and adding pass rushers Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril and making the trade for high-priced tight end Jimmy Graham. Now Wilson’s cap hit eclipses $18 million a year, and will only climb. For Seattle, the loss of financial flexibility has led to some tough decisions, and a few years of skimping on the offensive line produced the league’s worst unit last year in pressure rate, per Football Outsiders. As the Seahawks work to keep their core nucleus together, they’ve been forced to lean more heavily on cheaper one-year, prove-it-deal types in free agency (running back Eddie Lacy, offensive tackle Luke Joeckel, cornerback DeShawn Shead), and must depend on their ability to find contributors in the draft (like receivers Tyler Lockett and Paul Richardson, defensive linemen Jarran Reed and Frank Clark, and offensive linemen Justin Britt and Germain Ifedi).

The Panthers built a similarly strong defense during Cam Newton’s rookie contract, but have also had to make a few tough decisions after giving their quarterback a five-year, $104 million deal in 2015. Knowing he’d have big contract extensions coming down the pike for defensive linemen Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei, Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman rescinded cornerback Josh Norman’s franchise tag and allowed him to sign in Washington, and the defense took a step back. But in Norman’s stead, young cornerbacks James Bradberry and Daryl Worley have shown plenty of promise, and this offseason, Carolina went out and added a few low-end deals (pass rusher Julius Peppers, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, and safety Mike Adams) to bolster its defensive group. Add in linebacker Shaq Thompson, a 2015 first-round pick who’s set to make a bigger impact in his third season, and the Panthers are poised to bounce back and challenge in the NFC South again in 2017.

But if spending a ton of money on a top-tier quarterback represents a problem, it’s a great problem to have. Sure, Carr’s going to start accounting for $20 million-plus against the cap. But spending a lot of money on your most important, star players is only a bad thing if those players are bad. Carr, objectively, is not bad. In fact, he’s very good, and will likely only get better. That’s why ultimately, Raiders fans should celebrate the Carr contract. Oakland’s done a great job of taking advantage of the cheap years of Carr’s career, and has positioned itself well to face the challenges of this sea change in roster structuring. The Raiders possess the foundation for an elite offense. Cornerback Gareon Conley, safeties Obi Melifonwu and Karl Joseph, defensive ends Jihad Ward and Shilique Calhoun, and a handful of other draft picks from the past two years give Oakland’s defense a chance to make a big jump in 2017 as well. Carr may be about to start making more money than even Andrew Luck, but Oakland has the distinct advantage of not having to pay its quarterback top dollar and rebuild the rest of the roster. Indianapolis squandered Luck’s rookie-contract years with bad free-agency investments and poor drafting, and it’s left the Colts in a much tougher situation.

The Carr contract is just the beginning for Oakland in its goal to stay competitive long term. While the Raiders have now done what plenty of other quarterback-needy franchises consistently yearn to do — locked up the most important position in sports for the foreseeable future — it doesn’t mean the work is done.