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The Bears’ Trade for Khalil Mack Sets Their Team-Building Strategy in Stone

Chicago is trying to win now, while Oakland … well, it’s not really clear what’s going on over there

Buffalo Bills v Oakland Raiders Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Welcome to the all-in NFL. The Bears are trading for Raiders edge-rushing linebacker Khalil Mack, setting into stone the new football gospel: If you have a quarterback on a rookie contract, push all your chips to the middle of the table.

The Deal

The exact compensation is not yet confirmed, but it will reportedly include the two first-round picks the Raiders have been asking for. That will make the deal the richest in history for a defensive player, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. Though not officially part of the deal, the Bears will also have to give Mack an incredible contract, probably something in the ballpark of what the Rams gave defensive tackle Aaron Donald on Friday. Basically, it’s going to be like Jerry Maguire in Chicago:

The New Monster of the Midway

The Bears are the latest team, after the Eagles, Rams, and Seahawks, to realize that a quarterback on a deflated rookie contract is the greatest asset in football. Mitchell Trubisky will have a cap hit of less than $10 million in each of the next three seasons, while Raiders QB Derek Carr will top $20 million every year in that span. That’s a big reason why the Bears can afford Mack and why the Raiders had to trade him.

Mack will immediately improve the Bears defense. His accolades speak for themselves: He was the Defensive Player of the Year in 2016, has been named a first-team All-Pro twice in four seasons, and had 40.5 sacks to his name. As Ringer colleague Robert Mays pointed out last year, Mack is an expert at using the “long arm” to gain leverage over tackles, and Kevin Clark wrote in December 2016 about how Mack mastered the fundamentals of the position. Mack is one of the best players in all of football, full stop.

The Bears can now build their defense around Mack and first-round linebacker Roquan Smith and have solid contributors in cornerback Kyle Fuller, defensive end Akiem Hicks, linebacker Leonard Floyd, and a few others. The defense ranked 14th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA last year, and with Mack on board, it could be in position to make a jump to the NFL’s elite on that side of the ball.

The move is the biggest sign yet that the Bears are going all in while Trubisky is still a bargain. The team signed wide receiver Allen Robinson, tight end Trey Burton, and wideout Taylor Gabriel in free agency as the offense retools under new head coach Matt Nagy. The team also drafted receiver Anthony Miller in the second round, and he’s already showing promise. On defense, veteran corner Prince Amukamara was the Bears’ only notable signing, but they needed less help there than on offense.

The Bears now have to get a deal done with Mack, and once they do, the spotlight will turn to Trubisky. The UNC product threw for just seven touchdowns against seven picks with a 77.5 passer rating as a rookie, but the Bears are building around him. They’ll need him to make a Jared Goff–like leap in the next season or so, because while building around a cheap QB contract is a nice, that strategy only works if the quarterback is effective, and Trubisky just wasn’t in 2017. But there’s reason to believe that’ll happen: Trubisky was playing under an archaic scheme last year, while Nagy will no doubt bring a more forward-looking approach from Kansas City.

What’s the Raiders’ Plan?

As incredible as Mack is, the Raiders may very well win this trade. Not only did they gain a hefty amount of draft capital, they won’t have to pay Mack a gargantuan contract that could hurt the team’s ability to fill out the rest of the roster. Dealing Mack may have been the best long-term move for the franchise.

What makes that puzzling, though, is that the Raiders didn’t appear to be thinking long-term this offseason. They signed older players in receiver Jordy Nelson, running back Doug Martin, and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, making it seem like the team was ready to win right away. But they also released veteran receiver Michael Crabtree, traded for a younger wideout in Martavis Bryant, and used their first-round pick on Kolton Miller, an offensive tackle who is said to be a project that won’t start right away.

So does this Mack deal show that the Raiders are looking more long-term, or are they trying to win now? The answer may be neither, because it turns out the Raiders may simply not have had enough cash on hand to pay Mack:

If Oakland’s hand was forced, the team still leveraged its way into a hell of a haul. That’s a testament to how good the Bears believe Mack is.