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Trade or No Trade, the Khalil Mack Situation Could Define the Raiders’ Season

How Oakland handles this standoff will affect not only its own roster, but also the lasting impact of Jon Gruden’s first year at the helm

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Contract disputes and holdouts have become so commonplace in the NFL that it can be tough to discern which ones are just huffing and puffing and which are something more. By now, we can put the impasse between Khalil Mack and the Raiders firmly in that second column.

Here we are in late August 2018, about two weeks from the start of the season, and there’s reportedly been no movement on a new deal between the Raiders and Mack, who’s slated to play this season on his $13.9 million fifth-year option. The defensive end, one of the best players in the sport, is threatening to sit out the season because his team won’t extend him. He’s already incurred massive fines to show that he’s serious, and there’s no sign that either party is willing to budge. Let’s remember that a calendar year ago, Mack was the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, coming off an All-Pro 2016 season in which the Raiders had emerged as unlikely contenders. He looked like one of the best young franchise pillars in football.

Oakland’s resistance to handing Mack a massive pay day is likely driven primarily by financial concerns, some of which could be remedied before the season starts. But if the team does end up moving on from him via a trade, the deal could be a massive domino to fall early in the season.

The Raiders’ reluctance to hand Mack a large extension makes some sense—I guess. Oakland is tight against the cap this year, with just under $6 million in room remaining, and giving Mack a deal worth upward of $20 million per year with at least $75 million in guarantees (enough to jump ahead of Von Miller’s current top deal for defenders) would be financially irresponsible, given the huge contracts it’s handed out in years past. That’s a reasonable stance, but still, the money is there if the Raiders want to get a deal done. The team’s cap room includes Mack’s fifth-year option, and Oakland is projected to have more than $47 million in cap space for 2019, with few other pressing in-house concerns.

If the issue isn’t directly about Mack’s relative value, but more about allocating that much money to Mack’s position, that’s understandable, too: A team balking at handing any non-QB more any deal worth more than $20 million per year is logical. But a direct refusal ignores how the salary cap and spending in the NFL have changed over the past several years. The Rams and Aaron Donald are reportedly working on a deal that would pay him more than $22 million per year; that figure could become the starting point for Mack’s agents in any future negotiations. Not far off might be: “If Derek Carr is worth $25 million a year, how is Khalil Mack not worth $22 million?”

Outside of the Raiders’ practical concerns, the team should also consider the optics of a hard-line stance: Jon Gruden, with his 10-year, $100 million deal, has been sitting at the head of the organization’s table for about eight months now, and so far, the defining action of his tenure has been alienating the franchise’s best player. Even if that stance is purely financially motivated, it’s still a massive risk; the tone of the entire season—from how it colors Gruden’s initial days in charge to its effect on the locker room—could change depending on how Oakland addresses the Mack situation. And let’s not forget that this team is a year or two away from moving to the bright lights of Vegas. Jettisoning one of the franchise’s superstars (its only superstar?) ahead of the move would be a bold choice in a city whose sporting culture is rapidly expanding, with the additions of the NHL’s Golden Knights and WNBA’s Aces within the last year.

On the other hand, it’s worth exploring how the Raiders could conceivably move on from Mack if they’re serious. Most of the talk so far has concentrated on potential trades, with both the Packers and the Jets rumored to have interest in acquiring Mack. That’s a good avenue for Oakland, as the haul for Mack would likely be comparable to some of the larger single-player deals in modern history. Oakland’s asking price would almost certainly start with a first-round pick and another high pick, at the very least. Giving up top-30 and top-60 selections for a player who will require a new deal with $75 million to $80 million in guarantees may not seem all that appealing, but the interest speaks to how rare this situation is. Mack is one of the 10 most impactful non-QBs on earth, and guys like that rarely become available.

The unique opportunity afforded here means that trying to make a definite list of potential trade suitors is a fool’s errand; every team within even a few leaps of cap acrobatics to fit Mack in its budget would be well served to call Gruden and general manager Reggie McKenzie to gauge what it would take to pry away Mack. A few teams have the draft capital, money, and need to make this happen. Green Bay has been cited as the most likely destination. The Packers need another pass rusher, own two 2019 first-round picks thanks to a draft-day deal with the Saints, and can feasibly make the finances work if they restructure Mack’s current cap hit before he arrives. Having Mack up front to go along with rookie defensive backs Jaire Alexander and Josh Jones would give the Packers an overwhelming talent boost on defense. When Aaron Rodgers is healthy, this team is never far from a title, and Mack could be just the push it needs.

In the same division, the Bears also fit the blueprint of a team desperate for Mack’s services. Chicago has ample cap space to make a deal work, a glaring hole at the edge spot opposite Leonard Floyd, and a scheme that would suit Mack’s talents as an outside linebacker. The hangup for the Bears—which may be the same for the Packers and any other team considering a trade—is whether this is the time to make such a drastic move for a single player. Giving up the draft capital necessary to wrestle Mack away from Oakland would be a serious gamble.

The end of this ordeal is difficult to predict. It’s been reported that about four teams have shown real interest in a deal for Mack, but he’s the type of intoxicating talent that could convince a dark horse to enter the race. The list of potential landing spots may be short now, but as the standoff continues, the bad blood between Mack and the Raiders continues to boil, and the landscape for a deal becomes more favorable, things could shift in a hurry. And if they do, there could be a historic trade that would define the season both for the team that bets big and the team that lets Mack go.