Just as the Raiders had nearly put the Khalil Mack trade behind them, the deal that shook the NFL in 2018 returned like a bad habit.
A recent report from The Athletic brought the subject back to center stage. Word is, the Raiders tried to reacquire Mack via trade just before this year’s free-agent period began.
Coach Jon Gruden has caught a lot of grief from NFL observers for the original deal, which torpedoed his first season back with the Raiders. He likely would’ve been criticized for bringing Mack back, too. Some might have called it an admission of wrongdoing.
It’s not as though the Raiders received nothing for Mack, however. Running back Josh Jacobs headlines the trade on Las Vegas’ end. But even if you love the deal, the Raiders were essentially forced to trade Mack, a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year in his prime, just before the regular season began.
And whose fault was that? Looking back, the clear answer is former Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie. According to a report by The Athletic’s Vic Tafur (the same report that unfortunately reintroduced this topic), Mack was already upset with McKenzie’s actions as GM well before Gruden arrived in 2018.
“Mack clearly was frustrated that the Raiders decided to extend quarterback Derek Carr and guard Gabe Jackson’s contracts — both fellow 2014 draft picks — before taking care of him. And they spent their 2018 budget on other players, leaving them enough cap space to only afford the $13.8 million that Mack was due to make on his fifth-year option.
“From that point on, (Mack) would not talk to anyone in our organization,” owner Mark Davis told ESPN in November 2018. “Not (general manager) Reggie (McKenzie), not Jon, not anybody. … Everybody thinks that Jon’s the one who wanted to get rid of him. Jon wanted him badly.”
Carr became the highest-paid player in the NFL when he signed his deal in 2017. He played well enough in 2016 to earn a hefty salary, that was clear. One week after Carr signed, former Raiders guard Gabe Jackson inked his own enormous 5-year contract.
Jackson had played extremely well, too. Put in isolation, those deals aren’t terrible.
But that McKenzie didn’t somehow, someway make sure he had enough cap room to give Mack his own large contract was an incredible blunder. If McKenzie had discussed his strategy (assuming he had one) with Mack, perhaps it would have worked. Whatever their level of communication was, it wasn’t good enough for the Raiders. Even during Mack’s holdout, McKenzie was nonchalant. And I think Mack was totally justified in standing his ground and knowing his worth.
McKenzie was a victim of his own success in the 2014 NFL Draft, to an extent. But looking at his three picks in question here, it’s clear which two are the top players. The Jackson deal was a head-scratcher, for that reason. Maybe McKenzie had a strategy to keep all three, but again, if he did, it didn’t work.
This doesn’t absolve Gruden, either. He was running the show when the Raiders were forced to deal. There’s probably more he could have done to get Mack on board. Though it’s hard to say what, other than less free agent spending in 2018, as Tafur mentioned.
Given the enormous impact that Mack’s departure had on Gruden’s first season, I’m sure he’d do more if he had another chance.
But it’s likely nothing would have stopped what McKenzie had already set in motion.
When McKenzie first arrived with the Raiders, taking over GM duties for the late Al Davis, he talked a big game. In many ways, he backed it up. As he slashed payroll to start his tenure — preparing for a massive team rebuild — McKenzie talked about “out of whack” contracts. And to be fair, many of the last deals made by Davis were just that.
But in the end, McKenzie’s judgment about how much to pay whom, not to mention when to pay them, was seriously out of whack in its own right.
Thank goodness Gruden and the Raiders have Jacobs. Cornerback Damon Arnette and wide receiver Bryan Edwards are part of the Mack trade, too. Plus, Las Vegas signed DE Yannick Ngakoue after failing to reacquire Mack. He and DE Maxx Crosby could form a potent pass rush in 2021.
So this can still be the year the Raiders finally forget about Mack. Pass rush is the only remedy. Of course, Mack and the Bears visit Allegiant Stadium Week 5. Ideally for the Raiders, this trade is an afterthought by then and rarely, if ever, brought up again.
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