Teams never look to get rid of franchise cornerstones. It comes as a virtue of the descriptor: when an organization comes across a player with a level of skill, consistency, versatility, and character that it is able shape its roster and scheme, as well as establish continuity, around said player, such a player is considered indispensable. In their 2014 first-round pick, Khalil Mack, the Oakland Raiders were able to unearth one of these rare, franchise-altering talents.
One who would go on to make two first-team All-Pro squads and win the 2016 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award within his first three years in the league. Over the past three seasons, Mack hasn’t just been a dominant pass rusher off the edge — he’s been historically terrifying for AFC West quarterbacks. Having racked up 36.5 sacks between 2015 and 2017, the 15th most all-time between a player’s second and fourth seasons, Mack is well on his way to a borderline Hall of Fame career.
Accordingly, when news broke early Saturday morning that Mack had been dealt to the Chicago Bears, it came as a shock to fans and players alike. Of course, that is not to say that the move was entirely unpredictable. With Mack due to play this upcoming season on his fifth-year option, he had been holding out of camp for a new contract for several months now, so there had been pre-existing tensions between him and the Raiders. However, with a player of Mack’s caliber on the move, the first day of September still brought elation to some, agony to others, and chaos and confusion to just about everyone in the football world.
How it happened
Mack began his holdout in early June, when he evaded the Raiders’ mandatory minicamp despite the risk of substantial fines. At the time, though, few thought much of it, and optimism was widespread among the Raiders despite the absence of the team’s best player. When asked about the situation, newly re-hired head coach Jon Gruden stated, “One of the big reasons I came here was to coach [Mack],” before going on to declare, “We’re just trying to resolve [the contract dispute] as soon as possible.”
Safety Karl Joseph echoed that sentiment, speaking on Mack’s potential return with an air of certainty: “You know what he’s doing. We respect it… When he’s ready to come back, we’ll be ready for him. You can’t replace a guy like that.”
Towards the end of July, however, the standoff became more concerning. Mack didn’t show up to the Raiders’ training camp and ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that not only was Mack continuing his holdout, but that he had also never even spoken to Gruden since the coach’s hire on January 6th. Then, in inexplicable and inflammatory fashion, just days after the start of camp, Gruden went on the NFL Network to seemingly pin blame on Mack for the Raiders’ defensive struggles last season: “We weren’t very good on defense last year with Khalil Mack… We’ve got to get a better pass rush, we’ve got to play better defense, period. And we hope Khalil gets here, but, in the time being, we’ve got plenty of guys who need work.”
The glaring lack of understanding and communication between both negotiating parties aside, this statement by Gruden raised red flags for several reasons. First, it insinuated that Mack was a contributing factor to the Raiders’ defensive woes last season, which could not be further from the truth. While it is true that the Raiders’ defense was weak last year, recording their first interception a full twelve weeks into the season, Mack was still spectacular. According to Pro Football Focus, he recorded a whopping 78 pressures in 2017, and led all edge players in defensive stops with 53, making him a menace against both the pass and the run. So, as poorly as Oakland’s defense played, it did so in spite of Mack, rather than because of him.
More insidiously; however, Gruden’s statement downplayed Mack’s importance to the team. The last sentence is especially damning, as it postulates larger priorities at hand while also suggesting that Mack may be replaceable. While not entirely unreasonable, the quote is a far cry from Gruden’s earlier declaration of Mack being a major pull factor in Gruden’s decision to come to the Raiders, revealing a startling change of attitude. To make matters even more bizarre, these comments came just a week after a late-July Raiders fan appreciation festival, during which Gruden proudly declared, “[W]e’re going to find a way to get Khalil Mack back.”
Then, in early August, Mack broke finally broke his silence — on social media, that is. In a Twitter reply to teammate Justin Ellis, Mack said, “Miss ya too my dawg!,” suggesting a desire to get his contract taken care of and return to the team. By the end of the month, though, trade rumors were already swirling like the autumn wind. In a report from earlier this week, Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio revealed that “as many as a dozen teams” were mulling a possible trade, with four “exploring the possibility very seriously.” Furthermore, according to Optimum Scouting’s Eric Galko, one of those teams may have been the New York Jets, who had apparently reached out to gauge the market on Mack, and were in dire need of edge rushing help.
Naturally, both reports were largely brushed off by casual observers, as it seemed incomprehensible that a team that had won twelve games in 2016 would now ship away its most valuable player, especially with Rams DT Aaron Donald, the summer’s other prominent holdout, nearing an extension that would conveniently set Mack’s market.
Lo and behold, however, Florio and Galko were right. Late Friday night, reputable NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport reported that the trade market for Mack was flourishing, with several teams, including the Bears, inquiring despite the steep asking price of two first-round picks. Then, the following morning, the Bears had a deal in place. By the end of the day, Mack was not only on their team, but also signed to a massive six-year, $141 million contract extension, making him the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history.
Terms of the trade
Bears receive: OLB Khalil Mack, Raiders 2020 2nd round pick, Raiders 2020 5th round pick (conditional)
Raiders receive: Bears 2019 1st round pick, Bears 2020 1st round pick, Bears 2020 3rd round pick, Bears 2019 6th round pick
What it means for both sides
Firstly, it means that a potentially franchise-altering defensive player is changing teams in his prime at just 27 years of age. This cannot be understated, as, with one fell swoop, the Bears defensive unit instantly becomes significantly better, while the Raiders’ defense becomes significantly worse. To give a sense of how dramatic the change will likely be in the short run, take Pro Football Reference’s Simple Rating System (SRS), a metric that essentially gauges a team’s quality relative to the average (0.0). During Mack’s rookie season, when he recorded a career-low four sacks, the Raiders’ Defensive SRS (DSRS) was -4.7, or significantly below average.
However, the following next three seasons, during which Mack tallied between 10.5 and 15.0 sacks while establishing himself as one of the league’s top defenders, the Raiders’ DSRS hovered between -1.8 and -0.3, or slightly below average. While these numbers may seem arbitrary, consider that, before 2015, the last season that the Raiders had had a DSRS higher than -2.5 was 2010. This was the last year that the Raiders had first-team All-Pro cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, and one of the final Pro Bowl seasons of DE Richard Seymour’s career. That year, the Raiders’ DSRS was -2.2, but, since then, until Mack broke out in 2015, it never rose above -4.2.
Of course, one statistic in a vacuum can be deceptive, and there are many other factors that may have accounted for the Raiders’ defensive uptick, including the hire of renowned Broncos defensive coordinator Jack del Rio as the team’s head coach leading into the 2015 season, which may have contributed to Mack’s surge. Still, such a striking disparity in defensive rating cannot be ignored, and could forecast the kind of effect that the deal will have on both teams involved. For the Bears, the impact could be especially noticeable.
Last year, behind breakout campaigns by Kyle Fuller, Adrian Amos, and Akiem Hicks, Chicago put together its best defensive showing in half a decade, ranking in the top ten in both points and yards allowed per game, and recording an impressive DSRS of 3.3. With Mack in the fold now, those figures should only continue to improve, potentially putting the Bears’ defense among the NFL’s elite.
Of course, there is always a concern with players that change teams midway through their careers that something could go awry. In many cases, however, it often has to do with some additional circumstance. For instance, Albert Haynesworth, who signed a seven-year, $100 million contract with Washington in 2009, only to be traded two years later, demonstrated clear attitude problems from the start. In 2010, he “boycotted the team’s off-season conditioning program,” and showed up to camp out of shape and unable to pass a basic conditioning test.
He also regularly clashed with coaches, questioning the team’s defensive scheme. In other cases, it is an issue of scheme fit, such as when cornerbacks accustomed to playing with their eyes on the quarterback in a zone system are suddenly forced to play man-up. For Mack, however, neither of these should be an issue. In Oakland, Mack was renowned for his work ethic, with veteran fullback Marcel Reece once saying of him, “I’ve seen first-round picks come in here and think the world should be handed to them… Khalil does what everyone else does… and then some.”
Furthermore, Mack may actually be a better fit in the Bears’ scheme than he was in the Raiders’ scheme. At 6’3, 250 pounds, Mack fits the prototype of the lean 3-4 outside linebacker better than that of the 4-3 defensive end, which is better encapsulated by someone like the Chargers’ Joey Bosa (6’5, 280 pounds). Moreover, with Mack in the fold, Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio now has a chance to recreate the success that he found with the San Francisco 49ers while coaching uber-athletic edge rusher Aldon Smith.
With NT Eddie Goldman eating up interior blockers and fellow OLB Leonard Floyd hunting off the side opposite Mack, Fangio could use Akiem Hicks in DE Justin Smith’s old role, creating devastating stunts and giving Mack unblocked lanes to the quarterback. Although Aldon Smith ultimately flamed out, Fangio’s scheme did wonders for him, guiding him to an inane 19.5 sacks in 2012. While that is a high bar, it is within the realm of Mack’s tremendous upside.
However, as valuable as Mack could be for the Bears, the price that they paid to get him was nothing to scoff at. Two first-round picks are expected to, in the very least, turn into two decent starters, and, considering that the Bears have picked in the top ten in each of the past four drafts, theoretically, these could turn into even more. To see just how much the Raiders gained in draft capital, we can use the draft trade value chart. For the sake of simplicity, considering that the Bears hired a new coach and made improvements on both sides of the ball this off-season, a reasonable assumption is that they will not be picking in the top ten, but rather in the middle of the draft for the next two years — say, pick #16. Meanwhile, let’s assume that the Raiders will be in a similar spot — pick #17.
In this case, the Raiders would gain two #16 picks (2000 total points) and pick #80 in 2020 (190 points), give up pick #49 in 2020 (410 points), and downgrade from a mid-round fifth to a mid-round sixth (roughly -15 points). Added up, the Raiders would make a profit of about 1765 points–just below the value of the fourth overall pick in the draft (1800). While the real haul will likely be slightly different, just going by this estimate, that’s a significant payout. Mack himself was the fifth overall pick in 2014, and gave the Raiders three years of All-Pro production on a cheap rookie deal. Now, the Bears have essentially traded the equivalent of the fourth overall pick for Mack, and still have to pay him $23.5 million a year.
As phenomenal as Mack is, that’s an enormous cost, especially with other key Bears players like Eddie Goldman, Adrian Amos, Jordan Howard, Cody Whitehair, and, eventually, quarterback Mitchell Trubisky due for extensions soon. On the flip side, though, consider that, had someone offered the team picking fourth in any draft in recent memory a proven Hall of Fame-caliber pass rusher in his prime, with the caveat that they had to pay him, whether it be the 2018 Browns, the 2017 Jaguars, the 2016 Cowboys, or a slew of other teams, they would have a difficult time turning it down. So, the cost, however steep, is manageable.
From a purely football-based, on-field standpoint, it’s difficult to declare a winner. For all of the people saying that Bears GM Ryan Pace is a mastermind, that the Raiders were “fleeced,” or that the Bears got away with “highway robbery,” that simply isn’t the case. By a conservative estimate, the Raiders received the equivalent of the fourth overall pick. Considering that two recent #4 picks include Amari Cooper and Ezekiel Elliott, for all intents and purposes, the Bears swapped a cheaply paid fringe Pro Bowler for an expensive future Hall of Famer, which is good value for both sides.
For Chicago, the trade may have opened a championship window with Trubisky still on his cheap rookie deal. If head coach Matt Nagy maximizes the Bears’ explosive offensive talent, the defense takes a leap forward, and Trubisky progresses into even an average NFL passer, this trade could pay major dividends. On the flip side, if Trubisky doesn’t pan out or Nagy ends up in over his head, and the defense is ravaged by injuries as it has been in recent years, this trade could be a massive flop, one that ends up saddling the next Bears GM with a bad quarterback, several large contracts, and a dearth of young talent. In short, it’s a risk, but a calculated one.
For the Raiders, meanwhile, the trade came seemed like a reluctant necessity. With Gruden having just signed a ten-year, $100 million contract, quarterback Derek Carr having signed a mega-deal last summer, and several free agents brought in during the offseason, the Raiders’ ownership simply may not have had the cash on hand to give Mack the contract and signing bonus that he desired. Several NFL insiders, including Benjamin Allbright and Greg Gabriel, have reported this, and Gruden himself seemed to allude to it in today’s press conference, referencing Mack’s $90 million in guarantees while saying, “That was something we could not do.”
Ultimately, the area in which the Bears come out as clear winners is organizational and team morale. When news of the trade broke, Bears players were ecstatic all over social media, whether it be Prince Amukamara joking about it with fans or Charles Leno gloriously singing in his basement. Bears fans were excited too, knowing that, no matter what those first round picks turn into, they’ll still likely have a bona fide superstar to root for for years to come. On the Raiders’ side, however, the response was categorically negative. Derek Carr and Bruce Irvin both sent out tweets of varying degrees of profanity in utter disbelief at the transaction, while fans tore the team apart for its willingness to part so brazenly with its best player.
Moreover, the trade seemed to create a rift between Gruden and Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie, as neither seemed pleased with the outcome. McKenzie came across as though his hand was forced, stating, “It was not a plan to trade him at all,” suggesting that he may have been compelled to move Mack by a lack of cash, Gruden’s stubbornness and failure to talk to Mack, or both. Gruden, meanwhile, reiterated his initial sentiment that he didn’t want to trade Mack, and that Mack was a significant pull factor in his return to Oakland, but also stated that the Raiders never even came close to offering the deal that the Bears did. Furthermore, Gruden seemed to absolve himself of the blame for the second round pick that went back to the Bears in the trade, which could suggest that the terms of the deal could become a point of contention or even animosity for Gruden and McKenzie in the near future.
So, football-wise, both teams came out of the deal with a decent bounty. The Bears acquired a superstar and opened a potential championship window, while the Raiders got back a haul of picks to retool and add talent with Gruden and Carr on long-term contracts. The way that the Bears truly “won” the trade was in the effect that Mack should have on Chicago’s locker room and fan base. For the Bears, optimism has not been this profound going into a season in several years.
Having added a leader, a hard worker, and a prolific talent in Mack, with the opening game being against the rival Packers, the Bears have a substantial chance to go into the Nagy era with gargantuan momentum. The Raiders, meanwhile, simply seem lost. With Mack gone, Oakland’s primary pass rushing responsibilities fall on Bruce Irvin and rookie Arden Key. Although the latter has admittedly flashed during preseason play, the Raiders’ defense is still due for a significant step back. To make things even more confusing, the Mack trade is extremely characteristic of a rebuilding team, but Gruden himself seems confused as to whether he wants to win now or build for the future, lending little insight into the team’s direction.
So, while the Raiders may have gotten back a solid haul of draft capital, they “lose” the trade in the sense that it’s impossible to discern what their next step will be from here. By trading for Khalil Mack, the Bears have made their plan straightforward, transparent, and easy to follow. By trading Mack, however, the Raiders have only left everyone–including, potentially, their own players and staff–with more questions than answers.