Then Aaron Donald’s contract numbers came in.
Maybe it’s a coincidence that the Raiders traded Mack to the Chicago Bears less than 24 hours after Donald signed his massive six-year, $135 million deal, but it seems connected. Once that market was set, and it was well beyond what the Raiders could or would pay Mack, who was holding out, it was time to get serious about a trade.
And the Bears were willing to give the Raiders two first-round picks as the crux of the deal, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, and give Mack an extension that “should eclipse the deal for Aaron Donald,” Rapoport said. That’s how we got one of the biggest trades in NFL history.
What the Khalil Mack trade means for the Bears
The Bears have been trying to land a pass-rushing star for years, whether through the draft or free agency. That’s a priority when you play in a division with Aaron Rodgers.
They couldn’t get that piece, so they paid the premium for it. The Bears invested heavily in the roster this offseason, perhaps tired of four straight last-place finishes in the NFC North and one playoff appearance over 11 seasons (or, perhaps general manager Ryan Pace was feeling some heat). Most of the improvements came on the offensive side around quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. Now there’s a big defensive addition.
The Bears have other good defensive players. Kyle Fuller turned into a good cornerback last season, Akiem Hicks is one of the league’s best 3-4 defensive ends and the team used the eighth pick on inside linebacker Roquan Smith. It’s a good, underrated defense led by respected coordinator Vic Fangio. But they didn’t have anyone like Mack, the 2016 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He immediately becomes the best defensive player the Bears have had since Brian Urlacher, and the bona-fide pass rusher they have lacked.
It’s costly, though. The two first-round picks might end up being pretty valuable if the Bears don’t take a big jump this season. But it’s also a decent bet that whoever the Bears would have gotten with those picks wouldn’t have the impact Mack will. It’s also important to note that the Bears can spend big because Trubisky is on his rookie contract, a luxury the Raiders didn’t have. Since the Bears had the cap room to get a deal done, it looks like a smart investment for them.
What the Mack trade means for the Raiders
Mack and quarterback Derek Carr came in the same amazing draft. Carr got paid first. Then the Raiders at some point decided they weren’t going to pay both.
Many reports stated the Raiders had the cash to pay Mack. That wasn’t the holdup. It was roster construction around the salary cap.
It’s hard to commit about one-quarter of your salary cap to two players. It’s not impossible but it presents major challenges. That’s the dilemma the Raiders faced. Carr got a five-year, $125 million deal last year. Teams always invest at quarterback; no team has simply let a quarterback of Carr’s ability go at his age. They were always going to pay him. Then it became tricky with Mack. Donald’s deal — like Mack, Donald has a DPOY award and is one of the best front-seven players in the game — let everyone know what it would cost for the Raiders to pay their own defensive star. The game got too expensive, and the Raiders folded.
It’s hard for the Raiders to trade such a good young player in his prime. At least he’s not in the same conference. Getting two first-round picks back helps. It’s unlikely either pick turns out to be as good as Mack, but both of them might help a defense that needs it.
In the present, the Raiders defense will struggle without Mack. But they struggled with Mack. Still, it won’t be better without him. But a few of their rookie defenders, like defensive end Arden Key, played well in the preseason and now there are a couple first-round picks on the way. Maybe the emergence of some young players made the Raiders feel they could move on from Mack.
Still, it’s tough to trade away one of the NFL’s best defensive players, especially when he’s just 27 years old.
What the Mack trade means for the NFL, too
This trade isn’t unprecedented, but it’s rare. The Draft Network’s Kyle Crabbs looked at all the deals that involved star players for draft picks since 2000 and found that just four involved two first-round picks for a player. The only one since 2003 involved Jay Cutler going to the Bears, of all teams, in 2009. Receivers Keyshawn Johnson and Joey Galloway and running back Ricky Williams were the other players this century to draw a price of two first-rounders in a trade. In Williams’ case, one of the Dolphins’ picks was conditional and moved up to a first-round pick based on Williams’ play.
Teams value draft picks, and sometimes overvalue them. Although you could go through recent history and look at two random mid-round picks and find it’s a very good bet you’d trade both players without hesitation for Mack, teams don’t think that way. Draft picks are cheap, and there’s a fear of sending picks for players for some reason. That has thawed the past few years, and we’re seeing more trades than ever in the NFL.
Maybe the Mack trade will start a new way of thinking. NFL teams often aren’t bold, instead doing what everyone else does for fear of criticism. While Johnson, Galloway, Williams and Cutler had their moments for the teams that traded for them, none of those trades was a slam-dunk winner for various reasons. The Buccaneers won a Super Bowl after the trade for Keyshawn Johnson, the only team of the four that can say that. So teams weren’t going to rush out and trade a couple first-round picks for a player, even if that player was really good. Maybe if the Mack deal works out well, teams will see it as a new way of looking at mega-trades.
The Bears were willing to take the chance. And they’ll give Mack a huge contract, too. Whether it works out will be a fascinating story to watch over the next few years, for the Bears, the Raiders and the entire NFL.
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