With just nine days until the start of the 2018 National Football League season, teams are preparing for one final preseason contest before making final roster decisions. Other than some fringe players and practice squad decisions, all that really remains is crossing the t’s, dotting the i’s and making sure personnel is healthy – but not for the Oakland Raiders. For more than a month now, the Raiders have been battling with Khalil Mack, an important piece to their defense, regarding a contract dispute, with neither side budging.
Mack, 27, is currently in his prime and is regarded as one of the best at the defensive end position. Now in his fourth season season, all with Oakland, Mack has amassed 40.5 sacks and nine forced fumbles to go along with three Pro Bowl appearances and a NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award, which he earned back in 2016. However, the former fifth overall pick from the University of Buffalo is slated to play this season on his $13.9 million fifth year option. To put it into perspective, another elite defensive end, J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans, is set to make $11 million this season and then $13 million the following season, fourth most for his position. Meanwhile, the top earning player at Mack’s position this season, the Detroit Lions’ Ezekiel Ansah, will make $17.1 million.
While there’s no real disparity between those numbers and Mack’s current 2018 salary, he clearly just wants job security before hitting the field, which he’s made apparent through cryptic social media posts. Mack reportedly wants a contract in excess of “65 million guaranteed,” though no defensive player has ever received over $60 million guaranteed, a number given to Ndamukong Suh back in 2015 by the Miami Dolphins. That could make trading him difficult as well, if he won’t play without inking a new deal. It’s really costing Mack though, as he’s already accrued fines of more than $800,000 for missing camp.
Now, rumors continue to swirl that Oakland, a team currently battling financial woes, is looking to move Mack before the season starts, in the hopes of making him some other franchise’s problem. The Raiders are right up against the cap this season, with a little under $6 million to play with – but, that includes Mack’s current contract and with the cap space going up to $49 million in 2019, there’s certainly room. This shouldn’t come as surprising, however. Franchises are very reluctant to give players outside of the quarterback position extensive and pricey contracts – that’s just the way the business side of the league is evolving. The bar is only going to get high for Mack too, since the Los Angeles Rams and Aaron Donald are close to “a record-setting deal worth 22 per year.”
His absence would certainly lead to a huge hole on defense for a team that has the potential to make the postseason this year. Sure, Oakland has a lot of youth on the defensive line – which would look pretty formidable if Mack is back – with Bruce Irvin, who had eight sacks last season, and Arden Key, a Louisiana State University standout who only fell to the the third round of this year’s draft because of potential off-field issues. That’s still by no means enough talent to replace an elite player of Mack’s caliber, one who defenses game plan around every Sunday.
But is Mack’s absence really worrying new head coach Jon Gruden? Gruden has been with the organization for about eight months now, sitting on that ridiculous 10-year, $100 million contract and what has he done so far – find a way to basically alienate the best player on his football team. It could go much deeper than that, however. For Gruden, starting off his tenure with the Mack debacle could expand to issues in the locker room, with players perhaps noticing a Chip Kelly mentality that all players can be replaced.
Of course, it can’t be overlooked that the franchise is moving to Las Vegas in two seasons.
Other than quarterback Derek Carr, there isn’t exactly an up-and-coming superstar on the Raiders – a player who can put butts in the seats like Mack. And it’d be a pretty bold strategy to send him packing now, before moving to a city that’s new to the professional sports scene and still really trying to develop itself on that front. The NFL is a league always trying to get younger though and what does Mack have, maybe six or so great seasons in him before he hits the twilight of his career? It’s a risk for both sides right now, with each in the right and wrong – and we’re going to sit back and see how it all goes.
If it was my team, I would probably pay the man in fear of an already irate fan base losing its mind, along with the potential of having a serious domino effect this season, knowing he might be rusty the first few weeks, after missing training camp this summer.