Sometimes one team’s smart plan can be punctuated by juxtaposing it to another team’s bad one, or lack of one. The Giants signing Odell Beckham Jr. to a five-year extension and a lot of guaranteed money just nine months before trading him to Cleveland is one glaring example. Imagine if the Raiders had showered Khalil Mack with a fat contract and then shipped him to Chicago months later, forcing themselves to eat loads of dead cash in the process?
When the Raiders made the stunning Mack move I panned it with snarky comments I’m too embarrassed to go rediscover. So did most of you. You can’t give up arguably the league’s most disruptive defender for anything, we thought at the time. Jon Gruden, the coaching throwback, threw away the franchise, it seemed. Even with the second first-round pick from the Mack trade (which became three 1st rounders after the Amari Cooper trade), how could we feel gung-ho about Gruden’s second shot at drafting given that his 2018 draft class was graded somewhere between “blah” and “eh.”
I was wrong.
Turns out Gruden had a real plan all along. Perhaps it was simply his instrumental role in bringing on a smart general manager in Mike Mayock who also had a plan. With the Gruden and Mayock visions intertwined, the Raiders have potentially sped their way through a rebuild that atone point felt like it might outlast Gruden’s 10-year contract.
The last week in Raiderville has been rather stunning. Of course the Raiders would wheel and deal given the financial capital they had after offloading the contracts for Mack, Amari Cooper and guard Kelechi Osemele (Osemele alone saved the Raiders $10.2 million). Entering the new NFL year the Raiders had over $70 million in salary cap dollars, the fifth most in football according to OvertheCap.com.
And the Raiders spent wisely and often, acquiring star-in-the-making wideout Tyrell Williams, left tackle Trent Brown, free safety Lamarcus Joyner, re-signing defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, none for contracts that screamed the traditional Raiders’ commitment to overpaying (ahem, Gruden). All of whom improve the team throughout.
But of course the Antonio Brown acquisition is the biggie. In Brown, the Raiders added as close to a sure thing as it gets at the position. Yes, he’ll be 31 in May but six straight seasons topping 1200 yards and 100 receptions is an automatic jolt that far exceeds the previous best receiving option – the hope that Cooper would return to his rookie and sophomore form. (Even during Cooper’s best season, 2016, in which he was a force, he only caught 83 balls just to put Brown’s production into perspective.)
During Brown’s introductory presser in Oakland on Wednesday, Mayock spent ample time gushing like a kid in a candy store about his new receiver’s work ethic and how instantly he gelled with Gruden. But in providing the tick-tock of how the Raiders-Steelers deal went down, Mayock also showcased his own shrewdness. Mayock revealed that the Raiders didn’t enter the Brown sweepstakes until the Bills were publicly out last Friday. He took advantage of the fact that Pittsburgh, with a ticking clock, was desperate to unload Brown, and the Raiders stunningly snagged him for just a third and fifth round pick.
The addition of Mayock, a non-traditional general manager, makes the Raiders draft season even more intriguing than its free agency period. Unlike, say, 49ers GM John Lynch who was plucked from the FOX booth where he was calling games, the nucleus of Mayock’s previous job was to deeply evaluate talent. And he was damn good at it. How Oakland uses their cascade of picks under Mayock and Gruden is one of the most intriguing storylines of the draft. They clearly need some defensive gems, but rumors have swirled that the Raiders might consider making a play for Kyler Murray. As the possible scenarios play out, Raider Nation can take solace in having a legitimate talent evaluator largely pulling the strings. Gruden also seems to have better acclimated to modern coaching and more importantly, coalesced with his general manager.
Of course there are a million things that can go awry and halt this newfound upward trajectory. Derek Carr can remain too conservative and not maximize the talents of his two new speedy weapons in Brown and Williams. Mayock may turn out to be a better TV drafter than a real life one. Yet there is something focused and really exciting about this organization. There is hope.
Just a few months ago the Raiders felt like the Giants do now, in an inescapable black hole of many 4-12 seasons. Times have changed, seemingly in an instant. I’m happy to sit back with my crows and relish this new-look franchise.