In case you’ve been living under a rock this summer, you might’ve missed learning that Oakland Raiders edge rusher Khalil Mack is currently working out in Buffalo, on an extended holdout from his team. The former UB Bull, who is the NCAA leader in tackles for loss and a two-time All-Pro linebacker, is due for $13.5 million this year. But Mack wants to sign a big-money, long-term deal, and the Raiders aren’t listening.
For many Bills fans, Mack is “the one that got away” in the 2014 draft, and his amazing talent would benefit any team in the league. Is it realistic to think that the Bills could trade for Mack before the season begins? That’s a complicated question.
Historical trade comparisons
Good luck finding a foothold for trade negotiations on this one. Teams just don’t trade All-Pro players in their prime. Before we talk about why that is, let’s dig into the archives and find some examples of talented players moving teams. Keep in mind that we won’t consider quarterbacks in this group. Their trade market is completely out of whack - if Sam Bradford, who never made a Pro Bowl and missed 33 career games, could fetch a first round pick from the Minnesota Vikings, that justifies separating the group.
Buccaneers trade 1st and conditional 3rd/4th round pick for CB Darrelle Revis
Revis had been first-team All-Pro in 2009, 2010, and 2011, and was holding out for a better contract during part of the 2012 preseason. A torn ACL ended his 2012 season after two games. In the offseason, the Jets traded a 27-year-old Revis to Tampa Bay, where he signed a six-year, $96 million deal (and lasted one season in their zone defense).
Eagles trade 1st and 4th round pick for OT Jason Peters
Peters was a Pro Bowl selection in 2007 and 2008, but had held out in the 2008 preseason wanting a bigger contract. The Bills traded the 26-year-old Peters in the 2009 offseason to Philadelphia, which gave him the money he wanted.
Dolphins trade two 2nd round picks for WR Brandon Marshall
The 25-year-old Marshall was just coming off his second consecutive Pro Bowl appearance, but his friction with the coaching staff had led to a suspension at the end of his last season. The Broncos traded him to Miami, where he immediately signed a $47.5 million contract extension.
Why star players rarely hit the trade market
The NFL’s rules afford teams several methods to keep players under contract, and if a player’s an All-Pro, chances are the team wants to keep him under contract.
The first point is obvious - if a player is under contract with a team, he can either play for them, or not play football at all. If a player’s in his prime, his contract is almost definitely slotted into the league’s standard pay structure - a five-year deal for first round picks, four years for other draft picks, and three years for undrafted free agents. When his contract’s over, he’s still not a “free agent” by the sense of the word. Teams can use a Restricted Free Agent tag on players who were signed to shorter rookie deals, slotting them into a salary which could only be circumvented if another team is willing to give up draft picks.
Then there’s the franchise tag. Especially for non-quarterbacks, the franchise tag is the greatest tool a franchise can use to force a player to stick around. The tag can either be exclusive or non-exclusive (requiring a team to surrender multiple first round picks to sign a tagged player). The tag gives a strong single-year salary, but it’s based on the average salary of the best players at the position, and that rarely pays out for any position other than QB or DL. If tagged, a player has no choice but to sign the tag or hold out, and the tag can be applied in consecutive years (for the cost of an escalated salary).
Let’s consider Mack, who entered the league at 23 years old. He’s slated to play his fifth season under a rookie deal at 27 years old if the Raiders don’t trade him. Then they can franchise tag him for two more seasons without a long term commitment. It’s possible that Mack will enter unrestricted free agency for the first time at the age of 30, having contributed dozens of sacks and a handful of All-Pro selections to a team that paid him an average of $9.5 million dollars per year.
Could Mack be traded?
When we think of the leverage the Raiders possess, and look at historical comparisons, the odds aren’t good for Mack to change hands. Players who were traded had either participated in extended, multi-season holdouts (Revis, Peters) or were considered to be a “diva” or otherwise had a poor relationship with their coaching staff (Marshall, Terrell Owens). This is Mack’s first holdout rodeo, and while he’s already shown he’s willing to sacrifice game checks for his cause, we can’t say for sure that the team believes he’ll sit out the season. So it comes down to Mack’s chemistry. In the locker room, he’s known as a consummate professional, so that’s not a problem.
The only remaining possibility is that Jon Gruden, the $100 Million Man, could see Mack’s holdout as a challenge to his authority. Gruden’s signed for ten seasons, and if he truly wants carte blanche to manage the franchise as he sees fit, he might want to set ground rules that veterans should be willing to accept lower pay in exchange for future paydays or contributing to a lower salary cap for a winning team.
Does Gruden have the ego to make his decision like that? Absolutely. That’s pretty much the only thing working in Mack’s favor here.
Evaluating Buffalo’s chances to trade for Mack
The first thing to even ponder is if the Bills would even be interested. While Brandon Beane was his usual cagey self when reporters tried asking in recent press conferences, CBS Sports reporter Jason La Canfora was willing to name the Bills as a team who has “done their due diligence” on Mack and would be asking for terms if the Raiders put Mack on the trade block. The Bills would likely be bidding against a half dozen other teams, including the Green Bay Packers, the New York Jets, and the Indianapolis Colts.
The Bills do have enough salary space to sign Mack to a long-term extension, although they’d need to be creative. Per Spotrac, the team has $11.6 million in cap space in 2018, which wouldn’t cover Mack’s $13.5 million rookie contract salary, but an extension could backload the deal. With $60 million to work with in 2019 and a whopping $120 million in 2020, the team has plenty of cash on hand to pay the linebacker.
Schematically, how would the Bills use Mack? While he could play defensive end, his athleticism as a standing rusher is also outstanding. He’s essentially a dramatically upgraded Lorenzo Alexander. Would the team keep him, Jerry Hughes, and Trent Murphy on the field and mostly play out of base looks? Would he replace one of the down linemen? There are options for Leslie Frazier here, but he’s not a perfect match for the current scheme, given that you want him playing almost every down.
Then we have to consider trade compensation. A first-round pick is the starting point, and the Bills have one of those. They probably need to offer another great value, like another first-round pick or a second-round pick, and possibly a veteran replacement, in order for Gruden to feel like he got his money’s worth in the deal.
Eight ball says: Don’t count on it
Let’s say I’m putting this on paper here so you can unironically throw me to Old Takes Exposed when Schefter’s breaking the news here. But this requires too many moving parts to align in Buffalo’s favor to result in a situation where they successfully trade for Khalil Mack.
The Bills brass needs to be convinced that his talents are worth the assets to acquire him. The Raiders need to be convinced that moving on from an All-Pro in his prime is more valuable than keeping a frustrated talent on the roster for (relatively) cheap costs. The Raiders have to be more impressed by the package offered by the Bills than whatever the Jets or Packers or whoever might offer. The Raiders have to feel that Mack won’t threaten them with frequent revenge games if he stays in the AFC.
Could all that happen? Yes, and Bills fans will use every superstition they can muster to make it so. But we don’t see it happening.