Oakland Raiders: The Impact Of Superstar Deals On The Team’s Future

Jan 7, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Oakland Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack (52) in action against the Houston Texans during the AFC Wild Card playoff football game at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 7, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Oakland Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack (52) in action against the Houston Texans during the AFC Wild Card playoff football game at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports /

The Oakland Raiders have a number of high profile megadeals for foundation players on the horizon – will the team be able to remain viable after paying their top talent?

The trouble with having superstar players – as the Oakland Raiders are about to find out – is that you have to pay them superstar wages. Having some of the best players in the league at their positions on your roster isn’t necessarily a bad problem to have. There are plenty of teams around the league who would love to have that sort of problem.

The problem though, is finding a way to dig up enough money to pay said superstars while still putting enough talent around them to remain competitive. It’s a problem that GM Reggie McKenzie and the Raiders are about to experience first-hand.

The first contract Oakland is going to have to deal with is quarterback Derek Carr‘s. Given his value to the franchise – and really, there can be no doubt about his value after the team’s catastrophic meltdown in the wake of his injury last year – Carr is going to command a hefty payday.

He’s a franchise quarterback and expects to be paid like one. And rightly so.

But, given his value to the team, Carr is very likely going to land himself an Andrew Luck type deal – five years, $123 million dollars with $87 million guaranteed. Carr will likely command at least that much.

Some are projecting Carr to be the league’s first $25 million dollar a year quarterback – which is only slightly more than Luck annually, but still a feather Carr’s agent can stick in his cap.

It’s going to take a lot of detailed structuring, but we can probably expect Carr to become one of the league’s highest paid quarterbacks – if not the highest paid quarterback.

Then comes a deal for superstar Khalil Mack, whose value to the team cannot possibly be overstated. Mack is a dominating force on the defensive side of the ball and though most compare him to Denver’s Von Miller, his numbers exceed those of Miller.

Oakland Raiders
Aug 18, 2016; Green Bay, WI, USA; Oakland Raiders guard Gabe Jackson (66) during the game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. Green Bay won 20-12. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports /

Miller became the highest paid linebacker in the NFL when he signed a six-year, $114.5 million dollar deal – a deal with $70 million guaranteed – with Denver last year. The average salary on his deal is a tick over $19 million a year.

One would think that Mack will wind up eclipsing that number when he signs his deal.

So, just going with those two deals, we’re looking at McKenzie having to pony up roughly around $45 million a year – for two players. Oh, but wait, there’s more!

Guard Gabe Jackson is playing out the final year of his rookie deal and is in line for a contract extension as well. An extension McKenzie has already said he’s working on. Jackson has quietly become one of the league’s best guards and is an invaluable part of Oakland’s line – which not so coincidentally, has also become one of the league’s best units.

It’s hard to gauge exactly where Jackson is going to land on the pay scale – some estimates have him slotted in around $8 million a year. But given that he’s played like a top-five guard in the league and is a cornerstone for Oakland, he may actually wind up getting a bit more.

It seems more likely that Jackson could end up with an average of the top five guards in the league, teammate Kelechi Osemele (13.5M), Cleveland’s Joel Bitonio ($12.2M), Pittsburgh’s David DeCastro ($11M), Arizona’s Mike Iupati ($9.7M), and Baltimore’s Marshal Yanda ($9.1M), which would mean he lands a payday somewhere in the range of $10-11M annually.

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Those three deals – Carr, Mack, and Jackson – are the most pressing for McKenzie and the Raiders. Three deals that potentially carry a cap hit of around $55 million dollars a year – almost a third of the current salary cap.

But don’t forget, also on the horizon, is a new deal for wide receiver Amari Cooper. It’s a can McKenzie can kick down the road a little bit longer, since Cooper is just now entering his third year in the league. And as a first round pick, the Raiders can elect to use the fifth year option on him, meaning a new deal for him isn’t urgent at the moment.

But it’s a bill that is going to come due and at a time when Carr, Mack, and Jackson are all in the middle of their new extensions. And Cooper’s performance through the first two years of his rookie deal suggests that he’s going to be in line for a hefty payday when that bill finally does come due.

Oakland Raiders
Dec 18, 2016; San Diego, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (4) runs for a first down during the fourth quarter against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports /

As of right now, Dallas’ Dez Bryant ($17M), Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald ($15.8M), the Ram’s Tavon Austin ($14.9M), Atlant’s Julio Jones ($13.9M), and Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown ($13.6M), lead the league in annual salary.

Which suggests that Cooper, if we assume an average of those top five, is in line for a paycheck that will be roughly $15 million dollars a year.

If contract negotiations for those four players play out as most everybody expects them to, Carr, Mack, Jackson, and Cooper will potentially account for roughly $70 million dollars in annual salary – or about 42 percent of Oakland’s total salary cap space.

When all four players have their extensions in place, potentially eating up nearly half of Oakland’s cap space, it naturally leads to questions about whether or not the team can remain viable. Whether or not they’ll be able to stock the roster with enough talent to remain competitive.

Simply put, for four players, that’s an awful lot of money and cap space.

When McKenzie took over and began the rebuild of this franchise, he had all the money in the world and was able to lavish lucrative deals on free agents. He’s always done a good job of managing the cap and not handing out ridiculously inflated deals like candy – something the late Al Davis did in his later years. He’s been responsible and for the most part, has structured team-friendly deals.

But now, with the talent level rising – and the Raiders are widely considered one of the most talented teams in the league – he’s going to have to start ponying up to keep his homegrown talent. Talent, in some cases, that has blossomed into superstars.

And this is where things begin to get tricky. McKenzie is going to have to pay his superstars like superstars if he wants to keep them in Silver and Black. But with only so many dollars and so much cap space available, that’s going to mean cutting corners elsewhere.

By keeping and paying his superstars, McKenzie is going to have to either talk big ticket free agents into taking more team friendly deals, rely on second tier talent to plug holes in the roster, or rely heavily on young, sometimes unproven, talent. Or some combination of the three.

There is little doubt he’s going to pay his young superstars. They are the foundation and the future of the franchise. The question becomes, will paying them hamstring the organization moving forward? Will they be able to pay them and still remain competitive?

Recent history shows us that McKenzie is smart and has a solid grasp of the cap and all of its nuances. He very likely won’t hamstring the team and will find ways to keep them competitive in the long-term. But it’s still something well worth keeping an eye on when the dollars start flying as contract extensions are handed out to Oakland’s young core of superstars.