Oakland Raiders: Rookie’s rise may be changing Gruden’s feelings about Mack

OAKLAND, CA - OCTOBER 08: Khalil Mack #52 of the Oakland Raiders lines up to rush the quarterback during their NFL game against the Baltimore Ravens at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on October 8, 2017 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
OAKLAND, CA - OCTOBER 08: Khalil Mack #52 of the Oakland Raiders lines up to rush the quarterback during their NFL game against the Baltimore Ravens at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on October 8, 2017 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) /

The Oakland Raiders are engaged in a contract stalemate with superstar Khalil Mack – could the rise of a rookie make him expendable?

To paraphrase Shakespeare, “Now is the summer of our discontent.” It’s a sentiment Oakland Raiders fans near and far can probably relate to, really, really well, right about now.

Rather than getting pumped up about the Return of Chucky – aka new/old head coach Jon Gruden – and focusing on how well some of the team’s offseason acquisitions are blending into his system, fans everywhere are stressed out about one topic and one topic alone – the contract status of one Khalil Mack.

Having missed the early portion of the offseason work, and now holding out of training camp, it’s clear that Mack and his agent are dug into their position as they wait for GM Reggie McKenzie to offer him a fair deal.

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It’s a process that hasn’t gone well, as evidenced by the fact that there have reportedly been no contract talks since February. It’s an ominous and foreboding development for what really, should be a slam dunk, cakewalk of a contract negotiation.

Mack is a generational talent and an All-Universe caliber player. Negotiations should consist of McKenzie sliding a blank check across the table to Mack and asking him to fill it out. Period. Done. You’re welcome.

Okay, okay, it’s a lot more complicated than that, but the point remains.

Mack has far exceeded the value of his rookie contract, is playing out his fifth-year option, and is in line for a deal that at the very least, meets the one signed by Denver’s Von Miller – but probably should flat out exceed it.

And yet, here we are.

The calendar has turned from July to August, camp has been in session for a couple of weeks now, and still, there is no movement. Even worse, there are no talks between the two sides – at least, none that we’re privy to.

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There are a plethora of factors in play here, of course. Rams standout Aaron Donald‘s pending contract is a factor. As are salary cap considerations, guaranteed money, and given the far friendlier state taxes in Nevada – a relatively new wrinkle in the discussion – when exactly that guaranteed money is going to hit, and a thousand other things.

It’s an incredibly fluid situation with a million moving parts, no easy solutions, and perhaps more ominous, no end in sight.

The lack of progress in contract talks with Mack is underscored by the belief – pushed by Mack’s camp – that Gruden doesn’t value defensive players. Not to the level he values offensive guys.

Which, if it’s true that Gruden and McKenzie are trying to lowball Mack, is only going to harden the feelings further and could eventually damage the relationship beyond repair.

It’s obviously a situation that’s far less than ideal when you’re dealing with a player who is – and should be – a foundation piece in this defense for years to come.

With the positions on both sides of the contract dispute hardening and there being no timetable for Mack to return to the team, Gruden is focusing on the players he has in camp right now. Understandably so. With a new system, you have to coach the guys who are there.

With a number of guys fighting for roster spots, a few have started to separate themselves from the pack. And one of those guys is rookie edge rusher, Arden Key.

While Key still has much to prove in terms of being an all-around, three-dimensional player, rather than just a dominant pass rusher, thus far, he’s showed out well.

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Through the early stages of camp, he’s caught the eye of not just Oakland’s coaching staff, who can’t seem to say enough good things about him, but from his teammates as well.

There’s no question that Key has the potential to be one of Oakland’s more effective pass rushers off the edge. To this point, he’s given Oakland’s linemen, from rookie first-rounder Kolton Miller, to powerful veteran and perennial Pro Bowler, Kelechi Osemele, all they can handle and then some.

Given everything going on, and the emergence of Key as a dominant force on the edge, one has got to be wondering if it’s having an impact on Gruden’s thinking about Mack. Is Key’s rise this summer giving Gruden pause about dropping a massive payday on their star player?

Of course, the answer you would want to hear is no, absolutely not. Not in a million years. It’s a dumb question that shouldn’t even be uttered.

But, in fact, it’s a question that should be asked. Especially, in light of the story that Gruden doesn’t value defensive players, as well as the persistent trade chatter.

It seems utterly preposterous, of course, but if you connect a few dots, it doesn’t take much imagination to wonder if Gruden is looking at Key, not necessarily as a complementary or rotation piece, but as a replacement.

If Gruden and McKenzie can’t forge some sort of agreement with Mack’s camp on a long term deal that takes care of both Mack, and the team, is it outside the realm of possibility, that they actually wind up trading him, as so many rumors that have surfaced, are suggesting?

Is it so completely farfetched to think that, with Key flashing extraordinary talent and ability, it’s started to change Gruden’s thinking about the necessity of getting Mack into a Raiders jersey for the long term? Especially, when they can fleece another team for quite a haul in compensation?

In an ideal world, you would immediately poo-poo the idea as insane and utterly ridiculous. But, with the economics of the NFL being what they are, and a player like Mack obviously chewing up a large number, you can’t realistically dismiss the idea out of hand.

After all, if a team thinks it can save twenty million plus dollars, a season, and not necessarily skip a beat at the position, you can guarantee that every team in the league – all thirty two of them – will do just that. In fact, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots have made an art form out of doing just that.

Given that Gruden and Guenther are falling all over themselves to praise Key, they obviously believe they’ve got something special in the rookie.

The question is, do they think he’s special enough to fill a potential void there if they do the absolutely unthinkable, and trade Mack?

Or, is it simply Gruden trying to exert some sort of imaginary leverage over the superstar by floating the insane idea that they have a solution to the problem in-house?

Make no mistake about it though, not getting a deal done with Mack and dragging out this process is not a good thing. Not having him locked up long term is beyond ridiculous. Players as transcendent as Mack come around less often than Halley’s Comet. Getting a deal done with him should be a no-brainer.

But, this is the NFL, where no-brainers are often bungled and fumbled – you know, like not handing off to Marshawn Lynch at the one, with a Super Bowl title on the line.

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Bottom line, not getting a deal done for a transcendent, generational talent like Mack is monumentally stupid. And as talented as Key is, if Gruden is actually thinking twice about getting a deal done with Mack because the rookie has had a solid summer, it would be even more stupid.

But, this is not a perfect world, and life in the NFL is anything but predictable. Or logical. And, things often make no sense.

This is but another log on a fire that’s been burning since the dawn of time.