It’s crazy to think we’re just 21 months removed from a 12-4 Oakland Raiders team that made the playoffs behind the emergence of three budding superstars in Derek Carr, Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper. They were the envy of the league — flush with talent and in youth, with a future seemingly as bright as any franchise in the league.
And yet, in 21 short months, everything changed. That youthful foundation has been torn to the ground as the Raiders have gone full rebuild — having traded Khalil Mack just before the season and now, having moved Amari Cooper just before the beginning of Week 8. With Mack gone, the Raiders could pretend like they were still interested in competing this season — but with Cooper gone, there’s no hiding what is happening: both eyes of Jon Gruden are now firmly fixed on the future.
Which leads to some questions: did the Raiders tear down too soon? Was the Cooper move the right one? Is Derek Carr next?
Let’s tackle them one at a time.
First, while initially shocking, I’ve begun to come around on the idea of a rebuild. It’s easy to look at the front line stars and think this team was built to win — and win now, but the truth is that football is a game won by a team of 53 different players. As the year has gone on, one thing has become clear: the Raiders were nowhere near having 53 good football players.
Since drafting Carr and Mack in 2014, the Raider drafts have been simply dreadful. Here are the nine players that Oakland drafted in the first three rounds since: Amari Cooper (we’ll get to him), Mario Edwards Jr. (cut in September, he has four tackles in six games for the New York Giants), Clive Walford (cut in March, currently a free agent), Karl Joseph (not starting for the Raiders), Jihad Ward (traded to Cowboys in April, cut and then signed by the Colts), Shilique Calhoun (cut and added to the practice squad twice), Gareon Conley (five career starts), Obi Melifonwu (on injured reserve), Eddie Vanderdoes (on injured reserve).
You simply can’t build a sustainable winner with drafting like that and while I hated the Mack trade, it’s become more and more clear that this team was more than a piece or two away from truly competing. Once you realize that, you’ve got to find value and potential where you can — hence the stockpiling of draft picks (five first rounders in the next two drafts).
Which brings us to the Cooper trade — a move that was far more positively received around the league, and one that (in my book) qualified as a no-brainer. In all my years of watching the Raiders, I’m not sure I’ve followed a player more frustrating than Cooper: he’s got all the talent in the world, all the physical ability one could ever ask for — and yet he never seemed to put it all together.
You could look at his end-of-season stats and find some positives, but on a game-to-game basis, I can’t remember a single time that he took over a game the way he should be doing consistently. Instead, his career in Oakland was plagued by drops and occasional (regular) Sunday no-shows. So with all that said, to think the Raiders got a first round draft pick (from a bad team no less) for Cooper as he enters the fifth year of his rookie contract (i.e. when he’s no longer a bargain) was pure magic.
While the Raiders can’t expect to replace Mack in the draft, it’s totally reasonable to expect they’ll do better than replace Cooper come April.
Which brings us to the final question facing the Raiders today: is Derek Carr next?
The franchise cornerstone on defense? GONE. The most electric offensive weapon? GONE. It’s reasonable to wonder whether the franchise quarterback is next. As far as I can tell, however, I think the answer is that Carr is going to be around for a while — and here’s why: for starters, he’s not a bargain. I don’t think he’s overpaid, but you’re not going to get a premium back for him because he’s on a rookie contract or anything. With that in mind, it’s hard to imagine the Raiders moving him for anything less than a premium.
Would the Raiders move him for a late first round draft pick? Would they even get offered that? (I would imagine they would just given the shortage of franchise quarterbacks out there, but that opinion isn’t the majority it seems). Given how long the Raiders waited for a quarterback, I find it hard to believe they’d ditch Carr so quickly — especially given his 2016 performance and the flashes we’ve seen of that this season. Add in the fact that quarterbacks are now playing late into their 30’s, Carr has a much higher likelihood of still being in his prime when the Raider rebuild is complete — which is significant.
All in all, Monday was a good day for the Raiders. Cooper is gone (yet another high draft pick down the drains), but it reflected a full commitment to the plan that — at this point — makes the most sense. Being a Raiders fan is once again synonymous with being an NFL Draft fan and well, I guess for the next couple of years that’s okay.