The NFL offseason is headed in the direction of “who-the-heck-knows” because the Oakland Raiders hold the steering wheel. They’ve got it in a white-knuckle grip with the gas pedal pinned. The Raiders’ cache of salary cap space and draft capital put them in position to drive any transaction they choose. Jon Gruden is in the driver’s seat, which means he is liable to turn the radio dial to the right until it snaps.
The Raiders acquired Antonio Brown over the weekend for a song — draft picks in the third and fifth round — and immediately gave him both a raise and about $30 million in new guarantees. Shortly after the legal tampering period started Monday, the Raiders agreed to a four-year, $66 million deal with former New England Patriots left tackle Trent Brown, his agent Drew Rosenhaus confirmed on ESPN, the richest contract for an offensive lineman in NFL history.
In two days, the Raiders under Gruden and new general manager Mike Mayock have acquired one of the best wide receivers in the NFL, pilfered the Super Bowl champion’s left tackle at great cost and created headaches for general managers everywhere.
The Raiders exploded the wide receiver market by tearing up Brown’s deal for a new one, making life harder especially for the Atlanta Falcons (Julio Jones), New Orleans Saints (Michael Thomas), Kansas City Chiefs (Tyreek Hill) and any other franchise with a star wideout’s payday looming. Then the Raiders went ahead and redefined the market for tackles in the same way a day later.
Trent Brown’s contract will surprise more around the league than Antonio Brown’s, even considering the risks the Raiders took in acquiring the mercurial, aging wideout. One year ago, Trent Brown discovered his value in the league: The San Francisco 49ers shipped him and a fifth-round pick to the Patriots for a third-rounder. The Patriots changed his life, moving him to left tackle and placing him under the tutelage of venerated line coach Dante Scarnecchia. Brown, a 6-foot-8 behemoth and one-time seventh-round pick, protected Tom Brady’s blind side, maximized his potential, won a Super Bowl and broke the bank.
What will he do for an encore? He moves from Scarnecchia’s watch to that of Tom Cable, whose exit from Seattle corresponded with a resurgence in the Seahawks’ line play. He had been protecting Brady, whose quick release and rapid-fire reading of the opposing defense place minimal strain on blockers. Now he’ll protect Derek Carr, who — presuming the Raiders stick with him — is a quarterback whose pocket awareness is, um, not the same as Brady’s. It’s fair to say there’s skepticism Brown can repeat his 2018 success.
But the primary lesson from the Raiders’ two-day bender is that they can do whatever they want, and the rest of the league will be forced to react. Gruden spent much of last season gutting the Raiders’ roster and piling up draft picks, highlighted by trading pass rusher Khalil Mack and wide receiver Amari Cooper, for which he received an onslaught of mockery. But the payoff for those moves, as it is, comes now.
Before agreeing to sign Trent Brown, the Raiders had $58.7 million in salary cap space, according to OverTheCap.com, which means they have room to make another splashy signing if they so choose, or can at least drive prices. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport mentioned the Raiders as a possible landing spot for running back Le’Veon Bell, which makes some sense and shows how encouraged agents are to use Oakland, at the very least, as a stalking horse.
Oakland’s status as a clearinghouse for league activity will only become more acute at the draft. Even after shedding two picks for Brown, the Raiders have 10 selections remaining in April, including the fourth overall pick and three choices in the top 27. Those picks could be bartered for more picks or could be used to land another superstar, or to trade up to take a quarterback such as Kyler Murray; rumblings suggested Gruden has an affinity for Murray, even though he and Mayock have publicly pledged allegiance to Carr. That’s another possibility: If the Raiders choose, they could even shop their 27-year-old quarterback.
How the Raiders operate in the next week and months is anyone’s guess, including those in the league. They are a wild card, not only because of their franchise lineage but also because of who’s running the team. Gruden and Mayock were talking heads just a couple of years ago, a semiretired coach and a hard-working, universally respected draft expert. They were around the league, but not quite inside it. Gruden has little recent roster-building history to study, and Mayock has none. Their plan, and how they intend to pull it off, is impossible to predict, but their situation makes any option available to them.
It’s hard to find much coherence in Gruden’s moves. Last year, he tore down a team one season removed from a 12-win season, prioritizing flexibility and draft picks, signaling a long-term rebuild, perhaps timing their contention to the move to Las Vegas in 2020. But the acquisition of Antonio Brown, a soon-to-be 31-year-old wideout, suggests he thinks the Raiders are close. Adding Trent Brown could be cast more as a long-term play, but throwing around the highest offensive line salary ever does not scream “building for later.” How can anybody have any idea what happens next?
They can’t, which is what makes the Raiders the most important and most interesting team in the NFL. The Indianapolis Colts, as one example, also have a war chest of salary cap space and draft picks, but General Manager Chris Ballard also has a clear-cut plan: Build through the draft, prioritize players who exhibit high character, put pieces around Andrew Luck, and add speed on defense. Describing the Raiders’ outlook with similar concision is impossible.
They may not be the best or smartest franchise in the NFL, but the Raiders have the most control over what happens this offseason. They have the money, the draft picks and impulsivity to make anything possible. It has already been a wild ride, and this is only the beginning.
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