The Oakland Raiders open the regular season with the conspicuous absence of Khalil Mack, the decorated defensive end who was traded to the Chicago Bears after a prolonged contract holdout.
Rather than revel in the excitement of the Monday night opener against the Rams, head coach Jon Gruden found himself attempting to explain how the Raiders ended up letting one of the NFL’s top defenders out of the building despite being under their control.
Mack was due $13.846 million on his fifth-year option, but never showed for any of the offseason workouts or training camp as he sought an extension that general manager Reggie McKenzie said he had been working toward.
It never happened.
When the Bears offered a pair of first-round draft picks (2019 and 2020) plus other considerations (the Raiders also sent Chicago a second-rounder in the deal), Mack quickly came to terms on a six-year extension worth a maximum value of $141 million with $90 million in guaranteed money.
It’s no coincidence that Mack’s departure came shortly after the Rams wrapped up their top defender, defensive lineman Aaron Donald, to a contract worth slightly less that what Mack eventually received from the Bears.
“The negotiation was what it was. It was tough. It was a long process,” Gruden said. “We talked about it daily. I don’t believe we were anywhere close to where the Bears were.”
The deal left the Raiders reeling as they began preparations for the Rams. Their defense needed help even with Mack, and now even more is needed.
Meanwhile, the Rams travel to Oakland knowing expectations are soaring after the shocking success they experienced in Sean McVay’s first season as head coach in 2017.
McVay got his coaching start working for Gruden, and now enters the unknown against a team in its first year with Gruden, who is back on the sideline for the first time since being fired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after the 2008 season.
The Rams have kept their offense under wraps throughout the preseason, but expect some fireworks Monday night as quarterback Jared Goff and running back Todd Gurley II and the host of perimeter playmakers go to work. Don’t be surprised if the Rams go off early and often to build a quick lead, and then attack Raiders quarterback Derek Carr on the pass rush. The Rams will be aggressive. Right from the outset. The question is who will supply the rush following the offseason departures of linebackers Robert Quinn and Connor Barwin.
On offense, wide receiver Brandin Cooks is an upgrade over the player he replaces in Sammy Watkins. Adding Cooks to an offense that features productivity and experience in Gurley and wide receivers Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp, a veteran offensive line and Goff, who emerged as a Pro Bowler after a rough rookie season makes the Rams offense one of the most potent in the NFL.
The Rams changed their cornerbacks in the offseason and enter the season with Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib starting. The Raiders hope wide receiver Amari Cooper bounces back from a disappointing 2017, and he will be challenged going against each of those corners.
For the Raiders, while the trade of Mack made headlines, the team had been without throughout the summer. Now they know moving on is of paramount importance.
On the defensive line, Tank Carradine, a 49ers castoff, has done a serviceable job at Mack’s left end position and Bruce Irvin has been moved from linebacker to right end. There is an influx of rookie talent with second-round tackle P.J. Hall, third-round end Arden Key and fifth-round tackle Maurice Hurst.
Hall and Hurst in theory can give the Raiders an inside push the Raiders never had with Mack and in theory cause a ripple effect that could help the entire unit. Key has been impressive as a long and lean pass rusher who slumped in his final season at LSU but was considered a first-round talent originally.