Dougherty: Packers in prime position to pursue elite edge rusher Khalil Mack
The time is right for Brian Gutekunst to make a big, bold move.
The Green Bay Packers general manager has a Super Bowl contender as long as Aaron Rodgers is his quarterback. But Rodgers’ clock is ticking, and by chance, a premier defensive player just might be available to try to get the Packers over the top.
Khalil Mack’s contract negotiations with the Oakland Raiders are going nowhere, and his holdout has no end in sight.
So if the Raiders really are willing to deal their All-Pro outside linebacker, then Gutekunst should offer the two first-round draft picks he has for 2019 and hope it’s enough to get Mack.
Mack is the rare player who would be worth such a risk at this time. He’s an elite defender and 27 years old. With Rodgers at quarterback, Mack is the kind of difference maker on the other side of the ball who could give the Packers a good shot at winning a Lombardi Trophy or two over the next three or four years.
And holding New Orleans’ first-round draft pick in 2019, Gutekunst has the wherewithal to make it happen. Really, what could be a better use of that pick than as part of a package to land one of the league’s best defensive players?
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Maybe Gutekunst could get Mack for first- and second-round picks. Worth a shot. But if not, then he should offer his two first-rounders next year (or a first-rounder in ’19 and another in ’20) and see if the Raiders bite. It’s not too high a price. In fact, the question is whether that would be enough to get the Raiders to part with him.
Let’s start with the premise that Mack is a top-10 defensive player in the NFL.
In the last three years, his 36½ sacks ranks second in the league, behind only Chandler Jones’ 40½. I recently asked several scouts around the league, and by best estimate he’s among the top six or seven defensive players in the game. He makes everyone around him better. He tilts the field.
Last year Mack appeared to have a down year with only 10½ sacks. One scout, though, said Mack played well regardless of the numbers.
“Maybe (down) statistically,” the scout said, “but he was still affecting the QB.”
Put Mack at outside linebacker with the Packers’ defensive line, and there’s a good chance new coordinator Mike Pettine fields a top-10 defense.
Of course, recent reports that the Raiders might be willing to trade Mack raised the question, why? Teams rarely part with elite players in their primes.
Well, maybe they’re not serious and just fishing for a crazy-good deal.
But maybe trading Mack really is in play.
There are signs the Raiders might have miscalculated in their contract talks with Mack, and as one of the most cash-poor teams in the NFL — that’s why they’re moving to Las Vegas next year — would be stretching themselves financially to sign him to the long-term deal for which he’s holding out.
After negotiations on Mack’s extension went nowhere in February, the Raiders appear to have decided he’ll have to play this season on the fifth-year option of $13.86 million, and if necessary franchise him in 2019 and ’20.
But they might have underestimated Mack’s resolve. He has held out all offseason and training camp even though he’s subject to massive fines, including a game check for each preseason game he sits out. In Mack’s case, that’s $814,000 a week.
Maybe now the Raiders are convinced he’s willing to sit for a long time. Perhaps the whole season, or at least until the final seven weeks, which would allow him to become a free agent next spring (though subject to the franchise tag).
Maybe that worst case has opened the Raiders to trading him.
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That leaves two points to consider. One, is Mack worth two first-round picks? And two, do the Packers have the cash and cap space to sign him, which is a prerequisite to making the trade, while being fiscally responsible?
The answer to both is, in a word, yes.
Chances are, both of the Packers’ first-rounders next year (one is New Orleans’ pick) will be later in the first round, very possibly in the mid-to-later 20s. Same if it’s one first-rounder this year and another in 2019.
What are two mid-to-late first-rounders worth? There’s no exact value, it depends on the team doing the deal. But let’s use the 23rd and 26th picks to get a rough idea. If you go by the old Jimmy Johnson trade chart, those two packaged together are worth pick No. 7 or 8 overall. According to Rich Hill, who runs the website Pats Pulpit and calculated a new chart based on every trade of draft picks only since 2011, they’re worth the No. 5 or 6 pick.
Safe to say, the two picks combined are worth a top-10 selection, maybe top five if a quarterback still isn’t in play.
Is Mack worth that? Yes. He’s a premier player. It’s proven. Even with a top-5 or top-10 pick, the chances of finding a player as good as or better than Mack are less than 50-50. If you don’t believe that, check out the last 10 first rounds.
As for the contract, yes, the Packers are facing a whopper of a payout to Rodgers within the next year. But the cap isn’t the real concern for working out a deal with both him and Mack. There are plenty of ways to structure contracts to make that work.
The real issue is cash. And there, we can look to the Packers’ NFC North rival Minnesota Vikings for comparison.
Since the 2017 offseason, the Vikings have committed $206 million in full guarantees to major free agents and contract extensions. That’s fully guaranteed money.
In that same time, the Packers have fully guaranteed $44 million on their major deals. (The other NFC North teams, Chicago and Detroit, have committed about $133 million in such guarantees.)
No doubt, Rodgers is going to cost big-time. The best guess is it will take $110 million in full guarantees to sign him.
Then there’s Mack. It’s safe to assume that signing him will take a deal that makes him the highest-paid defensive player in the league, or very close to it.
For context, the highest full guarantee of any defensive player in the NFL belongs to Jacksonville defensive tackle Marcell Dareus ($42.9 million), followed by Denver edge rusher Von Miller ($42 million). Miller is the highest-paid defensive player in the league, on average, at $19 million a year.
In April, NFL Media reported that Mack wanted $65 million guaranteed. But without getting too deep into the details, there are guarantees, and then there are full guarantees. For instance, Miller’s contract had about $70 million that’s considered “practically” guaranteed, because he’d get the money in the first few years of the contract, when he’s unlikely to get cut.
So let’s assume Mack will command a deal a little better than Miller’s. Maybe a full guarantee of $45 million to $50 million, a practical guarantee in the $70 million range and an average-per-year around $19 million to $20 million.
Only Mack and his agent know whether that would get a deal done.
But if so, why couldn’t the Packers make that work? With Rodgers, Mack and the $44 million they’ve already guaranteed in the last 1½ years, they will have committed about $200 million guaranteed. That’s still a little less than the $206 million the Vikings have committed to free agents and extensions over the same time.
The Packers also aren’t facing uncommonly costly free-agent classes the next couple years.
Next offseason, their free agents include a 33-year-old Clay Matthews, Randall Cobb, Muhammad Wilkerson and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. The 2020 class includes Mike Daniels, Kenny Clark, Bryan Bulaga, Geronimo Allison and Mason Crosby. There will probably be only a couple must-signs in that group.
Look, nobody’s saying that trading for and signing Mack doesn’t come with real risk. It would be better if he were 25 or 26, not 27. And he could get hurt, miss a lot of games and maybe never be the same. Then a lot of money and draft capital goes down the tubes.
But there are plenty of risks for doing nothing, too. Picking late in the first round, even twice, well, look at the Packers’ draft history that last decade. The closest they’ve come to a first-rounder of Mack’s caliber is Matthews, and they’ve had some big swings and misses, too. Trading into the top 10 or even top 5 and finding an elite player is a crap shoot, as well.
This franchise is in business to compete for and win Super Bowls. Rodgers’ clock is ticking. This is exactly the time for a big, bold move.