This isn’t easy to say, because the first seven weeks of the NFL season have largely been filled with jokes about Jon Gruden’s return to the Raiders, but he kind of looks smart in his “burn it all to the ground” approach to the Raiders’ roster as the team moves from Oakland to Las Vegas.
Gruden’s team is hurtling towards the first-overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft: Oakland is 1-5 after an embarrassing loss to the Seahawks in London during Week 6, but unlike other single-victory teams, the Raiders are actively cutting and shopping their best players.
The Amari Cooper trade is just the latest example of this, with the Raiders shipping their top receiver to the Cowboys. The catch here, though, is the Raiders somehow dragged a first-round pick out of Dallas in the deal. When rumors circulated the Raiders wanted a first in a swap for Cooper, it was laughable. No one was going to give them a first-round pick for a semi-productive receiver with a year and change of control left, especially after he suffered a concussion in his team’s last game.
Enter Jerry Jones, who has a penchant for this sort of thing.
Jerry claims he’s made “a lot worse mistakes” than the Roy Williams deal back in 2008, but there’s an argument it was his worst trade ever. Considering the value of first-round picks and the obvious contract the Cowboys need to give Cooper now, there’s an argument this could beat the Williams deal.
If the Cowboys, now 3-4 after their Week 6 loss to the Redskins, don’t make a run at the playoffs, they could end up handing the Raiders a pretty high draft pick.
Which is exactly what Gruden’s banking on when it comes to his plan for rebuilding the Raiders in his image. This is twice now Gruden’s dealt away a star/superstar player in exchange for first-round pick(s).
First there was the Khalil Mack trade, which netted the Raiders a pair of first-round picks from the Bears in 2019 and 2020. At the time, even the staunchest Mack supporters agreed the Raiders did a nice job picking up assets from Chicago, although trading someone who earned a Defensive Player of the Year award on his rookie contract can best be described as sub-optimal. It felt like performance art watching Gruden long publicly for a pass rusher after each Raiders loss while Mack terrorized NFL quarterbacks on a weekly basis.
The Cooper deal is a lot easier to parse: Gruden fleeced the Cowboys in this one, somehow convincing Jerry Jones to give him a first-round pick for a wide receiver with consistency issues on the final year of his rookie deal and set to make $13 million in 2019 on his fifth-year option.
And now Gruden has a massive stack of metaphorical poker chips sitting in front of him. He has five — count them, FIVE — first-round picks at his disposal over the next two years. The 2019 picks are looking pretty good too, thanks to the Bears (3-3) and Cowboys (3-4) struggling.
If the season ended today, the Raiders would have the fourth-overall pick, the 10th-overall pick (courtesy Dallas) and the 17th-overall pick (via Chicago).
In theory the Cowboys pick will get “worse” (for Oakland) because they added Cooper, but the Cowboys have a tough schedule out of their bye. They draw the Titans, Eagles (road), Falcons (road), Redskins, Saints and Eagles out of their break. We’re going to find out pretty quickly if it was a good decision to swap Cooper for a high pick.
For Gruden, though, it was smart. Not only did it ditch another player the $100 million man doesn’t want to keep around — there’s a clear “if you were drafted by Reggie McKenzie, you’re as good as gone” vibe to the Raiders right now — but it resulted in the Raiders getting a massive asset in return.
Plus, as Brady Quinn pointed out on the Pick Six Podcast Tuesday (subscribe to get your daily dose of NFL podcast right here), the optics of the Cooper deal are massive because it offsets the optics of the Mack trade. Giving up Mack and badly needing a pass rush makes the Raiders look silly. Giving up both players and just being a bad football team while holding five first-round picks? That looks like someone has a plan.
The only losers in that plan, really, are Oakland Raiders fans. The diehard supporters of the Silver and Black in the Bay Area are watching as their franchise, rejuvenated by the hiring of Gruden just several months ago, is systematically deconstructed in order to pave the way for a rebirth in Las Vegas.
That’s Gruden’s plan if it wasn’t abundantly clear. Strip down the car and sell it for parts, then try and piece it back together with young players by the time the Raiders land in their new Sin City home.
It’s not dumb. It might be smart. By the time the Raiders get to Vegas, Mack was going to be edging towards 30. Cooper would only be 26, but he’d be on the beginning of a high-priced deal. Gruden now could have a core of players on rookie contracts set to begin taking the AFC West by storm as the Raiders complete their move. Or maybe a year after. Whatever it is, it seems obvious the plan for Gruden all along was to try and get a youthful roster geared up for the move.
Watching it is painful and the Raiders might stink out loud for the next year or two. But if he executes on the draft picks, it might turn out that Gruden was playing chess when all along we thought it was a low-level checkers match.
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