Raiders Had No Choice but to Guarantee Derek Carr $20 Million This Season

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Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (4) throws a pass during the first half of an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs in Kansas City, Mo., Sunday, Dec. 30, 2018. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

The Oakland Raiders are entering year two of a ground-up rebuild under new (old) head coach Jon Gruden. The team is flush with draft picks after it traded star edge-rusher Khalil Mack and standout wide receiver Amari Cooper—and equally flush with roster holes.

After Derek Carr’s tumultuous fifth season, which included a 4-12 record, sideline dustups with his head coach and a challenge to fight an ESPN personality, there was speculation that Oakland’s rebuild might include severing ties with the quarterback via either a trade or the 27-year-old’s outright release.

That idea has been tabled. Per Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, Carr’s $19.9 million salary for 2019 became fully guaranteed Wednesday. Gruden’s engineered some dubious personnel decisions since he took over the Raiders in January 2018, but staying the course with Carr was more than just the right play.

It was the Raiders’ only play.

John Hefti/Associated Press

It been clear for a while that the reports of Carr’s Raiders demise were exaggerated. In December, Gruden told Scott Bair of NBC Sports Bay Area that despite a lack of team success, he was pleased with Carr’s performance in 2018:

“I think Derek has played great. Somebody told me he had 3,700 yards and 68 percent completions in 13 games. That’s astonishing. With three new guards, losing a right tackle, a featured back, three top receivers. The guy is a hell of a player. The guy is a great quarterback. We are very pleased and proud of what he has done. We know we got to get better around him, and that we will.”

However, that vote of confidence didn’t stop ESPN’s Max Kellerman from suggesting the Raiders should cut or trade Carr and draft Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray.

“Pretty obvious, Carr is not the long-term answer there,” Kellerman said. “You could see that, especially the first half of the season. I mean, I stopped watching Carr a lot the second half of the season; who cares about the Raiders’ second half? But the first half of the season, he looked shell-shocked. He looked like a quarterback who had quit.”

It seems the assertion that Carr had “quit” caused him to challenge Kellerman to a fight.

Offering to get into the Octagon with a TV personality isn’t the best way to handle criticism—whether that criticism is fair or not. But that misstep was a rare one for Carr over the second half of last season.

Despite playing behind a subpar offensive line with arguably the NFL‘s worst skill-position talent while withstanding a constant barrage of criticism of everything from his toughness to his relationship with coaches and teammates and his future with the franchise, Carr overcame a rocky start to post a solid statistical season—all things considered.

For the year, Carr set career highs in completion percentage (68.9), passing yards (4,049) and yards per attempt (7.3). His passer rating of 93.9 was the second-highest of his career, bested only by the 96.7 he posted in his 12-win 2016 season.

From Week 6 to Week 16, Carr went 10 straight games without throwing an interception.

Yes, he only threw 19 touchdown passes. And the Raiders only won four games. But those numbers say less about Carr than the talent (or lack thereof) around him. The team’s leading receiver in terms of yardage was veteran tight end Jared Cook (896). He was tied for the lead in catches with scatback Jalen Richard (68). Jordy Nelson was the only Raiders wideout with even 500 yards. Oakland was 25th in the NFL in rushing at 101.8 yards per game.

Gary Landers/Associated Press

Oh, and Carr was sacked 51 times—the third-most in the league. Other than that, though, everything was fine.

There aren’t many quarterbacks who could succeed with next to nothing around them. And even if the Raiders have decided Carr’s not their long-term answer, it’s not like a better option for the 2019 season is available.

Yes, the Raiders have the fifth-most cap space in the NFL (about $71.2 million, per Over the Cap)—plenty to take a run at a veteran free agent. And with Carr under contract through 2022 at an average of less than $20 million per season (relatively modest by today’s standards), if the Raiders seriously shop him, finding a taker likely wouldn’t be that hard.

But flipping Carr and acquiring a veteran stopgap wouldn’t get the Raiders any closer to respectability. Just about any vet the team could sign would be a step down from Carr. Adding more draft picks at the expense of a downgrade at the NFL’s most important position wouldn’t make much sense for a team that’s already swimming in selections the next couple of years.

Frankly, neither would burning one of the team’s three first-round picks on a young quarterback—not this year, anyway.

It may well be that one day we’ll look back at Murray, Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins or one of this year’s other young signal-callers as a relative bargain. And with the fourth overall selection, the Raiders could probably have their pick of the litter. But there’s nothing resembling a sure bet in this class—as a whole, it’s viewed as a weaker crop than both the 2018 and 2020 groups.

That latter class could include Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, Oregon’s Justin Herbert and Georgia’s Jake Fromm—and if the Raiders really want a new quarterback of the future as opposed to their old quarterback of the future, that’s where they should look.

Let’s be real for a moment: Regardless of how well Carr plays in 2019, the Raiders won’t be a good team. Even with a bucketful of draft picks and cap space out the wazoo, there are too many holes to fill. Oakland also has two picks in the first 32 in 2020, and one of those will be a high selection.

The best course of action—the wisest course of action—at quarterback this year is to maintain the status quo. Give Carr one more chance to show 2016 wasn’t an aberration. That he can be the quarterback to lead the Raiders out of the AFC West basement. Use all those picks and all that cap space to build around him. Improve the O-line and weapons at Carr’s disposal.

Gary Landers/Associated Press

He is, after all, the only quarterback to lead Oakland to the postseason over the last 16 years.

If it works out, great—the Raiders will have one less thing to worry about and can continue to build around him. If it doesn’t, then Oakland won’t be any worse off. Assuming the bottom doesn’t fall out, there will still be a trade market for Carr’s services. If it does, they can cut bait before next March’s deadline for his salary to vest.

None of this guarantees that Carr really is the Raiders’ long-term solution. Nor does it mean that Gruden’s renovation project is anywhere close to finished. But by giving Carr one more year to show that he can be the guy, Gruden’s at least allowing that he isn’t sure Carr’s not.

And that might just be the wisest move Gruden’s made since he returned to the Silver and Black.

      

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