The Raiders once again march into the offseason with significant salary cap space. That’s been the case a few years now, since general manager Reggie McKenzie got his franchise right with the cap by exchanging bad contracts for good.
McKenzie currently has $46.5 million available, according to overthecap.com, to spend on draft picks, free agents and his own players.
There are teams with more money available, but there’s plenty to do what’s necessary.
A top priority will be keeping superstar quarterback Derek Carr and edge rusher Khalil Mack in silver and black.
“You can say that,” McKenzie said last week. “The good thing is we do have time, but I’m not the type to wait until the last minute. Those two guys are not only great players but they are great men. They are true Raiders and I want to make sure we do the best that we can to make sure that they stay Raiders.”
McKenzie accurately points out the Raiders have some time to work these deals out. The Raiders have a fifth-year option on Mack, a luxury afforded teams on all first-round picks. He’ll have two years until the open market creeps up, with a possible franchise tag to extend that stretch.
There’s less sand in Carr’s hourglass. There’s no fifth-year option on the second-round pick’s four-year deal, meaning their franchise quarterback is ready to enter a contract year.
The Raiders don’t want him anywhere near free agency or the franchise tag’s exorbitant pricing on quarterbacks. A contract extension could come this offseason to keep Carr a Raider long-term – his broken fibula should have zero impact on contract talk – meaning the Raiders must in time adjust to life with a massive cap number for their quarterback.
McKenzie and his staff prepared well for that day. They have signed veteran free agents to contracts with up-front money that essentially become pay-as-you-go deals over time. That provides flexibility should money be needed elsewhere and not stuck to an underperforming player.
The Raiders might have to make tough decisions regarding popular supporting players who could command more money elsewhere.
“You can’t keep everybody,” Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio said shortly after the season. “You can’t pay everybody, especially once you start paying your quarterback what he’s going to end up making, which I’m sure will be a pretty nice amount. So we’ve been fortunate the last few years, we’ve been able to do more other places because we didn’t have a lot put in the quarterback number. As that number goes up, it’ll limit some of the things you have to do.”
Attrition will happen as some quality players leave for greater riches, but there are several top NFL teams with highly-paid quarterbacks. For example, five of the top six teams with highest-paid quarterbacks in 2016 made the playoffs.
“Hopefully it won’t beat up the roster that much,” McKenzie said. “You try to do the best that you can to work the contracts so you can keep as many good players as possible. But, we all know that you cannot have a roster of a lot of multi-million dollar players. That’s just not the way this system works. So, we’re just going to have to continue to strive to get good players for the lesser amount. I mean, it’s just the way it is. Our quarterback is going to command a high dollar. Khalil’s going to command a high dollar. So, we’ll work around it. But we don’t feel, at this point, threatened by it.”
Big cap numbers for Carr and Mack also places a premium on drafting and developing players well. Those guys are cheaper, and can keep roster strength high.
The Raiders prefer to reward their own players but have to spend smart, starting with the 13 players set to become unrestricted free agents later this spring. That group includes running back Latavius Murray, tackle Menelik Watson, receiver Andre Holmes and linebackers Malcolm Smith and Perry Riley.
“We’ll have decisions to make,” Del Rio said. “I’m sure we’ll want to keep as much of the nucleus. We have a good, young nucleus of players here. We want to keep as much of that nucleus intact as possible. That will be the plan going forward.”