The NFL has long been openly distilled down to “Not For Long” and it seems Jon Gruden has embraced this moniker. In a league where Bill Belichick freely trades or cuts formerly (and still) talented players a year early, Gruden has now pushed to an extreme. The extremity with which the talent of the roster has been culled has no real precedent in the modern NFL. Instead, to find parallels in the moves and roster (de)construction, Raider fans must look towards the hardwood for an idea of how this blueprint can work. This seems odd in a copycat, risk-averse league but if Gruden is viewing his “lifetime” contract with an eye on the far horizon then maybe it’s his best play.
In 2013 the Boston Celtics traded the corpse of Kevin Garnet and the slowing-but-still-beating heart of Paul Pierce for an unheard of bounty. The parting gift for fan favorites on legacy contracts? Three additional first-round picks and the financial freedom to retool around those players. Just one year removed from that decision and the team was right back in the playoffs while maintaining the flexibility to trade for talent or draft using another team’s pick.
Jon Gruden would (and largely has) punt a season or two in order to ensure he had the best chance to win years 3-10. Without revising history it’s fair to acknowledge that snagging 3 first round picks, for players you weren’t going to pay, is quite a haul. Is that what fans wanted to hear for the last seasons in the Oakland Coliseum? Of course not but any objective observers would have to both acknowledge the unprecedented bounty as well as the audacity to legitimately attempt this.
In the end, it may not work as on the hardwood, unlike the gridiron, one player can change the trajectory of the team. Three first round picks in the NFL Draft matters more if you hit on two of them *and* the rest of your picks in the draft. That’s where the Raiders lose a little bit of traction having given up a second-round in the Khalil Mack trade. It was smart to move off a premiums player you were never going to pay, for a price that no thought would be met, but that second-round pick could be a cheap cost controlled starter.
The last team to possess such a large bounty of picks, although not as many high picks, has been a bit stuck in the mud. The Tennessee Titans parlayed their picks into pro-bowl tackles and depth throughout their entire roster and even leveraged that into a (miraculous) playoff win. The key to the ignition, even as the Titans are currently struggling, is that the Tennessee brain trust already had “their” quarterback.
If Gruden’s gamble is going to work, Derek Carr is going to have to play an important role. Carr must either be the straw the stirs the drink, returning to his prior form and elevating the team (next season). Or Carr must be the cup holder to keep everything in place until his replacement is on the team. The answer will likely not be clear enough this season for Gruden, and with diminished quarterback class that spares him a tough choice. However, if Carr’s play doesn’t pick up by the end of the season then he will officially be on the clock. Which is to say he would not be the expected quarterback of the Las Vegas Raiders, and with contract escape hatch available in 2019, Gruden might not wait through the season.
In the perfect scenario, the Raiders will emulate the efficient teardown and rebuild of Danny Angie and Boston Celtics. With a quarterback at the helm, Gruden can spend those valuable high picks on other positions of more dire need (like every level of defense). If in 2019 he decides to move on from Carr the Raiders will have the draft capital to go get their guy. If Carr stays, well that’s two more premium picks the shore up the team before the big move. However the key for the Celtics has been maintaining a long-term forward-thinking plan, and we don’t know that Gruden can do that. What is clear though is Gruden is trying to rebuild this team right away, these aren’t your little brother’s Raiders anymore.