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Genius And Stupidity

NFL GMs face hard scrutiny

NFL: Preseason-New York Jets at New York Giants Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Jets need to figure out what they will do with their roster for the 2024 season. The 2023 season is just about in the toilet so the Jets should try to figure out who is in their plans going forward and who they are going to let go.

Some of these decisions are not as easy as you might think. You have to take into account the financial aspects of keeping a player, their worth to the team as a whole, and how to work some key trades to make your team better. Of course you get the most in terms of trades with your best talent. By doing so you can lower your salary cap numbers while at the same time adding a player and/or draft picks to supplement your team. The downside is you are lowering the talent level immediately following the trade, but you hope to add to the talent with future draft selections.

It’s a game of cat and mouse. You have to figure out your future, where you look to be in a year or two. You also have to worry about your locker room. Team cohesion along with team chemistry is vital to a team during a grueling 17 game schedule. This is how the best GMs do it.

If you are going to trade someone you should do it when a player is at his peak. The perfect example of this is the Las Vegas Raiders’ trade of Khalil Mack before the 2018 season. The Khalil Mack trade was an example of genius and stupidity all at the same time.

The Raiders waited until NFL cutdown day, Sept 1, 2018, to trade Khalil Mack, a 2020 2nd round pick and a 2020 6th round pick to the Chicago Bears. In exchange the Raiders received a 2019 1st round pick, a 2019 6th round pick, a 2020 1st round pick and a 2020 3rd round pick. They got several premium picks without having to pay Mack a huge salary.

The Genius

The Khalil Mack trade was the first time in nine years a team had traded multiple 1st round picks in exchange for a player. Mack was the defensive player of the year in 2017. His value would never be higher. Jon Gruden was in his second stint with the Raiders after being hired on January 6th of that year. He had no deep connection with Mack.

Trading Mack was a gut punch to the players, so Gruden had to sell his team on the idea. Since he was a well-known head coach with a Super Bowl ring on his finger, Gruden had some legitimate clout with the players. Gruden was replacing Jack Del Rio, who had a single winning team with the Raiders in 2016.

All Gruden had to do was persuade his players that the 2016 season was an anomaly, and in fact the Raiders (besides 2016) had never had a winning record for the last 15 seasons. The last winning season for the Raiders before 2016 was 2002, when the Raiders had an 11-5 record, went to the Super Bowl, and were beaten soundly by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were coached by none other than Jon Gruden.

With his squad coming off a 6-10 season, Gruden essentially used the year to evaluate his team. He did so to figure out who should stay and who should go. The Raiders were 4-12 that year, which gave Gruden even more draft capital.

The Stupidity

The problem with the Mack trade was the wrong people were making the drafting decisions for the Raiders. Jon Gruden was hired in January of 2018. He then had GM Reggie McKenzie fired so he could hire Mike Mayock from the broadcast booth. In this way Gruden could ensure he had the final say in building his team. That rarely works out.

I remember the hilarious scene of Gruden pounding the desk on the ESPN draft in 2014 and screaming that Johnny Manziel should be the #1 pick. If there ever was a player who you would figure would bust it was Johnny Manziel. In my draft book he was a day three pick, and I overestimated him at that.

In football character matters. Football is a brutal sport, so you need people who are dedicated to the game. You would think that Gruden, as a Raiders coach, would have learned from the JaMarcus Russell pick (#1 overall in 2007) that you have to be dedicated. Russell had elite talent but never worked on his craft. He relied on his God given talent, which is not enough in the NFL.

Players will show you their character, you just have to pay attention. When Peyton Manning was drafted #1 in 1998 he was interviewed and asked what he was going to do now. Manning replied he was going to Indianapolis later that day to study the playbook. When Ryan Leaf was selected #2 he was asked the same question and replied “Vegas Baby.” The Chargers actually had to wait a day to have the ceremonial unveiling of their pick because they flew Leaf to Vegas on their private jet. A bleary-eyed Leaf was introduced to the San Diego media the following day. Guess who is in the Hall of Fame and guess who was a bust? It’s not hard to figure out.

In the 2019 NFL draft the Raiders chose Clelin Ferrell, a defensive end from Clemson, with the 4th overall pick in the 1st round. I spit my pizza out of my mouth when I heard the selection. I had Ferrell as the 32nd player in the draft, and that was generous in my estimation. He was a solid kid with great character and heavy hands. He had developmental talent but at #4 was a joke. Devin White, Josh Allen, T. J. Hockenson and Ed Oliver went right after Ferrell.

The running back depth in the 2019 draft was very poor, so I was not surprised to see Gruden select Josh Jacobs out of Alabama with the 24th overall pick he received from the Bears. Jacobs was my highest rated running back. I had him at #33, but Gruden loves to have a “pound the rock” guy and Jacobs fit the bill.

The next pick the Raiders had is a player I will always remember. The Raiders drafted Johnathan Abram, a safety out of Mississippi State, with the 27th overall pick. I meet some scouts occasionally, not as much as I like to because they are always on the road. I had given my draft report to a scout (and his GM), and he argued I had Abram too low at #42. He felt he was a playmaker and a physical force. I told him I thought Abram had skills, but he was too small at 5’ 11 3/8” and 205 lbs to be a physical force in the NFL.

Abram was injured making a tackle in his first NFL game and missed the rest of the season. He is a decent player who has since moved around the league, but he has never been the same since his injury. I still mention our conversation when I see that scout.

In the 2020 NFL draft the Raiders used one of their picks from the Bears to select Damon Arnette, a cornerback from Ohio State. This was another shocking selection. I had Arnette as a slot type corner. I had him as my 85th best prospect. The Raiders took him with the #19 pick. This was over the top poor drafting.

With the final pick from the Khalil Mack trade the Raiders selected a big, slow receiver from South Carolina in Bryan Edwards with the 81st pick in the draft. I had him as the 94th best player in the draft. He was a physical force if used in the correct offense. Alas Edwards had a short, two year career, with 48 total receptions.

The Raiders could have had defensive end Josh Allen and his 40 sacks instead of Ferrell. They could have had wide receiver Justin Jefferson instead of Damon Arnette or wide receiver Gabriel Davis instead of Bryan Edwards. You have to make the right decisions as a GM.

It didn’t work out for Jon Gruden and the Raiders in the long run because of the ineptitude of the front office and head coach. The decision to trade Khalil Mack was the right one, and it could have been an epic moment in the history of the Raiders franchise. Sadly, they didn’t have an effective evaluator of talent to guide them to the promised land.

Summary

The Bears had Mack for four years with three Pro Bowls and one All Pro season. He helped the Bears to a 12-4 season his first year there. Consecutive 8-8 seasons followed by a 6-11 year doomed the Bears to get something for Mack, so he was traded for a 2nd and a 7th round pick.

Being an NFL GM is not an easy gig. You have to deal with the press, solve innumerable problems with players, look for gold in a sea of draft disinformation and listen to an owner who sometimes has never done anything in his life except be wealthy. You have to take pot shots from people like me and much worse. They question every move you make while never stating what they would do. You are in the public eye and must navigate the press, players, owners, the NFL and countless other obstacles.

I would take the job in an instant.

Who would you keep and who would you let go for the Jets?

Let’s see how you would be as a GM.

Post your thoughts below.