PHOENIX — Jon Gruden was lambasted and lampooned when the Raiders dealt defensive end Khalil Mack to the Chicago Bears last year. And although praised for the compensation received, he attracted some criticism, too, when wide receiver Amari Cooper was traded to the Dallas Cowboys midseason.
Both helped their teams to the playoffs. The Raiders, meanwhile, reaped no immediate on-field benefits.
On Tuesday morning, Gruden noted the benefits have begun.
The Arizona Biltmore luxury resort is home to the 2019 annual NFL owner meetings. It was no place for the Raiders coach. Since Sunday, Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock were jittery here like middle schoolers in math class before lunch, waiting to resume more traditional football activities that are tied, in part, to capitalizing on last year’s Mack and Cooper deals.
The team possesses eight picks during the April 25 to 27 draft, including four in the top 35 selections.
A number of roster needs remain unfilled.
“That’s why we’re getting out of here today,” Gruden said of the meeting, which won’t officially break until Wednesday. “We got to get back to our wheelhouse. We don’t belong here. We do not belong here.”
The Raiders completed the Mack trade on Sept. 1.
That is when the Bears reached a six-year, $141 million contract with the All-Pro edge rusher, a deal that guaranteed him $60 million at signing. Oakland also sent a 2020 second-round pick and 2020 conditional fifth-round choice. In exchange, it acquired Chicago’s first-round choice in 2019 (No. 24 overall) and 2020, a 2020 third-round pick and a 2019 sixth-round selection.
In October, Cooper was traded to Dallas for a 2019 first-round choice (No. 27 overall). He is a candidate for a contract extension this offseason.
Not having Mack or Cooper on their books freed up the Raiders to be more active this month. Their largest investments were to acquire wide receiver Antonio Brown and rework his contract in a trade from the Pittsburgh Steelers before signing offensive tackle Trent Brown, versatile defensive back Lamarcus Joyner and wide receiver Tyrell Williams.
The Raiders retained their most premium picks in the Brown deal, parting with 2019 third- and fifth-round choices.
“That was our plan, honestly,” Gruden said. “We lost a couple good players, really good players last year, and we acquired some draft picks. We also acquired a lot of space to acquire Antonio Brown, Trent Brown, Lamarcus Joyner. We don’t sign any of these players if we don’t have the cap space to get that done.
“It’s a double-edged sword for us. We needed the draft capital to get younger, to get young, emerging players, and we needed the cap space to add … the men we did. We felt like we had a lot of needs, and we’re doing the best we can to address as many as possible.”
History won’t judge the Raiders on having dealt Mack and Cooper. Not entirely.
It will consider the talent they collected in response.
This picture, despite the moves Gruden referenced, will remain undeveloped until the 2019 and 2020 drafts are complete. And even then, it will take a few years before those selections can be evaluated adequately.
Should Gruden and the front office hit on a high percentage of their personnel decisions and Gruden and his coaching staff successfully develop and incorporate that talent, the Mack and Cooper trades will be remembered as key bricks to the rebuilding of a franchise that today claims one winning season in the past 16 years.
For what it’s worth, on March 2, the Raiders’ trade of Mack was named the “best transaction” of 2018 at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston.
“I do know that we got the award,” Gruden said. “I think it was the only award we got last year. I don’t really have time to worry about who thinks it’s right or wrong. We didn’t really have much of a choice. If we did come up with the money to make the contract happen last year, we wouldn’t have any of these men we’re talking about right now. …
“I’m not going to sit here and say that I didn’t cry for three days. I wanted to coach Mack, and Mack knows that. I wish him the best. But we’ve got a lot of work to do with this football team. That trade allowed these acquisitions that we’re talking about today to even happen.”
By 2 p.m., Gruden and Mayock separately left the Arizona Biltmore.
They had enough.
“I don’t really like the owner meetings,” Gruden said. “I’m anxious to get home.”