Derek Carr isn’t anywhere near the top of the list of problems for a Raiders’ franchise stained by controversy and mired in mediocrity.
Yet whether to keep him at quarterback after this season will be one of the most important decisions by whoever ends up in a position to make that call.
Deciding what to do won’t be easy.
A massive contract Carr signed in 2017 is set to expire after the 2022 season.
While it was the biggest deal in NFL history at the time, the terms actually became relatively team-friendly with Carr playing at a high level and quarterback salaries ballooning around the league.
He is due just under $20 million for the 2022 season with no penalty for moving on from the contract.
“Paying him $20 million a year is a deal for what he’s been doing,” said George Chahrouri, an analyst for Pro Football Focus. “I would think about how likely are you if you kind of restart things to get a guy as good as Derek Carr.”
In his eighth season with the organization since they drafted him in the second round out of Fresno State and deemed him the starting quarterback on day one, Carr has rewritten the franchise’s record book.
He has been durable, missing just two starts in his career, and consistent.
Everything but win
Carr has done just about everything a franchise could ask for when drafting a quarterback with the exception of winning consistently.
While there is a fair debate to be had about whether wins are a good metric for quarterback evaluation, it’s just as fair to note the NFL is a results-based business.
Carr is now 53-70 as a starter with just one winning season to show for all the yards, touchdowns and comebacks he has led over his time in Oakland and Las Vegas.
His lone winning season came in 2016 when he was squarely in the MVP conversation only to get hurt late in the year. He missed the regular-season finale when a win could have earned the Raiders a first-round bye, then missed what remains the team’s only playoff game since the 2002 season.
The 30-year-old Fresno, California, native and little brother of a former NFL quarterback has had to endure a revolving door of coaches, coordinators, executives and teammates. Yet through it all, he continues to put up impressive offensive numbers.
He has even addressed critics who said he was far too conservative by improving that aspect of his game.
“He was throwing the ball short, almost Teddy Bridgewater-esque for awhile,” Chahrouri said. “His average depth of target this year is about nine yards, which is what Tom Brady is doing in Tampa Bay. He has matured and improved in some of those areas. In the right structure and the right supporting cast and a good coach, they absolutely should be a playoff team with him.”
A tough call
It’s why his situation is so difficult for the Raiders to figure out.
Carr has been a top-half-of -the-league quarterback over the last half-dozen years and is right on the fringe of the top 10 in most metrics. So any switch would entail the incredibly difficult task of finding someone better. Not many of those people exist.
In the end, the Raiders have stayed with Carr. He’s rewarded them with one of his most productive campaigns to date despite leading a team through the tumultuous waters of the Jon Gruden controversy and the tragic death of a young Las Vegas woman that has former top pick Henry Ruggs awaiting trial on DUI charges.
Chahrouri pointed out Carr was playing at an MVP level with Gruden calling plays, but his play dropped off after the change. As a result, the Raiders once again find themselves on the wrong side of .500 and enduring a similar late-season collapse to what they’ve experienced the last few seasons.
Fair or not, Carr is one of the only common denominators in the Raiders’ mostly futile results of the last eight years.
That is a big reason why he could be in the last month of his Raiders’ career despite all the individual success.
Time for a move?
If the Raiders do want to make a change at quarterback, there may not be a better time.
The Raiders have a few options. They could trade Carr to a contending team with a need at quarterback, sign him to a long-term extension to stay with the team or let him play out the final year of his contract with no assurances he would re-sign and no compensation should he leave.
For the sake of analysis, the assumption is the Raiders will most likely hire a new coach and possibly a new general manager in the offseason. Those authority figures would obviously have a great deal to do with what happens with Carr, though owner Mark Davis will have as much to do as he wants with all of those decisions.
Carr has said he wants to play for the Raiders for his entire career, so taking him at his word, a long-term extension would be his preference.
Based on comparable players, that could be expected to be in the $30-to-$35 million range per season. It would provide stability at the most important position on the field and potentially ease the transition to a new regime by having someone so familiar with every aspect of the organization at the helm in the locker room.
It could also make the potential upcoming negotiations with rising defensive star Maxx Crosby a bit more difficult as he will also eat up a large chunk of cap space.
Chahrouri makes the case for a modified version of this where the Raiders sign Carr to a shorter bridge deal.
“The mega-deal thing would be a non-starter for me,” he said. “I think it’s a unique situation where you might be able to find a deal with Derek Carr that is structured in a way that doesn’t kill you long term in the way the Falcons are dealing with in Matt Ryan and bring in another guy.”
The team could also elect to simply let Carr play next season, providing that same safety net for a new staff only in a far more temporary state. It could lead to tension between Carr and the organization and wouldn’t be ideal for either side, though the team would have a very affordable yet very productive quarterback at a bargain price for one more season.
That leaves the potential compromise of a trade as a real possibility.
Should the Raiders make it known Carr is on the market, there are several teams that should be making calls.
A team like Pittsburgh or Cleveland with a strong supporting cast that could just need a quarterback would be foolish not to kick the tires. Aaron Rodgers could move on from Green Bay or Russell Wilson from Seattle, moving those teams into that same category as contenders in need of a quarterback.
The Raiders could also allow a deal to be put in place where Carr could already work on an extension with the team that trades for him before a move is finalized.
That could be a best-case scenario to put Carr in a position to win while allowing the Raiders to make a completely fresh start.
While Carr said earlier this season he would rather retire than play for another team, it would be difficult for a player of his talents to walk away from a chance to play for a team with a chance to compete.
But for now, the Raiders still have a shot at the postseason. That could change everything.