On Khalil Mack, Realistic Trade Suitors and Prop Odds

by Justis Mosqueda

Since entering the league in 2014, Oakland Raiders pass-rusher Khalil Mack ranks third in the NFL in tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage. Among edge defenders, he ranks first. Despite that, if you give any credibility to the sportsbook MyBookie, Mack is likely to be traded by the NFL’s mid-season trade deadline. The website opened up their odds at +350 that Mack would still be a Raider after the trade deadline, equal to the implied probability of just 22 percent, which stimulated trade talks about him on Twitter. Since then, we have been told that at least the New York Jets have reached out in an attempt to gauge the market for the pass-rusher.

With this information, we are left to fill in the blanks. Why would the Raiders want to trade one of the best defenders in the league, much less much less one who is 27 years old? Who are the legitimate contenders for Mack’s services? Do we believe that player props like these can accurately inform the public on future moves?

To contextualize why Mack may be traded from the Raiders, you have to first understand that, for all intents and purposes, the franchise is now run by head coach Jon Gruden. Not only did Oakland lure Gruden in from Monday Night Football with a record-breaking 10-year contract, but they also gave him an unprecedented $10 million per year. Gruden has so much job security that he could fall asleep at the wheel and not wake up from the fire burning under his hot seat for years, an important note for a team inherited by Mark Davis, one of the least wealthy owners in the NFL, who is moving the team to Las Vegas in the near future.

From this perspective, you could guess that if Gruden does tell general manager Reggie McKenzie to pull the trigger on a trade of Mack, the motivating factor could stem from setting precedent in his current position of power. In the grand scheme of things, 2018, a year in which Oakland is not even the favorite in the AFC West, does not matter. Faced with the threat of a holdout, as Mack has yet to show up to camp, will Gruden set the precedent of paying his stars what they are asking for or attempt to establish a culture in which players take less than they could on the open market to free up more cap room? That probably has as much to do with why 1) Mack does not have a deal and 2) why Mack is not in camp than anything else.

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Faced with this fork in the road, Gruden needed to make a decision. So far, with comments like “We weren’t a good defense last year with Khalil Mack” being made, he is clearly taking the “do not back down to contract requests in Year 1 of 10” approach. Ranking eighth in cap space in 2019 and ninth in cap space in 2020, the Raiders certainly are not hurting for cap room over the course of what would be Mack’s guaranteed seasons under a new deal.

It is clear that the pass-rusher wants to be paid, meaning that any possible trade would need to account for an almost immediate contract extension, much like Washington’s trade for quarterback Alex Smith this offseason. Any long-term deal for Mack will likely include at least an $8 million cap hit in Year 1, still less than the $13.8 million he is slated to make at this point in 2018 but a significant number nonetheless. This can layout a solid blueprint for which teams could be in the market for Mack’s services. When you whittle out AFC West rivals, teams which have already invested in two pass-rushers and teams which do not have $8 million in cap space to spend, you are essentially left with four trade candidates for Mack: the Detroit Lions, Seattle Seahawks, New York Jets and Chicago Bears. Other teams, like the Green Bay Packers, would need to make at least one major cap-related move to clear enough space for a Mack trade.

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This is where the Mack trade rumors start to fall apart. Of the four teams listed as legitimate contenders, teams which both need pass-rushers and have the cap space to pay Mack, the Seahawks, Jets and Bears all have already traded away their 2019 second-round picks. The other team, Detroit, has already traded away its 2019 third-round pick. Unless the Lions would be willing to give up the rest of the top-100 picks in next year’s class, it is unlikely that a Mack trade could get done with just 2019 draft picks alone, based on who we have highlighted as teams realistically in the market for him. While Gruden’s contract may be promised for the next 10 years, positional coaches and coordinators often are forced to change teams before they see Year 3 in one city. Selling a staff on draft picks not in next year’s draft but the year after that could be tough.

Now we come to the final part of this conversation: Can we really make anything out of a line that an online book throws out? Many people believe that gambling works as some form of a free market, where books just want to make money on action and balance the line to whatever matches the money coming in. In truth, books are often fake free markets, as they set maximum bet limits. Often, especially on player props like this, the limits are very low. The purpose of throwing bets like this on the board is to generate PR that gets you to sign up for a low limit bet (around $25) for the purpose of gaining you as a long-term customer.

On August 12th on MyBookie, you could have put money on Mack being a Raider after the trade deadline (+400) or the Raiders trading Mack before the November deadline (+300) at odds which would have guaranteed you money no matter the outcome. A little over two months ago, free agent wide receiver Dez Bryant was listed by the site with -200 odds to sign with the Tennessee Titans, an implied probability of 67 percent. As far as we have been let know, the only visit Bryant has taken since turning down the Baltimore Ravens has been the Cleveland Browns, a team which had extremely long odds to sign him, according to the book. Outside of the book's projections, there have been no other Bryant-Tennessee connections elsewhere. In the end, these numbers do not have to be rooted in reality.

The truth is that prop bets, which people typically do not usually know are set to low limits, are not a product of a free market but are a way for books to get people to sign up for their website, with the long-term goal being signing up customers beyond that single bet. On paper, it is possible that a Mack could be a realistic goal for four teams if and only if Oakland is willing to take some 2020 draft picks in the process. Other teams could get into the market for Mack if they shift around their roster for the purpose of freeing up 2018 cap space. With all of that being said, making anything out of the exact order of odds listed by books is playing exactly into how they want you to act.