Trading Khalil Mack Was the Correct Choice Even Though It Hurts

I grew up a Raiders fan, even though we didn’t really watch football in my house. Being a Raiders fan wasn’t debatable. My dad grew up in Oakland in the 60s and 70s. This was our team. So when I saw that on the 2nd of September the Raiders had traded Khalil Mack to the Bears, I was angry. He was our best player, hands down, for the last three years. He was our defense for a while. Mack and Carr were supposed to be Raiders for life. Faces of our franchise for the next decade. And now, after two and a half weeks, and some time to settle, trading Mack was the correct choice, regardless of what he does in the future.

Malcolm Gladwell, in Revisionist History, explores the concept of Strong Link Networks vs. Weak Link Networks. It’s a simple idea with powerful implications. A Strong Link activity is any team activity where a single person immediately makes a team. Basketball is a great example. Put Lebron James on a team and they can compete for a championship. That’s all that is needed. A Weak Link activity is any team activity where the weakest member is more important than the strongest. This is football (either kind). No matter who you put on that field, one person can’t carry the team to a championship by themselves. Tony Romo couldn’t do it. AP couldn’t do it. Tom Brady can’t do it. There are 52 other players who have to show up to win a championship.

Strong Link Networks vs. Weak Link Networks should dictate how you spend your money. Is it worth having Tom Brady if you don’t have Belicheck, Gronk, Moss, or any of the other amazing players? Ask the Seahawks for the last few years how they’ve felt with Russell Wilson. Last year he accounted for 82.1 percent of their yards from scrimmage. That’s incredible. And yet they went 9–7. Because no one on a football team can do it alone.

The Raiders traded Mack to the Bears for two first round picks and change. I really don’t care about the other picks besides the two firsts because they are basically a wash anyway. I wanted to know what this would be worth. And while the draft value chart is good for comparing picks, it’s not great at talking about production.

Some people have looked at starters as a useful metric to see how draft picks play out. Their conclusion was that a first round pick starts, on average, 67.5% of games each year they are in the league. 48.5% of all pro players are first round picks. And nearly 30% of all starters in the league are first round picks. But none of those methods were satisfactory to me. I wanted to know how much long term value the team that drafted a player gets.

So I went out and got some stats from Pro Football Reference to see what those picks could turn into, probably will turn into, and hopefully won’t turn into. I used their “Approximate Value Accumulated for the Team that Drafted This Player” as my base line. I know it’s not a perfect stat, especially not for individuals, but for this type of analysis I think it holds value. More reading available here on Approximate Value.

I scraped all the drafts since 1970 and got the Drafted Approximate Value for each pick from 1970–2014. In easy terms, what value can we expect from a pick for the team that drafted them. The results are stunning. While Khalil Mack is on a HOF trajectory, almost any two first round picks provide at least equivalent value to the drafted team. Mack had a DrAV of 48. Here is the DrAV of first round picks:

Only three picks combined in their DrAV are less than 48. Pick 32 + anything under 27, Pick 29 + anything under 25, and Pick 25 + anything under 24. Those are the only three picks whose Average DrAV is less than half of Mack’s. Any other two picks are worth more and sometimes a lot more. So, what could these picks turn into? If somehow both the Raiders and the Bears have top 5 picks, then on average it would turn into two Khalil Macks. But that’s not likely either. If that is the case then there is a reasonably high chance of a HOF as well. Of players selected first overall, 1/5 have become HOF players. The top 5 picks together account for roughly 30% of all HOF players.

What’s most likely, however, is that the Raiders end up with two Pro Bowl, maybe All-pro, level players from those two picks. Odds are that the Bears and Raiders won’t both be among the worst five teams in the league. And if you trust Raiders scouting/drafting, then this is actually what you want. Two good/great players are worth more than a single HOF player.

At worst the Raiders will end up with two busts on their hands. And so, making this trade is definitely not worth it, unless you can sign two or three good/great players via Free Agency to replace Mack.

Odds are in the Raiders favor here. It’s the principle that the Patriots are built on, and the principle behind the Weak Link Network. You are only as good as your weakest player plays. You need more than a single amazing player. And that’s what Gruden meant when he said: “ We weren’t very good last year on defense with Khalil Mack.” Because unlike basketball, football needs a whole team to compete. This the correct move even if the picks flop. In a league with a salary cap, you don’t win by paying market rate for HOF players. You win by getting more production out of a lot of players than you are paying and letting someone else pay them, even if it means that Mack won’t be in silver and black anymore.

Interested in most things sports, specifically analytics, and data. Software developer and tech enthusiast in my free time

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