What’s Next for the Las Vegas Raiders and Quarterback Derek Carr?

“I’m either going to be a Raider or I’m going to be playing golf. I don’t want to be playing anywhere else. That’s how much this place means to me.”

That’s Derek Carr on April 13th at a press conference following the announcement of his contract extension with the Raiders. Like most contract extension announcements, the big numbers were featured. Three-year extension. $121.5 million total. Fifth among all quarterbacks in average annual value. Also among those headlines was a no-trade clause, a clause that Carr said he insisted upon. A clause that would make Carr a Raider for life.

Well, that Raider for life is no longer with the team. Las Vegas made the decision this week to bench Carr and replace him with Jarrett Stidham. ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler reported that Carr and the Raiders agreed that he should step away from the team to avoid becoming a distraction; the team is listing his absence as “not injury related, personal.”

The Raiders have benched Carr not for the quality of his play—at least, not entirely. The other part of the equation is the structure of his deal—one of those minute, but critical details that doesn’t grab as many headlines when everyone is celebrating the new landmarks set by a massive extension. The Raiders gave Carr all of that money, but gave him few guarantees—just $24.9 million in total. Almost none of the remaining money on Carr’s deal—$5.6M of a whopping $121M remaining—is guaranteed. Everything else is non-guaranteed money. Put another way, it’s money the Raiders could save against the cap if they cut Carr. In more concrete terms: the Raiders would save $29.25M in cap space if they cut Carr following this season.

So why bench Carr? Because an injury to Carr would activate injury guarantees within his deal that are worth $40.4 million. Carr would become uncuttable following a major injury. In benching him, the Raiders ensure that those injury guarantees won’t activate, and they will have an exit from Carr’s contract following this season.

Carr isn’t just cuttable. He’s tradeable as well—at least from a fiscal perspective. The same $29.25 million that the Raiders would save if they cut Carr, they would also save if they trade Carr—assuming he waives his no-trade clause at the start of the new league year.

None of this means that the Raiders are going to move on from Carr, or have to move on from Carr. Carr currently sits at 15th in my colleague Steven Ruiz’s QB rankings; Carr was ranked the 12th-best quarterback by 50 coaches and executives in July The Athletic’s Mike Sando surveyed the league. Starting that player with a cap hit of just under $35 million—as it stands, the 10-biggest cap hit of the 2023 season—is not that bad of a business. However, once head coach Josh McDaniels, general manager Dave Ziegler, and owner Mark Davis make the decision, once they choose to leave the door open for a cut or a trade, it becomes difficult to see the two sides reconciling peacefully.

It isn’t hard to see that the Raiders and Carr are approaching a parting of the ways. What happens after that is far more difficult to figure out.

The Raiders’ two options—cut Carr or trade Carr—are similar financially. The cap savings are about the same. But only in a trade do the Raiders get anything back for Carr. Because the Raiders would be cutting Carr, and not letting his contract expire naturally, they would not be eligible for compensatory picks should another team sign Carr as a free agent.

But if the rest of the NFL expects the Raiders to cut Carr, then they have no reason to trade for him—just let him get to the open market and negotiate with him from there. Unless the NFL is expecting a competitive market for Carr’s services—a market in which, say, the New York Jets, Washington Commanders, New Orleans Saints, and Atlanta Falcons are all present—then signing Carr as a free agent and sending no draft capital to acquire him is far preferable for any team shopping for his services.

In that competitive market, perhaps one of those teams would attempt to leapfrog the rest by trading for Carr and his existing contract. Carr would join his new team on a three-year deal with cap hits of $33 million, $42 million, and $41.3 million—all non-guaranteed money. His contract would almost certainly be restructured accordingly.

But remember: Carr can only be traded if he waives his no-trade clause. In doing so, he’d help out the Raiders—a team he certainly loves, as he has expressed in tearful postgame press conferences; but also a team that benched him late in the season to ensure they could get rid of him. If there is a team that Carr really likes and that team is willing to trade for him, Carr can still keep his no-trade clause, force the Raiders to cut him, and then just sign with that team in free agency anyway.

So the conditions for a Carr trade are difficult to meet. Carr has to want to go to a certain team—a team that feels compelled to trade for him because of the competitive market for his services, or advantageous contract he’s currently signed to, or some other reason—and has to not mind the fact that he’s doing the Raiders a tremendous solid by not forcing them to cut him.

However, the Raiders could play a game of chicken, refusing to cut Carr and holding his $33 million dollar cap hit on the books as they look for a suitable trade that Carr will accept. These are similar circumstances to those the 49ers faced when they kept Jimmy Garoppolo this offseason, hunting for a trade when cutting Garoppolo would have saved them over $25 million in cap space. As it turned out, having Garoppolo was greatly beneficial to the 49ers—could the Raiders see a similar benefit in having a great veteran backup while they try to develop a raw rookie quarterback? Will Carr be OK with riding the bench, waiting for a midseason quarterback injury on another team to generate the momentum necessary to get him out of Las Vegas and into a starting job?

There is a lot going into this decision for the Raiders and for Carr—it is not an easy one to predict. We haven’t even touched on the implications of Carr’s college friend Davante Adams joining the Raiders in large part to play with Carr; the fact that, since the Raiders drafted Carr, no team has had worse defense and special teams than the Raiders; whether or not the Raiders are launching a rebuild or preparing to become more aggressive in their campaign to beat the Chiefs and compete in the AFC West.

As it stands, here’s what I think will happen: I don’t think the Raiders will cut Carr. Much like the 49ers with Garoppolo, having Carr on the roster is more valuable than $29.25 million in cap space. The Raiders are currently ninth in projected 2023 cap space with Carr already on the books; beyond Josh Jacobs, they don’t have many big free agents, so there is no pressing urgency to create cap space. Carr’s deal does not prevent them from signing the extensions or free agents that they would like, should they continue building themselves up as a contender.

The Raiders also still have all of their 2023 draft capital, as the Davante Adams trade included only the first- and second-round picks of the 2022 NFL draft. With cap space and draft picks available, the Raiders are in a position to become aggressive on the trade market in bringing more star talent to Las Vegas. Or perhaps they’ll use that capital to move up in the NFL draft for a quarterback prospect to replace Carr. Beyond their current and future picks to use as trade pieces, the Raiders also have Darren Waller, who has been out-snapped by Foster Moreau in his return from injury late this season and was the subject of trade discussions last offseason. The 6-9 Raiders’ current 2023 first-rounder stands at ninth overall—if the two games they play starting Stidham go as expected, they’ll end the season 6-11, and likely hold a pick in the top eight. From there, the Raiders could draft their QB of the future—whether by staying in place, or by using that war chest to trade up.

Because it doesn’t really hurt the Raiders to hold Carr into the 2023 offseason, I imagine they’ll do just that and select a young quarterback in one of the top two rounds to serve as a rookie starter to develop behind him. Even if they receive trade offers for Carr in the new league year, as the Niners did Garoppolo, they may pass on those offers until they feel like they get a deal that brings them good value. Would they take a third-round pick, as the Falcons did for Matt Ryan? I’m not convinced. A second and a third, as the Colts got for Carson Wentz, seems more like a deal the Raiders would pounce on.

Of the teams on the quarterback market this offseason, I’m not sure for whom such a deal would make sense. The Saints do not have the spare draft capital to throw around; the Commanders are also short a third-round pick as a result of the Wentz trade. Carr, who can be a timid passer without toughness in the pocket, doesn’t translate cleanly into the offense that Arthur Smith wants to run in Atlanta. Perhaps the best landing spot is with the New York Jets, a team that seems like they’re just a quarterback away—but will the Jets prefer Carr over Garoppolo, who may hit the free agency market this year and has played under the Jets’ offensive coaching staff before? And will Carr—a lesser player over the course of his career than recent veteran mercenaries like Matthew Stafford, Russell Wilson, and Matt Ryan—even give the acquiring team the boost they are hoping for?

It’s tough to recall a quarterback situation with more moving parts than the one currently in Las Vegas. For my money, I think Carr remains a Raider into the 2023 season, despite the lengths the Raiders have gone to ensure the trapdoor in his contract remains open to them. The Raiders look like a team that will play the quarterback market thoughtfully, waiting to find a star at the position—whether in the draft with a trade-up, or in the veteran market with a Tom Brady bombshell or Aaron Rodgers trade. And Carr will be left floating somewhere in that limbo, hoping that the stars align so that the Raiders get the quarterback they want sooner rather than later, so he can pursue a career renaissance elsewhere.

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