Khalil Mack will be traded for what is reportedly at least two first round picks, and is negotiating a deal with the Chicago Bears. The average value of that deal is likely to be in the $22 million per year range that we just saw with the Aaron Donald contract.
That’s a stiff price to pay, and I’m going to do a historical breakdown to assess the sides of the deal.
Let’s start with Khalil Mack. He’s an elite edge rusher who has 40.5 sacks through the first four years of his career, and has twice been selected first team all-pro. He just turned 27 years old. Players like him don’t tend to hit the market or become available to to other teams.
To assess his value, I used similar players from Pro Football Reference looking at (1) Approximate Value from age 23 to 26; (2) Pro Bowl and All Pro selections; (3) Sack Totals; and (4) BMI (to get similar body types and take out the Reggie White or larger defensive end types).
Here are the 15 most similar outside linebackers/defensive ends going back to 1980:
I listed their overall Approximate Value (AV), sack totals, and pro bowl and all pro selections from ages 27-30, which would comprise the expected life of a deal for Mack.
80% of them made a pro bowl at least once over the next four years. The only three that didn’t were Jevon Kearse, Tim Harris, and John Abraham (even though Abraham had three different double-digit sack seasons). Other than a few seasons lost to injuries, they were generally very good players still from age 27 to 30. While veteran contracts can be risky, investing in a top pass rusher at age 27 seems a relatively safe one for continued production, as far as these things go.
But of course, Mack comes with a high price tag, so let’s compare that to first round picks.
To assess this, I first looked at where a team like the Bears might be picking. Using last year’s point differential and points scored, and looking at similar teams since 2002, the average draft position following the next season was 12th, and two seasons later was 15th (We are assuming that the Bears are trading their 2019 and 2020 first round picks). Now, obviously, the value will depend on just what happens with Chicago, and you might expect that they have a better than average chance of exceeding those with a young quarterback, new coach, plus adding Mack. But we’ll go with those for now.
If we use just defensive ends and outside linebackers taken in the first round, 24% of them made a pro bowl at least once in their first four seasons. Only 9% of them put up an AV of 40+ in their first four years (and remember, year 5 triggers the fifth year option and holdouts and gets you to the exact Khalil Mack situation if they are good). 25% had an AV of 30+, while 80% of the Mack comps hit that number.
That is dependent on, of course, where the picks are. Top 8 picks at DE/OLB made a pro bowl in their first four years 44% of the time, and it fell off dramatically after that.
Applying the range of outcomes of Chicago’s comparable teams, I estimate the chance of drafting a pro bowler at defensive end at 31% with the 2019 pick and 24% with the 2020 pick. Again, that’s to be compared to the 80% figure for veteran stars like Mack.
The cost of those same picks would be a little over $4.5 million for the 2019 and around $4 million for the 2020 in annual averages (consider the ranges from 1st overall and 32nd and the same distribution that led me to assign those pro bowl values).
So, you are trading about a 50/50 chance of having a pro bowler as a pass rusher (assuming you invested both picks in that position) and about $8.5 million spent, for about a 80% chance of having a star and around $22 million.
And what of that surplus savings in cap room? Well, it has to be spent somewhere. The Bears’ situation actually makes it easier. You could make an argument to take that amount and tradeoff the possible drop in hitting a pass rusher with paying for a position like quarterback. But Mitch Trubisky is entering his second year. If he’s good, the Bears won’t have to pay him until the end of the Mack deal.
So let’s analyze what that spend on defensive end/pass rusher could bring. Using data on average contract values and cap charges at Spotrac, my estimate on the range of players that could be paid with that money at the position are Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, Michael Bennett, Cameron Jordan, Ryan Kerrigan, and Everson Griffen. Those players range in age from 28 to 33 and with a variety of production. Remember that part of the long term deal is that the cap keeps rising; what is the richest deal this year won’t be in three years. So a 10-12 million player per year becomes a 12-14 in a few years, and a 12-15 million guy becomes the 15-18 million guy.
I took the 10 most similar players at same age to each based on recent production (similar to how I found Mack’s comps) and here are the expected averages:
Pro Bowler in next 4 years: 37%
AV over 40+ over next 4 years: 15%
AV over 30+ over next 4 years: 35%
So while it’s easy to say — yes, you save that money by not paying Mack, you pay it somewhere. If you use it at a similar position, it is going to be for a player that is either much older with a big name, or similar age but not as productive or safe. And you probably don’t have a large amount of options.
If we combine the two draft picks for relatively cheap and the veteran outcomes for the remainder of the amount, here are the odds of getting a pro bowler in each scenario:
Mack: 80% chance of a pro bowler
Two first rounders + veteran for $12-14 million per year: 67% chance of at least one pro bowler (with a 19% of two or more pro bowl type players)
When you account for the scenarios, then, trading for Mack, while expensive, is worth it because he is likely to remain a star.
Meanwhile, while there is a lesser chance of hitting with the Raiders’ package, there is also higher variance and the chance of multiple good players with the two picks and the additional money to spend. The winner of this deal likely comes down to just how good the Bears become, and how good Mack remains. If he is great, and the Bears become a better team, those picks are going to be less likely to hit. If the Bears collapse, then the Raiders’ chance of hitting on them increases greatly.
I’d take the Bears in this scenario, but it will be an interesting scenario to watch play out in coming years.