It feels as though quarterback Derek Carr has long been a fringe player. Now, when I say that, I certainly don’t mean that he’s always been bad, or even always been average. That’s not the fringe I’m talking about. It feels like Carr has been right on that edge of the franchise quarterback label the Las Vegas Raiders have hoped he can earn.
But it feels like he’s been on that edge for a while; which can be both good, that he’s in the conversation, but frustrating knowing how long he’s been on that line. It’s what has driven a wedge between so many Raiders’ fans on whether or not they want to believe in Carr or move on from him. We’ve seen good from Carr, but we’re still waiting for those flashes of great to become more consistent, a move that would take him to that next tier of quarterbacks—a tier that would put playoff runs and potential championships in reach.
As we get close to the 2021 season, it feels as though we’re at a tipping point with Carr on that franchise quarterback line.
Carr just turned 30 years old, entering his eighth season in the league and with the Raiders. He’s coming off a 2020 campaign where he passed for a career-high in yards (4,103). He seems to have improved each year with head coach Jon Gruden at the helm. In 2018, he threw for 4,049 yards, 19 touchdowns, and 10 picks; and then in 2019, he bested all three categories with 4,054 yards, 21 touchdowns, and eight picks. Carr also appeared to let it fly more this past season, as he averaged a career-high in yards-per-attempt (7.9) and adjusted-yards-per-attempt (8.2).
Gruden has been Carr’s quarterback for those three seasons since 2018, and this past offseason spoke highly of his quarterback.
“Derek is very underestimated,” Gruden said in mid-May. “He doesn’t get much credit for how good he’s playing, but he completes a lot of passes. He changes plays at the line of scrimmage. He’s starting to make more and more plays with his legs now. We’ve put some pretty good players around Derek. I think it shows.”
For as much as Gruden loves football, he wasn’t going to come back to any team. If any franchise was going to lure him out of the broadcast booth, it was going to be one with a quarterback. Along with plenty of agreed organization control on his behalf, I believe that was the top variable he cared about most when choosing a team. Gruden didn’t settle for Carr; he wasn’t going to come back if he was settling. He chose Carr. That train of thought lines up with NFL insider Adam Caplan reporting earlier this offseason that the Raiders were closer to an extension for Carr than they were potentially moving on.
“Carr may end up getting his contract extended,” Caplan said. “That’s the belief around the league. They do not want to trade [Carr]. I can tell you that is a fact.”
Carr’s contract is really where the question of this article stems. When you look at some of the best quarterbacks in the game now and over the last 20 years, the late 20s and early 30s are where they really hit their peak. Given that, this is make-or-break territory for Carr. At age 30, Carr has two years left on his five-year, $125 million deal he signed in the 2017 offseason. Carr is scheduled to have a cap hit of $22.1 million and $19.5 million in these final two years, respectively. But the more important part is that he only has $2.5 million guaranteed this season and then no remaining guaranteed money on the deal. Moving on from Carr becomes as easy as the snap of a finger if that’s an avenue the Raiders choose to pursue. But it has been reported that the Raiders are closer to believing Carr is about to hit that franchise quarterback mode and that the best is yet to come as opposed to being close to pulling the plug.
The interesting wrench to throw in all this is that the Raiders’ name has been in multiple trade rumors, both for Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers. Wilson’s was more concrete, as it was his agent who made that known. Rodgers was more of speculation, but in this league, when people who generally speak from sources throw out a name, they’re not just looking at a depth chart to do so. Now, would most teams in the league take Wilson and Rodgers if they could? Of course. But it does give people who are trying to predict what might happen with Carr something to think about. If they were entertaining ideas of other quarterbacks around the league, perhaps those thoughts become seeds of “what if.” A year from now if there’s a quarterback the Raiders like in the 2022 draft class, maybe that’s enough to make a move.
Winning is a process. It takes time. But we’re about to enter Year 4 of Gruden’s 10-year deal. The Raiders haven’t made the playoffs since 2016, and zero playoff appearances for Gruden almost halfway through his decade deal was not something anyone signing their name on those papers envisioned. I believe that, along with the timing of Carr’s contract, is why this is a huge year for him. Coming off career bests in a handful of categories, Carr does present reasons to have faith that this is the year he puts his name in the conversion with quarterbacks we know can be conference contenders. But if Carr takes a step back in 2021, or even if he stays the same and the team doesn't move forward, for as much as some might still want to believe, you might see the Raiders get more aggressive than they’ve ever been to upgrade the position during the second half of Gruden’s deal.