Why Las Vegas will soon regret the Davante Adams trade: Barnwell pokes holes in seven Raiders assumptions

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  • Bill BarnwellESPN Staff Writer

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      Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for ESPN.com.

Well, if you thought the beginning of the 2022 league year was going to quiet things down in the NFL, think again. Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield requesting a trade and the Eagles cutting defensive tackle Fletcher Cox would qualify for a big enough day on the NFL calendar, but Thursday night delivered yet another monumental trade. Just days after signing quarterback Aaron Rodgers to one of the biggest extensions in league history, the Packers followed things up by ... trading his star receiver to Las Vegas.

Davante Adams is now a member of the Raiders, as Las Vegas sent its first- and second-round picks to Green Bay to acquire arguably the best receiver in football. Reports after the fact suggested that the relationship between Adams and the Packers was irreparably fractured after Green Bay used the franchise tag to retain Adams for 2022. Suddenly, at least for now, Allen Lazard is Aaron Rodgers' top receiver.

On one side, I don't love that the Packers are trading away Rodgers' top receiver by a significant margin at a point when they're all-in for a title. I'm sure GM Brian Gutekunst will add a wideout or two in the months to come, with guys like Julio Jones and William Fuller V still available in free agency and a talented crop of wideouts available in the draft, but the Packers are crying out for an impact wideout right now. If Adams was willing to retire or sit out multiple franchise tags, there's not much they could have done. But after seeing how they were able to smooth things over with Rodgers, I might have been willing to push things and see what happened with Adams.

Instead, though, I want to focus on the Las Vegas side of things. I'm not optimistic we will look back on this deal in three years and think the Raiders feel great about it. You have to make a lot of assumptions to get this to turn out well for them in the seasons to come. It's too easy to poke holes in those assumptions. It's always fun to add a superstar, and I'm not sure I can fault the Raiders for taking a swing on a Hall of Fame-caliber wide receiver, but the more I think about this deal, the more I don't like it for the silver and black.

Let's run through those assumptions one-by-one and why I would be skeptical in counting on them if I were a Raiders fan.

Assumption No. 1: Adams will be a superstar for years to come

The Raiders are valuing Adams as though he's the best receiver in football by a comfortable margin. First, they are handing him a five-year deal worth $142.5 million, which is likely to blow away the top of the market at wide receiver. Adams was asking for $30 million per season as a response to DeAndre Hopkins' two-year, $54.5 million extension, but those deals are apples and oranges. Hopkins had a significant chunk of that money added to the end of his deal, which had three years remaining.

Adams is getting that much money from the jump in this new contract. The top of the market for a new multiyear deal was $20 million per season, which we saw for Amari Cooper, Mike Williams and Chris Godwin. Adams has moved that all the way to $28.5 million per season. I like using money earned over the first three years of a deal as a measure of a contract's actual value, and the top mark there was Jones at $64 million. We don't have the specifics for Adams' deal yet, but I strongly suspect he's going to blow that three-year mark away, especially considering his guaranteed money is already higher at $67.5 million.

On top of that, the Raiders sent first- and second-round picks to acquire Adams, which themselves have significant surplus value. We've seen organizations value picks toward the top of the second round in the ballpark of $16 million. By sending the No. 22 and No. 53 picks to the Packers, the Raiders are dealing away two valuable assets in their own right, whether they were used to draft players or trade for other players.

Even if we were conservative and valued those two selections combined as being worth $25 million, that means the Raiders are paying something like $33.5 million per season for Adams on this new deal. That's way more than any wide receiver in football costs or is likely to cost in the years to come. The only way for this deal to break even for the Raiders in a vacuum is if Adams is the best wide receiver in football over the next several seasons.

Of course, that's possible. Adams is incredible. I don't think there's any receiver on the planet who manages to get himself more wide open than Adams does, week after week. If you could lock in five years of that for 17 games per season, you would make this deal in a heartbeat. So would I.

Again, though, can you really assume that's going to be the case? Adams has played only one full season over the past five years, back in 2018. (He sat out a meaningless Week 17 game against the Lions.) He hasn't had any major injuries and has missed a total of only nine games over that five-year stretch, but it would be unrealistic to assume he is going to be available week-in, week-out for years to come. That's not a red flag, but it's a slight damper on his value.

Then there is age. Adams is 29. He turns 30 during the 2022 season. You might argue that Adams isn't your typical 29-year-old, but you know who else wasn't a normal 29-year-old? Julio Jones, who led the league in his age-29 season with 1,677 receiving yards. Jones had no major injuries over his prior five seasons, either, though he had a more significant foot injury earlier in his career. Jones did not look to be slowing down in any way, shape or form.

Then he did. Jones was still very good in 2019, racking up 1,394 yards and six touchdowns. In 2020, he had 771 yards and three scores while missing seven games with injuries. Traded to the Titans for cap reasons, he mustered only 434 yards in 10 games in 2021. And just one year after acquiring Jones for a second-round pick, the Titans cut him to free up cap space this past week. That would have been unimaginable three years ago, when Jones was 29.

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Keyshawn Johnson examines Julio Jones' NFL future after his reported release by the Titans.

Jones is only one wide receiver, so that's an anecdote, but let's take it a step further. Adams was a Pro Bowler last year in his age-29 season. So was Jones. Since 1990, 38 wide receivers (leaving aside wideouts who made it for special teams contributions) have been named to the Pro Bowl in their respective age-29 seasons. How many of them stayed at that level for years to come?

Using fantasy points as a proxy for wide receiver performance, the answer is not many. Of those 38 wide receivers who were stars at 29, 24 failed to produce a single top-five performance afterward. That includes Hall of Fame-caliber wideouts such as Tim Brown, Isaac Bruce, Reggie Wayne, Andre Johnson, A.J. Green and Larry Fitzgerald. Guys who were perennially top-five or top-10 wideouts such as Gary Clark and Chad Johnson never came close to that mark again.

Players faded for other reasons, too. Michael Irvin, Sterling Sharpe and Rob Moore suffered career-ending injuries. Calvin Johnson chose to retire. Antonio Brown did what Antonio Brown has done over the past few years. I certainly hope Adams stays healthy and plays well for a long time, but there's always a meaningful risk for veteran players.

Just four players have managed multiple top-five seasons after their age-29 campaign: Terrell Owens, Marvin Harrison, Cris Carter and Jerry Rice. I wouldn't fault you for thinking Adams belongs in that group, but we would have said the same thing about Fitzgerald or Jones or Wayne, and not one of those guys was able to make it back to those same heights. (For what it's worth, as good as Adams is, none of the guys on this list should be compared to Rice, who was coming off of six consecutive top-two seasons and still had four more to go.)

It would be a pleasant surprise if Adams managed more than a single top-five performance at wide receiver during this new contract. The Raiders are acquiring Adams and expecting him to be that sort of player for the next several seasons. The odds are against him pulling that off.

Assumption No. 2: Adams will be able to sustain his greatness after losing Rodgers

I'm not going to make the argument that Rodgers carried Adams, or vice versa, because that's just bottom-of-the-barrel sports talk stuff. Clearly, Rodgers benefited from playing with Adams and Adams benefited from playing with Rodgers. We've been talking about their preternatural connection with each other for years. It would be naive to pretend that's not meaningful.

Adams' other quarterbacks in Green Bay haven't exactly been Derek Carr. He has been thrown 72 passes by Brett Hundley, 14 by Jordan Love, three by Matt Flynn and one by DeShone Kizer -- not ideal, and not much of a sample from which to base judgments. Adams has averaged 2.0 yards per route run over his career with Rodgers in the lineup and 1.7 yards per route run without him, although that gap widens if we cut to Adams' breakout season. From 2016 on, Adams has averaged 2.4 yards per route run with Rodgers as his quarterback.

In Las Vegas, Adams will be playing with Carr, his former Fresno State teammate. I have no doubt that the two formed a bond in college and that Carr is an underrated quarterback, but he just isn't the same type of passer as Rodgers. The Packers legend is an incredible improviser and a passer who finds ways to get the ball to his receivers from impossible angles. Carr is a good pocket passer who does great work before the snap and delivers an accurate ball. The longtime Raiders starter makes off-schedule throws here and there, but even Carr would probably admit that's not his forte.

Adams will also be competing for targets in a suddenly-crowded Raiders passing attack. I'm sure new coach Josh McDaniels will make sure Adams sees plenty of footballs, but Vegas already has two players who see plenty of targets in slot receiver Hunter Renfrow and tight end Darren Waller. With all due respect to pass-catchers like Lazard and tight end Robert Tonyan, the Packers didn't have two receivers who could compete with Renfrow and Waller. Adams will hopefully make those guys more efficient, and the Raiders needed an X receiver, but I don't think their biggest need was a guy to rack up 175 targets.

Let's get to that next point about needs, because I think there's another important distinction to make. If this were a championship-caliber team acquiring Adams to fill out the one weak spot on the roster, it would be one thing. But I'm not sure the Raiders fit that bill.

Assumption No. 3: Adams makes the Raiders serious contenders in the AFC

Raiders fans have every right to feel good about how their season ended. After a difficult year that saw Jon Gruden fired as head coach and receiver Henry Ruggs III arrested for his role in a fatal car crash, the Raiders won four straight at the end of the season. They made it to the playoffs for just the second time in 20 seasons. While they lost in the wild-card round, Carr & Co. gave the eventual conference champion Bengals a tough fight in Cincinnati.

All of that is true, but it's a very generous interpretation of what the Raiders looked like this past season. They were sitting at 6-7 after a 48-9 loss to the Chiefs, at which point they got to play three consecutive games against teams with compromised quarterback situations. They beat Browns third-stringer Nick Mullens 16-14, topped Broncos backup Drew Lock 17-13 and then kicked a late field goal to beat Colts starter Carson Wentz 23-20 in a game where the unvaccinated Wentz was only hours removed from the COVID-19 list. It might be telling that none of those guys are even on those respective teams anymore. The Raiders then pulled out an impressive, dramatic win over the Chargers to clinch a playoff berth in Week 18, but they trailed for the final 49 minutes of their loss to the Bengals.

By most measures I can find, the Raiders simply weren't a very good team in 2021. They were 21st in the league in DVOA, ranking below each of the other three teams in their division. And Carr's offense was outscored by 65 points.

The Raiders went 7-2 in games decided by seven points or fewer, something that they've shown no ability to do over an extended period of time in years past. The last time they were that good in one-score games was 2016, when they went 8-1 in such contests. The following year, they were obvious picks to decline and went 6-10, with a 4-3 record in one-score games. The disastrous falloff led Mark Davis to fire Jack del Rio, hire Gruden and trade away the team's young core. And now, the Raiders project as maybe the most likely team in the league to decline 2022.

All of that is just based on what happened a year ago. I think the situation on the ground might have gotten even worse for the Raiders, given that the Broncos traded for Russell Wilson. The Raiders were able to sweep the Broncos a year ago; it's certainly possible that they could do it again, but the chances of beating a Broncos team with Wilson at the helm twice aren't the same as they were with Lock and Teddy Bridgewater under center. Wilson is a dramatic upgrade at the most important position in sports.

Adams is also a dramatic upgrade on the likes of Zay Jones and Bryan Edwards, but it would be naive to pretend that getting a superstar wide receiver is the same thing as adding a superstar quarterback. The AFC West has been a wild race this offseason, but the Broncos adding Wilson is going to top adding any wide receiver, edge rusher or cornerback. Adams makes the Raiders a better football team, but he's not likely to turn them into a Super Bowl contender.

At the Caesars Sportsbook, Adams helped push Vegas forward, but the Raiders still have long odds of winning their division, let alone a Super Bowl. The Raiders are +700 to win the AFC West, well behind the Chiefs (+130), Broncos (+250) and Chargers (+300). Their odds of winning the Super Bowl are +5000, which ranks tied for 19th in the NFL. Ten different teams in the AFC have shorter odds of claiming the Lombardi Trophy. Is that the sort of team that should be trading a first- and second-round pick to go after a 29-year-old wide receiver?

Assumption No. 4: The Rams did this, it worked and it can work again

While the Rams won a Super Bowl and built part of their core by trading away first-round picks, no, this trade is not the same. They made several trades for superstars over the past few years, and none of them really aligns with what the Raiders did here.

The Rams have traded first-round picks multiple times for players on rookie deals who were either entering the league or entering the prime of their careers. Those trades were for quarterback Jared Goff (who was 22 when the Rams made that move), receiver Brandin Cooks (25) and cornerback Jalen Ramsey (25). Those guys are at a totally different point in terms of NFL aging curves than where Adams is at this point of his career.

Last year, the Rams upped the ante. They sent two first-round picks and Goff as luggage to the Lions for QB Matthew Stafford. Unlike those players, Stafford was well into his 30s, with the first overall pick from 2009 turning 33 just before the deal was consummated. Again, though, quarterbacks are different. They age differently, cost more and are harder to come by than players at any other position by a considerable margin. Adams is a more accomplished wide receiver than Stafford was as a quarterback, but the trade market for passers is totally different. Just ask the Colts about the two trades they made involving Wentz.

The other moves the Rams made cost much less in terms of draft capital for veterans. They signed Odell Beckham Jr. to a one-year deal for $1.3 million in free agency. General manager Les Snead sent second- and third-round picks to the Broncos for edge rusher Von Miller, with Denver also picking up virtually all of Miller's salary. Neither player required a new contract for market-setting money or a first-round pick. The Rams acquired two veterans, paid them close to the minimum and will get compensatory picks when they sign elsewhere.

The Raiders, however, are paying significant draft capital and a market-surpassing contract for a non-quarterback who is about to turn 30. The Rams have not made a deal like that in building a Super Bowl winner. Furthermore, the Rams had gone 43-21 over their prior four seasons and made a trip to the Super Bowl before trading for Stafford. They were much closer than the Raiders have been over that same timespan.

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Paul Gutierrez breaks down how trading for Davante Adams is beneficial to Derek Carr and the Raiders.

The move might feel just that much more desperate for the Raiders because of how long they've been trying to fill this need for a superstar wideout. Since their last playoff win (in the 2002 season), when the Raiders had the legendary duo of Rice and Tim Brown as their two starting wideouts, this organization has devoted a staggering amount of resources into finding a game-changer on the outside. Virtually every one of those moves has gone wrong:

  • 2005: Trade for Randy Moss. The Raiders sent the seventh overall pick and linebacker Napoleon Harris to the Vikings for Moss, who had worn out his welcome in Minnesota. He went from averaging just under 84 receiving yards per game with the Vikings to 53.7 yards per game in Oakland. After two years, the Raiders shipped him to the Patriots for a fourth-round pick, and Moss promptly racked up 1,493 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2007.

  • 2008: Sign Javon Walker to a five-year, $55 million deal. Walker caught 15 passes for 196 yards in his first season with the Raiders, played three catchless games the following year and never suited up again.

  • 2009: Use No. 7 pick on Darrius Heyward-Bey. DHB topped 400 receiving yards just once as a pro, and he was cut after four seasons.

  • 2015: Use No. 4 pick on Amari Cooper. The best decision the team has made at wide receiver, Cooper has two of the four 1,000-yard seasons the Raiders have witnessed from a wideout over the past 20 years. Unfortunately, they dealt him to the Cowboys for a first-round pick as part of that Gruden rebuild and then used that pick on Johnathan Abram, who has only begun to show signs of promise in his third pro season as a box safety. Cooper and Michael Crabtree, who was signed after tearing his Achilles, formed the best duo the Raiders have had since Brown and Rice.

  • 2018: Sign Jordy Nelson to a two-year, $14 million deal. While the Nelson move was regarded as a coup at the time, the former Packers star averaged just 49.3 receiving yards per game in Oakland. He was cut after one season and retired.

  • 2019: Sign Tyrell Williams to a four-year, $44 million pact. A Chargers speedster, Williams was supposed to create a vertical passing attack for Gruden. Instead, he battled injuries and generated just 651 receiving yards over two seasons before being released.

  • 2019: Trade for Antonio Brown. I can't fault the Raiders for their decision to send two draft picks to the Steelers for one of the league's top wideouts, but you know how this one turned out.

  • 2020: Use No. 11 pick on Henry Ruggs III. The Raiders obviously couldn't have known what would happen with Ruggs, but his NFL career is over after a little more than one season.

Moves that made sense at the time or were widely regarded as good ideas have almost universally turned out to be disappointing. Of course, this doesn't mean that the Raiders should have passed on Adams, but it leads to another point.

Assumption No. 5: The Raiders had might as well trade their picks, because they don't draft well

I've seen a lot of this logic floating around on social media. It doesn't add up for a number of reasons. To start, the people who were making disappointing selections for the Raiders at the top of the draft over the past several years were Gruden and Mike Mayock, and neither is still with the organization. Just as Al Davis' decisions to draft Heyward-Bey and sign Walker shouldn't reflect on the decision to commit significant resources toward Adams, Gruden and Mayock won't be making the picks for McDaniels and new GM Dave Ziegler.

Furthermore, even if the Raiders had kept their old regime on for another year, past performance doesn't tell us how teams will draft in the future. The Seahawks took multiple Hall of Famers at the beginning of John Schneider's tenure and struggled to find talented players for years afterward (before eventually taking DK Metcalf at the bottom of the second round). The Patriots have had brilliant drafts and stretches where they haven't been as effective before hitting on quarterback Mac Jones and defensive tackle Christian Barmore last year. Ozzie Newsome used first-round picks on safety Ed Reed and edge rusher Terrell Suggs in Baltimore, and then his next two first-round selections were QB Kyle Boller and receiver Mark Clayton. We don't get enough of a sample on most general managers to learn anything about how effective they are as drafters, and the ones who last decades run hot and cold.

Framing this trade as a choice between Adams and a player who probably won't turn out to be as good as Adams misses the point. Adams will be making $28.5 million per season. Whoever the Raiders would have drafted with the 22nd pick will make less than $4 million per season over the next four years. It's not Adams vs. a draft pick but rather Adams vs. a draft pick and $24.5 million per year to spend elsewhere (and more after you account for the surplus value of the picks).

The draft pick isn't a sure thing, but it has to be only a borderline starter to live up to expectations. Adams has to be the best player at his position to hold up his end of the bargain. Using the pick to get Adams means you have to find talent below market value elsewhere on your roster. Guess the best way to do that in the modern NFL. Trading these picks for one player just means the Raiders are now more dependent upon mid- and late-round picks turning into useful starters around Adams.

On top of all that, let's say the Raiders decided that they just hate the draft and think they would rather have a talented veteran over of putting their faith in a draft pick. Is wide receiver really the position where the Raiders needed to add a superstar? I think you could have made a strong case that the Raiders needed to address their offensive line or hit cornerback with a significant addition if they were going to use those picks for a known quantity. (Rock Ya-Sin, acquired from the Colts as part of the Yannick Ngakoue salary dump, is more of a reclamation project than an answer on the outside.)

This is the same logic we heard from Seahawks fans when Seattle traded two first-round picks for safety Jamal Adams. Two years later, that move looks like an absolute disaster for the Seahawks. You can't win a Super Bowl without meaningful contributions from players you've drafted and developed. For whatever people want to say about the Rams and their run to the Super Bowl, their two best players in 2021 were Aaron Donald and Cooper Kupp. Both were Rams draftees.

Assumption No. 6: The cap doesn't matter

This one's simple. If the cap didn't matter, the Packers would have had no trouble re-signing Adams to whatever deal he wanted last season without having to ever resort to the franchise tag. If the cap were a charade, the Packers never have a reason to antagonize Adams, and this deal never happens.

Assumption No. 7: McDaniels and Ziegler come from a successful organization and know what they're doing

Certainly, the new guys running the Raiders deserve time to show what they can do. This is the first offseason McDaniels and Ziegler have had in Vegas, and we haven't even seen what their first roster will look like. I'm not going to draw any meaningful conclusions about the Raiders and what their future holds from one trade.

With that being said, I keep coming back to one thing as I think about this trade. McDaniels and Ziegler have both spent the vast majority of their NFL careers working underneath Bill Belichick in New England. The Patriots are not perfect, and they've made their fair share of mistakes in terms of player evaluation over the years, but they get a lot more right than they do wrong. With all due respect to McDaniels' run as the football czar in Denver and as an offensive coordinator with the Rams, the Raiders hired these two guys because of what they did in New England.

But I feel extremely confident that if Belichick were running the Raiders right now, he would not have made this trade. It's almost the opposite of what Belichick typically does. When he famously traded for Moss, he sent a fourth-round pick to the Raiders and insisted on Moss cutting his salary down from $9.8 million to $3 million. When Belichick sent a second-round pick to the Bengals for Corey Dillon, the star running back also came in on a reduced contract.

Belichick has never traded this sort of draft capital away for a player, even one as talented as Adams. The only time he has traded even a first-round pick for a veteran was when he sent one to the Saints for Cooks, who was 24 and in the middle of a rookie deal at the time. Belichick then traded Cooks to the Rams for another first-round pick. And he hasn't combined that sort of trade with simultaneously making his new acquisition the highest-paid player at his position, let alone one turning 30.

On the other hand, Belichick has routinely been on the Packers' side of this coin, where he has dealt disgruntled stars or players exiting the prime of their careers for premium picks or even just for cap space. He hasn't regretted those moves very often. Belichick got a first-round pick for receiver Deion Branch and a third-rounder for Moss, who was cut by the Vikings after four games. He dealt defensive tackle Richard Seymour to the Raiders for a first-round pick and sent guard Logan Mankins to the Buccaneers for a fourth-rounder that later became edge rusher Trey Flowers. Belichick cut defensive backs Lawyer Milloy and Ty Law, and let receiver Wes Welker and offensive tackle Nate Solder leave in free agency. I think he would take the Chandler Jones trade back if he could, but the Patriots were a successful organization when taking the Packers' side of this trade, not the Raiders' end.

In the long run, the Raiders may be proved right. I am sure there will be games in 2022 where Adams looks to be worth every penny. It's fun having players like Davante Adams on your team! To make this trade pay off in the big picture, though, just about everything has to go right to have it make sense. Adams needs to be a superstar for years to come. The Raiders need to make a deep playoff run. The organization needs to draft well to make up for those missing picks.

Is it possible? Of course. Is it likely? I don't love Las Vegas' chances there.

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