The Oakland Raiders got a taste of life without Derek Carr at the end of the 2016 season, and it’s not something they want to experience again anytime soon.

The star quarterback is now fully recovered from the leg injury that ended his campaign – and the Raiders’ Super Bowl hopes – but one thing is dampening Oakland’s offseason: Carr’s contract negotiations.

After months of apparent inactivity, Carr said Tuesday he’ll table contract talks until after the season if an extension isn’t reached by training camp, in order to avoid being a distraction.

“I wouldn’t even answer my phone,” said Carr, who’s reportedly frustrated with how the negotiations have gone so far.

The 26-year-old is entering the final year of his rookie deal. He was a second-round pick in 2014, so the Raiders don’t have the luxury of using a fifth-year option to increase their leverage in negotiations.

Meanwhile, Oakland has been crying out for a franchise quarterback for years, and owner Mark Davis would probably rather re-relocate back to Oakland than see Carr leave. And while the franchise tag would be an option next offseason, the Raiders should take a lesson from the catastrophe that’s been the Kirk Cousins-Washington Redskins contract standoff.

So, it’s a question of when – not if. And more importantly, how much.

Carr is arguably the best young quarterback in the league after an MVP-like campaign in 2016. But does he deserve to be the league’s highest-paid player?

Here are the top 10 in terms of average salary:

Player Average Salary
Andrew Luck $24.59M
Carson Palmer $24.35M
Drew Brees $24.25M
Kirk Cousins $23.94M*
Joe Flacco $22.13M
Aaron Rodgers $22M
Russell Wilson $21.9M
Ben Roethlisberger $21.85M
Eli Manning $21M
Philip Rivers $20.81M

*Cousins is playing under the one-year franchise tag

Of these 10 players, Luck and Wilson are the most comparable to Carr. The others are either veterans at the tail end of their careers or on outdated contracts like Rodgers.

It was hoped that both Luck and Wilson would help set a new market for quarterbacks, which, despite being by far the highest-paid position, hasn’t seen increases at the top of the market in line with the salary cap. The quarterback middle class has seen a jump, with average players like Sam Bradford earning $18 million a year, but we’re still waiting for a superstar to blow the lid off the market.

Carr is unlikely to be that guy. Despite his success over the past two seasons following an unremarkable rookie year, he simply doesn’t have the elite-level production to leverage a deal beyond that of Luck.

Thirteen quarterbacks had more yards than Carr in 2016, 16 had a higher yards-per-attempt average, six threw for more touchdowns, and 14 had a better completion percentage.

Carr was also Pro Football Focus‘ sixth-ranked quarterback in 2016, came in at 16 in ESPN’s QBR rating system, and finished sixth in Football Outsiders‘ DVOA, a system that rates a player on “value, per play, over an average quarterback in the same game situations.”

If quarterback negotiations were done in a vacuum of numbers, Carr wouldn’t stand a chance of eclipsing Luck – and in all likelihood, he won’t. But there are more nuanced factors than just production. The Raiders, with the specter of their relocation to Las Vegas looming over their final two or three seasons in Oakland, can’t afford to let anything get in the way of this team fulfilling its sky-high potential.

And, as mentioned previously, it’s in the Raiders’ best interests to get a deal done this offseason to avoid a lengthy contract standoff and the franchise tag.

Furthermore, Carr’s leverage will only increase after this season, especially if he delivers on the Raiders’ potential and engineers a deep playoff run. His production has also increased (save for his YPA) every year he’s been in the league, so it’s safe to assume Oakland will be forced to add a few extra million dollars to his average salary if the deal is done after the 2017 season.

The Raiders have one of the most talented rosters in the league, and it’s taken years of careful planning for general manager Reggie McKenzie to get this team back to the top.

And while Carr is a good young quarterback and could be an elite one soon, he isn’t the driving force of the team like Luck is in Indy, so the Raiders shouldn’t risk what they’ve built by making him the league’s highest-paid player. In an ideal world, Carr would agree to a deal just above that of Wilson.

However, slightly overpaying Carr now by giving him a deal within striking distance of Luck’s is a relatively small price to pay for eliminating the last remaining distraction on what should be a Super Bowl-contending team.

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