OAKLAND (AP) — The Oakland Raiders once again head into a season opener having just cut ties with their most talented player.
A year after dealing star pass rusher Khalil Mack to Chicago a week before the opener, the Raiders released disgruntled receiver Antonio Brown two days before opening the season against the Denver Broncos on Monday night.
Both moves were major gut punches to a franchise that has had one winning season the past 16 years and how heads into its final season in Oakland before a planned move to Las Vegas with little hope to be a contender.
“Well, I got to meet this guy. I got to meet Antonio,” coach Jon Gruden said. “I never got to meet Khalil, so at least I got to meet a great player.”
He just never got to see him on the field for a game.
The Raiders never recovered from the Mack trade a year ago, winning just four games and finishing with an NFL-low 13 sacks.
Brown’s absence figures to have a bigger impact on the Raiders in the opener because they spent all summer building an offense around him while Mack was a contract holdout last year.
But after a tumultuous six-month tenure that included a bizarre foot injury that sidelined him for the beginning of training camp, a fight with the NFL over his helmet, a missed practice and walkthrough that led to fines, social media complaints, and then finally a run-in with Raiders general manager Mike Mayock that resulted in another fine and the voiding of $29 million in contract guarantees, Brown asked for and was granted his release on Saturday.
Just hours later, Brown agreed to a one-year deal with the New England Patriots as the Raiders moved on to prepare for their opener.
“It sucks that he’s not here, but he made that decision,” said receiver Tyrell Williams, who becomes Derek Carr’s top target in Brown’s absence. “We’re going to go out there and play hard and play well.”
The Raiders acquired Brown from Pittsburgh back in March for third and fifth-round draft picks and gave him a new three-year contract worth $50.125 million.
That seemed a small price to pay for a player whose 686 catches and 9,145 yards receiving since 2013 were the most ever for a receiver in a six-year span.
But it didn’t take long for the Raiders to see why the Steelers were so willing to part with the four-time All-Pro as his time in Oakland was filled with drama.
PROTECT THE CARR: The Raiders made protecting quarterback Derek Carr a bigger priority this season after he was sacked a career-worst 51 times last year. Kolton Miller is being counted on for big improvement on the left side. That duo will be tested against perhaps the best edge rushing tandem in the league in Miller and Chubb. Making the task even harder is that Oakland will have two backups at guard, with Jordan Devey expected to replace the suspended Richie Incognito on the left side, and Denzelle Good stepping in for injured Gabe Jackson on the left side.
“We can’t make excuses,” center Rodney Hudson said. “We’ve got to find a way to get it done.”
WINNING WAYS: The Broncos change coaches and quarterbacks on an almost yearly basis, but one thing remains constant: winning on opening weekend. They own the best kickoff weekend record in the NFL at 39-19-1, and they own the longest active winning streak, having won every opener for the last seven seasons behind a mix of coaches John Fox, Gary Kubiak and Vance Joseph, and QBs Peyton Manning, Trevor Siemian and Case Keenum.
ROOKIE DEBUTS: The Raiders had four picks in the top 40 of the draft, including three first-rounders after trading away stars Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper last season. This will be the first opportunity to see the payoff from that decision. No. 4 overall pick Clelin Ferrell is slated to start at defensive end where he is being counted on to upgrade a pass rush that had a league-low 13 sacks last year. Safety Johnathan Abram, the 27th pick, and cornerback Trayvon Mullen, who went 40th, will upgrade a secondary that struggled to slow down offenses. Jacobs provides a featured back on offense to take some pressure off Carr.
FINAL OPENER?: This game starts what should be a goodbye season in Oakland, with the Raiders slated to move to Las Vegas in 2020. The outdated Coliseum is the only remaining stadium in the NFL that is shared with a baseball team and will have infield dirt on it for the first two games. The Raiders spent much of the offseason debating where to play this year after Oakland officials sued the team over the move before finally deciding to come back to the Coliseum.
SIDELINED STAR: The Broncos will be missing top inside linebacker Todd Davis, who’s been sidelined since tearing a calf muscle on the first day of training camp July 18. Among the fill-ins are Corey Nelson, who played in Denver from 2014-17 and re-signed with the Broncos this week, and A.J. Johnson.