It's finally a Raiders game day. Jon Gruden must be thrilled. The Raiders head coach has dealt with non-stop Antonio Brown antics, from the offseason program through the moment the superstar receiver was released on Saturday.
Brown's in New England now, and the Raiders have to move on quickly and be ready for a Denver Broncos team that won't sympathize with the rough Raiders week.
Gruden will be thrilled to put focus on football and keep it there throughout this regular season. Losing Brown makes it harder to succeed and, while the Raiders and their fan base desperately want to move on, making up for his departure will be a question mark that must be answered during the regular season.
Can the Raiders rally after AB drama?
The Raiders handled the Antonio Brown loss far better than Khalil Mack getting traded around this time last year. Mack just wanted fair market value the Raiders wouldn't give, while Brown was defiant, insubordinate and unprofessional. Both departures hurt the team, but the Raiders seemed to rally well after AB got cut.
Their leadership structure has a sturdier, wider base in 2019, after most everything fell on quarterback Derek Carr a year ago. While Brown was liked in the locker room, most seemed ready to move on after an entire summer focus solely on Brown.
To re-emphasize a major point, the Raiders are worse without Brown. There's no arguing that. There is enough talent here to cope, and certainly beat Denver on Monday night.
Part of it will fall on Gruden to motivate and move on, but a Monday night victory could set things right. It would increase confidence and turn the page quickly. A loss or, even worse, a losing streak, would start a narrative the Raiders can't rebound after losing their best player. That, combined with a brutal, road-heavy start to the season could send the whole season down the drain. In other words, the Raiders have a big game coming up Monday night.
Who picks up slack with AB out of the passing game?
Brown averaged 171 targets per season over a dominant six year run heading into the 2019 season. That breaks down to nearly 11 targets per game, and Brown couldn't seen more than that working his first year with Carr.
Those passes will go somewhere else now. They won't all transfer to one person. Tyrell Williams is now the No. 1 receiver with all the extra attention that comes with it. I have been asked dozens of times this weekend about the Raiders No. 2 receiver.
The answer: It's not a receiver. Expect tight end Darren Waller to play a bigger role in the offense, moving around the formation as Jared Cook did a year ago. Waller has the size, speed and hands to be a reliable target, with a breakout season in the cards. A 1,000-yard season seems realistic in this situation, providing another solid target who can make plays downfield.
We'll see a lot more Ryan Grant in the pattern, and J.J. Nelson will have a chance to prove he can produce. Hunter Renfrow must be good right away. Keelan Doss is back in the mix now, but he's going to have to earn Carr's trust quickly with steady hands and reliable routes.
Waller is the key to keeping the passing game dynamic, and will be given opportunities to do exactly that.
Is pass rush actually improved?
The Raiders pass rush is better, though it's hard to be worse than last year's 13-sack showing. Better doesn't necessarily mean good, or even decent. Time will tell on that front, though there's cause for skepticism the pass rush will show marked improvement.
It's fair to expect bigger things from Arden Key, fresh off an excellent preseason, but the jury's still out on rookies Clelin Ferrell and Maxx Crosby. An improved run defense should set up opportunities to pressure the quarterback, but guys still have to get home.
The interior remains a giant question mark. Johnathan Hankins and Maurice Hurst can't play ever snap, with P.J. Hall and Corey Liuget in reserve. Hall has been lackluster, and Liuget's dealing with a knee issue and…that's all the Raiders have inside, though Ferrell and Josh Mauro can move in on passing downs.
Guenther can use some creativity to get Lamarcus Joyner and Johnathan Abram involved at times, but more often than not the Raiders must win with a four-man rush.
Can Raiders protect Derek Carr?
Derek Carr was sacked 51 times last season. That's a David Carr number, and not good in any way for the Raiders offense. It was more than the last two seasons combined, and 35 more than his MVP-caliber 2016 season.
Carr's pocket was regularly ransacked, and he still posted solid numbers. Broncos edge rusher Von Miller believes Carr can be awesome when he has time to throw, something the offensive line didn't afford last year.
"We all know how Derek Carr is when you can protect him," Miller said this week. "He can go through the reads and he feels comfortable back there. He's one of the best quarterbacks in the league if he can do that."
The Raiders need Carr to play like a top-flight quarterback, and must give him time to operate. That means Trent Brown must live up to his massive contract and Kolton Miller must show vast improvement over last year. He has gotten bigger and stronger and is coming off an excellent preseason, but must prove it against a murder's row of AFC West pass rushers.
The interior line has long been a stabilizing force, but there are early issues there with Gabe Jackson hurt and Richie Incognito suspended. Jordan Devey and Denzelle Good, on the left and right, respectively, must hold down the fort until the starters can come back.
Can Raiders youth be trusted?
The Raiders have five rookies set to start this season with two more playing significant roles. That's a ton of youth expected to make an instant impact, even for a rebuilding club. The number's a bit more realistic considering the Raiders had three first-round picks, but it's hard to expect 100 percent of those guys will be awesome at the outset.
The best will be ahead of most of those players, but they need solid contributions all around. That's especially true of Ferrell, Jonathan Abram, Josh Jacobs and Renfrow.
Jacobs especially must be ready to handle a significant workload and control the offensive tempo with steady rushing. Renfrow plays a bigger offensive role with Brown out as well.
Ferrell has a high floor and has been productive at every level, but hasn't shown many dynamic flashes in the preseason. Can he bring steady heat? Can Abram avoid costly mistakes at safety? The Raiders need positive contributions from all of those guys to remain competitive, a tough but required ask heading into the final season in Oakland.