The Raiders’ tolerance of Antonio Brown took on a level of self-degradation days ago. So when the team announced on Saturday that it was releasing the wide receiver, out with Brown is not just the third- and fifth-round picks that were handed over to the Steelers in the trade for him, but also some of the team leaders’ credibility—the ownership, the front office, the team captains who on Friday reportedly stood by Brown (literally) during his apology to teammates and, of course, head coach Jon Gruden, whom many believe gave Brown the steady supply of extra lives that prolonged his mission of destruction.
The only way Gruden’s love for Brown The Player could overcome his presumed exhaustion with Brown The Person for so long is if the head coach had major, MAJOR concerns about the rest of his receiving corps. Brown wasn’t just the Raiders’ best weapon—he was their only weapon, at least in terms of weapons you can fully scheme around. Without Brown, Oakland’s offensive formations have no starting place, which is a rare problem for a healthy offense to face entering the season.
Supple, long-bodied ex-Charger Tyrell Williams is worth the four-year, $44 million contract (with $22 million guaranteed) that he signed in free agency, but shaky fundamentals prohibit him from being a genuine No. 1 option. His effectiveness will dip because, with no dangerous receivers around Williams, defenses can afford to treat him like a No. 1. Williams averaged 813 yards a season catching balls from QB Philip Rivers in a stacked, well-honed Chargers offense. With safeties now rolling over the top of him, linebackers buzzing underneath him and No. 1 cornerbacks plastering to him, it’s doubtful he can top that his Chargers production, especially catching balls from Derek Carr, who is markedly more conservative than Rivers.
The rest of Oakland’s receiving corps consists of speedy ex-Cardinal J.J. Nelson, generalist ex-Redskin/Colt possession receiver Ryan Grant, a backup gadgetry specialist in ex-Cowboy/Giant Dwayne Harris and fifth-round rookie Hunter Renfrow. Most likely, these men will rotate in and out of different positions throughout the season as Oakland tries anything and everything to generate some sort of attack.
The real problem is the loss of tight end Jared Cook (now a Saint). Oakland’s receiving corps was shoddy last season, but the offense could still scheme around Cook’s flexibility. They aligned the tight end in different positions to create favorable matchups not just for him, but also everyone else. That offered at least some hope in manufacturing a passing game. Now, it’s soon-to-be 27-year-old Darren Waller in Cook’s place. Waller is a talented receiver who, due in part to a substance abuse problem, has played in just 22 NFL games since entering the league as a 2015 sixth-round pick of the Ravens. The hope is that he can fill Cook’s shoes. If he can’t, it’s up to fourth-round rookie Foster Moreau or career-long backup Derek Carrier.
It’s possible that Oakland’s passing game will eventually have to be schemed around flexible first-round running back Josh Jacobs. Not even the best receiving backs in football are at the true front and center of their team’s PASSING game.
Making matters worse is the fact that Carr is clearly the type of quarterback who needs strong weapons around him. He isn’t an assertive risk taker who will target tight windows snap after snap. His proclivity for getting the ball out quickly (especially when he’s uncomfortable) makes him dependent on the type of unique presnap passing game tactics that Oakland’s deficiencies at tight end now limit.
With Brown gone, things for the Raiders can only get better off the field. Unfortunately, on the field, they can still get much worse.
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