One day from embarking on a hopeful 2019 season, the Raiders turned everything on its ear releasing one of the most explosive weapons in the league.

Antonio Brown, brought to Oakland via a trade with the Steelers in March, was released Saturday after a six-month tenure full of mostly turmoil and confusion. The release of Brown, a player around which a team can design an offensive attack, leaves quarterback Derek Carr, offensive coordinator Greg Olson and head coach Jon Gruden with a wildly untested receiving core.

Gruden, entering the second year of his second go-around with the Raiders, was given a mess of a team in year one. He wasted no time rebuilding the roster while the organization sets for a rebuild in Las Vegas.

The Raiders had about as busy an offseason as any NFL team and looked like a potential playoff contender — something they haven’t been since 2016.

Mark Davis fired GM Reggie McKenzie after six seasons of service and hired former NFL Network analysis Mike Mayock for his first-ever general manager position in the NFL.

What could have been a strength

The team had upgraded its receivers from Seth Roberts and an aging, injured Jordy Nelson. Amari Cooper was traded midseason to the Dallas Cowboys for a first-round pick, which became safety Johnathan Abram.

A group that will now center around JJ Nelson, Tyrell WIlliams and rookie Hunter Renfrow had looked, on paper, like much more of a threat when it featured Brown, a four-time All-Pro.

Oakland’s new starting receiver duo, Williams and Nelson, combine for 236 career receptions, just 100 more than Brown’s single-season high.

Scot Tucker/SFBay Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden pauses as players stretch as the Oakland Raiders participate in training camp at their practice facility in Napa, Calif., on Friday, July 27, 2018.

Carr, looking to return to his MVP-caliber form of 2016, though his numbers the past two seasons, all things considered, are more than passable, will now have to do so without perhaps the best wide out of this generation.

Still a weaknesses

The Raider front seven and pass-rushing remain weaknesses. Gruden traded elite pass-rusher Khalil Mack for four picks, which included the 24th overall pick this past draft.

Last season, the Raiders struggled to get any sort of pressure on opposing quarterbacks, only earning 13 total sacks. Mack alone had 12.5 sacks last season with Chicago.

The team used their fourth-overall pick on 6-foot, 4-inch, 265-pound defensive end Clelin Ferrell. It may be unfair to expect the rookie to change the Raider pass rush by himself. However, the Clemson product must perform at a high level to establish some identity and change the culture for Oakland’s front seven.

Oakland also signed veteran linebacker Vontaze Burfict but released Brandon Marshall in surprise roster cut.

A challenge

After a 4-12 season, the Raiders were handed the toughest schedule in the league. Oakland’s first two home games are against division rivals Denver Broncos and the Kansas City Chiefs, coming off a season one penalty short of a Super Bowl trip.

After that, the Raiders play five straight road games at Indianapolis, Minnesota, Green Bay, Houston and in London against Chicago where they are the “home” team against their old friend Mack.

Three of the five teams on the road were playoff teams last year. The other two (Green Bay and Minnesota), have recent playoff success and if the Raiders are not careful, they could easily be 2-5 after seven weeks.

A bright spot

With the 4th, 24th and 27th overall picks, the Raiders have jumpstarted their rebuild. They selected former Alabama running back Josh Jacobs and hard-hitting, trash-talking Abrams from Mississippi State.

Jacobs was a steal with the 24th pick. With Marshawn Lynch gone, the Raiders needed a three-down back and Jacobs seems as if he will be a reliable and fast running back with excellent hands out of the backfield. He could end up as Oakland’s running back of the future and fits Gruden’s system well.

Jacobs only preseason action came against the Arizona Cardinals. He had four carries for 21 yards. Though a small sample size, Gruden shows trust in Jacobs.

New York Jets vs
Scot Tucker/SFBay Oakland Raiders cornerback Gareon Conley (22) defends a receiver in the second half as the New York Jets face the Oakland Raiders at Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, Calif., on Sunday, September 17, 2017.

Corner back Gareon Conley should be ready to go after playing just two games last year with an ankle injury. The Raiders have used their first-round draft picks on the defensive side on the ball, which should be much improved and should add one more piece to a young defensive back group.

The question is

Carr looking to bounce back, and now do so with a group of targets that has only a few more NFL receptions than him.

But, Gruden and Mayock have upgraded protection for Carr. The team went out and made massive 6-foot-8, 380-pound offensive lineman Trent Brown the highest-paid offensive lineman in the NFL with a four-year, $66 million dollar contract after acquiring him from New England.

They also signed Richie Incognito, who had retired, to a one-year deal. Incognito will be suspended for the first two games of the season for pleading guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct for an incident at a family funeral this past July.

One of the most critical factors in football is familiarity. Fresno State quarterback Carr enters his second year in the Gruden. He put up over 4,000 yards, but he only threw for 19 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. Being in a familiar system should help out Carr’s awareness and bring up his passing yards and touchdowns. Given a reload of new weapons, it will be up to Carr to silence the nay-sayers.

SFBay predicts the Raiders will go 6-5-11 and fight just to stay out of the division cellar, leaving Gruden in the hot seat when the team arrives in Vegas.

Alex Navarro

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