OAKLAND, Calif. | The Denver Broncos changed coaches, coordinators, systems and the starting quarterback since they last came to Oakland in the second-to-last game in 2018.
The Raiders have merely overhauled the roster.
That adds a bit of intrigue about the unknown when the two longtime AFC West rivals square off in the season opener Monday night at the Coliseum, with both teams not knowing quite what to expect.
It all starts with whether star receiver Antonio Brown will even play for the Raiders after he was not at the facility Thursday amid reports he could be suspended following an altercation with general manager Mike Mayock.
“I’m emotional about it. I hope you understand why,” coach Jon Gruden said. “I think a lot of this guy. I think Antonio is a great receiver. I think deep down he’s a really good guy. I’m frustrated. I’m not going to say any more about it. I hope it all works out.”
No matter what happens with Brown, the Raiders figure to have more than a dozen new starters when the season starts, with an entirely new receiving group, a revamped offensive line led by Trent Brown, and a first-round running in Josh Jacobs that could give quarterback Derek Carr the support he needs.
“We all know how Derek Carr is when you can protect him, he can go through the reads and he feels comfortable back there,” Denver edge rusher Von Miller said. “He’s one of the best quarterbacks in the league if he can do that.”
The changes have been even more dramatic in Denver, where new coach Vic Fangio brought in a different defensive system and the offense has been dramatically changed under coordinator Rich Scangarello and new quarterback Joe Flacco.
But Carr knows he’ll still have to deal with players like Miller, fellow edge rusher Bradley Chubb, and cornerback Chris Harris Jr. as the Raiders seek to get off to a good start.
“It’s kind of exciting,” Carr said. “Both teams know that both schemes are going to be very different. You can only prepare so much, but at the end of the day they still have those players over there.”
Here are some other things to watch:
PROTECT THE CARR
The Raiders made protecting Carr a bigger priority this season after he was sacked a career-worst 51 times last year. Brown was brought in as right tackle and 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 Oakland will have two backups in at guard, with Jordan Devey expected to replace the suspended Richie Incognito on the left side, and Denzelle Good to step 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.”
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.
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.
NO SEASON CAPTAINS
Fangio has done away with several traditions in Denver, like the hideous haircuts rookies used to get, and music blaring at practice. Now, he’s even done away with having season-long captains. Instead, he’ll pick game-day captains.
“I just think everybody’s got the license to be a leader on the team,” he said. “You don’t need to be appointed. I think leadership is something that somebody takes; it’s not granted to them, whether it be by the coaching staff or a vote. You take it. You don’t get proclaimed that.”
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.
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.
AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Stapleton contributed