Raiders absorb another huge hit

The Raiders said goodbye to another star on Tuesday, losing tight end Zach Miller to Seattle. Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire

The 2011 Oakland Raiders season is not over before it started, but there is no denying the team’s outlook is a lot less hopeful than it was the day the lockout ended.

Arguably no other team has suffered as many high-profile hits in free agency as the Raiders, who raised expectations with an encouraging 8-8 record in 2010. On Tuesday, four days after superstar cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha departed to Philadelphia in unrestricted free agency, Pro Bowl (and potential top-five) tight end Zach Miller has bailed. He agreed to terms with Seattle on Tuesday. In my opinion, the Raiders lost their best and fourth-best players -- for nothing other than a couple of likely 2012 third-round compensatory picks.

That doesn’t help Hue Jackson’s first team in Oakland, though.

While Asomugha is a better player, the loss of Miller (who joins former Oakland coach Tom Cable and former Oakland guard Robert Gallery in Seattle) might sting Oakland more. The Raiders were essentially resigned all offseason to losing Asomugha because of his huge price tag. But Miller, who appeared to be Oakland’s next great tight end, was the team’s top free-agency target and the Raiders had been trying to lock him up since before the lockout. It had long been assumed that Miller would return to the Raiders, who picked him in the second round in 2007. On Sunday, Jackson indicated the deal was close to being done.

Miller received curiously little interest on the open market in the first few days of free agency. The way I understand it, after the dust of the initial free-agency period settled, the Seahawks looked at the market and couldn’t believe a player of Miller’s ability was still available and decided to take a hard run at him. The Raiders likely couldn’t keep up financially because of salary-cap issues. ESPN’s Adam Schefter is reporting Miller's agreement with Seattle is for five years and $34 million with $17 million in guaranteed money.

Oakland gave franchised player Kamerion Wimbley a five-year, $43 million deal with a reported $29 million in guarantees (I hear much of that money is actually tied into roster bonuses) on Monday in an attempt to clear cap room to sign Miller. According to a source, the Wimbley deal was expected to clear about $8 million. ESPN’s John Clayton reported Tuesday that the Raiders were $17.3 million over the cap before the Wimbley deal. So, the Raiders were likely limited and Miller jumped at Seattle’s offer.

The Raiders gambled and thought Miller would be a restricted free agent, but the new CBA made players with four years of experience unrestricted free agents, not restricted. One has to wonder whether the Raiders would have been better off to secure Miller with the franchise tag in February and work out a deal with Wimbley later. I know pass-rushers are valued more than tight ends, but Miller is a special player.

He made the Raiders’ passing offense go. He might not be as talented as running back Darren McFadden, but he was as important to Oakland’s offense as McFadden.

“It’s brutal,” Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said of Miller’s departure to Seattle. “He was the only thing [receiver-wise] that Oakland could count on. ... He is exceptional in the passing game and is probably only getting better.”

Miller helped the No. 2 run offense in the NFL by being Oakland’s most reliable receiver and quarterback Jason Campbell’s favorite target. The sure-handed Miller had a team-high 60 catches for 685 yards last season. When Campbell was in trouble, often he would find Miller, who came down with one chain-moving catch after another.

When speaking to Campbell on Monday, I could tell how much he wanted Miller back. Miller’s departure puts immense pressure on Oakland’s young receivers. Someone has to emerge as Campbell’s bail-out receiver now that Miller has headed north.

The move has to taste especially sweet for Cable, who was kicked to the curb by Raiders owner Al Davis after last season despite improving the team. The Cable connection has to add to the pain in Oakland of losing Miller. The Raiders visit Seattle on Sept. 2 in the preseason finale.

This was a challenging offseason for the Raiders, who signed many players -- including Richard Seymour, Stanford Routt, John Henderson and Michael Huff. They did some good things. But there’s little doubt that they suffered a blow by losing Asomugha and Miller in a span of four days.

This will do nothing to relieve the sting of losing Miller, but the San Francisco Chronicle is reporting the Raiders signed former Washington offensive lineman Stephon Heyer. He gives them much-needed depth on the line and perhaps he could vie for a starting job.