A loud buzz is heard throughout the Bay Area when the topic of the upcoming NFL season is brought up. For the first time in seven years fans of both the Oakland Raiders and San Francisco 49ers have legitimate reasons to feel optimistic. Both teams seem poised to improve upon last season’s performances and become a threat to make the playoffs. Many analysts and reporters are picking each team as sleepers; predicting that they should surprise the league and have strong seasons. Everyone is hyping up both teams, building fan excitement for the season, but it’s far from a guarantee that both teams will improve considering their lack of success in recent years. Let’s take a deeper look at both teams to see how they have improved and whether they can realistically make the playoffs.
The Raiders underwent a massive face-lift of the franchise this off-season replacing their wildly under-performing top pick quarterback Jamarcus Russell, with former first rounder Jason Campbell, who previously played for the Redskins. Russell was simply incompetent and incapable as a starting quarterback, the Raiders were worse with him as a starter than they were when starting with back-ups Charlie Frye and Bruce Gradkowski. In Campbell the Raiders have a solid starting quarterback with some talent. Campbell certainly isn’t a pro bowler but he knows how to get the job done and move an offense. As a former first round pick by the Washington Redskins in 2005, Campbell has talent, he’s mobile, has a good arm that allows him to throw a nice deep ball and he’s fairly accurate. The success of this team greatly relies on Campbell, he needs to be able to move the ball and put the offense in scoring positions.
For the rest of the offense, the Raiders have some intriguing players at every skill positions. At wide receiver they have three young and talented players in Darrius Heyward-Bey, Louis Murphy and Chaz Schillens. Murphy and Schillens showed flashes of their potential last year and now with Campbell throwing them the ball the Raiders hope that they can develop into game-breaking receivers. Heyward-Bey, the Raiders controversial first-round pick from last season certainly has all the measurements and talent to become a play-maker but he needs to learn how to catch the ball first. Heyward-Bey looked lost and over matched on the football field at times last season and when he was thrown the ball he usually dropped it. If this offense has any hope for being explosive it will need a big improvement by Heyward-Bey. The top receiver for the Raiders is actually tight-end Zach Miller who led the team in receptions last year. Miller is a big target with good hands; with Campbell throwing him the ball he could become one of the better tight ends in the league.
The running game was decent last year and it should be better this year with Michael Bush looking to take over the starting job. The Raiders like running the ball and they need to be effective in doing so to take pressure off of Campbell and the passing game. Bush was effective last season when he was given the majority of the touches at running back. The true key to the success of this offense is the offensive-line, which struggled for most of last season. The front office didn’t do much in addressing this issue, only adding rookies with question marks with their third and fourth round picks. The line will need to provide running lanes as well as give Campbell enough time to throw.
On defense the Raiders have play-makers on the line with Richard Seymour, at linebacker with rookie first round pick Rolando Mcclain and in the secondary with All-Pro cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. Last season this defense struggled in stopping the run, but the hope is this year in the addition of Mcclain they have found a run-stopper and because of him the whole unit will improve. That’s a lot of pressure on a rookie but if he is as good as advertised he will be able to handle it. This defense can be destructive but they need their young players to pan out and provide a huge impact.
With Campbell taking over at quarterback and a defense that could be hard to score on the Raiders should definitely improve upon last years 5-11 season. But with questions marks along the offensive line and at wide receiver the Raiders are still not ready to fight for the playoffs. I see them finishing 7-9, good for second in the AFC West.
A season ago the 49ers finished 8-8 and were a playoff threat and could have actually made the playoffs if not for a few close losses. They had a good season despite starting the year with Shaun Hill, who was the starter for six weeks until Alex Smith took over the job. Michael Crabtree, the 49ers first round draft choice also missed much of the season after holding out in search of a large contract. Needless to say, the 49ers were in transition for much of the season. Now with virtually the same roster in place, the 49ers are confident that they will continue to improve and take the next step into making the playoffs and winning the division. For the first time in years the 49ers are the favorites to win the NFC west, something they haven’t done since 2002. But like the Raiders, the success of this team has a lot to do with the play of the starting quarterback Alex Smith.Alex Smith has under-performed in his career so far and it seems that he may never live up to the expectations of a number one pick. Despite that the 49ers still have faith in Smith and expect him to lead this team to the playoffs. Last season Smith proved that he is capable of putting up numbers and having success in a passing game. After taking over the starting job in week 7, Smith passed for 2,350 yards throwing 18 touchdowns in 11 games. For the first time in his career Smith is playing under the same offensive coordinator, meaning he doesn’t have to learn a new offense and is given the opportunity to master the current offense. The success of the 49ers is directly linked to Smith’s ability to move the offense. The 49ers have talent everywhere but that talent can’t be utilized unless Smith successfully gets them the ball. The success of this team lies on Smith’s shoulders, this is his chance to prove that he can handle the pressure and be a successfully starting quarterback.
The 49ers have weapons in every position on offense. At running back Frank Gore is one of the best in the league, and he is the focal point of this offense. The wide receivers are young and talented starting with Michael Crabtree who has the skills to develop into one of the better receivers in the NFL. Josh Morgan also possesses a lot of skill and talent; he has good size and catches the ball well making him a great weapon opposite of Crabtree. Vernon Davis finally developed into the player the 49ers have always wanted him to be. He made the pro bowl last year and established himself has one of the best tight ends in the NFL and a match up nightmare for any defense. The 49ers made a point to improve the offensive line this off-season, which was their major weakness last year. They drafted two huge offensive linemen in the first round in Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati. The niners hope that these two rookies will solidify the line, giving Gore running lanes and Smith time to throw to his receivers. Everything is in place for Smith to succeed, he just has to put it all together and continue to develop.
On defense the 49ers, led by all-pro middle linebacker Patrick Willis, were one of the best units in the NFL last season. This is the strength of the team, and coach Singletarry prides himself in developing a terrifying defense. There were no major additions or subtractions to the unit so look for them to continue to be dominant and become better. Players such as Dashon Goldson, Shawnte Spencer and Manny Lawson will need to continue to improve if this defense wants to get even better. The secondary is the weak link in the defensive unit, so the 49ers will need them to step up and prevent big plays through the air. A major improvement the 49ers made this off-season was in special teams where they have added a return man in Ted Ginn. Ginn provides the 49ers with a returner who is a threat to turn any kick into a touchdown; something this team has lacked the past few seasons.
The 49ers seem ready to win the NFC West and they should. If they don’t win the division or fail to make the playoffs, the season will be a major disappointment. But I don’t see that happening. The 49ers will win the NFC West this year and finish 10-6, you can take that to the bank.
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