One team is rebuilding. The other is setting its sights on a Super Bowl.
The San Francisco 49ers and the Oakland Raiders, along with numerous other NFL teams, are starting training camp this weekend and the alluring aroma of football is back in the air.
There are several questions flying around the Bay Area about both teams. Have the 49ers finally taken their heads out of their butts with General Manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan leading the way? How many records is Derek Carr going to set on his comeback tour after last year’s heartbreaking ankle snap? How many times will the 49ers replace the turf at Levi’s Stadium this year? Will Marshawn Lynch cause another earthquake and split California in half?…follow up to the last question, will The Rock be on high-alert every Sunday?
In all seriousness, 2017 is a crucial year for each team. It’s too early to make predictions but I’ll be watching reports from training camp as close as possible.
Here’s a look at a few players that have peaked my interest heading into camp:
Jimmie Ward, 49ers, FS
With the 49ers picking up Ward’s option for 2018, there’s no doubt that Lynch and Shanahan have confidence in the fourth-year defensive back’s abilities. But can he adjust to his new role and stay healthy? Earlier this summer, the former Northern Illinois Husky made the move to free safety in defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s 4-3 scheme. His first three years have been up and down, as he’s rotated in at safety, nickel back and starting right cornerback, but all reports have indicated that he’s adjusting well — said defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley to 49ers.com: “He’s got a lot on his shoulders back there but he’s more than capable.”
I’ve been on the Ward bandwagon since his rookie season but his health issues have tempered my expectations. Last year a fractured clavicle ended his season and he missed half of his rookie season with a Jones fracture in his foot. The diminutive (in football terms) 5-foot-11, 193-pound Ward is solid when healthy but if he misses any time this season it would be a huge blow to a 49ers defense that needs all hands on deck in order to be, at the very least, serviceable.
Arik Armstead, 49ers, DL
The 49ers defensive line has all the pieces in place to become one of the best units in the NFL in a few years but potential, ultimately, means nothing if it’s not realized. Last year’s first round pick, DeForest Bucker, looked like a sturdy future All-Pro in 2016 — leading all interior defensive lineman in percent of snaps played (92.9) and pacing the team in sacks (6), according to Pro Football Focus — and this year’s third overall pick, Solomon Thomas, could very well end up being the best player to come out of this year’s draft. But Armstead, who was called a “reach” when selected at No. 17 in the 2015 draft, has been somewhat of a mystery.
The former Oregon Duck was a bit raw coming out of college and his first two years in the league have been shaky while playing in a 3-4 defense. In his rookie season he had only 14 tackles and last year he struggled mightily again the run — posting the lowest run-stopping grade (39.1) among all interior defenders, according to Pro Football Focus — before being placed on injured reserved with a shoulder injury.
This season he’s been moved to the “Leo” position. His every-down task is simple: get to the quarterback. His 6-foot-7-inch frame lends itself to the position but he’s never been adept at leaving offensive linemen in the dust. He has just 4 1/2 sacks in his NFL career and in three college seasons he brought down the QB only four times.
The addition of veteran defensive lineman Earl Mitchell is nice, and getting him on a reasonable contract until 2020 was one of Lynch’s several wins this offseason, but Armstead’s development into a dependable starter is key for the growth of the 49ers as a whole. Rebuilding teams need their first round picks to pan out in order to make progress.
Marshawn Lynch, Raiders, RB
Just how much does Lynch have left? I have no clue. But I know that the NFL is a lot more fun with him around, giving sass to the media and lifting hundreds of pounds of Skittles over his head, while throwing out the occasional F-bomb. Obviously the Raiders would like the Oakland native to have a magical 2,000-yard, 20-touchdown season but they don’t need him to do all the heavy lifting. DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard both proved to be solid change-of-pace backs last season, averaging 5.4 and 5.9 yards per touch, respectively.
Lynch, of course, was an unstoppable force at times during his five seasons with the Seattle Seahawks, leading an otherwise sputtering offense to the Super Bowl in 2014 and causing roaring “Beast Quakes” with his Madden-esque runs full of palm-to-facemask stiff arms. He will be the Raiders’ feature back but I highly doubt he will see more than 250 carries this season. Last year’s starter, Latavius Murray had only 195 rushes in 14 games and I expect former quarterbacks coach turned offensive coordinator Todd Downing to air it out plenty with Carr on a rampage of revenge after last year’s ugly end to the season.
But those 150 or so carries that Lynch will get will be crucial. The Raiders impressively finished sixth in the league in rushing yards per game last season (120.1) but had trouble punching it into the end zone when they entered the red zone, finishing 13th in the league in red zone scoring percentage (58.6 percent), according to teamrankings.com. That number is respectable but should have been higher given the amount of weapons Carr had at his disposal. I’m not saying that Lynch is going to be the answer to this dilemma — remember he’s 31 and was riddled with injuries in his final season with Seattle — but he at least gives the Raiders a viable option in short-yardage situations.
Trent Brown, 49ers, OT
You would think a guy as big as Brown (6-foot-8 and 355 pounds) would be devastating in the run game but that has not been the case. On the contrary, Brown was statistically the 49ers’ best pass-blocking offensive lineman last season. According to Pro Football Focus, he posted the highest pass-blocking grade (78.7) among all San Francisco offensive lineman, while posting the worst run-blocking grade (39.0) among the same group.
That’s good and bad for a few reasons. Brown is OK enough to be left on an island at right tackle in most situations, save when the 49ers face teams with several pass-rushing savants like the St. Louis Rams, Houston Texans and Seattle Seahawks. And the former Florida Gators’s prowess in pass blocking has also shown traces of sneaky athleticism.
Now, can that transfer over to the run game this season? It’s tough to say. Run blocking in Shanahan’s dizzying offensive scheme is about angles and footwork, two major reasons why Brown struggled last season in Chip Kelly’s offense — along with his weight and conditioning. We won’t know if he’s improved in either of these aspects until he gets some snaps in the preseason. He’s listed as the 49ers’ starting tackle but offseason acquisition Garry Gilliam saw some snaps with the ones during OTAs.
The fact that the 49ers picked him up in the seventh round makes Brown a steal but if he can become a functional run blocker, it would open up some big possibilities for San Francisco’s offense.
Carlos Hyde, 49ers, RB
There’s no questioning how good Hyde is, but can he stay healthy enough to be the lead back the 49ers drafted him to be? Since coming out of Ohio State in 2014, he’s missed 14 of 48 games. When he’s on the field he’s been OK behind stinky run-blocking schemes, which were even more inept factoring in how ineffective the 49ers were through the air over the last three years — more on this later.
The good news? He’s on a contract year and — like everyone at this time of the season on a contract year — is reportedly in the best shape of his life. There have also been reports circulating that rookie running back Joe Williams has impressed 49ers’ brass and will challenge Hyde for the starting gig. A little added motivation could be good for the former Buckeye.
Brian Hoyer, 49ers, QB
The 49ers might not need Hoyer to be the long-term answer but they do need him to be passable. Can he be that? Who knows. The last time he saw the field — starting five games for Chicago in 2016 before breaking his arm — he actually looked OK, completing 67 percent of his passes and throwing no picks while keeping the laughably bad Bears competitive. Now he’s paired with two crafty veteran receivers in Pierre Garcon and Marquise Goodwin and he’s back in a system he knows.
I don’t think he’ll throw for 4,000 yards and I’m not exactly sure if he will be an upgrade over what San Francisco had last year in Blaine Gabbert or Colin Kaepernick. But the pieces around him and the scheme he’s playing in are better than what the previous signal callers had. There are expectations. Low expectations but expectations nonetheless.
The 49ers were the worst passing team in the league last season by any stretch of the imagination, finishing last in passing yards per game (181.9) and in the bottom five in completion percentage (58.5, 4th), yards per completion (6.4, 5th) and sacks allowed (47, 3rd). I think with Hoyer and Shanahan, they can become a middle of the pack offense — which would be a colossal jump — but I’m tempted to bet money that Hoyer will once again suffer an injury.
San Francisco isn’t making the playoffs this season but losing Hoyer and having to throw Matt Barkley on the field could be disastrous. I have no clue what third-round pick C.J. Beathard is but I doubt he’s ready to start an NFL game. The quarterback position could be a dumpster fire yet again — even with Hoyer starting — and it could ultimately make the rest of the unit unwatchable.
Gareon Conley, Raiders, DB
The Raiders have not had a shutdown cornerback since the days of Nnamdi Asomugha. They thought they had found the answer when they inked Sean Smith on a huge deal during last year’s free agency but he was just OK at best. D.J. Hayden, the Raiders’ first-rounder from the 2013 draft, hardly ever saw the field and never lived up to his potential when he did. David Amerson turned out to be a nice surprise but he also isn’t quite what Oakland needs.
So the Raiders took a flyer on Conley in this year’s draft by selecting the Ohio State Buckeye despite sexual assault allegations. He has yet to be charged and a resolution to the matter is expected to be resolved soon, according to multiple reports. On the field, Conley was originally regarded as a top-10 pick in this year’s NFL Draft but slid all the way to No. 24 to Oakland because of the allegations. The Raiders could very well have found their top corner but he was undoubtedly a risky pick with the decision looming.
Navorro Bowman, 49ers, MLB
At this point of his career, taking the two major lower body injuries into account, what will Bowman be? While Bowman came back from an ugly ACL/MCL tear and incredibly earned his fourth NFL All-Pro selection in 2015, there has to be concern with how his play will be affected following last year’s Achille’s tear. Reports have Bowman healthy and back to normal but that’s in shorts and shirts. I’ll be interested to see if he’s lost a step or if he’s the same old Bow — as a fan of defense, I hope it’s the latter.
Losing Bowman would be a blow the 49ers’ defense would be hard pressed to overcome even with their offseason pick-ups. Rookie linebacker Reuben Foster was fun to watch at Alabama and Malcolm Smith is a Super Bowl MVP. I have little doubt he’ll pan out as a solid NFL linebacker and that he’ll eventually replace either Smith or Ahmad Brooks on the outside. But a defense without Bowman, arguably the top linebacker in the league, has very realistic limits.