Dilfer likes 49ers, Raiders
Each of the Bay Area’s NFL franchises had offseasons characterized by change following disappointing 2014 campaigns — and Trent Dilfer thinks both teams are headed in the right direction. The ESPN analyst views the 49ers as contenders despite significant personnel losses and sees a return to relevance for the Raiders next season.
San Francisco is coming off an 8-8 campaign that led to the firing of head coach Jim Harbaugh and the promotion of former defensive line coach Jim Tomsula. After a string of three straight conference championship appearances was snapped last year, the 49ers lost a handful of players — but Dilfer said that wasn’t a reason to panic.
“I get it, but I’ve been amazed by the sky-is-falling mentality that 49ers fans have right now,” Dilfer said. “The Niners had some people that Niner Nation was really, really attached to — and rightfully so.”
Dilfer said the 49ers lost well-known players in free agency — but their production can be replaced by a talented group of unproven talents from the team’s last three drafts. He added that because the pageantry of the NFL emphasizes players more than teams, San Francisco will be better next season than its roster might suggest.
“I think they have great culture now, the working environment is energetic and you’ll see young players play now,” Dilfer said. “The last staff was scared to play young players.”
Among their offseason losses, Dilfer said the 49ers will miss defensive lineman Justin Smith the most. But in household names Frank Gore, Patrick Willis, Michael Crabtree, Mike Iupati and Chris Culliver, he said the 49ers are either losing players that other teams overpaid for or whose production had declined in recent seasons.
“What people are freaking out about is losing names, but they forget that those names were part of the 8-8 last year — they weren’t very good,” Dilfer said. “It’s going to be fun to watch a new generation of 49ers stars emerge.”
Dilfer said the play of quarterback Colin Kaepernick is key to the 49ers’ success while their younger players develop. And he believes Kaepernick will flourish under new offensive coordinator Geep Chryst in 2015.
“The X-factor in all of this is I think Colin is going to be exponentially better than he was last year — when your quarterback is hot, it makes up for everything else,” Dilfer said.
“That buzz alone will get them through the first half of the season while these younger players develop in the pros.”
According to Dilfer, a strong season from Kaepernick and a talented young core will add up to 10 or 11 wins for the 49ers next season. In his words, they will be “significantly better” than last season.
Across the bay Oakland is looking to bounce back from a 3-13 mark in 2014, its third straight losing season. The Raiders hired Jack Del Rio as head coach in the offseason, and he’s charged with turning around a franchise that hasn’t had a winning season since 2002.
“I think this is going to be a season where you see the Raiders competitive in every game they play, and they’re going to steal some games,” Dilfer said.
“If they can win those games they should and the close ones, I think they’re going to be relevant in December for the first time in a long time.”
With the exception of back-to-back 8-8 seasons in 2010 and 2011, the Raiders haven’t won more than five games in a season for the past decade. Last year, Oakland lost 10 in a row before splitting its last six games — five of the team’s 13 losses came by single digits.
“Last year, they had a chance to win some games but there were games they couldn’t hang in with a young quarterback,” Dilfer said.
Derek Carr started for Oakland at quarterback as a rookie last year, and Dilfer expects the fellow Fresno State alum to make more strides in his second season. Now surrounded by a receiving core that includes Crabtree and first-round pick Amari Cooper, Carr will look to build off a rookie campaign in which he threw for 3,270 yards and 21 touchdowns.
“He has unique suddenness in his game — he can play fast,” Dilfer said. “Because he can play fast, he can get away with some stuff that other guys can’t — you add those up over 500 attempts and it matters. I thought he should be a guy that waited, but now that it happened and he survived it I think it will benefit him.”