The San Francisco 49ers and the Oakland Raiders are both trying to find their way back to the playoffs after enduring many struggling seasons. Both teams haven't been to the playoffs since the 2002 season and there is optimism here in the Bay Area that the 2010 campaign will change everything around for both franchises.
Both teams have similar questions entering training camp. Let's take a look at the questions for both teams.
Offense: What can we expect from the quarterback and passing game?
The Oakland Raiders no longer have JaMarcus Russell under center. Instead, they have Jason Campbell as their new quarterback. Campbell comes in as a quarterback that just didn't seem to fit in well in Washington. He did help the Redskins make the playoffs in 2007, but never actually played in the postseason after suffering a knee injury a few weeks prior to their first round exit.
The Raiders are hoping that Campbell can resurrect the Raiders offense and help get them back on the right track. It will be tough for the Raiders offense as the team's passing weapons are sub-par. It also didn't help that the offensive line gave up 49 sacks last year.
The team's top three wide receiver catch totals last year were 34 (Louis Murphy), 29 (Chaz Schilens) and 19 (Johnnie Lee Higgins). Last year's first round pick Darrius Heyward-Bey had only nine catches. Campbell was fortunate to have veteran wide receivers Santana Moss, Antwan Randle El in Washington and tight end Chris Cooley in Washington.
Campbell might have to look for his safety net in Raiders tight end Zach Miller. Miller led the team in receptions (66) and yards (805) last year. And if Miller is the team's best option in the passing game, it might be a long training camp for Campbell and the rest of the offense.
At this moment, expect the Raiders passing attack to be at a very young stage. Hopefully, the wide receivers can step up and give the passing game more bright spots than they had last year. Expectations shouldn't be too high for the Raiders aerial assault, but results have to be better than that of 2009.
Unlike Jason Campbell, the quarterback situation in San Francisco is on much thinner ice. Alex Smith is in his final year under contract with the team and he has to lead the 49ers to the playoffs in order to secure his job. After drafting him No. 1 overall in 2005, the 49ers have remained optimistic that Smith can be their quarterback of the future.
Last season, Smith showed signs of promise as he helped the 49ers avoid their first losing record since 2002. Expectations are higher now for Smith as he has been provided with consistency in the playbook and weapons on offense.
Tight end Vernon Davis emerged as one of the league's best tight ends with 13 touchdowns last year. The 49ers are hoping that Davis can continue his high level of play in 2010.
Another player that the 49ers have high hopes for is wide receiver Michael Crabtree. After missing the team's first five games last season, Crabtree finished the season strong and has looked very good during the OTAs. As the team's top receiver, he will become a major target for Smith in the passing game. Josh Morgan, the team's other starting wide receiver, also looks to become another huge part of the team's offense. Morgan also looked very comfortable during OTAs this off-season.
Expectations should be high for Alex Smith this year. With the right offense and the right weapons, the 49ers have the highest amount of optimism for Smith. Anything less than Smith leading the team to the playoffs would be a disappointment this year.
Defense: Can the defense lead the team back to the playoffs?
The Raiders had a pretty inconsistent defense all throughout 2009. The pass defense ranked seventh in the league last year despite intercepting only eight total passes. The rush defense was ranked 29th, surrendering 24 touchdowns on the ground.
Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha is considered to be one of the league's finest defenders. The rest of his teammates on defense feature some young talent and some experienced veterans.
In the front seven for the Raiders, veteran Richard Seymour was placed with the franchise tag and the Raiders hope that he can help the defensive line stop the opposing team's run defense. In order to do that, the Raiders also acquired veteran defensive tackle John Henderson from the Jaguars. Henderson's experience and skills are much needed for the Raiders. Henderson is reunited with former Jaguar teammate defensive end Quentin Groves on the defensive line.
Rookie defensive end and first round pick linebacker Rolando McClain look to be the foundation of a defense that hopes to contain the opposition's run game. McClain could end up being the team's starting middle linebacker when the season begins to replace Kirk Morrison.
In the secondary, cornerback Chris Johnson will be busy as many opposing offenses have not thrown to Asomugha's way often. Johnson has been good at cornerback, but nothing too spectacular for the Raiders. If the defense does improve and forces opponents to pass more, the secondary has to improve on their eight interceptions from last year. If the secondary holds and the front seven improves, it might just be enough to keep the Raiders in games for a playoff push.
The 49ers' front seven might be one of the strongest in the league. Both Justin Smith and Isaac Sopoaga are strong bookends to the defensive line. Nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin may be one of the best, if not the best, players at his position in the NFL.
At linebacker, Patrick Willis leads the group with veteran Takeo Spikes and pass rushers Parys Haralson and Manny Lawson. Lawson missed the entire OTAs but when he returned for mini-camp, he looked leaner and stronger. While in the middle of contract negotiations, Lawson needs to step up and be a threat on defense in order to showcase his worth to the team. Look for Ahmad Brooks to get a lot of opportunities at linebacker this year as well.
The biggest issue for the 49ers last year was their secondary. Despite safeties Dashon Goldson and Michael Lewis stepping up late last year, the question mark surrounded cornerback Nate Clements and the state of the cornerbacks.
Clements lost his starting role last year and was injured late into the season. It was speculated that he might not be back to form and his initial $80 million contract was a mistake. Upon returning to mini-camp, Clements looked stronger, faster and played like the player the 49ers had hoped he would be. Now with pads on, the team can hope that Clements is fully healthy and back to his old self.
Last season, the 49ers only surrendered 14 receiving touchdowns, second best in the league. With a strong defense all around, there could be a chance the 49ers will improve on their 15th ranked overall defense from last year and crack the top 10.
Special Teams: Who is returning kicks?
Johnnie Lee Higgins struggled last year with his punt returning. After averaging 13.0 yards in 2008, he followed that up with a very low 5.2 average last year. It doesn't look like he would lose his punt returning job this year, but if he doesn't produce numbers like he did in 2008, the Raiders might have to consider other options.
In kick returning, wide receiver Jonathan Holland averaged 19.6 yards per kick and should continue that role in 2010. The Raiders would like to see Holland add probably five more yards to that average and see if the rest of the special teams could provide solid blocking for him.
Setting up solid field position will be very important for the Raiders and their new look offense. The return specialists for the Raiders will have to step up their game in 2010.
The 49ers' specials teams last year was horrendous. After flip flopping through Brandon Jones, Arnaz Battle, Josh Morgan and a bunch of other players that didn't fit the job description, the 49ers traded for Ted Ginn.
Ginn hopes to be more than just a return specialist, but during OTAs, he was involved in numerous special teams drills and might be the team's best option for kick returns. As a player that gained popularity on special teams while at Ohio State, Ginn should be able to secure the kick return duties this year and become a valuable asset to the offense.
In the punt return department, Kyle Williams has looked extremely smooth during OTAs. If Ginn doesn't hold down both kick and punt return duties, look for Williams to be the specialist on punts. Out of Ginn, Williams and rookie LeRoy Vann, Wililams has looked the most smooth out on the field.
We can expect both Ginn and Williams to help the 49ers gain great field position (a task that last year's returners struggled with) and help relieve the offense of potential long drives.