Kolsky: Bold predictions for a new NFL season

The NFL season is just around the corner, so it’s time to make some bold predictions for the local NFL teams.

OAKLAND RAIDERS — 9-7, miss playoffs

BOLD PREDICTION #1: The Raiders will have one of the top four offenses in football.

After ranking sixth in the NFL in yards per game and seventh in both points per game and offense DVOA in 2016, the Raiders offense was middling last season. There is no more straightforward explanation for 2017’s struggles than a QB with a broken back and a woefully inept offensive coordinator.

This prediction is little more than the natural progression one hopes to see from a talented young quarterback with an improving supporting cast and much better coaching. The addition of Jordy Nelson and Martavis Bryant, with a return to form from Amari Cooper, should be a major upgrade from a season where Jared Cook was the leading receiver.

At 33, Nelson is aging, but last year’s dip in production is much more connected to quarterback play. In the five weeks Aaron Rodgers was healthy, Nelson caught 19 of 28 targets for 230 yards and six touchdowns; he had just 252 yards and no scores once Brett Hundley took over. Derek Carr will be a welcome upgrade.

In the case of Bryant, the issue is availability. If he’s healthy and not suspended, he has the tools to be a game-breaker.

The backfield looks stacked — Marshawn Lynch should be more ready to carry a load, given that he walked into last year’s camp after a full year off. He looked dynamic in his limited preseason touches, and Jalen Richard brings an added speed and screen element. With Doug Martin and (likely) Chris Warren III providing depth, there’s a lot there.

The interior line trio of Rodney Hudson, Gabe Jackson and Kelechi Osemele remains elite. If rookie Kolton Miller can earn his first-round draft position and pro bowler Donald Penn can adjust to the right side, the line should hold up well enough to let the elite collection of skill position players shine.

BOLD PREDICTION #2: Oakland’s defensive line will be something to watch.

The back end should be improved, but the key will be the strength of the defensive front. With the trade of Khalil Mack, the pressure is now on a very young, but very talented group of defensive linemen, with a few veterans sprinkled in.

Bruce Irvin is playing arguably a more natural position than he’s played in the past, while Tank Carradine and Justin Ellis also provide veteran leadership. Oakland may have something in a couple second-year prospects — Treyvon Hester and Fadol Brown — but it’s rookies, though, who really raise the ceiling.

Second-rounder PJ Hall played in the FCS, but his college production is undeniable (42 sacks, record 86.5 TFL) and he looked equally capable in the East-West Shrine Game (against FBS all-stars) and the NFL preseason.

Maurice Hurst was a consensus first-round talent, but fell all the way to the fifth thanks to a heart condition. He, too, was extraordinarily productive in college. The knock on third-rounder Arden Key was a combination of a rough 2017 and off-field trouble beforehand, but he was one of the country’s best pass rushers as a sophomore in 2016.

If all of these investments in youth pay off, the Raiders will present a formidable defensive line; one that can make up for some weaknesses at linebacker and defensive back. Still, it’s going to be hard for the defense to truly make a leap without its most elite piece.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS — 10-6, Wild Card, eliminated in Divisional Round

BOLD PREDICTION #1: Alfred Morris will end the season as the 49ers leading rusher.

This is not a prediction of failure for Jerick McKinnon, there’s just no reason to expect him to be a completely different player than he has been so far in his career. So far, he has never carried the ball more than 20 times in a game or reached 200 carries in a season. He is best as a sometime-runner, sometime-pass-catcher, always potential game-breaker.

Kyle Shanahan loves a back who can catch. His offenses targeted backs more than 100 times in each of his seasons in Atlanta, and more than 150 times last season, but he also loves to run the ball. Before Morris arrived, there wasn’t anyone on the roster capable of serving in a bell cow role. In a spectacular debut against the admittedly awful Colts, Morris looked the part.

“We ran the ball very well,” Shanahan said afterwards. “I was happy with Alf… It looked like he always got a little bit more than what they blocked for.”

Morris is comfortable in the system and showed great poise, patience and awareness. He’s 29, but should be feeling fresh after two low-carry seasons in Dallas. If he can get back anywhere close to the level he showed under Shanahan in Washington — 2,888 yards over two seasons at 4.7 yards per rush — he should take the bulk of the carries.

That should free up McKinnon to be deployed in a myriad of looks and used in the creative fashion Shanahan favors. Historically, his efficiency seems to have diminishing returns after about 15 carries, while Morris gets stronger as he goes on.

If all goes well, they’ll make a dynamic top two and set the tone for a much-improved offense overall.

BOLD PREDICTION #2: Richard Sherman will return to the Pro Bowl with his best INT year since 2013.

Sherman had his best statistical years in 2012 and 2013 with eight picks. Since then he hasn’t exceeded four.

It might be silly to suggest that a likely Hall of Famer’s production is tied directly to the size of the chip on his shoulder, but we all know how Richard Sherman fuels his fire, and nobody is better when they have an axe to grind.

That axe is now a league full of doubters, as he returns from a torn Achilles. That could mean more opportunity — opposing offenses will likely target Sherman more than they have in recent years, at least until he proves he’s the same guy. That should give him more bites at the apple.

Sherman looked physically ready in his preseason debut, with the same awareness, same athletic ability, same coverage talent, same dreadlocks as he had in Seattle at his best.

“Being a vet, there are certain plays where I can just be a veteran,” he said. “There are a lot of things you can do and recognize to make the game slow… It felt good, it felt familiar. The movements felt good… The game was still slow, so it’s awesome.”

Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear him on the Bay Area sports radio station 95.7 the Game, 5a-6a every weekday morning. You can listen to his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. You can find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.

An early edition of this article stated that the Raiders would go 11-5 and win the division. That was before the trade of Khalil Mack on Saturday morning. It has been changed in light of recent developments.

Matt Kolsky

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