NFL Preview – Bay Area Edition

After a long summer of talking about nothing but labor negotiations, a deal was finally reached and the official start of the National Football League begins Thursday night with the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers hosting the New Orleans Saints at Lambeau Field.

Much of the talk this preseason has been the Packers, the Eagles, the Patriots and lots of other favorites. But the question Bay Area sports fans want to know is what to make of the 49ers and Raiders this season? Here’s an unbiased look at what each team faces this year.

We’ll start with the team in the East Bay. The big news in the off season for the Raiders was the loss of All Pro cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. He was no doubt one of the top players at his position in the entire league and will be almost impossible to replace on the field. It leaves a major hole in the defensive backfield for the Raiders. I actually like the rest of the defense. I thought last season was very positive for them, especially with some emerging players like Matt Shaughnessy and Lamarr Houston.

The offense is back nearly intact with the exception of tight end Zach Miller and offense lineman Robert Gallery. Quarterback Jason Campbell is back to lead the squad with running back Darren McFadden expected to be the workhorse in the offense after a breakout season last year. And look for second year pro Jacoby Ford to have a major impact this year in the passing game. The major question remains the offensive line and whether they can control the trenches.

Oakland went 6-0 against the AFC West last year. It’s just hard to imagine that happening again. San Diego looks to be the class of the division. Realistically, I can’t see the Raiders contending for a playoff spot, but I think they are moving in the right direction. They have players with tons of talent on both sides of the ball and they’re young players at that. Further development with the young nucleus is key to keeping the franchise moving in the right direction: 2011 prediction, 8-8, 2nd place in the AFC West.

Now on to the San Francisco 49ers. The team had a larger roster shuffle than their rivals across the Bay, but the nucleus remains from last year’s disappointing squad. On offense, Alex Smith will once again be the starter. He has been much-maligned his entire career and probably for good reason as he has never shown the qualities of being a franchise quarterback or worthy of the number one selection in the NFL draft. The team also drafted former Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick in this year’s draft, but with his performance in the preseason, he could use an entire season as backup. Frank Gore is back from injury with a new deal. The team brought in Braylon Edwards to add to the receiving corps, but expect tight end Vernon Davis to continue to be Smith’s favorite and most reliable pass catcher. The o-line also remains a big question mark.

The defense continues to be led by lineman Justin Smith and linebacker Patrick Willis. I think the real question mark remains at cornerback. The team brought in Carlos Rogers from Washington and upgraded the safety position, but there is no one DB that really defines a shutdown player. Expect teams to try to exploit that weakness.

The Niners were hampered by in-fighting and an almost lame duck coaching situation last year with Mike Singletary. I think new head man Jim Harbaugh will bring a different attitude to the table and a confidence that successful coaches really need. But I don’t really see many improvements to this roster. They do play in a weak division, but I think both Arizona and St. Louis improved more in the offseason. I think fans will have to be patient until Harbaugh has a better roster to work with, but the overhaul could be a long process: 2011 prediction, 5-11, 3rd place in the NFC West.

So who does this writer think will win it all this year? I don’t know if it’s ever happened before, but I see a rematch in the Super Bowl with the same result: Green Bay Packers 34, Pittsburgh Steelers 24 in Super Bowl XLVI.