Nevius: 49ers, Raiders might flip the script this season

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As the NFL season begins, we’re getting lots of predictions for the local squads.

The 49ers, we are hearing, are about to take a dramatic leap forward. The true believers think the only question about the playoffs is whether they get home-field advantage.

The Raiders, meanwhile, are in chaos. New head coach Jon Gruden has lost his mind. They’ve foolishly traded away Khalil Mack, players are unhappy and this team may implode.

Not so fast.

It says here the 49ers will be better with Jimmy Garoppolo, but a 6-10 team requires major improvement. Just making the playoffs would be an accomplishment, and it is no slam dunk.

As for the Raiders, I’m betting they not only make the postseason, but make some noise. Gruden will turn out to know what he’s doing. And Derek Carr will once again look like an elite quarterback.

Let’s start with the 49ers. As GM John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan now know, the expectations of the 49ers Faithful can go from zero to Super Bowl in an eyeblink. Or in the case of last season, five games.

Not that the run of five wins wasn’t impressive. It created the legend of Jimmy G-whiz and all credit to him. Aware of what it has, the team handed him a five-year, $137 million contract. It also beefed up the offensive line to protect the franchise star.

Let’s pray they do. Garoppolo can not get hurt. First, none of us has the stomach to watch poor C.J. Beathard get pancaked in the backfield over and over.

But mostly Garoppolo is Exhibit A for why quarterback is the most important position on the roster. He makes the team better.

The offense still needs a breakout wide-out, but with Shanahan’s playbook, that side of the ball should be fine.

It’s the defense that gives you pause. Last year they had a terrible time getting off the field. (Opponents’ 10 of 12 successful fourth-down conversions are indicative.) They surrendered lengthy, time-consuming drives that often included long, demoralizing runs right up the middle.

And as everyone knows, they couldn’t get to the quarterback. Only five teams had fewer sacks than the 49ers. And, despite bringing in everyone but a hologram of Charles Haley, they didn’t show much improvement in the preseason — just six sacks in four games.

Throw in a tough start to the season, three road games in the first five, including at Minnesota (a team that went 13-3 last year with 14 sacks in the preseason) and at Kansas City, and it may be a bumpy start. Maybe enough to tamp down expectations.

Meanwhile, we haven’t even seen the Raiders yet. Carr threw only seven passes in the preseason. Marshawn Lynch didn’t even have an official carry.

What I don’t get is the 180 on Gruden, who was everybody’s favorite mad scientist until now, when he isn’t. Wasn’t the idea to bring in a take-charge guy to remake the team? And isn’t that what he’s doing?

The nonsense tolerance vanished immediately. Oddball punter Marquette King may kick it a mile, but his flakiness didn’t fit the Gruden mold. Gone. (King went to Denver and promptly got into a stupid public beef with a radio host.)

Gruden gave up a third-round pick for receiver Martavis Bryant, who began missing practices and failing to impress. Gruden warned Bryant publicly he was going to have to pick it up. He didn’t. Gruden cut him. Message sent.

And then there is Mack. There was an interesting story in the Washington Post last week, proposing that the most valuable commodity in the NFL isn’t a talented quarterback — it is a talented quarterback who is still on his rookie contract.

For example, it said, the Rams have third-year man Jared Goff. The rookie contract runs four years, so Goff is still being paid relative peanuts, despite last year’s Pro Bowl season.

Ergo, the Rams had extra money available this year to sign Aaron Donald to what was, at the time, the largest contract ever for a defensive player.

Or, the story said, take the Chicago Bears. They can pay second-year QB Mitch Trubisky at below-market rate for the next three years. And that means they have the money to offer Mack the deal that made him the highest-paid defensive player at $141 million with $90 million guaranteed.

The Raiders were not going to pay that. They already shot their money bazooka and aimed it at Carr. He signed for five years and $125 million. Add in a Mack mega-contract, and the Raiders would have a big percentage of their $177 million salary cap tied up in two players.

The Raiders passed. Now, the trade may work out and it may not. But there is a strategy.

It also seems fans have experienced a memory wipe with Carr. This is a guy who made three Pro Bowls before he turned 27. He’s an elite quarterback, who, when not hurt, can carry a team. With Gruden in his ear I’ll bet he does this year.

Or maybe he won’t.

Remember the Raiders’ first preseason game?

Early on, Carr pitched the ball to Lynch and the 32-year-old “Beast Mode” running back astonished everyone by roaring 60 yards to the end zone, easily outrunning the Detroit safety. Unfortunately, the play was called back on a penalty and that was Lynch’s only carry of the preseason.

But it was a reminder that the game can still surprise you.

Contact C.W. Nevius at Twitter: @cwnevius

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