This is my Sunday column.
Better team right now: Raiders or 49ers?
Less than a year ago it would have been a joke question, but the Raiders are on the rise. And the Niners have plateaued – that’s the nicest thing you can say about them.
A harsh observer might say the 49ers have gotten worse. There’s truth to that. The Niners won 12 games in 2013 and just eight last season. This offseason, the defense lost Patrick Willis, Chris Borland, Chris Culliver and maybe Justin Smith, too – he hasn’t yet decided if he will retire.
A six-win season is within the realm of possibility for the Niners
The Raiders won only three games last season, but they just had their second terrific draft in a row. A six-win season is within the realm of possibility for them, too.
So which team has an edge on the other?
Each team has a quality young quarterback, although Colin Kaepernick isn’t THAT young. He turns 28 in November. He should be entering his prime.
But he hasn’t improved much during the two and a half seasons he has been the starter. He still struggles with foot work, reading defenses, going through progressions and throwing with touch.
He spent three months at EXOS training facility in Phoenix working to improve those weaknesses. We’ll see if that training has an effect on his performance next season.
Derek Carr is only 24 and has started just 16 NFL games, winning three of them. But one win came against Kaepernick. Carr beat him mostly throwing to a tight end and a fullback – Mychal Rivera and Marcel Reece.
In that game, Kaepernick had both of his go-to receivers — Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree — and still lost. Carr didn’t have a go-to receiver. Carr made do with what he had.
Now he has a go-to receiver. The Raiders just got Amari Cooper, the best receiver in the draft, and they signed Crabtree this offseason. Finally, Carr has weapons.
His stock is rising. He should have a strong 2015 season. Kaepernick? We have no idea.
I’m talking running backs, tight ends and wide receivers.
The Niners have better wideouts than the Raiders, even though the Raiders got Cooper and Crabtree. Cooper might become one of the best receivers in the NFL early in his career. For now, Anquan Boldin still is the best receiver in the Bay Area. And Torrey Smith always will be better than Crabtree, who runs in slow motion.
But the Raiders have better running backs and tight ends than the Niners.
Let’s start with the running backs. The Raiders’ top two are Latavius Murray and Roy Helu Jr. Last season, they combined to rush for 640 yards on 122 carries – 5.2 yards a pop.
The 49ers’ top two running backs are Carlos Hyde and Reggie Bush. Last season, they combined to rush for 630 yards on 159 carries – 4.0 yards per carry. They weren’t nearly as effective as Murray and Helu.
Now let’s compare the tight ends.
Four 49ers tight ends made 39 catches total last season. The Raiders’ No. 1 tight end, Rivera, made 58 catches by himself.
And he might not be the Raiders’ No. 1 tight end next season. They recently spent a third-round pick on another tight end — Clive Walford from the University of Miami. He’s talented enough to start right away.
The Raiders signed Rodney Hudson this offseason, and he is one of the four or five best centers in the NFL.
Raiders’ left guard Gabe Jackson played well for a rookie last season. Niners’ left guard Brandon Thomas didn’t play at all last season. He spent his rookie year rehabbing a torn ACL.
The Raiders have the edge at left guard and center.
The Raiders also have a very good left tackle — Donald Penn. But the Niners have a better one — Joe Staley. He might be the best left tackle in the NFL.
The Niners also have a solid right tackle — Anthony Davis — and a solid right guard — Alex Boone — while the Raiders have Khalif Barnes and Austin Howard, who struggled big time last season.
Quick, name as many defensive linemen on the Raiders as you can.
OK, that’s tough. Name one.
There’s Justin Tuck, who used to be famous and now is 32. And there’s someone named Stacy McGee, whom I had to look up.
And there’s the new kid, the second-round pick – Mario Edwards Jr. The Raiders drafted him to be their primary pass rusher, their Aldon Smith. But he’s no Aldon Smith. Even in college, Edwards Jr. wasn’t much of a pass rusher. He recorded just eight sacks in three seasons at Florida State.
The Niners used to have the best linebackers in the NFL.
Now, Patrick Willis is gone, Ahmad Brooks is getting old and NaVorro Bowman is … what, exactly? A linebacker who hasn’t played since he tore his ACL and MCL 16 months ago. A man who has to prove himself all over again.
The Raiders, on the other hand, have Khalil Mack – the best young linebacker in the NFL. He’s better than every linebacker the 49ers have.
The Niners have two Pro Bowl defensive backs — Eric Reid (2013) and Antoine Bethea (2014).
The Raiders have one — Charles Woodson. And he hasn’t gone to a Pro Bowl since 2011. And he’s 38.
That’s three for the Niners, and three for the Raiders.
Neither team has an edge on the other. They’re in the same spot, shooting stars crossing paths before they fade in different directions.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at email@example.com.