Reid Fischer's World of Rants

Looking at the sports world through orange colored glasses

AFC West Preview

Posted by mizzou1028 on September 8, 2009

Once again teams listed in predicted order of finish.

9781. San Diego Chargers – Last year’s Chargers season would be a huge disappointment by the standards of most teams.  This sounds like a very strange statement considering they won the division, won a playoff game against Peyton Manning and the Colts, and gave the Super Bowl champion Steelers a very good game in the second round of the playoffs.  However, the Chargers had gone to the AFC title game the year before, came in with a roster virtually unchanged, and were expected to take a monster leap in the standings.  However, the Chargers really stumbled out of the gate, sitting at 4-8 through 12 games.  They did manage to win their last four games to finish 8-8, and were able to back into the division title thanks to an epic collapse by Denver.  The fact that the Chargers hosted the Colts in the playoffs despite finishing 8-8 says more about the current NFL playoff system than anything else.  This year, the Chargers are clear runaway favorites in what perhaps is the worst division in football.  The question is do they have enough to beat the NFL’s elite in the playoffs?

There is no question that there is plenty of offensive talent in San Diego.  How quarterback Philip Rivers didn’t make the Pro Bowl is beyond me.  His 34 touchdown passes were a franchise record and he led the league with a 105.5 quarterback rating.  The main knock on Rivers is that two of his 2004 draft classmates, Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, have already won Super Bowls.  It is clear however that Rivers deserves to be mentioned among the elite of the league.  As long as he is around, the Chargers will have a good chance to be successful.  He does have a very good and very underrated group of receivers to throw to, including Vincent Jackson, who produced his first 1,000 yard season a year ago.  He lines up alongside Chris Chambers, who has thrived in the Chargers’ offense since coming over from Miami a few years ago.  The Chargers also have surprising depth in Malcolm Floyd and Legadu Naanee.  Oh, not to mention, Rivers can throw to the best tight end in football in Antonio Gates.  Gates was slowed at the beginning of last year due to a toe injury, but he did rebound toward the end of the season.  Now that he’s fully healthy this year, he should be in for a big season.  The running game is also arguably the most talented in the NFL.  LaDainian Tomlinson had a down year by his standards last year, finishing with 1,100 yards and missing the playoffs to a toe injury.  Tomlinson had his contract restructured during the offseason, so he will enter the season with a chip on his shoulder.  Tomlinson wants to prove that he is still the best back in football.  The Chargers also have Darren Sproles, who is definitely among the fastest backs in all of football.  The pairing of a healthy Tomlinson and Sproles will make the Chargers offense extremely dangerous, couples with the ability of Rivers under center.  The offensive line did have its struggles last season, but the Chargers elected not to make any changes.  This is a veteran group that knows it just needs to play to its ability.

Defensively the Chargers defense will be significantly improved from a year ago for a simple reason: the return of Shawne Merriman.  Merriman sat out most the season last year due to reconstructive knee injury, and his absence in the middle of the defense was definitely noticed in more ways than one.  Merriman is certainly one of the best linebackers in all of football, mainly because his his ability to get to the quarterback.  It does remain to be seen whether he still possesses the speed from before the knee surgery, but his leadership alone will be a tremendous boost in the locker room and on the field.  Shaun Phillips will play in the other outside linebacker spot, and he had 7.5 sacks last year.  The Chargers also used their first round pick on limnebacker Larry English of Northern Illinois.  The defensive line is anchored by veteran tackle Jamal Williams and end Luis Castillo.  Overall it is not a terrific group but it is capable of getting the job done.  The secondary has talent with cornerbacks Antonio Cromartie and Quentin Jammer, and both will need to play a lot better than they did a year ago.  The Chargers’ pass defense ranked 31st a year ago, and that definitely needs to get better.

The Chargers’ special teams definitely has the talent to be the best in football.  Kicker Nate Keading is believe it or not second all-time in kicking accuracy in NFL history with an 86 percent success rate.  Punter Mike Scifers has one of the strongest legs in the NFL and he also has the accuracy to be able to pin teams inside the 20.  The return game is in amazing hands with Sproles, who is a threat to score every time he touches the ball.

There is no question that San Diego is an overwhelming favorite to win this division.  Talent wise I think they are very capable of making a deep playoff run.  This team returns largely intact from a year ago, and more importantly they are healthy The schedule is tough (they play the AFC North and NFC East) but the Chargers have the talent to play with those teams.  The question is will they play to their talent level?  We will find out.

2. Denver Broncos – I put the Broncos at number two in this division with a couple of asterisks.  One, this is weak division and someone has to finish second, even if their record is going to end up 6-10 or 7-9.  Second, I like new coach Josh McDaniels and I think he has a good system.  I also think the Broncos could surprise some people and win more games than everyone expects.  The Broncos surprised the entire league when they fired Mike Shanahan, and they shocked the NFL even more when they traded quarterback Jay Cutler.  (I have reviewed and analyzed that deal in several previous posts – basically I think it might not end up as bad long term for Denver as everyone thinks.)  They have also had to deal with the Brandon Marshall fiasco.  All this after they blew a three game lead with three games to play last season, and missed the playoffs altogether for the third straight year.

The offense has almost been completely revamped from a year ago.  This despite the fact they finished second in the NFL in yards.  What Coach McDaniels didn’t like is that the Broncos finished 16th in points.  When McDaniels acquired quarterback Kyle Orton in the Cutler trade, he did so because he legitimately feels that Orton is better decision maker than Cutler.  While Cutler put up flashy numbers a year ago, he did throw a number of red zone interceptions.  Orton has a reputation of being a good decision maker and not turning it over.  Broncos fans are nervous after his four preseason picks, but it is preseason.  The biggest question with Orton is the finger he injured in the third preseason game against Chicago, but he says he will be ready for the opener.  The receiving game could well hinge on whether Marshall gets his act together and decides to play.  Marshall has been suspended during the preseason because of his behavior.  Marshall is unhappy because he wants to be traded.  I am convinced however that Marshall will not be traded, so it will be up to him to play or not.  I think if he gets his head on straight and plays, he will be very productive in this offense, maybe enough to get a third straight 100 catch season.  The rest of the receivers are actually very good, led by second year wideout Eddie Royal, who should be productive with or without Marshall.  There is also good veteran depth with Brandon Stokley and new addition Jabar Gaffney, who came over from the Patriots.  Tight end Tony Scheffler is also a good receiving threat.  The other tight ends, Daniel Graham and second round pick Richard Quinn, are good red zone threats and excellent blockers.  The running game should have more stability this season, after the Broncos went through nine backs last year due to injuries.  Hence why the Broncos spent their first round pick on Knowshan Moreno of Georgia.  Moreno has speed to elude tacklers, plus enough bulk to run through them.  He can also catch out the backfield and is a good blocker.  In the Broncos’ run scheme, he might win offensive rookie of the year honors.  The Broncos also added Correll Buckhalter from the Eagles in free agency for depth, and are expecting a big second season from Peyton Hillis, who emerged in the second half of last season.  The offensive line is also excellent, and returns intact from a year ago.  Young tackles Ryan Clady and Ryan Harris should be around for a long time.

The defense was atrocious to put it mildly last season.  One of the emphases of new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is about forcing turnovers, an area in which the Broncos were among the league’s worst last year.  The Broncos did spend a first round pick obtained in the Cutler deal on defensive end Robert Ayers, who will be expected to bolster the pass rush.  He will likely start week one considering the lack of pass rush from the Broncos’ ends last year.  The nose tackle is still a question mark, and it’s a big one considering Denver will play a 3-4 under Nolan.  The linebackers have talent and speed, led by veteran D.J. Williams and pass rushing specialist Elvis Dumervil, who will be transitioning from defensive end.  The secondary has been completely retooled with the exception of shutdown corner Champ Bailey, who had a down year last year by his standards.  The Broncos will need him to return to his 2005 level of 10 picks.  The rest of the secondary will be led by hard hitting safety Brian Dawkins, who came over from the Eagles.  The Broncos also signed cornerback Andre Goodman and safety Renaldo Hill from the Dolphins.

Special teams is a bit of a question mark for the Broncos.  Kicker Matt Prater tailed off toward the end of the season last year, and Broncos fans are longing for the Jason Elam days.  He does have a very strong leg, hence why the new coaches are giving him a second chance.  Punter Brett Kern must also show more consistency from a year ago.  The return game is also really up for grabs.  Eddie Royal is the Broncos’ best returner, but Denver doesn’t want to risk injury to him in the return game.  Draft choice Alphonso Smith is also a distinct possibility.

Denver is a team that could just as easily finish 4-12 as 10-6.  If Moreno is the real deal, if Marshall plays and if the defense is better, this could be a surprise playoff team.  If Orton is a big time bust, Marshall is an attitude problem all year, and the defense continues to struggle, it could be a long first year for Josh McDaniels.  Time will definitely tell on this team.

3. Kansas City Chiefs – It is a major understatement to say that Kansas City needed a complete overhaul after last season’s disastrous 2-14 campaign.  The Chiefs defense was awful, surrendering 30 or more points seven times, including a whopping 54 to an average Bills attack at home.  The offense put up its share of numbers at times, but lacked any real playmakers in the passing game outside of Gonalez.  The Chiefs will have a very different look in 2009.  Gone are head coach Herm Edwards, General Manager Carl Peterson, and a host of veteran players including Gonzalez, whose trade request was accommodated by new management.  In are new coach Todd Haley, new GM Scott Pioli (architect of the New England dynasty), and new direction.  This team is clearly rebuilding, and the question is how competitive will they be?

The new direction starts at quarterback, where the Chiefs acquired what they hope is their signal caller for a long time to come in Matt Cassel.  Cassel was outstanding filling in for the injured Tom Brady in New England last year, and the Chiefs hope that Cassel will be able to translate that same success in a new environment and a new system.  Cassel is 6-4, and does have an above average arm, and the Chiefs are confident he will be good fit.  They are so confident that they rewarded him with a lucrative raise and contract extension before he’s even taken a snap for them.  If nothing else, it is reasonable for the Chiefs to expect more stability than the trio of Tyler Thigpen, Damon Huard and Brodie Croyle gave them a year ago.  One thing Cassel won’t have however is Gonzalez, and that means he won’t have the league’s best tight end to throw to like those three had.  Dwayne Bowe is the most talented of the receivers, and he is coming off an 86-catch season.  Bowe has the talent to be star, and he will be paired with Mark Bradley, who started to emerge toward the end of last year.  The Chiefs also signed veteran Bobby Engram as a free agent for depth.  There will be a noticeable dropoff at tight end with Brad Cottam the primary candidate to fill Gonzalez’ shoes.  The running game will once again be anchored by Larry Johnson, but he hasn’t been the same running the past two years since he suffered a foot injury in 2007.  Johnson was also not really a part of the offense last year, as the Chiefs went to a spread attack.  The spread is now gone, and Johnson is part of the offensive plan again, that is if his attitude doesn’t get in the way.  Jamaal Charles is ready to step in if Johnson continues to be ineffective.  The Chiefs do have a solid guard in Brian Waters, but the rest of the line is very young and very inexperienced, save for new addition Mike Goff from San Diego.

The defense has been revamped, highlighted by a new linebacking core.  Derrick Johnson is lone retainee at the position, but the former first round pick has yet to live up to expectations.  He will be joined by savvy veteran Mike Vrabel, obtained in the Cassel deal, and Monty Beisel from Arizona.  The Chiefs signed veteran Zach Thomas in the offseason, but released him in their last round of preseason cuts.  It seems clear that Thomas will retire, but the Chiefs were hoping to be able to count on his veteran leadership.  The defensive line is clearly a work in process.  The new regime is clearly not enamored with last year’s first round pick, Glenn Dorsey.  Dorsey played nose tackle last year, but the new regime feels like he’s too small for the position, so they’re trying him at right end this year.  The Chiefs also used this year’s first round pick on defensive end Tyson Jackson, a teammate of Dorsey’s at LSU.  Tamba Hali will be also be counted on to be able to rush the passer.  The secondary is also very young after the release of veteran cornerback Patrick Surtain.  Kansas City thinks Brandon Flowers is a shutdown corner, but the numbers from last year don’t back that up.

The Chiefs’ kicking game could be the most unreliable in the NFL.  Seventh round pick Ryan Succop appears to be the guy, but he missed a short field goal in the final preseason game.  Punter Dustin Colquitt is above average, and the return game could be highlighted by sixth round pick Quentin Lawrence of McNeesse State.  It seems like a long time ago that this return unit was feared with Dante Hall back there.

Kansas City is definitely in line for a rebuilding year, but they are starting to put the pieces in place.  This is another team that we don’t really know what to expect from, but I don’t see a playoff run in the cards.  .500 could be a possibility if they get a few breaks.

9514. Oakland Raiders – This organization is the biggest joke in the NFL.  I’m just saying that because I am a Denver guy, but it is very clearly a joke.  The ironic thing is this team actually showed more life after last year’s coaching change from Lane Kiffin to Tom Cable, even winning their final two games against Houston and Tampa Bay.  However, this offseason has been another illustration that this team just doesn’t know what it’s doing.  I think it starts with owner Al Davis, who still has his fingers in everything and for whom the game has long passed him by.  During training camp Cable seems to have actually punched one of his assistants.  Cue the Days of Our Lives music in Oakland.

The Raiders offense will once again be in the hands of JaMarcus Russell at quarterback, who has still yet to show the ability that made him the top pick of the draft in 2007.  Russell has good size and ability, but he has yet to put it together consistently.  His work ethic has really been questioned.  Perhaps that’s one reason why longtime veteran Jeff Garcia was brought in to challenge him.  Then again, Garcia didn’t make the team, so Russell will be on his own when the Raiders open the season against San Diego.  He’ll have a shall we say interesting set of receivers to throw to.  Javon Walker is the top receiver on the depth chart, even though he has battled numerous injuries in the past five years and is another guy whose attitude has not been stellar.  He will be paired with no names such as Johnnie Lee Higgins and Chaz Schilens.  The Raiders also inexplicably spent their first round pick on Darrius Heyward-Bey of Maryland, even though guys like Michael Crabtree, Jeremy Maclin and Percy Harvin were available.  Heyward-Bey does have speed, always an Al Davis favorite, but was never dominant in Maryland.  In fact, he was barely above average in college.  I think the best receiving threat on the team is actually tight end Zach Miller, who has good hands.  He may be in line for a 75 catch season by default.  The running game actually has talent with last year’s first round pick, Darren McFadden, and the capable Justin Fargas.  So far McFadden has fit right in line with the Raider tradition of flash but no substance.  McFadden must have a better second year for the Raiders to justify their investment in him, and Fargas is actually expected to be the clear starter at the beginnning of the year.  The biggest addition the Raiders made is actually fullback Lorenzo Neal, who is one of the best in the business and for some reason can’t stick with a team.  The offensive line however is a disaster area waiting to happen, with a mix of washed up veterans and busts.

The Raiders defensive line can be symbolized by their expensive pairing of tackles.  Tommie Kelly signed one of the richest deals in NFL history for the position a year ago (even though he was coming off a torn ACL), and did not even come close to justifying the contract in 2008.  His counterpart, Gerard Warren, fits right in line with the Raider ideal of high draft picks who turn out to be busts.  Warren has talent, and has played well at times in Cleveland and Denver, but has largely been ineffective.  End Derrick Burgess is a good pass rusher, but he missed 8 games last year due to injury.  The linebackers are talented, led by Thomas Howard, who is very athletic and can make plays.  He will be the leader of an otherwise young group.  The secondary does feature Nnamdi Asomugha, who in my opinion is the best cornerback in all of football.  His counterpart, Chris Johnson, will be tested early and often, and must play well to avoid rendering Asomugha ineffective.

The special teams is actually an area of strength for the Raiders.  Kicker Sebastian Janikowksi and punter Shane Lechler both have very strong legs and are very accurate.  Justin Miller and Johnnie Lee Higgins, and perhaps even Heyward-Bey, do have the speed to make an impact in the return game.

In the end these will be the same old Raiders.  They do have talent at a number of positions with a lot of potential, but discipline and organization is a huge problem here as long as Al Davis is in charge.  Expect the Raiders to once again be among the league leaders in penalties and turnovers, and that will once again be their undoing.

Coming Next: the final division preview, the NFC West

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