AFC West Divisional Preview
The AFC West appears to be one of the most lopsided divisions in the NFL this season.
Denver is a legitimate Super Bowl contender, while the other three teams have serious personnel issues. Kansas City was the worst team in the league last year, but may have the second most talented roster in the division. San Diego lacks the star power it once had, but there are some intriguing pieces. And Oakland totally scraped much of the roster and is one of the absolute worst teams in the league on paper.
So does anyone other than Denver have a chance to make a run to the playoffs, or are the other three teams at least a year away from contention?
Team Previews (in projected order of finish)
1. Denver Broncos
Key Additions: Signed WR Wes Welker, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, G Louis Vasquez; Drafted RB Montee Ball, DT Sylvester Williams
Key Losses: OLB Elvis Dumervil, LB DJ Williams, RB Willis McGahee, CB Tracy Porter, LB Keith Brooking, DT Justin Bannan, WR Brandon Stokley
It is Super Bowl or bust mode for the Broncos this year. Peyton Manning is ready to lead a loaded offensive attack coming off one of his best seasons as a pro. Not only did he lead the league in completion percentage last year, but he posted his second best season ever in terms of yardage, touchdowns, and QB rating.
Adding Wes Welker from the New England Patriots will only give Manning more weapons in what will be one of the league’s most potent aerial attacks. Welker and returning receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker combined for 297 catches, 3852 yards, and 29 touchdowns last season.
While this is an impressive receiving corps, running back play will be essential in determining how far Denver can go in the playoffs. The Broncos drafted record setting Wisconsin running back Montee Ball in the second round, but Ronnie Hillman is currently listed as the starter on the depth chart and former first round pick Knowshon Moreno remains on the roster. Ball has the most upside and ran for 1830 yards and 22 touchdowns last year, but he will have to show consistency to win the job and help replace Willis McGahee.
All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady is the stud who anchors the offensive line, but Dan Koppen’s ACL tear hurts the unit’s overall strength. Louis Vasquez was a quality signing, but this line will have to give these unproven running backs holes to help supplement the passing game in a meaningful way.
The strength of Denver’s defense will greatly depend on the availability of pass rusher extraordinaire Von Miller. Miller was just arrested earlier in the week and was already facing a likely six game suspension . After already losing Elvis Dumervil to the Baltimore Ravens after a mishap with a fax machine, Miller’s loss potentially cripples a pass rush that tied for the league lead with 52 sacks.
Miller recorded 18.5 sacks and 6 forced fumbles in his All-Pro season last year and has 30 sacks in two years in the NFL. Dumervil added 11 sacks last year, so without Miller Denver would lose approximately 57 percent of its sacks between two players.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will inject some speed into a secondary led by future Hall of Famer Champ Bailey. After Bailey was burned badly several times in Denver’s playoff loss to the Ravens, this speed is quite welcome.
Denver is as formidable as any team in football and faces far and away the league’s easiest schedule. Their defense finished second overall in total yards, third overall against the run and pass, and fourth overall in scoring defense. Combine this with the fourth overall offense that added Wes Welker and only injuries, poor running back play, and the absence of a quality pass rush can stop the Broncos.
2. San Diego Chargers
Key Additions: Signed OLB Dwight Freeney, OT Max Starks, RB Danny Woodhead, G Chad Rinehart, CB Derek Cox; drafted OT DJ Fluker, ILB Manti Te’o, WR Keenan Allen
Key Losses: CB Quentin Jammer, G Louis Vasquez, OLB Shaun Phillips, CB Antoine Cason, DT Aubrayo Franklin, S Atari Bibgy, LB Takeo Spikes, OT Jared Gaither
The Chargers are in an interesting position. After years of underachievement, Coach Norv Turner was fired and replaced by Mike McCoy. The roster may be on the decline talent wise, but a coaching change should help San Diego refocus.
After a down year, Philip Rivers looks to rebound and lead the San Diego offense. While his return to form is essential for San Diego’s success, he needs healthy receivers to target. Danario Alexander is out for the year with a torn ACL, Malcom Floyd is dealing with knee issues but should be ready to play Week 1, Vincent Brown missed all of last season, and Keenan Allen is an unproven rookie.
With eight time Pro Bowler Antonio Gates also on the decline, Rivers really needs someone to step up for a bounce back season. If Floyd can stay on the field, he is the top candidate to have a big year with his career 17.1 yards per catch average. Third round pick Keenan Allen could prove pivotal, as he possesses the skill set to have been drafted much higher, but injury concerns and poor quarterback play that caused his numbers to decline from 2011 to 2012 caused him to slip.
Considering there is so much uncertainty in the passing game, Ryan Mathews will be counted on to have a big season running the football. If Mathews can put up numbers similar to his mostly healthy 2011 season when he had 1546 yards from scrimmage and a 4.9 yards per carry average, the Chargers are in great shape. The signing of Danny Woodhead adds a quality third-down back to the roster and gives Rivers a good check down option.
Defensively, there is a fair amount of turnover for a unit that ranked ninth in the NFL. New acquisition Dwight Freeney is the biggest name on defense, but his sack totals have declined every year since 2009. He still has value as a situational pass rusher, but his explosiveness that he relied on to beat bigger offensive lineman has decreased as he ages.
Rookie Manti Te’o will be asked to contribute from the start and if he can ease concerns about his speed and play like he did last season at Notre Dame the linebacker corps will receive a large boost. Eric Weddle continues to the lead the secondary, and though he did not intercept 7 passes like in 2011, he led the Chargers in tackles and remains and underappreciated figure.
San Diego’s defensive success was less about the greatness of individual players and more about cohesiveness as a unit. Losing veterans like Shaun Phillips and Quentin Jammer hurts, but if the new pieces can fit together well this defense will not miss a beat.
Kansas City has more individual talent than San Diego. However, the Chargers will not be 31st in offense again, especially after improving a line that gave up the fourth most sacks. Philip Rivers has too much talent to be as bad as last season and with a new coaching staff to re-energize the roster and the league’s second easiest schedule, the Chargers will hang on to second place in the West.
3. Kansas City Chiefs
Key Additions: Signed CB Dunta Robinson, CB Sean Smith, TE Anthony Fasano, LB Akeem Jordan, WR Donnie Avery; traded for QB Alex Smith; drafted OT Eric Fisher, TE Travis Kelce, RB Knile Davis
Key Losses: QB Matt Cassel, DT Glenn Dorsey, OT Eric Winston, RB Peyton Hillis, CB Javier Arenas, G Ryan Lilja, WR Steve Breaston
The Chiefs had six Pro Bowlers last season. Yes, you read that right, six. No team with less than six wins has ever had that many Pro Bowlers.
Yet, Kansas City was still 24th in total offense and 20th in total defense and last in scoring offense (a paltry 13.2 points per game, 2.3 points worse than second to last place Arizona) and 25th in scoring defense. There is individual talent in place, but it did not come together.
However a coaching change and a new quarterback should help solve many of the Chiefs problems. Kansas City ranked last in the league in passing, which held the team back tremendously despite the fifth ranked running game Jamaal Charles led.
Enter Alex Smith. Before being replaced by Colin Kaepernick, Smith was in the midst of a career best season where he was posting a 104.1 QB rating and a 70.2% completion percentage. And while Smith has more of a game manager reputation, his 8.0 yards per attempt last season indicate play-making ability.
This upgrade alone will win the Chiefs several games. However, Smith’s weapons are not particularly good. Dwayne Bowe needs to get back to form after a down year last season, but his two previous seasons were good for over 1100 yards each. Bowe is capable of having a big year with better quarterback play, but a reliable secondary option has to emerge.
Jamaal Charles will once again play an important role in Kansas City’s offense. Though new coach Andy Reid is more pass oriented, he has heavily featured talented backs like Brian Westbrook and LeSean McCoy. Charles was fourth in rushing yards last year with 1509, and though his 5.3 yards per carry tied a career low, that is still devastating effectiveness that ranked fifth in the league.
With four Pro Bowlers and a host of other talented players, Kansas City’s defense is primed for improvement. The defensive line is still underwhelming (and a major reason why the unit was 27th against the run last year), but this will be one of the better teams against the pass in the NFL.
While the Chiefs only generated 27 sacks (29th in the NFL), they have a good edge-rushing tandem of Pro Bowlers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. Other players need to get to the quarterback because they recorded 19 of the 27 sacks, but with better pressure in place an improved secondary is ready to force turnovers.
Adding veteran corners Sean Smith and Dunta Robinson to a secondary with Eric Berry and Brandon Flowers will make it hard to pass consistently. They will need to take pressure off the poor run defense because stud linebacker Derrick Johnson can only do so much with what the defensive line gives him.
Kansas City could easily finish second in this division (and possibly even sneak into the playoffs in a weak AFC) with the talent in place. However, that feels like too much to ask for a team that still has some major flaws despite individual brilliance. The run defense needs to improve drastically and a second weapon needs to appear in the passing game before the Chiefs can seriously contend.
4. Oakland Raiders
Key Additions: Signed S Charles Woodson, WR Josh Cribbs, CB Tracy Porter, OLB Kevin Burnett, DT Pat Sims, RB Rashad Jennings, CB Mike Jenkins, OLB Nick Roach, DT Vance Walker, DE Jason Hunter; traded for QB Matt Flynn; drafted CB DJ Hayden, OT Menelik Watson
Key Losses: DT Richard Seymour, QB Carson Palmer, S Michael Huff, DT Tommy Kelly, TE Brandon Myers, OLB Phillip Wheeler, G Cooper Carlisle, WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, LB Rolando McClain, RB Mike Goodson
Oakland is simply awful. This is quite possibly the least talented roster in the NFL and they are in serious rebuilding mode. This season is about gaining experience and trying to find players who can contribute in the future.
New quarterback Matt Flynn will be asked to prove why Seattle gave him a lucrative deal. Though he cannot be expected to play as well as he did in the game he famously replaced Aaron Rodgers in, he also cannot demonstrate why Russell Wilson stole his job last season.
However, it will difficult for Flynn to succeed because he has poor talent around him. Tight end Brandon Myers was the most effective receiver last year and he is now with the Giants. That leaves Denarius Moore as the most proven receiver and his career line is 84 catches, 1359 yards, and 12 touchdowns in 28 games.
This calls for oft-injured running back Darren McFadden to have a big season. The problem is McFadden has never completed a full season and saw his yards per carry fall from 5.4 to 3.3 last season behind a porous offensive line. The line does not look to be much better and it is a tough bet that McFadden will ever be healthy so the Raiders should not expect much from an offense that surprisingly finished 18th last year.
Oakland’s defense is far different from last year. Oakland ranked 18th in total defense, but was 28th in scoring defense. The secondary should improve, but for the pass defense to improve the Raider’s pass rushers must record more than 25 sacks.
Unfortunately for Oakland, the roster is bereft of any pass rushing talent. Leading tackler Phillip Wheeler is also gone. The linebackers are not a strong group, so a poor rushing defense is to be expected.
A poor run defense and pass rush puts tremendous pressure on the Raider’s secondary. New corners Tracy Porter and Mike Jenkins have flashed tremendous talent in the past, but neither player has put together a full package of skills. First round pick DJ Hayden will be asked to put his physical talent to use for this unit to truly shine.
The biggest name Oakland signed this offseason was their former star Charles Woodson. He struggled after converting to safety last season, but Oakland hopes he can regain the form that made him a stud into his mid-30’s in Green Bay. Paired with Tyvon Branch, Woodson should be able to provide solid safety help, even as he turns 37.
This is a tough position for the Raiders. They have not made the playoffs since their disastrous Super Bowl loss to Tampa Bay in 2002 and are in perpetual rebuilding mode. The best Oakland can realistically hope for is about six wins, but they are probably better served being absolutely terrible and getting the chance to take Jadeveon Clowney or Teddy Bridgewater in the 2014 draft
Impact Offensive Player: Philip Rivers, QB – San Diego Chargers
Good quarterback play is almost always essential to team success. Rivers was always considered an above average, yet not quite elite, NFL quarterback, but he is increasingly becoming an enigma.
Rivers is a four-time Pro Bowler and has previously led the league in categories such as passing yards, passing touchdowns, QB rating, and yards per attempt. However, last season he struggled and threw for 3606 yards, a 1018 yard decrease from 2011, as the Chargers finished 31st in total offense.
During Rivers dominant three year stretch from 2008 to 2010, he averaged 4324 yards, 31 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, 8.6 yards per attempt, 103.8 QB rating, and a 65.5% completion percentage per season. While he still put up good counting stats and made the Pro Bowl in 2011, Rivers rate stats took a hit and only got worse last season.
His 6.8 yards per attempt last year was his worst mark as a starter and his QB rating has declined every year since 2008 (albeit he only fell from 88.7 to 88.6 between 2011 and 2012). Rivers also was sacked a career high 49 times behind a terrible line last season. This coupled with a steadily decreasing supply of offensive weapons has many wondering whether Rivers can return to form.
Philip Rivers has proven he can be a highly successful franchise quarterback. Now, he has to return to Pro Bowl form with an unproven and injury riddled receiving corps. If San Diego is to play well this year, a bounce back year from Rivers will be the primary reason.
Impact Defensive Player: Tamba Hali, OLB – Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs’ pass rush was miserable last season despite the presence of Hali and second year linebacker and fellow Pro Bowler Justin Houston. The pair generated 70 percent of Kansas City’s sacks and while Houston is younger and improving, the veteran Hali will be called upon to return to his previous dominant form.
While nine sacks is not a bad year by any measure, it represents a decline from 12 in 2011 and 14.5 in 2010. Still, Hali has 62.5 sacks and 23 forced fumbles over his seven year career and over fifteen percent of his tackles have been sacks.
Over the past five seasons, Hali has graded out as the sixth best edge-rusher in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. Only James Harrison, DeMarcus Ware, Cameron Wake, Trent Cole, and John Abraham rank ahead of him. While PFF notes much of this is due to a dominant 2010 season where he recorded 97 total pressures, his play in other seasons has made him feared as well.
Part of Hali’s struggle last season was his ability to only force one fumble all season, the first time that happened in seven years in the NFL. He is still capable of dominating on individual plays and taking over games with a relentless motor.
With a promising secondary, the Chiefs need a pass rush to truly improve the pass defense. Hali is their most proven pass rusher, and although his production has declined, he is still plenty capable of making big plays. A good season from Hali and the Chiefs will be much closer to a playoff team than a team that drafted first overall.