AFC West Preview

1. San Diego Chargers     OTC Projected Record: 10-6

They need him like Kathy Lee needs Regis.

Calling Card: Balance
Weakness: Instability
Franchise Player: Philip Rivers

Last year, many had San Diego making their long-awaited Super Bowl run. But they lost to the Jets and had to start the offseason, which ended up being a tumultuous one, early. LaDanian Tomlinson was shown the door by AJ Smith, Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeill wanted new contracts, and the defense lost pieces such as Antonio Cromartie and Jamal Williams. I guess we should not be surprised at this from a franchise that fired Marty Schottenheimer after a 14-2 season, but with such major faces leaving, serious questions remain about the hegemonic power out west.

Offense

This was an outstanding unit last year, but there are now serious questions about the offense. Philip Rivers will be just fine as he is a fine, albeit annoying, quarterback, but outside of him, there is a lot of uncertainty.  Can Ryan Mathews replace LaDanian Tomlinson as the every-down-back? Will Vincent Jackson play? Can the other receivers pick up his slack if he doesn’t? Will Marcus McNeill get into camp and play? Can this offense repeat its virtuoso performance from last year? Will Norv Turner continue to get credit despite the fact that Romeo Crennel could get 11 wins out of them with that talent level?

Let’s answer each question in full, because if there are too many negative responses, the Chargers will find themselves in a tough spot.

Can Ryan Mathews replace LaDanian Tomlinson as the every-down-back?

In short, yes. He is not the receiver LT was, but that is where Darren Sproles can step in and give teams nightmares. Tomlinson had a pretty mediocre year last year, and Mathews will fit in very nicely in that backfield. Not only will he do fine, but if some of the other questions have certain answers, he could find himself approaching 1,200 yards.

Will Vincent Jackson play?

Norv is predicting big things out of the rookie RB.

You cannot understate how important this guy is to the offense. He is a big receiver who can get down the field, and frankly he is the only wide receiver I would trust on that team. Malcom Floyd and Legedu Naanee are serviceable. But not at all sure things like Jackson. Without Jackson, this team’s passing attack takes a serious step back and will force them to the ground and force them to put serious strain on rookie running back Ryan Mathews.

Can the other receivers pick up his slack if he doesn’t?

Nope. Antion Gates can pick some up, but they cannot replace Jackson.

Will Marcus McNeill get into camp and play?

The Chargers dodged a big bullet getting him into camp. He is extremely important to the offense as a tackle. Most interior guys are important, but can be moved in and out. Tackles are not like that and if McNeill was out, then this offense could have some real problems.

Can this offense repeat its virtuoso performance from last year?

With Jackson? Sure. Without him? Not even a chance. He is their most valuable skill-position player on offense.

Will Norv Turner continue to get credit despite the fact that Romeo Crennel could get 11 wins out of them with that talent level?

Evidently…

Defense

The defense is also hurting after some key departures, but I think they can replace Cromartie without too much of a learning curve, and while Jamal Williams was very good at what he did, big nose tackles are becoming dime-a-dozen in the NFL. Granted, my team (the Colts) can’t find one, but the Chargers would not have cut him if they did not have someone capable of filling his shoes. They will not be a shut-down defense, but they will be very solid.

Special Teams

Always a strength. Sproles is a nightmare for the opposition in the return game. Kaeding is solid as they come, and Scifres is one of the best punters in the game.

Overview

A lot of this rides on Vincent Jackson ‘s willingness to play, but I get the feeling he is serious about his holdout.  Their division is so weak that it will not kill them as far as record, but without him they are not even close to contenders. Put them in a tougher division and they finish 8-8.

2. Kansas City Chiefs     OTC Projected Record: 7-9

Reunited and it feels so good.

Calling Card: Nothing (yet)
Weakness: Experience
Franchise Player: Matt Cassel?

Why the optimism? I believe in New England West this year, and while it is not the safest pick, there is plenty of reason to believe the Chiefs can make strides this year. They got an absolute stud in the draft in Eric Berry, picked up Charlie Weis to coordinate the offense, Romeo Crennel to handle the defense, and have the savvy Scott Pioli at the helm to guide the team in the right direction as far as personnel. The Chiefs will be one of the surprises of the 2010-2011 NFL season.

Offense

Say what you want about Charlie Weis’ days at Notre Dame. As a Notre Dame fan, I would use the words “failure”, “in over his head”, and “waistline” to describe it. However, during those years, one thing became clear to me. Charlie Weis was a bad head coach on non-game days, but he called outstanding games for the offense. As a head coach, you have to get the most out of your players, and Weis did not do that as a head coach. However, he is not a head coach anymore, and can really focus on calling the games and leave the player development to the rest of the staff. Under his tutelage, Matt Cassel can be a very efficient QB, Dwayne Bowe can return to respectability, and Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles can gash opponents on the ground. The offensive line is far from perfect, but they are not bad and Weis can work around some of their deficiencies. I am not sure if I would go all-in on these guys for fantasy, but they will be a surprisingly effective unit this year.

Defense

He could be berry, berry good.

Remember what I said about Weis as a coach vs coordinator? Apply it to Crennel too. Year 2 in a 3-4 defense and I expect some good things. Eric Berry will give the secondary an instant upgrade and playmaker, and that is something they really lacked last year. Brandon Flowers should be at least respectable this year, and the big guys up front like Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson should be able to help everyone out by pushing the line backwards. Mike Vrabel might not be what he once was, but he can help Derrick Johnson keep getting better and help Tamba Hali develop into an even better edge rusher. Like the offense they will not be outstanding or a top unit, but they will at least hold water this year.

Special Teams

A question mark here, but for a team that has so many areas to improve, I would not worry about it too much. They can fix this next year.

Overview

I expect good things out of the Chiefs, but just in a relative way. I would not be shocked to see them get to .500, but as it is, 7-9 is far more likely and very respectable.

3. Denver Broncos     OTC Projected Record: 5-11

Calling Card: None
Weakness: Lack of a calling card
Franchise Player: Tim Tebow and Champ Bailey

They lost their best player, drafted a new quarterback way too high, and lost their best defensive player for much of the year due to injury. Sounds like the start of a blues song, not the upcoming season of a team that was, at one point, a shoe-in to make the playoffs. Things are not beyond hope for the Broncos, but things could certainly be looking better.

Offense

No matter who is at QB, the Broncos are not as solid as they should be. Ryan Clady went down with an injury, and without him, the running game and Knowshon Moreno will suffer and Kyle Orton will not find quite so many open guys. Demetrius Williams was really the first pick of the Broncos this year, but he has been overshadowed by Mr. Tebow. He is decent, but he is not Brandon Marshall, and that is the problem. Very few teams depended as much on one receiver as the Broncos relied on Marshall. Jabar Gaffney seemed to be the only other receiver Orton had chemistry with, and whether or not he can develop that same chemistry with his new corps is very much in doubt. Add to all this that he now has to look over his shoulder at Brady Quinn and Tim Tebow, and things get more complicated.

Inside of Denver, Tim Tebow is very overrated. Outside of Denver, he is a little underrated.  Overall, he is probably still too young to take over an offense and I fear that the public pressure will push him into the role too soon, which will be awful for Denver. He can still be a winner in this league, but not if he is thrown to the dogs.

The running game will be alright, but without Clady, it will not be anything the Broncos can hang their hat on, which realy gets to the heart of the problem. The Broncos do not have one thing they can rely on without a doubt to do well. The offense is very much in the air right now.

Defense

After retiring, Bailey should work as a guard in a prison because he is so used to being on lockdown.

When Elvis Dumervil went down, I was somewhat nonplussed. He had a great year, but undersized rush linebackers seem to be floating around. However, after hearing how Broncos’ players were crushed by it, I realized that the Broncos really don’t have anyone to step in and take over that role. That lack of pressure on the QB makes a huge difference. The secondary has to cover longer, the rest of the blitzers have to work harder on every down, and it wears on a team over a longer stretch.

Champ Bailey is still very solid and I think Dawkins can put up another solid season, but all that extra pressure on them is doing them no favors. The defense will still be pretty solid, but it will not be nearly as good as last year.

Once again, they have nothing to hang their hat on. Things are just too in flux to lead to success.

Special Teams

Not great, but always seem to find good returners and kickers, so I have confidence in them to do it again.

Overview

All the instability around the offense and a shmear of unfortunate injuries spells disappointment for the Broncos this year. McDaniels on the hot seat by the time all is said and done.

4. Oakland Raiders     OTC Projected Record: 5-11

Calling Card: Running Game
Weakness: Al Davis
Franchise Player: Darren McFadden

The new man in charge in Oak-town,

Everyone has the Raiders breaking out again, but until Al Davis leaves, that will not happen. They have even made some decent draft picks lately (Rolando McClain and the rest of this class), and did well to grab Jason Campbell, but things will not get off the tarmac for the Raiders quite yet. Plenty of interesting things to talk about in Silver and Black, but not all of that will lead to success.

Offense

The running game is the key here, and while they will not have Darren McFadden for a while, but Michael Bush can hold down the fort until he returns. Jason Campbell also gives the Raiders some credibility in the air, and according to all sources out of camp, Darius Heyward-Bey looks better than he did at any point last year, and Louis Murphy looks like he could put together another year like last year. Zach Miller should be very good as well. If the offensive line can hold up for an entire season, something I am skeptical of, the offense could be very respectable.

The big issue is Al Davis loving the vertical passing game, when Jason Campbell is not built for that and the running game is the real strength. That offensive line is not built for the vertical passing game.

Defense

A pretty solid unit given how often they had to be on the field last year. Nnamdi Asomugha is still a lockdown guy, and the Raiders have a bunch of quality linebackers, but I am not sure if the general malaise around the club will affect them or not. Richard Seymour has hardly played nice, and he is not alone as far as Raiders who are a handful. The talent is there without a doubt, but it seems like the Raiders just do not bring it most weeks. Early last year they completely shut down the Chargers by going man to man all around and pressing them, and then they didn’t do it on the most important possession of the game. To me, that is just the story of the Raiders season. They have what it takes to win some games, but they get in their own way. Same thing here.

Special Teams

Janikowski is as erratic as he is powerful, but he sticks around. The return game seems solid, but maybe that is just because we are constantly seeing them return kicks from the defense giving up points.

Overview

A lot of progress was made, but not quite enough to get the Raiders to respectability. Not a team I would be shocked to see succeed, just not expecting it to happen yet. The Cable Guy isn’t really helping either.

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