Here’s a look at the final AFC division: the AFC West.
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Strength- When looking at the Broncos’ strengths from 2009 and comparing them alongside expectations from this year, I honestly couldn’t find a unit for group that stood out as a strength, mostly due to injuries to key players. Instead, I’ll just name some of the team’s individual stars. Quarterback Kyle Orton took a big step forward in becoming a household name. He threw for 3,802 yards and 21 touchdowns. He finished with a 86.8 rating, ten points higher than that of Jay Cutler, who was traded to Chicago before the season. A name to watch this fantasy season is receiver Eddie Royal. Royal had 980 yards and five touchdowns his rookie year in 2008, but saw his numbers decline greatly in ’09. However, with Brandon Marshall now in Miami, Royal should become Orton’s number one target. Denver’s leading tackler from a year ago was linebacker D.J. Williams. Williams recorded 122 tackles and a career high three and a half sacks. The final player I’ll highlight is the immortal Brian Dawkins. The 36 year old free safety is entering his 15th season in the NFL (second with Denver). He recorded a career high 116 tackles in 2009, and also added two interceptions.
Weakness- Last season, the Broncos had the league’s best pass rusher. This season, they might struggle to hit the QB at all. The Broncos were 10th with 39 sacks in 2009. Outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil had 17. It seems Elvis has left the building, and went to the hospital with a torn pectoral muscle. Originally, it looked like Dumervil would miss the entire season, but reports say he may be return before the end of the year. After Dumervil was defensive end Vonnie Holliday with five sacks and linebackers D.J. Williams & Andra Davis each with three and a half. Holliday is now a Dolphin, and Davis will line up with Buffalo. Take 39, subtract 17, then another five, and another three and a half, and you get 13.5 sacks. That’s one half less than Jacksonville, whose 14 sacks was last in 2009. Former first round picks Jarvis Moss (2007) and Robert Ayers (2009) are expected to replace the lost sack production.
Biggest Question- Does this roster currently have what it takes to compete in the AFC West? Addition by subtraction can be a good thing, but is there a point where too much deduction can be harmful to a team. In the past two years, Coach Josh McDaniels has traded starting quarterback Jay Cutler and receiver Brandon Marshall. The first three running backs on the depth chart, Knowshon Moreno, Correll Buckhalter, and Lendale White, have been nagged with injuries this preseason. White is also facing a four game suspension to start the season. Former Raider Justin Fargas has been added as insurance. Fullback Peyton Hillis was sent to Cleveland in the trade for Brady Quinn. Quinn will probably see no time with Orton as the starter and Tim Tebow playing in Denver’s wildcat offense. Rookie receiver Demaryius Thomas, who is suppose to replace Marshall, is still being hampered by a foot injury. Arguably the best left tackle in the league, Ryan Clady is on the non-football injury list after hurting his knee while playing basketball in the offseason. Clady went through his first 20 starts without giving up a full sack (has started every game in ’08 & ’09). I already mentioned the loss of Davis and Holliday, as well as Dumervil for most of the year. It looks as if the Broncos may miss the playoffs again.
Kansas City Chiefs
Strength– The Chiefs are looking forward to bright things in Kansas City. This team starts and ends with its two running backs, Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones. Charles had a breakout year in 2009, setting himself in a category with some of the best rushers in the league. The Chiefs were 11th in total rushing yards with 1,929 yards. Charles led the team with 1,120 yards (tied with Frank Gore for 11th most) and seven scores. He had the highest average among players with over 1,000 yards with 5.9 yards per carry. Charles was also second on the team with 40 receptions. To compliment Charles, Kansas City signed former Jet Thomas Jones. Jones carried the workload as New York led the NFL with over 2,700 yards on the ground in 2009. Jones set multiple career highs, including attempts (331), yards (1,402), touchdowns (14), and longest run (71 yards). Add to the mix rookie Dexter McCluster. He can play either running back or wide receiver. As a senior at Ole Miss, he ran for 1,169 yards and caught another 520. He had 12 touchdowns, including one on his only throw.
Weakness– Kansas City had a pretty terrible defense in 2009. Their rushing defense was the second worse in the league. Their pass defense was slightly better, finishing 22nd. They were second to last in sacks. The Chiefs were also 29th in points allowed with 26.5 per game. Surprisingly, the Chiefs didn’t overhaul their defensive unit. Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson both are expected to continue to improve. Both defensive ends were first round picks out of LSU, Dorsey in ’08 and Jackson in ’09. Linebackers Corey Mays, Demorrio Williams, Derrick Johnson, Jovan Belcher, Mike Vrabel, and Tamba Hali all return in 2010. Belcher, Johnson, Mays, and Williams will be competing for the two inside linebacker positions. The only changes made were in the secondary. The biggest splash was the drafting of safety Eric Berry from Tennessee (5th overall). Berry will immediately start at free safety. Cornerback Javier Arenas was drafted in the second round. Starters Brandon Carr and Brandon Flowers both return, so Arenas will see time in nickel and dime packages. In the fifth round of the draft, strong safety Kendrick Lewis was taken. He’ll have to compete with Jarrad Page and Jon McGraw.
Biggest Question– With opposing defenses keying on the running game, can Matt Cassel emerge as the quarterback he was in 2008? When Tom Brady went down for the season in ’08, Matt Cassel stepped in and was expected to merely manage the offense. However, his did a little more than manage by throwing for 21 touchdowns and 3,693 yards with a 63% completion percentage. I personally believe those numbers were product of the system he played in at New England. Behind that line, and with those offensive weapons, any quarterback can play well. But this isn’t Boston, this is K.C. With Charles and Jones in the backfield, and receivers Dwayne Bowe, Chris Chambers, and Dexter McCluster, Cassel has a decent group of playmakers. Center Casey Wiegmann returns to Kansas City after two seasons with Denver, and former Indianapolis guard Ryan Lilja should help improve the line. If Cassel truly is the franchise QB, he will have to perform better he did in 2009.
Strength- The Oakland Raiders had the seventh best pass defense in 2009? Really? They gave up only 206.4 yards per game. That stat may be deceiving because opposing QB’s had an average 89.5 rating. I believe the Raiders have a defense that can cause some headaches among the league. Corner Nnamdi Asomugha is widely regarded as the best defensive back in the league. He has been a staple in the Raiders’ defense since recording a career high eight interceptions in 2006. Strong safety Tyvon Branch was second on the team in tackles with 124. He also had 2 forced fumbles and a sack. In fact, 12 different players recorded at least one sack in 2009 (13 if you include Michael Huff’s half sack). Trevor Scott led the way with seven sacks. In his first season with Oakland, Richard Seymour added 47 tackles and four sacks. Defensive tackle John Henderson, who played eight seasons in Jacksonville, signed with Oakland in the offseason. Middle linebacker Rolando McClain was drafted eighth overall out of Alabama. Outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley came to Oakland via trade with the Browns. In four seasons, Wimbley has 26.5 sacks, one pick, and seven forced fumbles.
Weakness- The Raiders’ offense has consistently been, well, inconsistent. The best move Oakland made was getting rid of JaMarcus Russell. While Russell boasted a strong arm, he was horribly inaccurate and not a team leader. Former Redskin Jason Campbell is a huge improvement. Looking at the failures of other high first round picks, Darren McFadden has yet to live up to the hype. He has 856 rushing yards, five touchdowns, and eight fumbles in two seasons. Darrius Heyward-Bey’s struggles were well documented last year. Taken way too high at seventh overall, Heyward-Bey had only nine catches in 11 games played. Oakland’s 2004 first round pick Robert Gallery has struggled for years to prove he is not a bust. After going second overall, Gallery’s best move was switching to guard from tackle. The Raiders have some young talent, but those athletes need to prove they’re good football players.
Biggest Question– Can Jason Campbell change the mindset in Oakland? After being ran out of Washington after the Redskins acquired Donovan McNabb, Campbell should look to prove he can lead a team toward success. On paper, the former Auburn quarterback doesn’t look bad. In 2008 and ’09, he started all 16 regular season games, throwing for over 6,800 yards and 33 touchdowns. He also ran for just under 500 yards and two scores. Nonetheless, Campbell struggled to win in the tough NFC East. Now in Oakland, owner Al Davis has highly praised Campbell. Davis has compared Campbell to Jim Plunkett, the Raider QB who led the team to two Super Bowl wins in the ’80s. Seems like a bit of a long shot to me, the Raiders in the Super Bowl anytime soon. We’ll see this season if Campbell can resurrect his career and win in Oakland.
San Diego Chargers
Strength- The Chargers’ passing offense was ranked 5th in 2009. Quarterback Philip Rivers was eighth in the league in yards thrown with 4,254 and eighth in completion percentage with 65.2%. His 28 touchdowns was tied with Tom Brady for sixth. For the second straight year, Rivers had a QB rating over 100 with a 104.4. Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates led the team with 79 receptions. For the second time in his career, he had over 1,100 yards receiving (2005 & ’09). Vincent Jackson led the team with 1,167 yards and nine grabs for touchdowns, both career highs. Receivers Malcom Floyd & Legedu Naanee, running back Darren Sproles, and fullback Mike Tolbert also contributed greatly to the passing attack. The key to success again in 2010 is for the Chargers to end Jackson’s holdout. The wide out has been publicly upset with his contract. Starting left tackle Marcus McNeill is also holding out. He is another vital part of the offense, protecting Rivers’ blindside. Currently, three back-up left tackles have missed time at training camp with injuries. If San Diego’s front office gets Jackson and McNeill to report to the team, the passing attack will remain on target.
Weakness- San Diego will have to rely heavily on the passing offense in 2010 to replace a questionable ground game. The Chargers rushing attack finished only ahead of the Colts in 2009. LaDainian Tomlinson led the Chargers with 730 yards and 12 scores. After seeing career lows in many categories, the Chargers cut L.T. In nine seasons with San Diego, Tomlinson recorded 12,490 yards rushing (8th on the all-time rushing list), with at least 1,100 yards in eight of nine years, and 138 rushing touchdowns (2nd all-time). With L.T. now in New York, Darren Sproles returns as the team’s leading rusher, with only 343 yards in 2009. In his five seasons, Sproles has never had more than 93 carries. He hasn’t proven he can carry the workload. Mike Tolbert is next with 148 yards in ’09 as a fullback. San Diego’s first round pick this year was running back Ryan Mathews from Fresno State. The team has high expectations for Mathews, who had 3,280 yards and 39 touchdowns in three college seasons.
Biggest Question- How will holdouts effect the Chargers? Vincent Jackson, Marcus McNeill, and Shawne Merriman all began this preseason with contract disputes. Merriman recently signed his $3.2 million tender and reported to training camp. This was definitely a smart move for Merriman, who missed 15 games in 2008 with reconstructive knee surgery and only recorded four sacks in 2009 (had at least 10 from 2005-’07). Vincent Jackson’s absence could be detrimental to the Chargers’ offense. Without Jackson, Malcom Floyd, Legedu Naanee, and former Buffalo Bill Josh Reed would have to seriously improve their game. Maybe 2007 first round pick Craig “Buster” Davis could prove his draft status (Buster is his nickname, not reflecting on his failure as a first round pick). In three seasons, Davis has started one game, and caught 30 passes for 299 yards and one touchdown. San Diego currently has three free agent rookie receivers on the roster: Jeremy Williams, Richard Goodman, and Seyi Ajirotutu. McNeil’s presence is vital to jump start the running attack, although the Chargers made the playoffs with an injury plagued line last season. Center Nick Hardwick missed 13 games, guard Louis Vasquez missed two games, and right tackle Jeromey Clary missed six games in 2009.
Division Prediction- It looks like Kansas City and Oakland are both improving. They may be catching up to Denver real quick. I think the Chiefs and Raiders can be spoilers in a few team’s seasons. As for Denver, I don’t expect much more than a .500 season, unless Tim Tebow prays real hard for a mile high miracle. This division still belongs to San Diego. The holdouts will hurt them, but not ruin their season. And that’s how the West was won.