Here is the last entry in the division-by-division season preview, next Thursday morning with the postseason and Super Bowl predictions on before the Saints vs. Vikings open the season on NBC.
The AFC West is a division that has seemingly been on repeat for years. The San Diego Chargers own lease by one club for the last four years, with a relenting grasp, on first place. Then come the Denver Broncos come in right after them, followed by some order of the Chiefs or Raiders fighting it out for third place, by a long margin. During this stretch the Chargers have been led by one of the great running backs in NFL history and one of the most productive tight ends and quarterbacks ever as well. Essentially, everything runs through San Diego because only the very elite of the league have been able to derail them, and none of them are in this division.
However, things are changing in the West, even at the top. The cast of the Charger Show is losing some of its longest tenured guys. In Denver, the last of the disgruntled Broncos left town, just as the Mile High City started resembling an M.A.S.H. camp this summer. Even the Raiders and Chiefs are bringing impact guys at long last. Perhaps the run up the mountain in to capture the flag atop the West won’t be as steep.
However, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Not much as drastic as the spreading of power across this division changes quickly. However, anything can happen, including one of the doormats of the division starting to get up and dust themselves off. Anything could happen, maybe.
Denver Broncos (8-8 in 2009)
Offense: R. Clady-T, K. Moreno-RB, K. Orton-QB, E. Royal-WR (C)
Defense: C. Bailey-CB, B. Dawkins-SS, R.Ayers-LB (C+)
The Good: While he will never be a flashy, top flight quarterback, Kyle Orton quietly had a very solid first season in Denver. His veteran presence will be just as important this time around, because he’s the ringleader of a group of talent that’s going to need his help to develop. Knowshon Moreno approached 1,000 yards on the ground as a rookie and will have even more responsibility this season. They used their two first round picks on giving the offense more options with QB Tim Tebow and WR Demaryius Thomas. Each will play a crucial role in a team rebuilding after losing a prominent member of its offense for second straight offseason in Brandon Marshall.
The Bad: Injuries are ravaging the Broncos very early. All-Pro tackle Ryan Clady tore knee ligaments during an offseason basketball game & will miss the beginning of the season. Elvis Dumervil went down for the season with a torn chest muscle early in training camp. He takes his league leading 17 sacks to the sideline with him. Their top three running backs have had training camp injury issues, with Moreno, Correll Buckhalter and LenDale White all limited. Even top draft picks Tebow and Thomas have been limited by early injury. The injury bug may beat the Broncos before any opponent gets a chance to.
X-Factor-Eddie Royal: The ability of Royal to make big plays is undeniable; however consistency seems to be as elusive to him as he is to opponents. He didn’t eclipse 100 yards in a game last year and only had five or more catches twice. This is a far cry from his 91 catch, 980 yards rookie showing. With all the instability around the Broncos, they need to Royal to lean much more towards his first year form to make life much easier for the ever-changing Bronco offense.
2010 Projection: @ Jax (L), Sea (W), Ind (L), @ Ten (L), @ Bal (L), NYJ (W), Oak (W), SF (W), KC (W), @ SD (L), StL (W), @ KC (L), @ Ari (L), @ Oak (L), Hou (W), SD (L)
Summary: The Broncos are full of as many question marks as any team in football, due to injuries and personnel changes. Even without these issues, they still don’t have one part of the team that jumps off the page as being an outstanding unit. Champ Bailey and Brian Dawkins will lead a tough secondary, but lack of a pass rush may wear them down early. They may surprise a few clubs, but there’s not enough here to make a constant impact. RECORD: 7-9
Kansas City Chiefs (4-12 in 2009)
Offense: M. Cassel-QB, J. Charles-RB, D. Bowe-WR, T. Jones-RB (B)
Defense: D. Johnson-LB, E. Berry-S, B. Flowers-CB (C+)
The Good: They are finally landing some big play threats on both sides of the ball. Jamaal Charles caught fire after taking over as starter, including a 259 finale vs. Denver. They sport one of the most athletic receiver duos in football with Dwayne Bowe and Chris Chambers. They used the 5th pick in the draft to add dynamic safety Eric Berry, who was the biggest defensive player in college football over the last two years, to boost a defense that has been searching for a playmaker for years via the draft. 2nd round pick Dexter McCluster will be used every way possible in the both the offense and special teams to provide another spark.
The Bad: Both lines, offensive and defensive, are bad. Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson have typified early draft pick errors of the last 3 years and have yet to find their way in making an impact even close to what they did in college. Underperformance by this tandem is why teams averaged over 150 yards per game versus team last season, next to worst in the NFL. Lack of impact by the offensive line limited the impact of new QB Matt Cassel, who threw both 16 touchdowns and interceptions in his first KC season. Former first rounder Branden Albert has to turn the corner at left tackle, because nothing will change if Cassel is sacked another 40 plus times.
X-Factor-Brandon Flowers: The 2008 second round pick took strides forward in his second season and became one the more physical presences at cornerback in the game. He finished with five interceptions and was the leader of a much improved secondary. He could be challenged more this year with the talented Berry lurking at free safety, and his development will play a big role in the efforts to bring stability to the entire defense.
2010 Projection: SD (L), @ Cle (L), SF (L), @ Ind (L), @ Hou (L), Jax (L), Buf (W), @ Oak (L), @ Den (L), Ari (L), @ Sea (L), Den (W), SD (W), @ StL (L), Ten (L), Oak
Summary: They still have to better themselves at the critical frontlines to truly make the strides back to respectability. The offensive line is a mixture is plagued by aging vets, underperforming youth and plain low talent. Until they can get it right here, the offense will not be able rise up. The pieces are coming into place for an upswing, but even high-profile new coordinators Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel won’t be able to help Todd Haley right a ship with this many critical issues in its hull. RECORD: 4-12
Oakland Raiders (5-11 in 2009)
Offense: J. Campbell-QB, Z. Miller-TE, M. Bush-RB (D+)
Defense: N. Asomugha-CB, R. Seymour-DE, J. Henderson-DT, R. McClain-LB (B+)
The Good: The defense has huge potential. Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha is the least targeted defender in the game and led the Raider defense to a top ten finish versus the pass last year. They have aggressively added to linebacker unit by acquiring Kamerion Wimbley and drafting middle linebacker Rolando McClain. Add to this group a defensive line featuring Richard Seymour, Tommy Kelly, John Henderson and this projects to be a tough unit all the way around.
The Bad: While the JaMarcus Russell era is over, there is still the matter of the inconsistencies of the remaining team. The offensive line still requires extensive work to enable new quarterback Jason Campbell to do much with this unit. Michael Bush returns as leading rusher, but he didn’t top 600 yards last year. Darren McFadden has yet to show the toughness or health to be a consistent runner. Starting receivers Darius Heyward-Bey, Louis Murphy, Chaz Schillens are not a group that strikes fear any defense, combining for only 1,010 yards in ’09.
X-Factor-Jason Campbell: When you trade a fourth round pick that doesn’t go into effect for 2 years for an established starting quarterback, you know you’ve gotten a deal. Now it’s time for Campbell to take the snaps and both prove the Raiders got a bargain. Anything should help them starting moving past the horrors of the Russell era. He has been a steady hand his first six years and while he’s not a franchise turning savior, he has the ability to give some impression of a steady offense, which is real progress here.
2010 Projection: @ Ten (L), StL (W), @ Ari (W), Hou (L), SD (W), @ SF (L), @ Den (W), Sea (W), KC (W), @ Pit (L), Mia (W), @ SD (L), @ Jax (L), Den (L), Ind (L), @ KC (L)
Summary: This is a team of two distinct halves. The defense looks ready to win, but it still sports an offense that could potentially win a few games for the opponent. There shouldn’t be a lot of high scoring affairs in many Raider contests for either team, and this is a real progression for a club that has been snake bitten by bad drafting and empty personnel moves for years. This off-season’s moves won’t shoot them into the playoffs, but it should provide for a nice start to a rebuilding effort. RECORD: 7-9
San Diego Chargers (13-3 in 2009; Division Champs)
Offense: P. Rivers-QB, A. Gates-TE, R. Mathews-RB, D. Sporles-RB (A)
Defense: S. Merriman-LB, L. Castillo-DE, Q. Jammer-CB (C+)
The Good: They brought balance back on the offense. After Darren Sporles showed he couldn’t take prolonged carries in the backfield and LaDainian Tomlinson couldn’t carry the load anymore full-time, the Chargers running game became non-existent almost. Luckily Philip Rivers easily passed them out of the problem often, but acquiring a new back was a must. In April, they moved up the Draft to select Ryan Mathews from Fresno State to handle that running load. If he continues his strong preseason showing of a speed and toughness surplus, he will be a force of a balancing act.
The Bad: They have lost a lot of mainstays from a core that was very successful over the last six years. Tomlinson, Antonio Cromartie and Jamaal Williams have all moved on to new clubs. All-Pros Marcus McNeil and Vincent Jackson are holding out, with Jackson demanding a trade. With new players being called upon in more critical possessions, the team could be taking on a new direction and the margin of error will be tighter. To ensure the various transitions go off easier on offense, getting McNeil back is huge.
X-Factor-Malcolm Floyd: He came on strong last season opposite Jackson as big downfield target that Rivers looked to in big play situations frequently. With Jackson having likely played his last game in SD, Floyd becomes the go-to guy for Rivers on the outside. With the responsibility of lining up versus the best corner on the other club weekly, including Nnamdi Asomugha and Champ Bailey in divisional matchups, Floyd rising to the occasion and becoming a dependable #1 receiver is a huge part in San Diego’s effort at defending their division crown.
2010 Projection: @ KC (W), Jax (L), @ Sea (W), Ari (W), @ Oak (L), @ StL (W), NE (W), Ten (W), @ Hou (L), Den (W), @ Ind (L), Oak (W), KC (L), SF (W), @ Cin (L), @ Den
Summary: There’s a lot of transition in several places here. The main benefits are having strong leadership remaining on both sides of the ball in Rivers, Antonio Gates and Shawne Merriman still suiting up. This will still be one of the most productive offenses in football, definitely the best in the West, and the defense is solid won’t lose any games for them. Despite the turnover, they will easily represent the West come Playoff time again. RECORD: 11-5