2014 NFL Season Preview: AFC West

Denver Broncos

Additions: C Will Montgomery, WR Emmanuel Sanders, CB Aqib Talib, S T.J. Ward, DE DeMarcus Ware.

Draft Picks:
Rnd.   Pick#   Pos.  Player                       College
1          31         CB    Bradley Roby           Ohio State
2         56         WR   Cody Latimer          Indiana
3         95         OT    Michael Schofield   Michigan
5         156        LB    Lamin Barrow         LSU
6         207       C      Matt Paradis            Boise State
7         242       LB    Corey Nelson           Oklahoma

Losses: RB Knowshon Moreno, WR Eric Decker, G Zane Beadles, DE Robert Ayers, DE Shaun Phillips, DE Jeremy Mincey, OLB Wesley Woodyard, CB Champ Bailey, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, S Mike Adams.

Analysis:

The Broncos have a plan. They added where they needed to add – along the offensive line and along the defensive secondary. Aqib Talib is an upgrade at cornerback if he can stay healthy. Demarcus Ware may be a step slower but he’ll add some presence in the pass rush  after Robert Ayers departed. Don’t discount the addition of T.J. Ward at safety as it gives the Broncos a consistent presence at the position.

The losses of Knowshon Moreno and Eric Decker should prove to be minimal as Peyton Manning can cover up just about any shortcomings on the offensive side of the ball. Manning still has plenty of weapons in Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Wes Welker, and Emmanuel Sanders. Look for Sanders to be a major contributor here with his terrific deep speed.

The offense will roll along with Manning at the helm, but the defense lost some key contributors, most notably Wesley Woodyard. Woodyard was a rock for the Broncos last year and a special teams contributor. Fellow former Kentucky Wildcat, Danny Trevathan, will look to step up in a similar role at a LB.

Overall the Broncos are still the team to beat in the AFC. Everyone else is just trying to dethrone the kings. As long as the Sheriff is still in Denver, it seems like the race in the AFC West is for 2nd place.

San Diego Chargers

Additions: QB Kellen Clemens, RB Donald Brown, ILB Kavell Conner, CB Brandon Flowers. 

Draft Picks: 
Rnd.  Pick#   Pos.  Player                        College
1         25         CB    Jason Verrett           TCU
2        50         LB    Jeremiah Attaochu  Georgia Tech
3        89         G      Chris Watt                Notre Dame
5        165        DT   Ryan Carrethers       Arkansas State
6        201       RB    Marion Grice            Arizona State
7        240       WR  Tevin Reese               Baylor

Offseason Losses: QB Charlie Whitehurst, FB Le’Ron McClain, NT Cam Thomas, CB Derek Cox, CB Johnny Patrick.

Analysis:

Adding CB Brandon Flowers is a major upgrade for the San Diego Chargers. He’s a guy that can move around and provides a good #1 option at the position for the Chargers. Shareece Wright and Richard Marshall provide a great 2-3 option behind Flowers, while Jason Verrett is a good 4th option, as well. The safety duo of Eric Weddle and Marcus Gilchrist should be a good combo that will allow the Chargers to mix and match coverages based on the opponent and tendencies.

Corey Liuget is a legit presence up front and makes the other guys around him better. Kendall Reyes is a decent option at DE but Sean Lissemore at DT is a little cause for concern. Together, they provide a target if teams decide to run the ball. Kwame Geathers may end up being the starter at some point, but is still not the best option. Defensive tackle might be a position of focus next offseason for the Chargers.

The linebackers are a solid group of youth and experience. The starters consist of Melvin Ingram, Donald Butler, Manti Te’o, and Jarrett Johnson. If Dwight Freeney has anything left in the tank, he’ll provide a good boost for pass rushing sub-packages. This team looks built to defend the pass but not necessarily the run.

The entire offense revolves around Philip Rivers. He was a top 5 quarterback in 2013, and one could make the argument that he was one of the top 2 or 3. The Chargers are loaded with weapons around him – Ryan Mathews, Keenan Allen, Malcolm Floyd, Ladiarius Green, Vincent Brown, and if they still have anything left, Antonio Gates and Eddie Royal. With offensive guru Mike McCoy calling the shots, there should be no shortage of points in southern California this season.

The only cause for concern might be the offensive line. DJ Fluker is a bulldozer on the right side and Nick Hardwick is a steadying force in the middle. Left tackle King Dunlap has good days and bad days and needs to become more consistent as a pass blocker. Chad Rinehart is a good option at left guard but the Chargers will be starting rookie Chris Watt at right guard. It’s not ideal but Watt has shown promise and it looks like he should be able to hold his own in the NFL. There is concern about depth here. If anyone goes down, it could open up a big hole along the line.

As long as the Chargers can keep Philip Rivers upright and healthy, this is a team to watch in 2014. It may be tough to unseat the Broncos from the top of this division but the Chargers have everything necessary to do so – pass rush, good secondary, and an offense that can keep pace with the Sheriff and his guns. San Diego is a lock to finish (at least) 2nd in this division and make it into the playoffs. It’s possible they tally the same record as the Broncos and potentially win the AFC West.

Kansas City Chiefs

Additions: G Jeff Linkenbach, DT Vance Walker, ILB Joe Mays, CB Chris Owens. 

Draft Picks: 
Rnd.    Pick #  Pos.     Player                                    College
1          23       DE       Dee Ford                                 Auburn
3          87       CB       Phillip Gaines                        Rice
4          124     RB       De’Anthony Thomas             Oregon
5          163     QB       Aaron Murray                        Georgia
6          193     G          Zach Fulton                           Tennessee
6          200     OT       Laurent Duvernay-Tardif   McGill

Losses: 
WR/KR Dexter McCluster, OT Branden Albert, G Jon Asamoah, G Geoff Schwartz, DE/DT Tyson Jackson, ILB Akeem Jordan, CB Dunta Robinson, S Kendrick Lewis, S Quintin Demps. 

Analysis:

In his 2nd offseason with the Chiefs, GM John Dorsey has proven he is a Ted Thompson disciple. He let a lot of good talent go in Branden Albert, Jon Asomoah, Geoff Schwartz, Tyson Jackson, and Akeem Jordan, while only adding a few pieces via free agency.

Clearly the offensive line is the first concern with the Chiefs as they let 3 of 5 starters leave. Eric Fisher moves to left tackle, Donald Stephenson is now at right tackle, and there are a lot of question marks in between. Rodney Hudson is a good center but he’ll have a lot of turmoil handling new guards on either side of him.

Alex Smith proved last year that he can throw the ball heavily when called upon, but that’s not what the Chiefs want to do. They want to rely on a good defense and an electric running back in Jamaal Charles to handle the load. Backup RB Knile Davis is a great combination of size and speed and could prove a good bruising sidekick to Charles.

Anthony Fasano, Travis Kelce, and Demetrius Harris provide exceptional options and depth at the tight end position – something that Alex Smith needs to be successful. Dwayne Bowe is in better shape and looks crisper in his execution in the preseason so far. Beyond the tight ends and Bowe, there are concerns about the talent level at receiver. Donnie Avery is good enough but not exactly a guy the Chiefs will want to rely heavily on. He’s their #2 option. Their #3 options is either AJ Jenkins, Junior Hemingway, or Kyle Williams (though I’d expect Williams to be cut soon enough). That’s not a great set of options.

On defense, the Chiefs added Dee Ford as a pass rusher with their first round pick, CB Phillip Gaines in the 3rd round, and added CB Chris Owens via free agency. This helps bolster the corners, but doesn’t help to address the free safety issue that plagued the Chiefs last year. Eric Berry was a swiss army knife at strong safety but the lack of speed and tackling behind him caused the Chiefs a lot of issues against deep offenses. Current starter Husain Abdullah will need to up his game to prove that he’s the guy to help fix the issue.

Upfront, the Chiefs are still well suited to put pressure on the passer and handle the run. Dontari Poe, Allen Bailey, and Mike DeVito will cause problems for any offense. Toss in Ford, Hali, and Justin Houston rushing the QB and this defense has the ability to force a ton of negative plays for offenses. Derrick Johnson still mans the middle but he’ll have ILB Joe Mays to cover for. Mays is an average player who should help in the run game but the Chiefs don’t really have another exceptional inside linebacker behind him. Look for Mays to see a lot of snaps on the sideline because of the multiplicity and sub-packages that DC Bob Sutton will use often.

The Chiefs look to have another exceptional year ahead on special teams. D’Anthony Thomas looks like a threat to take the ball to the house on every kick return. The Chiefs have built a sustainable model that doesn’t have to rely on the QB to win the game for them. It’s a smart approach as QB can be the hardest position to find.

While the Chiefs didn’t get worse, they didn’t improve enough this offseason to keep pace or catch up to the Chargers and Broncos. The glaring hole at wide receiver as well as question marks along the offensive line are supremely concerning. They also didn’t do much to address the free safety issue or cornerback depth. This spells out a team that will have to pressure the passer and run the ball to win. If they fall behind by any significant margin in any game, it’s unlikely they have the firepower to comeback or keep up. Add in that they’re playing the NFC West this year and a tough schedule makes for a season somewhere around 8-8, 9-7 at best.

Oakland Raiders

Additions: QB Matt Schaub, RB Maurice Jones-Drew, WR James Jones, OT Donald Penn, OT Austin Howard, G Keith Boothe, DE Justin Tuck, DE/OLB LaMarr Woodley, DE/DT C.J. Wilson, CB Carlos Rogers, CB Tarell Brown.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd.    Pick #  Pos.     Player                       College
1          5          LB        Khalil Mack               Buffalo
2          36       QB       Derek Carr                 Fresno State
3          81       G          Gabe Jackson            Mississippi State
4          107     DT       Justin Ellis                 Louisiana Tech
4          116     CB       Keith McGill               Utah
7          219     CB       Travis Carrie               Ohio
7          235     DE       Shelby Harris             Illinois State
7          247     SS        Jonathan Dowling     Western Kentucky

Losses: 
RB Rashad Jennings, WR/KR Jacoby Ford, OT Jared Veldheer, G Mike Brisiel, DE Lamarr Houston, DT Vance Walker, CB Mike Adams, CB Tracy Porter, CB Philip Adams. 

Analysis:

The Oakland Raiders apparently decided to get older and not as good this offseason. I’ve stuck up for GM Reggie McKenzie saying that he deserved this year to be able to use the cap space he created after taking the Raiders out of salary cap hell. I’m relenting on that opinion as the Raiders decided to load up on veterans with very little left in the tank, while pairing that with an iffy draft.

I like the additions of Justin Tuck, James Jones, and Donald Penn. Matt Schaub is a decent addition in that he’s now the best QB on the roster and the only one that I believe is capable of helping the Raiders win games this year. Lamarr Woodley seemed slower in Pittsburgh last season and that’s actually the general theme I get with this Raiders defense – they’re Pittsburgh last season. Old veterans who (sometimes) win with experience but depleted skill sets.

The defensive line is a shell of older players with good but young and inexperienced linebackers playing behind it in Sio Moore and Khalil Mack. There are certainly going to be some big holes and missed coverages as the LBs are learning where they’re supposed to be.

I admire the signing of Charles Woodson even if it’s not a pragmatic one. Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown are more names at the cornerback spot than they are efficient players.

The offense is led by the epitome of QB Purgatory himself, Matt Schaub. Except now Schaub has fallen below that level and with less talent around him in Oakland, it shouldn’t be expected for him to look or play any better. The Raiders drafted Derek Carr who has looked lackadaisical so far this preseason with his lazy mechanics. That concerns me because I know that OC Greg Olson holds specific parts of OTAs and preseason to address those exact issues.

The offensive line might be the best unit on the offensive side of the ball for Oakland but it still has plenty of question marks. Schaub will likely see a lot of pressure from the interior and running backs will find it tough to find a hole up the middle. At best, these guys are inconsistent.

Unfortunately, the Raiders are destined to find themselves at the bottom of a tough division again. With the schedule including the NFC West, the Raiders will likely find themselves picking in the top 5 again next offseason. But it will probably be a new GM and head coach making those picks.

Final Standings:

Denver Broncos (13-3)

The Broncos solidified some spots they needed to for a run at the Super Bowl.

San Diego Chargers (10-6)

Dangerous team. No one will want to face this team late in the season or in the playoffs.

Kansas City Chiefs (9-7)

The Chiefs are still a good team but the AFC West turned into a solid division. KC will be on the playoff bubble.

Oakland Raiders (2-14)

2 wins may be generous here.

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