2013 NFL Season Preview: AFC West

Denver Broncos

Overview

The Broncos are very much in a “win now” mode. Peyton Manning is a brilliant quarterback and probably the best of my generation so far. But he’s getting up there in age (37) and it’s hard to realistically gauge how many years he has left. Peyton works so much off of his football intelligence that it will help him overcome any physical limitations he experiences due to age. He has never been the type of QB who wins by throwing lasers all over the place. Instead, he’s methodical, accurate, and mistake free – which is exactly why he’s so hard to beat.

The rest of the Denver Broncos’ roster around him looks great. Peyton Manning has plenty of options to throw to, a solid offensive line in front of him, and a defense that may not be the most athletic but wins up front and covers well on the outside.

The Broncos lost veteran pass rusher Elvis Dumervil because of a fax machine snafu. Other losses include RB Willis McGahee, WR Brandon Stokely, C Dan Koppen, DE Jason Hunter, DT Justin Bannan, DT Ty Warren, LB DJ Williams, LB Keith Brooking, CB Tracy Porter, S Jim Leonhard. There’s a lot of talent there that played very well at times for the Broncos last season. Dumervil was a very good compliment opposite LB Von Miller. To plug the holes left, the Broncos add WR Wes Welker, G Louis Vasquez, DE Shaun Phillips, DT Terrance Knighton, LB Paris Lenon, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and CB Quentin Jammer.

Strengths

This entire offense is loaded with talent and is incredibly deep are every area. If Peyton were to go down with an injury, I’m not sure how it would play out with Brock Osweiler steering the ship. Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, and Eric Decker are all tremendous receivers who offer different skill sets that complement each other very well. TE Julius Thomas is a relative unknown but will be a big part of this offense all season. The offensive line looked phenomenal in the preseason and what was supposed to be a weak link at center, turned into what looks like a strength with Manny Ramirez. The defense will have to do without Von Miller for the first six games of the year due to suspension, but when he gets back, that gives the Broncos some serious pass rushing ability on the outside. There’s some solid depth at defensive tackle with Terrance Knighton, Kevin Vickerson, Sylvester Williams, and Mitch Unrein.

Weaknesses

Denver has a stable of running backs but doesn’t really appear to know what to do with it. Knowshon Moreno is the best pass blocker out of the group and will see significant time because of that, but he’s not a weapon out of the backfield. Montee Ball is the best runner out of the group, ahead of Ronnie Hillman, but needs to clean up his pass blocking before he’ll get the touches he deserves. Without Von Miller, the linebacker unit as a whole is very average. Danny Trevathan is an interesting and instinctive player while Wesley Woodyard was voted as a team captain. However, they lack special athleticism for the position. The secondary is a bit of a concern also. The Broncos added veteran Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to play opposite of star Champ Bailey, but DRC had a disappointing season in Philadelphia last year and it will be interesting to see what version the Broncos are getting. Behind them, Chris Harris is one of the better slot cover corners in the league. Every one remembers Rahim Moore’s whiff on the Jacoby Jones touchdown in the AFC Championship game, but that’s an example of one play becoming the perception of a player who was actually solid as a pass defender. Duke Ihenacho next to Moore is unproven player who spent last season on Denver’s practice squad and could end up being the weak link in the defense that opposing offenses target.

Name To Know

Julius Thomas – This tight end went from third string to starting over veterans Joel Dressen and Jacob Tamme because of his chemistry with Peyton Manning. He’s an intelligent route runner with good size who uses his body well and displays solid hands. He’s not much of a blocker but he provides a great target in the seams and over the middle of the field for Peyton.

Prediction

The Broncos and Patriots are clearly the best teams in the AFC. They are loaded with weapons, the roster has very few holes, they play well up front on both sides of the ball, have Hall of Fame QBs, and both have some of the best coaching in the game today. The Broncos have a weak schedule but are good enough to overcome any teams they run into. This team is a 13-14 win team if they stay healthy and should be representing the AFC in the Super Bowl.

 

 

Kansas City Chiefs

Overview

I’ll admit it and get it out of the way: I thought the Chiefs were going to be good last year. I thought Romeo Crennel was a good head coach, Scott Pioli had put together a solid roster, and Matt Cassel had proven he was a capable enough QB to manage a team, right? I wasn’t alone as Kansas City became the hot team to pick out of the AFC West. Some even had them beating out the Broncos because people were concerned Peyton Manning’s nerve in his neck wasn’t fully healed. And while I’ll relent on Crennel and Cassel, the roster wasn’t all bad. There were some good players scattered throughout who didn’t receive the coaching they deserved to showcase their talent.

The Chiefs believe they’ve fixed the QB situation by trading for Alex Smith who was playing tremendously well last season before getting injured and surrendering the starting job to Colin Kaepernick. As backups, the Chiefs added Chase Daniel and Tyler Bray. This is a significant upgrade over last year’s group of Matt Cassel, Brady Quinn, and Ricky Stanzi. New Head Coach Andy Reid and General Manager John Dorsey took an approach to the roster that signifies that they believe they can win now. They added WR Donnie Avery, TE Anthony Fasano, G/T Geoff Schwartz, DE Mike DeVito, LB Akeem Jordan, LB Frank Zombo, CB Sean Smith, and CB Dunta Robinson. The Chiefs decided to move on from Peyton HIllis, WR Steve Breaston, TE Kevin Boss, OT Eric Winston, G Ryan Lilja, DT Glenn Dorsey, DT Ropati Pitoitua, LB Andy Studebaker, LB Brandon Siler, CB Javier Arenas, and S Abram Elam.

The Chiefs suffered last year due to poor coaching and poor QB play. They’re a perfect example of how a team’s talent can be mitigated because it isn’t used correctly. Players weren’t focused on the details and it showed. Poor scheme and technique cost a decent roster a fairly decent shot at a chance to make the playoffs because of a weak division and schedule.

Strengths

The tight end position is something to monitor with the Chiefs. Starter Anthony Fasano is a very good player who fits well into Andy Reid’s scheme, while rookie backup Travis Kelce should see his fair share of pass catching opportunities because he’s more of a move TE and receiver. RB Jamaal Charles is one of the most explosive weapons in the NFL and his backup, rookie Knile Davis, offers a size speed combo that’s rare. DE Tyson Jackson, DT Dontari Poe, and DE Mike DeVito give the Chiefs a formidable starting three up front, with some decent depth in Allen Bailey and Anthony Toribio. The starting linebackers are another group that should be impressive. Justin Houston is a young pass rusher who should get unleashed this year. He and Tamba Hali should feed off of one another all season. Derrick Johnson is still one of the better linebackers in the league. There’s some depth concerns but this starting unit could be phenomenal. The secondary will benefit from much better coaching, especially S Eric Berry who was up and down last season but was playing better towards the end of the year. CB Brandon Flowers is a true number one cornerback and now has Sean Smith (up and down year in 2012) and Dunta Robinson as his 2nd and 3rd corners.

Weaknesses

The Chiefs’ safety play was atrocious last season and cost them a ton of big plays. S Kendrick Lewis has to play better next to Eric Berry or Hussain Abdullah may end up starting sooner rather than later. The offensive line is a bit of an unknown at this point. LT Brenden Albert is a phenomenal pass blocker who can improve his run blocking, while number one overall pick Eric Fisher has looked great in both pass and run blocking at RT. The guard play wasn’t fantastic this preseason and there are only three backup linemen on the roster right now. Kansas City added Donnie Avery and traded for AJ Jenkins, but there are big question marks about who will step up at receiver for the Chiefs opposite Dwayne Bowe. KC would really benefit if Dexter McCluster turned into the playmaking weapon he was originally drafted to be.

Name To Know

Dontari Poe and Travis Kelce – Poe was drafted because he was a numbers freak at the combine. He was a major disappointment last season mostly because the scheme didn’t fit his natural talents. He’s a big guy who is quick and can penetrate and the Chiefs used him as a big body to clog the middle in 2012. Andy Reid has shown that he wants to use Poe in a disruptive fashion this preseason and Poe responded well. If Poe continues to progress, he’s a name that everyone will be talking about at season’s end. Rookie tight end Travis Kelce is a smooth receiver who can play the H-back role and line up all over the formation. The Chiefs could get creative with their two tight end personnel and try to use Kelce as a mismatch for defenses.

Prediction

After being burned by the Chiefs last season, it should be hard to pick them to be good for this season. But it really isn’t. The Chiefs have improved a roster that was already pretty decent to begin with. They corrected the QB and coaching issues. Now it’s time for them to put it together on the field. Luckily for the Chiefs, they play in the AFC West which figures to be weak outside of Denver. The Chiefs low end should be 8-8 this season. 9-7 is probably accurate, and if they upset someone along the way, they’ll hit 10 wins and roll into the playoffs.

 

 

San Diego Chargers

Overview

The Chargers will be a hard team to figure out for the first few weeks of 2012. New head coach Mike McCoy was one of the better offensive coordinators in the league over the last few seasons. He’s shown his ability to adapt an offensive scheme by architecting an offense that Tim Tebow won a playoff game in, and then switching to an offense that was suited to Peyton Manning. That’s pretty much the epitome of versatility as a coordinator. But being a head coach is incredibly different than being a coordinator. They’re two separate jobs that require two separate skill sets. It will be interesting to see how Mike McCoy adapts to his new role as easily as he can adapt schemes to his personnel.

The roster left by departing General Manager AJ Smith was in need of some major retooling. Smith’s stubbornness to re-sign homegrown talent was a major downfall of a guy who seemed to have a very good eye for talent a few years ago. New GM Tom Telesco dumped a lot of marginal players and bad contracts during his spring cleaning of the roster. Losses include OT Jared Gaither, G Louis Vasquez, G Tyronne Green, DT Aubrayo Franklin, DT Antonio Garay, LB Shaun Phillips, LB Antwan Barnes, LB Takeo Spikes, CB Quentin Jammer, CB Antoine Cason, and S Atari Bigby. To replace the losses, the Chargers added RB Danny Woodhead, OT King Dunlap, OT Max Starks. G Chad Rinehart, G Rich Ohrnberger, DE Dwight Freeney, CB Derek Cox, and CB Johnny Patrick.

In 2013, the Chargers look to be in an evaluation year. This year will give the staff and coaches a chance to really figure out what direction they want to take this team over the next few years. The addition of Mike McCoy should really help Philip Rivers out going forward. McCoy will put him in a position to succeed but it will be up to Rivers to execute. If he does, this team could surprise some people.

Strengths

The offense should boast a strong starting offensive line with some very good playmakers at wide receiver. LT King Dunlap and RT DJ Fluker are some massive bookends while Nick Hardwick and Chad Rinehart are very good on the interior. The offensive line’s depth could use some help but the starters should be very good. Malcom Floyd, Vincent Brown, and Keenan Allen are all good receivers with some size and speed. I’m not sold on Eddie Royal but he could be a valuable piece out of the slot. The linebacker unit should be solid with Jarrett Johnson and Dwight Freeney on the ends, and Donald Butler and Manti Te’o in the middle. Larry English is still a solid contributor, too. DE/DT Corey Liuget seems to be a young star in the making.

Weaknesses

The secondary, outside of All-Pro S Eric Weddle, is going to be an issue. Derek Cox had an up and down season with Jacksonville last season and is the number one corner who will be matching up against opponents’ best receivers. The depth behind him isn’t there either. If Ryan Mathews doesn’t turn into the back that most expected him to be, the Chargers could lack in the run game by relying on Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown all season.

Name To Know

Corey Liuget and Keenan Allen – Liuget (pronounced “legit,” like “Too legit to quit”) is legit. He’s a terror at end and is a handful to deal with. He’s a guy that didn’t get as much recognition as he deserved last season. Keenan Allen is a rookie wide receiver who has first round talent but knee issues dropped him into the third round. The Chargers could have gotten a steal and it will be interesting to see how much he’s incorporated into the offense.

Prediction

Mike McCoy could make us all look stupid. Overall, this roster isn’t terrible. It lacks depth just about everywhere which could spell trouble if the injury bug bites. McCoy has a history of getting the most out of his players as a coordinator, but can he do it as a head coach? With a solid QB at the helm in Philip Rivers and a good coach leading the way, they could hide a lot of the issues along the roster. As it is, it’s hard to see the Chargers making a major impact this season. A repeat of 7 wins is probably a fair expectation.

 

 

Oakland Raiders

Overview

Reggie McKenzie and Dennis Allen should be credited for taking on the task of trying to fix a team that was in such bad shape. The contracts that were out of line have crippled the Raiders’ attempt at rebuilding for a couple of years. McKenzie has finally cleaned up the salary cap and stands to have a whopping $50 million in dead money this year. This means that of the $123 million in cap that the Raiders have to spend, $50 million of the cap is allocated to players who aren’t even on the roster. That leaves the Raiders working with about 60% of the same financial resources this year as everyone else. The good news is that this means the Raiders will have a massive amount of cap space in 2014 – at least $50 million of it.

The salary dumping and losses include QB Carson Palmer, RB Mike Goodson, WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, TE Brandon Myers, G Cooper Carlisle, DE Matt Shaughnessy, DT Richard Seymour, DT Desmond Bryant, DT Tommy Kelly, LB Philip Wheeler, LB Rolando McClain, CB Shawntae Spencer, S Michael Huff, S Michael Mitchell, and P Shane Lechler. The Raiders did make some additions to the roster and there were some shrewd moves involved. The Raiders added QB Matt Flynn, RB Rashad Jennings, DE Jason Hunter, DT Vance Walker, LB Kevin Burnett, LB Nick Roach, LB Kaluka Maiava, CB Mike Jenkins, CB Tracy Porter, S Charles Woodson, and S Usama Young. The draft picks include CB DJ Hayden, OT Menelik Watson, LB Sio Moore, QB Tyler Wilson, TE Nick Kasa, RB Latavius Murray, and TE Mychal Rivera.

Strengths

The best unit for the Raiders unit appears to be in the secondary. Mike Jenkins and Tracy Porter are decent players at corner and rookie DJ Hayden could end up being very good. Charles Woodson and Tyvon Branch are viable options at safety and Usama Young gives some decent depth. The combo of Darren McFadden and Marcel Reese make for a 1-2 punch at RB and FB that provides a lot of options. Rashad Jennings has proven he’s a capable backup.

Weaknesses

It begins with the QB position. Matt Flynn is a below average NFL QB and it seems like Terrelle Pryor’s athleticism is going to win out. Athletic QBs are the craze right now but I’m a big believer that a QB must be able to win from the pocket first and athleticism provides an added element to defend. If a QB isn’t a good passer, then he’s just a running back lining up taking a direct snap. I have to see that from Pryor and I haven’t yet. The offensive line has suffered some injuries recently that makes it really thin. Denarius Moore is a decent receiver but right now he’s the only real threat to a defense. There’s not much at tight end and the defensive line is likely to get pushed around all year. The linebackers improved by adding Sio Moore, and he and Lamar Houston should play well together for years to come, but that’s about all to rave about there.

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