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2008 Preview: AFC West

August 22, 2008

So here we have another division in the AFC where the victor can almost be named before the season begins. the Chargers are likely to use their offensive star power and suffocating defense to retain the crown. But really, it’s the poor quality of the other 3 teams which will ultimately hand the Bolts another division title.

The real question is: can any of the other teams close the gap, and if so, how well?

Denver Broncos

Prediction: 8-8, 2nd in division

The Broncos would seem to have many of the tools needed to be a good NFL team: a young, talented quarterback-wide receiver tandem, depth at RB, 2 superb cornerbacks and a coach who has won Super Bowls. They seemed to spend 2007 looking for answers to this conundrum, and not finding it.

Jay Cutler really started to come out of his shell last season, throwing for over 3000 yards and 20 TDs in just his second pro season. Brandon Marshall cut loose for 102 catches, over 1300 yards and 9 TDs aswell, before injuring himself on a McDonald’s bag/entertainment centre in the offseason. The front office will be hoping either free agent Darrell Jackson or rookie Eddie Royal steps up to perform whilst Marshall serves his 4-game suspension at the start of the year, and indeed after he returns.

However, the problem was that Denver’s running game was not the powerhouse it has usually been. Travis Henry was a big injury-prone disappointment (and not just to his 30 or so kids), and the starter seemed to change weekly. Selvin Young was the leading rusher with just 729 yards, marking the first time Denver hasn’t had a 1,000 rusher in some time. If the fabled zone-blocking scheme that produced Clinton Portis and Terrell Davis has fallen flat, it means big trouble for the Broncs.

Defensively, Denver bizarrely cut ties with leader and excellent MLB Al Wilson before last year, and it cost them. Attempts to force DJ Williams into the middle linebacker position didn’t work, so the team has had to move him back outside and hope someone takes the reins in the middle. The team added Boss Bailey (Champ’s brother) and DeWayne Robertson to bolster the front 7, but they lack any quality on the D-Line outside the surprising Elvis Dumervil, so they’ll hope that Robertson will play better than he did for the Jets, or that ’07 first-round draft pick Jarvis Moss gets up to speed in a hurry after being injured last year. The hole left by the departure of veteran safety John Lynch to the Patriots would seem to already be filled by Marlon McCree’s arrival from San Diego.

For me, Denver did not do enough to improve much in 2007, and unless they sort out the running game or Cutler turns out to be Christ incarnate, they’ll limp to 2nd in a very weak division.

Kansas City Chiefs

Prediction: 4-12, 4th in division

Oh deary dear me. If it wasn’t for the continuing (and you can’t deny, almost impressive) horror show that is Oakland, KC would be the worst team in the division by leaps and bounds. Even the Dolphins would have well beaten these helpless chumps last year. Rotating between 2 mediocre-at-best QBs and losing the focal point (read: entire) offense when Larry Johnson got injured, the Chiefs were terrible last year. Bright spots were Dwayne Bowe’s emergence as a #1 target, Tony Gonzalez becoming the all-time leading TE in NFL history and Jared Allen’s 16.5 sacks (and mullet).

Contrary to most teams, the Chiefs’ biggest offseason move was to trade one of their best players. Jared Allen bid farewell to Missouri (which is where Kansas City actually is, oddly) and landed in Minnesota, who gave up a 1st rounder to get him. Defensively now, the Chiefs are almost totally screwed. Aging cornerback Patrick Surtain is still having to hold down a starting role because no-one seems good enough to oust him, the D-line is made even weaker with Allen’s departure and Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali are very good players but also always quintuple-teamed. Despite this, they somehow managed to have the league’s #5 pass defense last year. Go figure.

Offensively, this team was awful in ’07. Johnson got injured so everyone simply double teamed Gonzalez and Bowe and let the QBs make the mistakes they are so prone to making. Gonzalez and Bowe still had great years, but unless a QB distinguishes himself, neither of them can have much more success. Since Will Shields and Willie Roaf retired this team has had real trouble doing anything offensively, and though Johnson’s return will bolster the rushing attack, expect to see a lot of 8 man fronts until a QB starts passing at all well.

Despite all this, the team has one good thing to look forward to: its rookie class. I thought Glenn Dorsey was the best player in the draft and the pick they got from the Vikings was used to start rebuilding what was once the best O-line in football by taking Branden Albert. Add to that physical corner Brandon Flowers from VTech and ex-Texas speed freak Jamaal Charles and there’s perhaps a glimmer.

No more than a glimmer, mind. As long as Brodie Croyle tops the depth chart this team will struggle.

Oakland Raiders

Prediction: 6-10, 3rd in division.

Surely it can’t go on much longer? Since getting drubbed by the Bucs in the Super Bowl, the Raiders have been consistently awful. In ’07 they drafted a QB #1 who showed up to camp overweight and very late, were defensively a nightmare and in the offseason lost Warren Sapp to retirement and signed a running back in round one who many consider overrated. However, ’08 has the potential to be a lot better for a team without a winning year since 2001.

Now that JaMarcus Russell has been in camp all offseason he can gel with the wide receiving corps: free agents Javon Walker and Drew Carter are both overpaid but serviceable opposite the consistent Ronald Curry. Russell will have the growing pains of any young QB, but his cannon arm means he can make many throws others cannot. If he can be accurate and not try to do too much, he could improve a lot.

Darren McFadden has that electric speed that Al Davis has always loved (see Warren Wells, Marcus Allen, Bo Jackson) but must be used correctly. Hopefully Lane Kiffin will learn from Reggie Bush’s tenure thus far in New Orleans, and use McFadden sporadically to maximise his effect. Justin Fargas (Huggy Bear #2) should see the bulk of carries, though Michael Bush has looked solid in camp and will see some looks aswell. McFadden could either be a superb role player for years, or fade out too fast.

Defensively, the biggest story outside of Sapp’s retirement is the addition of DeAngelo Hall at cornerback. His phenomenal speed and coverage skills mean that he and countdown-conundrum Nnamdi Asomougha should be one of the best CB tandems in the league. The defense will continue to be anchored by Derrick Burgess and Kirk Morrisson who are both solid fixtures when healthy. However, last year’s emerging players – Michael Huff (S), Thomas Howard (OLB) and Tommy Kelly (DT) – and the addition of Hall and Gibril Wilson mean that this will be a much better unit in 2008, with big potential.

The offense must show that it is capable of something, but the D should be solid and the Silver and Black could surprise this year. They should leapfrog Kansas City (it’s very easy to do) and might even challenge Denever if all the new additions can gel. However, still expect them to lose more games than they win, and thus Lane Kiffin will likely be job-hunting at season’s end.

San Diego Chargers

Prediction: 13-3, 1st in division

The Bolts had a great 2007, reaching the AFC Championship where only the then-perfect Pats and an injury to the best player on the team/in the league/possibly ever could stop them. Strolling to another division title, they managed to break their playoff hoodoo by beating the Colts in Indy without LT or Phillip Rivers or Antonio Gates at 100% (go, Darren Sproles, go!). Talent-wise arguably the best in the league, expect the Chargers to do a lot in ’08.

Very little has changed offensively for the Bolts, and why shouldn’t it? The mid-season addition of Chris Chambers should infuse more life into a passing game that was a disappointing 16th last year, largely due to Gates’ absence. With LT, Rivers and Gates all back to 100%, plus a settled-in Chambers and improving Vincent Jackson, this team has all the tools necessary to be an elite unit. Only 3 meaningful changes have been made: Shane Olivea and Michael Turner are in new cities and Lorenzo Neal retired. The team drafted LSU’s Jacob Hester as Neal’s replacement, and with Darren Sproles and Jeromey Clary already in place at 2nd string running back and right tackle respectively, there should be no issues.

On the defensive side San Diego have returning quality in abundance, with Merriman, Castillo, Jamal Williams, Cromartie and Shaun Phillips all returning. Drayton Florence and Marlon McCree are no longer with the team, but with the drafting of Antoine Cason and Eric Weddle’s emergence last year, they are set at just about every position. Again the team was low in the overall standings in ’07, only 14th in total D, but expect them to move sharply northward in that category.

Barring injuries on a par with last year’s, expect the Chargers to win the division and make a serious run at the Super Bowl. They certainly don’t lack the talent to win it.

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