2010 NFL Preview: AFC West Predictions

SAN DIEGO - JANUARY 17: Quarterback Philip Rivers #17 of the San Diego Chargers celebrates after a touchdown against the New York Jets during the AFC Divisional Playoff Game at Qualcomm Stadium on January 17, 2010 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

On paper, the AFC West is definitely one of the weaker divisions in football. The Chargers remain the team to beat, while the Broncos are just trying to make it to their opener without losing another starter to injury.

But the West usually produces a surprise or two along the way (i.e. Denver last year), so don’t count out the Broncos, Raiders or Chiefs before the season starts. All three of those teams come with some glaring weaknesses, but it’s not like the Chargers are the picture of perfection.

Here’s how I see things shaking out in the AFC West in 2010. Be sure to check out the link entitled “2010 Question Mark” under each team’s preview, which is a breakdown of one or two potential weaknesses that could derail that squad’s hopes this season. (If the links aren’t available now for some teams, check back because they will be before the season starts.)

1. Chargers

What to Like: After finishing fifth in the league in passing yards per game (271.1) in 2009, the Chargers should once again be explosive through the air. Losing Vincent Jackson is a major blow, but adding a pass-catching back like Ryan Mathews in the draft was a nice coup. Philip Rivers returns after compiling a 104.4 QB rating last season and developing into one of the best signal callers in the game. Again, the loss of Jackson hurts, but Malcolm Floyd is ready for a breakout campaign, Antonio Gates returns as one of the top pass-catching tight ends in the NFL and the team recently acquired Patrick Crayton from the Cowboys. Brandyn Dombrowski has also looked good filling in for Marcus McNeill, who continues to holdout while seeking a new contract. Defensively, free safety Eric Weddle is coming off a great ’09 season, while Shaun Phillips and Stephen Cooper remain steady at their linebacker positions.
What Not to Like: Is there anybody left that GM A.J. Smith hasn’t pissed off? This team managed to lose its top wideout and is close to watching its best offensive tackle (McNeill) holdout well into the season. Defensively, Shawne Merriman is back but who knows how productive he’ll be after a poor showing in ’09, while Larry English failed to impress last season as well (albeit as a rookie). The defensive line lost their top run-stuffer when Jamal Williams was released and Luis Castillo has been living off his reputation for the last two years. The entire defensive line, in fact, is arguably this team’s biggest weakness. The secondary, outside of Weddle, has a ton of question marks as well.
Keep Your Eye On: Malcolm Floyd
The 28-year-old out of Wyoming will finally have his opportunity to shine now that Jackson is gone (or rather, not playing). He’s been Rivers’ favorite target so far this offseason after finishing fourth in the league last year in yards-per-catch average. If he can build off the nine-catch, 140-yard performance he had in Week 17 last year (while Jackson was out), then Floyd could be another dangerous weapon in the Chargers’ arsenal.
The Final Word: If there were another team in this division that I thought had a remote chance of overtaking the Chargers, I would probably have them winning the division. But because the West is so weak this year, the Bolts should have no problems winning 10-plus games and claiming the division again, even though they have a several weaknesses heading into the new season. Whether or not they advance in the playoffs is another story. The key is Rivers, who is an exceptional talent that has proven he can carry this team during the regular season. But the playoffs are a different animal – he’s going to need help and while Mathews looks like he has all the tools to make him a solid young player, relying on a rookie is always a dangerous proposition. Defensively, this team has way too many question marks and unless guys like Merriman or English step up, I think they’re going to struggle at every level this year. A division crown looks to be on the horizon, but so does another one-and-done showing in the postseason.

San Diego Chargers 2010 NFL Question Mark: Defensive Line

2. Broncos

DENVER - JANUARY 03: Head coach Josh McDaniels of the Denver Broncos leads his team against the Kansas City Chiefs during NFL action at Invesco Field at Mile High on January 3, 2010 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

What to Like: Say what you will about Kyle Orton, but the guy looked great in preseason and has a full year of Josh McDaniels’ system under his belt. He may not be the flashiest quarterback in the league, but he’s efficient and that’s what McDaniels’ offense calls for. He’ll also have a set of good possession receivers in Jabar Gaffney and Eddie Royal to throw to, plus a dangerous pass-catcher out of the backfield in second-year player Knowshon Moreno. Defensively, the additions of Jamal Williams (one of the best interior defensive linemen in the league over the past decade) and Justin Bannan gives Denver a massive upgrade along the D-line and the secondary boasts two players that are still at the top of their game in corner Champ Bailey and safety Brian Dawkins.
What Not to Like: The pass rush took an enormous hit when outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil (who led the league in sacks last season) was lost for the year when he tore a pectoral muscle earlier this offseason. It doesn’t matter how good the secondary is if the quarterback knows he has all day to find a receiver. The pass-rush affects every level of the defense and without one, a team is asking for trouble. Offensively, the Broncos got rid of off-field headache Brandon Marshall but they also traded away their best playmaker. If this offseason is any indication, rookie Demaryius Thomas isn’t going to make much of an impact, which means Gaffney and Royal will be counted on to make a couple of big plays in the passing game. Can they do that? The interior of the offensive line will need to step up their performance after struggling last year, especially with tackle Ryan Clady missing most of the offseason due to an injury.
Keep Your Eye On: Knowshon Moreno
If this kid can stay healthy he’s going to be the Broncos’ best playmaker. All eyes are on rookie Tim Tebow this season (even though he’s a backup and will probably only be used in special packages barring an injury to Orton), but Moreno has the best opportunity to make the biggest impact in both the running and passing games.
The Final Word: I would love to move either the Chiefs or Raiders up to this spot – I’m dying to, in fact. But the bottom line is that even without Dumervil and Marshall, the Broncos are still a better overall team. Yeah they’re going to struggle, but if Orton plays as well as he did in the preseason and Moreno can stay healthy, the offense should be better than people think. But without a true playmaker at wideout (save for Thomas, who still has plenty of time to turn around a slow start if he can get healthy) and a pass rush on defense, this team isn’t going anywhere. They’ll be lucky to win eight games again.

Denver Broncos 2010 Question Mark: Pass Rush

3. Chiefs

KANSAS CITY, MO - AUGUST 27: Matt Cassel  of the Kansas City Chiefs looks to the sidelines during a preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Arrowhead Stadium on August 27, 2010 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images)

What to Like: Even though Matt Cassel failed to impress last season in his first year with the Chiefs, Charlie Weis was hired as the team’s new playcaller and we all know Weis’ track record for success (uh, in the NFL). Cassel also has a couple of solid pieces around him in running backs Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones, as well as receivers Dwayne Bowe (who hopefully doesn’t get held back by Cassel), Chris Chambers and rookie Dexter McCluster. Defensively, the secondary is by far the strength of the unit. Thanks to Brandon Carr, Brandon Flowers and 2010 first round pick Eric Berry, the Chiefs have the makings of a great young defensive backfield. Tamba Hali has also transitioned well from being a 4-3 defensive end to a 3-4 outside linebacker and could be the next Elvis Dumervil.
What Not to Like: Cassel must improve his fundamentals (namely his throwing motion) and decision-making if the Chiefs are ever going to see a return on their 2009 investment (i.e. a second round pick and $63 million). Unfortunately, Cassel isn’t expected to have much help up front, as Brandon Albert continues to struggle at left tackle (and why shouldn’t he seeing how he was a guard in college?) and Ryan O’Callaghan can’t stop edge rushers. Defensively, Tyson Jackson was a massive disappointment as a rookie last year and Glenn Dorsey (who isn’t a fit in the 3-4) continues on his path to bustville. At linebacker, former first round pick Derrick Johnson can’t get out of Todd Haley’s doghouse and is being pushed by Demorrio Williams at inside linebacker. Jovan Belcher looks to have the upper hand on Corey Mays, but he hasn’t won a starting job yet either. It’s never a good sign when a team hasn’t named its starting inside linebackers heading into a new season.
Keep Your Eye on: Dexter McCluster
I don’t know what kind of opportunities he’ll have in Weis’ offense, but McCluster is lighting in a bottle. At 5’8” and 170 pounds, there’s some concern that he won’t be able to stand up to the pounding playing in the NFL, but there’s no doubt that the rookie is explosive when he gets the ball in his hands. Hopefully he’ll get a chance to show what he can do in the Chiefs’ offense this year and he could be dangerous in the slot.
The Final Word: The West is weak but I don’t think KC is quite ready to take advantage yet. There are a slew of young players that need to prove themselves this year, starting with Cassel. Haley hired Weis specifically to transform Cassel into a quality starting quarterback and so far there haven’t been many signs that point to him breaking out. If he struggles this season, the Chiefs may be looking for another quarterback in 2011. Defensively, unless guys like Jackson, Dorsey and Johnson stop under performing, then we’re not going to see how good this young secondary can be. Just going off potential, this team could finish as high as second in the division. But we can’t go off potential in the NFL, now can we?

4. Raiders

Dec 14, 2008; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders running back Darren McFadden (20) scores on an 11-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter against the New England Patriots at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. The Patriots defeated the Raiders 49-26. Photo via Newscom Photo via Newscom

What to Like: The Raiders are starting to build some consistency on the defensive side of the ball and shouldn’t be as bad as people think. Richard Seymour, Tommy Kelly and Matt Shaughnessy are coming off good 2009 campaigns, while long-time Jaguar John Henderson was signed this offseason to provide depth at the tackle position. The team also added former first round pick Kamerion Wimbley (who has largely been a disappointment so far in his career, but could benefit from a change of scenery – albeit in Oakland) in a trade with the Browns and selected promising middle linebacker Rolando McClain in the first round of April’s draft. In the secondary, Nnamdi Asomugha will keep quarterback’s up at night and Chris Johnson held his own after struggling early in ‘09. Michael Huff will probably never live up to his draft status, but at least he proved to be a productive piece on Oakland’s defense last season. Offensively, the unit is littered with potential (Darren McFadden, Michael Bush, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Chaz Schilens, Zach Miller, Louis Murphy) and finally got a player in Jason Campbell that will provide some consistency at the quarterback position.
What Not to Like: The offensive line is still a mess. Robert Galley has made a nice transition from tackle to guard, but he struggles staying healthy and there’s little to no depth behind him. Mario Henderson was one of the worst tackles in football last year and there are questions at nearly every other position. As mentioned above, the Raiders have plenty of talent at the skill positions, but they either under perform (Heyward-Bey) or can’t stay healthy (McFadden, Bush, Schilens). Murphy is a player to watch for this season, but he has to improve on the seven drops he had from a year ago. Defensively, this team needs a better nickel back then Stanford Routt and could use another pass rusher as well. If Wimbley fails to produce, then the secondary could be left in coverage for a long time.
Keep Your Eye On: Darren McFadden
The time is now for McFadden. Bush is expected to miss at least a quarter of the season after having thumb surgery, which means McFadden will have every opportunity to shine in Oakland’s offense. His line won’t do him any favors, but if he can stay healthy then he’s going to be Campbell’s best friend in 2010.
The Final Word: I contemplated putting the Raiders above the Chiefs, but in the end it’s a wash. They’re both going to struggle this year, so don’t get caught up in who I predicted third and who I predicted fourth. Adding Campbell was a great move by Al Davis (actually, dumping JaMarcus Russell was a great move – getting a competent quarterback in Campbell to run the offense was just smart), but he’s going to be reminded of his days in Washington thanks to Oakland’s O-line. That said, I love what the Raiders did this offseason and I applaud Davis for finally making some intelligent decisions. With only four playoff teams on this year’s schedule and the opportunity to play the rest of the AFC West, this team could win six games this year. But obviously I still think it’s going to be a losing season in Oakland.

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