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2013 AFC West Division Preview

Law Murray |
August 22, 2013 | 7:51 p.m. PDT

Staff Writer

Demaryius Thomas leads perhaps the strongest receiving corps in the NFL. (Jeffrey Beall/Flikr)
Demaryius Thomas leads perhaps the strongest receiving corps in the NFL. (Jeffrey Beall/Flikr)

When discussing the NFL's best divisions in 2013, there are a few choices that always come up. The AFC West is seldom one of them. In fact, it might be the worst division in football. Last year's division champion Denver Broncos finished with as many wins (13) as their rivals San Diego Chargers (7), Oakland Raiders (4), and Kansas City Chiefs (2) combined. The Broncos earned the top seed in the 2012 AFC playoffs, only to collapse in the Divisional Round to the Ravens. 

No AFC West team has reached the Conference Championship since the 2007 Chargers; no AFC West team has reached the Super Bowl since the 2002 Raiders; and the 1998 Broncos were the last team to actually win the Super Bowl from the AFC West, back when the division still included the Seattle Seahawks. The AFC West hasn't even had a Wild Card team since the 2006 Chiefs! All of those streaks (Conference Championship appearance, Super Bowl appearance, Super Bowl win, Wild Card appearance) are the longest droughts in any division. Every team in the division has changed coaches at least once since the end of the 2010 season, the only division to stake that claim of instability.

Will anything be different this season? Perhaps. Football is a crapshoot of a sport, and either of these teams could improve next season. The Broncos still have the best QB in the division (Peyton Manning) and added the best WR in free agency (Wes Welker). The Chargers finally blew up the front office and changed coaches, hiring Tom Telesco from Indianapolis to replace A.J. Smith at GM, while tapping former Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy as head coach. The Raiders decided not to fire head coach Dennis Allen after one season, instead giving the youngest head coach in the league a chance to redeem himself after blowing a year on fired offensive coordinator Greg Knapp (former Jaguars QB coach Greg Olsen replaces Knapp). The Chiefs cleaned house after the worst season in franchise history and hired former Philadelphia Eagles head coach Andy Reid to replace Romeo Crennel and John Dorsey from Green Bay to replace general manager Scott Pioli.

But each team also has had adversity to overcome. The Broncos just lost their best defender, OLB Von Miller, to a six-game suspension. The Chargers can't keep their receivers healthy, losing WR Danario Alexander to a torn ACL. The Raiders are taking the biggest QB downgrade in the league this season, going from Carson Palmer to Matt Flynn. The Chiefs have history to combat, as they decided to hire a head coach who went 4-12 the year before and add a QB (Alex Smith) who hasn't been at his best in a pass-heavy approach and has durability questions.

SEE MORE: 2013 AFC North Divison Preview

The breakdowns for each team are below; subjective unit grades and predictions have been added for each team:

Denver Broncos (13-3 in 2012, Lost to Ravens in AFC Semifinals)

Unit Grades: pass offense (A-), run offense (C-), offensive line (B), pass rush (B), run defense (B+), pass defense (B+)

Head Coach: John Fox (defense, DB)

Offensive Coordinator: Adam Gase (1st year)

Defensive Coordinator: Jack Del Rio (2nd year)

Additions and Subtractions: Welker replaces WR Brandon Stokley. The Broncos released RB Willis McGahee, replacing him with 2nd round rookie RB Montee Ball. RG Louis Vasquez comes over from division rival San Diego. The Broncos lost Cs J.D. Walton (ankle) and Dan Koppen (ACL), so former Colt and Chief Ryan Lilja came out of retirement to snap for Manning. Lilja was released, so the Broncos are forced to start Manny Ramirez at C. The Broncos used their 1st round pick on DT Sylvester Williams and signed former Jaguars DT Terrance Knighton to replace Justin Bannan, but lost DE Elvis Dumervil to the Ravens. Former Chargers OLB Shaun Phillips will fill in for Miller during his suspension. The Broncos moved Wesley Woodyard to MLB to replace Keith Brooking and Joe Mays. Denver added CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie from Philadelphia and rookie CB Kayvon Webster in the 3rd round, while also adding DB Quentin Jammer from San Diego.

Greatest strength: Manning has three receivers (Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker) who gained over 1,000 yards receiving last year. Manning has supported three 1,000-yard receivers once before (2004 with Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, and Brandon Stokley) and Welker offers greater run-after-catch skills than Stokley. The Broncos still have options at TE between Joel Dreesen, Jacob Tamme, Julius Thomas, and Virgil Green. 

Biggest concern: Many equate Peyton Manning with dominance in the passing game, but the Broncos running game will bear watching as Manning has always relied on a heavy workload at running back. The Colts traded Marshall Faulk after Manning's rookie season and would draft three RBs in the 1st round during Manning's career in Indianapolis (Edgerrin James, Joseph Addai, Donald Brown). When McGahee went down at midseason, he was averaging 20 touches per game. The Broncos dusted off Knowshon Moreno and promptly gave him 20+ carries for five straight games. Bronco backs have to pass protect well, be ready to be a factor in the receiving game, and handle a heavy workload. Ball has to overcome the Big Ten stigma of plodding running backs while holding off second-year runner Ronnie Hillman (a small, change-of-pace back) and Moreno. Manning relies on a heavy dose of running plays to keep his potent play-action fakes honest and to keep the other QB off the field. This group may be the weakest group of runners he has ever worked with, at least on paper. For now, the Broncos are dividing the work by committee.

What else?: Denver had 52 sacks a year ago, but the loss of Miller to suspension, Dumervil to free agency, and (temporarily) CB Champ Bailey (foot) will test the playmaking ability and depth of the defense. The Broncos were great defensively last season until the playoffs.

Game to watch outside of division: Sunday, November 24 (Week 12) at New England. For the first time, the Peyton Manning versus Tom Brady storyline may take a backseat to Wes Welker's return to Massachusetts as a scorned ex-member of the Patriots. Usually when the Patriots leave New England, they aren't better for it; especially receivers (read: Randy Moss, Deion Branch, Ochocinco - division receivers who disappeared from the face of the planet). Welker picked a good team with a good QB to try and prove something in what is expected to be a game with major playoff implications.

Prediction: 14-2, 1st in AFC West, AFC Champion.

SEE MORE: 2013 AFC East Division Preview

Kansas City Chiefs (2-14, 4th in AFC West in 2012)

The Chiefs didn't win many games in 2012, but they had five Pro Bowlers, including OLB Tamba Hali (Flickr/glentaschuk).
The Chiefs didn't win many games in 2012, but they had five Pro Bowlers, including OLB Tamba Hali (Flickr/glentaschuk).

Unit Grades: pass offense (C), run offense (B), offensive line (B-), pass rush (C), run defense (C), pass defense (B-), special teams (C-).

Head Coach: Andy Reid (offense, QB)

Defensive Coordinator: Bob Sutton (1st year)

Offensive Coordinator: Doug Pederson (1st year)

Additions and Subtractions: It cost the Chiefs a 2nd round pick to replace Matt Cassel at QB with Alex Smith; the Chiefs also signed former Saints backup QB Chase Daniel to replace Brady Quinn. The Chiefs cut RT Eric Winston and used the first overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft on OT Eric Fisher; LT Branden Albert will stick around for another season. The Chiefs used 3rd round picks on TE Travis Kelce and RB Knile Davis. Former Dolphins TE Anthony Fasano was signed, replacing TE Kevin Boss. Former Cardinals FB Anthony Sherman will replace RB Peyton Hillis. Former Jets DE Mike DeVito replaces Glenn Dorsey and Ropati Pitoitua. The Chiefs added ILB Akeem Jordan in free agency and ILB James-Michael Johnson off waivers, while drafting Nico Johnson in the 4th round. The Chiefs revamped their terrible secondary with former Dolphins CB Sean Smith and former Falcons CB Dunta Robinson. WR Jonathan Baldwin was traded to San Francisco for WR A.J. Jenkins. The Chiefs signed WR Donnie Avery to replace WR Steve Breaston. CB and PR Javier Arenas was traded to Arizona. The Chiefs gave up on TE Tony Moeaki (3rd round, 2010) after another injury.

Greatest strength: RB Jamaal Charles is the best RB in the division by far, leading the AFC in rushing yards despite a terrible QB situation, a losing team, and an inept coaching staff that only gave him a combined 14 carries in two games against the Raiders. Like Vikings MVP RB Adrian Peterson, Charles was coming off of a 2011 ACL tear. Reid's backs (Duce Staley, Brian Westbrook, LeSean McCoy) combined for 7 seasons of 1,500+ yards from scrimmage, all with healthy dosage of receiving yards. Charles' carries won't climb, but he'll be featured on many a screen and checkdown. The only thing that can hold him back are injuries (he injured his foot in August) and Reid's tendency to ignore the running game.

Biggest concern: The Chiefs hired former Bears special teams coordinator Dave Toub to improve the Chiefs in that department. Unfortunately for Toub, the Chiefs don't have a return specialist on Devin Hester's level. Dexter McCluster might be considered, though his ball security isn't assuring (more career fumbles than touchdowns). K Ryan Succop needs to bounce back from a poor season that saw him miss four FGs from under 40 yards. The Chiefs have an elite P in Dustin Colquitt, but his coverage teams let him down for two TDs last season.

What else?: Andy Reid is known for being a pass heavy coach, and his greatest success came with a strong-armed, dynamic movement QB in Donovan McNabb. Even in Green Bay, Reid was the QB coach when Brett Favre was the QB. Smith had a 9-3 record when asked to throw at least 30 passes the last two seasons for a run-heavy defensive team in San Francisco. Before that, his record in such games was 6-16 over six seasons. Smith has also made it through a full season only twice in his career. Smith reminds me of former Eagles draft pick Kevin Kolb in terms of build, durability, pocket presence, arm strength, and athleticism. Reid made Kolb look good enough to be worth the same trade currency as the pick acquired for Alex Smith. Like Smith, Reid traded Kolb after the emergence of a dynamic, strong-armed QB (Michael Vick to Smith's Colin Kaepernick). If/when Smith goes down, he will only have Daniel as a replacement. … The Chiefs have more than enough talent on paper defensively. Their execution was embarrassing considering their three Pro Bowl defenders (OLB Tamba Hali, ILB Derrick Johnson, SS Eric Berry). Sutton comes from the Jets, and there will be more aggression compared to last season's passive approach that led to the Chiefs forcing only 13 turnovers all season. Berry in particular will be counted on to be more of a playmaker (and less of a burn victim) after another year removed from an ACL tear.

Game to watch outside the division: Sunday, December 22 (Week 16) vs. Indianapolis. The Chiefs played the Colts in their home finale last year as well, losing 20-16 despite rushing for 352 yards. The Chiefs are trying to turnaround like the 2012 Colts, and if all goes well, this game could have playoff implications for both teams.

Prediction: 7-9, 2nd in AFC West, no playoffs.

SEE MORE: 2013 AFC South Division Preview

Oakland Raiders (4-12, 3rd in AFC West in 2012)

Darren McFadden is the only Raiders' skill position player drafted higher than the 3rd round on the roster (Flickr/IllegalShift)
Darren McFadden is the only Raiders' skill position player drafted higher than the 3rd round on the roster (Flickr/IllegalShift)

Unit Grades: pass offense (D+), run offense (C), offensive line (C), pass rush (D), run defense (C-), pass defense (D+), special teams (B+).

Head Coach: Dennis Allen (defense, DB)

Offensive Coordinator: Greg Olsen (1st year)

Defensive Coordinator: Jason Tarver (2nd year)

Additions and Subtractions: The Raiders traded QB Carson Palmer to Arizona, then acquired QB Matt Flynn from Seattle. RB Rashad Jennings was signed from Jacksonville to replace Mike Goodson. WR Darrius Heyward-Bey was released. TE Brandon Myers signed with the Giants. OT Menelik Watson was drafted in the 2nd round. The Raiders added veteran street free agents RT Tony Pashos and RG Andre Gurode. OT Alex Barron was in Oakland, but was promptly released. DTs Richard Seymour, Desmond Bryant, and Tommy Kelly are no longer with the team, replaced by free agents Pat Sims from Cincinnati and Vance Walker from Atlanta. DE Matt Shaughnessy has been replaced by former Broncos DE Jason Hunter. The Raiders have an all-new linebacking corps. ILB bust Rolando McClain has been replaced by former Bears strongside linebacker Nick Roach (Roach will play inside for the first time in his career). OLB Philip Wheeler was replaced by former Dolphin Kevin Burnett in a "free agent trade". The Raiders drafted OLB Sio Moore and signed OLB Kaluka Maiava. Former Packer and Raiders draft pick FS Charles Woodson replaces FS Michael Huff and Matt Giordano, while the Raiders also signed CBs Mike Jenkins (Dallas) and Tracy Porter (Denver) in free agency. The Raiders used a first-round pick on CB D.J. Hayden. Longtime P Shane Lechler will be replaced by Marquette King, who beat out former Vikings P Chris Kluwe. The Raiders added former Browns WR/KR/PR Josh Cribbs, but he looked finished in the preseason and has been released. 

Greatest strength: The Raiders have the best K in the AFC (now that Phil Dawson is in San Francisco) in Sebastian Janikowski, a player with 60+ yard range. In addition to Janikowski's leg strength, he made over 90 percent of his FGs for the first time since being drafted in the first round in 2000. If Cribbs or Ford are healthy, than the Raiders could have two of the best returners in the league.

Biggest concern: The Raiders had the second-fewest sacks in the NFL last season (25), and roughly two-thirds of those sacks walked out the door in free agency. DE Lamarr Houston led the team with 4.5. New defensive line starters Hunter, Walker, and Sims have a combined 21 career sacks (or, only 0.5 sacks more than Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt had by himself last year). There is no way the Raiders can get consistent pressure with just their front four; DE Andre Carter couldn't bounce back to Pro Bowl form in his 13th season and has been released. OLBs Kevin Burnett and rookie Sio Moore might be the team's best pass rushers, meaning the Raiders will blitz plenty. That will be potentially hazardous considering the makeshift secondary. Oakland is starved for defensive playmakers, especially if Hayden and Moore aren't ready and Carter and Woodson are too far over the hill.

What else?: The Raiders have a brutal QB situation. QB Matt Flynn failed to completely hold off QB Terrelle Pryor to start the season, making it two preseasons in a row that he lost a starting job to a young, mobile 3rd round pick. Flynn wasn't going to have the Packers' arsenal of targets that allowed him to throw six TDs against the Lions back in 2011. The Raiders have perhaps the worst group of WRs and TEs in the NFL, which doesn't bode well for a player of Flynn's modest physical ability. Flynn is a smart QB who plays within himself for the most part, but he lacks the arm strength and athleticism to threaten defenses and has less-than-adequate pocket presence. Flynn won't throw as many INTs as Carson Palmer, but he will be taking a lot more sacks, which may lead to fumbles and injuries. Pryor gives the Raiders another dimension to defend with his legs, but unlike the new generation of read-option QBs, Pryor is an unimpressive passer who will be hamstrung by the lack of reliable targets in the passing game. He might struggle to complete 50% of his passes. The Raiders' best WR is Denarius Moore, who is fast but inconsistent with his routes. His speed will be wasted with Flynn's arm. Rod Streater may be the top receiver this season. The Raiders have the most unproven group of TEs in the NFL (2011 late round draft pick David Ausberry, 2013 late round picks Nick Kasa and Mychal Rivera). RB Darren McFadden was brutal last season in a zone-blocking scheme, but at least he stayed healthier than in 2011. McFadden and Janikowski are the only Al Davis era 1st round picks still on the team (you could add Charles Woodson here too, dismissing his Packers adventure), and while Janikowski is armed with a new contract, McFadden must earn his on the field. The new power-blocking scheme fits him, but it also means that the Raiders are starting new offensive linemen who are poor pass blockers at this stage of their careers; LT Jared Veldheer's injury allows rookie Menelik Watson to "protect" Pryor/Flynn's blindside. And if McFadden does go down, Jennings doesn't inspire confidence. McFadden was the worst RB in the NFL for backs with at least 200 carries (3.3 yards per carry); Jennings was the worst RB in the NFL for backs with at least 100 carries (2.8 yards per carry).

Game to watch outside the division: Sunday, October 27 (Week 8) vs. Pittsburgh: The Raiders have missed the playoffs for ten straight seasons, while the Steelers have won two Super Bowls within that time frame. However, the Raiders have won three of the last four meetings against the Steelers, including a 34-31 win last year. All three wins cost the Steelers a playoff spot in the 2006, 2009, and 2012 seasons. This game comes the week after the Raiders' open date, so don't be surprised if the Raiders turn this game into something memorable.

Prediction: 3-13, 3rd in AFC West.

San Diego Chargers (7-9, 2nd in AFC West in 2012)

Eric Weddle will have a lot of ground to cover in the Chargers secondary this season (San Diego Shooter/Flickr)
Eric Weddle will have a lot of ground to cover in the Chargers secondary this season (San Diego Shooter/Flickr)

Unit Grades: pass offense (C), run offense (C-), offensive line (C-), pass rush (C-), run defense (B), pass defense (C-), special teams (C+).

Head Coach: Mike McCoy (offense, QB)

Defensive Coordinator: John Pagano (2nd year)

Offensive Coordinator: Ken Whisenhunt (1st year)

Additions and Subtractions: The Chargers used their first-round draft pick on RT D.J. Fluker, the first time the Chargers spent a 1st round pick on an offensive lineman since 1986 (James FitzPatrick of USC). The Chargers lost RG Louis Vasquez to Denver and released LT Jared Gaither. The Chargers signed LT King Dunlap (Philadelphia) along with LG Chad Rinehart (Buffalo). OT Max Starks didn't make it out of the preseason. LG Tyronne Green was not retained. The Chargers used a third-round pick on WR Keenan Allen. RB Danny Woodhead was signed away from the Patriots to replace RB Jackie Battle. Former Cowboys TE John Phillips replaces Randy McMichael. NTs Aubrayo Franklin and Antonio Garay left in free agency, as did DE Vaughn Martin. The Chargers spent a 2nd-round pick on ILB Manti Te'o, who replaces Takeo Spikes. OLB Shaun Phillips and DB Quentin Jammer departed for Denver. OLB Dwight Freeney was signed after 2012 1st-round pick Melvin Ingram tore his ACL. The Chargers lost CB Antoine Cason to Arizona, and signed former Jaguars CB Derek Cox as a replacement. The Chargers also claimed 2011 Saints third-round pick Johnny Patrick off waivers. WR Robert Meachem was paid to go away this summer.

Greatest Strength: The Chargers had a top-ten run defense last season, and there are solid players in the front seven. ILB Donald Butler is a very good player, and a 3-4 scheme is a good fit for Te'o's skills and limitations. The Chargers also have a very active duo of DEs in Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes. They only allowed two 100-yard runners in 2012.

Biggest Concern: The rest of the pass defense is going to be interesting for all of the wrong reasons.  The Chargers didn't have a particularly strong pass defense a year ago, but the replacements are either injury-prone (Derek Cox), switching positions (SS Marcus Gilchrist), or inexperienced (CB Shareece Wright). The Chargers have a premier FS in Eric Weddle, but the lack of consistency and depth will challenge him this season. The Chargers also don't have a strong pass rush after losing Phillips in free agency and Ingram to a knee injury. 2009 1st-round pick OLB Larry English has only 8.5 sacks in four seasons, while Freeney struggled as a 3-4 OLB in Indianapolis last season. 

What Else?: QB Philip Rivers has thrown 20+ TDs every season and hasn't missed a start since taking over as the Chargers starter in 2006 (compare that to Alex Smith, who has yet to throw 20 TDs in a season and has missed time in every season except 2006 and 2011). He led the NFL in TD passes (34) and passer rating (105.5) in 2008. His passer rating has dropped each of the last four seasons, and he took a career-high 49 sacks while leading the NFL in fumbles (15). The Chargers are switching to a timing-based offense with shorter routes in an effort to protect Rivers behind one of the worst offensive lines in the league, but his receiving corps is one of the least reliable in the league. Malcom Floyd is a downfield threat, not a short-area route runner. Vincent Brown is, but he is coming off of a lost season due to injury. Robert Meachem was released after he proved to be a free agent bust, failing to replace Vincent Jackson. RB Ryan Mathews had more fumbles last season (2) than total TDs (1), despite 223 total touches from scrimmage. Even TE Antonio Gates missed the Pro Bowl for the first time in nine seasons, racking up a career-low 538 yards. Rivers' decline has coincided with the decline in talent around him, and now he's learning a new offense for the first time in years.

Game to watch outside the division: Sunday, December 8 (Week 14) vs. New York Giants: The Chargers drafted QB Eli Manning with the first pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, then traded him to New York for the draft rights to Philip Rivers and other assets. Manning has two Super Bowl wins since then, but he is 0-2 versus the Chargers. Assuming Manning stays in New York for the rest of his career, this might be his last visit to San Diego until 2021, in what would be Manning's 18th season.

Prediction: 3-13, 4th in AFC West.

 

Reach Law Murray via e-mail or on Twitter at @1maddskillz.



 

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