The AFC West has a ton of young talent ready to take over and dominate the division. Led by San Diego Chargers running back Ryan Mathews, several young players appear poised to step up and have big seasons in 2012.
Here is a look at the five players in the AFC West who will have breakout seasons in 2012.
The San Diego Chargers believe running back Ryan Mathews is poised for a big season in 2012, and head coach Norv Turner has gone so far as to say he thinks the 24-year-old can lead the NFL in rushing.
It's not hard to figure out why the Chargers are excited about Mathews. In what was his second season in 2011 he rushed for 1,091 yards and six touchdowns on 222 carries (4.9 yards per carry). He also caught 50 passes for 455 yards. Those numbers came in just 14 games.
If Mathews can stay healthy he certainly has the natural ability to turn into a special running back. He has great speed, developing vision and can run between the tackles and break things outside. The key for the Fresno State product will be staying healthy.
With fellow running back Mike Tolbert now with the Carolina Panthers, Mathews will see his workload increase. And after last year's lockout, this has been his first real offseason to prepare for such a role.
To help Mathews in 2012 San Diego signed former Pro Bowl fullback Le'Ron McClain. While McClain will likely see some carries in the backfield as well, his main job will be paving the way for Mathews.
That should be a tremendous help as Mathews looks to take a big step forward in 2012.
Demaryius Thomas made one of the biggest plays of last season when he caught a quick slant and took it 80 yards for a touchdown to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in overtime in the Wild Card round of the playoffs.
While that play left a huge impression, Thomas' 2011 season wasn't exactly memorable. He caught 32 passes for 551 yards and four touchdowns. He averaged an outstanding 17.2 yards per catch, but if he's going to be as good as his raw talent suggests he should be, 32 catches just won't cut it.
With Peyton Manning now under center in Denver Thomas' fortunes have likely turned around for the better. He'll be given plenty of opportunities and no one is better at helping receivers develop than Manning.
Given Thomas' natural talent and size (6'3" and 235 pounds), I think he'll take a great leap forward with Manning at quarterback.
I just love the way Brandon Flowers plays football. At 5'9" and 187 pounds, Flowers is a tad undersized for a cornerback but he is extremely aggressive and physical. He was overshadowed a bit by the now-departed Brandon Carr at times, but Flowers is one of the best pure cover corners in the NFL right now.
I think with Carr gone Flowers will finally get the attention he deserves. The 26-year-old Virginia Tech product will be entering his fifth season in 2012 and already has 13 career interceptions. That's a great number when you consider that quarterbacks don't often throw to his side of the field.
Flowers is becoming a game-changer at cornerback and I think he'll finally break out with a big-time season in 2012.
Denarius Moore had a nice rookie season in 2011 and it really came out of nowhere. Moore was a fifth-round draft pick out of Tennessee and wasn't expected to contribute much for the Oakland Raiders.
Well, he finished his rookie campaign with 33 catches for 618 yards and five touchdowns. Those numbers should jump tremendously in 2012 given a full offseason working with quarterback Carson Palmer.
Palmer has claimed that Moore has the ability to become a great receiver and that he will be a star. The veteran quarterback has also said the 23-year-old receiver will be a more complete player in 2012, after mainly just being a deep threat as a rookie.
Moore averaged 18.7 yards per catch as a rookie, and while that number will almost surely decrease as he gets more passes thrown his way, it shows that he has the ability to make big plays.
It sounds like Palmer has a lot of confidence in his young wideout, which should make Moore the team's top target. Expect a big season from him.
Somehow the San Diego Chargers were able to land one of the best players in the 2012 NFL Draft with the 18th overall pick. I'm not sure how South Carolina linebacker Melvin Ingram lasted that long, but general manager A.J. Smith and the Bolts are sure glad he did.
Ingram will join a Chargers defense that should be tougher and have much more of an edge in 2012. San Diego added outside linebacker Jarret Johnson in free agency and his leadership should help the front seven tremendously.
Meanwhile, Ingram's job will be to get to the quarterback and he has been working at strong-side linebacker. At South Carolina Ingram was a playmaker and with the Bolts he'll be tasked with making things happen all over the field.
That kind of freedom and a lack of pressure that will come from being surrounded with solid talent should pay dividends. Ingram will certainly be a candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year.