Chargers Remain Class Of Improved AFC West

William RisserCorrespondent IMay 8, 2009

SAN DIEGO - NOVEMBER 9:  LaDainian Tomlinson #21 of the San Diego Chargers carries the ball against Bernard Pollard #49 of the Kansas City Chiefs at Qualcomm Stadium on November 9, 2008 in San Diego, California. (Photo by: Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

After a disappointing season in which no team was better than .500, the AFC West was perhaps the busiest division this off-season. The Chiefs and Broncos made major coaching and personnel changes while the Raiders and Chargers made some complementary additions.

The Chargers are the favorites to take the division again but the gap from top to bottom has narrowed. And with all division games being played by week 12 the team that fares best against the NFC East and AFC North will look good to take the division.

There's no doubt that the West is the weakest AFC division which is what prompted so many changes. Mike Shanahan gone. Tony Gonzalez gone. Jay Cutler gone. Herm Edwards gone. Norv Turner is now the longest tenured coach in the division. Say what? 

The "Patriotization" of Denver and Kansas City is complete. The Chiefs added super GM Scott Pioli and quarterback Matt Cassel from Foxboro while the Broncos made Josh McDaniels it's pick to succeed Shanahan's 14 year run. Jeff Garcia is back in the Bay area as a Raider and Todd Haley parlayed his success in Arizona by landing the Chiefs' head coaching vacancy.

It's safe to say this is a vastly different AFC West. Here's a look around the division and what it means to the Bolts.

Oakland Raiders

The Raiders finished last season looking like a competent football team which was a marked improvement from how they started. Head coach Tom Cable will run his first training camp with a talented but unfocused roster.

The offense needs consistent quarterbacking to utilize abundant weapons in the backfield and outside. The addition of Jeff Garcia should push JaMarcus Russell to be better and provides an insurance policy if Russell doesn't get it going early. 

The defense was the best unit for the Raiders last season and they look to build on that success. Pressure will be on them again with an offense that's still finding it's way. They open the season at home to the Chargers which should be a good barometer as to where they are.

Denver Broncos

It's a new day in Denver with the ouster of Mike Shanahan and the trading of Jay Cutler. New head coach Josh McDaniels comes in from New England to try to replicate the success he enjoyed under Bill Bellichick. It will not be easy. 

New quarterback Kyle Orton must find some chemistry with receivers Royal and Marshall to succeed. Outside of rookie tailback Knowshon Moreno the Denver backfield doesn't sport a lot of well known players but that's never been a problem in their system.

The defense was horrendous last season. It ranked near the bottom of the league in every category and must improve to have any chance at making the playoffs. Drafting defensive end Robert Ayers No. 18 and getting great value out of the other eight picks should help.

Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs underwent perhaps the biggest overhaul in the AFC West. They brought in Cardinal's offensive coordinator Todd Haley, hot off Arizona's Superbowl appearance, to replace Herm Edwards. Winning the Scott Pioli sweepstakes to be the GM also netted them quarterback Matt Cassel. Those moves and the trading of the beloved Tony Gonzalez showed that things were changing big time.

Kansas City is poised to be the darkhorse of the division if Cassel performs well and Larry Johnson returns to form. The receiving corps is under pressure to compensate for the loss of Gonzalez. Arrowhead stadium isn't the fearsome place to play it once was but it may be again soon.

If that's going to happen the defense will have to be much better. Defensive end Tyson Jackson was drafted No. 3 to help a lackluster pass rush. Their three top draft choices, No. 3, No. 67 and No. 103 were all defensive players. 

Chargers Outlook

San Diego should continue to feast on division opponents and have the divisional race wrapped up fairly early. But it won't be as easy as it was last year starting with opening day in Oakland. And with the last road division game being Nov. 22, there shouldn't be much elemental advantage.

It's hard to say just how good Denver will be with Orton and a new head coach or how Kansas City will play in similar circumstances. Both will be competition for the Chargers but neither is as complete a team to overtake the Bolts.

You can count on the Raiders be be the Raiders as long as Al Davis is around. How long before he calls the sideline demanding Russell throw it as far as he can to Heyward-Bey? Not long. But if, and it's a big if, Cable is able to harness his roster's ability they could be a really fun team to watch play. 

Ultimately, the Chargers will face it's stiffest competition outside the division and conference. There's no New England or Indianapolis on the schedule but trips to Pittsburgh, Tennessee and Giants Stadium will likely determine where the Chargers stand in the playoff picture.