Oakland Raiders Poised for Second Place in AFC West

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Oakland Raiders Poised for Second Place in AFC West
(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

But that’s not saying much.  Setting aside the Chargers, here are a couple fun facts about the division:

1. Tom Cable is the longest tenured head coach.

2. JaMarcus Russell is the only returning starting quarterback from last year.

When the Raiders are one of the most stable teams, you know it’s a bad year for the division.  Bottom line, with Denver and Kansas City starting from scratch this year, the Raiders need to strike and claim the title of Best of the Rest in the division.  Here’s how things stack up in the AFC West.

 

San Diego Chargers

Don’t let that 8-8 record from last year fool you, the Chargers are head and shoulders above the rest of the division.  The 2008 season was a statement on how losing one player can change your entire team.

And I’m not talking about LaDainian Tomlinson.

The San Diego pass rush went from fearsome to mediocre after Shawne Merriman was done for the season after one game.  Without his presence they just looked a step slow in all phases.  Some quick stats from 2008 and how they compared to 2007:

  • 22nd (tie) in sacks, down from fifth in 2007
  • 31st in passing yards per game, down from 14th
  • 25th in overall yards allowed per game, down from 14th
  • 21.7 points allowed per game (15th) in 2008, almost a four point increase compared to the 17.8 points allowed per game in 2007 (fifth)

The Chargers defense needs to again become a force that strikes fear into the heart of opposing quarterbacks.  The pass rush was responsible for vaulting a good player like CB Antonio Cromartie into the Pro Bowl in 2007.

Merriman’s return more than anything will place the Chargers back into the discussion as an elite team in the NFL.  If he really isn’t healthy, then first round pick Larry English will be under pressure to step in right away.

Everything hinges on the defense.  Bringing back the speed in the pass rush will help give the explosive offense more tries to put up points.  If they play fast enough the Chargers could do their own Usain Bolt impression and start celebrating a division crown way before the finish line.

 

Denver Broncos

There’s a new regime in the mountains for the first time in 14 years, and it’s off to a rocky start.  New coach Josh McDaniels created a storm with the Matt Cassel/Jay Cutler situation and now the Pro Bowl quarterback is in Chicago. 

Whatever your opinion about how that drama was handled, the fact of the matter remains the Broncos are worse off at QB.  Kyle Orton is a solid player and can succeed, but Jay Cutler is just going into his prime and looks poised to enter the conversation of elite quarterbacks.

Compounding the issue at quarterback, the defense still remains a huge liability.  Denver’s defense was one of the worst in the league in 2008, and they cost the Broncos a spot in the playoffs.  The addition of Brian Dawkins will help at safety, but he won’t single-handedly turn around the defense.

The bigger questions are still along the defensive line, where they have been searching for answers for years.  First rounder Robert Ayers will help to bring some heat from the edges in the new 3-4 scheme. 

Another player to watch is undersized defensive end Elvis Dumervil.  Dumervil is tiny for a DE, listed as 5’11” and 260 lbs., but moving him the rush linebacker spot in a 3-4 could capitalize on his solid pass rushing ability.

But nose tackle is the primary concern for this team.  The most successful 3-4 defenses all start from having great interior line play to give those linebackers room to work. 

The pickings are slim to say the least. 

Former 49er role player Ronald Fields and third year player Marcus Thomas are at the top of the depth chart.  This position will definitely be a work in progress in Denver.

On the positive end, the Broncos should once again reclaim their tradition of a dominating run game, albeit with a different flair.  Look for 12th overall pick Knowshon Moreno to run roughshod on defenses behind one of the better offensive lines in the league. 

Moreno should bring back the Clinton Portis level of production around the 1,500 yard mark.  This will take the pressure off Orton and let him take his shots to receivers Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal. 

But that sums up the biggest problem for the Broncos in 2009.  It will be Orton throwing the ball and not Cutler.  The offense could have been really special if he were still in Denver.

And every defensive coordinator in the division should send McDaniels a fruit basket for ruining that possibility.

 

Oakland Raiders

The Raiders have been rebuilding ever since their aging team of veterans was blown out in Super Bowl XXXVII.  In those six long years it took Al Davis three years to fully give in and realize he needed to start from scratch.  But since 2005 the Raiders have slowly drafted a talented group of players.

Kirk Morrison.  Thomas Howard.  JaMarcus Russell.  Zach Miller.  Michael Bush.  Darren McFadden.  There have even been some hidden gems like Mario Henderson, Johnnie Lee Higgins, Trevor Scott, and Chaz Schilens.

This is the year where it needs to start coming together.

Everything in Raider Nation revolves around JaMarcus Russell.  Going into his second season as the starting quarterback, he must start showing he can play at a high level in the NFL. 

He has shown flashes, but so far inconsistency and inaccuracy have plagued him in his young career.  He hasn't had a lot of help, but there are many routine throws that Russell should not be missing if he wants to be a star.

And the Raiders are praying around the clock that he will turn potential into reality.

The saying goes that a quarterback’s best friend is a good running game, and Russell has one of the best.  Even with numerous injuries taking their toll on the backfield, the Raiders’ run game in 2008 was a solid 10th overall in the NFL.  Justin Fargas, McFadden, and Bush combined for 1,773 yards with a 4.2 yards/carry average.

The addition of future Hall of Fame fullback Lorenzo Neal will only add to this potent backfield.  Neal is the consummate professional and will help greatly as both a lead blocker and as a mentor.

The other concerns on this team remain the same as in previous years.  The offensive line, wide receiver position, and run defense are still unsettled questions.  These areas aren’t as crippling as they have been in the past, but there must be improvement if the Raiders want to turn the corner into becoming a contender.

The run defense especially has no more excuses with a solid group of players.  A healthy Tommy Kelly could be all the difference if he can start eating up blockers at the line of scrimmage.

But ultimately it all comes down to Russell.  The offense needs to start sustaining drives in 2009 if they want to succeed.  Otherwise it’ll be a long seventh consecutive double-digit loss season in Oakland.

 

Kansas City Chiefs

The actual winners of the Matt Cassel sweepstakes, the Chiefs are again starting over their rebuilding process.  And four words summarize how much has changed:

Tony Gonzalez is gone.

The surefire Hall of Famer was traded away since the Chiefs won’t be contenders right now.  While there have been many positives in the offseason, everything in Kansas City will be overshadowed by the departure of a legend.

On the football field, new general manager Scott Pioli and head coach Todd Haley started their changes at the right spot.  Quarterback has been a glaring issue since the Trent Green years.  Cassel is an interesting choice.  He definitely showed he can be a starting QB after taking the reins following Tom Brady’s injury last year.

But there are still reasons to remain skeptical until he can perform at a similar level with a much weaker supporting cast.  He should have every opportunity to succeed, but it will also depend on the team Pioli and Haley can build around Cassel.

Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe is a start. 

The former first round pick is one of the few receivers to be successful right from the start.  He had a productive rookie season with literally just under 1,000 yards (he had 995).  Even with the quarterback carousel last year he managed to improve his numbers with 86 receptions, 1,022 yards, and 7 touchdowns.  

Bowe will provide Cassel with a reliable target on the outside, but his numbers could decline since Gonzalez is no longer around to take some of the defensive attention.

There are questions all over this team, but one key will be the defensive line as it transitions to the 3-4.  Rookies Tyson Jackson and Alex Magee were drafted because of their projected fits in the new scheme.  Their development will be critical as this defense comes together, especially because of the concerns about Glenn Dorsey’s place in the system.

Dorsey had an underwhelming rookie season and is better fit for the 4-3.  The Chiefs need to look at recent history in the division and be wary of trying to convert Dorsey. 

The Raiders tried to plug Warren Sapp into the 3-4 when he was first brought in and the experiment was a disaster.  Dorsey can still be a great player, but probably not in a 3-4 system.

 

Overall Snapshot

The Chargers will be the only playoff team from the division.  They should probably have the title locked up around mid to late November.  My predictions for final records in 2009, with a one game margin of error:

Chargers: 12-4

Raiders: 7-9

Broncos: 5-11

Chiefs: 3-13

 

It’s going to be a rough year out west.

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