The AFC West, a division comprised of underachievers in 2008, should continue a battle this year that ended on the last week of last season.
The San Diego Chargers edged out the Denver Broncos in the final week of competition in 2008 by lighting up the scoreboard, ending up ahead 52-21 in Qualcomm Stadium.
In 2009, the AFC West looks to be a more competitive and much more exciting division. Kansas City and Oakland should make a stronger run for the division title, after setting up shop near the bottom of the conference in 2008.
San Diego Chargers
We'll start at the top of the division. What will San Diego need in order to continue its stay as AFC West Champions?
The first question mark lies next to LaDainian Tomlinson. Who knows which L.T. will grace the field in San Diego this season? A look in the past shows uncertain waters, he might not be a sure bet to reclaim his starring role in San Diego.
Looking back to 2006, LaDainian Tomlinson ran the NFL rushing show with 1,815 rushing yards. A dominant season performance that has lost its shine after only two years.
L.T. ran for only 1,110 yards last season in what seemed to be his worst season rushing in the NFL; failing to beat his rookie mark set in 2001.
Flip the coin however, and L.T. still remained a standout figure in San Diego's passing game. Matching up with Phillip Rivers 52 times for 426 yards, it wasn't a career year for L.T. in that department, but certainly a big help to the offense.
San Diego's best approach to this season will be to keep L.T. as healthy and fresh as possible heading into January.
Darren Sproles should carry half the load, if not more, during the regular season.
Distributing an even load to both backs will be the key to keeping them healthy and running for longer.
It's easy enough to say that after the age of 30, running backs start to see their way down the ladder in the league. This will need to be the season where San Diego makes a very serious push for a Super Bowl title; their roster should see significant changes in the 2010 season.
On a more upbeat note, Phillip Rivers should have a great season for San Diego once again.
Trent Green, writing in place for Peter King on Monday Morning Quarterback, guarantees Phillip Rivers will be one of as many as 10 QB's to pass the 4,000 yard mark this season in passing.
Without Jay Cutler in the mix of the AFC West, Rivers won't have to worry about the constant competition and back-and-forth that used to make up their entire relationship. I think we all remember the Christmas Day shouting match that dropped both of their reputations for a year.
The San Diego Super Chargers, not so super of late, should have a great season in 2009. With healthy backs and a strong quarterback, they are my pick to win the division again.
Enough has been said about the Denver Broncos this offseason to know that nobody knows how they will perform come September.
New faces make up an almost entirely new organization this year for Denver. Excitement and uncertainty are the best words I can find to describe the Bronco's feelings when looking forward to the new team.
Kyle Orton heads an offensive unit that should play well in Coach McDaniels' new scheme.
A stout offensive line, maybe the best in the league, provides the front for what always tends to be an electrifying running game.
Knowshon Moreno, Correll Buckhalter, and my personal favorite, Peyton Hillis should combine to be a very balanced attack from the backfield. This spells good news for Orton, who should take advantage of a clean, concise, short passing game.
With Eddie Royal running quick slants, and Tony Scheffler finding himself open on most every play, Orton should have plenty of options over the middle. Good blocking tight ends in Daniel Graham and Quinn (if he makes the team) should make the pocket that much more comfortable for Kyle as he backs into his stance.
The biggest question marks for Denver: Brandon Marshall and their defense.
Marshall stays on top of the headlines in Denver this week, as fans struggle to understand whether or not he will be part of the team when play begins. He's already missed mandatory OTA's, and has publicly asked for a trade.
This is on top of his hip-injury, which should be fully healed by the end of July.
Whether or not Marshall deserves a better contract, which he does, this is not the most opportunistic time to demand it.
His legal issues off the field provide a cloud of poor judgement over his young career, and make it difficult for the Broncos to seek negotiations with him.
The word seems to be that Denver would rather let Marshall sit down for the season, than deal out a large contract. But if the perfect trade comes around, I'm sure it won't surprise many to see Marshall packing his bags for good.
Still, without question, Denver has enough offensive weapons to make up for what would be lost in Marshall.
Defensive threats, on the other hand, still remain uncertain this offseason. The young players drafted by Denver have a great leader to follow in Brian Dawkins. Dawkins should help mold the rookies into professional players in the defensive backfield. It's always much easier to grow in the NFL with guidance and leadership, both of which a veteran like Dawkins can provide.
The rookie symposium takes place this week, and all the young players coming into the NFL through the draft should benefit from speakers like Mike Tomlin, Cris Carter, and Hall of Fame quarterback Len Dawson.
With guidance, and a little luck, Denver's defense should provide a much more formidable foe than their 2008 counterpart. Newly acquired Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan will look to make sure of that.
As a contender, I'd place Denver at No. 2 in the division this year, with stiff competition from the Kansas City Chiefs, who we'll address next.
Kansas City Chiefs
Not a standout team last year by any means, the Kansas City Chiefs did manage to put on quite an offensive show to end the season in 2008. Faces have changed, however, and it's tough to say what to expect from a new QB and new coaching staff at Arrowhead.
Matt Cassel comes from a season nobody expected from him.
For a quarterback that hasn't started since high school to lead the New England Patriots to an 11-5 season (10-5 starting record) is highly improbable. Belichik's defense, and a well seasoned receiver in Randy Moss, backed up Cassel throughout the year, and helped to carry him out of the gates in New England.
This year, Cassel has been left with nowhere near the options he had with the Patriots. Dwayne Bowe is probably his best receiver on the field now that Tony Gonzalez has been traded. Bobby Engram may provide a large target for Cassel, but isn't Randy Moss. Without the veterans in New England to support him, Cassel will most likely struggle in his first season with KC, but his personal outlook doesn't seem so grim.
"Slowly but surely, we're building chemistry, we're building rapport, and everybody's working hard." Cassel said during KC's mini-camp.
Only Tyler Thigpen, Brodie Croyle, and Ingle Martin stand between Cassel and having his own team. It's safe to say he should be the one starting throughout the season for the Chiefs. How he will respond to the changes in his surroundings will be the deciding factor of his success in this league.
The hardest factor for Kansas City to overcome this season will be transforming it's bottom-of-the-league defense into something worth getting excited about.
With the third overall pick of the 2009 draft, Kansas City chose Tyson Jackson, a stout DE from LSU. He should mold well into a 3-4 defense that makes his run-stuffing ability a stand-out factor. Kansas City followed the trend in later rounds to pick up Alex Magee, DT, and Donald Washington, CB, to help add some young talent to the struggling defensive roster.
Without some serious change in the play of their new defensive rookies and their veterans alike, Kansas City will find it hard to make a winning season out of 2009.
Nevertheless, I do see a lot of potential in Kansas City, and I foresee them competing well with the Denver Broncos in the middle of the division. Before preseason, it's hard to tell whether or not they can make a run for a wild-card position in next year's postseason.
It's always been hard for me to tell what kind of season the Oakland Raiders have in store for the NFL and their fans.
Since the Super Bowl losing year with Rich Gannon, the Raiders have dropped into a spiral of mediocrity. But things are looking up for the silver and black.
Last year, rookie back Darren McFadden, despite having almost no veteran leadership, made something out of nothing with his first season. With Justin Fargas leading the way, and Michael Bush riding his coattails, McFadden was able to scrape out 499 rushing yards and four touchdowns, and 29 receptions for 285 yards.
With his first season out of the way, McFadden looks to take up an important role in the Raiders' offense. Oakland expects to rely on McFadden in the passing game while they work to mend their deep attack.
In his stead, Michael Bush hopes to become the star among the Raiders' running backs this season. But many would not be surprised if he is traded away before the beginning of the season. Justin Fargas lead the team with 853 rushing yards last season, and without a chance to overtake him, Bush may find his way out of Oakland. Running backs are a precious commodity, and Bush's value rises that much more when he's running like he did at the end of the season in 2008.
With three backs sharing game time, Oakland could eventually present a running force as potent as the one for the New York Giants last year; which saw Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward, and Ahmad Bradshaw trading highlights.
JaMarcus Russell benefits greatly in this position. With a strong running game to support the offense, passing the ball would become much easier and more effective. Russell has struggled through his first two seasons with Oakland. His career began with a long rookie holdout, and he didn't begin to really play until the 2008 season. Putting up 2,423 yards, thirteen touchdowns, and only eight interceptions, Russell certainly made his case to remain the starter for the Raiders.
The staff of the Raiders' gives Russell another target to aim at this year in Darrius Heyward-Bey. Al Davis continued with his trend to pick the fastest player on the market, and certainly gets that in Darrius. Whether or not he becomes a big threat in the Raiders' passing game is unsure, but his speed will certainly help decide.
The Raiders, out of all the teams in the AFC West, I believe, have the most ground to cover for this season. They posted a better record than the Chiefs in 2008, but I picture them at the bottom of the division this year.
San Diego Chargers: 12-4
Denver Broncos: 9-7
Kansas City Chiefs: 7-9
Oakland Raiders: 5-11