Buying and Selling the AFC West Teams Improving in 2014
Every team wants to improve in 2014, but not every team will. Improvement can also mean different things to different teams.
There are dozens of factors that determine if a team improves, which is why the NFL can be so hard to predict. The best anyone can do is examine the teams as currently constructed and compare them to the same teams last year and their 2014 opponents to try to come to some conclusion.
It’s going to be a lot harder to buy improvement of a team that was good last year. Regression toward the mean, a tougher schedule and each team’s definition of improvement are the contributing factors.
In theory, it should be easier to buy improvement of the Oakland Raiders in 2014. In reality, all the factors need to be considered. Every team in the division is unique.
For the first time in a long time—maybe ever—the whole division appears headed in the right direction. The AFC West should be better in 2014, but they could have a worse collective record than last season.
Let's examine each team's chances of improving in 2014.
The Denver Broncos: Selling
Definition of Improvement:
The Denver Broncos went 13-3 last season and got all the way to the Super Bowl despite a gaggle of injuries on defense. The only way this team can improve is by winning the Super Bowl.
Even fewer wins and a Super Bowl victory would still be an improvement, but more wins and falling short again wouldn’t be. It's a tough situation, but one that most teams would gladly take.
Expectations couldn’t be higher for the Broncos after adding strong safety T.J. Ward, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, cornerback Aqib Talib and pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware in free agency. The Broncos also added much-needed depth in the secondary with cornerback Bradley Roby and wide receiver Cody Latimer in the first two rounds of the draft.
The Broncos will also get back several players who were injured last season. Pass-rusher Von Miller and cornerback Chris Harris are coming off torn ACLs but should be ready to contribute early in the season if there are no setbacks. Left tackle Ryan Clady, defensive lineman Derek Wolfe and free safety Rahim Moore will also return from injuries.
The offseason is not just for addition and subtraction; it’s also for development of young players. A good example of a player that fits into both the coming off being injured and developing young player categories is defensive end Quanterus Smith.
Last year’s first-round pick, defensive tackle Sylvester Williams, came on strong at the end of last season. His continued development in 2014 could be big for the Broncos in 2014. Everyone knows the Broncos have two great edge-rushers, but Williams along with veteran defensive tackle Terrance Knighton can help them out with disruptive interior pressure.
The Broncos may have to lean heavily on young cornerback Kayvon Webster early in the year. Second-year running back Montee Ball will become the No. 1 running back after the departure of Knowshon Moreno in free agency.
It’s hard to buy Denver just because the expectations are so high, but general manager John Elway actually made it hard not to do so. It would be easy to expect regression from the Broncos in 2014 if not for all the moves they made.
The whole division has a tough schedule in 2014, each with their own unique set of challenges. The Broncos have a dreaded early bye week along with playing a first-place schedule. The Broncos also have five primetime games, which can make it hard for a team to get into a routine.
The Broncos also go on the road for three weeks in a row from Week 9 to Week 11 to play the New England Patriots, the Raiders and the St. Louis Rams. Even with a slightly extended week leading into Week 9, three consecutive games on the road can be tough. Four of Denver’s six losses in the regular season over the past two seasons have come on the road, including two in New England.
The regular season could matter most in determining how the Broncos stack up with the rest of the AFC. The last thing the Broncos want to do is go to Indianapolis or New England in January.
Kansas City Chiefs: Selling
Definition of Improvement:
After going 11-5 last season and making it to the playoffs in 2013, the next logical step for the Kansas City Chiefs would be to win a playoff game. The Chiefs haven’t won a playoff game since the 1993 season, and getting that monkey off their back would be an indicator of improvement.
The Chiefs can also demonstrate improvement in other ways. The offense can certainly be better than it was in 2013. The defense can also be more consistent, especially in the secondary.
The Chiefs had an interesting offseason in that many players that were starters last season were either not re-signed or released. Left tackle Branden Albert, right guards Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asamoah, wide receiver Dexter McCluster, cornerback Brandon Flowers and safety Kendrick Lewis were all key contributors last season and won’t be in 2014.
Although the Chiefs will have many new starters in 2014, they are relatively well equipped to handle it. It always seemed like the plan was to flip last year’s No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher over to the left side and Donald Stephenson is a more-than-capable starter on the right side.
Safety Husain Abdullah came on strong at the end of last season and has starting experience. There is really no reason Abdullah shouldn’t be an able starter.
The only question is Abdullah’s durability. Lewis played a team-high 1,072 snaps in 2013 according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Overall, the Chiefs have countered for their losses pretty well.
The Chiefs still have questions at offensive guard, cornerback and wide receiver, but they have plenty of young players and veterans to compete. Because of this, training camp is going to give us an idea of how good this team can be in 2014.
Cornerback Phillip Gaines could push for playing time as a rookie, but he'll have to earn it during training camp. The Chiefs are certainly hoping he can step in and play immediately.
Probably Kansas City’s most underrated offseason move was picking up defensive lineman Vance Walker. One of the ways the Chiefs can help their young secondary is with a consistent pass rush, but they didn’t have that last season aside from Justin Houston and Tamba Hali.
The Chiefs didn’t have a player that could take advantage of nose tackle Dontari Poe drawing so many double teams last year. Walker gives the Chiefs a player that can apply interior pressure and his experience inside at defensive tackle may be useful as well.
With the drafting of pass-rusher Dee Ford in the first round, the Chiefs may consider trying to get him on the field with Hali and Houston. In such a scenario, they may opt for four-man fronts and need a player like Walker who has experience splitting gaps as a pass-rushing defensive tackle.
Four of the Chiefs’ first six games are on the road. That’s actually not a bad thing because the Chiefs have a chance to get through half of their road games before injury attrition has a chance to expose any problems with depth.
The schedule is a still a tough one, especially when compared to their schedule last season. The Chiefs have to play the Patriots and San Francisco 49ers in consecutive weeks prior to their Week 6 bye.
After getting beat up by the Seattle Seahawks in Week 11, the Chiefs have to play the Raiders on the road just four days later. Teams that played the Seahawks last year were 5-9-1 the following week last season after an 0-6 start.
San Diego Chargers: Holding
Definition of Improvement:
The San Diego Chargers went 9-7 last season, but they won five of their final six regular season games and six of eight to finish the year (including the playoffs). The two losses were by seven points each.
Unlike the Chiefs, the Chargers won a playoff game last year. The expectation in 2014 for this team may very well be to win multiple playoff games.
Like the Chiefs, the Chargers can improve in other ways. San Diego’s pass defense was particularly ugly last season. If the pass defense is better, that may also give the Chargers some freedom to open up the passing game.
The Chargers didn’t make many moves during the offseason, but they did bring back a few key contributors. Inside linebacker Donald Butler was re-signed along with offensive guard Chad Rinehart, cornerback Richard Marshall and special teams ace Darrell Stuckey.
When your best pickup is a cornerback that was cut in June, you know it’s been a quiet offseason. Still, that pickup wasn’t inconsequential. Brandon Flowers is a good fit for San Diego’s zone-heavy scheme, and they won’t need him to play in the slot.
The Chargers also added running back Donald Brown, who may replace Ryan Mathews sooner or later. Brown will at the very least steal more carries than Ronnie Brown did last season.
The 2014 offseason has really been about getting healthy for the Chargers. Melvin Ingram was able to return last season, but he’s now a year removed from tearing his ACL. San Diego’s defense improved significantly with Ingram on the field at the end of last season.
Veteran pass-rusher Dwight Freeney is coming off a torn quad, but he told Eric D. Williams of ESPN that he’s 100 percent healthy. Having a healthy Ingram and Freeney would give the Chargers a pair of solid pass-rushers to help the secondary.
Wide receiver Malcom Floyd was also cleared for football after a scary neck injury last season that threatened his career. Floyd isn’t exactly the field-stretcher the Chargers needed, but he gives Philip Rivers another reliable target to go along with Keenan Allen and tight ends Antonio Gates and Ladarius Green.
The Chargers also did a good job filling holes through the draft. Cornerback Jason Verrett and outside linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu should help San Diego’s defense in 2014. Both Attaochu and Verrett should have roles in the nickel defense at the very least.
Like the rest of the division, the Chargers have what looks like a tough schedule. A Week 10 bye is nice, but a game on the road in Denver just four days after playing the Chiefs is tough.
The Chargers also have to play the Patriots, Broncos and 49ers in consecutive weeks bookended by road games against the Baltimore Ravens and the Chiefs. It’s not an easy slate by any means.
The Oakland Raiders: Buying
Definition of Improvement:
The Raiders need to have more than four wins or to be more competitive in 2014 to improve over their 2013 season. Unlike their division rivals, the standard is much lower because they haven’t had any recent success.
Oakland needs to improve on defense against the pass and needs to improve passing the ball on offense. It’s a passing league, and the Raiders weren’t up to standard last season.
The Raiders also desperately need to improve on special teams. The team’s lack of depth in recent years has taken its toll on the special teams units.
It’s not hard to make a case that no team did more to improve during the 2014 offseason than the Raiders. General manager Reggie McKenzie had a huge amount of salary-cap space to work with and put it to good use.
The Raiders re-signed defensive tackle Pat Sims and free safety Charles Woodson and signed five other veterans to help the defense. McKenzie signed defensive ends Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley as well as defensive tackle Antonio Smith to solidify the defensive line.
Cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers came over from across the bay to solidify a secondary that has been in flux for the last two seasons. In addition to strong safety Tyvon Branch getting healthy, the Raiders should have a much-improved secondary.
On offense, the Raiders revamped their offensive line by signing the position-flexible Austin Howard, left tackle Donald Penn and interior player Kevin Boothe. The offensive line was a big problem for the Raiders last season but is now one of the deepest positions on the team.
A good offensive line is good news for the running backs. Maurice Jones-Drew was signed to compete with Darren McFadden, who re-signed for one year, and youngster Latavius Murray. The three players should share carries in 2014. Fullback Marcel Reece will also be heavily involved.
The biggest move of the offseason was trading for quarterback Matt Schaub. It was a low-risk, medium-reward move for a team lacking options at the most important position on the field. It remains to be seen if Schaub can hold onto the job.
The Raiders made several splashes in the draft, first landing linebacker Khalil Mack in the first round and then quarterback Derek Carr in the second. McKenzie also added guard Gabe Jackson in the third, who should eventually earn the starting job at left guard. Fourth-round pick Justin “Jelly” Ellis should earn time in the rotation at defensive tackle.
The Raiders will play host to the Miami Dolphins in London in Week 4 after playing the Patriots on the East Coast in Week 3. It’s a tough travel schedule, but it’s actually ideal because it’s a shorter flight to London from the East Coast.
In the first four weeks, the Raiders get their trips to the Eastern Time zone and beyond out of the way. It’s a tough start, but you would rather face that part of the schedule early in the season while the team is still relatively healthy.
Consecutive games against the Seahawks and Broncos starting in Week 9 will be tough, but at least the Raiders won’t have to leave the West Coast. In fact, in the seven weeks following their trip to London, they have a bye week, five games on the West Coast and one trip to Cleveland.
Cold weather could come into play for the Raiders for the first time in the last few years because they will play on the road in Kansas City and Denver in December. At least the Raiders won’t miss home, though, as they alternate home and road games from Week 9 onward.
Early Division Projection & Recap
Denver Broncos: 11-5
Expectations are simply too high to buy overall improvement for the Broncos. They should be better in many areas in 2014, but it won't matter if they don’t win the Super Bowl. The offense may also take a step back against a tougher schedule.
No matter how improved the Broncos might be in 2014, the NFL is too unpredictable to go with them over 31 other teams. They’ll still be the class of the AFC West and certainly be in the hunt for the Lombardi Trophy, which is still a great place to be.
San Diego Chargers: 9-7
The Chargers proved last year how far a good quarterback alone can take a team. With an improved defense, the Chargers should be able to maintain their record from last year even against a tougher schedule.
At 9-7, the Chargers will be in the hunt for the playoffs. Even if they don’t get in, improvements in other areas should roughly account for the playoff win they had in 2013. The Chargers have very quietly been doing a great job building and that and another good year from quarterback Philip Rivers should help them achieve similar success in 2014 as they did in 2013.
Kansas City Chiefs: 8-8
After an incredible run in 2013, the Chiefs are bound to take a step backward. If the special teams falters at all, the offense is going to be put in more difficult situations against tougher teams.
It’s an offense that didn’t really add key personnel this offseason, so any gains will likely be the result of better understanding of head coach Andy Reid’s system. The defense should be good but may have to carry the team.
The Chiefs certainly have some potential to surprise, as they have plenty of young talent; it’s just too early to say if that talent is going to be a factor in 2014. Quarterback Alex Smith will likely continue to be a limiting factor, both on how good and bad the Chiefs can be.
Oakland Raiders: 6-10
The tougher schedule and questions surrounding Matt Schaub make betting on the Raiders risky. It’s easy to see how the Raiders could continue to be a bad team in 2014.
However, the Raiders retooled the entire team during the offseason and should be improved in just about every area. The offensive line, defensive line, linebackers and secondary should all be significantly better in 2014.
The Raiders also didn’t get worse in any area, except for maybe a slight downgrade at left tackle. If they even get decent quarterback play, they could improve by even more than two wins.
It’s also possible the Raiders could still struggle to win games, but that they could be more competitive in those games than they were in 2013. That would still be an improvement for a team that has struggled for over a decade.
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