Denver seemingly had a different running back each season, which never stopped production. The Broncos continued to get to the playoffs year after year, only to suffer early exits on most occasions. Truth be told, San Diego was the weak link until about 2004, when Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates began their ascent to offensive mastery.
Now the division is divided as ever, with only one team making the playoffs last season, and perhaps that will not change this year as Oakland, Kansas City, and now Denver continue to rebuild. Let’s start at the bottom with the Chiefs.
The Chiefs are a frustrating team to follow. Dick Vermeil took over in 2001 and built an offensive juggernaut, then retired in 2004 after some promising seasons. Herman Edwards was hired to retool the defense, but never seemed to get off the ground, especially after last season’s 2-14 disaster. Edwards was let go, and that started a positive spiral toward where we are currently. In the early portions of 2009, Chiefs GM Carl Peterson resigned, and the Chiefs brass pursued talent wiz Scott Pioli to be the new GM, and hired offensive guru Todd Haley as the new head coach.
The trade ups did not stop there, as veteran LB Mike Vrabel was brought in to mentor a young linebacking corps. Matt Cassell, the unknown in 2007 who rose to NFL stardom in 2008, was brought in to solidify QB play. The Chiefs drafted defensive end Tyson Jackson of LSU, who will be the most likely heir to the gap left by Jared Allen’s departure a year ago. After Tony Gonzalez publicly stated he did not want to be part of rebuilding, he was traded to the Falcons, which will continue the Chiefs attempt to weed out the old regime.
The Chiefs offense should be fun to watch in 2009, even if they only make it to a .500 record. Matt Cassell should thrive in Todd Haley’s pass first system, and should have the tools to do so. Dwayne Bowe is a nice big target with sure hands, and Terrance Copper can burn down the sideline. Brad Cottam will try to fill the void left by Gonzalez, which should be tough.
Larry Johnson and Jamaal Charles are both good receivers out of the backfield, and can help in pass protection as well. Look at it this way: If you have a guy who can try to emulate Larry Fitzgerald, which seems to be the case with Dwayne Bowe, then you can try to emulate the Cardinals offense of 2008. The big question will be whether the system in New England was the key, or if Cassell is really that good. If Matt Cassell struggles, look for the offense as a whole to struggle.
The running game is going to see some changes, as Larry Johnson’s numbers continue to dwindle and Jamaal Charles is not nearly the same kind of runner. Look for a 2 back system much like Arizona employed last year, even if it is just to keep the defense honest. Brandon Albert and Brian Waters anchor a decent offensive line, so if Cassell makes his reads quickly he should be upright most of the time.
The defense will probably be the biggest factor to success. There is not one proven team leader, save for Mike Vrabel, who will have to learn a new system. Derrick Johnson should continue to impress, and 2nd year corners Brandon Flowers and Brandon Carr must develop quickly if this secondary is to succeed.
The signing of safety Mike Brown should provide some insurance, until he gets hurt again. Bernard Pollard has not reached his potential, but if he and Brown can stay healthy they should be able to anchor a decent secondary. If the front four can somehow get pressure, this could work. If not, look for a lot of big plays against a young and unproven defense.
Either way there is no where to go but up, and that should be entertaining to say the least. I still pick the Chiefs to bottom out the division, behind 3 teams who are farther ahead in both experience and their collective schemes.
Josh McDaniels inherited a pretty good offense and a miserable defense. After an offseason of head scratching trades, free agent signings, and power struggles, the whole team might be pretty lousy.
Jay Cutler, selected to his first Pro Bowl after throwing for more yards in one season than Elway ever did, got himself traded to Chicago after learning the Broncos had tried to send him to Bucs in a three team trade that would have brought Matt Cassell to Denver.
Brandon Marshall, Jay Cutler’s favorite target, has also requested a trade. He will report to training camp, but will be grumbling the entire time. Not exactly a great start to one of the more consistent teams the last few years.
Enter Kyle Orton, the new starting QB, or glorified game manager, whichever you prefer. Orton is backed up by Chris Simms, who is a poor imitation of his father Phil. Not a very good QB race, and not kind McDaniels is used to coaching. Keep in mind he made Tom Brady and Matt Cassell allstars, when Billechick would have had them playing game micro managers for the entirety of their careers.
The running backs should be better and more durable than last year, as the Broncos brought in Knowshon Moreno via the draft, and Correll Buckhalter via free agency. They are similar style runners, but both can run, pass block, and catch swing passes out of the backfield. They will be fortunate to run behind what has long been one of the best offensive lines in all of football, and are getting younger thanks to 2nd year beast Ryan Clady. This will most likely be a two or three back rotation, and whoever is in will spend more time pass catching and blocking than they will running in this complex spread scheme.
The receivers should give Orton way more weapons than he was used to in Chicago, and that will help mask his flaws as a playmaker. Brandon Marshall is one of the best possession receivers in the game, regardless of his attitude. He is a big target at 6’5, has sure hands, and is deceptively fast. Eddie Royal decided to forgo a rookie season and just be a playmaker from day one. The short and speedy wideout gave defenses fits last season, as he never seemed to be able to outrun Cutler’s arm. This wont be as troublesome with Orton under center, but they only need to survive one year of it.
Brandon Stokely continues to be a great slot receiver, and Jabar Gaffney just left New England to come over, so he is already a veteran of the offense. Tony Scheffler is still a great pass catching tight end, and Daniel Graham will fit right in since he learned this system playing in New England.
The defense is the biggest worry. Shanahan was fired for failing to shore up a defense that constantly gave up big plays, despite annual big name free agent signings. The front four will need a lot of work, and that was overlooked in the first round of the draft and free agency. Instead Denver’s brass spent money on Brian Dawkins, an aging safety way past his prime, brought in 2 running backs via free agency, and one more with their first pick of the draft. Robert Ayers, an OLB from Texas, was drafted in the first round, but is unclear whether he will rush off the edge or line up in the second level.
The linebacking corps is also raw, and does not have many familiar faces. Andra Davis was brought in via free agency, but he was cut from the Browns and hasn’t played in a game since 2007. The front four has several young talents competing for jobs, including Jarvis Moss and Tim Crowder, but no proven playmakers. The secondary will have to help out with run as much as possible, regardless of their age.
Brian Dawkins is the oldest at age 35, and he is the only proven run support in the backfield. Champ Bailey is still one of the game’s best cover corners, but is very injury prone and may be past his prime at age 31. He has had lots of small injuries the last couple of years, and never seemed to mesh with Dre Bly while he was on the roster. Andre Goodman performed well for Miami last year, but is also aging at 30. It will be a true test to see if a secondary devoid of fresh legs will be able to defend the wide spread offense of San Diego twice a year. It didn’t appear that way in week 17 last year, as the Broncos were torched for 52 points.
This team is attempting a one season changeover from a successful regime that stood the test for 15 years and won two titles. McDaniels got off to a sloppy start, and after further contaminating a poor defense, things may get worse before they get better. I will be shocked if this team makes it past .500, let alone to playoff spot.
Other than this offensive line and receiving corps, this is almost as complete a team as you can find. They have decent QB depth, as all of their current QB’s have been a starter at some point. None of these guys would be starting elsewhere, but that means several mentors with game day experience for the young and raw JaMarcus Russell. Russell has a cannon for an arm, and is mobile enough to avoid a rush, but his decision making and touch on his passes need work if he wants to avoid another losing season.
The offensive line saw a major overhaul during the offseason, which is good since they have been one of the worst at pass protection in recent years. 4 new lineman joined the team during the offseason, but none are proven talent. Until they can prove their pass blocking capabilities, this may just be yet another patchwork line put together by former line coach and current head coach Tom Cable. The Raiders continue to give 2004 first round pick Robert Gallery opportunities at guard, even though he strugglied mightily at tackle. The big man from Iowa just seems bred for run blocking, and run blocking alone.
Receivers are either a glaring hole or possess very strong depth, depending on what you are looking for. The drafting of Darrius Heyward-Bey ahead of such big name proven talents as Michael Crabtree and Jeremy Maclin left draft analysts stunned, but Raider fans everywhere claim they got a steal. Heyward-Bey does possess world class speed (with a clocked 40 yard dash time of 4.3), but will have to prove if he can beat elite corners on deep routes. He only scored 13 touchdowns over the span of 3 seasons, so one has to wonder if he is better at track or if he actually has good hands. Only time will tell.
Johnny Lee Higgins proved to be a sleeper, but can he perform now that defenses are ready for him? After that there are a lot of young, speedy, and unproven wideouts, but that goes back to what I said before. If you are looking for world class speed across the board, this is tops. If you want a proven possession receiver, perhaps Crabtree was a better choice. Raider Nation will only have to gaze across the bay to see if that is the truth, as he was picked up by San Francisco. Javon Walker might be able to be the veteran talent this team lacks if he can stay healthy, but he has been of minimal use to any team ever since he left Green Bay in 2005.
The running backs are the real gold here. The Raiders have 3 backs who could be starting for most teams, but they are also a stalwart rotation. Darren McFadden has world class speed, the ability to make defenders miss, and now that his turn toe is gone, we should see him turn on the jets more often like he did in college. Michael Bush is a Brandon Jacobs clone, and is a beast to tackle. He missed most of his rookie season recovering from a broken leg he suffered while still at Louisville, and was a well kept secret heading into 2008. He possesses enough speed to break away, and can blast through anyone he cant outrun. Justin Fargas rounds out the backfield, complimenting it with speed, toughness, and veteran savvy.
The offense should be fine if Russell can hand off enough and make short throws, just long enough to let the defense creep up. Then he can unload a 60 yard bomb to whoever is open.
The defense is chalk full of playmakers, with household names like Derrick Burgess, Greg Ellis, and Tommy Kelly anchoring a very intimidating front four. In second tier you have assassins Kirk Morrison and Thomas Howard, who are always itching for a pick or a sack. Get past that, and you are throwing on one of the best corners America has to offer. Nnamdi Asomugha only allowed 8 completed passes against him last season, coming on 37 attempts. That shows the level of fear QB’s have when they face him, and that is if they dare to throw at all. There isn’t really a formidable safety or corner on the other side, but the Raiders drafted Michael Mitchell out of Ohio to play opposite Michael Huff. Between the diverse linebacking corps and an underrated secondary, Oakland can more than cover the whole field.
All in all, this should be the Raiders’ first winning season since 2002, and might even challenge San Diego for the division if the Chargers do not hit the ground running.
Other than New England, this is the most well rounded roster in the league. San Diego has shown over the last 5 years that it can play offense or defense against the best teams out there. They have gone deep in the playoffs both of the previous seasons, and both trips were cut short by injury.
Phillip Rivers is one of the best quarterbacks in the game, using his size and strength to carve up even the most aggressive secondaries. He had a tough time winning over his critics after taking over for the ultra-accurate Drew Brees, but after 3 great seasons he has hushed and caused plenty of detractions. He led the league in touchdown passes last year, and operated with mostly a lost running game and confused defense. He pulled his team out of a season long slump, but after losing Shawne Merriman in the opener and L.T. in the first round of the playoffs, Rivers was exposed as the only real leader in a 22 man effort, and it just wasn’t enough to derail the Steelers.
The running game should be more effective this year, as Darren Sproles proved what a true home run hitter he can be, which should compliment the aging L.T. just fine. Jacob Hester can carry a few more times per game, as he has had another year to settle in. Also don’t forget about Michael Bennett, who was very productive the few times in his career has been able to stay healthy. Whoever is back there will be more than happy to have one of the best lines in the league blocking for them, anchored by Marcus McNeil.
The receving corps is very deep. Vincent Jackson finally combined talent with his size, and had a career year in 2008. He seems to finally understand what holding onto the ball really means, and that should open up the other options. Chris Chambers has always been a quality possession receiver, but and can still beat teams deep if he stays healthy. Craig “Buster” Davis has world class speed, and will cause frustration in the secondary if he can remain healthy after missing most of 2008. Malcolm Floyd is another big target, but is inconsistent. The few times he has made big plays, they usually either set up scores, and get him in the endzone.
After all that you still have Antonio Gates, who demands double teams. He is one of if not the top pass catching tight end in the game, and continues to defy coverage with his size and good hands. Cover all of this and Rivers can still dump it off to LT or Sproles.
The offense has been good for some time, particularly the years Norv Turner has been assisting or coaching. It is the defense that will decide if this team is finally ready for a title.
The front four is anchored by Louis Costillo and Jamal Williams. They are both pass rush specialists, but Jamal Williams is also one of the best run stuffers in the game today. Get past that fiasco, and you must confront the Shawns: Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips, both devastating tacklers and sack kings. The loss of Igor Olshansky to Dallas will hurt, but not as much as losing Merriman all last season. The linebacking corps will have some more depth to it this year, as the team brings in pass rush specialist Larry English, who will probably spell whichever Shawn is tired of tackling and sacking.
If by some chance you manage to get past the front seven, San Diego has one of the most talented and opportunistic secondaries there is. Antonio Cromartie is one of the best cover corners, and also excels at getting great YAC when he picks off unlucky QB’s.
Quentin Jammer is another great corner, and usually gets the number two wideout, which shouldn’t be any worry in this division. Whoever needs help over the top will get great support from either safety, as Eric Weddle and Clinton Hart continue their quest for recognition.
There isn’t a ton of depth on defense, as last year proved. But after bringing in a capable backup to the Shawn’s and continuing to pile on playmakers, even occasional injuries here or there should not derail Ron Rivera’s schemes.
The Chargers of 2009 look ready to punch everyone in the mouth, and be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy by season’s end. They are as deep and talented as any other of the elites, so they need to start asking themselves:
“Why not us?”
If Phillip Rivers keeps his ego in check (I know, not so easy) and spreads the ball around, he should garner MVP attention. Look for Merriman to get comeback player of the year, and perhaps both will be fighting for Super Bowl MVP come February.
Chargers will go at least 12-4, win the division outright, and challenge New England and Indianapolis for the AFC crown. If New England or Pittsburgh gets in the way, Philip Rivers will want to draw blood, and Merriman will be right behind him ready to do the lights out dance on the fallen.