2008 NFL Season Preview: AFC West
While the regular season does not begin until September, I thought with baseball our only sport of interest right now, we needed to inject a little NFL.
I don't plan on talking about Brett Favre, or Pacman Jones...at least not for a week or two. Right now, I am concerned with predicting, previewing, and otherwise prognosticating with the rest of the world about what I believe might happen in 2008.
Each week, now until the season begins (perhaps with Brett Favre's jersey retirement, or with it's return—Sorry I had to) I will alternate AFC and NFC each week.
Some writers like to predict, "Oh, this is an 8-8 team" and don't really even bother to look at the schedule. Then the team goes 5-11 and he's going, "What happened?"
Not this guy. I have no life apparently, so I actually mapped out every game to see how each team would do.
Denver Broncos (2007 Record 7-9)
Offense: The 2007 Denver Broncos' offense was just like any of Mike Shanahan's teams: establish that potent zone-running game, and work play action off of the that. The problem was for an offense ranking ninth in rushing and 13th in passing, Denver finished a disappointing 21st in points scored.
The Broncos simply failed to punch the ball in when they had opportunities. To make matters worse in 2008, the Broncos' big-play receiver, Javon Walker, will be wearing the silver and black. On the other hand, Brandon Marshall had a breakout season in 2007, proving that he can be a capable No. 1 receiver.
The Broncos also acquired quality backups behind him with Keary Colbert, Darrell Jackson, and Sammie Parker filling out the receiving corps. Brandon Stokely and, one of my favorite receivers in the draft, Eddie Royal are also in the mix.
Rookie OT Ryan Clady could also help out right away, protecting Cutler, as Clady was the premier pass blocker in this year's draft class.
With Jay Cutler's continued emergence as a quarterback, the biggest issue facing the Broncos is at the running-back position. We know Shanahan has a history of just putting anybody back there and finding a 1,000-yard rusher, but Selvin Young and Michael Pittman aren't exactly Terrell Davis and Mike Anderson. Rookie Ryan Torian from Arizona State has impressed so far in minicamp, but it's just that: minicamp. It will take some serious Shanahan running-back magic to improve the scoring totals of this offense.
Defense: The ineptitude of the Broncos rush defense last season cannot be understated. Denver finished 30th in rush defense and, despite having one of the best corner tandems in the league, finished 28th in points allowed.
The loss of starting safety Nick Ferguson and linebacker Ian Gold meant the Broncos were in trouble heading into the draft and free agency. The Broncos added three safeties in the offseason to supplement their outstanding corner duo, including former Chargers starter Marlon McCree and the freakishly athletic rookie Josh Barrett from Arizona State.
Otherwise, this defense has not improved significantly after failing to acquire Shaun Rogers or Corey Williams to bolster their front line.The Broncos did trade for former top-five pick DeWayne Robertson from the Jets, but he has never proven to be anything but an average tackle inside. Former Lion Boss Bailey was brought in presumably to fill in for Ian Gold, but Bailey is a career underachiever as well.
Jim Bates and Bob Slowick are both excellent defensive coaches, but this defense possesses little to no toughness inside, and with the exception of Bailey and Bly on the outside, the defensive backfield has question marks.
Outlook: The schedule includes playoff teams for four of the first seven weeks, plus a visit from the Saints in Week Three. Things get much easier in the second half, but an 8-8 season looks most likely for the Broncos in a vicious AFC.
San Diego Chargers (2007 Record 11-5)
Offense: Even though Phillip Rivers appeared to have regressed in 2007, LaDanian Tomlinson is the best player in the NFL, and he took the Chargers all the way to the AFC Championship game.Unfortunately for San Diego, they lost FB Lorenzo Neal and backup RB Michael Turner this offseason from a rushing attack that ranked seventh in the league in 2007.
Adding H-back Jacob Hester and UTEP running back Marcus Thomas in the draft can fill the spots of the departed Turner and Neal, but as rookies, how productive can they can be on a team ready to compete right now?
For a passing game that ranked a paltry 26th in the NFL last season, a full season of Chris Chambers and a healthy Antonio Gates should certainly help. Vincent Jackson also came on strong late in the year, showing the potential to be an excellent possession complement to Chambers.
Gates is a monster occupying the middle of the field and the seam, so expect Jackson to be even more productive this season.
Ultimately though, the offense is predicated on Rivers taking care of the ball. In his first season at the helm, Rivers made it easy to forget the jettisoned Drew Brees was having an MVP type season in New Orleans. Last year, people wondered if the Chargers had made the right choice. The former N.C. State QB has all the skills, and now has two AFC Championship games under his belt. Luckily for Rivers, he still has the best offensive weapon in football behind him in the backfield.
Defense: Corner Antonio Cromartie has rewarded the Chargers for taking a risk on him when they drafted him in 2006, coming off major knee surgery. That is an understatement. Cromartie lead the league in picks last year and has quickly become one of the elite talents at the corner position, with outstanding hands to go with a long frame and quick feet.
Cromartie and Quentin Jammer create a corner tandem that can be matched in the AFC only by their rivals in Denver. Gone are CB Drayton Florence and S Marlon McCree. However, Eric Weddle played well late in the year making McCree expendable.
Antoine Cason was drafted in the first round out of Arizona to replace Florence, and he will give the Chargers another big, physical corner who will fit perfectly into that aggressive, dominating Chargers D.
With all of the young quarterbacks in the AFC West, expect the Chargers' defense to continue their streak of terrorizing quarterbacks.
Outlook: NFL fans will be happy to know both New England and Indianapolis are on the schedule against the Chargers. San Diego fans will be happy to know both games will be in Qualcom Stadium. If Phillip Rivers plays closer to the 2006 version in 2008, the Chargers could go 13-3 and lock up the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
Kansas City Chiefs (2007 Record 4-12)
Offense: Questions about Larry Johnson's ability to recover from the pounding he took in 2006 were answered: He can't do it.
Head coach Herm Edwards overworked Johnson, and as a result, the running game was not as effective in 2007. With an offseason of recovery, and the talented Texas rookie Jamaal Charles to spell L.J., the Chiefs backfield looks solidified.
Throw in rookie G/T Brandon Albert and Kansas City looks prepared to once against utilize the kind of rugged running game that has been their M.O. seemingly forever.
The biggest question marks remains at quarterback. Last year we saw both Damon Huard and Brodie Croyle, and neither looked particularly good. There was some speculation that the Chiefs highly coveted Matt Ryan, but the Falcons ended any thoughts of that when they took him two spots earlier.
Whoever is behind center will have a star in the making with Dwayne Bowe, plus an underrated rookie, the speedy William Franklin out of Missouri. Tony Gonzalez is still Tony Gonzalez, and this offense should be back on track if they can make a decision on a QB.
Defense: Defensively, the Chiefs' reputation precedes it. Actually, the unit isn't that bad, finishing in the top 15 in points, passing, and total yards. That is the good news.The bad news is the Chiefs couldn't stop the run, finishing 28th last season in a division predicated on pounding the ball. Enter Glenn Dorsey. Arguably the top prospect in the draft, but certainly the best defensive prospect if healthy. He is an immediate impact player along the defensive interior, in the Warren Sapp mold.
Virginia Tech CB Brandon Flowers could be asked to fill Ty Law's corner spot, and Flowers should be more than capable against a relatively weak crop of receivers in the West.
K.C. also brought in Atlanta's LB DeMarrio Williams to inject some youth and athleticism in their linebacking group that already features the talented Derrick Johnson.
The Chiefs' defense was highly underrated last season, particularly against the pass, finishing fifth in passing yards. Flowers and rookie S DaJuan Morgan should add toughness to a poor tackling defensive backfield.
Losing Jared Allen is a major blow, but the Chiefs are building around their young talent, and with Hali and Dorsey upfront, the defensive line will be solid this season.
Outlook: Despite being one of the winners from the draft, too many questions remain at QB. Limited options at receiver only compound that issue. A poor tackling defense has gotten better, but it will certainly not be enough to compete for the division or the playoffs.
Add in an unbelievably tough schedule, and the Chiefs will be lucky to escape 2008 with 5-11 record. But Chiefs fans, your team will be in a ton of close games and appears headed in the right direction.
Oakland Raiders (2007 Record 4-12)
Offense: This is JaMarcus Russell's team now, but if you look at the Raiders' stable of running backs, you may get the feeling that Lane Kiffin and Al Davis don't believe that Russell is quite ready to carry this offense. Adding Arkansas rookie Darren McFadden was a flashy pick, and perhaps a genius one.
If McFadden is anything close to what he was in the SEC, the Raiders will have made the right choice. Anything less, and the Raiders will have screwed it up again.
The Raiders offensive line remains spotty, despite the addition of Kwame Harris. Where will the carries go? Justin Fargas was paid like "the guy", but McFadden, LaMont Jordan, and Michael Bush are all fully capable.
The Raiders have a gazillion backs, all of whom will want the ball. That is a situation worth keeping an eye; seeing if Lane Kiffin can keep all his rushers happy. If not, the Raiders could have very real problems.
In the passing game, adding Javon Walker and Drew Carter on the outside to help Russell was key. Javon Walker can spread a defense, assuming his knees are ok and he stays away from Vegas whenever possible. Russell has a huge arm and will love throwing deep to Curry and Walker, particularly off play-action with those aforementioned running backs.
Raider fans will tell you that Russell and McFadden make this team extremely dangerous in a weak AFC West, but McFadden hasn't played a down in the NFL and Russell essentially remains a rookie.They may be dynamic eventually, but it is doubtful this offense will be significantly better in 2008.
Defense: The key for the Raiders' defense this offseason was keeping their best corner Nnamdi Asomugha. Behind him, the Raiders' defensive backfield is very young and potentially vulnerable. That is part of the reason they brought in Giants' safety Gibril Wilson to play next to Michael Huff, an improving former Texas DB with tremendous talent.
A controversial trade, and subsequent fatty contract, for DeAngelo Hall turned some heads, but also vastly improved this secondary. Speedy rookie Tyvon Branch will help supplement Asomugha/Hall and give the Raiders an above-average defensive backfield.
However, losing DT Tyler Brayton and DE Chris Clemons to free agency hurts up front. They brought in Kalimba Edwards to replace Clemons as a pass rusher.
The offseason saw plenty of spending, but no true impact player on defense from a unit that finished 31st against the run and 26th in points. This looks a lot like the Denver team from last year, only with an even less experienced QB, an inexperienced coach, no proven No. 1 receiver, and an inferior secondary.
Oh, and that Broncos team went 7-9.
Barring an unforeseen improvement by the personnel already in Oakland, there are simply too many solid rushing teams in the division, and the conference, for the Raiders to have a realistic chance at a playoff berth.
Outlook: I keep hearing that suddenly the Raiders are a playoff team. Not only is that ridiculous, but barring a slew of injuries in the division, a .500 record seems out of reach with a defense that can't stop the run and an offense without cohesion or identity.
The schedule is tough once again, with trips to New Orleans, Buffalo, and Tampa, plus some of the toughest home fields in football reside in the West. Unless Russell turns the corner as a QB from Week One (highly unlikely), or McFadden pulls an Adrian Peterson (slightly more likely), the Raiders could be headed to another 4-12 season.
(I fully expect to hear about this from all you excited members of Raider Nation)
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