For the last few years, the AFC West has been considered one of the weakest divisions in the NFL. San Diego was the only team that was considered a playoff and Super Bowl contender before the season.
Meanwhile, the Oakland Raiders had the Al Davis-Lane Kiffin Civil War of 2007-08 which followed a two-win season under Art Shell in 2006.
The Kansas City Chiefs fell into a nose dive which included coaching changes, Priest Holmes' retirement, Tony Gonzalez asking for a trade and receiving one to Atlanta. Let's not forget the Larry Johnson ordeal that left a sour taste in the mouth of Chiefs fans.
Then the Broncos lost Mike Shanahan to a premature retirement followed by trades of emerging stars Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall.
Yet this year looks different, for better or worse, for all four teams in the division. Here are my predictions for the AFC West teams in 2010.
1. Oakland Raiders
With such a storied and historic franchise, it is impossible for the Raiders to be bad forever. Raiders fans have had false hope in the latest off-seasons caused by new coaches or star player signings and blockbuster trades. This year, many experts agree that the Raiders have got it right.
Gone is JaMarcus Russell and in comes a new play-caller in Hue Jackson and new quarterback Jason Campbell. You can look at Campbell’s win-loss record and say he hasn’t done anything or you can look at his stat card and see the progress he has made.
Last year, he threw for 3,600 yards and 20 TDs with 15 INTs in the Redskins offense. This year, he has a rising star at TE in Zach Miller and a rejuvenated WR in Darrius Heyward-Bey. The running backs will combine speed (Darren McFadden) and power (Michael Bush) to give the Raiders an effective ground game.
On defense, there are seven new starters including: CB Stanford Routt, DE Lamarr Houston, DE Matt Shaugnessy, DT Richard Seymour (moved from end), MLB Rolando McClain, OLB Quentin Groves and OLB Kamerion Wimbley.
These seven men, plus Nnamdi Asomugha will give the Raiders a stronger defense than they’ve had in recent years. The Raiders team success will be determined by the success of the run defense, which allowed 155 yds/game last year.
2. San Diego Chargers
The last time we saw the Chargers, they lost in the AFC Divisional playoffs to the Jets. You may ask how do I think they will fall from the top of the division? I have two reasons: 1. Marcus McNeil 2. Vincent Jackson. These two men are Phillip Rivers’ best friends on Sunday with McNeil blocking Rivers’ blindside while he looks down field to throw the ball to Vincent Jackson.
San Diego also won’t have the same rushing attack without LaDanian Tomlinson, signed by the Jets. Even with L.T. near the end, it will be hard to replace him, especially with rookie Ryan Mathews.
The die-hard Chargers fans will tell you that the trade for Patrick Crayton will boost their offense and fill the void by Jackson’s holdout. Crayton will have no preseason or training camp to learn a new offense and quarterback so I would not expect instant results from him.
But San Diego still has TE Antonio Gates to catch the ball from Rivers as well as OLB Shawne Merriman and DE Luis Castillo leading a strong defense. In my opinion though, San Diego won’t be the same after losing three pieces (L.T., Jackson, McNeil) on offense.
3. Denver Broncos
The Broncos already got off on the bad foot for 2010. OLB Elvis Dumervil, the NFL's sack leader last season, has been placed on the IR. The injury bug also bit hard in the backfield with Knowshon Moreno and Correll Buckhalter, but they are not expected to miss regular season time.
Denver also lost Brandon Marshall, via trade, who was by far their best weapon on offense. On the bright side, the Broncos will feature an offense with Kyle Orton, who posted an 86.8 rating in 2009 as he threw for over 3,800 yards and 21 TDs.
The Broncos are like the guy who starts a marathon by sprinting and then falls apart in the middle and loses in the end, as illustrated by starting 6-0 without a playoff appearance in 2009.
Tim Tebow has already taken the role of franchise quarterback from the fans, but not from the coaches. He is not expected to play at all this year, but who knows what will happen in the next couple of months.
4. Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs have finished last place every year since 2007 (tied with Oakland) and I expect the trend to continue. Yet that is not as bad as it sounds. Some say that the Chiefs are a newer version of the New England Patriots because of their love for former Pats, with QB Matt Cassell, LB Mike Vrabel and GM Scott Pioli.
The Chiefs also have a good core of young players led by fifth overall pick in the 2010 draft, S Eric Berry. Expectations vary on DE Glenn Dorsey, their top pick in 2008, who has only two sacks so far in his NFL career. Branden Albert, 15th pick in 2008, is another player to watch as he enters year three of his NFL career.
The fact of the matter is that the Chiefs are a rebuilding team. Plain and simple. Expectations shouldn’t be too high, but in the NFL any year could be “the year” for a team to break out of a slump.
A reason for optimism can be found in the new staff of assistants surrounding head coach Todd Haley. With veteran coaches Romeo Crennel (defensive coordinator) and Charlie Weiss (offensive coordinator) to give some guidance to the young talent, the Chiefs look ready to improve from a dismal 2009 season.