The AFC West was thought to be among the worst divisions in football heading into the 2010 season.
Then, the games were actually played.
The Chiefs continued to surprise everyone by winning the division and making the playoffs. The team also had the No. 1 rushing offense in the league, thanks in no small part to Jamaal Charles, who firmly established himself as one of the most dynamic running backs in the NFL. (Ask any knowledgeable fantasy football player who he wants with the No. 1 pick next season, and you have an 80 percent chance of hearing Charles name.)
Additionally, the young, highly-athletic defense seemed to finally come to form last season. Going into the 2011 season, it’s hard not to pencil the Chiefs in as favorites to win the division—not if you consider how well this team has been constructed. The team is on the up, up, up.
Guys like Dexter McCluster, Javier Arenas, Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali make the Chiefs fun to watch. Period.
Meanwhile, the Chargers had their troubles on special teams and failed, yet again, to get off to a fast start. Going into the 2010 season, the Chargers were considered far and away the best team in the division, yet failed to make their trademark last-minute push to divisional title and playoff appearance. But the Chargers still got the best quarterback in the division—and a top-tier guy in the NFL overall—and with less distractions to worry about, i.e. the Vincent Jackson saga, it's fair to assume that the Chargers will be back to being a top team in the NFL. Never mind the AFC West.
At this point, it would be easy to peg the Chiefs as 1A and the Chargers at 1B—though even that is open to debate—had it not been for the Raiders season. All the Raiders did was sweep the division. One of those victories was a 59-14 crushing of the Denver Broncos in an October game in Denver. If the rest of the league hadn’t been paying attention, they were after that game.
Oakland running back Darren McFadden looked unstoppable against the Broncos, scoring four touchdowns by himself, and the defense looked equally impressive. The Raiders, like the Chiefs, have a host of youth, speed and highly-athletic guys on defense.
The Raiders also look to be a team moving in the right direction, though the firing of their head coach, Tom Cable, was very controversial and has many wondering what kind of impact it will have on the team. Regardless, the Raiders had an impressive draft last season, and should they repeat those efforts, the team can continue to improve.
It seems possible that the Raiders can surprise people and make the playoffs.
Finally, the Broncos. Last season is one that most Broncos fans would rather forget. The Josh McDaniels experiment failed. His draft philosophy was controversial; many of his selections are firmly on the bubble (Robert Ayers, Knowshon Moreno, Demarius Thomas, etc.), and many of the free agents that he brought in will not be on the team next season. The team is rebuilding, essentially, although there have been many positive developments already.
John Elway was hired on as executive vice president of football operations, and Champ Bailey was resigned to a new contract. The Broncos also have the No. 2 overall pick in the upcoming draft, plus two very high picks in the second round, so there is tremendous pressure to start making up for all the poor decisions that were made under McDaniels. Can the Broncos rebuild and rebuild fast, so that the team can move away from the Hoodie era in a positive direction? We may find out very quickly with the draft less than two weeks away.
Here are some possible draft selections (top two rounds only), which in my opinion, can help each team take another step towards being a playoff contender.
Kansas City Chiefs:
First round: Phil Taylor (Nose Tackle – Baylor)
Second round: Randall Cobb (WR – Kentucky)
San Diego Chargers:
First round: Patrick Peterson (CB, LSU)
Second round: Stephen Paea (DT, Oregon)
Second round: Mikel LeShoure (RB, Illinois)
The Chiefs defense, as stated earlier, is young and explosive. Adding a massive guy like Phil Taylor—a natural fit at the nose tackle position in a 3-4 defense—will help the Chiefs take the next step on defense. He will help against the run tremendously and may be a significant reason why the defense goes from good to great. Randall Cobb is also a great selection since it gives Matt Cassel another reliable weapon. Cobb has great hands and would make the Chiefs that much more explosive and versatile.
Muhammad Wilkerson may be one of the true gems of the draft. He has good quickness, amazing strength and tremendous agility. The Chargers will benefit from adding his size and ability to their interior line. Meanwhile, Baldwin gives them yet another speedy target for Philip Rivers. Malcolm Floyd and Darren Roles may not return for the Chargers, so Baldwin could fit in nicely. The Chargers round things out by taking the best rated safety in the draft. Not bad.
Perhaps the biggest outstanding issue in the AFC West right now is whether or not Nnamdi Asomugha will be back for the Raiders. He is the biggest free-agent name out there, and with the Raiders tying up so much money with other free-agent signings before the lockout began, it's likely that Nnamdi may not be back. The Raiders, we all know, love speed, so adding Brandon Harris can help fill the void left by Nnamdi. Not an easy task, to be sure, but Brandon Harris is a very promising young cornerback and could be an absolute steal.
Finally, the Broncos go the safe route and select what could be the best overall player, Patrick Peterson. The Broncos desperately need help along their interior line, which they get with Stephen Paea. In any other draft, it’s hard to imagine Paea falling this far, but this draft is really deep at his position, so the Broncos catch a break. Paea is a dominant player. His specialty, though, is stopping the run. He may not get tremendous pressure on the quarterback, but what he lacks there, he makes up for with consistent effort.
Then there is Mikel LeShoure.
The Broncos need defense, but it's hard to pass on a guy who is being compared to the Rams Steven Jackson. Knowshon Moreno is very questionable, and the Broncos cannot expect Tim Tebow to throw 40 times a game, so Mikel can help make the running game formidable again. Adding a guy who moves the chains gives Tebow more chance to succeed, but it also helps keep the defense off the field. Going with Mikel, instead of another defender, is a smart move for a number of reasons.
In the end, it's the Broncos that have the most work to do. San Diego is always expected to play at a high level, and the Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders are two of the more exciting, up-and-coming teams in the league. They certainly can’t let up, no, they have to make these picks count. But the Broncos and John Elways have an even more enormous task: Rebuilding from the ground up post-Hoodie era.