2011 NFL Power Rankings: AFC West Preview, Who Will Take the Crown?
The AFC West, weak? In past years, yes. But in 2011, the AFC is prepared to wash away the reputation as the weakest conference.
After going 6-0 in the division, are the Raiders prepared to rise to the next level—division champs and playoff bound?
Or will the Chiefs take it up a notch and defend their title?
Or are the Charges ready for redemption?
And last, and least, are the Broncos ready to shock the AFC West by taking a retooled bunch from 2010 and becoming champs instead of chumps?
In this slide, I have evaluated the state of the four AFC West franchises—their draft selections, free-agency moves, needs and their overall situation.
The State of the Broncos
In 2010, the Denver Broncos suffered under the Josh McDaniel era. Before the 2010 season, I had predicted that he would be fired before the end of the season. My Broncos predication for 2011: The Broncos will have to release either Kyle Orton or Tim Tebow.
And since they are in a rebuilding mode with no chance of making a serious run, they should trade Orton quickly to the highest bidder, and begin the long and tumultuous task of rebuilding a once-great franchise.
The Broncos' 2010 offense ranked 13th in total offensive yards, only one spot below division-rival Kansas City, and three spots below the Raiders, which is a double-positive. The Broncos' greatest obstacle on offense is to improve their 3.9 yards per carry average, and their 12 fumbles—which was four away from the league high.
Denver fared better in their air attack ranking seventh in the NFL in passing yards, but the flip side to that stat is: Among the top 10 passing teams, the Broncos had the lowest completion percentage at 57.6, just below the Redskins' 57.7. And like the Redskins, many of their passing yards were desperation yards—meaning they were forced to pass because they were trailing their opponents most of the season.
In 2010, the Broncos defense was sack-starved—their front seven was as formidable as a toothless hound dog. With the loss of Elvis Dumerville in 2010, the Bronco got absolutely no pressure on opposing quarterbacks. But the Broncos addressed that issue in the draft with third overall pick Von Miller. Though Miller is an excellent pass-rusher, passing up on Marcell Dareus might haunt the franchise as most experts predict that Miller would be a better fit in a 3-4 scheme.
Regardless, the Broncos drafted well, and are on their way to erasing the McDaniel era, which set the organization back.
The Broncos are in a rebuilding stage. Expect a few flashes of brilliance, but don’t get your hopes up. Denver should win two to three games in the division if the young 2011 draft class gets up to speed and contributes early. But expect the Broncos to finish last in the division again.
Are the Chargers Ready To Strike Back?
After a disappointing 2010 campaign, the San Diego Chargers—former kings of the AFC West—are primed to regain their crown.
In 2010, the contract disputes of Pro Bowlers Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeil ignited a destructive cycle that plummeted the Chargers from a playoff team to lackeys. Despite the internal issues, the Chargers led the NFL in yards per game, and were second in passing yards per game.
Regardless of the Chargers' 2010 issues, they ended the season with a 9-7 record. With the addition of McNeil and Jackson returning for a full season, and Ryan Matthews having a year under his belt, expect the Chargers offense to return to the high-voltage Chargers of 2009.
In 2010, the Chargers pass defense gave up the fewest passing yards in the league; they also gave up the least amount of total yards per game.
The Chargers are in the same division with the top two rushing offenses in the NFL, the Chiefs and the Raiders. Their greatest concern on defense over the offseason was stopping the run.
The Chargers have taken the necessary adjustments to assure that they stop the run by signing two-time Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection linebacker Takeo Spikes, a physical, aggressive plug that should improve their run defense immediately.
With the addition of first-round pick Cory Liuget, a run-stuffing defensive lineman out of Illinois, the Chargers are prepared to challenge the running attacks of the Chiefs and Raiders.
With the signing of special teams guru Rich Bisaccia, expect the troubled special teams play of the Chargers to improve.
With the additions on offense and defense, expect the 2011 Chargers to fare better than their 9-7 mark in 2010, and make a push into the playoffs.
Will Oakland Be Better Without Nnamdi and Gallery?
The 2010 Raiders surprised the AFC West by sweeping their division rivals. But outside of their division, they only won two games.
In 2010, the Raiders were the second-best rushing offense in the league led by Darren McFadden and Michael Bush. But the glaring question is: How will their rush attack fare after losing their best offensive lineman, Robert Gallery, in free agency?
In addition to losing Gallery, the Raiders offensive line will most likely feature at least three players with little or no NFL experience. At left tackle, projected starter Jared Veldheer struggled as a rookie. Below I’ve listed his stats against the stats on other rookie tackles.
Jared Veldheer: 11 games started, 15 penalties for 110 yards, 7.5 sacks allowed for 59.5 yards, 169.5 yards lost total.
Russell Okung: 10 games started, three penalties for 15 yards, four sacks allowed for 30 yards, 45 yards lost total.
Anthony Davis: 16 games started, 10 penalties for 70 yards, 11.5 sacks allowed for 66.5 yards, 136.5 yards lost total.
Bryan Bulaga: 12 games started, nine penalties for 60 yards, 11 sacks allowed for 63.5 yards, 123.5 yards lost total.
The Raiders' second-round draft choice Stefen Wisniewski is projected to start at center. Joseph Barksdale, the rookie tackle from LSU, will be competing for a starting position either at right tackle or either of the guard positions—that’s a lot of youth on an already mediocre offensive line.
As for the passing game, the Raiders will be led by veteran quarterback Jason Campbell. Campbell has a propensity to hold onto the ball a bit longer than most coaches would like, but when he has adequate protection, he has proven to be an effective passer. Unfortunately, Campbell has been plagued by poor pass protection in Oakland as well as in Washington.
When you factor in Oakland’s underachieving receiving corps, it’s hard to be optimistic about the Raiders passing game.
In 2010, Oakland’s defense improved drastically led by veteran defensive tackle Richard Seymour and all-world cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. Unfortunately, Nnamdi is gone, and so will the second-place pass defense ranking. In 2010, despite improvements, Oakland ranked 29th in running yards given up a game.
The lone strength of the Raiders defense is their stout front four which terrorized opposing quarterbacks in 2010. But with the loss of Asomugha, opposing quarterbacks will have more options now that the shutdown corner is gone.
In 2011, the Raiders have a tougher schedule than 2010, and their division rivals, the Chiefs and Chargers, have reloaded. With the loss of their best defensive player, Nnamdi Asomugha , their pass defense will suffer. And with the loss of their best offensive lineman, Robert Gallery, the offensive will suffer.
Unless the Raiders secure veteran players in free agency at the offensive tackle, outside linebacker and cornerback positions, the Raiders will struggle to go 6-0 in their division or improve on their 8-8 record in 2010. In addition, the Raiders receiving corps could use a big “sure-handed” position receiver to complement their track team of unproven receivers.
Are the Chiefs Ready To Defend Their AFC Crown?
After winning the AFC West in 2010, the Kansas City Chiefs are preparing to defend their crown.
In 2010, the Kansas City Chiefs ran the ball better than any team in the NFL. And in 2011, expect the same. In the draft, the Chiefs picked up the versatile Rodney Hudson who some experts claimed was the best center in the draft, but Hudson’s versatility will allow him to play guard as well.
The Chiefs passing game is led by Pro-Bowl quarterback Matt Cassell and Pro-Bowl receiver Dwayne Bowe. In addition, the Chiefs drafted a stud receiver in Jonathon Baldwin. The Chiefs also picked up a solid No. 2 receiver in Steve Breaston. These moves will ensure that Bowe does not see double-teams on every passing down, and will improve the Chiefs passing game immediately.
In 2010, the Chiefs defense finished 29th overall last year despite the improved play of linebacker Tamba Hali and young defensive backs Brandon Flowers, Brandon Carr and Eric Berry.
The additions on offense give the Chiefs the best offense in the AFC West on paper. But as we all know, paper is cheap and does not equate to productivity.
Barring any major injuries, the Chiefs should have one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL. After all, they feature Pro Bowlers at the QB, RB and WR positions, which equates to success. If the Chiefs defense improves in 2011, the Chiefs could be a sleeper Super Bowl contender, but in the stacked AFC, they are probably a couple of years away from challenging for a title.