NFL Preseason: 10 Biggest Storylines in the AFC West

Chris BensonContributor IIAugust 18, 2011

NFL Preseason: 10 Biggest Storylines in the AFC West

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    As the regular season approaches, anticipation grows with each passing day. Fans of every team have reason for optimism and certain story lines begin to develop. Some of these story lines are merely the concerns of fans and have no bearing in the locker room, but some actually have a dramatic effect on the team’s season.

    We’ve all made our predictions for how the AFC West will shake out and read the predictions of others. Now let’s take a look at the factors that will decide the fates of the 2011 Broncos, Chiefs, Chargers, and

    Without further ado, here are the 10 biggest story lines in the AFC West.

Can San Diego Avoid a Slow Start?

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    It seems like every year the Chargers start the season as Super Bowl contenders in the court of public opinion, start slowly and dig themselves a hole, then claw themselves back out and into the playoffs once
    people start doubting them. Does this team just not like pressure?

    Whatever the case is, the Chargers must find a way of breaking recent tradition. In 2010, San Diego only lost two games after Week 8 and turned a 2-5 record into a 9-7 one. Perhaps they needed to finally miss the playoffs due to their slow starts to get things in gear. It’s hard not to take a postseason appearance for granted if you come back to win the division every year anyway.

    This year, the Chargers should be embarrassed they let their own blunders prevent them from reaching the playoffs and have a renewed hunger for that AFC West title. They will have a chance to prove they mean business early with back-to-back games against New England and last year’s AFC West champion Chiefs in weeks 2 and 3, respectively.

Can Tamba Hali Replicate His 2010 Season?

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    An underrated pass rusher for years, Tamba Hali burst onto the national scene in a big way in 2010. Leading the AFC with 14.5 sacks—plus two more in the playoffs—Hali was a key cog in Kansas City’s division title last season. No other Chief had more than three sacks besides situational pass rushing DE Wallace Gilberry.

    Hali was rewarded with a five year, $60 million contract extension with $35 million guaranteed—a price worthy of only the most elite pass rushers. If the Chiefs are to repeat as division champs, Hali will need to
    be an elite pass rusher once again. That kind of money can cripple a team if invested unwisely.

    Hali has always been a good player, but he stepped into the elite last year. Not only did he get all those sacks, he was the only player on the team to get any sort of consistent pass rush at all. If Hali
    doesn’t perform like he did last year, the Chiefs won’t perform like they did last year. There simply isn’t anybody on the roster that can pick up his level of production if he stumbles.

    That’s why the performance of Tamba Hali is one of the most important story lines of the AFC west.

How Will the Raiders Defense Perform Without Asomugha?

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    The Raiders did a good job keeping most of their talent on defense in the offseason, extending players like Kamerion Wimbley and Michael Huff. However, as we all know, they lost their greatest talent to the
    Philadelphia Eagles.

    Is there life after Asomugha?

    Regardless of what Raiders fans will tell you—and trust me, I’ve heard some say the loss of Asomugha is a non-factor—it’s never good when you lose your best player. Does that mean the Raiders are automatically a worse team? No. But the Raiders defense will have to play harder and make less mistakes as a whole to compensate if they want to play at the same level.

    Stanford Routt is now paid like a solid No. 1 cornerback, but he has yet to become one. That isn’t to say he can’t. He’ll have to limit the penalties, for one, as he had 11 last year. Rookie Demarcus Van Dyke will have an opportunity to make an impact right away as well. How these cornerbacks, including Chris Johnson, play in 2011 will be definitely be something to keep an eye on.

Can Jamaal Charles Thrive with a Heavier Workload?

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    Last year Jamaal Charles did things on the ground that were unheard of. Rushing for over 1400 yards is impressive, but it is infinitely more so when it only takes 231 carries to get there. But that begs the question: Why did the most productive tailback YPC-wise have the 14th most carries? Sounds like bad coaching right?

    Perhaps. On the other hand, perhaps we wouldn’t have ever known how good Charles could be if Todd Haley didn’t use him like he did. Charles’ slight frame isn’t guaranteed to hold up as a featured back. However, the Chiefs are going to have to find out in 2011.

    Thomas Jones, although an adequate backup—who’s technically the starter—is only getting worse with age. Never again can he receive more touches than Charles, as he did in 2010. He simply isn’t as
    effective, and as much as Haley may be encouraged to ease Charles along to keep him healthy, wins come first.

    If Charles can hold up with a heavier workload—closer to 260-270 touches—the wins should come more frequently. It’s as simple as that.

Is the Denver Defense Ready to Show to Some Fight?

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    Remember when the Denver defense had allowed only a single touchdown through the first five games of the 2006 season? Oh, how quickly things change. The experienced defense—that’s a nice way of saying old—faltered down the stretch and only got worse as the Broncos continued trying to band-aid
    the problem with more veterans.

    Eventually came the McDaniels era and the offense was blown up and given a youthful invigoration of talent that the defense sorely needed. More veterans were signed, and the defense failed again. Finally,
    McDaniels was fired and a true defensive-minded head coach was brought to town in John Fox.

    Now, at last, the defense seems to have become a priority. There are young players at key positions and Elvis Dumervil makes his return. All the pieces aren’t quite in place, but somebody finally opened the
    box and spread them out on the table, so to speak.

    How quickly Denver pieces that puzzle together will be the biggest factor in determining how well they do in 2011, not its quarterback drama.

Can Jared Gaither Return to Form?

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    Though Jamaal Charles averaged over six yards per carry last year, the Chiefs’ offensive line has plenty of room for improvement. Brandon Albert allowed 10 sacks last year and though he’s a steadily improving decent player, he hasn’t lived up to the billing of franchise left tackle.

    Jared Gaither, meanwhile, has. Before missing all of 2010 with a back injury, Gaither was an all-pro talent at left tackle. The Chiefs took a low-risk, high-reward gamble on Gaither and if he pans out, the entire
    offensive line could be overhauled and improved.

    Current right tackle Barry Richardson is a mauler in the run game but struggles in pass protection. Albert is great in the run game but doesn’t have the awareness and reactive ability of a top flight left tackle.
    Imagine, if you will, Gaither returning to form and playing at a high level as starting left tackle. Albert can slide over to right tackle where he won’t have to deal with elite athletes quite as frequently and Richardson could compete with Jon Asomoah to take longtime Chief Brian Waters’ job at guard.

    It may take a while for them to gel into a cohesive unit after making these changes, but the line would be all the better for it in the end. Imagine what Charles could do then? Gaither could help take the Chiefs’
    offense to a whole new level if he successfully recovers.  

Can Philip Rivers Silence Critics Who Question Whether He's Really Elite

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    When a team is considered a Super Bowl contender year in and year out but never even reaches the penultimate game of the season, it doesn’t take long for terms like “overrated” to be thrown around. In recent weeks, I’ve seen Rivers discussed by multiple media outlets that argued that he is not an elite quarterback.

    Deserved or not—and it’s not—Rivers will continue to be criticized until he gets to the big game. Rivers’ play is rarely the cause of a loss, but as quarterback it’s his job to rally the team. A team can only have
    so many fluke losses or fluke seasons before it’s apparent that either it isn’t a fluke or there are some major leadership issues.

    With the Chargers, I’m willing to bet it’s the latter. Most of that rests with Norv Turner, but Philip can silence his critics if he takes it upon himself to lead his team to the next level. Rivers has to know
    that there will always be lingering doubts about him if he doesn’t win or at least qualify for a Super Bowl. The Chargers’ window is getting smaller and smaller. Rivers also has to know that.

    Watching how he reacts to those facts will surely be one of the more interesting story lines in the AFC West this season.

Can the Raiders Receivers Stay Healthy and Perform?

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    Asomugha wasn’t the only high-profile Raider to bolt from the team in 2011. Zach Miller has been one of the top tight ends in the league the past few seasons and was the Raiders No. 1 option in the passing game.

    Who will fill that void? Kevin Boss will be fine at tight end, but he can’t be a No. 2 option, let alone the first option. He will help improve the run game and that is the Raiders’ priority, but the Raiders need to become more multi-dimensional if they want to challenge for the division title. Jason Campbell needs a dependable target or two.

    Jacoby Ford has the makings of a future star and should be an excellent deep threat, but a team can’t place all its hopes on a second year receiver. Ford is bound to have some ups and downs, and somebody needs to be there when he’s down. Whether it’s Chaz Schilens, Louis Murphy, or someone not on the roster currently, somebody needs to step up. To do that, they have to get healthy and stay that way for the first time.

Can Ryan Mathews Become the Player the Chargers Expected Him to Be Last Year?

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    The pressure of living up to the hype as LT’s replacement was too much for Mathews in 2010.

    In 2011, he doesn’t need to be Tomlinson in his prime, but he does need to make improvements. Mike Tolbert will be the third-down back because he can catch passes out of the backfield and is one of the better backs in blitz pickup. Mathews doesn’t have to worry about those things as much; he just needs to make an impact with his legs on the early downs.

    Mathews doesn’t have to put up huge numbers to be a key cog in the San Diego offense. The team will continue to be pass-first with the talent it has at quarterback and wide receiver. Mathews himself just has to realize that and not let unneeded pressure affect his performance.

    If he relaxes and plays the way he knows he can play, Mathews has a bright future in the NFL. He just needs to stop comparing himself to LT and work on building his own legacy. Following Mathews’ progress will easily be one of the most interesting story lines this year.

When Will the Broncos Quarterback Drama End and Who Will Win the Job?

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    And finally we come to the storyline that has received the most attention not only in the AFC West, but with the national media. NFL fans simply can’t get enough Tebow stories, and a fair number of stories have been written about Orton as well.

    This storyline has gotten so powerful, it has taken precedence over everything else in Denver. Fans seem to care more about this quarterback battle than the team as a whole. There’s simply too much drama in
    this storyline for it to play out in a healthy manner. If it persists, the only end I see is a distraction for the team and an even worse season than they would’ve had otherwise.

    Even if Kyle Orton is declared the starter, there will be lingering support for Tebow and every time Orton makes a mistake, fans will be clamoring for Tebow. That isn’t healthy for team morale at all, especially if
    the locker room is divided as to who should be the starter. The single most important thing the Denver Broncos can do this year is choose a starter and make it clear, unequivocally, that he will remain the starter. Regardless of who is chosen, the Broncos will be a better team when a quarterback is settled on.

    As long as this storyline persists, the Broncos are going to be weakened. But this is one quarterback controversy that isn’t going away quietly.