When I start to look at these divisions the first thing that I do is to rank the quarterbacks, and in most cases, that will give me a good sense of where the teams will finish.
The AFC West is a good example of that. You could make arguments for the Chargers, the Raiders or the Chiefs being the best team in the division. In the end, the thing that separates them the most is the man under (or behind, when can we officially change that saying?) center.
Phillip Rivers is clearly the head of the quarterback class, followed by Matt Cassell, then whoever the Raiders and Broncos throw out there.
All the teams in the division have things I like to see, but none of them are solid enough to make me feel they are clearly the best in the bunch.
The Raiders will have a good run game and a solid defense, but they don’t have a good enough passing game.
The Chiefs have a good enough quarterback and plenty of other playmakers on offense, but the defense is suspect and the team as a whole is just too young to have much faith in.
The Broncos defense could end up putting enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks to cover for their lack of ability in the defensive backfield and their total lack of ability to stop the run, but that offense just won’t be prolific with any of the quarterbacks on the roster.
That leaves us with the Chargers, who have a great quarterback and playmakers at receiver and tight end but had a lot of turnover on the defensive side of the ball.
If I have to make a choice between all these tempting but flawed options, in the end, I’m going to go with the team with the best quarterback, and that’s got to be Phillip Rivers.
In case you missed it, check out last week’s NFC West Preview and make sure to come back on Thursday for a look at the AFC South.
Better or Worse in 2011: Better
Better but only better by default.
The Broncos have a bad defense and an offense that doesn’t have a quality starter under center. Their best bet may be to just go with Tebow this year to find out if they can win games with his unique skill set.
This team will struggle again in 2011; the division is too good across the board, and they have too many holes in their roster to be better than a six or seven-win team at best.
Important Acquisitions: Dante Rosario, Willis McGahee
Toughest Player Losses: Ryan Harris, Jabar Gaffney, Correll Buckhalter
Key Player: Knowshon Moreno
The “If” Factor: One if, that is if they go to Tebow and if they can use him correctly. OK, that’s two.
2010 Offensive Ranking: seventh passing; 26th rushing
The old saying goes that if you have two quarterbacks, you actually have none. Well, the 2011 Denver Broncos have three, so that does that mean they have negative one?
We know what we’re going to get from Kyle Orton—a good but not good enough NFL starter. I could actually see him taking a team to the Super Bowl but only under ideal circumstances with a top five defense and loads of playmakers around him. This isn’t the case for the Broncos, so it won’t matter who they have taking the snaps in 2011.
And since this team isn’t going anywhere but maybe a win or two more with Orton, I say they should give Tebow a full season to show if he has the potential to be a true franchise quarterback.
Really, what’s the difference between going 7-9 and going 5-11? Other than getting you a better draft pick? I don’t know if Tebow is the long-term answer, nobody does, but I do know that Orton isn’t.
If the Broncos were my team, I would want them to roll the dice with Tebow this year and find out.
But that’s not looking like it’s going to happen, so the only reason I see this offense being a little better than it was last year is because they should get more out of the running game in 2011.
Knowshon Moreno has the skills to be a feature back, and Willis McGahee can still be an effective runner in small doses. Both will need to have great years for this team to score many points.
Important Acquisitions: Von Miller (R), Jeremy Jarmon, Derrick Harvey, Ty Warren
Toughest Player Losses: Ronald Fields
Key Player: Elvis Dumervil
The “If” Factor: Only one if, Dumervil
2010 Defensive Ranking: 25th passing, 31st rushing
The Denver defense won’t do their offensive counterparts any favors in 2011. They return much the same roster as they had in 2010, a defensive unit that was one of the worst in the league. You don’t need a dominant defense to win anymore, but you put your offense in a bad spot when you give up as many yards and points as this unit is going to.
The only thing that may save this defense from being at the bottom of the pile again this season will be the added pass rush they should get from the return of defensive end Elvis Dumervil and the addition of rookie outside linebacker Von Miller.
Miller comes with the usual question marks that rookie pass-rushers all have coming into the league; it can be one of the more difficult skills to translate from the college ranks to the pros.
Dumervil has shown in the past that he can be one of the most disruptive defensive ends in the league, but you just never know what to expect when someone comes back from an injury that cost them the entire previous season.
I say Dumervil comes back strong, maybe not quite the same level we saw in 2009. His injury was to his upper body, which shouldn’t affect his ability to use his speed rush to get to the quarterback.
The Broncos will need all the quarterback pressure they can get, because this defense will once again struggle against the run. That can be overcome as long as they can get better against the pass. Their secondary isn’t going to lock anyone down, Champ Bailey is getting older and Brian Dawkins has seen his best days.
The Broncos defense is going to be put in a lot of tough situations this year and just won’t have the players on the roster to keep their average at best offense in games.
Kansas City Chiefs
2010: 10-6, AFC West Champions
Better or Worse in 2011: Worse
The Kansas City Chiefs are a team built to win on a long-term basis, and sometimes, that means taking small steps backwards from time to time.
2011 was a breakout year for Todd Haley’s group, but in the end, it may have been a little too much too soon. They had a strong ground game but struggled to get yards in the air. Their defense was average at best but is young and has room to improve.
Schematically, the team is headed in the right direction, it just takes time for even the best roster builders like Scott Pioli, formerly the co-architect of the Patriots championship teams, to turn over a team built for an older system.
The future is bright in Kansas City, but this division goes three deep with solid teams, and their youth may prove to be the thing that keeps them from repeating the same success they had in 2010.
Important Acquisitions: Jared Gaither, LeRon McClain, Steve Breaston
Toughest Player Losses: None
Key Player: Steve Breaston
The “If” Factor: Pretty high, this group needs to be more successful moving the ball via the pass
2010 Offensive Ranking: 30th passing, first rushing
The Kansas City Chiefs offense was a little bit of smoke and mirrors in 2010. They relied on scheme, some speed and mostly opportune big plays to get the job done. In 2011, they’ll need to be more consistent on the offensive side of the ball.
In their 10 wins, the Chiefs averaged 27 points, and in their six losses, they averaged just 16.5. Now I know, I’m not breaking new ground here with the revelation that you’re likely to score more when you win than when you lose, but a disparity of over 10 points means that consistency was a problem.
A better passing game will be the key to that consistency, and the addition of Steve Breaston should help the cause. Breaston made a living as a speedy slot receiver for the Arizona Cardinals and will be a good compliment to Dwayne Bowe.
Matt Cassell is a good quarterback, but the jury is still out on whether or not he has another level left in him. If not, and I’m in the camp that doubts he does, this offense is only going to carry the team so far.
Their two best players are small, big-play types in Jamaal Charles and Dexter McCluster. Both are guys that depend on a quantity over quality approach to racking up their yards. They need to be fed the ball enough times that eventually they’ll break a big gain.
Dwayne Bowe is the most consistent of the receiving core, but he does his best work in the red zone, and defenses don’t need to adjust their coverages because of him unless they actually get there.
This offense has the beginnings of being an elite NFL scoring unit, but they need a few more years to put the pieces in place to get it done on a consistent basis.
Important Acquisitions: Kelly Gregg, Sabby Piscitelli, Brandon Siler
Toughest Player Losses: Ron Edwards, Maurice Leggett, Mike Vrabel
Key Player: Tamba Hali
The “If” Factor: High
2010 Defensive Ranking: 17th passing, 14th rushing
The Kansas City defense is much like the offense—they’re young and talented, they run a modern scheme that has proven to be successful in today’s NFL, but they just don’t have all the pieces to the puzzle quite yet.
Glenn Dorsey is a good defensive end in the 3-4, but the linebackers behind him aren’t ready to make the plays he will clear the way for. The Chiefs will miss Mike Vrabel more than you would think.
He was the quarterback of that defense, the guy that knew the angles better than anyone else. He may not have been the same type of athlete he was when he was winning Super Bowls in New England, but his leadership and defensive IQ will be tough to replace, especially in a system that values gap discipline so highly.
Tamba Hali is the best of the bunch, and his sack totals have been impressive since he entered the league. His ability to get to the quarterback is the key to this defense being good against the pass.
If Hali and the front seven can get good pressure, the defense backfield is young and talented, and is on the precipice of being one of the premier defensive backfields in the league. Eric Berry was a superstar from the moment he stepped on an NFL field and Brandon Flowers is one of the better young corners in the league.
Like the rest of the team, this unit has talent and potential, but you just never know if this will be the year if they can put all that potential into actual results.
Better or Worse in 2011: Better by a game or two
Once again Al Davis has built a roster with the idea of winning a championship now. And once again, those hasty, short-term roster moves have left Oakland with a group that is good but not good enough to win a championship and doesn’t have the cap flexibility in the future to build on any success they may have this year.
They found themselves deep in the salary cap hole this summer after the new CBA rules took affect. Instead of taking advantage of the opportunity to clean house and get their cap numbers in order, they took the easy way out and just restructured some of their contracts, getting themselves under the cap for 2011 but once again making their future cap full of dead money.
In case you can’t tell, this really bothers me. Why? Because, contrary to what it may seem like, I actually like the Raiders. They’re a historic team with a great fanbase, and the league is a better place when they’re good. But with the way they’re being run, it’s going to be a long time until we see the Raiders have any kind of long-term, sustained success.
They need to find a franchise quarterback, they need to re-allocate their salary cap, and most importantly, they need to start evaluating players better. They are constantly overvaluing their own guys, and instead of cutting bait when they should, they just give lucrative contracts to average players, money that could be used to get better players in free agency.
2011 will see another Raiders team that has some talent but isn’t deep enough and doesn’t have the quarterback to do more than maybe sneak into the playoffs via the wild card.
Important Acquisitions: Kevin Boss, Trent Edwards
Toughest Player Losses: Zach Miller, Robert Gallery
Key Player: Jason Campbell
The “If” Factor: Quite a few
2010 Offensive Ranking: 23rd passing, second rushing
This Raiders offense drives me crazy. It drives me crazy because it’s built on the same principles that Al Davis has been building offenses on since the 1970s. The problem is this is 2011, and the old school Raiders offense isn’t affective anymore.
You can’t consistently protect a quarterback from the modern, aggressive pass-rushers for the four to five seconds it takes to have a successful vertical passing game. A good running game, which the Raiders definitely have with Darren McFadden and Michael Bush carrying the ball, is nice to have, but you won’t score enough points to win double digit games without being able to move the ball in the air.
The Raiders have built an offense around high-priced ball carriers, receivers whose games are based on speed instead of route running and good hands and a quarterback with a strong arm but who lacks in decision making skills. None of this makes you confident that they will be successful in 2011.
We know they’ll gain yards on the ground, but the only way this offense takes a step forward will come with a shift in schematic philosophy and an upgrade at quarterback.
Important Acquisitions: None
Toughest Player Losses: Nnamdi Asomugha, Thomas Howard
Key Player: Stanford Routt
The “If” Factor: Low, this defense will be good
2010 Defensive Ranking: second passing, 29th rushing
The Raider’s defense was the unit that kept them in games last year and carried them to the .500 record they earned. That group was based on blanketing pass receivers and pressuring the opposing quarterback.
Those are two characteristics that define great defenses, but instead of building on the success, Oakland decided to let its best player, and arguably the best defensive player in the game, Nnamdi Asomugha, become a free agent.
The move can make some sense after a closer look but only because of the salary cap room it clears up. Then when you look at the other areas that the Raiders have chosen to spend that money (over $5 million on their kicker and punter, really?) it just doesn’t make any sense at all.
Time will tell if the move to let Asomugha go is the right one, usually, it’s not wise to spend that kind of money on a position that values quantity of talent over having just one great player.
Stanford Routt will be asked to step up to the No. 1 cover spot and was given a huge contract in the offseason. That contract was one of the deals that the Raiders restructured to get under the cap, and Routt will need to perform at Asomughagian levels to be worth the big cap hit he’s going to cost Oakland in the years to come.
Another high-priced defender, but one who’s worth the money, is Richard Seymour, the best 3-4 defensive end in the game. I spent years watching Seymour clear the path for pass-rushers like Mike Vrabel to put up huge sack numbers. With Seymour clearing the way, the Raiders should again be able to put pressure on opposing offenses.
The Raiders defense will be good, borderline great if Routt and the rest of the secondary can be even nearly as effective as they were with Nnamdi. Good will get them back to .500, if they can make it to great this defense could lead the Raiders into the postseason.
San Diego Chargers
Better or Worse in 2011: Better
Ah, the San Diego Chargers. It seems like every year is going to be this team’s year, then every year, they shoot themselves in the foot somehow.
Once again, the Chargers come into the season with high expectations, mostly because they have one of the best quarterbacks around. Phillip Rivers had a tremendous year in 2010 and will once again have the playmakers around him to lead this team to lots of points and some wins too.
The defense will be a question mark though. They’ve used an aggressive, attacking 3-4 scheme with plenty of success for the better part of a decade, but this year, they have lots of new faces on that side of the ball.
How quickly, and how well, those new faces adjust to the Chargers defensive system will be the difference between another slow start or a Chargers team that can set themselves up for a big win total.
In the end, they get the nod in the AFC West because they have the best quarterback in the division.
Important Acquisitions: Laurent Robinson
Toughest Player Losses: Darren Sproles, Legedu Naanee
Key Player: Vincent Jackson
The “If” Factor: Two Ifs
2010 Offensive Ranking: second passing, 15th rushing
This Charger’s offense has been one of the most prolific units in the league for a while now. Phillip Rivers has ascended to near the top of the list of quarterbacks in the NFL. He might not be at the Brady/Manning/Brees/Rodgers level, but he has to be considered just slightly below those players. And, if his team around him can finally put it all together and get him to a Super Bowl, he’ll join them.
He once again brings back the king of the mismatch—his tight end Antonio Gates. Gates is one of the best pass-catching tight ends the league has ever seen, and he gives this offense a unique weapon that even the other great teams in the league don’t have.
Last year, they were using whoever they could find at wide receiver, mostly because of the contract situation of Vincent Jackson. This year, Jackson has been in camp from the beginning and will be the main target for Rivers. But whether or not Jackson can get back to his previous level of play is yet to be seen, receivers can be up and down even in good times.
The running game will be helped by the amount of free space that the high-flying passing game opens up. Ryan Matthews was a rookie that many thought would come in and be productive right away last year. Instead, he suffered through the typical pitfalls that rookies go through and comes into his second year ready to fulfill those lofty expectations.
This Chargers offense, with one of the league’s best quarterbacks at the control, will once again put up a lot of points in 2011.
Important Acquisitions: Takeo Spikes, Travis LaBoy, Bob Sanders
Toughest Player Losses: Antwan Applewhite, Kevin Burnett, Paul Oliver
Key Player: Bob Sanders
The “If” Factor: High, there are a lot of new parts on this defense
2010 Defensive Ranking: first passing, fourth rushing
Much like the San Diego offense, the defensive has been on the cutting edge of the schematic trends that have dominated the league in recent years. They run the type of attacking, aggressive 3-4 system that is custom built to stop modern passing teams by overloading the flanks of the pass protection and forcing the quarterback to make shorter throws before they want to.
It’s brilliant really. We’re never going to see dominant defenses like the ’85 Bears again. It doesn’t matter how good you are, no defense can line up against the better offenses in the league and think that they aren’t going to give up yards from time to time.
But, if you can make them work to get down the field, make them run as many plays as possible, you start to get better odds that eventually the offense will make a mistake or you can force a turnover.
You can call the style “bend but don’t break” but really what you're doing is just giving your defense as many opportunities as possible to be disruptive. The Chargers have used this strategy well in their recent string of success, but this year, the strategy will be put to the test because they have more than a few new players to plug into the system.
Bob Sanders will be the key newcomer. He fits the style perfectly as a hard-hitting, instinctive and aggressive defensive back. But, he has struggled to remain healthy during his career. If he can stay on the field, his skill set should mesh well with this defense.
They don’t have to shut anyone down, they just have to frustrate opponents enough and force some turnovers to let their offense lead them to a division title.