Sizing Up the 2009 AFC West

Ryan BalkeContributor IMay 9, 2009

The AFC West produced four different division champions from 2002-2005. But since then, it’s been controlled by the San Diego Chargers, who have rattled off three consecutive AFC West titles.

Part of this can be attributed to some shrewd personnel decisions and player development. But the instability of their three rivals has a lot to do with it also. Without further ado, here’s a look at the Chargers’ AFC West rivals.

Note: I left out the Chargers because I had written the expectations for them in a seperate article, but I'll add some insight for them here.

San Diego Chargers

The Chargers were an onside kick recovery away from missing the playoffs in 2008, but somehow, someway managed to win the division with an 8-8 record.

I like the Chargers to exceed last year's dissappointing records for a few reasons. One, I don't think it'd be possible for them to lose four games in the last five seconds again. Call it bad luck or bad execution, but most of those crazy finishes have a way to even themselves out over the course of a couple years.

A full year under Ron Rivera, along with the return of Shawne Merriman, should make the defense better automatically. The defense came along way in 2007 before being derailed by injuries, schemes and all-around poor play in '08. Antonio Cromartie has no choice but to be humbled a bit after an awful season. After predicting 15 interceptions, Cromartie had a whopping two all year, both coming thanks to Brett Favre. With more support from a pass rush including a healthy Merriman and rookie Larry English, the pass defense should be improved. The addition of Kevin Burnett should improve the Bolts' 3rd down defense, which was downright pitiful last year. Look no further than the 3rd quarter of the AFC Divisional Playoffs, when the Steelers had four consecutive third down conversions to all but ice the game.

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Philip Rivers has developed into one of the game's elite quarterbacks under Norv Turner. But for the Chargers to meet their expectations, they need to get back to basics. A couple of years ago, their offensive line was among the nastiest in the league. Not last year. LaDainian Tomlinson's "off year" can be attributed not just to his bum toe, but also a lack of a blocking fullback and poor play from his o-line. Free agent Kynan Forney and rookie Louis Vasquez will compete for Mike Goff's right guard position, but the pressure is on Kris Dielman and Nick Hardwick to return to form inside.

The Chargers have no excuses now. They've adjusted to the coaching staff and should open up 2009 with all of their star players 100% healthy. The front end of the schedule is lighter than the end, so a good start will be crucial. Look for the Chargers to get back into double-digit wins territory.

Prediction: 10-6

Denver Broncos

The Broncos under Mike Shanahan defined stability. But in Josh McDaniels’ few months in charge, all hell has broken loose in Denver.

Two months into the season, franchise quarterback Jay Cutler grew angry over rumors that the Broncos were discussing trades for Matt Cassel.

Rather than handle it like a professional, Cutler balked, demanding a trade. Who is to blame here? Cutler, definitely. But McDaniels’ arrogance in trying to put his stamp on this team also led to this conflict.

I’m not in Cutler’s camp for anything. Sure, his arm is strong, but his record as a starter is still under .500 and he never sniffed the playoffs in Denver? Is he a better quarterback than Kyle Orton? Sure.

But Cutler always struck me as a guy that would wilt in the face of pressure. Orton now has weapons like rookie Knowshon Moreno, Brandon Marshall, Eddie Royal and Tony Scheffler at his disposal, so he’ll find it tough to screw up. And there’s always that dominant Broncos line to fall back on.

Defensively, Mike Nolan has been brought in to clean up one of the biggest messes in the league. The overhaul began with the selection of defensive end Robert Ayers, followed by a gaffe in the selection of undersized corner Alphonso Smith.

The Broncos traded their own 2010 pick (not Chicago’s) to land Smith in the 2nd round. For a pick that might be in the top 12, that’s a stiff price to pay for Smith.

Brian Dawkins adds a lot of leadership and insanity to the secondary, but he’s still getting up there in age and may find it difficult outside of Jim Johnson’s defense, which was tailored to his abilities.

Prediction: 7-9

Kansas City Chiefs

Another New England-influenced team in the AFC West, the Chiefs shook up their front office with the hiring of former Pats’ executive Scott Pioli, who immediately hired Cardinals’ offensive coordinator Todd Haley to become head coach.

Pioli then received a hookup from his old employer, landing Matt Cassel and Mike Vrabel for a measly 2nd round pick.

The verdict remains out on Cassel, who won’t have any resemblance of the arsenal he had in New England. With Tony Gonzalez now in Atlanta, Cassel can only fall back on Dwayne Bowe and perma-disgruntled running back Larry Johnson. Bobby Engram was brought in to soften the blow, but you can’t expect much out of him.

Defensively, Pioli hopes he drafted Richard Seymour 2.0 in LSU defensive end Tyson Jackson. With the Chiefs moving to a 3-4 defense, Jackson will be called on to be the disruptive bookend of the line, with Tamba Hali and Vrabel providing outside pass rush.

As a team, the Chiefs mustered a laughable 10 sacks in 2008. To put that into its proper context, 12 players had that many.

If Jackson can develop alongside Glenn Dorsey and 3rd round pick Alex Magee, the Chiefs defense could be strong in the very near future.

The pressure will be on the front seven to take pressure off a very, very young secondary. All four starters in KC’s secondary were drafted in 2006 or later.

For now, the Chiefs are in definite rebuilding mode. But it’s difficult to doubt a guy like Pioli, who has already made plenty of solid moves. It’s going to take some time, but the Chiefs are one their way back to relevance.

Prediction: 5-11

Oakland Raiders

While the Chiefs are being restored through the draft, the Raiders continue make decisions that are leaving people dumbfounded.

I’m not going to pick on Michael Mitchell; he looks impressive in his YouTube videos and the Raiders need a safety.

My hate is with Darius Heyward-Bey. I know Al Davis loves speed. But opposing teams also LOVE running the ball down Oakland’s throat. Drafting BJ Raji would have at least shown some sort of progress in that department. But alas, Al’s insanity wins out.

JaMarcus Russell’s development into a solid NFL quarterback appears to be right on schedule, which is why I hate the pickup of Jeff Garcia. Sure, it’s a dependable veteran to possibly tutor Russell.

But what if he struggles? Will Raider Nation be calling for Garcia to come in at the first sign of JaMarcus playing poorly? That kind of thing can just irk at a young quarterback, so the Raiders better not do anything to set Russell’s development back.

Even though I considered Heyward-Bey the 3rd or 4th best receiver in the draft, he does give the team a downfield option they sorely need.

But can the Raiders’ hapless pass protection give Russell (and Heyward-Bey) time to connect on the deep ball? Who knows? Raji was the smart pick, Crabtree was the sensible pick, Heyward-Bey was the Al Davis pick. Guess which one wins out?

On the ground, the Raiders are solid. Darren McFadden’s injury ended his rookie year early, but he appears to be worth the hype. Michael Bush and Justin Fargas also give Oakland some depth, while tight end Zach Miller is becoming one of the best young options in the league.

Defensively, Oakland has the benefit of the best defensive player in the league on their side. Nnamdi Asomugah is the definition of a shutdown cornerback, a term thrown around way too often in the NFL.

The rest of the secondary is pretty lousy. Michael Huff has been a huge disappointment and there’s no real dependable option opposite Asomugah. The Raiders can shut down one player, but they’re not good enough to shut down an entire offense at this point.

Overall, I’d put the Raiders at 2C on the pecking order of the AFC West. The Chargers are clearly the class of the division, with the other three franchises fighting to regain some respectability.

For Oakland, it’ll be crucial to see how Russell comes out of 2009 after closing out ’08 so well.

Prediction: 5-11