We will preview an NFL division each day for eight days, before presenting final standings, fantasy and statistical leaders, award winners, playoff results and power rankings. This analysis is part of a broader endeavor with FOXSports.com's Fantasy Football.
Rosters and depth charts are up-to-date and as accurate as possible as of June 9, 2009. A schedule of upcoming NFL preview content including links to other previews that have already been posted is located here.
Also, we account for players with injury histories who are considered likely to miss games despite currently being healthy by randomly taking them out of what the analysis dictates is the correct number of games throughout the season. For players who will begin the season injured or who are assumed to replace the current starter during the season, we deliberately make those roster changes in the appropriate weeks.
Today we preview the AFC West.
San Diego Chargers (10-6)
While their division lacks a serious contender and may actually be worse than it was in 2008, the San Diego Chargers are improved. A year after going 8-8 and winning the division on the last game of the season, the Charger should easily run through the West.
The Chargers average 24.8 points per game (No. 4 in the NFL) and allow 21.1 points (No. 17) against a schedule featuring five games against teams who made the playoffs in 2008.
Absolute Record: 11-5
Most Significant Newcomer: Larry English, LB - Coming off of an injury, Shawne Merriman does not count as a significant newcomer, so we will go with another athletic, 6'3", 272 pound, outside linebacker with tremendous pass-rushing skills.
English is not only a Merriman clone, he may eventually replace the fifth-year player out of Maryland - potentially as early as next season after Merriman's contract expires. At the very least in his rookie season, English serves as insurance for Merriman's injury and the off-field issues of weakside linebacker Shaun Phillips.
In 2008, the Chargers lacked that intensity and intimidation that Merriman added to the defense and will improve with that back. We expect the trio of Merriman, English and Phillips to combine for 19 sacks and 154 total tackles.
Biggest Strength: Philip Rivers - Out of all of the team ratings that we use to aid the projections, the Chargers grade highest in offensive passing efficiency. In 2008, Rivers led the NFL in yards-per-attempt (8.39) and touchdowns-per-attempt (7.1%), while throwing for over 4,000 yards and turning the ball over just 11 times.
And Malcom Floyd was the Chargers third leading receiver. He is a legitimate top fantasy quarterback and has the numbers and ability to be an NFL superstar. In the last couple of seasons with Philip Rivers at the helm, San Diego has transformed from LaDainian Tomlinson and a scary, play-making defense, to about as well-rounded a team and as explosive an offense as there is in the league.
Most Exploitable Weakness: Passing Defense - As much as I love Eric Weddle and Antonio Cromartie, the Chargers' play-making style of defense also leaves them open to be exploited.
Some of this will change with an improved pass rush, but opponents were able to complete 67.9 percent of their passes—30th in the league—and convert 40.6 percent of their third downs—20th in the league—against the San Diego defense in 2008.
Those stats are typically related and point to an issue that the Chargers have in keeping the opposition's offense off the field. Assuming the defense stays healthy, the sack and interception numbers will go up, but there is no guarantee that the team will improve its ability to defend the short, high-percentage passes that string together drives.
Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Chris Chambers, WR - Chris Chambers is a risky draft choice due to his injury history, but he is definitely someone to monitor in fantasy leagues. When healthy, Chambers is the number two wide receiver for the Chargers.
He was hurt for much of 2007 and 2008, but in the 11 games last season including the playoffs in which Chambers was on the field enough to be targeted more than once, Chambers caught 38 passes for 518 yards.
Obviously, fantasy users do not get to choose a player just when he receives multiple targets, but that would project to a respectable 55 catches for 753 yards over 16 games.
In our projections, Chambers plays 13 games and catches 43 balls for 552 yards. They are not sleepers, but this team is loaded with top-ten fantasy talent at their positions like Philip Rivers, LaDainian Tomlinson, Antonio Gates, Nate Kaeding and Eric Weddle.
Closest Game:@ New York Giants (Week 9) Coming off of three straight divisional matchups, the Chargers hit the road for a battle with one of the NFC's best. This game will provide the Chargers with an idea where they rank among the NFL's best.
Fantasy Notables (fantasy rank at position in parentheses): Philip Rivers (4) 3965 yards, 26 TDs, 14 INTs; LaDainian Tomlinson (6) 1,613 total yards, 13 TDs; Darren Sproles (35) 820 total yards, 9 TDs; Vincent Jackson (8) 71 receptions, 1,164 yards, 8 TDs; Chris Chambers (56) 43 receptions, 552 yards, 3 TDs; Antonio Gates (3) 76 receptions, 793 yards, 5 TDs; Nate Kaeding (1) 43/43 XPs, 28/33 FGs
Projected 2009 Results
|7||@Kansas City Chiefs||70||24-20|
|9||@New York Giants||47||19-22|
|12||Kansas City Chiefs||83||30-16|
Oakland Raiders (7-9)
After another year of turmoil with Al Davis and Lane Kiffin publicly bickering, Tom Cable steps in as the full-time head coach. He will attempt to bring that Raiders "swagger" back to a franchise that has gone into a historical tailspin since losing the Super Bowl after the 2002 season.
After a tough start to the season, Jeff Garcia will be starting and Darren McFadden will have found his groove as the team makes a late run. The Raiders average 22 points per game (No. 12) and allow 24.8 points (No. 26) against a schedule featuring five games against 2008 playoff teams.
Absolute Record: 6-10
Most Significant Newcomer: Jeff Garcia, QB - Al Davis will do everything he can to make sure that his highly-paid, former No. 1 overall choice, JaMarcus Russell gets the starting job, but it definitely should be the veteran Garcia.
In each of his last three seasons, Garcia has completed greater than 60 percent of his passes for more than seven yards-per-attempted, with double-digit touchdowns and single-digit interceptions. He may not be awe-inspiring or flashy, but he can play.
We expect that head coach Tom Cable and company will not be able to last with Russell beyond the first seven games. Garcia finishes with 1,762 passing yards, 12 touchdowns and five interceptions in nine games. The Raiders' absolute record in those games is 5-4 as opposed to 1-6 otherwise.
Biggest Strength: Rushing Offense - Oakland made another shrewd move signing veteran Lorenzo Neal to pave the way for the three-headed running attack of Darren McFadden, Justin Fargas and Michael Bush.
Neal does not have to touch the ball to be effective; everywhere he goes, teams improve significantly running the ball. Without Neal or any semblance of a passing game, Oakland finished 10th in the NFL in yards-per-rush at 4.3.
McFadden also missed three full games and was not featured as much as he should be this season. The projections see the Raiders' RB trio increase its production to 2,141 rushing yards over 2008's 1,773.
Most Exploitable Weakness: Rushing Defense - Unfortunately for the Raiders (and the guy pictured above), Oakland's rush defense allowed almost half a yard more per rush than its offense gained. That's exceptionally bad for a team that saw opponents run often to milk leads.
Furthermore, the Raiders cut sure-tackling safety Gibril Wilson. Much-discussed second round pick Michael Mitchell will have to step up for Wilson. The rest of the back seven on defense is filled with fast, athletic, yet undersized players who are much better in pass coverage than in stopping the run.
Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Darren McFadden, RB - McFadden is a start in the making and this should be his year. He showed last season that he can be an effective pass-catcher and should soon be trusted with every-down duties.
Justin Fargas and Michael Bush should not be significant roadblocks, yet health may. In the projections, McFadden gains 1,338 yards on about 18 touches per game in 14 games. His production is good enough to rank him ahead of DeAngelo Williams, Ryan Grant, Reggie Bush and others.
Closest Game: vs. Cincinnati Bengals (Week 11) - From week 6-11 the Raiders have a stretch of four out of five games at home. This game is the last game of a winnable part of the schedule.
After facing the Bengals, the Raiders go to Dallas (on short rest for Thanksgiving), then Pittsburgh and home against Washington. A win over Cincinnati could be big for a team that needs as many victories before that likely losing streak.
Fantasy Notables: Jeff Garcia (25) 1,762 yards, 12 TDs, 5 INTs; JaMarcus Russell (35) 1,285 yards, 7 TDs, 6 INTs; Darren McFadden (16) 1,338 total yards, 11 TDs; Justin Fargas (38) 940 total yards, 6 TDs; Darrius Heyward-Bey (51) 38 receptions, 550 yards, 4 TDs; Javon Walker (52) 42 receptions, 557 yards, 3 TDs; Zach Miller (6) 57 receptions, 690 yards, 4 TDs; Sebastian Janikowski (16) 36/37 XPs, 25/31 FGs
Projected 2009 Results
|1||New York Jets||57||23-19|
|2||@Kansas City Chiefs||33||19-26|
|5||@New York Giants||17||14-28|
|7||New York Jets||27||19-25|
|8||@San Diego Chargers||51||24-26|
|10||Kansas City Chiefs||63||28-22|
Kansas City Chiefs (7-9)
Kansas City may not make the playoffs in 2009, but it takes a significant leap forward from a 2-14 season. The triumvirate of Scott Pioli, Todd Haley and Matt Cassel has a ways to go, but is making the right moves.
The Chiefs average 19.7 points per game (No. 24) and allow 23.0 points (No. 17) against a schedule featuring six games against 2008 playoff teams.
Absolute Record: 6-10
Most Significant Newcomer: Matt Cassel, QB - With four years of NFL experience and coming off a very efficient system with the Patriots, Cassel may sound like a safe option for the Kansas City Chiefs who are looking to rebuild under new management and a new coaching staff. That's not necessarily the case.
Cassel has only started at quarterback in 15 games since high school and has only played in the Patriots system with a veteran offensive line and great weapons like Randy Moss and Wes Welker. Cassel should actually be viewed more as a boom or bust prospect with about equal likelihood of either.
As opposed to managing the game, Cassel will be called upon to make plays for head coach Todd Haley's offense. The Chiefs lack weapons in the passing game and do not have a great pass-protecting line.
If we based our projections simply off of Cassel's numbers with the Patriots, without adjusting for the talent around him (then or now) or his limited experience, the Chiefs could be in serious playoff contention in this very weak division.
We have to assume some drop-off in production and ultimately have him completing 59.2 percent of his passes for 2,968 yards, 17 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Given the disparity between offenses, it could be worse.
Biggest Strength: Scott Pioli, GM - We should find out rather quickly just how much Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli meant to each other in New England. I am a believer in Pioli for the simple reason that his resume includes the Patriots' success, which means that veteran players want to play for him and young players will listen to him.
Particularly on defense, which is switching to the 3-4 from the 4-3, the Chiefs already look vastly improved under Pioli. An upgrade has also been made at quarterback. Kansas City appears to be in good hands. The Chiefs are not a playoff team yet, but they may not be too far away.
Most Exploitable Weakness: Offensive Weapons - In 2008, the Chiefs were historically bad at getting to the quarterback, notching just ten sacks on the season. That number should go way up with personnel additions and the philosophy switch to the 3-4.
Whereas that may not be as much of a weakness as last season, Kansas City may have actually downgraded its offensive weapons. Dwayne Bowe should be a Pro Bowl-caliber wide receiver with wide receiver guru Todd Haley at head coach and a better quarterback. Larry Johnson can still be effective when healthy and free of off-field issues.
And Jamaal Charles is an intriguing talent. But that's all the Chiefs have. They traded away future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez, leaving them with no pass-catching threat at tight end. Every running back and all of the wide receivers behind Bowe have major injury histories and obvious holes in their games.
Todd Haley has an extremely tough task ahead of him if he hopes to rebuild this offense like the one he had last season as offensive coordinator in Arizona.
Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Jamaal Charles, RB - Larry Johnson is still serviceable as a runner, but is no longer a receiving threat or a threat to play all 16 games. Jamaal Charles is Johnson's third-down replacement and should steal carries throughout the season.
The second-year player out of Texas has tremendous speed and game-breaking ability. He could easily emerge as the second-best option on passing plays. Our projections give Charles 943 total yards on about ten touches a game.
Closest Game: Denver Broncos (Week 13) - This begins the final run for the Chiefs as they end the year with five games against teams we predict to finish below .500. Defeating a divisional opponent at home could provide the Chiefs with some big time momentum to carry throughout December.
Fantasy Notables: Matt Cassel (9) 2,968 yards, 17 TDs, 11 INTs; Larry Johnson (25) 1,119 total yards, 9 TDs; Jamaal Charles (33) 943 total yards, 8 TDs; Dwayne Bowe (13) 84 receptions, 1,125 yards, 6 TDs; Mark Bradley (60) 42 receptions, 500 yards, 3 TDs; Ryan Succop (27) 33/34 XPs, 22/28 FGs
Projected 2009 Results
|4||New York Giants||28||17-23|
|7||San Diego Chargers||30||20-24|
|12||@San Diego Chargers||17||16-30|
Denver Broncos (5-11)
This isn't your father's Denver Broncos. It's not even your older brother's Denver Broncos. Since Mike Shanahan, who served as Denver's head coach for 14 seasons, was let go in favor of the then 32 year old Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, the whole atmosphere around the Broncos has changed, not to mention roster.
It's not for the better - this season at least—as Denver regresses by three wins over last season and is only favored in two games all year. The Broncos average 20.8 points per game (No. 20) and allow 27 points (No. 30) against a schedule featuring just seven games against 2008 playoff teams.
Absolute Record: 2-14
Most Significant Newcomer: Josh McDaniels, Head Coach - I would love to spotlight Chris Simms, Knowshon Moreno or Reynaldo Hill, but they are not even guaranteed to contribute this year.
So many new players have been brought in to compete amongst other new players for starting jobs that McDaniels has to be the guy because he is the only addition whose role is set in stone.
In New England, Josh McDaniels learned from some of the best minds in the game like Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli. He became widely regarded as an ingenious play-caller and rising star in the coaching ranks.
Clearly he has the football IQ and ambition to succeed. He may not have the public relations savvy, maturity or the personality to last though. Less than three months into the job, a rift between McDaniels and incumbent starting quarterback Jay Cutler spearheaded a trade of the former first round pick to Chicago for Kyle Orton and picks.
While McDaniels legacy may ultimately hinge on this deal, it is important to note that that does not mean that Kyle Orton must be the starting quarterback all season. Denver originally started talking about trading Cutler after it had signed Chris Simms.
McDaniels knew that Simms would be a viable solution at quarterback if Cutler was not able to bring in a top replacement at the position. The notion that Orton must play because he was McDaniels hand-picked leader of the offense is silly because the decision would not have been made without another capable QB on the roster.
In our projections, Orton starts nine games and Simms seven. Either way, Denver is a mess right now. A good goal for McDaniels and his staff should be to get everything back in order and "right the ship" with a clear focus and plan as the Broncos head into the 2010 season.
Biggest Strength: Offensive Line - With all of the off-season movement, one of the few things that went mostly untouched was the offensive line—with good reason. In 2008, Denver finished third in the NFL in yards-per-rush (4.8) and tied with Tennessee in giving up the fewest sacks in the league (12) despite throwing 167 more passes than the Titans.
The Patriots offense with which Josh McDaniels is familiar is predicated on the quarterback getting time in the pocket and a running game that is enough of a threat for big plays that it keeps the defense guessing. A cohesive offensive line is crucial for this offense to succeed and the Broncos have built just that.
All five starters played in 16 games last season. 2008 first round pick Ryan Clady is already one of the league's top tackles. For a team with so many questions and potential issues, this unit is as solid and as promising as any in the league.
Most Exploitable Weakness: Rushing Defense - The Broncos' pass defense was worse than their rush defense in 2008, but got a little bit better in the offseason with the additions of Reynaldo Hill, Brian Dawkins, Andre Goodman and Alphonso Smith; while the team may now be worse against the run.
In a division with LaDainian Tomlinson, Darren McFadden, Larry Johnson (he's still good, go look at the numbers), Darren Sproles and others, that's scary.
Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Peyton Hillis, RB - One thing has remained the same from the Mike Shanahan days—the Broncos running back situation is a fantasy nightmare.
While Knowshon Moreno, Correll Buckhalter and LaMont Jordan will split carries (kind of like Jordan, Sammy Morris, Laurence Maroney and BenJarvus Green-Ellis did for the Patriots last season), Hillis, the lone returning Bronco running back likely to see the field in 2009, has Kevin Faulk written all over him.
Faulk totaled 993 yards on 141 touches, including 58 catches last year. Hillis caught 14 passes in seven games a rookie after catching 49 in his senior season at Arkansas.
He is coming off a torn hamstring, so he will need to be completely healthy to warrant taking a flier on him in fantasy, but he is more than capable of breaching 50 catches and 500 total yards. Our projections give Hillis 676 total yards on 102 touches in 14 games.
Closest Game: @ Oakland Raiders (Week 3) - After opening the season with Cincinnati and Cleveland, the Broncos go to Oakland to face their divisional rivals. After this game, they play eight straight games against teams who we project .500 or better this season, including six games against teams who make our 2009 playoffs.
If the Broncos split the first two, this could be a must-win early in the season before the schedule becomes brutal.
Fantasy Notables: Kyle Orton (32) 1,814 yards, 10 TDs, 8 INTs; Chris Simms (34) 1,252 yards, 9 TDs, 4 INTs; Knowshon Moreno (34) 970 total yards, 7 TDs; Correll Buckhalter (45) 806 total yards, 7 TDs; Brandon Marshall (31) 70 receptions, 895 yards, 5 TDs; Eddie Royal (35) 80 receptions, 855 yards, 5 TDs; Tony Scheffler (18) 27 receptions, 419 yards, 3 TDs; Matt Prater (24) 35/36 XPs, 22/30 FGs
Projected 2009 Results
|5||New England Patriots||32||22-27|
|6||@San Diego Chargers||30||22-31|
|11||San Diego Chargers||31||23-29|
|12||New York Giants||21||19-28|
|13||@Kansas City Chiefs||40||21-26|
|17||Kansas City Chiefs||49||25-23|