This is part two of my eight-part series breaking down the entire NFL as we move closer to the 2009 season.
San Diego Chargers
Last season, the Chargers were more unpredictable than the jumping lightning bolts they're named after. Losing two heart-breakers in Weeks One and Two, they rebounded to beat the New York Jets by 19 at home. Their first two defeats seemed like sheer misfortune—we all were expecting another 10-win season. But heading into Week 14 the Chargers sat at 4-8, with the Broncos lapping the rest of the division.
Then Phillip Rivers showed he was one of the leagues' elite.
Four straight victories coupled with a momentous collapse by the Broncos, and the Chargers once again snuck into the playoffs after a sluggish start to the season. Darren Sproles ignited a Wild Card victory over Indianapolis in overtime, but the Pittsburgh Steelers proved to be to much at home in the Divisional Round.
Phillip Rivers demonstrated his talents in 2007, after a valiant effort in Indianapolis lead to a Chargers birth in the AFC title game. In 2008, he made sure everyone knew that game wasn't a coincidence. His 34 touchdowns led the NFL, and he managed to throw only 11 interceptions.
He was the most consistent player for San Diego in a year when LaDainain Tomlinson and Shawn Merriman suffered injuries. Tomlinson was able to play sparingly, while Merriman was sidelined for the year after hobbling on defense in Week One.
The franchise is riding Phillip Rivers' tenacity and arm strength, and the team will go as far as he can take them.
Mr. Merriman is slated to be ready in Week One, and although Igor Olshansky is now a Cowboy, the Chargers drafted Northern Illinois' hybrid Larry English, who was a prominent force in his career in the Mid-American Conference. San Diego was able to keep Darren Sproles and LaDainian Tomlinson on their roster, and added brute Gartrell Johnson to the mix in the draft.
The Chargers' coaching staff is counting on big targets, Malcolm Floyd and Vincent Jackson to continue to improve, which spells lots of trouble for any defense. Health is always a concern, but San Diego should be fully charged heading into 2009.
How could a team led by Mike Shanahan and Jay Cutler give up such a vast divisional lead so late in the season, and fail to make the playoffs?
Maybe you can tell me, cause I haven't been able to figure it out just yet. Cutler had a Pro-Bowl season but his 18 interceptions definitely played a role in the Bronco blunder. Their supposed lock-down secondary two-some of Champ Bailey and Dre Bly was surprisingly permeable, as they ranked near the bottom of the NFL in all the major defensive categories.
This offseasons' soap opera was placed in the lovely city of Denver. After apparently being dangled as trade bait, Jay Cutler completely shut off communication with new head coach Josh McDaniels and owner Pat Bowlen.
After a feud that seemingly got more weird each week, Cutler was shipped to Chicago for Kyle Orton and some draft picks. With the Cuter catastrophe over, the Broncos went on a serious shopping spree. After signing Brandon Loyd, Lamont Jordan, Brian Dawkins, J.J. Arrington and Correll Buckhalter, it was obvious the Broncos were in complete overhaul mode with their new Head Coach.
Now, Brandon Marshall is demanding to be traded.
Come on guys, give Bowlen a break, he's had enough headache this offseason.
We haven't seen a team completely renovate their roster like Denver did this off season in quite some time. McDaniels is known for being a great coach of system quarterbacks, and that's the type of quarterback Kyle Orton is.
Draftee Knowshon Moreno oddly enters what seems to be a log-jam at the running back position, but there is a bevy of talent in the backfield. Brian Dawkins brings much needed resolve to a defense that's lacked drive in the past.
Obviously, the status of Brandon Marshall looms large in Denver, but I'm thinking the Broncos may be in a very unusual rebuilding mode. Kyle Orton will be center point of the team in 2009.
The Raiders were back to their old tricks last season. Saying Al Davis embarrassed Lane Kiffin in his press conference—where he fired the former USC assistant—is the understatement of the year.
JaMarcus Russell started 15 games and threw 13 touchdowns to only eight interceptions, but Raiders fans want more out of the 2007 No. 1 overall pick. The dream running back trio of Darren McFadden, Justin Fargas, and Michael Bush never fully developed and Zach Millers' 56 receptions were nearly 30 grabs ahead of McFadden who finished with a mere 29.
The defense was anchored by Nnamdi Asomugha but he only recorded one interception on the year.
Draft to Remember
The Raiders 2009 draft was undoubtedly one to remember—for all the wrong reasons. In one of the most unprecedented reaches in recent draft history, the Raiders selected Darius Heyward-Bey out of Maryland, who never made an All-ACC first team, with the seventh overall pick.
Heyward-Bey, who has upside, ran the fastest 40 time at the combine, and many believe his great clocked speed was the main factor in Al Davis pulling the trigger. To seemingly make matters worse, Michael Mitchell, a workout warrior from Ohio University, who many had slated as a second day prospect, was selected 47th overall in the second round.
Boy Al Davis, do you make things interesting.
Believe it or not, outside of the draft, the Raiders had a respectable offseason. Jeff Garcia was brought in to, well, we're not sure yet? He'll surely provide great competition for the young Russell in camp, if nothing else.
Lorenzo Neal brings his bulldozer mentality to a backfield with a lot of young flair. Greg Ellis should bolster a defense that may turn the corner and become one of the AFC's best. If the quarterback, whoever it may be, can manage games consistently, while relying on what should be a daunting running assault, the Raiders may win a few more games this season.
Heyward-Bey needs to confirm the Raiders decision on drafting him over the likes of Jeremy Maclin, and cross-town rival, Michael Crabtree. We'll see where Al Davis takes his team in 2009.
Kansas City Chiefs
It's well known that the Chiefs have one of the best fan bases in the NFL. A 2-14 record doesn't cut it with the die-hard Kansas City faithful, re-building or not. Tyler Thigpen was a fantasy steal during some stretches, but he's simply not experienced enough to be a legitimate starting quarterback in the NFL.
Larry Johnson started 12 games and although he averaged 4.5 yards a carry, his five scores were well under what we're used to seeing out of one of the NFL's best.
Dwayne Bowe built on his stellar rookie season with 86 grabs and accumulated over 1,000 yards receiving. A few crushing losses led to their worst season in quite some time.
The Pioli Push
With Scott Pioli, the true mastermind behind the Patriots' dynasty, now controlling all player personnel decisions, the Chiefs know they have a great mind in their front office.
In somewhat of a fishy deal, the Chiefs were able to gather Matt Cassel and Mike Vrabel from New England for chump change. They made a surprise pick at No. 3 overall in the draft when the chose Tyson Jackson out of LSU.
Switching to a new coach, quarterback, and defensive scheme encourages Chief fans to have faith in Pioli.
Tony Gonzalez is now a Falcon, but Matt Cassel still has offensive weapons at his disposal. The aforementioned Bowe has legitimized himself as a No. 1 receiver, and Bobby Engram was brought in to play the role as not only a possession guy, but as a mentor to the young group of receivers behind him.
The offensive line needs to detain edge rushers to give Cassel plenty of time to throw, and must pave the way for the one-two punch of Johnson and Jamal Charles. A lot is looking up in Kansas City, but don't expect great amounts of improvement this season.
Part 3 Coming Soon....AFC EAST