AFC West Preview: Chargers Team To Beat, but Raiders Bring Competition

Bleacher ReportSenior Analyst IMay 1, 2010

SAN DIEGO, CA - JANUARY 3:  Quarterback Philip Rivers #17 of the San Diego Chargers speaks with Jason Campbell #17 of the Washington Redskins after the Charger's 23-20 win during their NFL Game on January 3, 2010 at Quolcomm Stadium in San Diego, California. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

At this point in the offseason, most of the additions by NFL clubs have been made. Obviously, that can change.

Just last season, the Oakland Raiders acquired defensive lineman Richard Seymour by trade only a week before the regular season.  Nevertheless, it's safe to discuss the majority of moves made thus far for any team. 

Here I will focus on the AFC West.

The San Diego Chargers are still the team to beat in the AFC West. 

I won't put on any airs, and instead I will just say for those who don't know that I'm a Raider fan, and I think that the Raiders can compete for a wild-card spot in the AFC.

Kansas City and Denver still seem a mile-and-a-half from contention.

San Diego Chargers

San Diego traded-up in the first round to acquire halfback Ryan Mathews to replace LaDainian Tomlinson.  In recent seasons, the Chargers have asked less from LT because the offense has shifted in favor of the passing game, so some might think that a halfback is inconsequential.

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Those are the same people that complained after the Chargers lost to the Ravens because the Chargers gave the ball to Darren Sproles instead of Philip Rivers. This was based on the premise that Rivers was the best player, despite the fact that Sproles had been having a field-day against Baltimore.

Not every "great" player remains respected in the twilight of his career, because not every "great" player was truly great.  It was just a premature perception.  Someone like LT is a great player, regardless of career "lows" in recent years. 

For LT, "low" would be a great season for another player.

Regardless of offensive philosophy, LT still scored 12 touchdowns in 2009. 

Psychologically, a great player like LT still demanded respect from the defense, which conversely means less time is spent studying other players.  LT might not have carried the load, but he was still capable of a big play, and he still had the vision and elusiveness to find the endzone.

To find the endzone is a skill underestimated by most fans.  Every year, games are decided by goal line and short-yardage stands (just ask Tom Brady after the Indy game), yet fans also take it for granted when a player is good at finding the endzone from one to 10 yards out.  The fact is that Rivers (or the quarterback in general) couldn't find the endzone or was too afraid to throw a pick, so he gave the ball to LT (or the best runner in general).

We'll have to wait and see whether Ryan Mathews can fill that role.

Conversely, the Chargers must prove that the defense can stop the run.  In 2009, San Diego ranked 20th overall against the run.  Aside from rookie linebacker Donald Butler and nose-tackle Cam Thomas, the Chargers have not added anything to improve the run defense.

That is important because the Chargers will face run-oriented teams in 2010, such as the San Francisco 49ers.

I looked at the schedule, which I do with a grain of salt simply because you can't count "automatic" wins, especially against divisional rivals.  Even when a team handles the division, it's never wise to take the division for granted.  With that said, the Chargers have only lost once in the AFC West per season since 2006 (Kansas City, Kansas City, Denver, Denver).

Things can change in an NFL minute.

The Chargers will play the Broncos at Denver for the final game of the 2010 season, which would suggest that the weather conditions could be difficult.  Moreover, the Chargers barely escaped the Raiders to open the 2009 season.  The Raiders should be improved in 2010, while San Diego looks about the same.

Some have called San Diego's schedule a cake-walk, yet the Bolts face Arizona, Houston, at Indianapolis, New England, San Francisco, Tennessee, Jacksonville, at Cincinnati, at Denver, and at Oakland.  I would even add at Seattle and at Kansas City.  I'm not sure as to how good the Seahawks and Chiefs will be, but at Seattle and Kansas City is usually a tough game, regardless.

I can see nine or 10 games that the Bolts can't take for granted.  As I mentioned, the competition for San Diego will put them against run-oriented offenses, which is San Diego's weakness.  I still think San Diego has the "talent" to win AFC West, but I'd say 12-4 or 11-5 sounds about right to me. 

On the flip side, the Chargers could also be the disappointment of the NFL in 2010, because it's very possible that the Chargers could suffer a string of injuries against the more physical run-oriented teams, which happened against Oakland on opening night in 2009.

Oakland Raiders

The JaMarcus Russell saga continues in Oakland, but at least now the Raiders have a better outlook at quarterback for 2010.

This could be the allergy medication talking, but something tells me that Russell is not done in Oakland.  The Raiders have already paid Russell much of what he'll make for this year.  In the absence of a salary cap, the cap is not an issue.

Sure, Russell has been the goat of the sports media and fans alike, but Al Davis could be thinking that it can't hurt to have an expensive backup, when he's already been paid and the cap is not an issue.

And who knows. 

Maybe the presence of Jason Campbell is what Russell needs to get his act together.  Despite the revisionist history of those that still defend Lane Kiffin, Russell showed no signs of his poor work ethic and overeating when he was at LSU.  Perhaps an old friend, Campbell, can light a fire under Russell.

If Russell shows a "Commitment to Excellence" and Campbell succeeds, then that could give options to the Raiders with the quarterback situation. 

There's no telling what the Steelers will do in the wake of the Ben Roethlisberger fallout and whether Roethlisberger will rebound, so it's possible that the Steelers could be in the market for another quarterback.

A root problem can make otherwise good aspects of the team look badly.  When I look at teams that performed poorly in one season, I try to determine the "root" problem, rather than "throw darts" and hope that filling holes individually will improve the team as a whole.  And of course, whether that team addressed the "root" problem.

The run defense was a major issue, despite an aggressive front seven that led the league in tackles for loss and posted the most sacks for the Raiders since 2002.  The Raiders beefed up the front seven with linebacker Rolando McClain and defensive-lineman Lamarr Houston in the Draft.

In 2009, the root problem, however, was the inability to complete passes.  I also think the success of Bruce Gradkowski and Charlie Frye had been skewed by the late season re-emergence, development, and return of receivers Johnnie Lee Higgins, Chaz Schilens, Louis Murphy, and tight end Zach Miller.

Schilens and Higgins had been injured for much of the season, while Murphy was a rookie learning on the fly, and Miller had been marginalized by the lack of another option.  Murphy would play a key role in several game-winning plays by the Raiders.

That is not to excuse Russell for the poor play.  That is simply to say that Russell should not be targeted at the sole problem.

With Jason Campbell at quarterback, he should be able to optimize targets like Miller and even halfback Darren McFadden.  It may have only been flickers, but McFadden showed some of his big-play ability in late 2009.

The inability to control the ball on offense contributed significantly to the Raiders inability to stop the opponent in the fourth quarter, because the excessive playing time for the defense led to exigent exhaustion.

As for schedule, the Raiders have a schedule similar to that of San Diego, except the Raiders face Miami instead of New England, and Pittsburgh instead of Cincinnati.  In terms of talent, the Raiders could win eight in 2010, but they could win 10 because of schedule.

Every year, we see a dark horse team come from nowhere.  Every year, I hope that the dark horse team is Oakland.  Time will tell if 2010 is the year.

As I mentioned previously, I don't count "automatic" wins, but I do look through the schedule and think that a team needs to handle certain teams first. 

Right now, the first-tier Raiders will need to handle Kansas City twice, Denver twice, and San Diego at least once, as well as St. Louis, Seattle, and at Pittsburgh. 

In the second-tier, the toughest road games are Jacksonville, Tennessee, San Diego, and San Francisco.  The toughest home games should be Houston, Miami, Arizona, and Indianapolis. 

In order to win 10, the Raiders would need to win about six to eight from the first-tier and two to four from the second-tier.

Denver Broncos

To be very facetious, Denver's Josh McDaniels must be dropping acid after taking quarterback Tim Tebow and receiver Demaryius Thomas in the first round of the NFL draft.

He's clearly seeing things that others don't see.

Someone needs to smack McDaniels upside the head.  He's been deluded by the success of Matt Cassell in New England and now Kyle Orton in Denver. 

Cassell in New England succeeded because he had Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Bill Belichick, and others.  In Kansas City, Cassell had Dwayne Bowe—a promising young receiver—yet produced less than the new statistical average for quarterbacks in the NFL because Bowe is not an elite receiver.

Orton in Denver had Brandon Marshall, a receiver that can catch 20 balls a game. 

For those of you that believe the myths about quarterbacks and insist that a quarterback is always more important than a receiver because the passer can find another target—remember that the second receiver is open because the defense has keyed in on the first receiver, thereby making the passer's job much easier.

Sure, the passer had to make the throw.  Just as the receiver had to get open and catch the ball, the linemen had to block, the coach had to call the right play, etc.

In an abstraction, not all NFL players are equally skilled, yet the potential plays to make are all inter-related.  Passing is not more important than the ability to catch the ball.  Running is not more important than blocking, etc.  However, some players are more skilled at executing those plays than others are.

Marshall is now in Miami, in effect traded for a rookie, Thomas, with a broken foot from a triple-option offense.  Clearly, McDaniels has accredited himself and the quarterback with more due than deserved.

The Broncos added Jarvis Green and Jamal Williams to the defensive-line, and they replaced linebacker Andra Davis with Akin Ayodele.  Green has been a career backup that couldn't cut it in 2009 for New England, while Williams was roughed up by the Raiders.

I don't see a significant improvement to the defensive line or line-backer corp.

After looking at the schedule, Denver has a tough road schedule at Jacksonville, Tennessee, Baltimore, San Francisco, San Diego, Arizona, Oakland, and Kansas City.  The Broncos also get the Jets, Texans, Seahawks, and Colts, along with the Raiders and Chargers.

Unless something miraculous changes, I only see four wins at most.

Obviously, Denver fans will be quick to disregard criticism from a Raiders fan, but now that left-tackle Ryan Clady has incurred a potentially serious knee injury, I wouldn't get your hopes up for the 2010 season.

The Raiders have also whooped the Broncos in Denver in 2008 and 2009, and that was with JaMarcus Russell.  Remember that, Denver fans, your team is amongst an "elite" few that have been embarrassed by JaMarcus Russell.  I can only imagine what Jason Campbell will do.

Kansas City Chiefs

Going into the draft, I thought that the Chiefs needed to beef up the front seven with a nose-tackle, another rush linebacker, and an inside linebacker, because the safety position was not the root of the defensive woes.  The Chiefs also needed to fortify the offensive line and add another pass catcher.

Instead, the Chiefs made special teams the focal point.

I was not enamored by the Chiefs draft this year, partly because it seems like every year that the consensus is that the Chiefs had a great draft, it does not pan out, such as defensive tackle Ryan Sims (2002), linebacker Derrick Johnson (2005), and defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey (2008).

Conversely, when the consensus dislikes Kansas City's draft, it pans out. 

Since 2000, the Chiefs have been far-and-away one of the worst clubs on draft day, much worse than divisional rival Oakland, which is a favorite target of lazy writers.

Moreover, the Chiefs have been unable to retain its best players.  When the Chiefs had defensive end Jared Allen, the Chiefs had a legitimate threat on defense.  No longer.

I won't bore you with all the busts.  Here are some departures: linebackers Scott Fujita and Kawika Mitchell, defensive lineman Jimmy Wilkerson, and safety Bernard Pollard.

I would rather highlight the few successes.

Top picks DE/LB Tamba Hali (2006) and wideout Dwayne Bowe (2007) have been good players.  Ironically, Hali is Kansas City's best top-pick since 2000, because he has been the most durable and versatile.

Halfback Larry Johnson (2003) gave the Chiefs two great seasons (2005 and 2006), and that was it.  Now, Johnson is a backup in Washington.

The draft in 2008 was KC's best since 2000, with cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Brandon Flowers, offensive tackle Brendan Albert, and halfback Jamaal Charles.

The cost?

Glenn Dorsey was the top-pick, and the Chiefs had to trade Jared Allen, a high price to pay for a decent haul on draft day.

In 2010, the Chiefs took safety Eric Berry, utility halfback Dexter McCluster, punt returner Javier Arenas, and guard Jon Asamoah.  In order to do that, the Chiefs passed on OT Russell Okung, LB Sergio Kindle, DT Terrence Cody, LB Sean Lee, WR Golden Tate, and WR Mardy Gilyard.

This may sound contradictory to previous statements, but the Chiefs could have used Golden Tate in Todd Haley's offense because Tate has skills similar to Anquan Boldin.

They did all this in in order to take a punt returner and a luxury player.

A high pick on a punt returner is the type of pick you'd expect from Al Davis in years past.  The half-life on the career of good punt returner in the NFL is about 1.5 seasons and not a long-term investment.

In the NFL, a great safety is still a luxury and really the last piece for a defense, not the first. 

Even Troy Polamalu in Pittsburgh has a great front seven with various linebackers from Joey Porter to James Harrison.  Ed Reed in Baltimore has Ray Lewis. Bob Sanders in Indianapolis had Dwight Freeney.  Rodney Harrison in San Diego and New England had Junior Seau (San Diego), Tedy Bruschi, Ty Law, Willie McGinest, and Richard Seymour in New England.  Sean Taylor in Washington had Andre Carter, LaVar Arrington, and others.

I don't see a potentially great or overachieving player on the Kansas City defense in 2010.  Thus, I would have stuck with the front seven by taking linebackers in the second round.  Bottom line is that Scott Pioli seemed less interested in the long-term vitality of the Chiefs and more interested in quick fixes.

Asamoah seems like the best pick for a foundation in Kansas City, but had the Chiefs taken Okung, the Chiefs could have had the next Willie Roaf.

After all this, the Chiefs have a murderous road schedule: Indianapolis, Houston, Cleveland, St. Louis, Denver, Oakland, and San Diego.  I add St. Louis because that could be one of the Rams' few chances for a win in 2010, while at Cleveland is often a trap game.  I would say that I can see two to four wins for Kansas City in 2010.

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