Thursday, August 22, 2013

Long and Suite Preview: The AFC West

Peyton Manning and the Broncos look to repeat as AFC West champions.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin) and Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

While pretty much everybody expects Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos to take care of business in the AFC West this season, the division is not devoid of story lines.

Among them will be how the Broncos deal with the loss of pass rusher Elvis Dumervil (To a paperwork delay, no less), and the six-game absence of rising star Von Miller on the other side of the defense. Miller was suspended for violating the league's substance abuse policy.

After the Broncos, it's a cluster of teams that have underachieved on a grand scale in recent years, headlined by San Diego and "guy we thought would be an elite quarterback by now," Phillip Rivers. The Raiders seem to always have speed, but production has failed to follow athleticism to Oakland. Members of the Black Hole might not recognize the product on the field this season, particularly on defense, where the Silver and Black look to replace as many as nine starters.

Then you have a new era beginning in Kansas City, and suddenly the Chiefs are a trendy playoff pick due to the additions of head coach Andy Reid and quarterback Alex Smith.

Storyline(s) to Watch:

Just What the Hell is Going on in Oakland?

Since falling to Tampa Bay in the "Gruden Bowl" back in 2002, the Raiders have been a discombobulated mess. They strung together seven consecutive seasons where they never won more than five games, but seemed to be moving in the right direction in 2010. That season, young quarterback Jason Campbell had the look of a rising star, but the additions of Carson Palmer and Terrelle Pryor the following year, compounded by the inability of star players like Darren McFadden to stay healthy, plagued the franchise and ended Campbell's stay in the Bay area. Then, of course, there was Al Davis' death in 2011.

Last season, with Campbell in Chicago, Pryor riding the bench and Palmer putting up great fantasy numbers, but failing to win many games, Oakland regressed. Four wins and seemingly 100 roster moves later, we have a new-look Raiders team that brings back Charles Woodson, loses speedster Darrius Heyward-Bey and defensive lineman Richard Seymour, and will look for either Pryor, Packer one-game wonder Matt Flynn or rookie Tyler Wilson to hold down the starting quarterback spot.

As with every other year the last decade, nobody knows what the hell is going on in Oakland.


The Best 2-14 Team In History

Last season, the Chiefs managed to win just two games. This seems supremely odd to me. For one, their roster includes Jamaal Charles, Dwyane Bowe, Tony Moeaki, Dexter McCluster, Branden Albert, Ryan Lilja, Eric Winston, Justin Houston, Derrick Johnson, Tamba Hali, Brandon Flowers, Eric Berry, and Javier Arenas. That's 13 players that are, at the absolute worst, among the top half of the league at their particular position (or, in the case of McCluster or Arenas, their particular role). Some, like Charles, Lilja, Hali, Flowers, and Berry, might even finish in the top five.

The Chiefs have way more positional talent than any 2-14 team should have. When the Jaguars win only two games, that makes sense, considering they don't seem to have a single above-average player other than Maurice Jones-Drew (although you could make arguments for Marcedes Lewis and Brad Meester). The Chiefs suffered embarrassing contributions from their quarterback and head coach. The good news for the Chiefs is that they replaced both of those spots for this season with guys with at least some track record of success.

Alex Smith was a laughingstock until John Harbaugh crossed his path, and then was 3rd in the league in passer rating last season before he got injured. Andy Reid was run out of Philadelphia after a few poor seasons, but for his career has a .583 winning percentage, and has coached a team to the postseason nine times.

The Chiefs don't seem to be in any position to win the division, barring an injury to Peyton Manning, but a season like 2010 might be in play, where a few bounces go their way and they end up at 10-6 and in the postseason.


Player(s) to Watch:

Alex Smith

This is a rather obvious one, but it bears mentioning that Smith will have a lot more on his shoulders this season than at any point during his successful one and a half year run in San Francisco. I'm interested to see if this "game manager" can handle it. Actually, calling him a game manager isn't totally fair, as Smith did a pretty good job of pushing the ball down the field last season before his injury.

Among quarterbacks that started multiple games, only four averaged more yards per pass attempt than Smith's 7.97. The problem: One of them was the guy that replaced him, Colin Kaepernick, who led the league (Among multi-game starters) with 8.32 ypa. Some bums named RGIII, Peyton Manning and Cam Newton fell in behind him.

But, with a lesser offensive line in front of him, only "pretty good" receivers around him, and injury questions for star running back Jamaal Charles, how good can Smith be? The answer to that question will largely shape the outcome of Kansas City's season.


Wes Welker, Montee Ball

These two players represent the difference between Denver having a top-5 offense and Denver rivaling the 2007 Patriots as the best offense in the history of football.

In Peyton Manning's heyday, he torched the league not only because he was an elite quarterback, but because his receivers had skills sets that matched perfectly with his - Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne ran routes more precise than any other receiver in history not named "Rice" or "Bruce." Now in Denver, his crop of receivers build their games on size and athleticism more than the precision and diversity of their routes (Demaryius Thomas especially - it's still unclear if he can run anything besides than a half-dozen routes that all involve sprinting in straight lines).

Welker offers Manning a different type of receiver, one that can line up anywhere on the field and run any underneath route with perfect timing. Brandon Stokely filled this role last season, and while he performed admirably, it wasn't anything close to his 2004 season where Manning turned him into a borderline Pro Bowl-er. Welker should thrive in this role just like he did with the Patriots - the other receivers will stretch the defense vertically and Welker will take advantage of mis-matches underneath the safeties.

Ball is much more of a question mark. Last season, Denver finished just 25th in the league at 3.8 yards per rush - Willis McGahee was their only serviceable running back, but he was 31 years old and only survived 10 games. Ball comes in as a rookie after scoring 77 touchdowns in his college career (including a stupidiculous 33 scores in 14 games during his junior year). He's not a particularly good receiver, so he's not a perfect fit for a Peyton Manning-style offense, but he definitely offers a higher ceiling than last year's rotation of tailbacks.


Jeremy's Picks

Broncos: 13-3
Chiefs: 8-8
Chargers: 7-9
Raiders: 4-12

Joe's Picks

Broncos: 13-3
Chiefs: 7-9
Chargers: 7-9
Raiders: 4-12

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