The West should be wild again. Of all the NFL's divisions, this one has a ton of questions for each team and, nearly, everyone in the division has a chance to win it. There are QB changes everywhere [or on the horizon] and a couple coaching switches. Also, there are some great running backs here. Larry Johnson, LaDanlian Tomlinson and LaMont Jordan are elite backs.
COACH'S STATE: Mike Shanahan had his team with the home field advantage in the AFC title game and were mauled. Needless to say, that was a huge disappointment. In a year that Indy was supposed to dominate and the Patriots taking a downward turn, the Broncos had their chance to sneak one in...but then fumbled it to Pittsburgh. Shanahan cannot be completely cozy...but cannot be too worried about his job. But he does lose Gary Kubiak to the Houston head job....so he does have some transition to deal with.
BIGGEST ADDITION: Javon Walker will be a huge acquisition for the Broncs, provided he can get back to health. He will make Rod Smith even more lethal on the other side...even though Smith turns 36. It also lets Denver leave Ashly Lelie alone....who's been griping about his contract. If he ends up sticking with Denver, it could make for a nice set of receivers.
BIGGEST SUBTRACTION: Denver is a franchise that has, somehow, been able to rotate running backs in and out. It went from Terrell Davis to Olandis Gary to Mike Anderson to Clinton Portis to Tatum Bell. Thru nearly that entire deal was Mike Anderson. Anderson was that guy who was disciplined, fit and willing to put in the work. He emerged from a cluttered backfield in 2005 to take the majority of the carries. Still, Broncos history and Tatum Bell's decent season last year lends you to believe Denver knows what they are doing.
PLAYER THAT NEEDS TO SHOW UP: All the chips are on the table for QB Jake Plummer. After having a great [for him] regular season...he made some mistakes in the AFC title game which cost the team. In 2006, he leads what seems to be the best team in the AFC West; he has Javon Walker to toss it to now; Mike Anderson is now in Baltimore, so the Broncos may end up passing more; and if he fails, Denver could go to first round draft pick Jay Cutler.
OFFENSE: See Jake Plummer's responsibilities above. He had a surprisingly mistake-free season with less to work with. Now there is more at his disposal. The only issue could be Gary Kubiak's departure...but even then, Shanahan is still there.
DEFENSE: It is a very good defense...but it had issues with holding ground. Offenses scored 22 TDs in 33 trips to the redzone. The "joke" heading into last season was Denver adding former Cleveland busts Gerrard Warren and Courtney Brown [and Brown Ebenezer Ekuban]. The joke worked out as the defensive front...though wasn't that strong in the sack department. Behind them is a nice blend of toughness and speed. Al Wilson, Ian Gold and DJ Williams are very fast and very good against the run. The secondary is pretty good too with Champ Bailey and a rejuvinated John Lynch as anchors.
SCHEDULE: The Broncos closed 2005 by winning 8 of 9...but none of those games were against a playoff team. However, they did beat the Chargers, Chiefs, Jags, Redskins and Patriots in consecutive weeks early in the season. This year should be a doozy for Denver. They get Seattle, New England, Indy, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati....all legitamate Super Bowl contenders. They also have those two with San Diego and Kansas City which should be rough.
OUTLOOK: Denver is the class of this division...but the Chargers and Chiefs will be right there if they fall. I doubt that Plummer can keep clean as well for another season...so expect a little drop-off there. However, With Walker out there, Plummer may take a few more chances which cause those miscues...but many of those passes will turn into big plays. The defense is solid even in a division of great running backs.
2-SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
COACH'S STATE: Sorry, but as much as Marty Schottenheimer is a good coach...he also has problems getting it done. He's had decent teams [even teams that weren't supposed to be decent] but just can't get over the hump. The Chargers flamed at the end of last season, losing 3 of their final 4 to miss the playoffs. And what rips people's hearts open is that the lone win in that span was at Indianapolis, which ended their perfect season. If Marty cannot get this team going in a good way...he could be shown the door.
BIGGEST ADDITION: S Marlon McCree comes from a very good secondary in Carolina to lend his experience in San Diego. The secondary was a glaring weakness for San Diego last season. He can play both safety spots and is pretty good in run defense and does a good job in coverage. And he'll be the elderstatesmen [he's only 29] to a secondary that spent quite a few draft picks on DBs in the recent past.
BIGGEST SUBTRACTION: The biggest difference will be QB Drew Brees. Brees ascended his game right when Rivers was drafted in 2004. Brees wasn't the greatest passing QB... but he was smart and knew the offense extremely well. What makes it tough is that the Chargers are a playoff calibar team...so it's tough to rationalize letting your star QB leave for a 3rd year guy with just 30 passes under his belt.
PLAYER THAT NEEDS TO SHOW UP: But, Philip Rivers did his learning, Brees became a free agent, and now the torch has been passed. Rivers is smart, clever and is a leader. At NC State, he had the confidence an ability to lift that entire program. However, he will have alot to learn since he rarely had to see the best the NFL has to offer. Also, this isn't the Niners or something who have rebuilding time to let the QB work out his kinks. He's got to perform.
OFFENSE: Rivers has two of the NFL's top weapons to work with....in LaDanlian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates. Being a "rookie" QB usually means that you need a reliable outlet...and both are that. LT's running game should open things up for Rivers downfield. And both Gates and LT are great at making big plays out of small ones. Look for a huge year from both. Of course, whenever I see a young QB starting out...I always look at his line [that's the reason Ben Roethlisberger was so successful so quickly]. The line is adequate, at best, with limited depth.
DEFENSE: This is a stout defense...led by defensive rookie of the year Shawne Merriman...when it wants to be. They were the top defense against the run...but can be burned on the pass. That front seven is powerful [tied for 5th in sacks] and forces offenses to audible and change the length of passing routes. However, if they cannot get to the QB, then it is trouble. They allowed way too many big plays and cannot make plays when they are available.
SCHEDULE: San Diego had, statistically, the toughest schedule of 2005. This year, it's a bit easier. They have Oakland [twice], Cleveland, Tennessee, San Francisco and Buffalo to look forward to. They do get Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Seattle...but so does everyone in this division.
OUTLOOK: On the surface, this team coulda shoulda been 11-5 last year and in the playoffs. They blew plenty of 4th quarter leads....including some big ones against Dallas, Pittsburgh, Denver, Miami and Philly [how they lost to Philly was beyond me]. However, this team did nothing to add to the team...and in fact, have bigger holes. Everything rides on how Rivers performs. If he takes off...this could end up being a playoff season. If he clunks...Marty is toast. If he plays somwhere in the middle...this could be a 10-6 team and one that could weasel it's way into the postseason.
3-KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
COACH'S STATE: Herm Edwards comes over from the Jets to inject some defense and some attitude in this team. Dick Vermeil loved offense and lived with a wishy-washy defense. Edwards won't. He will scale down the offense from the Vermeil-Al Saunders Era [Saunders is now in Washington] to primarily a running and ball control offense. He will used Trent Green's precision wisely...mainly to make teams pay for crowding the line. Oh...and eventually that defense will get better.
BIGGEST ADDITION: Well, a new secondary. Patrick Surtain remains...but Edwards went out and got Lenny Walls via free agency and Bernard Pollard and Marcus Maxey via the draft. These are the four guys [along with Sammy Knight] that figure to be the guys Edwards will eventually lean on. The problem is that most of these guys are new and all are new to the way that Edwards does things.
BIGGEST SUBTRACTION: He ain't a player, but Al Saunders' offensive explosions will be missed. Edwards likes a conservative offense...the exact opposite of Saunders. Saunders took chances and wasn't afraid to open up. That's why the Chiefs were routinely one of the elite offenses in the league. Him leaving also means the entire offense must adjust...which could hurt for a team that is trying to work on it's defense.
PLAYER THAT NEEDS TO SHOW UP: Tony Gonzalez had a drop off of a season last year. He had just two TDs....which mainly was because offenses focused on him. With Edwards' more controlling offense, Gonzalez would figure into being a bigger contributor to things.
OFFENSE: It will be Larry Johnson's show. When in New York, Edwards was devoted to Curtis Martin and rode that horse as much as he could. Johnson could end up better. Again, the offense will be a bit more conservative...as Edwards gets to work with a premiere back, an accurate passer and a near-elite offensive line.
DEFENSE: This unit has issues. The defensive line is horrible...even though they added Tamba Hall with their first round pick. They've had problems staying healthy and staying in the game. At times they make plays...and at others they disappear. And that kills the rest of the defense...who must make up for the line's troubles stopping the run and adds seconds that they must cover in the passing game. And, honestly,none of the defensive levels are good enough to make up for each other.
SCHEDULE: The schedule is pretty tough. They must face Rudi Johnson, Edgerrin James, Willie Parker, LaDanlian Tomlinson [twice], Shaun Alexander, Steven Jackson, Ronnie Brown, LaMont Jordan [twice], Reuben Droughns and that Denver running attack...twice. Not good for a team that can't stop running backs.
OUTLOOK: The Chiefs will take a minor step back this year. The offense will be different and Edwards will be working on molding a better defense. It may mean taking a few hits this year to be better long term. KC drafted defense with their first two picks and those guys look to be contributors this season. If everyone picks this up quickly....look out. But there will be some growing pains along the way. Many people think the Chiefs could be a contender in the AFC West...I don't. I rather pick a team with a young QB and a stellar defense [Chargers] than a team with a new offense and a bad defense.
COACH'S STATE: What does the hiring of Art Shell mean? That Al Davis realized that Shell shouldn't have been fired in the first place [he had a 56-41 record...with three playoff berths]? Or that Al Davis and the Raiders are stuck in the 70s and 80s? When Shell was the Raiders coach before...they were in Los Angeles. They also were relevant. Since their last Super Bowl appearance four years ago....the Raiders have won just 13 games total.
BIGGEST ADDITION: S Michael Huff is the new face of the Raiders defense. Huff was regarded as one of the top players to come out of the 2006 Draft and he should have a chance to prove so. With a division full of running backs and pretty good QBs...Huff will be tested. But his attitude, leadership and expectation of winning should be welcome in a fractured secondary.
BIGGEST SUBTRACTION: Huff takes over a secondary that will miss Charles Woodson. Yes, Woodson was moody and a problem at times...but usually his side of the field was safe. He could cover guys man-to-man without much assistance and is an excellent tackler. That on-the-field production was more valuable than his off-the-field whining may have been.
PLAYER THAT NEEDS TO SHOW UP: There are several guys here [here's looking at you, Robert Gallery] but the focus is on Aaron Brooks. Brooks takes the QB reigns over from Kerry Collins. Brooks has the arm and accuracy of Collins and better mobility....but he makes really bad decisions. He's one of the worst fumbling quarterbacks in history and tosses drive killing picks. He's also not that great of a leader....something you'd expect from a QB.
OFFENSE: This is an Al Davis team so they will be doing okay on offense. Aaron Brooks can get the ball downfield to Randy Moss, Jerry Porter and Ronald Curry...so there is potential for some big plays. Also, LaMont Jordan is quietly becoming one of the NFL's best all around backs. The line has issues...but the fact that Brooks is so mobile means it won't be such a crutch as it was with Collins.
DEFENSE: One thing the defense did well was attack the QB. Derrick Burgess led the league with 16 sacks....and he now has Lance Johnstone on the other side to create even more heat. The problem is that neither guy is that great against the run. The secondary could be decent with better safety help. They don't usually get beaten for huge plays. There is no starpower in the linebacking unit....just a cohesive group that has a semi-deep rotation.
SCHEDULE: Like the rest of the division, the Raiders have a tough sked but with a few easy ones along the way. The Raiders do get Cleveland, Houston and the Jets. However, they also get Denver, San Diego and Kansas City all twice...plus Pittsburgh, Seattle and Cincinnati. In fact, there is a stretch in the middle of the season that sees the Raiders play Pittsburgh, at Seattle, Denver, at Kansas City then at San Diego.
OUTLOOK: There is too much to conquer this year. The defense lost some big names [Woodson, Ted Washington, Ed Jasper] and replaced them with younger, unproven players. The offense didn't do much last year....but the talent is there. With the right moves, the Raiders could be a surprise and a nuisance. However, when you are talking about Moss, Brooks and Porter...sometimes you get let down even though your expectations are a bit high.