AFC West Preview: Rocky Mountain High

Posted: August 27, 2014 in Uncategorized
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pmanningWhen Peyton Manning (pictured) signed with Denver in 2012, few knew what to expect out of the then 36-year old quarterback. Coming off serious neck surgery, the former Indianapolis Colt was the greatest wild card in football history. Two years and zero-championships later, few will doubt whether or not Manning belongs in the conversation of “greatest quarterback of all time.” Still, coming off one of the most embarrassing Super Bowl performances in history, this multiple MVP has plenty left to prove.

For Manning and the Denver Broncos, 2013 seemed just too easy. An offense that put up historic numbers week-in-and-week-out could not be tamed regardless of the scheme developed to defend them. That is, until they met Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII. On that fateful night, everything came crashing down. Manning was inefficient. The offensive line was leaky; and the defense was as hapless as a liberal in Alaska.

Vowing not to have another storybook season come crashing down in a heap of disappointment, executive John Elway set out to improve the dilapidated Denver defense by any means necessary. Just a week into the free agent frenzy, that message was made crystal clear. Veterans DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward, and Aqib Talib all joined Denver in succession, turning a significant weakness into a marketable strength. Those three will join with young Danny Trevathan and burly Terrance Knighton to give the Broncos a handful of playmakers on defense. Add in Von Miller, who continues to wreak havoc on opposing QBs when he’s not suspended; and the Broncos likely have improved more defensively than any other team in football.

On offense, Manning will no longer have the security blanket that was WR Eric Decker, who signed with New York in the spring. Replacing him will be Emmanuel Sanders, who left Pittsburgh for the Rocky Mountains. Sanders brings more speed to his game than Decker. Though, the former Steeler is nowhere near as consistent. If Sanders falters, the depth at receiver is more than sufficient. The team brought back veteran Andre Caldwell and supplemented their corps by drafting former Indiana University star Cody Latimer. At 6-2, 215, Latimer resembles Decker in the slot. He’s a fantasy darkhorse who should begin to pay dividends for Manning and fantasy owners alike come the second half of the season. Denver also returns Julius Thomas, who broke out to the tune of 12 touchdowns in 2013. Montee Ball returns in 2014, this time as the #1 back behind Manning. With no more Knowshon Moreno, Ball should easily record over 1,000 yards rushing for the first time in his career.

Denver is undoubtedly the best team in this division, and many would argue the most complete unit in the conference. Whether or not that means a second Super Bowl title for Manning remains to be seen. After all, most believed that Denver would walk out of MetLife Stadium with their franchise’s third ring. Instead, they crawled out with whiplash. You’ll see Manning and Co. in January. But, their fate from then on will rely on the ability of their veteran defense to improve on the performance of 2013.

The Kansas City Chiefs shocked the world a year ago. After hiring former Philadelphia Eagles’ coach Andy Reid to rebuild their once proud franchise, the Chiefs emerged as one of the best teams in football during the first half of the season. A second half swoon once they started playing better competition left K.C. at 11-5. Their fall from grace was culminated with a massive collapse during the second half of their Wild Card Round loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

While Reid, QB Alex Smith, RB Jamaal Charles, and the bulk of their top-five defense return in 2014, the Chiefs are a popular pick to return to their expected mediocrity. The reason for that is clear. Kansas City will no longer be playing a last placed schedule. They also lost a majority of their offensive line to free agency. The added competition and skepticism is no stranger to Reid, who overcame mixed expectations to become Philadelphia’s winning-est coach during his tenure in the City of Brotherly Love. Still, asking this team to replicate their offensive performance from 2013 might be impossible.

tambahaliInstead of addressing their patchwork offense during the NFL Draft, Reid and the Chiefs pulled a very Reid’esque move by drafting pass rushing DE Dee Ford in round one. Ford has plenty of upside. But, this move reminds this writer way too much of Reid’s decisions to draft such luminaries as Brandon Graham and Jerome McDougle whilst in Philadelphia. A pass rush is great. But, when your team already has two dynamite edge rushers (Tamba Hali (pictured) and Justin Houston), is it really necessary to add another despite the weaknesses on the offensive line and in the secondary? Veteran CB Brandon Flowers was released in June. His replacement is expected to be Marcus Cooper, a 7th round pick in 2013. That, along with the notable subtractions on their offensive line, will keep Kansas City from returning to the playoffs this winter.

For head coach Mike McCoy, who enjoyed a fruitful first season with the San Diego Chargers, 2014 is an opportunity to build on his already stellar accomplishments. The former offensive coordinator in Denver; McCoy is an offensive genius. His fast-paced, no-huddle mentality helped QB Philip Rivers return to the Pro Bowl. Granted, the emergence of rookie WR kallenKeenan Allen (pictured) helped, as well. Allen’s 71 receptions for 1,056 yards were tops among rookie targets. Rivers will hope that a sophomore slump is avoided in 2014.

There wasn’t much turnover at the receiver position, as Allen returns alongside Vincent Brown, Malcom Floyd, and Eddie Royal to give Rivers a solid group of vets. Behind the 10-year signal caller remains Ryan Mathews, who can do a little of everything when he has the ball in his hands. He’s joined by pass-catching specialist Danny Woodhead and new addition Donald Brown, who comes west from the Indianapolis Colts. A first round pick in 2009, Brown is every bit as good a receiver as Woodhead, while also offering the ability to go between-the-tackles.

On defense, a woefully underrated unit only got better. The growth of youngsters like Donald Butler, Manti Te’o, and Corey Liuget should prove critical to the success of San Diego’s front-seven. Meanwhile, the leadership of S Eric Weddle should help tutor youngsters like Shareece Wright and Jason Verrett (the team’s first round pick) to become future stars in the secondary. The Chargers also retained veteran CB Richard Marshall, who is expected to start opposite Wright on the outside.

Anyone who doubts San Diego’s ability to return to contention in 2014 is going to be disappointed. With Rivers surrounded by a solid cast of characters, this remains the only team in the West that can compete with Denver not only on Sunday; but, also in the division race.

Finally, we have the Oakland Raiders. The ugly stepchild of the NFL, Oakland hasn’t made the postseason since they were obliterated in Super Bowl XXXVII by Tampa Bay following the 2002 season. Gone are the days of “just win baby.” Now, the mantra should be, “just don’t get blown out, baby.” It’s a make-or-break season for third year coach Dennis Allen, who’s combined to go 8-24 in two seasons on the Golden Coast. If the Raiders don’t show significant improvement in 2014, Allen will be patrolling the unemployment line come the new year.

In order to avoid another dismal campaign, Raiders’ GM Kareem McKenzie spent the offseason making it rain left-and-right on free agent targets. On offense, Oakland added veterans in QB Matt Schaub, RB Maurice Jones-Drew, WR James Jones, djhaydenand LT Donald Penn. While Schaub has not looked good during preseason, he should certainly prove to be more steady than the duo of Terrelle Pryor and Matt McGloin were last season. Jones-Drew, meanwhile, should provide veteran leadership and a change of pace contribution behind starting RB Darren McFadden. The latter’s health will prove critical, as the 2008 first round pick has somehow stuck with Oakland despite being unable to stay on the field for 16-games.

The offseason overhaul was not limited solely to the offensive side of the ball. On defense, veteran acquisitions LaMaar Woodley, Justin Tuck, and Carlos Rogers should limit the seven touchdown single game performances that Oakland allows in 2014. First round pick Khalil Mack, considered one of the most talented players in the 2014 draft, is expected to start at strongside linebacker. Last year’s first rounder, CB DJ Hayden (pictured), should also show marked improvement during his second season as a starter. The team also brought in veteran Tarell Brown, who takes his talents across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. This infusion of depth across the defense should allow Oakland to improve on their 4-12 finish of a year ago. Though, it’s doubtful that their veteran spending spree will result in their first winning season in 12 years.

Many will argue that this is a division with one contender and three pretenders. This blog would disagree. While the Broncos are far and away the most talented franchise in the West, the Chargers and, to a lesser extent, the Chiefs are contenders in their own right. While Denver may be the pick of the litter in 2014, a future without Manning lends some serious questions to be answered. For now, though, this division belongs to the Broncos. Whether or not the same can be said for the Lombardi Trophy will be answered in six months.

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