As we continue to get ready for the 2014 NFL regular season to begin, the preseason is about to get in full swing as all 32 teams spring into action. To start our previews here on Sports & Swag, we took a look at the NFC West. In this installment we’ll stay out west and take a look at the AFC West. A division that produced the AFC Super Bowl participant, Denver Broncos. Can Peyton Manning lead his team to one more victory this season and win his second ring? Here’s my take on the AFC West…
1. Denver Broncos (2013: 13-3, OFF Rank : 1st – DEF Rank: 19th) In what turned out to be one of the most dominating offensive performances throughout a season we’ve seen in sometime, maybe ever, Peyton Manning and the Broncos looked unstoppable. Try these stats on for size: First in total offense (457 YD’s per game), first in scoring (37.9 per game, frankly I thought it was more than that), and first in Red Zone TD %. That’s not to mention Manning’s sick stats (450/659, 5477 YD’s, 55TD’s – 10 INT’s) that led every other QB by a country mile in just about every passing category. Obviously, the Seattle Seahawks weren’t impressed. The Seahawks beat down of the Broncos was epic, and left Peyton and the boys looking a bit questionable after an incredible regular season. So, what now? Here’s my take on the 2014 Denver Broncos.
OFFENSE: Not much else to say about one of the best offenses, for a season, in NFL history. Most of last year’s nucleus returns. Demaryius Thomas (92 REC’s, 1430 YD’s – 14 TD’s) led the Broncos in each category last season, while Wes Welker (73 REC’s, 778 YD’s) was the ultimate complement to Thomas from the slot position. Gone is Eric Decker to the New York Jets, but former Steeler, Emmanuel Sanders, should be a capable replacement. At tight-end, Julius Thomas (788 YD’s – 12 TD’s) gives Manning another sure-handed target, that also has the ability to stretch the field and make plays deep. Look for guys like Andre Caldwell and Jacob Tamme to provide depth.
In 2013, with the passing game being so prolific, it was quite easy to forget Denver actually ran the ball pretty well. If nothing else, it helped keep defenses honest. Knowshon Moreno, who rushed for over 1,000 yards, was largely responsible for that. He’s gone, so now that leaves Montee Ball as the starter. Ball, should pick up where Moreno left off. Ryan Clady, comes back from injury to anchor an offensive line that looked like they sorely missed him in the Super Bowl. Louis Vasquez, Chris Clark, Orlando Franklin, and Manny Ramirez are also back to form a nice looking O-Line. Everything seemingly lines up for another great season for the offense. However, I think it’s very likely the offense takes a step or two backward from the 2013 squad. Of course, Manning’s effectiveness will determine all of that. He is 38, after all.
DEFENSE: While the offense was breaking records, the defense was busy putting up mediocre stats. One reason for that may have been, that they had little recovery time on the bench with Peyton and the boys scoring so fast on offense. Things should pick up quite nicely, however, with newcomers like ex-Cowboy, DeMarcus Ware, ex-Patriot, Aquib Talib, and ex-Brown, T.J. Ward, in the fold. Ware, will be a great fit as he anchors the Broncos D. Back from injury to assist him will be Von Miller, who missed all of the 2013 season due to suspension. Miller’s presence at linebacker will be huge. Shaun Phillips, takes his team leading 10 sacks to Tennessee, but leading tackler Danny Trevathan returns. In the secondary, Talib pretty much replaces Champ Bailey at one corner. While, Chris Harris looks to continue his soid play at corner. Free safety, Rahim Moore, joins Ward at safety.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Matt Prater and Britton Colquitt return to handle the place kicking and punting, respectively. Both have been solid, especially Prater, as he made 30 of his 32 field goal attempts last season. The Broncos chose not to re-sign Trindon Holliday, so questions of who replaces him remain and may not be solved until Week one of the regular season.
OUTLOOK: BRONCOS return to Super Bowl IF – Peyton Manning comes even close to his numbers of 2013, and Montee Ball shows why the Broncos felt Knowshon Moreno was expendable. Also, if the new additions on defense prove they’re the true missing pieces from 2013.
2. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5, OFF Rank: 21st – DEF Rank: 24th) After nine weeks of the 2013 season life was good in KC. The Chiefs were 9-0 and rolling. That is, until a 3 game stretch that had them facing the Chargers, sandwiched in between two against Denver. The Chiefs lost all three. They did win their next two games, but then lost their final two. Overall, the Chiefs lost 5 of their last 7 to end the regular season 11-5. Then, came the debacle at Indy. The Chiefs let a 31-10 halftime lead slip away into a 45-44 loss in the AFC wildcard game against the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium. Definitely not the way the Chiefs and their fans wanted to end what was still a good season. Problem is; of those 11 wins only one came against a playoff team (Eagles in Week 3). With the NFC West on tap this season, the schedule will be a LOT tougher. Can the Chiefs be nearly as successful this season? Here’s my take on the 2014 Kansas City Chiefs.
OFFENSE: All in all, year one in head coach, Andy Reid’s offense wasn’t too bad. The Chiefs ranked 21st in Total Offense, but they ranked 6th in scoring. Alex Smith (308/508, 3,313 YD’s, 23 TD’s – 7 INT’s), had a pretty good season. His receiving corp, however, was a different story. Dwayne Bowe, is widely looked as the go-to receiver on this roster, but 57 catches and 5 TD’s are hardly the stats of an elite wide-out. Donnie Avery, is a decent number 2 receiver, but he must improve on his 40 catch, 2 TD stats of 2013. Especially, since the Chiefs made no real upgrades at the position, which was pretty head-scratching. To make matters worse, Jamaal Charles led the team in receptions and Dexter McCluster finished 3rd behind Bowe. Charles, of course is back at running back, but McCluster signed with the Titans. The Chiefs hope Travis Kelce, a third-round pick in 2013 is the answer at Tight-End, with Anthony Fasano backing him up.
Charles (1287 YD’s – 12 TD’s), has become one of the NFL’s better running backs. So, the running game should be solid. He has shown just how versatile a back he really is in consecutive seasons after ACL surgery. Backing him up is Knile Davis, but the real excitement could end up being over 4th round pick De’Anthony Thomas from Oregon. Up front, 2013 First round pick, Eric Fisher will take the place of Brandon Albert, who the Chiefs lost in free agency to the Dolphins. His growth will be vital to the offense and in keeping Smith upright.
DEFENSE: The Chiefs D looked great early, but injuries finally took its toll late in the season. Gone is Tyson Jackson up front, but the Chiefs added Vance Walker who should fill in nicely. Dontari Poe returns at Nose Tackle, and Mike DeVito and Allen Bailey will split time at the other end spot in their 3-4 scheme. The Chiefs are good up front, but they’re excellent at linebacker. Tamba Hali (11 Sacks) and Derrick Johnson (4.5 Sacks -2 INT’s)are back, but so is Justin Houston (11 Sacks), who was missed big time when he went down to injury late last season. First round pick, Dee Ford, out of Auburn will add depth outside. While, Joe Mays, and Nico Johnson will fight it out for the second Inside backer position. In 2013, the Chiefs were 3rd in the NFL with 21 interceptions and 2nd in the league in turnover differential (+18). Brandon Flowers and Sean Smith return at the corners and look to keep that number intact. While, Eric Berry (3.5 Sacks, 3 INT’s) who’s become one of the league’s best strong safeties, and Husain Abdullah will play the other safety.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Dexter McCluster was a dangerous punt returner for the Chiefs, but there should be little drop-off with De’Anthony Thomas taking over. Thomas has already shown what impact he can have, as he’s already taken a punt to the house in KC’s first preseason game. Look for Thomas to return kicks also. Ryan Succup, hasn’t been the most consistent, but he returns for place kicking duties. While, Dustin Colquitt will once again be the punter.
OUTLOOK: Chiefs return to playoffs IF – Alex Smith at least duplicates his numbers from 2013. To do that, he must have better production from Dwayne Bowe and the rest of the receiving corp. The offensive line has to grow up in certain positions. The secondary must also step up and cut down on the big plays from opposing offenses. Everywhere else the Chiefs are solid and look like a 9 or 10 win team at maximum.
3. San Diego Chargers (9-7, OFF Rank: 5th – DEF Rank: 23rd) 2013, was a typical season for the Chargers in every sense of the word. Start out the season so-so, hit rock bottom around Halloween and Thanksgiving, then look unstoppable in December and challenge for a playoff spot. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Last year, it definitely worked, as San Diego dominated the Bengals 27-10 in the Wild Card round. Then, put a big time scare into the Denver Broncos, before losing 24-17. Second-year head coach, Mike McCoy, is setting a nice foundation that’s beginning to erase the feeling of under-achievement that seems to always follow this franchise. Few expected a playoff appearance last season, let alone a playoff win. The Chargers got both in 2013. Now, we turn the page to 2014. Here’s my take on what we can expect from the ‘Lightning Bolts’.
OFFENSE: If nothing else, the Chargers always seem to have plenty of weapons on offense. This season is no different. Of course, Phillip Rivers (378/544, 4,478 YD’s, 32 TD’s – 11 INT’s) will be back under center for his 12th NFL season. Few QB’s have been criticized as much as Rivers has. But, he silenced some of his critics with a strong 2013. It’s arguable whether or not Rivers is elite, but there’s no arguing he’s pretty damn good. The Chargers have good balance offensively. Keenan Allen (71 REC’s, 1,046 YD’s, 8 TD’s), took over the role of go-to receiver last season. Eddie Royal (47 REC’s, 631 YD’s – 8 TD’s), no slouch in his own right will be the other wideout. After that, there are question marks. Vincent Brown, looks to be next in line. Then, there’s Malcolm Floyd, who will try to go this season after being injured last year. Tight-end, Antonio Gates (77 REC’s, 872 YD’s – 4TD’s), numbers were down overall, but he still seems to have a little a bit left in the tank.
Ryan Matthews (1,255 YD’s – 6 TD’s) is back to carry the rock, and he’ll have a little more help this season. Donald Brown, was acquired from the Colts. Brown, is a pretty solid back and will give the Chargers nice depth in the backfield. Pass-catching specialist, Danny Woodhead is also back. Woodhead is ok running the ball, but catching the ball out of the backfield is what he does best. Brown, will get some of those carries, but Woodhead should still be very effective in passing situations. Up front, the Chargers have all 5 starters returning after the unit showed great improvement in 2013. King Dunlap, will start at Left Tackle and D.J. Fluker will hold down the Right Tackle spot.
DEFENSE: In 2013, the Chargers ranked 29th against the pass. Obviously, that number has to come up. Melvin Ingram, looks like a budding star at outside linebacker. Dwight Freeney, is attempting to come back from a quad injury that ended his season. Jarrett Johnson, will likely share reps with Freeney at the other outside backer position. Problem is; none of them really possess the speed you would like to have coming off the edge. Freeney, used to but not so much anymore. Inside, Donald Butler teams up with Manti Te’o. Overall, the linebackers are pretty solid. Especially, against the run. Up front, Corey Liguet (5.5 sacks), was the Chargers best pass rusher. Liguet, spent much of the year injured, however. San Diego, needs him and the other defensive end, Kendall Reyes to be healthy in order to improve their pass rush. Eric Weddle, returns at free safety to anchor a young secondary, that looks to have first-round pick, Jason Verrett start at corner. Shareece Wright will share duties at the other corner spot with Steve Williams, who in his third year, doesn’t have much experience either. Jahleel Addae, looks to be the guy at strong safety.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Nick Novak, returns after making 34 out his 37 field goal attempts, a year ago. The veteran, Mike Scifres, returns for his 12th season. Scifres, continued his solid punting in 2013, and there is no reason to believe he won’t continue that in 2014. Keenan Allen, looks like he’ll be a threat to take it the distance as a punt returner, and rookie, Tevin Reese from Baylor looks to be the guy returning kickoffs.
OUTLOOK: Chargers place 2nd ahead of Chiefs IF – The defense against the pass is improved enough. The Chargers secondary is faster, but besides Weddle they’re young. The front seven has to find ways to get pressure on the QB, so those young DB’s aren’t out on an island too long. Offensively, the Chargers should be able to score, but keeping Rivers healthy will be a must. The Chiefs look better on paper, but the Chargers aren’t that far behind. Couple breaks here or there, and the Chargers could grab the 2nd spot in the division.
4. Oakland Raiders (4-12, OFF Rank: 23rd – DEF Rank: 22nd) For head coach, Dennis Allen, it’s got to be hard to start another season where possibly half the starters will be new to the team. There has been no such thing as cohesiveness in Oakland over the years, and that doesn’t look to change in 2014. This year’s version of the Silver and Black look like they could be improved, but with the NFC West teams on the schedule this year, you probably won’t see more than the four wins they’ve accomplished over each of the last two years. Lots of changes all around, including at QB. Are those changes enough to help the Raiders improve? Read on, for my take of the 2014 Oakland Raiders.
OFFENSE: Matt Schaub (219/358, 2,310 YD’s, 10 TD’s – 14 INT’s) takes over QB duties for this offense. Schaub, is the guy right now, but I really like the Raiders 2nd Round pick, Derek Carr, for their future. Keep an eye on the kid out of Fresno State. The keys, however, belong to Schaub right now. Schaub, looked like a guy that could possibly be one of the better passers in the league when he left his backup job in Atlanta, for Houston. Things started out ok with the Texans, but hit rock-bottom last year. Needless to say, he has to improve before the Raiders have any shot at improvement as a team. A change of scenery could be just what he needed. Schaub, isn’t as bad as he looked last season. Problem is; there is no Andre Johnson to throw to, or Arian Foster to hand off to in Oakland. Darren McFadden (379 YD’s – 5 TD’s) should be better than he’s shown. So far, he being even close to elite status as a running back hasn’t happened. It was probably a mistake to let Rashad Jennings go. Jennings, led the Raiders in rushing and is improving. Maurice Jones-Drew, will provide depth, but he’s clearly lost a step from his all-pro status of a few years ago. The receiving corp doesn’t look much better. Denarius Moore, did look good early before going down to injury mid-season and Rod Streater looks like the other wideout right now. However, neither look like a true #1 receiver. James Jones, was signed out of free agency from Green Bay to add some depth and Mychal Rivera, looks to handle tight-end duties. Up front, the loss of Left Tackle, Jason Veldheer won’t help things, either. Donald Penn, one of three possible new starters on the offensive line looks to replace Veldheer. Gabe Jackson, the Raiders 3rd Round pick from Mississippi State should get reps at a Guard spot.
DEFENSE: There could be as many as five or six new starters on defense this season. That spells trouble again for a team looking for at least some stability. Justin Tuck, is new to the defensive front and will line up opposite Lamarr Woodley at the ends. Woodley and Tuck should be upgrades, even though Woodley is moving from linebacker to defensive end. Antonio Smith and Pat Sims look like they will start at the tackle positions. The Raiders best defensive unit may be their Linebackers. Nick Roach (5.5 Sacks) is back, as is Sio Moore (4.5 Sacks). Teaming with them in Oakland’s 4-3 scheme is Kevin Burnett. However, the linebacker that’s getting the most pub is First Round, and #5 pick overall, Khalil Mack. The rookie from the University of Buffalo looks like star in the making, and exactly the defensive play-maker the Raiders will need in the future.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Sebastian Janokowski, brings his huge leg back for place-kicking duties. Now, will he bring any accuracy with it. Janokowski, made only 70 percent of his field goal attempts, last season. Marquette King, returns for punting duties. There are still questions about who will return punts and kicks, but Greg Jenkins and Taiwan Jones look like the punt and kick returners, respectively.
OUTLOOK: Raiders climb out of AFC West cellar IF – The Chargers completely fall apart for one reason or another. Other than that, the Raiders will bring up the rear. Again. However, if Schaub plays totally the opposite of how he’s played the last couple of seasons, McFadden becomes a more reliable runner, and a receiver steps up as a #1 target, the Raiders could get a win or two more than the four they’ve had the last two seasons.