NFL Preseason Spectacular: AFC West Preview – Super Bowl window closing on Manning and the Broncos

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THE SPORTS & SWAG 2015 FOOTBALL PRESEASON SPECTACULAR continues out west, in the NFL, as we take a look at the AFC West. The Denver Broncos have dominated this division over the last several years. Largely in part to acquiring Peyton Manning after a long career with the Indianapolis Colts. However, as successful as things have been in Denver, there still seems to be a sense of non-fulfillment. The Broncos did make it to Super Bowl 48, only to get humiliated by the Seattle Seahawks. They were again in position to make a return trip back last season after finishing the regular season 12-4, and running away with the AFC West title. However, Andrew Luck and the Colts had other ideas, beating the aging Broncos in the Divisional Playoff. Now, the gap even in the division seems to have closed some. The Kansas City Chiefs have been much improved with Andy Reid at the helm. If the Chiefs can get enough offense, they’ll be a threat again. Then, there’s Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers. They’re usually not a threat to win the division, but they usually find a way to stay competitive. And don’t look now, but even the Oakland Raiders are starting to make a little noise besides the rumblings of them possibly moving back to L.A. Fresh off of a season where rookie QB, Derek Carr made some impressive strides, the Raiders have given him some high-caliber weapons to throw the ball to. Mix it all together and all of a sudden, a division that was sort of an afterthought a few seasons ago, outside of the Mile High city, is becoming one that could be quite entertaining. Let’s dig a little deeper and check out the 2015 AFC West…..

DIVISION MIP (Most Impactful Player)

Jamaal Charles:  RB – Chiefs

Sooner or later, the decline of Peyton Manning is going to hit. It’s actually started already. With that said, the most dynamic player in this division has to be Charles. His carries declined in 2014, which could be a concern. But, it can’t be understated just how important he is to the Chiefs offense. It also can’t be understated how much of a beast Charles is. The fact, that he played hurt through much of last season, without the lack of a true vertical passing game, and still averaged 5 yards per carry attests to that. Look out for Charles in 2015.

ROOKIES TO WATCH

Amari Cooper, is obviously the player with the most hype. The smooth operator from Alabama gives Oakland a premier threat on the outside and should make life easier for Carr. Melvin Gordon, is smooth in his own right, and already has Chargers fans thinking he could be the next LaDanian Tomlinson. Marcus Peters, from the University of Washington, could be a starter at corner for Kansas City, and look out for Shane Ray, who’s a great fit for the 3-4 in Denver. The standout linebacker/defensive end from Missouri gives the Broncos some depth to keep DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller fresh. That is, if he can stay out of trouble. Looking for possible diamonds in the rough? Look no further than Chiefs’ rookie wide receiver, Chris Conley and linebacker Ramik Wilson. The Georgia products could see some early playing time. Especially, Conley who’s speed and athleticism could help cure the Chiefs offensive woes.

 

DIVISIONAL RANKINGS

Coaching –                      1. KC  2. DEN  3. SD  4. OAK

Intangibles –                   1. DEN  2. KC  3. SD  4. OAK

Schedule Strengh (Easiest to Toughest) –  1. OAK  2. SD  3. KC  4. DEN

Special Teams –              1. KC  2. SD  3. DEN  4. OAK

 

UNIT RANKINGS

 

OFFENSE                                                                                                    DEFENSE

QB –             1. DEN  2. SD  3. OAK  4. KC                          D-Line –  1. KC  2. DEN  3. OAK  4. SD

RB –             1. KC  2. DEN  3. SD  4. OAK                           LB –        1. DEN  2. KC  3. SD  4. OAK

WR/TE –       1. DEN  2. SD  3. OAK  4. KC                       DB –       1.  DEN  2. SD  3. KC  4. OAK

O-Line –        1. DEN  2. KC  3. SD  4. OAK

 

PROJECTED ORDER OF FINISH AND SEASON OUTLOOK

1.  DENVER BRONCOS

2014:  12-4 (Lost to Colts in AFC Divisional Playoff)   NFL RANKS –  Offense: 2nd (30.1ppg)  Defense: 16th (22.1ppg)

Key Losses:  DT-Terrance Knighton (Redskins), G-Orlando Franklin (Chargers), TE-Julius Thomas (Jaguars), WR-Wes Welker (?)

Key Additions:  TE-Owen Daniels (Ravens), G-Shelley Smith (Texans), C-Gino Gradkowski (Ravens)

Season Outlook:  As good as things have been in Denver over the past few seasons, there has to be a feeling of non-fulfillment. The embarrassment of Super Bowl 48. The early exit from last year’s playoffs are haunting this franchise and their fans. The Broncos are loaded, but there has to be concern whether or not they’ve missed their opportunity to win their first Super Bowl since 1999. Peyton Manning, was his usual self for most of 2014. But he along with the rest of the Broncos offense, seemed to hit a wall late in the season. There’s no reason to believe the Broncos offense won’t be one of the NFL’s best again, however. Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are undoubtedly one of the NFL’s best tandems at receiver. Still, Wes Welker in the slot and Julius Thomas at tight-end are gone. Owen Daniels, isn’t the athlete that Thomas is, but he should be a good replacement. The running game should be fine. C.J. Anderson, and Montee Ball are solid, and could benefit more with Gary Kubiak taking over as head coach. The offensive line should be ok, even without Ryan Clady, who will miss the entire 2015 season after tearing his ACL. Chris Clark has solidly replaced Clady in the past at left tackle.

Von Miller, and DeMarcus Ware are back to lead a defensive unit that finished in the middle of the pack in the NFL. Miller and Ware, also have some more help coming in, by way of Broncos first round pick, Missouri OLB/DE Shane Ray. The Broncos pass rush should be lethal with this combination, especially since Ray may be able to keep the starters fresh for a late season playoff run. The Broncos are strong on the back-end as well. You’ll be hard pressed to find a better duo at corner than Aqib Talib, and Chris Harris. The schedule is treacherous, as you would expect with the Broncos success. Trips to Detroit, Indianapolis, and Pittsburgh will be tough. There’s also visits from Baltimore, New England, and Green Bay. The AFC West gets the displeasure of playing the AFC and NFC North as common opponents. Except for Chicago, and maybe Cleveland, that’s not a good thing. Still, things should be fine in Denver, and they should win the division and position themselves for another playoff run. However, the question of Manning’s decline is very relevant and will be the key to this team’s success.

2.  KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

2014:  9-7 (Missed Playoffs)   NFL RANKS –  Offense: 16th (22.1ppg)  Defense: 2nd (17.6ppg)

Key Losses:  C-Rodney Hudson (Oakland), OT-Ryan Harris (?), WR-Dewayne Bowe (Browns)

Key Additions:  S-Tyvon Branch (Raiders), G-Ben Grubbs (Saints), WR-Jeremy Maclin (Eagles)

Season Outlook:  It’s been no secret that offense has been the weakness of this club. Especially, the passing game. Alex Smith , has to step up his play. While, his TD to interception ratio is fine (18 TD’s – 6 INT’s), it’s largely in part to him not taking many risks downfield. Smith, is fine at managing the game, but the Chiefs’ vertical passing attack was virtually non-existent in 2014. Jeremy Maclin, was brought in from Philadelphia to help with that. Travis Kelce, looks like he could be one of the better receiving tight-ends in the league. They need much more from the passing game, because Jamaal Charles is a marked man in this offense. That’s why it’s so important for Andy Reid to figure a way to stretch the field more. Reid, must also find a way to get De’Anthony Thomas (DAT) more touches. Thomas, has shown how dynamic he can be on special teams, but his role was very limited on offense. That needs to change.

The backbone of this club is their defense. Linebackers Justin Houston , and Derrick Johnson help form one of the leagues best Linebacker units. Johnson, is back from an early season-ending achilles injury in 2015. Dontari Poe, spearheads the defense from his nose tackle position and is a nightmare for opposing offensive lines. The biggest storyline on either side of the ball for the Chiefs is unquestionably safety, Eric Berry. Diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma midway through last season, it was questioned just how well Berry would be able to live everyday life, let alone play football. However, the Pro-Bowl safety is back and should be a huge lift emotionally even if he can’t quite reach his previous physical form. The Chiefs schedule is rough out of the gates, with a tough four week stretch at Houston, Denver, at Green Bay, at Cincinnati to open the season. There is also a trip to Baltimore, then a trip to London to play Detroit. Nine wins look like a pretty good bet. But, if the offense produces a little bit more to go along with that defense, the Chiefs can easily win 10 or more and challenge the Broncos.

3. SAN DIEGO CHARGERS –  9-7 (Missed Playoffs)  NFL RANKS –  Offense: 17th (21.8ppg)  Defense: 13th (21.8ppg)

Key Losses:  RB-Ryan Mathews (Eagles), WR-Eddie Royal (Bears), CB-Shareece Wright (49ers)

Key Additions:  OG-Orlando Franklin (49ers), WR-Stevie Johnson (49ers), CB-Patrick Robinson (Saints),

Fresh off of signing a huge 4year/$83 million extension, Philip Rivers comes into training camp with deep pockets and a huge smile on his face. To keep that smile on his face Rivers is going to have to be great on the field. That may be tough, especially early in the season with TE-Antonio Gates suspended for the first four games of the season. Kenan Allen, the Chargers leading receiver in 2014 is back. He’s shown big play ability and can help out on kick and punt returns. But, will guys like Malcolm Floyd be able to produce enough to supplement the loss of Eddie Royal. Rivers, is good at spreading the ball around, so it should be a non-issue. The running game has to get better. The Chargers were quite one-dimensional last season. Due in large part to injuries to Ryan Mathews, and mediocre play up front. Melvin Gordon, may be just what the doctor ordered to ignite the running game in San Diego once again. Branden Oliver, and Danny Woodhead also return to give the Chargers offense some versatility.

The defense returns a strong linebacking corp with Melvin Ingram leading the way outside. Ingram, is quickly turning into one of the NFL’s best and most athletic. Manti Te’o showed lots of improvement toward the end of last season. He’ll be counted on much more this season to handle things in the middle. The venerable Eric Weddle, beard and all, continues to anchor the Lightning Bolts secondary. Weddle, vowed to not shave again until the Chargers won a Super Bowl. Again, much like it is on offense, there must be better play up front for head coach Mike McCoy’s team to improve. As with every other team in the division, the schedule ain’t easy. However, there are games at Jacksonville, then against Chicago and Cleveland that should make things more manageable. We’re so used to this team winning eight or nine games, that you can pretty much count on it again. But, that’s not going to satisfy many people in San Diego. Especially, for a team that may skip town in a year or two.

4. OAKLAND RAIDERS –  3-13 (Missed Playoffs)  NFL RANKS –  Offense: 31st (15.8ppg)  Defense: 32nd (28.2ppg)

Key Losses:  C-Steve Wisniewski (Jaguars), RB-Darren McFadden (Cowboys),

Key Additions:  S-Nate Allen (Eagles), C-Rodney Hudson (Chiefs), DT-Dan Williams (Cardinals), WR-Michael Crabtree (49ers), LB-Malcolm Smith (Seahawks)

The Raiders had a terrible start to the 2014 season but ended it winning three of their last six games, including wins over the Chiefs and 49ers. There’s no need trying to pinpoint one area or another that would help improve this team, because improvement is needed across the board. However, the foundation is being built. The biggest part of that foundation is Derek Carr. All things considered, he had a nice rookie season. In the off-season, the Raiders set out to surround Carr with some playmakers. They accomplished their goal, as the Silver and Black selected Amari Cooper out of Alabama, and picked up Michael Crabtree in free agency. Cooper, has the potential to be a top 5 receiver in the NFL for many years to come. Things didn’t work out for Crabtree in San Francisco. Now, he looks for a new start in Oakland. Latavius Murray, will carry the load in the backfield. The third-year back from Central Florida (UCF) only started the final three games of the season, but averaged 5.2 yards per carry in 82 attempts on the season. Backup running back duties will likely go to Roy Helu Jr., or Trent Richardson.

The Raiders used their second round selection in the draft to pickup Mario Edwards Jr. A standout defensive end from Florida State. Edwards, would have figured to start right away. However, new head coach Jack Del Rio and staff are toying around with the idea of moving Khalil Mack from his linebacker position. Mack, a first-round pick from 2014 had tremendous rookie season, especially playing against the run. However, Del Rio and new defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. think that Mack has the ability to be a premier pass rusher, and thinks he could be even more effective playing with his hand on the ground. It appears Justin Tuck will maintain his hold on the right defensive end position with Edwards backing him up. Another reason it’s probably a good idea to move Mack up front is the addition of former Seahawks linebacker, Malcolm Smith. Smith, is best known for his interception after the infamous Richard Sherman deflection to send the Seahawks to Super Bowl 48, and his pick six of Peyton Manning in that Super Bowl demolition of the Broncos. The back-end is once again policed by veteran safety, Charles Woodson at 39-years-young. The Raiders had one of the worst records in the NFL last season. As usual, that means they have a pretty manageable schedule. But, playing against the AFC and NFC North won’t offer any favors. Things are looking up in Oakland. There’s no doubt about that. WIth some nice pieces on defense, and a few more weapons at the disposal of Carr, the Raiders absolutely have the look of a team that will win more than three games. They’re probably not playoff ready, but 6-8 wins are definitely attainable.

So, there you have it. Sports & Swag’s take on the AFC West. Up next: The 2015 S&S Football Preseason Spectacular stays out west but goes back to school for a look at the PAC-12. You don’t want to miss that! Until then….

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