LionsFans.com NFL Preview's by Doug Warren
Part Four: AFC West
1. Denver Broncos (Projected Finish: 11-5)
This team takes the division by default. Incoming secondary-men, CB Champ Bailey (Redskins) and FS John Lynch (Buccaneers) should make Denver's pass defense solid if not formidable. Free agent HB Garrison Hearst (49ers) and second-year Bronco Quentin Griffin won't replace the departed Clinton Portis, but they will do a good enough job as a unit to make the Broncos ground game go. If rookie RB Tatum Bell can contribute right away, that's all the better. WR Rod Smith, while no longer an All-Pro, is still good enough to make plays and move the chains. If third-year wideout Ashley Lelie blossoms and rookie WR Darius Watts contributes, QB Jake Plummer will have the best season of his career . . . if he stays healthy.
Denver's defense was solid last season, ranking 4th overall (6th rushing and 4th passing). MLB Al Wilson, one of the best in the game, will lead the Bronco attack. DE's Trevor Price and Reggie Howard lead a solid pass rush. Free agent DE Raylee Johnson (Chargers) will be expected to fill the void left by RE Bertrand Berry (Cardinals). The linebacking corps must replace departed free agent WLB Ian Gold (Bucs) and SLB John Mobley, who retired due to a neck injury. Rookie first rounder (17th overall) D.J. Williams will replace Gold on the weak side, while Jashon Sykes takes Mobley's spot.
Jason Elam remains one of the NFL's premier kickers. Punter Micah Knorr placed 4th in the AFC last season in punting average (43.2 yards) and second-year WR Adrian Madise will handle dual return duties, after he returns from his 4-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy.
Mike Shanahan has this team headed in the right direction. Some have picked the Broncos to return to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1998. There good, but not that good. An AFC West crown and possibly a playoff win is as far as this team will go.
2. Kansas City Chiefs (Projected Finish: 8-8)
I can't understand why some people are picking the Chiefs to go to the Super Bowl this season. Sure they have a good offense; but their defense couldn't stop a cold last year and the same players return this season to try again. Good Luck, Gunther Cunningham (K.C.'s new defensive coordinator), Dick Vermeil could've hired Jesus H. Christ himself to coach the Chiefs' defense and they would still turn wine into water.
QB Trent Green has become a very good player. He is durable (49-straight starts), accurate ands understands offensive coordinator Al Saunders' complex system. Priest Holmes is the NFL's best running back not located in San Diego and Tony Gonzalez is the best Chief TE since the Super Bowl days of Freddie Arbanas. Kansas City's offensive line is the NFL's best as well, led by RG Will Shields and LT Willie Roaf, both of whom have made end-of-season trips to Hawaii a regular occurrence. Now if only the team's wide receivers posed a threat, the Chiefs could really put up some points. Eddie Kennison, Johnnie Morton and Marc Boerigter have all seen better days. As a result, slot-receiver/kick returner Dante Hall and rookies Samie Parker and Jeris McIntyre will be asked to do more than they normally would.
Oh yeah I forgot, the defense still stinks. Kansas City ranked 29th overall last season, giving up a whopping 356.7 yards-per-game. Their 146.5 yards allowed per-game on the ground was last in the AFC and the team's 20th ranked pass defense was nuked last season by the Colts in their 38-31 playoff defeat at home in front of the Arrowhead Stadium faithful.
By the way, they made absolutely no significant changes in defensive personnel during the offseason.
This team is not going to make the Super Bowl. They won't even reach the post season.
3. Oakland Raiders (Projected Finish: 6-10)
Bill Callahan wasn't a good head coach . . . and neither is Norv Turner. Turner is a brilliant offensive coordinator; I just have a hard time believing that with this Oakland rebuilding project, he will catch lighting in a bottle, ala Bill Belichick, and suddenly become Jimmy Johnson circa 1989.
The quarterback situation is interesting to say the least. Rich Gannon is old and Kerry Collins is inconsistent. Neither QB is well suited to Turner's deep passing game, due to the fact that Gannon's arm is gone and Collins' lack of mobility could be an issue behind the Raiders' porous offensive line (43 sacks allowed in 2003). As I write, the entire Raider Nation is praying to the gods of the underworld that WR Jerry Porter stays healthy. Tim Brown (now with Tampa Bay) should've retired, Jerry Rice is finished, and rookies Carlos Francis (4th rd.) and Johnnie Morant (5th rd.) will have a tough time picking up Turner's offense, let alone competing against NFL defensive backs.
The defense was simply putrid last season, so Raiders' Overlord Al Davis (who has moonlighted for years during the offseason as the gruff but loveable Mr. Burns on television's The Simpson's), made wholesale changes. Free agent DT's Ted Washington and Warren Sapp are now in the fold. Washington can still play. Sapp however, remains one of the NFL's most overrated defensive players. He is not effective enough against the run anymore to be a major factor. John Parrella is a much better player than Sapp and should get more playing time at DT. On the bright side, second-year player Tyler Brayton is a solid DE and should have a great sophomore season.
Oakland's linebacking corps is much weaker than last season; MLB Napoleon Harris is the only returning starter with Bill Romanowski retired and Eric Barton now with the Jets. Oakland is hoping that former backup Travian Smith can step up as one of the new starting OLB's. The secondary was expected to be a strength going into training camp, but last year's starting safeties are gone due to injuries. FS Rod Woodson never recovered from last year's knee injury and was released in June. In addition, SS Derrick Gibson dislocated his shoulder last week in Oakland's final pre-season game and was placed on injured reserve, ending his season. Rookie FS Stewart Schweigert and free agent SS David Terrell and recent newcomer Marques Anderson (via trade with Green Bay) will now have to fill those voids.
On special team, K Sebastian Janikowski seems to have shed his GHB problem and is now a solid point producer. Punter Shane Lechler is one of the best in the game. New special teams' coach Joe Avezzano, whose Dallas Cowboy squads under Jimmy Johnson were among the best of that era, should make Oakland's units click in short notice.
The Raiders should have begun rebuilding after last season's crash, instead they are trying to pry open a championship window that has already slammed shut.
. . . Ah Mr. Burns, we have a meltdown in the new Turner Reactor.
4. San Diego Chargers (Projected Finish: 2-14)
This team sucks . . . plain and simple. Marty Schottenheimer should have taken Daniel Snyder's money from his Redskins' gig and rode off into the sunset; but as we all know, old coaches never die . . . as long as there is one more ignorant owner or GM willing to open up the bank vault one more time.
This preview will be short and sweet. The ONLY reason to watch the Chargers this season is to see the best football player in the entire NFL carry the ball. LaDainian Tomlinson is the closest thing to Barry Sanders I have ever seen. Last season, he became the only player in NFL history to run for 1,000 yards (1,645 to be exact) and catch 100 passes in a single season. Once again, with all apologies to Ray Lewis, Steve McNair, Payton Manning, and etcetera; Tomlinson is the best football player in the NFL.
Oh yeah, there is one more thing that the Chargers have going for them. Phillip Rivers is and will be better than Eli Manning.
In closing, I'd just like to say on behalf of San Diego Charger fans everywhere . . . thanks Archie.