2014 Scout AFC West Preview

A look at the AFC West heading in to the 2014 season...

Denver Broncos
BroncoReport.com

OUTLOOK: Getting to the Super Bowl in back-to-back seasons is no easy accomplishment in a league that can change dramatically each year. If having a top-notch quarterback and adding stars on defense is the key to a return trip, count the Broncos as a leading contender once again. Two big questions remain: Can Montee Ball effectively replace Knowshon Moreno in the running game, and will key defenders Von Miller, Chris Harris and Kevin Vickerson return from injury without much consequence?

OFFSEASON: It’s pretty impressive that the AFC representative in the Super Bowl was able to acquire two of the top-rated free agents on the market in Agib Talib and DeMarcus Ware, but they also lost Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Shaun Philips in free agency.

OFFENSE: The 38-year-old Manning rolled on in his surefire Hall of Fame career, tossing an incredible 55 touchdown passes (with only10 interceptions) and a 115.1 passer rating during 2013. Incredibly, his receiving corps might not miss Eric Decker after the addition of Cody Latimer in the draft and Emmanuel Sanders in free agency. And they will be backups behind Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker.

DEFENSE:It’s no wonder the Broncos focused on defending the pass with their offseason moves, adding Ware, Talib and T.J. Ward in free agency. Last year, the Broncos finished 27th in pass defense, but now the defensive backfield looks to be as good as ever with Talib, Harris and Roby at cornerback and Ward and Rahim Moore at safety. There are no excuses for defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio.

SCHEDULE: Sure, the Broncos were the regular-season and playoff kings in the AFC, but the AFC West is also the toughest in the conference. It was the only division with three winning teams last year (the Broncos were 13-3, the Chiefs 11-5 and the Chargers 9-7), providing six tough matchups throughout the season. But Denver also faces Indianapolis in the season opener and has a Super Bowl rematch with Seattle in Week 3. They also encounter playoff teams New England, San Francisco and Cincinnati, so if they successfully defend their AFC crown, they will be battle-tested.

ROOKIES: If Bradley Roby can put his off-field troubles behind him, he could be a solid first-round addition and give the defense a much-needed assist. Latimer will try to find a niche in a deep receiving corps, but the 6-3, 215-pounder is also a solid blocker. Tackle Michael Schofield (third round) offers solid developmental depth on the offensive line.

WILL MAKE THE PLAYOFFS IF... Manning stays healthy. He enters his 17th season after a season in which his QB rating was second only to Nick Foles among quarterbacks with more than 50 throws, and he had 300 yards more passing than any other quarterback. He also had more attempts than any other quarterback and still only took 18 sacks, had the best first-down percentage passing and the most passes of 20 yards or more. As Manning goes, so go the Broncos.

THE FRANCHISE:
QB Peyton Manning

MVP - Offense:
QB Peyton Manning

MVP - Defense:
LB Von Miller

BREAKOUT PLAYER:
DT Sylvester Williams

FAN FAVORITE:
QB Peyton Manning

OVERRATED:
DE DeMarcus Ware

SWAN SONG:
DE DeMarcus Ware

ROOKIE STUD:
WR Cody Latimer

ROOKIE DUD:
CB Bradley Roby

BEST FA SIGNING:
CB Aqib Talib

WORST FA SIGNING:
WR Emmanuel Sanders

BIGGEST FA LOSS:
WR Eric Decker

TEAM TO BEAT:
Seattle Seahawks

MUST-WIN GAME:
San Diego, Oct. 23

BIGGEST FAN RIVAL:
Oakland Raiders

Kansas City Chiefs
By Nick Athan, WarPaintIllustrated.com

OUTLOOK: If the Kansas City Chiefs can rebuild their offensive line well enough to protect QB Alex Smith and plow the road for RB Jammal Charles, they should be among the NFL’s scoring leaders. But the key will be the ability of the wide receivers to hold on to the ball. The Chiefs offense sputtered on third down by simply dropping easy passes too often last season. If that hadn’t happened, KC might have won the AFC West. And the key is simple on defense. If the sacks continue to mount and the secondary can create turnovers, the Chiefs will win 10 games in 2014. Safety Eric Berry has to earn his reputation as an elite defensive player, but he has yet to show that game-stopping mentality that served him so well at the University of Tennessee. His success is the key to KC’s defensive resurgence in 2014.

OFFSEASON: With virtually no cap room entering the offseason, the Chiefs added some lower priced veterans hoping to add stability on both sides of the ball. KC lost some key starters on offense, but they did replace some of them on both sides of the ball with a few skilled and underrated free agents.

OFFENSE: Last year, Alex Smith showed the price it took to get him from the San Francisco 49ers was worth a pair of second-round picks. After a sluggish first half of the season, he became the franchise quarterback the team sorely lacked for decades. If they can spray the ball around to a multitude of players, there is no reason he can’t get the Chiefs back to the postseason.

DEFENSE:The Chiefs’ defense was solid a year ago until the games became much harder to win. Facing better competition, KC’s defense could not get opposing offenses off the field. However, they are deeper, faster and have a year under their belt with defensive coordinator Bob Sutton to understand what it takes to bring it for 16 games versus eight.

SCHEDULE: The Chiefs had a soft schedule a year ago and they fell apart after going 9-0 to start the season. In 2014, they face virtually every playoff team, including the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. They won’t sneak up on anyone this season. In years past -- last year withstanding -- KC generally plays better against the elite teams. This season, we’re going to find out of that’s truly the case.

ROOKIES: LB Dee Ford is already gaining comparisons to the late Derrick Thomas. He’s lightning quick and appears to be NFL ready. If he can provide some instant pass rush, Kansas City could have a top-ten defense. On the other side of the ball, running back and kick returner De’Anthony Thomas brings electric speed and could be a big wildcard on offense and special teams for KC.

WILL MAKE THE PLAYOFFS IF...  head coach Andy Reid can get more out of his players in clutch times. So often a year ago, his players on both sides of the ball let him down in crunch time. To make matters worse, KC’s new head coach didn’t attack offensively throughout the entire game when he had chances to do so. Reid has to make sure he and his coaching staff are prepared for every scenario in year two of his regime. If they are on the same page, KC will be postseason bound.

THE FRANCHISE:
RB Jamaal Charles

MVP - Offense:
RB Jamaal Charles

MVP - Defense:
LB Justin Houston

BREAKOUT PLAYER:
DE Mike Catapano

FAN FAVORITE:
RB Jamaal Charles

OVERRATED:
WR Dwayne Bowe

SWAN SONG:
LB Tamba Hali

ROOKIE STUD:
LB Dee Ford

ROOKIE DUD:
OG Zach Fulton

BEST FA SIGNING:
DT Vance Walker
& LB Joe Mays

WORST FA SIGNING:
OG Jeff Linkenbach

BIGGEST FA LOSS:
LT Branden Albert

TEAM TO BEAT:
Denver Broncos

MUST-WIN GAME:
Denver Broncos

BIGGEST FAN RIVAL:
Denver Broncos

Oakland Raiders
By Bob Carr, SilverAndBlackTimes.com

OUTLOOK: The Raiders head into the season with a massively remodeled roster as they look to end their 11-year playoff drought. Oakland finally wasn’t cap-strapped heading into the offseason, giving Reggie McKenzie and the Raiders front office the ability to acquire veterans like Justin Tuck, Lamarr Woodley, Maurice Jones-Drew, and James Jones among others. The team also had a relatively full deck of draft picks to use on a group of young players with immense potential that’s headlined by linebacker Khalil Mack. Offseason moves have Raider Nation optimistic of the upcoming season despite the difficult schedule that lies ahead.

OFFSEASON: The Raiders once again saw a massive turnover to their roster but this time had some salary cap room to play with. Reggie McKenzie and the Raiders front office added some key pieces such as Jones, Tuck and Woodley via free agency while also adding quarterback Matt Schaub via a trade with Houston.

OFFENSE: The Raiders look for a power running game to control the offensive side of the ball with Darren McFadden and Jones-Drew. Schaub will need to limit turnovers for the Raiders offensive game to be successful. The Raiders will need someone to break out as a reliable wide receiver in order to get Schaub and the Raiders passing game going.

DEFENSE:The Raiders will depend on versatility and a “multiple” defense this season in hopes of seeing improvement from last year. The Raiders added key pieces with rookie linebacker Khalil Mack, Woodley and Tuck in addition to getting a healthy safety Tyvon Branch back. Second-year CB D.J. Hayden will need to improve to help shore up the Raiders’ secondary.

SCHEDULE: The Raiders face the toughest schedule on paper with opponents that won .578 of their games last season. To make matters worse, the team starts on the East Coast against the Jets. Oakland has lost 13 straight East Coast games, which very well could continue this season. The Raiders also have to travel to London in Week 4 to take on the Miami Dolphins.

ROOKIES: Mack headlines an exciting rookie class for the Raiders and has potential to be a very good linebacker and a much needed defensive playmaker. Oakland also hopes to have found their franchise quarterback of the future in Derek Carr out of Fresno State, who has massive potential. Third-round pick offensive lineman Gabe Jackson is also an interesting piece of the future to watch.

WILL MAKE THE PLAYOFFS IF... With such a difficult schedule, the Raiders will have to win their interdivisional games and win on the East Coast if they expect to end their 11-year playoff drought. The Raiders haven’t won in the Eastern Standard Time zone in 13 games. It will be a tough year to end their drought, but optimism is high among the team heading into the difficult schedule.

THE FRANCHISE:
FB Marcel Reece

MVP - Offense:
WR Rod Streater

MVP - Defense:
LB Nick Roach

BREAKOUT PLAYER:
CB D.J. Hayden

FAN FAVORITE:
S Charles Woodson

OVERRATED:
LB Sio Moore

SWAN SONG:
S Charles Woodson

ROOKIE STUD:
LB Khalil Mack

ROOKIE DUD:
DE Shelby Harris

BEST FA SIGNING:
CB Tarell Brown

WORST FA SIGNING:
LT Donald Penn

BIGGEST FA LOSS:
LT Jared Veldheer

TEAM TO BEAT:
Denver Broncos

MUST-WIN GAME:
Kansas City Chiefs

BIGGEST FAN RIVAL:
Kansas City Chiefs

San Diego Chargers
By Michael Lombardo, SDBoltReport.com

OUTLOOK: The Chargers overachieved in the first year of the Mike McCoy/Tom Telesco era and must improve to make a second consecutive trip to the postseason. The AFC West -- the only division to send three teams to the playoffs last season -- is a grind. So is the Chargers’ closing schedule with December featuring tough games against the Patriots, Broncos, 49ers and Chiefs. The Chargers went 5-2 against playoff teams in 2013, and they may have to be giant killers once again to get where they want to go: the franchise’s first Super Bowl since the 1994 season.

OFFSEASON: The Chargers did not make much noise in free agency with the two exceptions being Pro Bowl CB Brandon Flowers and RB Donald Brown. GM Tom Telesco appears to have delivered another outstanding draft with CB Jason Verrett and OLB Jeremiah Attaochu expected to play significant roles as rookies. He also did well in retaining in-house free agents Donald Butler, Chad Reinhart and Darrell Stuckey.

OFFENSE: Frank Reich moves up from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator and promises to keep the pedal to the metal. The Chargers will use an up-tempo attack to take advantage of Philip Rivers’ ability to quickly diagnose defenses and exploit mismatches. The ground game will be prominent as well with the trio of Brown, Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead.

DEFENSE: The defense has much more speed and depth than a season ago. The cornerback position -- a huge weakness in 2013 -- has been revamped with the additions of Flowers, Verrett and Steve Williams, a 2013 draftee who missed his rookie season with a pectoral injury. The linebacker corps should be much better as well with a healthy Dwight Freeney and a seasoned Manti Te’o.

SCHEDULE: The Chargers face the league’s fourth toughest strength of schedule with an opponent’s winning percentage of 0.563. The season’s final month is brutal with four games against 2013 playoff teams, the final two on the road. Another key stretch comes in Weeks 6-8 when the Chargers face each of their divisional foes in succession, bookended by games in Oakland and Denver.

ROOKIES: Three of San Diego’s first four draft picks (Verrett, Attaochu and NT Ryan Carrethers) figure to be immediate contributors. Third-round pick Chris Watt will be the top backup at each position along the interior offensive line. Even seventh-round pick Tevin Reese has a chance to contribute as a deep-ball specialist. Marion Grice will be in the mix at kick returner.

WILL MAKE THE PLAYOFFS IF… the Chargers cannot afford to give away games like they did in 2013 when they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in games against the Texans, Titans, Redskins and Bengals. San Diego must take every gimme on the schedule this time around because an unforgiving schedule leaves little room for error. It will take an 8-4 start, at worst, to stay in contention.

THE FRANCHISE:
QB Philip Rivers

MVP - Offense:
OT D.J. Fluker

MVP - Defense:
DE Corey Liuget

BREAKOUT PLAYER:
OLB Melvin Ingram

FAN FAVORITE:
WR Malcom Floyd

OVERRATED:
RB Ryan Mathews

SWAN SONG:
TE Antonio Gates

ROOKIE STUD:
CB Jason Verrett

ROOKIE DUD:
RB Marion Grice

BEST FA SIGNING:
CB Brandon Flowers

WORST FA SIGNING:
QB Kellen Clemens

BIGGEST FA LOSS:
NT Cam Thomas

TEAM TO BEAT:
Denver Broncos

MUST-WIN GAME:
Kansas City Chiefs

BIGGEST FAN RIVAL:
Oakland Raiders


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