Tuesday, February 28, 2012

NFL Off-Season Preview: AFC West Edition

With the NFL Scouting Combine under way and free agency getting close, NFL talk is heating up again. That brings us to Part 3 of our NFL Off-Season Preview. It is time to look at the AFC Tebow. Oh I'm sorry, I mean the AFC West. This division was a big pile of meh last year. The Broncos backed into the division title with an 8-8 record. Two teams fired their head coach while the Chargers retained Norv Turner to the dismay of their fan base. With the emergence of the 49ers in the NFC West, one could argue that this may be the worst division in the NFL. I think the AFC South may be a little worse, but if we are going to argue about that, why would you even continue reading? So lets get to the Preview!

Denver Broncos
2011 Record: 8-8

The Denver Broncos were the talk of the NFL last year. No, it wasn't because of their team play. It was because of one man: Tim Tebow. Tebowmania took over the NFL last year to the point where it became almost impossible to watch any kind of ESPN or NFL Network show without getting sick of hearing Tebow's name. Tebow isn't the traditional type of QB the NFL is used to, but he always found ways to get the Broncos a win. Tebow lead the Steelers to an upset victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Wild Card Playoff Round before being dismantled by the Patriots the next week. The Broncos need to get some pieces on offense to help Tebow. Their defense was decent all year with Von Miller and Elvis Dumervill getting to the QB on a regular basis, but it was torched in both meetings by the Patriots and need to get better in some spots, especially the secondary.

Biggest Question: Can Tebowmania Continue in 2012?
When Tim Tebow took over the starting QB reigns in Week 7 for the Broncos, most people thought it was a prelude to the Broncos tanking and getting in line for Andrew Luck. But to pretty much everyone's surprise, Tebow continued to find ways to win and get the Broncos back in the Playoff hunt. Before losing their final three games of the season, the Broncos won seven out of eight with Tebow under center. His mechanics still need some work. He has a long throwing motion and his accuracy and arm strength are below average at best. Tebow is already working on that this off-season. John Elway says Tebow has earned the right to be the starter heading into training camp, but that the team also needs to bring in a QB or two to compete with Tebow. I still don't think Tebow is the long term answer for the Broncos at QB. When teams figure him out, like they started to at the end of last year, he can't work his magic. Despite Tebow's success, you'd have to figure he will be on a short leash to start the year. If teams get to Tebow early and shut him down, the Broncos offense becomes almost non-existent.

Top 3 Free Agents
1. Matt Prater: Kicker
Just like the Jaguars and Broncos, teams that don't get to the end zone often need to have a reliable kicker that can convert from deep. While Prater was only 19 of 25 this year, he was clutch from deep, going 3 for 4 including hitting a 59 yard field goal to tie the game against Chicago. Prater knows how to kick in the Mile High air and is a valuable asset to the Broncos.

2. Brodrick Bunkley: Defensive Tackle
Bunkley isn't great at getting to the QB, but he is a decent run stuffer up the middle and makes it tough for teams to run on the Broncos inside because of that.

3. Joe Mays: Linebacker
Mays is a decent inside linebacker and was third on the team in tackles. But Mays can't get to the QB either and could be replaced and the loss wouldn't be too noticeable.

Top 3 Needs
1. Cornerback
Champ Bailey is still getting the job done, but he isn't getting any younger. Andre Goodman struggled mightily last year. Both men were burned last year by the Patriots. The Broncos need an upgrade at this position and a healthy dose of young talent from the Draft may help.

2. Offensive Line
Tebow scrambled around a fair amount last year and was sacked 33 times in 11 starts. If Tebow wants to improve as a QB, he will need help from his offensive line. Tebow will need some better protection on his blind side.

3. Wide Receiver
As I said earlier, if Tebow is going to improve he is going to need some more weapons around him. While Demaryius Thomas stepped up last year, Tebow will need more than one WR to throw to and get open.

I really think the Broncos were just a flash in the pan team last year. No one saw Tebow coming, but now that team's can prepare for him they will have a better game plan going into games. The Broncos pass rush will still get to the QB, but they will need to improve their secondary. But this division is in flux right now with no real clear cut favorite in it. If the Broncos get Tebow some better weapons and he improves his mechanics than the Broncos could be right there in the division hunt next year. But I don't know if Tebow can repeat the success he had last year. I expect a slight drop off for the Broncos this year as the Broncos organization and fans start to question whether Tebow can be the QB of the future.

San Diego Chargers
2011 Record: 8-8

The Chargers season can pretty much be broken down into three seasons. Heading into the bye week they were 4-1. It looked like the Chargers were going to avoid their typical slow start under Norv Turner. After the bye week they lost six games in a row. Philip Rivers looked off and the defense had problems stopping people. The Chargers then closed the season out going 4-1 but just missed the Playoffs. Most people thought that it was finally the end of the line for Norv Turner, but they were wrong. Turner was retained because the Chargers felt they couldn't get an upgrade at the coaching position. The Chargers still have a lot of good pieces on their team but they also have some key free agents that may not return. That could change the complexion of the Chargers, but I still think they have the most talent in the division.

Biggest Question: Was the Chargers Mid-Season Collapse A Sign of Things to Come?
Despite finally coming alive in the final five games of the season, the Charges six game losing streak in the middle of the year has to be a bit concerning. Norv Turner has always been a question mark as a coach, making questionable decisions at certain times. You would have to think that Turner is on a short leash this year. If the Chargers get out to a slow start again, will Turner get the axe? A lot of the problems for the Chargers was their inability to stay healthy. Antonio Gates is constantly hurt. Ryan Matthews has yet to play a full season. The Chargers need to stay healthy for a full season. But even if they do, can they continue to play well with the possibility of losing two very good pieces on offense?

Top 3 Free Agents
1. Vincent Jackson: Wide Receiver
Jackson is a big downfield target and has breakaway speed too. The Chargers are unlikely to use the franchise tag on him and it is likely that he will leave via free agency. The Chargers will miss Jackson's breakaway speed and it could cause their offense to take a step back.

2. Nick Hardwick: Center
Hardwick is one of the best centers in the game and is the anchor of the team's offensive line. Hardwick is only 30 years old, but he already talked about contemplating retirement this off-season. It may be a sign that his heart isn't all into the game anymore.

3. Mike Tolbert: Running Back
Tolbert and Ryan Matthews made a great one-two punch in the backfield for San Diego. Tolbert was a great goal line back for San Diego, accounting for 8 touchdowns. Ryan Matthews has yet to stay healthy for a season, so losing a good back like Tolbert will be difficult for the Chargers to swallow.

Top 3 Needs
1. Linebacker
The Chargers struggled to get to the quarterback last year. Outside of Antwan Barnes, nobody on the team had more than four sacks. That caused the Chargers secondary to get burned repeatedly. The Chargers need to get to the QB if they don't want to get into shootouts all year.

2. Cornerback
Despite the poor pass rushing not helping things, the Chargers secondary still needs some improvements this off-season. Quentin Jammer is getting old and has lost a step in his game.

3. Offensive Line
With Nick Hardwick contemplating retirement as well as Guard Kris Dielman, the Chargers might have some holes to fill on the offensive line. LT Marcus McNeill also has problems staying healthy. Philip Rivers needs to be protected.

If the Chargers can't get some help in free agency, then they may struggle again this year. If they re-sign some key pieces on the offensive line and Mike Tolbert then this team may still be the best in the AFC West. But no matter what, the Chargers need to improve their defense if they want to be competitive this year. If they don't do that then they will constantly be in shootouts, and that will not work if they lose Jackson and Tolbert this off-season.

Oakland Raiders
2011 Record: 8-8

The Raiders had a very tumultuous year last year. They lost their legendary owner Al Davis towards the start of the year. After that, the Raiders won at Houston and things looked to be heading up. But the team lost QB Jason Campbell and traded for Carson Palmer. The Raiders looked on the verge of a potential Playoff birth, but they let that slip away by losing four of their last five games. Many people questioned Hue Jackson's decision making and his want for more of a role in the team's personnel decisions. That lead to Jackson's firing this off-season. Now the team has a new GM, Reggie McKenzie, and a new coach, former Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. The team will have a new philosophy and will be switching to a 3-4 defensive look, but the Raiders have no Draft picks in the first two rounds this year and will struggle to get new talent because of it.

Biggest Question: Can the Raiders Get Through The Season With No Off-Field Distractions?
It almost seems like every year their is some kind of distraction that the Raiders have to deal with off the field. This past year the team had to deal with Hue Jackson getting a hot head and wanting more power in the team's decision making process. At the start of the 2009 season, the team had to deal with allegations that Tom Cable shoved a former coaching assistant and fractured his jaw. While Al Davis was one of the most legendary owners in the NFL, he always did something during the year that drew attention off the field. With a new GM and Coach, maybe the Raiders will finally be able to focus on the field this year with no distractions off it. There is a lot of talent on this team, especially on offense. The team can easily win the AFC West if they put everything together this year.

Top 3 Free Agents
1. Michael Bush: Running Back
Bush filled in very nicely this year for the injured Darren McFadden. Bush ran for just under a thousand yards and scored seven touchdowns. Bush will attract a lot of attention from teams in need of a number one running back. Bush would make a great one-two punch with McFadden and would give the Raiders a dynamic running attack, one that could run for 150 total yards every game.

2. Tyvon Branch: Safety
Branch is one of the better safeties in the NFL. He lead the Raiders with 109 tackles and is a good coverage safety. With the team already transitioning to a 3-4 defense, it can't let one of the stable parts of their defense leave. Losing Branch would create a big hole in the Raiders secondary.

3. Marcel Reece: Fullback
If the Raiders don't re-sign Michale Bush, they better re-sign Marcel Reece. Reece is one of the best fullbacks in the league. He can create holes for McFadden and Bush, and he can also catch passes out of the backfield if necessary. A good fullback can be a great asset to any offense.

Top 3 Needs
1. Nose Tackle
The Raiders don't have a true nose tackle on their team for a switch to a 3-4 defense to work. There are plenty of options available in the Draft and Free Agency.

2. Cornerback
The Raiders already let go Stanford Routt this off-season, and he signed with the Chiefs. Lito Sheppard is also a free agent, and Chris Johnson probably won't be back. The Raiders will need at least one, probably two cornerbacks if they want to have a good secondary this year.

3. Outside Linebacker
Kameron Wimbley can play one outside linebacker spot in the 3-4, but they don't have anyone to play opposite of him. Having two good outside linebackers is very important to the success in a 3-4 defense.

The Raiders have a lot of talent on this team, they just need to find someone to put all the pieces together. The offense has a lot of talent and potentially two good running backs and a good young core of wide receivers. The transition to the 3-4 defense will be key here. If the Raiders struggle with it, then it could be a long season full of shootouts. If they are good, then the Raiders could be the favorites to win the division. If the talent holes are filled on defense with adequate 3-4 personnel, then the Raiders may be the favorites to win the AFC West.

Kansas City Chiefs
2011 Record: 7-9

The Chiefs went through a string of bad luck last year. They lost Safety Eric Berry in the first game for the rest of the season. Then Jamaal Charles went down in the next game with a torn ACL. They then lost Matt Cassel for the year to a broken finger. Todd Haley was fired after the team's Week 14 loss to the Jets and was replaced by Romeo Crennel. In his first game on the job, Crennel lead the Chiefs to a 19-14 victory over the then undefeated Green Bay Packers. In the season finale, Crennel's team held Tim Tebow and the Broncos to only 3 points. The players like Crennel, and that was enough to keep Crennel on the job as head coach. The Chiefs were a division winner in 2010, and they still have some of the same pieces they had from that run. A healthy Chiefs team is full of a lot of talent, and can easily win a wide open AFC West.

Biggest Question: Is Matt Cassel Still the Answer In Kansas City?
Cassel came to Kansas City with a lot of hype after his showing in New England in 2008. He struggled in 2009, but came alive in 2010 with 27 TDs and only 7 interceptions. Last year Cassel struggled, only throwing 10 TDs and 9 interceptions in his nine starts. Cassel has yet to live up to the hype of his 2008 season with New England where he lead the team to an 11-5 record and just missing out on a Playoff berth. A lot of that had to do with what Josh McDaniels did with Cassel. The team brought in Kyle Orton last year after he went down. He played ok, but still couldn't get the team over the hump. The Chiefs may be interested in Peyton Manning. The Chiefs have a good running back in Jamaal Charles and a stud WR in Dwayne Bowe, if he re-signs there. Manning could be intrigued playing in Kansas City. The Chiefs did it once with Joe Montana, why not try it with Manning. If not, this may be Cassel's last chance to succeed as Chiefs quarterback this year.

Top 3 Free Agents
1. Dwayne Bowe: Wide Receiver
Bowe is a great wide receiver, and he would be even better with a just as good complimentary wide out. Could you imagine Manning, Charles, Bowe and Reggie Wane in one offense. Bowe has some work ethic issues at times, including his short hands he had in that missed catch against Pittsburgh. Someone will pay Bowe a lot of money to be there stud WR. He has great size and is a true #1 WR.

2. Brandon Carr: Cornerback
Carr is a very good cornerback. He has great ball-hawking skills and team's refuse to throw the ball his play when playing the Chiefs, which is why some of his stats are so low. He will get #1 CB money on the market. I think the Chiefs will only keep one of Bowe and Carr, not both.

3. Jovan Belcher: Linebacker
Belcher played quite well at the inside linebacker spot for the Chiefs next year. He's a good run stuffer and is still young and is only capable of improving even more. He's a good, young player that the Chiefs shouldn't lose.

Top 3 Needs
1. Offensive Line
Barry Richardson was not very good at right tackle last year. Also, Casey Wiegmann is 39 and is close to retiring this off-season. The Chiefs would like to land one of the top two tackles at the 11 pick, but they will probably be gone by then.

2. Nose Tackle
Kelly Gregg is 36 years old and declining in skills. Just like with the Raiders, there are plenty of options available at this position in free agency.

3. Running Back
While Jamaal Charles is expected to be healthy at the start of the season, running backs are often a bit different when they come back from a torn ACL. The Chiefs might try to Draft Trent Richardson or sign a high end back-up for Charles in free agency.

The Chiefs were very good in 2010, but injuries and bad play slowed them down in 2011. But if the team can return to healthy form in 2012, they may get right back to their division winning ways. The players like Romeo Crennel and you know they will play their hardest for him. If Matt Cassel improves his play, and the Chiefs keep Dwayne Bowe in the fold, they may be the best team in this division.

And there you have it. Next Preview will probably be out this weekend. It will be the NFC West.

Until Next Time,
Justin C
Follow Me On Twitter @JCWonka

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