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NFL Division Preview: AFC West

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Peyton Manning and the Broncos are the class of the west, but the west did put 3 teams in the playoffs in 2013. Can the Chiefs and Chargers chase down the Broncos in 2014?

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The AFC West has three tiers: Tier 1 - Denver. Tier 2 - Kansas City and San Diego. Tier 3 - Oakland. In 2014, there are plenty of questions in the AFC West. Can Manning continue his run of dominance...and stay healthy at age 38? Can KC build on their 2013 success? Can the Chargers put together a 16 game season? And, can Oakland win more than three games.

1) Denver

2014 Prediction: 13-3

2013 Record: 13-3, 1st Place

Confidence in Pick: 95%

Key Losses:

  • Knowshon Moreno, RB (signed with Miami)
  • Eric Decker, WR (signed with New York Jets)
  • Trindon Holliday, WR (signed with New York Giants)
  • Zane Beadles, G (signed with Jacksonville)
  • Robert Ayers, DE (signed with New York Giants)
  • Jeremy Mincey, DE (signed with Dallas)
  • Wesley Woodyard, LB (signed with Tennessee)
  • Shaun Phillips, LB (signed with Tennessee)
  • Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB (signed with New York Giants)
  • Mike Adams, FS (signed with Indianapolis)
  • Chris Kuper, G (retired)
  • Champ Bailey, CB (signed with New Orleans)

Key Additions:

  • Emmanuel Sanders, WR (formerly with Pittsburgh) - should start
  • DeMarcus Ware, DE/OLB (formerly with Dallas) - should start
  • Will Montgomery, C (released by Washington) - should start at guard or center
  • Aqib Talib, CB (formerly with New England) - should start
  • T.J. Ward, S (formerly with Cleveland) - should start
  • Bradley Roby, CB (1st Rd, Ohio St.)
  • Cody Latimer, WR (2nd Rd, Indiana)

Suspensions/Injuries:

  • Wes Welker, WR (Concussion)

Coaching Changes:

  • None of note

Reasons for Optimism:

Peyton Manning - 5,477 yards, 55 TDs, 68.3 percent completion percentage, 115.1 passer rating and only 10 INTs in 2013. I think that explains it. I actually like this offense more in 2014 with Sanders, Ball and the rookie, Cody Latimer.

Wide Receivers - The loss of Decker hurts, but I actually think Sanders is a better and more dangerous wide receiver and I like the addition of the big rookie wideout Cody Latimer. Assuming Welker comes back healthy at some point, I actually think this is a better receiving corps than the group Manning had in 2013.

Montee Ball - For the second year in a row, the Broncos elected not to bring back their top RB from the prior year (2013-Moreno; 2012-McGahee) and for the second year in a row, they are better off because of it. Expect to see Montee Ball as the main back and I believe he offers a better running option than Moreno ever did.

Ball got himself in the doghouse in 2013 with some early (and untimely) fumbles, but we are talking about a guy in Ball who had 77 TDs in his college career. Over his last two years at Wisconsin, Ball had 55 TDs and 3,753 yards. Manning will get the guy in a position to be successful.

Despite only having 120 carries in 2013, Ball still had 559 yards (4.7 YPC), 4 TDs and even contributed 20 receptions for 145 yards. Ball will have a big year in this offense.

Improved Defense - They lost a few pieces on defense, but they replaced them with better pieces and Von Miller will be on the field from the start of the year. Though they lost Champ Bailey and Rodgers-Cromartie, I actually think they actually got better in the secondary with Talib, Roby and Ward. This should be a top 10-15 defense and when combined with this offense, that can be a dangerous combination.

Healthy O-Line - Maybe the biggest addition this year will be the return of Ryan Clady to protect Mannings blindside. Manning did fine with the backup LT in 2013, but an extra half second can mean big things for any QB, especially Manning.

Reasons to be Cautious:

Manning's Age/Health - Other than the neck injury, Manning has been extremely durable over his career, however, anytime you have a 38 year old QB, injuries have to be of concern. This team is probably good enough to make the playoffs even if Manning would go down, but they would not be a threat for the Super Bowl without Manning.

Defense - The downfall of having a guy as good as Manning is that he scores so often and so quickly that his defense spends a lot of time on the field and can get tired. While they should be better in 2014, this is a defense that in 2013 ranked 22nd overall, 27th against the pass and 22nd against the rush. They did rank t-7th against the run, but these numbers are concerning because when they run in a team that can slow their offense, the defense can get in trouble (see the Super Bowl).

Overall:

Overall, this Denver team is the class of the AFC and barring injuries, is the clear favorite to represent the AFC again in the Super Bowl.

2) Kansas City

2014 Prediction: 9-7

2013 Record: 11-5, 2nd Place

Confidence in Pick: 60%

Key Losses:

  • Dexter McCluster, RB/WR (signed with Tennessee)
  • Branden Albert, OT (signed with Miami)
  • Dunta Robinson, CB
  • Brandon Flowers, CB (signed with San Diego)
  • Geoff Schwartz, OT (signed with New York Giants)
  • Jon Asamoah, G (signed with Atlanta)
  • Tyson Jackson, DE (signed with Atlanta)
  • Jerrell Powe, DL (signed with Houston)
  • Akeem Jordan, LB (signed with Washington)
  • Quintin Demps, KR/S (signed with New York Giants)
  • Kendrick Lewis, FS (signed with Houston)
  • Dominique Jones, FB
  • Robert James, LB

Key Additions:

  • Jeff Linkenbach, OT (formerly with Indianapolis) - should start
  • J'Marcus Webb, OT (formerly with Minnesota) - roster depth
  • Vance Walker, DT (formerly with Oakland) - should start
  • Kyle Love, DT (signed with Kansas City) - roster depth
  • Joe Mays, LB (formerly with Houston) - will compete with Nico Johnson for starting job
  • Chris Owens, CB (formerly with Miami) - roster depth

Suspensions/Injuries:

  • Dwayne Bowe, WR (1 game)

Coaching Changes:

  • None of note

Reasons for Optimism:

Jamaal Charles - Charles is one of the best RBs in the NFL. In 2012, Charles was coming back from an ACL tear and was the only offensive option teams focused on, yet he still rushed for 1,509 yards. Now he has a coach in Andy Reid who builds his offense around small quick backs - take a look at the stats put up by Brian Westbrook and LeSean McCoy over the years.

Not surprising, Charles had his best season in 2013 in terms of total yards (1,980), TDs (19), receptions (70) and receiving yards (693). With a solid QB, a lack of other play-makders and a system built around him, expect similar numbers from Charles in 2014.

Alex Smith - Smith is not flashy, doesn't put up huge numbers and doesn't do anything particularly great, therefore he doesn't receive much credit. However, he is solid and protects the ball. In his last 5 seasons, Mith has 85 TDs to just 39 INTS in only 60 starts. In those 60 starts, he is 38-21-1, including a 30-9-1 record in his last 40 starts. Prior to being replaced by Kaepernick in 2012 (due to injury), Smith led the NFL in completion percentage (70.2%), was 2nd in the NFL in Passer Rating (104.1), and had 13 TDs to only 5 picks. He can also give you some rushing yardage - 1,192 career rushing yards and 5 TDs, including 431 rushing yards and 1 TD in 2013. He is not a great fantasy football quarterback, but he is a solid "Real Football" quarterback.

Travis Kelce - The Chiefs don't have a true #1 receiver, but Kelce may become that #1 target in 2014. At 6'5" and 260 lbs, Kelce is a big target with good hands and good speed and will create matchup nightmares for defenses. If you don't know Kelce already, get ready to learn his name.

He is an athletic kid who caught 45 balls for 722 yards and 8 TDs his final year at the University of Cincinnati but lost his rookie season due to a knee injury suffered in the 2013 preseason. Now healthy, Kelce will make an impact.

The Defense - In 2013, the Chiefs had a top 5 defense in terms of PPG (t-5th) and prior to some big injuries, were one of the better units in the league. They also finished the season t-6th with 47 sacks. The Chiefs feature 4 top 20 picks on defense (Poe, Hali, Johnson, Berry). Derrick Johnson is a stud MLB; Eric Berry is a Pro Bowl safety; Tamba Hali is an elite pass rusher; Smith is a solid CB; and NT Dontari Poe is coming off a 4.5 sack season.

Andy Reid - His last few years in Philadelphia were disappointing to say the least, but Andy Reid is still one of the best head coaches in the NFL and he took the 2-14 2012 Chiefs and turned them into an 11-5 wildcard team that was a second half collapse away from advancing in the playoffs.

Reasons to be Cautious:

Andy Reid - Like his Philadelphia teams, the talent is there and Reid can win. Unfortunately, the playoff disappointment is something Philadelphia fans were all too familiar with.

Alex Smith - As I said above, I like Smith and think he is a solid starting QB, however, I don't know if he can take a team to the Super Bowl unless surrounded by elite talent, and outside of Charles, there is not much elite talent on the Chiefs offense.

Lack of Play-Makers at the WR Position - Dwayne Bowe has been a disappointing draft choice and is not a true #1 receiver, but has to play one in Kansas City. Behind Bowe, it is even more pedestrian. With Bowe, Donnie Avery, Frankie Hammond Jr. and Junior Hemmingway, the Chiefs have zero receivers that scare a defense.

Division - If not for the fact that Peyton Manning is in Denver, this is a team that could compete for the division. Unfortunately, there is a big gap between the Chiefs and Broncos (because of Manning) and therefore the Chiefs are relegated to fighting for one of two wild card spots. With a weak schedule in 2013, they were able to secure one. Their 2014 schedule, which includes the NFC West, will be much harder to get a wildcard.

Defense - Though they were t-5th in PPG and 6th in sacks, the Chiefs defense built up some strong numbers at the beginning of the year going 9-0 against some weak competition. After weak 9 (and some injuries), the Chiefs defense suffered and fell to 24th in total defense (yards), t-25th in pass defense and 22nd in run defense. In their final 8 games (including their playoff loss), the Chiefs went 2-6 and gave up 27+ points in 7 of those 8 games, including 45 in their first round loss to the Colts.

Overall:

I like the Chiefs, but I have a hard time seeing them getting above 9 wins given their schedule and lack of play-makers. I think 8-9 wins is about where the Chiefs will be and I don't think that will be good enough for a playoff spot.

3) San Diego

2014 Prediction: 8-8

2013 Record: 9-7, 3rd Place

Confidence in Pick: 50%

Key Losses:

  • Steve Schilling, G/T (signed with Seattle)
  • Cam Thomas, DT (signed with Pittsburgh)
  • Le'Ron McClain, FB
  • Byron Jerdeau, DT
  • Terrell Manning, ILB (signed with Minnesota)
  • Derek Cox, CB (signed with Minnesota)

Key Additions:

  • Brandon Flowers, CB (formerly with Kansas City) - should start
  • Jason Verrett, CB (1st Rd, TCU)
  • Kellen Clemens, QB (formerly with St. Louis) - will back-up QB Philip Rivers
  • Donald Brown, RB (formerly with Indianapolis) - roster depth
  • Brandon Ghee, CB (formerly with Cincinnati) - roster depth
  • Brandon Flowers, CB (formerly with Kansas City) - should start

Suspensions/Injuries:

  • None of note

Coaching Changes:

  • Resigned - Ken Whisenhunt, OC (accepted HC position with the Tennessee Titans)
  • Hired - Frank Reich, OC (formerly QB coach with the San Diego Chargers)

Reasons for Optimism:

Phillip Rivers - It wasn't long ago he was in the "elite" QB discussion. After a year that saw him throw for 4,478 yards, 32 TDs and lead the Chargers to a 6th overall offense ranking, Rivers is worthy of that discussion again. He now has 5 years of 4,000+ yards and has thrown for 3,500+ in 8 of his last 9 seasons. He has thrown 21+ TDs in each of his last 9 years, has three 30+ TD seasons, and has averaged 29+ TDs over the past 5 years.

Those are good numbers. Unfortunately, the OL still is having issues protecting him - 147 sacks over the last 4 years (36+ per year, including 49 in 2012). As a result, Rivers turnovers have increased and his rating decreased as the sacks pile up. They did a better job in 2013 (30 sacks) and Rivers responded with just 11 INTs, his lowest total since 2009.

Keenan Allen - It is no surprise that the emergence of a #1 receiver, rookie Keenan Allen, mirrored Rivers return to the QB "elite" discussion. With a healthy Malcolm Floyd and the development of Ladarius Green, I look for Allen to build on his 71 reception, 1,046 yard, 8 TD rookie campaign.

Reasons to be Cautious:

Lack of Explosive Players - Beyond Allen, there are no big threat players on this Chargers offense, Mathews, Green and Floyd are all solid players, but none are a player that the opponent spends all week worrying about.

River's Track Record with Slow Starts - In his 4 seasons with LaDanian Tomlinson, Rivers was 46-18, with seasons of 11, 13 and 14 wins. In his 4 seasons without Tomlinson, Rivers is 33-31 with every season being within 1 game of .500. The biggest problem in that timeframe is slow starts (2013: 4-6; 2012: 4-8; 2011: 4-7; 2010: 2-5). The 2014 Chargers cannot afford another slow start.

Defense - They played better in the playoffs, but this is a defense that was ranked 23rd overall and 29th against the pass. The pickup of Flowers and Verrett should help, but I wouldn't expect a huge improvement.

Mike McCoy - He received a head coaching job because Peyton Manning went to Denver. I too would look like a great OC if Manning was my QB, because after all, it is Manning that is the OC. If not for the Chiefs sitting their starters in week 17, we are talking about an 8-8 Chargers team that started 4-6 and missed the playoffs again.

Overall:

The Chargers have got to be one of the most underperforming teams of the last 10 years and one of the toughest to predict. I believe they over performed in 2013 at 9-7 and I believe they will come back down to their level - a little below average.

4) Oakland

2014 Prediction: 3-14

2013 Record: 4-12, 4th Place

Confidence in Pick: 95%

Key Losses:

  • Rashad Jennings, RB (signed with New York Giants)
  • Jacoby Ford, WR (signed with New York Jets)
  • Terrelle Pryor, QB (to Seattle for a seventh-round draft pick)
  • Jared Veldheer, OT (signed with Arizona)
  • Lamarr Houston, DT (signed with Chicago)
  • Vance Walker, DT (signed with Kansas City)
  • Tracy Porter, CB (signed with Washington)
  • Mike Jenkins, CB (signed with Tampa Bay)
  • Phillip Adams, CB (signed with Seattle)
  • Mike Brisiel, G

Key Additions:

  • Khalil Mack, LB (1st Rd, Buffalo)
  • Derek Carr, QB (2nd Rd, Fresno)
  • Maurice Jones-Drew, RB (formerly with Jacksonville)
  • Matt Schaub, QB (from Houston for a sixth-round draft pick) - should start
  • James Jones, WR (formerly with Green Bay) - should start
  • Greg Little, WR (released by Cleveland) - roster depth
  • Austin Howard, OT (formerly with New York Jets) - should start
  • Donald Penn, LT (released by Tampa Bay) - should start
  • Kevin Boothe, G (formerly with New York Giants) - roster depth
  • Justin Tuck, DE (formerly with New York Giants) - should start
  • Antonio Smith, DE (formerly with Houston) - roster depth
  • C.J. Wilson, DE (formerly with Green Bay) - roster depth
  • LaMarr Woodley, LB (released by Pittsburgh) - should start at DE
  • Tarell Brown, CB (formerly with San Francisco) - should start
  • Carlos Rogers, CB (released by San Francisco) - should start

Suspensions/Injuries:

  • None of note

Coaching Changes:

  • None of note

Reasons for Optimism:

Running Backs - If MJD and McFadden can stay healthy (a huge IF), they could allow the Raiders to steal a few games they may not otherwise win. Both players can be/were dynamic running backs and are by far the best players the Raiders have on offense.

Derek Carr - I am not sold on Derek Carr being an NFL starter, but I will say this, he is better than Terrelle Pryor whom the Raiders started in 2013 - so that is an improvement.

Reasons to be Cautious:

Lack of Play-Makers - This team has 0 play-makers that can be counted on (MJD and McFadden would count if they stay healthy). That is a problem.

Derek Carr - As I said above, I am not sold on Derek Carr as a starting NFL quarterback and I believe having him begin the year as the starter is a mistake. He has no receiving weapons, a marginal line, will be playing the NFC West and his first 3 games see him go against Rex Ryan, JJ Watt and Jadeveon Clowney and then Bill Belichick. Not a recipe for successfully developing a rookie quarterback.

Age and Health of Running Backs Darren McFadden - MJD is a former rushing champion, but he is 29, was injured in 2012 (6 games) and 2013 was his least successful season as a pro (3.4 YPC, 803 yards and 5 TDs). The Raiders are hoping it was a down year, not the beginning of the end of his career. With 1,804 carries on his legs, I believe it is the beginning of the end.

Darren McFadden is a little younger (27), and when healthy, is one of the most dynamic backs in the NFL. The problem is, he appears to be made of glass. In his 6 seasons in the NFL, McFadden has never played 16 games, has never played more than 13, and in fact, has averaged only 11 games per year. McFadden last two years have ended prematurely with injuries and have seen him average just 546 yards, 3.3 YPC and 3.5 TDs.

Coach - Quick, who is the Raiders HC? Had I not looked it up before the 2013 season, I wouldn't have known either. Dennis Allen is the answer. I still don't know who this cat is and if you showed me a picture of Dennis Allen, I wouldn't have a clue who that was. All I know is that after two seasons, he is 8-24 and somehow still has a job.

Management - This is a management team that once traded a 1st and 2nd round pick for Carson Palmer and then 1.5 years later, traded Palmer and a 7th round pick for a 6th round pick, then traded a 5th round pick for Matt Flynn and now traded for Matt Schaub. Not the types of moves that lead to success.

Overall:

This is a bad team and could be historically bad. The makeup of this team, combined with a schedule that has the NFC West and AFC East, has the ability to make a run at 14-15 losses. They are just that bad.