2014 AFC West Preview

AFC West Preview

The AFC West ended up surprising people in 2013 as one of the NFL's weaker divisions in recent years sent three teams to the playoffs: Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, and San Diego Chargers.

2013 AFC West Standings
W L PCT Home Away DIV
Denver 13 3 .813 7-1 6-2 5-1
Kansas City 11 5 .688 5-3 6-2 2-4
San Diego 9 7 .563 5-3 3-4 4-2
Oakland 4 12 .250 3-5 1-7 1-5

With the expected improvement of the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC North it will be harder for the AFC West to field three playoff teams in 2014.

Below is a preview of the AFC West in order of predicted finish:

1. Denver Broncos

General Manager: John Elway

Head Coach: John Fox

Last Season: 13-3 First in the AFC West. Clinched homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.

Playoffs:

Divisional Round- Defeated the San Diego Chargers 24-17

AFC Championship- Defeated the New England Patriots 26-16

Super Bowl XLVIII- Lost to the Seattle Seahawks 43-8

2013 Review

The Broncos won the AFC West for the third straight season, posting a 13-3 record for the second consecutive year. Armed with a record-setting offense, the Broncos cruised into the playoffs with the #1 seed. Peyton Manning won his fifth consecutive MVP award after completing 450-for-659, for an NFL record 5,477 yds. He also set a new record with 55 td and was intercepted just 10 times. Manning posted a quarterback rating of 115.1. The Broncos offense also set an NFL record for most points scored in a season with 606.


Quarterback Peyton Manning #18 of the Denver Broncos throws as he warms up before a preseason game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on August 23, 2014 in Denver, Colorado.
(August 22, 2014 - Source: Justin Edmonds/Getty Images North America)

2014 Offseason

We Say Goodbye:

Owner Pat Bowlen-Stepped down as CEO due to illness.

S Mike Adams-Indianapolis Colts

DE Robert Ayers-Tennessee Titans

CB Champ Bailey-New Orleans Saints

G Zane Beadles-Jacksonville Jaguars

WR Eric Decker-New York Jets

CB Duke Ihenacho- Washington Redskins

WR/PR Trindon Holliday-New York Giants

RB Knowshon Moreno-Miami Dolphins

LB Shaun Phillips-Tennessee Titans

CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie-New York Giants

LB Wesley Woodyard-Tennessee Titans

DT Kevin Vickerson-

They Say Hello:

WR Emmanuel Sanders-Pittsburgh Steelers

CB Aqib Talib-New England Patriots

S T.J. Ward-Cleveland Browns

DE DeMarcus Ware-Dallas Cowboys

2014 Draft Picks

Round 1- CB Bradley Roby (Ohio State)

Round 2- WR Cody Latimer (Indiana)

Round 3- OT Michael Schofield (Michigan)

Round 4- NO PICK

Round 5- LB Lamin Barrow (Louisiana State)

Round 6- C Matt Paradis (Boise State)

Round 7- LB Corey Nelson (Oklahoma)

2014 Outlook:

The Denver Broncos head into Week 1 of the regular season with just one goal in mind; hoisting the Lombardi Trophy high over their heads at the conclusion of Super Bowl XLIX in Glendale, AZ. As Peyton Manning enters his 17th NFL season at the age of 38, the Broncos are well aware that winning a championship with Manning as their quarterback is a year-to-year proposition. The entire franchise is focused on just this year and their moves in the offseason, acquiring Pro-Bowl veterans, demonstrates that thinking.

Questions going into the season:

What’s Improved?

The Broncos defense has been greatly improved just by getting healthy. Injuries to key players such as linebacker Von Miller (who also served a 6-game suspension to begin the season), defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, defensive end Derek Wolfe, cornerback Chris Harris Jr., cornerback Champ Bailey, and safety Rahim Moore hampered defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio and what he could do with a defensive unit that was in the top 10 in 2012. The Broncos ended 2013 21st in pass defense and 9th in run defense.


Von Miller #58 of the Denver Broncos waits on the field during the game against the Houston Texans at Reliant Stadium on December 22, 2013 in Houston, Texas.
(December 21, 2013 - Source: Scott Halleran/Getty Images North America)

Now with the healthy return of all those players, minus Bailey who wasn’t resigned and Vickerson who was released at the end of preseason, the Broncos were on track for an improved defense. Then costless agency came and the Broncos decided to be aggressive, shocking the league by signing defensive end DeMarcus Ware immediately after his release by the Dallas Cowboys, safety T.J. Ward away from the Cleveland Browns, and cornerback Aqib Talib from the New England Patriots. The Bronco also drafted cornerback Bradley Roby in the first round who has all the makings of a shut down corner in the near future. The Broncos defense enters the 2014 season with a roster that is more athletic and has more depth than at any time in more than a decade, especially on the defensive line. It is a defense that has the makings of one of the better defensive units in the league.

What’s a concern?

Kicker Matt Prater has been suspended four games for a violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Prater, who set the NFL record for the longest field goal last year with a 64-yard field goal, is a weapon for the Broncos with his near-perfect accuracy kicking field goals in the 40-49 yard range. Without Prater the Broncos have had to go with 23 year old Brandon McManus who has never kicked a regular season football. McManus, who just completed his second pre-season, was acquired last week from the New York Giants. The Broncos like his leg strength, especially on kickoffs, but have no idea what to expect when the game is on the line and they need a long field goal to win the game.

Team MVP:

Peyton Manning. Manning appeared in midseason form in preseason, completing 43-of-54 passes for 423 yards, three touchdowns and just one interception. At 38 years of age and entering his 17th NFL season, Manning still hasn’t shown signs of age beginning to slow him down. The Broncos wide receivers have said all preseason long that Manning’s passes are coming out faster than at any time since his arrival in Denver.

2. San Diego Chargers

General Manager: Tom Telesco

Head Coach: Mike McCoy

Last Season: 9-7, third in the AFC West, clinched second AFC wildcard.

Playoffs:

Wildcard Round: Defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 27-10

Divisional Round: Lost to the Denver Broncos 24-17

2013 Review:

The San Diego Chargers, under first year head coach Mike McCoy, witnessed the revival of quarterback Phillip Rivers. Playing in a new offense, some of which McCoy had implemented for Manning in Denver when he was offensive coordinator, reinvigorated Rivers who posted the highest quarterback rating of his career (105.5), throwing for 4,478 yards with 32 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions. After a 5-7 start, things began to click for the Chargers as they went on a four game winning streak, including an upset win against the Broncos in Denver, to end the season 9-7 and secure the second AFC Wildcard. The Chargers secured their first winning season since 2010. Rivers ended up winning Comeback Player of the Year and rookie wide receiver Keenan Allen set rookie records in receptions (71) and receiving yards (1,046).


Phillip Rivers #17 of the San Diego Chargers looks to pass against the Dallas Cowboys during a preseason game at Qualcomm Stadium on August 7, 2014 in San Diego, California.
(August 6, 2014 - Source: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images North America)

2014 Offseason:

They Say Goodbye:

Offensive Coordinator Ken Whisenhunt- Head Coach Tennessee Titans

CB Derek Cox- Minnesota Vikings

FB Le'Ron McClain-

CB Johnny Patrick- New York Jets

NT Cam Johnson- Pittsburgh Steelers

S Brandon Taylor-

QB Charlie Whitehurst-

We Say Hello:

RB Donald Brown- Indianapolis Colts

QB Kellen Clemmons- St. Louis Rams

LB Kavell Conner- Indianapolis Colts

FB David Johnson- Pittsburgh Steelers

2014 Draft Picks:

Round 1- CB Jason Verrett TCU

Round 2- OLB Jeremiah Attaochu Georgia Tech

Round 3- OG Chris Watt Notre Dame

Round 4- None

Round 5- NT Ryan Carrethers Arkansas State

Round 6- RB Marion Grice ASU

Round 7- WR Tevin Reese Baylor

2014 Outlook:

The San Diego offense has been revived under head coach Mike McCoy. In 2014 Phillip Rivers and company look to take the next step with the Denver Broncos and first place in the AFC West in the target sights. The Chargers were unable to improve on the offensive line so look for the offense to insist on Rivers getting rid of the ball quickly with short completions to avoid the sack and keep the offense on a quick pace. The more pass-oriented offense of 2014 will mean less rushing opportunities for Ryan Matthews, but Matthews and the change of pace back Danny Woodhead will still get their opportunities for touchdowns inside the five yard line.

With an improved defense and an offense heading into their second year under the McCoy system, the Chargers are primed for another post season run. They may challenge Denver early for the division lead, but in the end they don't have the talent yet to overtake the Broncos for the AFC West crown.

Questions going into the Season:

What's Improved?

Like the Broncos, the Chargers enter 2014 with an improved defense. Just as Jack Del Rio had to scheme a pass rush for the Broncos last season,Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano had to do the same after losing Dwight Costlessney for the season with a torn quad muscle and being without Melvin Ingram for the first part of the year with a torn ACL. Costlessney is now recovered and looking to get back to the same form he had when he was with the Indianapolis Colts, even though he will be operating as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. Ingram and Jarrett Johnson will get the bulk of the pass rushes while linebackers Mantei Te'o and Donald Butler will be charged with stuffing the run. In a division that features Peyton Manning at quarterback in Denver and Jamaal Charles at running back in Kansas City, it will be important that those four do their jobs well.


Andy Dalton #14 of the Cincinnati Bengals runs with the ball while defended by Melvin Ingram #54 of the San Diego Chargers at Paul Brown Stadium on January 5, 2014 in Cincinnati, Ohio.
(January 4, 2014 - Source: Andy Lyons/Getty Images North America

The Chargers also upgraded in the secondary with the addition of Brandon Flowers at cornerback from the Chiefs. Flowers is an upgrade over Derek Cox, especially going up against the stable of wide receivers the Broncos will throw at them in their two games during the regular season. The Chargers will be placing Flowers up against their opponent's top receiver with corner Shareece Wright on the other side. First round pick Jason Verrett will assume the role of slot corner and will be tested early against the likes of Wes Welker in Denver. Verrett is highly thought of and how he does against veterans like Welker will go along way in determining if those high opinions are justified.

What's the concern?

The offensive line is still a concern in San Diego. Even though Rivers' sack total dropped from 49 in 2012 to 30 in 2013, the drop is owed more to the quick pass release offense that head coach Mike McCoy has employed than to the pass protection provided by the o-line. Until the offensive line problems are corrected, the Chargers will never be able to maximize their running game or give their star quarterback the complete protection he needs.

Team MVP:

It's a quarterback's league and the Chargers are no different. How far the Chargers go depends on how far their quarterback can take them. Was last year's revival of Rivers and his career a long-term upswing or will he fall back into old bad habits? The answer is probably yes, this is a long-term upswing, especially if McCoy continues to be his head coach and he has talented players catching the ball like tight end Antonio Gates and wide receiver Keenan Allen. McCoy won division titles with both ends of the quarterback spectrum in Denver with Tim Tebow in 2011 and Peyton Manning in 2012. If anyone knows the ins and outs of an NFL quarterback and what it takes to be successful it's Mike McCoy. Rivers should be very pleased to have him in his corner.

3. Kansas City Chiefs

General Manager: John Dorsey

Head Coach: Andy Reid

Last Season: 11-4, second in the AFC West, clinched first AFC Wildcard.

Playoffs:

Wildcard Round: Lost to the Indianapolis Colts 45-44.

2013 Review:

The Kansas City Chiefs experienced a quick turnaround under new head coach Andy Reid who came over from the Philadelphia Eagles. The Chiefs went from 2-14 in 2012 and the first pick in the NFL draft to 11-5 and a playoff berth in 2013. The Chiefs also began the season 9-0, becoming the last team in 2013 to stay undefeated. The Chiefs became the first team in NFL history to pick first in the draft and become the last team to lose a game in the same year. The Chiefs challenged the Broncos for the division lead until losing to Denver in Week 11 and Week 13 knocked them out of the lead and sent them on a downward spiral, finishing the season 2-5. The loss to the Colts in the wildcard round extended the Chiefs' playoff losing streak to eight games, dating back to 1993.

2014 Offseason:

They Say Goodbye:

CB Brandon Flowers- San Diego Chargers

T Branden Albert- Miami Dolphins

G Jon Asamoah- Atlanta Falcons

G Geoff Schwarts- New York Giants

DE Tyson Jackson- Atlanta Falcons

WR Dexter McCluster- Tennessee Titans

LB Akeem Jordan- Washington Redskins

S Kendrick Lewis- Houston Texans

S Quintin Demps- New York Giants

CB Dunta Robinson- Costless Agent

We Say Hello:

DE Vance Walker- Oakland Raiders

LB Joe Mays- Houston Texans

RG Jeff Linkenbach- Indianapolis Colts

CB Chris Owens- Cleveland Browns

WR Kyle Williams- San Francisco 49ers

2014 Draft Picks:

Round 1- DE Dee Ford Auburn

Round 2- None

Round 3- CB Phillip Gaines Rice

Round 4- RB De'Anthony Thomas Oregon

Round 5- QB Aaron Murray Georgia

Round 6- G Zack Fulton Tennessee

Round 6- T Laurent Duvernay-Tardif McGill

Round 7- None

2014 Outlook:

The Kansas City Chiefs surprised even those analysts who thought they were headed for a turnaround with how they performed through the first nine games of the season. The second half though was a far different story and their collapse in the wildcard game in Indianapolis after being ahead 38-10 in the second half hangs over them as they head into Week 1 against the Tennessee Titans.

The Chiefs suffered several defections via costless agency in the offseason that has weakened the team on both sides of the ball. The biggest costless agent loss was cornerback Brandon Flowers. Flowers defection to San Diego not only left a sizeable hole in the secondary, it plugged a hole in a division rivals defensive backfield. On the offensive side the loss of left tackle Brandon Albert, despite the fact he never lived up to his potential, still leaves an unknown and alot of questions at the most important position on the offensive line. Alex Smith just signed a contract extension but the Chiefs have an unproven Eric Fisher who struggled in his rookie season at right tackle to protect their quarterback's blindside.


Alex Smith #11 of the Kansas City Chiefs walks on the sideline during the game against the Minnesota Vikings at Arrowhead Stadium on August 23, 2014 in Kansas City, Missouri.
(August 22, 2014 - Source: Jamie Squire/Getty Images North America)

With holes in the offensive line, especially at left tackle, and a depleted secondary the Chiefs look to take a step back this year. Finishing third in the division and missing the playoffs is likely for the Chiefs in 2014. However, the Chiefs will be just one good offseason of impact acquisitions away from returning to contention in the AFC West.

Questions Going Into The Season:

What's Improved?

It's hard to find anything that has improved on a team that lost key players in the offseason without making any moves to replace them with equal or greater talent. The Chiefs go into the 2014 season with the same quarterback and set of receivers that were ranked in the mid 20's in offensive output. On defense the Chiefs are going with unproven or less talented replacements for their departed costless agents. But what the Chiefs do have going for them is Reid who has shown the ability to maximize the talent he has by game planning them into favorable situations that set them up for success. With a year under his belt, Reid understands the strengths and weaknesses of his players and will do all he can to set them up for success.

What's The Concern?

An offensive line dotted with unknowns, especially at left tackle, is a concern for any team who in this age of offensive football must keep their quarterback on his feet and costless from pressure long enough to get the pass off. Fisher, the Chiefs first round draft pick in 2013 at left tackle, was switched to right tackle during the season due to the presence of Brandon Albert. Fisher struggled in his rookie season while battling injuries. Now that Albert has left for Miami in costless agency, Fisher will get his first start at the position he was drafted for. However, Fisher is still an unproven commodity in the NFL at left tackle and has struggled in the preseason.


Outside linebacker Von Miller #58 of the Denver Broncos gets around the block of offensive tackle Eric Fisher #72 of the Kansas City Chiefs at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on November 17, 2013 in Denver, Colorado. The Broncos defeated the Chiefs 27-17.
(November 16, 2013 - Source: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images North America

It's going to be a test under fire for Albert in the AFC West. The division is filled with talented pass rushers who will be difficult for Albert to deal with in his first year. From Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware in Denver, to Melvin Ingram and Dwight Costlessney in San Diego, and Oakland's first round draft pick Khalil Mack who has been favorably compared to Miller.

Team MVP:

When you mention the Kansas City Chiefs one player comes to everyone's mind, running back Jamaal Charles. There hasn't been a player in recent years who has donned the red uniform of the Chiefs who has been as productive and has carried as much of the load than the 27 year old Charles who is in his sixth year with the team. Last year in 15 games he rushed 259 times for 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns plus he caught 70 passes out of the backfield for 693 yards and seven touchdowns.


Jamaal Charles #25 of the Kansas City Chiefs runs for a touchdown against the Oakland Raiders at O.co Coliseum on December 15, 2013 in Oakland, California.
(December 14, 2013 - Source: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images North America)

It's Charles who makes the offense go. His ability to make nothing into something has perplexed opposing defenses and put the target on his back. With so much attention being placed on the running back, it opens up other opportunities on the field for Smith and his receivers. Take Charles out of the equation and the Chiefs offense would be dead on arrival.

4. Oakland Raiders

General Manager: Reggie McKenzie

Head Coach: Dennis Allen

Last Season: 4-12, fourth in the AFC West.

Playoffs: None

2013 Review:

In year two under the leadership of general manager Reggie McKenzie and head coach Dennis Allen, the Oakland Raiders once again finished with a record of 4-12. 2013 marked the franchise's 11th straight non-winning season and 11th straight year without a playoff appearance since their 48-21 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl XXXVII.


Head coach Dennis Allen of the Oakland Raiders on the sideline during the preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks at O.co Coliseum on August 28, 2014 in Oakland, California.
(August 27, 2014 - Source: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images North America)

The 2013 season was marked by another year of multiple quarterbacks playing horrible football. Trapped by the sins of the father (failing drafts and bad costless agent signings), Mark Davis has been handcuffed by more than $50 million in dead money on the books and unable to sign any costless agents who could make an impact. Davis' choice to restore the Raiders to their former glory, McKenzie has had to ride out the bad contracts in 2012 and 2013 while putting on the field a team lacking in talent. McKenzie also had to keep convincing the owner to ignore the inherited impulse to fire his front office and head coach and stay the course.

2014 Offseason:

They Say Goodbye:

QB Terrelle Pryor- Seattle Seahawks

RB Rashad Jennings- New York Giants

WR Jacoby Ford- New York Jets

LT Jared Veldheer- Arizona Cardinals

LG Mike Brisiel- Retired

OL Andre Gurode- Costless Agent

RT Tony Pashos- Costless Agent

DE Lamarr Houston- Chicago Bears

DT Vance Walker- Kansas City Chiefs

CB Philip Adams- Seattle Seahawks

CB Mike Jenkins- Tampa Bay Buccaneers

CB Tracy Porter- Washington Redskins

DE Jason Hunter- Costless Agent

We Say Hello:

RB Kory Sheets- Saskatchewan Rough Riders

RT Austin Howard- New York Jets

DE Justin Tuck- New York Giants

LB LaMarr Woodley- Pittsburgh Steelers

CB Tarell Brown- San Francisco 49ers

DE Antonio Smith- Houston Texans

WR James Jones- Green Bay Packers

OG Kevin Boothe- New York Giants

LT Donald Penn- Tampa Bay Buccaneers

QB Matt Schaub- Houston Texans

CB Carlos Rogers- San Francisco 49ers

RB Maurice Jones Drew- Jacksonville Jaguars

DL C.J. Wilson- Green Bay Packers

WR Greg Little- Cleveland Browns

2014 Draft Picks:

Round 1- LB Khalil Mack Buffalo

Round 2- QB Derek Carr Fresno St

Round 3- LG Gabe Jackson Mississippi St

Round 4- DT Justin Ellis Louisiana Tech

Round 5- No Pick

Round 6- No Pick

Round 7- CB TJ Carrie Ohio

Round 7- DL Shelby Harris Illinois St

Round 7- S Jonathan Dowling Western Kentucky

2014 Outlook:

With the end of the 2013 season came the removal of much of the bad money weighing down the payroll. McKenzie headed into the offseason with $64 million in cap space, by far the largest of any team in the NFL Armed with that much cap space you would think the Raiders would have the pick of the litter. But with an uncertain stadium situation (LA Raiders or San Antonio Raiders anyone?) and the worst reputation of any franchise in the NFL, the Raiders found themselves hamstrung a bit during the 2014 costless agency period.

Wanting to build through the draft, McKenzie is facing pressure from an increasingly impatient Davis to fill holes quicker. McKenzie has had to patchwork the roster with mid-tier costless agents who won't change the course of the franchise in one season. He did pick up a talented pass rushing linebacker by the name of Khalil Mack out of Buffalo in the first round. Mack is often compared to the Broncos' Von Miller and he has the ability to give the Raiders a credible pass rushing threat. The Raiders have also taken another shot at their quarterback of the future with the drafting of Derek Carr in the second round from Fresno State. Matt Schaub will start the season at quarterback but if he reverts back to the 2013 Houston Texans version of Schaub, the Raiders' future will be now.


Quarterback Derek Carr #4 of the Oakland Raiders passes the ball against the Seattle Seahawks during a preseason game at O.co Coliseum on August 28, 2014 in Oakland, California.
(August 27, 2014 - Source: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images North America

2014 will be a better season for the Raiders, but not by much. It would take the Chiefs experiencing another season like 2012 in order for the Raiders to climb out of the cellar in the AFC West.

What's Improved?

It's hard to find one area of the team that has improved more than the other. Over the last few seasons the Raiders' roster has looked like one giant slice of swiss cheese. Due to budget constraints the Raiders had to plug holes with players who were either past their prime or mid-level costless agents who would be reserves on other teams but were thrusted into starting positions on the Raiders. But if you have to narrow down to just one area where the 2014 Raiders have improved it would be in the pass rush with rookie first round draft choice Khalil Mack.


Khalil Mack #52 of the Oakland Raiders warms up prior to a preseason game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on August 22, 2014 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
(August 22, 2014 - Source: John Konstantaras/Getty Images North America)

The 2013 MAC Defensive Player of the Year has all the tools to be a dominant pass rusher in the NFL for many years to come. Considered more polished than the Texans' Jadeveon Clowney, the only question regarding Mack is how quickly he can adjust to the play of NFL offensive linemen.

Biggest Concern?

Unlike the difficulty in finding an area of biggest improvement, it isn't hard to find an area of concern on the Raiders' roster. Right now the biggest concern for the Raiders and their future chances of righting the ship lies at the feet of owner Mark Davis. He hired Reggie McKenzie and Dennis Allen because he felt they were the right people to restore the Raiders' brand of excellence in football. If Davis becomes impatient with the progress of the Raiders and decides to tear a page out of his father's playbook and fire both of them, the franchise will be pushed back into the wilderness of professional football with no clear path out. Whatever the plan, it's going to take sometime to fix the mess it took years to create.

Team MVP:

When a team has been as bad as the Raiders have been for as long as they have been, they are clearly devoid of an MVP-caliber player. If 2014 is the season that the Raiders' franchise finally begins to turn in the right direction, a player will emerge who will clearly deserve to be called MVP.

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