1) San Diego Chargers
(2008 Record: 8-8, 1st place)
Talk about a coming out party. The Chargers may have snuck into the playoffs, but it wasn’t due to a poor year by Philip Rivers. In his third year as starter, Rivers exploded for 4,000 yards passing (5th in NFL), 34 TDs (franchise best and tied for 1st with Brees), and an NFL leading 105.5 QB rating. He’s 25-7 as a starter and, get this, 15-1 at home. Those are some stats. Rivers isn’t going to repeat those numbers for a couple of reasons. One, it’s hard enough to do that once in a career, much less two in a row. Second, he’s got a pretty tough schedule this season; matchups won’t be as favorable. He’ll still be good; just not THAT good……….Though he started every game yet again, LaDainian Tomlinson put up the most disappointing numbers of his career. He’s on the wrong side of 30 and is coming off pretty bad groin and turf toe injuries. I think a repeat of his ’08 numbers is the likely outcome, but I would lean far more to a decline than a return to 1,500 yards rushing. Surprising many, the Chargers franchised Tomlinson’s backfield mate Darren Sproles, the guy who stepped in for an injured LT and put up 100 yds and 2 TD in a Wild Card win against the Colts. He followed that up with 91 receiving yards and TD in a loss to eventual champion Pittsburgh. Whether or not LT is in a decline, Sproles earned himself more playing time in ’09. The Chargers didn’t franchise him to sit on the sidelines……….Vincent Jackson has emerged as a reliable #1 receiver; finishing last year with over 1,000 yards and seven scores. I look for his numbers to continue a steady rise this year. Opposite him is uninspiring Chris Chambers. I don’t care much for the depth of Malcolm Floyd, Buster Davis, and Legedu Naanee, making Rivers’ ’08 numbers even more impressive. Antonio Gates fought through multiple injuries last year and finished with a “disappointing” 60 catches and 8 scores. He’s healthy this season, and I expect him to get back to the 70-80 reception mark and double digit scores……….Massive Marcus McNeil anchors the offensive line. In three years as a pro, McNeil has been invited to two Pro Bowls. I’m calling for a 3rd in 4 years in ’09. He’s a top notch pass blocker. Opposite him is physical RT Jeromey Clary. He holds his own in the run game, but in a perfect world, the Chargers would have a better option here. Kris Dielman is a real scrapper, hard-nosed LG who has appeared in the last two Pro Bowls. He stands out amongst this group. With Mike Goff heading to Kansas City, Kynan Forney, a free agent I liked as a backup for the Bucs, starts at RG. He’s experienced, but he wasn’t starting for a reason. Nick Hardwick is a center with a lot of tattoos. He’s always a candidate to miss a few games, but they’re noticeably better with him in the lineup.
Even at 33 years of age, Jamal Williams is a beast at NT. They’re going to need him to continue occupying multiple blockers every play if the ends perform as I expect them too. Luis Castillo is in the second year of a huge deal, and the Chargers need better production out of him. On the other side, Ryon Bingham replaces Igor Olshansky, and I think that’s a noticeable step back. (ADDED) After I initially wrote this, the Chargers traded for Travis Johnson, the NT from Houston. I know Johnson wasn’t the most disciplined player on the Texans, but he’s a run stopper. To get him for a 5th round pick is a steal. He’s not going to start over Jamal Williams, but don’t be surprised to see him playing a lot at end……….Defensive leader Shawne Merriman returns after missing the ’08 season with PCL and LCL knee injuries. He went against medical advice and tried to play with a knee brace, but that didn’t last long as he ended up hurting himself even more. Merriman was shut down only after one game last season but is reportedly back to full strength. He’s been held back so far this preseason, and it might take him some time to get going. Stay tuned. He’s not the entire defense, but history has been as he goes, they go. Although he’s not expected to make an immediate impact unless Merriman is slow to recover, 1st round pick Larry English will be sprinkled in here and there as a pass rusher. ’08 team sack leader Shaun Phillips mans the other OLB spot and would benefit greatly from a healthy Merriman. He’s an ideal 3-4 LB and always seems to be in the right spot at the right time. Stephen Cooper is a big stopper in the middle, and lining up next to him is free agent signee from Dallas, Kevin Burnett. He and Tim Dobbins figure to split time at that spot……….At corner, Antonio Cromartie can sure make some plays, but he’ll never be the best cover man in the league. That showed last year when he was burned frequently for long plays. Quentin Jammer is a steady vet, and second year man Antonie Cason is ready to (and will) see more of the field in ’09. Eric Weddle covers a lot of ground at safety, but Chargers need to get more out of Clinton Hart at SS.
Even with their questions, the Chargers are far and away the top team in the West as we start the season. Anything less than a division title would be a huge disappointment.
2) Denver Broncos
(2008 Record: 8-8, 2nd place, lost tiebreaker with SD)
Second place might be generous the way the Josh McDaniels era has started in Denver. Gone is franchise QB Jay Cutler, and in his place is the underwhelming Kyle Orton. I’m not sure Orton was as bad as his Chicago tenure appeared, but there is a noticeable drop off between the two QBs. Orton started out this preseason on a poor note, throwing 3 INT vs. the 49ers, but he looked better in his next outing against Seattle. He’s the unquestioned starter, and #2 Chris Simms is dealing with an injured ankle. Big drop off in QB production for the Broncos this year……….Denver’s backfield was cursed last season as Michael Pittman (8 games; neck), Peyton Hillis (3 games; hamstring), Selvin Young (8 games; neck), Andre Hall (8 games; wrist and neck), PJ Pope (torn hamstring in week 16), and Ryan Torain (14 games; knees) all went down with injuries. Hoping to avoid that curse are three backfield additions, Knowshon Moreno, Correll Buckhalter, and LaMont Jordan. Moreno’s the electric rookie who should see the majority of the touches, but Buckhalter and especially Hillis figure to see time too. The coaching staff really likes Hillis, and that’s not surprising considering Hillis’ workman-like effort. If Jordan can get/stay healthy, he could earn the short yardage touches. While Moreno figures to be the biggest producer at RB, I expect Hillis to be the next biggest backfield factor……….Their #1 receiver wants to follow Jay Cutler’s lead and get out of dodge, but the Broncos apparently aren’t budging. Marshall has yet to develop any chemistry with Orton and admits he doesn’t have a decent handle on the playbook. Oh, and he’s been suspended for the rest of the preseason, at least. This could get REALLY nasty. Eddie Royal looks build upon his impressive rookie season, though it will be hard to top his 91 catches and 980 yards with Orton under center. WRs with big first seasons typically struggle to repeat the feat, but Marshall’s absence will help him keep his targets up. Brandon Stokley’s still here and looks to be McDaniels’ poor-man’s Welker. Jabar Gaffney gives them better depth than Darrell Jackson did last year, but he’s going to miss at least a couple of weeks in the regular season with a broken thumb. Another Gator and ex-Pat Chad Jackson is in the mix as well. I’m expecting TE Tony Scheffler’s production continue its descent……….A first-rate offensive line has two truly reliable bookends in Ryan Clady and Ryan Harris. Clady had a phenomenal rookie season, allowing a meager ½ sack on the season. Mark it down. He’ll make the Pro Bowl this year and establish himself as a longtime stud. Harris would be the best tackle on a number of teams in this league. His strength is in pass blocking, but he could use some improvement in the run game. Lifetime Bronco Ben Hamilton returns at LG forming a formidable left side with Clady. He’s under 290 pounds, so his technical mastery is self evident. Chris Kuper might be the least know guy along Denver’s OL, but the RG was the only guard in the NFL to not allow a sack last year. At 36 and coming off his first Pro Bowl, center Casey Wiegmann is winding down a tremendous career. The dude hasn’t missed a single snap since 2001 and is a smallish, technical lineman like Hamilton. Their line is enviable.
On defense, the Broncos are shifting to a 3-4 scheme, and I don’t like a lot of the personnel fits. They got Ronald Fields in free agency from San Francisco which was a good move, but ends Ryan McBean and Kenny Peterson are both better suited at the back end of a rotation. Marcus Thomas will see the field too……….At LB, DJ Williams is the best of a promising bunch. He’s played both inside and outside and should transition well to a 3-4 ILB spot. Next to him is steady free agent signing Andra Davis. He simply makes tackles. Last year’s leading (tied) sacker Elvis Dumervil is learning a new position at one of the outside spots. It will be a work in progress, but he has the quicks to be a pass rushing threat at LB. First round pick Robert Ayers has an unimpeded path to the other starting OLB spot. Going off his collegiate production, I thought he was overhyped going into the draft. He’s really strong, but I’m hesitant to think he’s going to be a legitimate pass rushing threat. Huge draft bust Jarvis Moss needs to decide whether or not he wants to play football……….Champ Bailey didn’t play at least 14 games for the first time in his career (played in 9) due to groin and elbow injuries, but if healthy, he’s still among the league’s best. Andre Goodman was brought in from Miami to man the other side, and the Broncos traded next year’s first rounder in order to draft Alphonso Smith. Goodman will get thrown on a lot playing across from Bailey, and while he’s not Champ, he’s not chump either (lame but I had to do it). Smith gives them an instant solid 3rd corner who should be pushing to start next year. They also made two additions at the safety position, with Eagles vet Brian Dawkins and former Dolphin Renaldo Hill. To say Denver’s ’08 defense was awful would be doing a disservice to the word awful. They’re a work in progress, but there are better parts in place this year.
If the Raiders and Chiefs are as bad as I expect them to be, the Broncos should do enough to finish a distant second to San Diego.
3) Oakland Raiders
(2008 Record: 5-11, 3rd place)
There’s no way I’m going to predict a breakout season for JaMarcus Russell, but he did put up a few decent games at the end of the season. Now he needs to build upon that and start showing some of the potential that made him a former #1 pick. His receiving options aren’t the best in the game, but top picks should be able to lift the play of those around them. Backing up Russell is former Buc QB Jeff Garcia. Old twinkle toes joins the Raiders in his second West Coast stint and gives the Raiders a serviceable (being generous) backup. He shouldn’t be starting, but at this point, I don’t see a significant drop off from Russell to Garcia. That says more about Russell than it does about Garcia. Bruce Gradkowski is there too, at least for another couple of days………. In typical Raider fashion, they’re being as confusing as possible regarding the pecking order of runners. Justin Fargas is a tough team player, but I think he’s better as a complimentary player. You’ve got to think that Darren McFadden will see the most touches on offense. He was their top pick last year, and he’s their most explosive offensive weapon. He’ll need to be watched carefully after spending most of ’08 dealing with a nagging turf toe injury and then undergoing offseason shoulder surgery. Michael Bush could start on a team or two in this league, and for now he seems to be limited to short yardage situations……….Chaz Schilens was looking like a real receiving threat this preseason until he broke a bone in his foot. He’ll miss at least the first couple weeks of the year. Al Davis will want to get 7th overall pick Darrius Heyward-Bey in the lineup early, but he’s already dealing with hamstring issues and isn’t even the best rookie in camp. That honor goes to Louis Murphy, their 4th round pick in this year’s draft. He’s a well-rounded, overlooked receiver who I like for his ability to get the optimal yards after the catch. Javon Walker figures to get looks, but he’s missed half his team’s games the last two years. With his lingering knee issues, expectations will/should be low. Johnnie Lee Higgins can get deep, but he’s only caught 28 passes in 2 seasons. Fortunately for Russell, he has Zach Miller to work the middle of the field. The young tight end was clearly Russell’s favorite target in ‘08, and that shouldn’t change this year. A healthy Schilens should make life even easier for Miller……….Robert Gallery seems to have found a home at left guard. His lack of athleticism and propensity for the silly blunders necessitated that move. Even though he’s probably not what they had hoped to get with the 2nd pick in the ’04 draft, at least he’s good at something. Khalif Barnes was brought in from Jacksonville to man the spot to Gallery’s left, but unfortunately he’s likely to miss a couple games with a broken ankle. He’s only a serviceable starter at this point in his career anyways. The Raiders certainly are not better off with center Jake Grove moving on to Miami. John Wade is a huge drop off in production. The remaining starters, Cooper Carlisle (RG) and Cornell Green (RT) are backups at best. Carlisle is an undersized prototypical ZBS guard and a seasoned veteran. Green might be the worst starting tackle in the game.
Greg Ellis was brought over from Dallas to play one end, and it looks like underrated second year man Trevor Scott will man the other spot. They traded disgruntled Derrick Burgess to the Patriots, so there’s not a lot of depth inside. Tommy Kelly and Gerard Warren return at tackles, as does idiot Terdell Sands for now. Sands is a disappointing tackle that probably won’t make the final roster. You know he’s bad when/if William Joseph makes the team over him……….Kirk Morrison and Thomas Howard are two defensive bright spots, as both are amongst the best in the conference at their positions inside and outside respectively. Jon Alston is slated to be the SLB, and Ricky Brown gives them a versatile backup backer who can play inside and the Sam……….The Raiders return the best cover man in the game, Nnamdi Asomugha, recipient of a new 3 year deal. Opposite him is Chris Johnson, a guy I think is a bit underrated. That’s not hard to have happen when he’s got Nnamdi on the other side. Guess who teams are going to throw on? Al Davis slipped a disc reaching for safety Michael Mitchell in this year’s draft, which might mean the beginning of the end for the disappointing Michael Huff. Tyvon Branch and Hiram Eugene are two dependable pieces as the back of the defense, but Mitchell will see the field often this year.
It should be another long year for the boys in black, but is anyone surprised? I think they’re only going to go as far as JaMarcus Russell and their rush defense allows.
4) Kansas City Chiefs
(2008 Record: 2-14, 4th place, worst record in the AFC)
Look up rebuilding in the dictionary, and you’re sure to see KC’s logo. Gone is All Pro fixture Tony Gonzalez, and in are new head coach Todd Haley and GM Scott Pioli. Haley focuses on talent more than a particular coaching philosophy, but he’s got the psychology thing working. His first order of business was to challenge top receiver Dwayne Bowe, sending through him a message to the rest of the team that everyone is going to be held accountable. Matt Cassel parlayed last year’s starting opportunity into a deal of a lifetime. He went from lifetime backup to the recipient of a 6 year $63 million deal. Randy Moss and Wes Welker stayed back in New England, and with Gonzalez now catching passes from Matt Ryan, it’s going to be noticeably tougher for Cassel to repeat last year’s success. Things might not start as expected, as Cassel went down with a knee injury the other night and might miss the first game of the season……….Haley will put Cassel in the best position to be successful, and he’s going to have to work pretty hard at it seeing as how Devard Darling, Bobby Engram, Mark Bradley, Amani Toomer, and Ashley Lelie are the receivers behind Bowe. Bradley might be the worst #2 in the game, and Bobby Engram isn’t anything more than a #3 at best at this stage of his career. He’s had a really nice career, but the dude is 36. Bowe was 6th in the AFC with 86 receptions last year, and in Todd Haley’s new offense, those numbers should only go up. The lack of receiving talent around him won’t help, but I think the Chiefs are going to work away from that weakness by featuring quick strikes and taking advantage of mismatches. Bowe’s the best weapon they have, and they’ll lean heavily on him. I expect him to prove that ’08 wasn’t a fluke and that he’s locked in as one of the AFC’s best pass catchers for the foreseeable future. At TE, Brad Cottam is no Tony Gonzalez……….Larry Johnson is still here, for now, and he’ll be given a shot at keeping the starting RB job. Something tells me that he’s going to butt heads with Haley at least once this season. The curse of 370 seems to have gotten Johnson as he’s had two forgettable seasons after a 416 carry year in ’06. Jamaal Charles gives the Chiefs a real change of pace out of the backfield, and I think they’re going to count on him a lot given their lack of explosive players. I’m anxious to see how he does if Johnson loses time or his roster spot. 7th rounder Javarris Williams from Tennessee State figures to be the 3rd back on the depth chart……….When the Chiefs run, they’re likely to go left most of the time, behind second year tackle Branden Albert and veteran guard Brian Waters. Albert is a very intelligent blocker with good hand technique and quick feet. His pass blocking could use some improvement. Waters reportedly isn’t a happy camper, but he’s the epitome of Chief consistency, having missed only 2 starts since ’02. He’s still one of the best in the business. Adding Mike Goff at RG helps, but he’s well on the wrong side of 30 and has never been that great of a pass blocker. Rudy Niswanger and Damion McIntosh return at C and RT respectively, and both rank near the bottom of the league at their position.
The Chiefs are yet another team switching to a 3-4 defense, and one of Pioli’s first moves was to bring over veteran LB Mike Vrabel from New England. He’s versatile enough to play in or out, and he’ll start outside for the Chiefs. Opposite him is Tamba Hali, a DE making the transition to a stand up rusher. I’ve got to think he’ll spend most of his time close to the line of scrimmage because I don’t like him in space. Keep an eye on his progress. Derrick Johnson needs to step it up a bit. In the new defense, Johnson will move inside to one of the ILB spots where he’ll get a chance to make a lot of tackles. He might not have Zach Thomas lining up next to him, because the longtime vet has been rumored to be an injury-related cut. That’s yet to happen, so we’ll continue assuming he’s going to be in the lineup ……….Up front, the Chiefs spent their first two draft picks on Tyson Jackson and Alex Magee. Jackson is going to be counted on to make a quick impact at one DE spot, and draft disappointment Glenn Dorsey gets a chance to start over at the other end position. Inside, veteran Ron Edwards has the edge over big Tank Tyler as the starting NT..........Brandon Flowers had quite an impressive rookie season, starting 13 games at right corner. Even more impressive was fellow rookie 5th round selection Brandon Carr holding down the left corner job from game 1 through game 16. Rounding out the threesome of last year’s dynamite rookie corners is nickel man Maurice Leggett. The certainly didn’t need any immediate help at the position, but 4th round pick Donald Washington is nice depth. Bernard Pollard and Jarrad Page aren’t spectacular, but they provide the Chiefs with dependable deep men.
It’s going to be a rough year in Kansas City, and everyone knows it. Laying the foundation of a contender and making it through the season with as few injuries as possible would be a winning season as far as the Chiefs are concerned. I think the Raiders will have to work pretty damn hard to finish behind these guys.
MVP – Philip Rivers
Offensive POY – Dwayne Bowe
Defensive POY – Nnamdi Asomugha
Rookie of the Year – Knowshon Moreno