1) San Diego Chargers
(9-7, 2nd in ’10)
Key Gets – Takeo Spikes (LB, 49ers), Corey Liuget (DL, Illinois), Marcus Gilchrist (DB, Clemson), Vincent Brown (WR, SD State), Jordan Todman, RB, Connecticut)
Key Gones – Darren Sproles (RB, Saints)
Key Games – wk2 @ Patriots, wk3 v. Chiefs, wk7 @ Jets, wk8 @ Chiefs, wk9 v. Packers, wk 11 @ Bears, wk15 v. Ravens
Last year, for the first time in five seasons and the first time under Norv Turner, the Chargers missed the playoffs. A lot was expected from rookie runner Ryan Mathews, but his first year was widely considered a disappointment. Pro Bowl tackle Marcus McNeill held out for the first quarter of the year. Vincent Jackson sat out a little longer and got hurt when he did return. Future HOF’er Antonio Gates missed six games with plantar fasciitis, something he’s still dealing with this preseason. Oh, and their special teams play was some of the worst in the history of the game. Despite all that, Philip Rivers put up some of the best numbers of his career. With no one holding out, Gates good to go, and Mathews having a year under his belt, the offense should be as good as ever. The former Fresno fleet footer still hasn’t separated himself from Tolbert, so it looks like those two will split the load again. Keep an eye on Vincent Brown too. He won’t see the ball a ton unless injuries pile up, but I like him to emerge as their third receiver. On defense the Chargers have to make up for a huge off field loss; Ron Rivera leaving to take the head job in Carolina. Spikes is a good get at linebacker to go with solid vets Stephen Cooper and Shaun Phillips. San Diego really needs Larry English to contribute this year, and I still think he can be a player. I like Liuget’s potential as a disruptive 3-4 end and think he compliments Luis Castillo well. NT Antonio Garay had one of the most quietly productive performances in the league last year. It’s a good defense that doesn’t have to be great to win the division. It’s the playoffs where they get hurt against potent offensive attacks. Richard Bisaccia, brought in from Tampa to take over special teams, was a key add as well.
If the Chargers can get off to a good start for a change, I can’t see the Chiefs hanging with them over the course of an entire season.
Team MVP – Philip Rivers
Breakout Player – Larry English
Disappointment – Ryan Mathews
2) Kansas City Chiefs
(10-6, 1st in ’10)
Key Gets – Steve Breaston (WR, Cardinals), Jared Gaither (OL, Ravens), Le’Ron McClain (RB, Ravens), Kelly Gregg (DL, Ravens), Brandon Siler (LB, Chargers), Jonathan Baldwin (WR, Pittsburgh), Rodney Hudson (OL, FSU), Justin Houston (DE/OLB, Georgia), Allen Bailey (DL, Miami), Jalil Brown (CB, Colorado)
Key Gones – Mike Vrabel (LB, retired), Brian Waters (OL, free agent)
Key Games – wk3 @ Chargers, wk5 @ Colts, wk8 v. Chargers, wk11 @ Patriots, wk12 v. Steelers, wk13 @ Bears, wk14 @ Jets, wk15 v. Packers
The Chiefs were a surprise team last year, making the playoffs for the first time since ’06. Matt Cassel isn’t going to win many games with his arm, but his 27-7 TD-INT ratio and improved game management skills helped win games. Jamaal Charles is the best player on this offense; yet another guy who has proven that you don’t need to be 6-0, 215 to be a lead back in the league. He’s one of the more versatile and dynamic players in the game who should threaten 2,000 total yards this year. I’d love to see Dwayne Bowe on the receiving end of a real QB’s passes, but maybe the additions of Breaston and Jonathan “please don’t beat my ass” Baldwin, along with the continued development of second year TE Tony Moeaki, will free him up to make more plays each and every week. As good as Bowe’s ’10 season was (72 receptions, 1,162 yards, 15 TDs), he only caught more than 3 passes in 8 of 16 games. As their best downfield playmaker, they need to find a way to get the ball in his hands on a consistent basis. Tamba Hali had a career year last season with 14.5 sacks, adjusting just find to life as a 3-4 pass rushing linebacker. Eric Berry was a stud last year, particularly late, and I think he’ll be viewed as one of the top 3 safeties in the game after this season. Hali and Berry will again be KC’s best defensive players. The Chiefs may possess the most underrated pair of starting corners in Brandon Flowers and Brandon Carr. Neither (especially Carr) gets the recognition he deserves. Gregg is old, but he’s the best nose they’ve had since moving to a 3-4. Glenn Dorsey had a better ’10, especially against the run. If Tyson Jackson can figure it out, this defense could take some pressure off a low octane offense.
I’m not a big Todd Haley fan and can’t see these guys putting it together for a second consecutive season.
Team MVP – Jamaal Charles
Breakout Player – Eric Berry
Disappointment – Matt Cassel
3) Oakland Raiders
(8-8, 3rd in ’10)
Key Gets – Kevin Boss (TE, Giants), Stefen Wisniewski (OL, Penn State), Demarcus Van Dyke (CB, Miami), Joseph Barksdale (OL, LSU), Chimdi Chekwa (CB, Ohio State), Taiwan Jones (RB, Eastern Washington)
Key Gones – Nnamdi Asomugha (CB, Raiders), Zach Miller (TE, Seahawks), Robert Gallery (OL, Seahawks), Bruce Gradkowski (QB, Bengals)
Key Games – wk3 v. Jets, wk4 v. Patriots, wk5 @ Texans, wk7 v. Chiefs, wk10 @ Chargers, wk12 v. Bears, wk14 @ Packers, wk16 @ Chiefs, wk17 v. Chargers
So it continues for Oakland. Last season, like the previous seven, wasn’t a winning one for the Raiders. At least they hit the .500 mark last year (a three win improvement upon ’09). For that Tom Cable lost his job. Also lost is their best player, Nnamdi Asomugha, the free agent corner who bolted for Philly. There’s key talent in place on that side of the ball, namely Rolando McClain, Kamerion Wimbley, Lamarr Houston, and Stanford Routt, but you don’t replace Asomugha overnight. Routt is being paid like a top cover man, but I’m not sure he’s quite ready for prime time just yet. Wimbley and Houston are young defensive line building blocks, and McClain proved to be a great investment last season; already looks like a veteran. I’m as high on him as I was over a year ago when I wanted the Bucs to take him over plan B (Ndamukong Suh unavailable). Jason Campbell is one of those QBs who sits just outside the craptastic category of passers comfortably in the land of mediocrity. He inspires zero confidence, and I’ve given up on him being a real offensive leader. The team’s leading receiver, TE Zach Miller, bolted for Seattle, so they’re left with a bunch of question marks vying for targets. Jacoby Ford is the most accomplished receiver on the roster, and Darrius Heyward-Bey is starting more so because of the investment in him rather than his talent. The guy to watch out for is Darius Moore, the rookie from Tennessee who’s had an electric camp. The best players on offense are in the backfield, and if he could ever stay healthy for a full season, Darren McFadden is going to put up 2,000 total yards. The offense is being tailored to better exploit his strengths this offseason, so another injury will be the only thing holding him back. Michael Bush could likely start elsewhere and makes a fine compliment to McFadden.
I think another .500 season is about as good as they can hope for.
Team MVP – Darren McFadden
Breakout Player – Lamarr Houston
Disappointment – Richard Seymour
4) Denver Broncos
(4-12, 4th in ’10)
Key Gets – Willis McGahee (RB, Ravens), Brodrick Bunkley (DT, Eagles), Von Miller (DE/OLB, Texas A&M), Rahim Moore (S, UCLA), Nate Irving (LB, NC State), Quinton Carter (S, Oklahoma), Virgil Green (TE, Nevada)
Key Gones – Correll Buckhalter (RB, free agent), Jabar Gaffney (WR, Redskins), Ryan Harris (OL, Eagles)
Key Games – wk4 @ Packers, wk5 v. Chargers, wk10 @ Chiefs, wk11 v. Jets, wk12 @ Chargers, wk14 v. Bears, wk15 v. Patriots, wk17 v. Chiefs
Have a seat Timmy. Kyle Orton’s not leaving. In a non-move that doesn’t make a ton of sense, the Broncos decided to hold onto the veteran passer. You’d think a team that hasn’t made the playoffs for five seasons and has been pretty much eliminated before this one even starts would like to see what they’ve got in Tebow or even Brady Quinn. Brandon Lloyd resurrected his career in ’10 with his best season by far, finally turning potential into reality, but I think his numbers regress again with the change from air it out Josh McDaniels to a run run run John Fox. With Gaffney off to DC and no additions at the position, Eddie Royal needs to recapture some of that rookie year magic to give this offense a chance. Forgotten Eric Decker will make some noise too. Fox is going to want a strong run game, but I’m not sure the pieces are in place to recreate what he had in Carolina. I don’t think Knowshon Moreno is a fit as the primary ball carrier, and McGahee is a temporary patch. Still, feed them enough, and they’ll get their yards. That leads to the OL, a unit that, aside from LT Ryan Clady, is full of questions. On the other side of the ball, a defensive line in need of a talent infusion, was disappointingly neglected. I guess they’re banking on Elvis Dumervil picking up where he left off pre-injury and Robert Ayers figuring out the professional game. I’ve mentioned my concerns about rookie Von Miller’s ability to be a complete player as a pro, but I’m intrigued to see how he does as a 4-3 SLB in Denver’s system. No matter where he lines up, I expect him to get the QB more than any other rookie pass rusher. The secondary could use some youth (Champ Bailey 33, Andre Goodman 33, Brian Dawkins 38), but Denver’s swung and missed (Alphonso Smith and Perrish Cox) at their last two attempts to get young at corner. Moore and Carter will help at safety. And yes, I’ll be tracking Nate Irving’s career very closely; absolutely love that dude.
I like the moves on defense, but the lack of any substantive switches on offense will lead to another disappointing season in Denver.
Team MVP – Knowshon Moreno
Breakout Player – Von Miller
Disappointment – Robert Ayers
1) San Diego Chargers
2) Kansas City Chiefs
3) Oakland Raiders
4) Denver Broncos
Division MVP – Philip Rivers
Division Breakout – Eric Berry
Division Disappointment – Matt Cassel