Sunday, September 2, 2012

2012 NFL Predictions - AFC West

1) Kansas City Chiefs

Key Gets – Peyton Hillis (RB, Browns), Kevin Boss (TE, Raiders), Dontari Poe (NT, Memphis), Jeff Allen (T, Illinois)

Key Gones – Brandon Carr (CB, Cowboys), Kyle Orton (QB, Cowboys)

Key Games – wk1 v. Falcons, wk2 @ Bills, wk3 @ Saints, wk4 v. Chargers, wk5 v. Ravens, wk8 v. Raiders, wk9 @ Chargers, wk10 @ Steelers, wk12 v. Broncos, wk15 @ Raiders, wk17 @ Broncos

Jamaal Charles’ season ended after twelve carries.  On his second tote in week two against the Lions, Charles went down with an ACL injury and missed the rest of the year.  Still, they managed to get seven wins with Thomas Jones starting eight games and Jackie battle starting four.  Charles is back and good to go, and the running game output should increase substantially.  I like Peyton Hillis as an insurance plan and as a pounder to wear on a defense after they chase Charles all over the field.  It doesn’t hurt that they’ll be running behind one of the game’s best set of blockers.  Branden Albert is among the league’s elite left tackles, and right tackle Eric Winston was a good get from the Texans and is a sizable upgrade over Barry Richardson.  Former Nole Rodney Hudson replaces Casey Wiegmann at center and will have one of the game’s most underrated guards to his right in Jos Asamoah.  Watch and see how many holes that guy opens up for Charles this year.  Dwayne Bowe is a stud who’d get a lot more love on a team with a real QB.  In a move that didn’t make a ton of sense to me, he sat out all of training camp after being tagged as the team’s franchise player.  Matt Cassel’s goal is to not lose football games, and when you’ve got that kind of QB it’s going to limit your offense’s ability to put up points on demand.  He’s the biggest question mark on this side of the football, and that’s not a good thing seeing as how he’s the QB. 

Former LSU Tigers Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson have come under harsh criticism for being draft busts; top five picks with paltry resumes.  They may not put up the flashy numbers that get you on the highlight shows, but both Dorsey and Jackson have turned into two terrific two-gap run defending ends.  They added another first round pick to the line this year in massive NT Dontari Poe which should mean good things for pass rushers like Tamba Hali and Justin Houston.  Hali had his second straight double digit sack season in ’11, but he’ll have to improve upon those numbers in just fifteen games due to his one game suspension for getting high.  Houston didn’t tally his first takedown until week 11, but he got three in that contest and another 2.5 more over the next four games.  I was a huge fan of Houston’s when he entered last year’s draft, and I look for him to take a big step forward this year as a key piece of this developing defense.   Derrick Johnson built upon an impressive 2010 season making the Pro Bowl last year after setting the team’s franchise record in tackles.  Having a young, consistent force like him in the middle of your defense is priceless.  The secondary took a hit with Brandon Carr’s free agent exodus, but in my opinion Brandon Flowers was the better Chiefs cover man.  Flowers is one of the best all-round corners in the game and with his new contract is a definite mainstay of this defense.  Stanford Routt was signed to replace Carr, and while Routt has been susceptible to giving up the big play, he’s gives the Chiefs a proven veteran across from Flowers.  The defense’s biggest boost will come in the form of a healthy Eric Berry.  The dynamite safety missed nearly all of last year after tearing his ACL in week 1, but look for him to return to the game changing force he proved himself to be as a rookie. His play will be huge.

In Charles and Berry the Chiefs are getting gamebreakers back on both sides of the ball.  That’s like two huge free agent signings. They’re one of the few teams in the league that looks like they can make strong strides in every area of the team.  Unfortunately, the biggest question is the guy who has his hands on the ball most.  If Cassel gets hot, these guys can reel off a serious win streak.  I realize I’m going out on a limb, but everyone else seems to have already handed this division to the Broncos. 

Team MVP – Jamaal Charles
Breakout Player – Justin Houston
Disappointment – Stanford Routt

2) Denver Broncos

Key Gets – Peyton Manning (QB, Colts), Andre Caldwell (WR, Bengals), Joel Dreessen (TE, Texans), Tracy Porter (CB, Saints), Derek Wolfe (DT, Cincinnati), Brock Osewiler (QB, Arizona State), Ronnie Hillman (RB, San Diego State)

Key Gones – Brodrick Bunkley (DT, Saints), Eddie Royal (WR, Chargers)

Key Games – wk1 v. Steelers, wk2 @ Falcons, wk3 v. Texans, wk4 v. Raiders, wk5 @ Patriots, wk6 @ Chargers, wk8 v. Saints, wk11 v. Chargers, wk12 @ Chiefs, wk14 @ Raiders, wk15 @ Ravens, wk17 v. Chiefs

What an “eventful” first year for John Fox in Denver.  The team started out 1-4 under Kyle Orton, and then Fox handed over the offense (a kid’s menu version) to Baby Jesus.  The team went 7-4 the rest of the way and won a memorable playoff game against the Steelers.  As good as the record was, anyone not drinking the Kool Aid will tell you that there was probably some divine intervention going on in some of those victories.  John Elway bit his tongue, and John Fox scaled down the offense as the sideshow rolled across the country.  But 2012 brings a new, welcomed circus to town. 

Out is Timmy, and in is one of the best players to ever line up behind center.  Peyton Manning takes over the Broncos offense after sitting out last season and undergoing four surgical procedures on his neck.  Fans should know to never underestimate Manning, but it would be a bit unrealistic to expect him to pick right up where he left off in 2010.  Still he’s an unquestioned upgrade at the position and has settled nicely in the city Elway built.  In Denver, Manning has two very talented young receivers at his disposal.  Demaryius Thomas showcased his elite athleticism catching passes in a basic high school offense, and Eric Decker could be an exceptional possession receiver for Peyton.  Jacob Tamme also made the jump from Indy and will likely be Manning’s favorite target in the middle of the field.  Last year Willis McGahee showed he still has quite a bit left in the tank.  Grinding out his first 1,000 yard season since 2007, McGahee proved to be the lead runner Fox was seeking.  His role should change a bit given the change in offensive style, but he’s proven to still be a capable starter.  The offensive line likely won’t be featured in any instructional videos, but Manning has played quite well behind a sieve-like line in the past.  Left tackle Ryan Clady is easily the class of the group.  I worry though about the three men in the middle and their ability to keep Manning upright. 

Last year’s #2 overall pick, Von Miller, didn’t waste any time in making a name for himself in the NFL.  The rookie tallied 11.5 sacks, made the Pro Bowl, and was a huge reason the Broncos were able to make the playoffs with an anemic offense.  DJ Williams has dumbassed himself into missing most of this season, so Wesley Woodyard will likely be the primary WLB.  They retained Joe Mays at MLB, but I’m surprised they’ve moved Nate Irving outside to be Miller’s backup.  Elvis Dumervil had to appreciate finally getting some help in the pass rush department with Miller’s big year.  The veteran added 9.5 sacks of his own in his return to the field after missing all of 2010 with a torn pectoral muscle.  Teams must now scheme to stop two explosive pass rushers, and in rookie defensive lineman Derek Wolfe they might have another early impact player.  Wolfe is pushing draft bust Robert Ayers for the other defensive end spot.  Ayers only got his old job back because Jason Hunter will mist most of the year with a torn triceps.  I think they’re going to miss run stopper Brodrick Bunkley in the middle.  Champ Bailey may be 34 years young, but he’s still better than most of the guys who play the position.  I could see him taking the Charles Woodson path eventually, playing some safety.  They get an upgrade across from him with Tracy Porter signed to replace Andre Goodman.  They have little to no depth though which will be worth monitoring throughout the year.  Also worth watching will be how Mike Adams does at strong safety replacing the retired Brian Dawkins. 

Is it reasonable to expect Peyton Manning to make it through a sixteen game season at this point?  More importantly, how long will it take him to get back into the flow of things and able to get the offense working as a cohesive unit?  I think they’ll push for a return to the postseason, but a slow start is possible. 

Team MVP – Peyton Manning
Breakout Player – Demaryius Thomas
Disappointment – Von Miller (guessing the sack count drops significantly)

3) San Diego Chargers

Key Gets –Jarret Johnson (LB, Ravens), Melvin Ingram (LB, South Carolina), Robert Meachem (WR, Saints), Eddie Royal (WR, Broncos), Kendall Reyes (DT, Connecticut), Ronnie Brown (RB, Eagles), Brandon Taylor (S, LSU)

Key Gones – Vincent Jackson (WR, Bucs), Mike Tolbert (RB, Panthers), Marcus McNeill (T, FA)

Key Games – wk1 @ Raiders, wk3 v. Falcons, wk4 @ Chiefs, wk5 @ Saints, wk6 v. Broncos, wk9 v. Chiefs, wk11 @ Broncos, wk12 v. Ravens, wk14 @ Steelers, wk16 @ Jets, wk17 v. Raiders

If you take out the span of games from October 23 to November 27 the Chargers were 8-2 last year.  Pretty good huh?  Too bad they went 0-6 in that October-November stretch to finish out of the playoffs for the second year in a row. 

Phillip Rivers had his worst season in years, completing less than 63% of his passes for the first time since 2007 and throwing a career high 20 INTs.  He’s not looking much better this preseason, and I think it’s definitely worth starting to worry about.  Speaking of worrying, Ryan Mathews is giving Charger fans plenty of reason to do so.  There were already concerns about his ability handle a full load, and then he breaks his collarbone in the preseason.  This year there’s no Mike Tolbert to turn to.  Mathews should be back by week 3, but will he stay healthy?  Antonio Gates has reportedly returned to full health and looks better than he has in years.  He was likely to be Rivers’ top target anyways, but Vincent Jackson leaving for Tampa plays in his favor as well.  Robert Meachem was signed to replace Jackson, but I’m not sold yet.  He’s never truly broken out, even in the explosive Saints’ offense.  Will it happen now?  They already had a huge loss with Vincent Brown suffering a fractured ankle, leaving his season in doubt.  They’d like to lean on free agent Eddie Royal, but he’s idled with a groin injury.  They’ve got two serviceable players on their offensive line – center Nick Hardwick and left tackle Jared Gaiter.  Everyone else is going to be making Rivers run for his life.  The retirement of left guard Kris Dielman is a big deal.  This weakness should be apparent. 

Talk about a turnabout.  In Ron Rivera’s final year as Bolts’ defensive coordinator, they were the #1 ranked overall team defense.  Last year they plummeted to one of the worst in the league; really weak defending the pass and getting after the passer.  They’re sturdy up front with Corey Liuget, Antonio Garay, and Vaughn Martin.  Liuget is easily the most talented of the bunch and should make a bigger impact in year two.  They’re starting to develop depth as well.  Aubrayo Franklin joins Cam Thomas behind Garay, and Kendall Reyes was drafted as a rotational end and has looked solid this preseason.  Fellow draft pick Melvin Ingram joins free agent addition Jarret Johnson at linebacker making a really strong combination across from the duo of Shaun Phillips and Antwan Barnes.  They’re a little more vulnerable on the inside with the veteran Takeo Spikes and Donald Butler.  On to the real problem.  Cornerback Quentin Jammer started showing his age last year, and Antoine Cason has been ordinary on the other side when able to keep his job away from the equally ordinary Marcus Gilchrist.  Eric Weddle is the only playmaker on the back end of the defense, and they’re going to have to lean on him more than ever. 

I had these guys in third prior to Ryan Mathews’ injury.  They haven’t had a sub .500 season since 2003, but I think that’s where they’re headed this year.  If they do indeed end up missing the playoffs for the third season in a row, I think the Norv Turner era will have met its end. 

Team MVP – Antonio Gates
Breakout Player – Corey Liuget
Disappointment – Robert Meachem

4) Oakland Raiders

Key Get – Ron Bartell (CB, Rams)

Key Gones – Michael Bush (RB, Bears), Kamerion Wimbley (LB, Titans), Jason Campbell (QB, Bears), Kevin Boss (TE, Chiefs), Stanford Routt (CB, Chiefs)

Key Games – wk1 v. Chargers, wk3 v. Steelers, wk4 @ Broncos, wk6 @ Falcons, wk8 @ Chiefs, wk10 @ Ravens, wk11 v. Saints, wk14 v. Broncos, wk15 v. Chiefs, wk17 @ Chargers

Not a lot went well for Oakland last year.  Raider nation was hit hard in October when the heart and soul of the organization, Al Davis died in October.  The Hue Jackson experiment was deemed a failure, and there was an serious overhaul from the top down, starting in the front office.  Will it pay off, and if so, how soon?

Was he really worth it?  Carson Palmer escaped Cincinnati, and it has cost the Raiders Dre Kirkpatrick…so far.  For a pick that became Kirkpatrick and next year’s 2nd rounder the Raiders received 13 TDs, 16 INTs, and about a 2 sack average in 9 games.  Is he really supposed to get any better this year?  He was showing signs of decline a few years ago in Cincinnati.  Injuries have commonplace with Darren McFadden, and last year was no different.  McFadden got off to a hot start last year, but went down with a serious foot injury and ended up missing more than half the season.  Michael Bush shined so well in his place that he landed a nice deal with the Bears.  Will Mike Goodson and Taiwan Jones be able to step up as Bush has if/when McFadden goes down again?  Denarius Moore is one of the most exciting young offensive players in the game.  He had more than his share of highlight reel plays last season and is going to be counted on a lot more this season.  Darrius Heyward-Bey broke out last year with career highs off the board.  They’ll need him to continue his development as they have no depth behind him and Moore.  New OC Greg Knapp is implementing a zone blocking system, and he’s always been a run-heavy guy.  Do they have enough horses up front?  Left tackle Jared Veldheer had a much better sophomore campaign, but right tackle Khalif Barnes should be an obvious weakness.  Stefen Wisniewski should be better off at center this year, moving over from left guard.  Right guard Mike Brisiel comes with zone scheme experience, as does left guard Cooper Carlisle.  The difference is Cooper has six years on Briesel and really shouldn’t be starting. 

Utterly disappointed.  That’s how I feel when I think about Rolando McClain.  The guy who was a leader at Alabama and a core of a developing Raider defense was handed a 180 day jail sentence for doing his best Aqib Talib impression.  Who knows what his future holds, but it certainly won’t be as bright as it could have been.  Kamerion Wimbley was the team’s best linebacker last year, and he’s now in Tennessee.  Quinton Groves stunk at the other outside spot and was replaced by Aaron Curry, another linebacker Oakland is about to give up on.  The Raiders were really bad against the run last year, giving up a franchise record and league high 5.1 yards per rush.  That’s bad on the surface, but it gets worse when you look at the names they’ve got up front – Tommy Kelly, Lamarr Houston, Desmond Bryant, John Henderson.  Richard Seymour made the Pro Bowl, so he’s excused.  They didn’t make any additions this offseason, so should the results be expected to change?  The secondary is scary and not in a good way.  Departed free agent Stanford Routt was their best corner, and he got burned like it was his job at times.  Routt is being replaced by Ron Bartell, a guy who’s coming off a major neck injury.  They’re young and inexperienced everywhere else.  That’s not a recipe for success when you’ve got to face Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers twice a year.

I see too many question marks to be optimistic about this team.  How long will McFadden last?  Will Palmer regress more?  How long with McClain remain a free man?

Team MVP – Darren McFadden
Breakout Player – Demarcus Van Dyke
Disappointment – Carson Palmer

Division MVP – Darren McFadden
Division Breakout Player – Demaryius Thomas
Division Disappointment – Carson Palmer

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