As I noted previously, we're getting close to the time when actual, meaningful football gets played in the Fall. Because of this I've spent some time analyzing all the teams in 2015 for both the NFL and College Football.
Part IV: The AFC West
Projected Record: 10-6 First place
There is one central question swirling around the Denver Broncos this year. Is Peyton Manning over-the-hill or is what we saw last year down the stretch just a blip on his career radar?
For the long-haul, I think Peyton is trending downward. That said I think he's still good enough to lead a roster this talented to the NFL Playoffs for one more run. I like, don't love, his WR targets and I like, don't love, the idea of Mont'ee Ball, Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson as a RB tandem. They're going to miss Thomas at TE, but they still have Thomas at WR and new HC (like, don't love) Gary Kubiak has brought in TE Owen Daniels who should thrive given Peyton's love of the dump-down. Even IF Peyton flames out quicker than we think, I like (don't love) Osweiller as a back up and I think there are enough pieces in this offense to allow them to sneak across the line.
Defensively there are a couple of things that I love. First is the idea of Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware rushing opposing passers, the second is Aqib Talib anchoring one corner position. Everything else on defense? Like, don't love? I'm worried about the defensive line, and the inside linebacking unit and I don't see two quality safeties on their roster. They have good safeties, but not great ones. I'm also unsure about Rick Dennison and Wade Phillips as defensive coordinators. We've seen this show before, in Houston, and we saw the mediocre to poor results.
I also worry about Head Coach Gary Kubiak's tendency to move teams toward the mean. If history is any indication, the Broncos had better make noise this year because they have a steady diet of 8-8 or thereabouts in their immediate future.
Their problem is, I think they have someone nipping at their heels.....
Kansas City Chiefs
Projected Record: 9-7 Second place
The Chiefs will start poorly, thanks to schedule, but then things will even out and Andy Reid will get this team pointed in the right direction.
The reason I'm so high on the Chiefs is because I think they have the two most talented players on either side of the ball in the division. On offense: Jamaal Charles and on defense Justin Houston.
Offensively the WR unit can't get worse than last year. As in 0 TD's scored all season. This year they brought in Jeremy Maclin to stretch the field and Jason Avant to act as a possession guy. They have a nice mix of rookies as well so I think this unit might be a surprise. At QB they are solid, not great, with Alex Smith, but Reid seems happy with him and, so far at least, the numbers have been OK. Most of this is due to a healthy Charles and an offensive line that is among the best in the business currently, despite being underrated by media and fans. The line is young, athletic and they continue to bring in new arrivals who seem to possess the same traits.
Defensively, besides Houston, the Chiefs have two of my favorite role-players Linebackers Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson. They also have safety Eric Berry and a capable, if not flashy, group of cover corners.
The trick for the Chiefs is keeping their stars healthy, and Alex Smith upright and unpressured. If they can do that I have them sneaking into the playoffs again. If not, they're going to be passed by the..........
San Diego Chargers
Projected Record: 9-7 Third place
I have the Chargers third, with an identical record as the Chiefs, because I have the Chiefs beating them twice.
There is a lot to like about this Chargers team and Philip Rivers is one of those things. Entering his 13th year however I'm wondering how much longer he can will this team to victory. He'll have targets this year, as the addition of Jacoby Jones to the tandem of Keenan Allen and Malcolm Floyd will add a deep threat to a group that was aging. Unlike some, I'm ambivalent about the Melvin Gordon draft pick, but I think he'll be OK as a pro. Oh, and Antonio Gates is still around so Rivers maintains his security blanket. (Unlike Peyton, who lost his).
Defensively I'm not sure. In the backfield I like Brandon Flowers and Patrick Robinson OK but I'm not sure who they're going to line up to start. At safety I realize that Eric Weddle is a name, and a "blue collar" player, but I prefer to have a faster white-collar player with some toughness hovering around. There's nothing in their linebackers or defensive backs that are poor, but there's nothing that makes me sit up and pay attention either. Solid unit, but a lot of question marks. If Manti Te'o is being asked to assume a leadership role on your team, you have yourself some issues.
From a coaching/Front office standpoint I'm not all that enthralled with Mike McCoy, he's an OK coach but rumors that he's not the best at game preparation should be worrisome to fans. Tom Telesco as a general manager is OK, but he's just another guy you know?
Much like the Texans, the Chargers have time to improve because the team behind them is nowhere NEAR being ready for contention.....
Projected Record: 5-11 Fourth place
I expect the Raiders to come out and play hard this year for the lengthening list of Raider Greats (RIP Stabler) who have passed. Unfortunately that's about all they'll be able to do is play hard because this roster is lacking the talent and depth to play well.
Unlike his brother, Derek Carr might turn out to be the real deal. He's got good pocket presence and the ability to remain calm under pressure. He's young though, and prone to making some bone-headed throws to people wearing the other team's jersey but that will come in time. At WR I really like Amari Cooper, I like Josh Harper (both rookies) and I'm very "meh" about Michael Crabtree. Maybe that's the 49ers fan in me but Crabtree is more blow than go. I have no idea what this team is going to do at RB. Trent Richardson can't play ball, Helu was a good NCAA running back but not quite at the NFL level, Maybe Michael Dyer works out? Khalif Barnes is a good offensive linemen, everyone else?
I think the Raiders could have one of the blossoming stars in the NFL in Khalil Mack at LB. I think he could be a Ray Lewis type, if he's given time to properly develop. I also like DJ Hayden at CB and I think that Justin Tuck still has a few good years left. Outside of that the defense is a crap shoot. Well, except for the ageless Charles Woodson who is as good a coach on the field as you're going to find in the NFL.
Perhaps my biggest problem with the Raiders is head coach Jack Del Rio. There was good Del Rio, at the beginning of his days in Jacksonville, and then bad Jack near the end. What are the Raiders getting here? Time will tell. Not this year though, because they are clearly the 4th best team in this division of 4.
Despite not having the flashy teams, I think this is the toughest division in the AFC. I have both Denver and KC making the playoffs with San Diego being the first team out. I have Oakland improving and clearly ranking as the best "worst" team in any division.