Thursday, March 17, 2011

AFC West, 2011 prospects

So with the labor dispute still rolling on, that means free agency seems a long way off still. Which is lucky in a way because it gives me a chance to finish doing my preview series. We've reached the AFC West now, with just the AFC North to go. So starting with; Denver Broncos: What a 2010 the Broncos had. After what seemed on the face of it like a season to build on in '09, the Broncos traded away Brandon Marshall and went out and spent a first round pick in the 2010 draft on Tim Tebow. Then everything fell apart. Finishing the season 4-12 and minus a Head Coach, Broncos fans are looking on bleakly at 2011. The hiring of Broncos legend John Elway as "Executive Vice President of Football Operations" did little to quell those fears, not least because while Elway may have been a great QB and is co-owner of an arena league team, he has no experience of high level football operations in the NFL. The only thing left for fans to concern themselves with was who would be hired as the teams next Head Coach. There were plenty of names out there, including some very talented coordinator level candidates. The choices were pretty open. The Broncos decided to go with John Fox, of 2-14 Carolina Panthers fame, and my arch Nemesis when it comes to picking winners. Hearts across Colorado sunk. But they mustn't be so hasty. For start, the Broncos look set to come out of free agency probably better off than any other team in the league. They have just five players on the unrestricted list; Defensive Tackles Marcus Thomas and Ronald Fields, OT Ryan Harris, RB Laurence Maroney and FB Kyle Eckel. That's literally it. That means that Denver is likely to head into 2011 with almost its entire team intact. Even though they have a new Head Coach and coordinator line up, the fact that everyone on the team knows each other should help to make the transition easier. It doesn't hurt either that they have the 2nd overall pick in this years draft. There is much speculation as to where they might go with this, but given Fox is a defensive minded coach, I can't see that pick going anywhere other than the defensive side of the ball. The most likely choice will either be a D-tackle or a linebacker, two positions which will probably consume most of the teams attention in the draft, possibly along with offensive line and tight end. So for 2011, the Broncos actually look in pretty good shape. They get OT Ryan Clady back from injury for a start. The lingering question is who will line up under center; Kyle Orton or Tim Tebow? I'll hedge my bets and say that it's not going to be Brady Quinn. Orton will stake a claim based on his performance in recent seasons. Tebow also showed promise, but he's still young and his playing time was limited. To be honest I don't envy John Fox having to make the choice. I still hate Fox though. So there. Either way, expect the Broncos to make a surprise challenge for AFC West glory. I'm tellin' ya! Kansas City Chiefs: Most Kansas City fans looked on glumly as the 2010 season rolled around. Then a surprise upset of San Diego set the tone for what would become a 10-6 season that stunned everyone and saw the Chiefs roll into the playoffs. Of course it all fell apart from there, but it's the thought that counts. The start of the 2011 season will, however, return most Chiefs fans back to their almost ingrained state of pessimism. You only have to look at their list of potential free agents. Thankfully they tied up Tamba Hali with the franchise tag, but the rest of the list makes for ominous reading. And no, I'm not talking about QB Brodie Croyle. Charlie Anderson, Corey Mays and Mike Vrabel are the linebackers potentially on the way out. There's wide receivers Terrence Cooper and Kevin Curtis. There's CB Travis Daniels and FS Jon McGraw. NT Ron Edwards. DE Shaun Smith. TE Leonard Pope. OT Ryan O'Callaghan. FB Tim Castille. And finally Centers Rudy Niswanger and Casey Wiegmann. I probably missed someone out amongst all that, but you get the idea. The Chiefs will potentially have no trained center for 2011, along with only just enough linemen to field the required 5. They'll be left with about 4 D-linemen as well by the look of it. In the draft, Kansas doesn't pick till number 21 which doesn't exactly leave them with much room to play when it comes to drafting down. That's a problem, because the Chiefs need players. They're probably gonna end up fishing in free agency to make up the difference. They have only two quarterbacks, none of which people should really trust too much (Matt Cassel is not a Pro Bowl quarterback). They have two great backs, but absolutely no true depth at the position. At wide out they're relying on Dwayne Bowe and Chris Chambers to stay healthy, because if either of those two go then their next best receiver is Dexter McCluster, who is good, but is also more of a slot receiver type as opposed to a down field beast. Their O-line has a strong core (Albert, Lilja, Asamoah), it just doesn't have anything else. They have no D-line anymore. Glenn Dorsey can only fit one spot at a time. The linebacking corps is ok, and if they can keep restricted free agent Brandon Carr then they won't be too bad at corner or safety. They could use some more depth, but at least the starting lineup should repeat the strong showing from last year, providing the Chiefs shore up that D-line, possibly with the aid of a first round pick. For 2011 then? A lot is riding on the offense, including the ability of Todd Haley and Offensive Coordinator Bill Muir to finally mold that unit into something useful. Last year they absolutely thrived off the back of running backs Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones, only to consistently shoot themselves in the foot by turning their back completely on the running game (see the playoff game versus Baltimore for a prime example). On that note, 2011 is anybodies guess. It might be another 10-6 year in the making. Maybe more? But I'm afraid I'm going to be a little more restrained and say that the Chiefs will probably slump again in 2011, especially if they don't get their respective lines sorted. Oakland Raiders: Just think, without Al Davis and the Raiders who would we all laugh at? That's true, the Redskins. But it's not as much fun as the annual saga that is the Oakland Raiders. This time they fooled us all by having their best season in a while and going 8-8, playing some half decent football along the way. Then right on cue, Al Davis fired the coach who had made it all happen, Tom Cable. Now the Raiders are back to square one. Hue Jackson will be the latest person to step up and take on the challenge of being the Head Coach at possibly one of the worst run teams in the NFL. Good luck with that Hue. Judging by your free agent list, you're gonna need it. Nnamdi Asomugha is the most obvious name. As yet the Raiders haven't used their franchise tag, if that tag even exists when free agency resumes. The deadline for applying it is passed, so unless there is some new provision for putting it in, then the Raiders appear to be happy to let Asomugha walk. That's surprising to say the least, given the Raiders usual lack of qualms when it comes to splashing big dollar amounts on players. Also on the unrestricted list is QB Bruce Gradkowski, Offensive Tackles Khalif Barnes, Mario Henderson and Langston Walker, Center Samson Satele, TE Zach Miller, FS Michael Huff and a few other names. The net result is a Raiders team looking suspect in 2011. The draft is going to be interesting, not least because the Raiders traded away their first round pick to the Patriots (part of the Richard Seymour deal). They could really use another tight end, especially if Miller is snapped up, a decent wide receiver to play opposite Jacoby Ford, a new offensive tackle (or two. Or three), a center, another linebacker and one or two decent corners. In short, a hell of a lot. So what does 2011 hold for the Raider nation? Jesus, I dread to think. Much is obviously riding on Hue Jackson, who we know little about in this kind of lead role. Personally the Raiders currently strike me as one of those teams that consists of a collection of talented names (to a degree), but is a long way from being a team. A long way. If they finish bottom of the AFC West I wouldn't be surprised. San Diego Chargers: In the end, the Chargers finished 2010 at 9-7. But few people would doubt that it was not what the Chargers had hoped for from the season. Special teams mishaps in particular killed more than just the one game. Phillip Rivers was good in general, as was the defense. Statistically the Chargers clocked up yards on one side of the ball and almost refused to give them up on the other. But points mean prizes in the NFL, not yards. And in points the Chargers were found wanting. If free agency finally happens in 2011, it's not going to go well for the Chargers. WR Vincent Jackson is locked up with the franchise tag. But Legedu Naanee is on the way out, along with Malcom Floyd and Kelly Washington. Linebackers Antwan Barnes, Kevin Burnett, Stephen Cooper, Brandon Moore and Brandon Siler are off. DE Jacques Cesaire and Travis Johnson might be joining them. So will TE Randy McMichael. RB Darren Sproles is on the list. Safeties Tyrone Carter, Paul Oliver, Pat Watkins and Eric Weddle will probably go as well. That's a lot of talent being dropped off the cart right there. In the draft the Chargers pick at number 18 overall. They could use a young QB, if only to serve as a backup to Phillips Rivers. They need a half decent receiver for depth. The offensive line has been a perpetual weakness. The D-line looks gutted. They'll be short at defensive back if they can't bring back some of their free agents. And they really, really need to find someone to captain that special teams unit! Other than that, all is well. No really, all is well. The defense might take a bit of a pounding in 2011, but they still have Phillip Rivers throwing the ball, with Vincent Jackson, Patrick Crayton and Antonio Gates playing catch. Jacob Hester is still one of the best Fullbacks in the league right now, and Ryan Matthews is a promising young running back. It's more a question then of whether the Chargers can avoid a) shooting themselves in the foot on special teams and b) avoid giving up large blocks of points on defense. If they can handle those two things, you have to think the Chargers have yet another great shot at winning the division. ---- In other news, just briefly, I've heard that the NFLPA is prodding an old horse again, looking for congress to bust the NFL's anti-trust exemption when it comes to negotiating TV rights. The result would be that each team would then be able to sell the rights to it's home games individually. That would, frankly, be the worst possible news for the players. It would mean teams like the Cowboys, Steelers, Giants and Jets could rake in huge sums for their home games, which wouldn't be shared with the likes of Detroit and Buffalo. While in many ways a full free market system would help the teams, that depends highly on them continuing to share TV money. Honestly, sometimes I just despair at the complete lack of brains that the players and their representatives seem to display.

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