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Jay Castro’s NFL Preview: AFC West

1:  San Diego Chargers: 9-7        

2:  Denver Broncos: 9-7

3:  Oakland Raiders: 7-9

4:  Kansas City Chiefs: 7-9

AFC West 2012 Preview NFLSan Diego Chargers: Skill Positions: QB: Philip Rivers, WR: Malcolm Floyd, Robert Meacham, Vincent Brown (INJURED), RB: Ryan Matthews, Ronnie Brown, TE: Antonio Gates, Notable DEF/ST: Eric Weddle, Donald Butler, Takeo Spikes, Shaun Phillips, Eddie Royal, Nate Kaeding 

In my earlier post regarding the Indianapolis Colts, I mentioned that I now feel Peyton Manning is the greatest QB in NFL history because of his ability to spin what turned out to be a pretty bad team into a perennial contender. But I still don’t expect the guy to shit miracles just because he joins a new program…so I’m going against the grain and picking the Chargers for one last hurrah at the big dance.

We all know the story here. It’s about how Norv Turner is a horrible coach who will never win the big one, and how Philip Rivers was nursing an injury that he didn’t tell anybody about, and how Ryan Matthews is nursing an injury that everybody knows about, and how Gates can’t stay on the field, and Floyd and the defense and yada-yada-yada and…

Don’t be fooled. The Chargers are a dangerous team.

It all has to do with their big play ability. San Diego has the horses to win the race as long as they stay healthy–Meacham comes from that high-powered juggernaut in New Orleans and should make an adequate replacement for the troublesome Vincent Jackson, Floyd was born to be a matchup nightmare, Gates is one of the top ballhawks the TE position has ever seen, and Matthews has home run potential in space. It’s only a matter of keeping these guys on the field…a difficult thing to do, but not impossible.

And that’s where the offensive line comes in. San Diego’s ranks in the bottom half of the league, and gets worse when you consider that longtime guard Kris Dielman will not be returning after suffering a concussion during week 6 that caused him to have a seizure on the team’s plane. Dielman’s subsequent retirement is certainly understandable, but no less daunting for a team that struggled to keep defenders out of Rivers’ face.

Defensively, the 2011 Chargers let their games become shootouts. They held just one opponent to under 13 points, while allowing more than the equivalent of three TDs nine times. The defense was overhauled as a result, bringing in former Raven Jarret Johnson to assume an outside linebacker role and three top draft picks who await the chance to supplant a veteran, including pass rusher Melvin Ingram. With veteran QBs Manning and Carson Palmer now in the division, these changes were sorely needed. The acquisition of Eddie Royal to return punts and return of kicker Nate Kaeding from injury will surely improve a subpar special teams unit.

San Diego’s brass is likely giving Norv Turner just one more year to straighten this mess out. And so amI.Because I figure one year is how long it’s going to take for the next guy to become completely comfortable in his new surroundings…

Denver Broncos: Skill Positions: QB: Peyton Manning, WR: Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Andre Caldwell, RB: Willis McGahee, TE: Joel Dreesen, Jacob Tamme, Notable DEF/ST: Von Miller, Elvis Dumervil, Champ Bailey

So, let me get this straight…Karma tosses you a starting quarterback who goes 7-1 in eight starts and wins your shitty team a first round playoff game over the Steelers, and you send him off to the Jets for little more than future considerations? Mr. John Elway, there must be a lightning bolt with your name on it somewhere.

Yeah, yeah, I know all about the players involved. I know that the 7-1 quarterback was the divisive and much maligned Tim Tebow, who couldn’t toss a decent spiral if he’d written out r = a + bθ on a crumpled sheet of paper and thrown it at someone. And that the one they bumped him for, Peyton Manning, is one of the greatest (if not the greatest) ever to play the game. But looks can be deceiving, folks…

I’ll start with pure numbers. The Broncos ranked 23rd in overall offense last season…first in rushing, but next to last in passing. It was because they rolled with an offensive package designed to maximize Tebow’s effectiveness at the QB position…and it worked! What the guy lacked in mechanics, he had in the intangibles that made his team far better than they were. The Broncos were a very young team that should not even had a sniff of the playoffs, but were able to make it there somehow. And upset one of the conference’s standouts in the process. Okay, so New England had some fun with them…you live, you learn from it, here comes next year. I feel they should have invested all of their energy in building around the unorthodox, yet successful young QB they discovered.

But with Peyton Manning on the table, I can relate. No one gets the QB position better than John Elway, and he decided to add the best in the business. And I can understand Manning’s intent as well…the Denver Broncos was a team that needed him least, and yet the most. While I think they could have had continued success with Tebow…it’s still Peyton Manning.

I only hope for his sake, and the organization’s, that he’s still that Peyton Manning.

What happens if the Denver’s young offensive line, in moving from a run-first to a pass-first offense, is unable to keep opposing pass rushers out of their multi-million dollar QB’s face? Or off his neck? We know what Peyton can do under pressure, but all it takes is one hit…and the new starter will be Caleb Hanie.

But as long as he stays upright, he will have a nice buffet of young receivers to throw to. Demaryius Thomas excelled with Tebow under center, while Eric Decker looked better with the more traditional Kyle Orton calling the plays. Both should fall right in line with the new schemes their notoriously combustible field general is bound to cook up at the line of scrimmage, as should former Texan Joel Dreesen, former Bengal Andre Caldwell, and Manning’s ex-Indy teammates Jacob Tamme and Brandon Stokely. Denver’s D, an evolving work in progress, ranked in the lower half of the league last year, but boasts exciting pass rushers Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller as well as veteran Champ Bailey in the secondary. However, the loss of retired safety Brian Dawkins is sure to hurt.

Even if we assume that Manning stays healthy and is able to command this offense the way he did inIndianapolisfor so long, the Bronco schedule is a brutal one that sees Pittsburgh, atAtlanta,Houston, at New England, and atSan Diego within five of their first six weeks. While many are bullish that he will be able to pick up where he left off and command this offense right away, I’m not so sure. Karma surely handed Tebow to the Broncos for a reason, and something tells me Manning might have been better off appearing on the cover of a Madden game than acceptingDenver’s offer.

Oakland Raiders: Skill Positions: QB: Carson Palmer, Terrelle Pryor, WR: Darrius Heyward-Bey, Denarius Moore, Jacoby Ford, RB: Darren McFadden, Taiwan Jones, TE: Brandon Myers, Notable DEF/ST: Richard Seymour, Rolando McClain, Tyvon Branch

For the last several years, Al Davis ran the Raiders as a man who didn’t realize he’d lost his mah-jongg tiles. Instead of spending his last years enjoying a nice bowl of tapioca and some Golden Girls re-runs at the senior center, he insisted on taking “Just Win, Baby” to a new level—losing. And for the proud (and dangerous) Raider fanbase, that irony might have been the deepest cut of all.

But it looks like the organization might be finally turning a corner. Gone are the days of Andrew Walter, and Bruce Gradkowski, and (eek) JaUseless Russell. There is a new signal caller in town, and his name is…Terrelle Pryor. What?

Yes, Terrelle Pryor is the future of the Raider organization. That other guy, whom they paid the Bengals handsomely for, is no longer the threat he once was (and really hasn’t been since blowing out his knee in the 2006 playoffs). The guy behind him and above Pryor, well…that’s Matt Leinart. I believe we will see Pryor legging out plays before 2012 is out.

But until then, we get to watch mentally and physically inconsistent pocket passer Carson Palmer try his hand at guiding Oakland to their first winning season since going to the Super Bowl in 2002. If everyone stays healthy, he’ll have some help—Darren McFadden has shown himself to be a top RB threat when his Lisfranc (what the fuck is a Lisfranc?) holds up, and the Raiders have some burners down the sidelines (a final present from Davis, who apparently never met a speedy receiver he didn’t like) in Heyward-Bey and Moore (Denarius? You might as well name your kid Dollar). However, keeping the immobile-as-a-tree Palmer in one piece on a team with a suspect offensive line that lacks experienced depth might be difficult, and new offensive coordinator Greg Knapp’s version of the West Coast offense requires that the QB move around at least a little.

Defensively, the Silver and Black watched their top corner bolt east before the 2011 season and paid for it with the 27th ranked pass defense. However, another system change (incorporated by new DC Jason Tarver) relying more on varied blitz packages and zone coverage could inject life into a unit used toDavis’s four man rush, man-to-man style. With Peyton Manning now in the division, and dates with Philip Rivers (twice), Matt Ryan, Drew Brees and Cam Newton looming in 2012, there’s no better time to instill a new-look defense.

The Raiders have been an up-and-coming team for some time now, but need to wash away the stink of Davis’s last few years at the helm. His refusal to change with the times resulted in questionable drafts that might have netted the most talented athletes for the moment (unlike Chad Johnson, I’m sure JaUseless Russell doesn’t mind creating himself in Madden 2013), but not enough serious players. Their desperation move to acquire Carson Palmer will probably backfire as well, and even though Oakland has a fair schedule, I think they’ll take a slight step back unless everyone stays healthy and performs at their expected levels.

Kansas City Chiefs: Skill Positions: QB: Matt Cassel, WR: Dwayne Bowe, Jon Baldwin, Steve Breaston, RB: Jamaal Charles, Peyton Hillis, TE: Kevin Boss, Notable DEF/ST: Tamba Hali (SUSPENDED), Eric Berry, Stanford Routt, Brandon Flowers,  

No team in the NFL was hit harder by the injury bug than the Kansas City Chiefs in 2011. They lost Eric Berry, their Pro Bowl safety, and Jamaal Charles, their top rusher, in back-to-back weeks to start the season and never quite recovered. In addition, starting tight end Tony Moeaki never even saw the field, and quarterback Matt Cassel missed significant time as well. It’s no wonder the Chiefs ranked 27th in total offense last year.

But the team wasn’t an offensive juggernaut to begin with. The Chiefs use a ball-control philosophy that relies heavily on a back like Charles to offset weaknesses in the passing game. Sure, Cassel has veteran standout Dwayne Bowe in his corner as well as exciting youngster Jonathan Baldwin, butKansas City’s game involves running the ball, defense and clock management. Charles is a huge key to that, as will be former Cleveland gorilla back Hillis once things get going. Twenty pass attempts a game for Cassel might be a lot. And holding the clipboard for him this season will be Brady Quinn, who was originally drafted by current Chief head coach Romeo Crennel and could see time if Cassel struggles.

However, the D is Kansas City’s bread and butter. Tamba Hali is one of the game’s best pass rushers, and while he is expected to miss the start of the season thanks to a substance abuse violation, the other outside linebacker in the Chiefs’ 3-4 defensive package (Justin Houston) is expected to fill the void. Their pass defense was ranked 6th in the league without Berry, and with him could top the NFL as long as former Oakland ballhawk Routt quits gambling with the TD pass (he gave up eight in 2011). Highly regarded first round pick Dontari Poe could become a top nose tackle if he can give the team’s talented linebacking corps and opportunity to make plays.

The Chiefs finished with a 7-9 record in 2011 in spite of their injuries. However, the AFC West has only gotten tougher in the last few months, and while their defense should be good enough to handle the changes, there are too many questions about the offense (will Charles still have the game-breaking abilities he once exhibited? Is Cassel the man to lead this offense? And…what about Naomi?) to take them seriously as a contender right now. They play in one of the most difficult stadiums in the league for an opponent to enter, and have a generous schedule that could get them double-digit wins if everything breaks right. But I’m forecasting seven wins and a first round QB pick in 2013.

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About Jason E. Castro
Jason E. Castro isn’t here to govern your Caribbean island, sell your convertible furniture or sing you a top 40 hit. He is a writer from New York City and you can find more of his work online at literary websites such as Danse Macabre or Mediavirus Magazine. And while you're at it, feel free to check out his full length novel, "Rowdies", or his on-line novella, "Cricket for Souls"; both are available from Amazon.

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