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TGS 2016 PRO FOOTBALL PREVIEW...A LOOK AT THE AFC WEST

We continue our NFL division previews with a look a the AFC West, courtesy Senior Editor Chuck Sippl. Teams as always are presented in order of predicted finish, with last year's straight-up record and playoff results where applicable...Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

                                             by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

KANSAS CITY (11-5 LY; Lost at New England in Divisional Round)...Let’s not forget that K.C. all but beat Denver last year when the Broncos had Peyton Manning and four-year veteran Brock Osweiler at QB. Recall also that one of the Chiefs’ losses was to Denver in the most bizarre fashion. The Broncos trailed 24-17, but tied the game on a Manning TDP with :36 to play. While everyone was settling in for the expected overtime, K.C. star RB Jamaal Charles unbelievably fumbled on the first play after kickoff, with Denver returning it 21 yards for a stunning 31-24 final!

Turn that score around, and it’s the Broncos who would have been a wildcard team and the Chiefs the AFC West champs. But such is life in the NFL.

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Now, Denver has major QB questions, not to mention some veteran free-agency flight following its Super Bowl championship. K.C. certainly has its own issues. But the Chiefs have veteran competence and stability at the most important position in heady QB Alex Smith (20 TDs vs. only 7 ints. LY). If Charles returns healthy—as is expected from a torn ACL in the fifth game LY—K.C.’s ball-control offense should regain some of the bite it missed at times LY.

A healthy Charles—plus Chandrick West, Spencer Ware and Knile Davis—gives the team quality depth at RB. And third-year Travis Kelce (72 recs. LY) has become a premium TE. HC Andy Reid is still searching for a quality WR to pair with Jeremy Maclin (87 recs., 8 TDs LY). Albert Wilson (35 LY) and Chris Conley (17) are young players who still have an upside. De’Anthony Thomas (17) and fifth-rounder Tyreek Hill are undersized, but major burners. Rookie Hill, the darter who was thrown off the Oklahoma State team following an arrest, will likely stay on returns. You get the idea.

Reid considers his OL to be stable and reliable, even after the departure of LT Branden Albert to Miami. Former No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher takes over at LT after taking a while to develop into a quality NFL starter. Mitch Morse stood out LY as a rookie C (but suffered three concussions). TY’s No. 4—Parker Ehinger of Cincinnati—might grab a spot at G, giving the OL valuable depth and versatility.

And let’s not forget that K.C. won its last 10 regular-season games LY despite injuries suffered by key edge rushers Tamba Hali (6½ sacks; knee surgery in offseason) and Justin Houston (7½; also knee). After the season, the Chiefs lost rangy 6-3 CB Sean Smith to (gulp!) the hated Raiders. Safety Eric Berry, who made an inspirational recovery from lymphoma last season, held out for a month of August camp before relenting.

The good news is that veteran ILB Derrick Johnson (116 Ts, 4 sacks, 2 ints. LY) bounced back well from an Achilles tear in 2014 and that 2015 top pick Marcus Peters, the CB from Washington, tied for the league lead in ints. with eight. This year’s top draft choice—second-round DT Chris Jones of Mississippi State has been an impressive force in training camp. No. 3 picks Steven Nelson (2015) and KeiVarae Russell (2016) have demonstrated plenty of promise as young replacement corners for the departed Smith, and the position could become one of quality depth if 2014 No. 3 Phillip Gaines can bounce back from LY’s ACL injury!

Summary...Don’t sleep on the Chiefs, who stretched their late-season winning streak to 11 when including their 30-0 victory in the Wildcard Round at Houston before their 27-20 defeat in Foxborough. Yes, K.C. has a lot of good players hoping to recovery fully from 2015 injuries. But if the aerial game (30th LY) improves just a little bit, the Chiefs could flip the script on defending AFC West rival Denver.


DENVER (12-4; Won Super Bowl)...
The last team to repeat as Super Bowl champs was New England 11 years ago. So right away the task in front of the Broncos is obvious. Before that, it was Denver in the 1998 season...with John Elway under center!

To steal some of the debate lingo of 1988 Democratic vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen...Mark Sanchez, Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch are no John Elway. They might not even be a Brock Osweiler!

The Broncs and their tough-as-nails defense will still win plenty of games. After all, Denver did make it to and won the Super Bowl last season with the struggling Manning and the learning Osweiler combining for 19 TDs vs. 23 ints. in the regular season. Even so, the passing attack still generated 4216 yards and set up RBs C.J. Anderson & Ronnie Hillman to combine for 1583 YR. This season, Hillman might not even make the team, as hard-driving rookie Devontae Booker (4th round, from Utah) has impressed since minicamp.

Executive VP Elway has tried to shore up the team’s offensive line, as oft-injured, aging, or underachieving players such as Ryan Clady, Ryan Harris, Evan Mathis, Tyler Polumbus and Louis Vasquez were either traded or not re-signed. But incoming are proven LT Russell Okung via Seattle and G/T Donald Stephenson via Kansas City. 2015 draft picks G Max Garcia and G/T Ty Sambrailo and 2014 pick C Matt Paradis are headed for starting jobs in a younger, more-athletic forward wall.

WRs Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Bennie Fowler, and emerging TE Virgil Green comprise a fine receiving corps.

But the offense (19th in scoring LY at 22.2 ppg) will still be limited by its QB performance. Paxton Lynch, the team’s top pick from Memphis, is obviously the QB of the future. At 6-7, Paxton provides Gary Kubiak with someone who stands tall in the pocket, and who also has surprising mobility. Trevor Siemian, the quick-releasing second-year man from Northwestern, has won the starting job and will attempt his first NFL pass against revenge-minded Carolina in the league opener!  After blowing his opportunity in preseason., 8th-year Mark Sanchez from the Jets & Eagles apparently becomes the the fall-back veteran if he even survives the final cutrdown to 53 (Denver will spare a 7th-round pick to the Eagles next spring if Sanchez is among the finals cuts).  But few Bronco fans wanted Sanchez to get the job when considering his penchant for turnovers, many at the most inopportune times, and in the most bizarre fashion (e.g., butt fumbles). It could be a while before something close to Manning magic or Osweiler miracles (OT wins vs. Pats and Bengals LY) happens TY, even though Siemian and Lynch are just starting their playing careers.

Last year’s dominating defense was No. 1 in yards, No. 3 vs. the run, No. 1 vs. the pass, and No. 4 in points allowed (18.5 ppg). But free agency has stripped the stop unit of a few players seeking to cash in on their Super Bowl rings. Gone are top tackler LB Danny Trevathan, active DE/DT Malik Jackson (5 sacks), and safety David Bruton (49 Ts, 2 ints.).

But the platoon should still be very strong, paced by Super Bowl MVP Von Miller (11 sacks) at OLB, respected team leader DeMarcus Ware (7½ sacks) as a DE/OLB hybrid, and by a secondary—CB Aqib Talib, CB Chris Harris, nickel-back Bradley Roby, S T.J. Ward, S Darian Stewart—that is considered the best overall in the league.

Summary...The Broncs will be a much younger team overall in 2016 following the departure of veterans Peyton Manning, TE Owen Daniels, TE Vernon Davis and others. But the situation at QB figures to put additional stress not only on the rush offense, but also on the Denver defense, which is already replacing playmakers such as LB Trevathan and DT Jackson. In the highly-competitive West, odds are against a “six-peat” by Denver as division champs.


OAKLAND (7-9)...With Peyton Manning retired and the Denver defense having taken several free-agent “hits,” many in the Bay Area are saying out loud that Oakland is the up-and-coming power in the division. After all, NorCal fans are now used to the idea of championships. Three World Series victories in the last six years by the Giants. One NBA title and one narrow seventh-game loss by the Warriors in the last two. Three Pac-12 football championships in the last four years by Stanford. The NHL Sharks even teased, making the Sanley Cup Finals last spring.

With a bona fide NFL aerial attack featuring QB Derek Carr (3987 YP, 32 TDs, 13 ints.), WR Amari Cooper (72 recs., 1070 yards) and Michael Crabtree (85 & 922), the wild and wacky Raider Nation is thinking big. However, considering that Oakland hasn’t had a winning record in 13 years, perhaps it’s best to pump the brakes at least a little bit on that title concept.

It is true that HC Jack Del Rio (a Bay Area native) and GM Reggie McKenzie (new four-year contract extension) appear to have the Pride and Poise Boys headed in the right direction. Del Rio even got owner Mark Davis to stop spending so much money on his hair stylist and make a multi-million-dollar investment to improve the team’s sorry weight room and training facilities in Alameda, even while the team is dickering with Las Vegas about a move to Sin City!

Just as important as the emergence of a serious aerial strike force for the Raiders has been the construction of a supportive offensive line, even after losing LT anchor Jared Veldheer a couple of years ago to Arizona. Last year, Donald Penn turned out to be a good pickup from T.B. as a replacement. Last year also landed C Rodney Hudson from K.C. This year, McKenzie has added former Raven G Kelechi Osemele at G. G Gabe Jackson and T Menelik Watson have been home grown through the draft.

However, development of the running game (28th LY) has lagged behind in the Raider attack. Latavius Murray, in his third season, rushed for 1066 yards LY, but for only 4.0 ypc. At 6-3, 230, Murray is a tall target for defenders. In TY’s 5th round, the team selected quick DeAndre Washington, a 5-8, 200 scatback with punch who had two 1000-yard seasons at Texas Tech and who is also a good receiver. That change-of-pace alternative should be a boost to the Raider attack.

It is on defense where Oakland might not be ready for a run at first place. Last year, the Raiders were 22nd in yards allowed , 21st in points against, and 26th against the pass. There is a growing nucleus of good defenders in DE Khalid Mack (15 sacks), former Seahawk OLB Malcolm Smith (122 Ts, 4 sacks), and Sean Smith, the CB with the valuable 6-3 height plucked from West rival K.C. But the unit as a whole remains in transition following the retirement of ageless DB Charles Woodson and the release of burly ILB Curtis Lofton.

One new starting LB is Ben Heeney, the undersized (230 pounds) hustler from Kansas. Another is Bruce Irvin, allowed to depart from Seattle due to his inconsistent performance. The team is hoping for the rapid development of third rounder Shilique Calhoun, the rugged DE from Michigan State being converted to OLB.

The secondary, a frequent problem LY, should not be such a liability TY. It turns out that risk-taking CB David Amerson—jettisoned by Washington—was an okay fit in the Del Rio scheme, with 4 interceptions. So, along with Sean Smith, the Raiders offer the promise of consistency at corner. Plus, the team signed proven safety Reggie Nelson (career-high 8 ints. LY with Cincy), hoping he can perform the multi-task role handled by Woodson. Top draft pick Karl Joseph from West Virginia immediately gave signs he could handle the other safety spot.

Summary...Defensive depth and overall size remain concerns as the stop unit tries to keep pace with the development on offense. Pudgy 17-year kicker Sebastian Janikowski remains a nearly sure thing. But a strong run at first in the West is not...at least for this season.


SAN DIEGO (4-12)...What to do with San Diego, a team with a likely Hall of Fame QB but an erratic front office and parsimonious ownership? After last year’s injury-wracked season (e.g., the Chargers started five different centers!), four-year mentor Mike McCoy now finds himself coaching for his job. Injuries destroyed his OL last season, and top wideout Keenan Allen was lost after he collected a whopping 67 catches in just the first 8 games! Other key injuries hit players such as top DL Corey Liuget, LB Manti Te’o, and scrappy RB Branden Oliver.

Star TE Antonio Gates was suspended for the first four games (PEDs). Top draft pick RB Melvin Gordon couldn’t hold onto the ball early (five fumbles, four lost) and needed micro-fracture surgery late. He gained only 641 yards on 3.5 ypc. Former defensive leader S Eric Weddle had no ints., a slew of missed tackles, and was benched late in the season and then released after it. Yet, with McCoy’s intensity and Rivers’ competitiveness, the Chargers hung tough (8-8 vs. the spread; only 3 losses by more than 8 points).

With the presence of Rivers (4792 yards, 29 TDs, 13 ints.), the return of WR Allen, a healthier OL, and the apparent improvement of Gordon, it’s not a stretch to envision the Chargers being a team at .500, or even above. Thanks to Rivers’ leadership, San Diego was 4th in passing and 9th in total offense. But with not enough help from its defense (only 32 sacks, 11 ints.), the Bolts were 26th in scoring (20 ppg).

The return of o.c. Ken Whisenhunt, who held the same position in 2013 under McCoy and helped Rivers find the "sweet spot" when the San Diego made a surprise advance into the playoffs, could be a plus, as his strength as coordinator was properly schemeing and sequencing the ground game, something the Chargers lacked last season.    

Going into this year’s West race, K.C., despite LY’s fast finish, is not dominator; Denver has its QB issues and post-Super Bowl flight; and the Raiders haven’t been above .500 since 2002.

Yet the Chargers can’t seem to get out of their own way. Through the first three exhibitions, ownership was still engaged in a nasty, mostly-needless, contract dispute with top pick Joey Bosa, who finally signed August 29. The No. 3 overall pick is being counted upon to apply pass-rush pressure, boost the Charger sack and int. count, and set up more short fields for the dangerous Rivers.

Putting a cloud over the whole thing are rapidly-deteriorating Qualcomm Stadium and threats by the Spanos family to move the team to Los Angeles (the Chargers’ original home in 1960). A measure will be on the November ballot whether to help finance a new stadium. Our San Diego scouts say the chances of the S.D. taxpayers voting to approve millions of dollars to help the Spanos’ family build a new stadium are slim and none, and “slim” is already on the bus.

Summary...In terms of overall talent, the Chargers—when healthy—are not that far behind their West rivals. They’re pretty well coached. They’re tough-minded. They can pass. But injuries have plagued the team in recent years. And, with the stadium ballot issue pending and a possible re-location looming, there is a substantial chance things could deteriorate rapidly in the self-dubbed “America’s Finest City” if there is much early adversity. Things could turn ugly toward the end. Those are too many potential negatives to anticipate a major advance by the Lightning Bolts.

NEXT UP:  NFC WEST!


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