Posted July 11, 2013

2013 NFL Preview: AFC West

AFC West, Denver Broncos, Division Previews, Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers
Alex Smith was having a career year last season before losing his job to Colin Kaepernick. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

Alex Smith was having a career year last season before losing his job to Colin Kaepernick. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

With training camps about to begin, we take a division-by-division look at where each team stands heading into the 2013 season.

This is the one division that will head into this season with an absolute, obvious favorite to finish first. That team is the Denver Broncos, an apparent Super Bowl contender again and the clear class of the AFC West right now. The NFC West has the San Francisco-Seattle rivalry, while teams like Green Bay, New England, Houston, Atlanta and Baltimore can make their claims as the teams to beat in their respective divisions. But none stands as far from the pack as Denver does, for the moment, in the AFC West.

The rest of the division will spend 2013 fighting that perception. Kansas City, Oakland and San Diego all made dramatic changes to their coaching staffs and rosters — the Raiders, specifically, all but scrapped their entire starting lineup on defense in favor of new blood.

Can any of those three teams really give the Broncos a run for their money in the coming months?

Denver Broncos

Key moves: Signed WR Wes Welker, G Louis Vazquez, NT Terrance Knighton, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie; drafted RB Montee Ball, DT Sylvester Williams, DE Quanterus Smith; lost RB Willis McGahee, WR Brandon Stokley, DE/OLB Elvis Dumervil, DT Justin Bannan, LB Keith Brooking, LB D.J. Williams, CB Tracy Porter; promoted Adam Gase to offensive coordinator

Where they got better: Wide receiver. No offense to Stokley, a solid receiver and a player Peyton Manning adores, but guys like Wes Welker don’t just walk in off the street very often. No player in football has more catches than Welker’s 672 since 2007 — a stretch that has seen him top 110 receptions five times. The thought of Welker as the No. 3 receiver on a team stockpiled with Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker will be enough to cause AFC West defensive coordinators nightmares. This is arguably the best WR group in football; at the very least, it’s a top-three unit.

Where they got worse: Defensive end. The Broncos certainly could do worse than starting Robert Ayers, then dropping Shaun Phillips at end in pass-rushing situations. Still, any mix-and-match pairing will be hard-pressed to replace Elvis Dumervil, whom the Broncos lost following a fax snafu. Dumervil’s overall play has started to slip, but he still had 11.0 sacks last season and remains a feared rusher. Phillips and fifth-round draft pick Quanterus Smith were fine consolation prizes, but the Broncos may rue Dumervil’s departure and their subsequent inability to court a player like Dwight Freeney.

Breakout player: Nate Irving, LB. It’s Irving, not Joe Mays, in line to start at middle linebacker in the Broncos’ 4-3 scheme. Despite Irving having all of 17 tackles in his career (13 last season), the N.C. State product has won the coaches’ trust and is talented enough to rack up a hefty tackle total.

Where they stand: The Broncos are in Super Bowl-or-bust mode — even more so after they collapsed late in a playoff loss to Baltimore last season. Though the the rest of the division may have improved, the Broncos are the odds-on favorites and really should have the AFC West locked up well before Week 17. What happens from there could depend on if the secondary can keep it together, as well as if Manning can find that extra gear he missed throughout 2012. Week 1 features a showdown with the defending champion Ravens, a game that could hold significance when it comes to figuring playoff home-field advantage.

Kansas City Chiefs

Key moves: Signed WR Donnie Avery, TE Anthony Fasano, G Geoff Schwartz, DE Mike DeVito, LB Akeem Jordan, CB Sean Smith, CB Dunta Robinson; traded for QB Alex Smith; drafted OT Eric Fisher, TE Travis Kelce, RB Knile Davis, LB Nico Johnson; CB Sanders Commings; lost QB Matt Cassel, RB Peyton Hillis, WR Steve Breaston, OT Eric Winston, G Ryan Lilja, DT Glenn Dorsey, CB Javier Arenas, S Abram Elam; hired head coach Andy Reid, OC Doug Pederson, DC Bob Sutton, consultants Chris Ault and Brad Childress

Where they got better: Quarterback. Naysay all you want, but Smith completed 61.3 percent of his passes in 2011 and a whopping 70.2 percent, prior to injury, in 2012. Placed in an offense that properly uses him, Smith can be efficient and effective. Andy Reid seems determined to provide Smith with just such an environment, too, as he’s brought on pistol innovator Chris Ault and has been toying with that formation, among others. Having a legitimate No. 1 quarterback will be a godsend for the Chiefs following a season that saw Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn slop their way to a 2-14 record.

Where they got worse: Inside linebacker, possibly. The honest answer is that the Chiefs are no worse at any spot than they were to close 2012 — remember, this was a 2-14 team that finished dead last in points scored and 25th in points allowed. From a personnel standpoint (and it’s hardly that important given the circumstances), the Chiefs have not recovered from Jovan Belcher’s tragic murder-suicide in December. They have Akeem Jordan penciled in as the starter next to Derrick Johnson at inside linebacker, but there is little in Jordan’s background to indicate he can handle that starting job for 16 games.

Breakout player: Travis Kelce, TE. The Chiefs rolled the dice in Round 3 on Kelce, who carried some red flags into the draft. That gamble could pay off in a big way. Kelce should see plenty of playing time, and he has the athletic ability to thrive in Andy Reid’s West Coast attack.

Where they stand: Seemingly every season in the NFL, a team bounces back from a last-place finish to make the playoffs. Are the Chiefs the 2013 Cinderella? Granted, it is a massive leap from 2-14 to the playoffs, so let’s start a little more slowly: Kansas City could have an elite secondary after adding CBs Sean Smith and Dunta Robinson; RB Jamaal Charles might bust loose in Reid’s scheme; Smith has developed into an impressive QB, and he’s behind what might be a very solid O-line; the receivers and defensive front seven have ample talent. This may not be a 10-win team, but a minimum of six wins is realistic.

Oakland Raiders

Key moves: Signed RB Rashad Jennings, WR/KR Joshua Cribbs, DT Pat Sims, DT Vance Walker, DE Jason Hunter, OLB Nick Roach, LB Kaluka Maiava, OLB Kevin Burnett, CB Tracy Porter, CB Mike Jenkins, S Charles Woodson, S Usama Young; traded for QB Matt Flynn; drafted CB D.J. Hayden, OT Menelik Watson, QB Tyler Wilson; lost QB Carson Palmer, RB Mike Goodson, WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, TE Brandon Myers, G Cooper Carlisle, DE Matt Shaughnessy, DT Richard Seymour, DT Desmond Bryant, DT Tommy Kelly, OLB Phillip Wheeler, LB Rolando McClain, S Michael Huff, S Matt Giordano; hired OC Greg Olson, DC Jason Tarver

Where they got better: The secondary. Almost a total overhaul here (as with pretty much the rest of the roster). Safety Tyvon Branch is really the lone holdover from last year’s group, with D.J. Hayden, Charles Woodson, Tracy Porter, Mike Jenkins and Usama Young all expected to play various roles. Oakland will ask a lot of Hayden, who had a near-fatal injury in college. The Raiders took him earlier in the draft (No. 12 overall) than most expected him to go. But the Hayden-Jenkins-Porter pairing might be fairly formidable. Does Woodson have anything left in the tank? The Raiders hope so, but props to them for adding Young as insurance.

Where they got worse: Wide receiver. Darrius Heyward-Bey never lived up to his billing with the Raiders, but Oakland also did little to replace the 105 receptions he delivered over the past two seasons. The top four at this position form an intriguing unit: Denarius Moore, Jacoby Ford, Juron Criner and Rod Streater. If Moore can handle No. 1 duties, Streater builds on his 39-catch 2012 and at least one other WR develops, the Raiders may not even feel the loss of Heyward-Bey all that much. In the interim, though, they’re down a player who started 41 games over the previous three seasons. Bringing in Joshua Cribbs and seventh-round pick Brice Butler hardly plugs Heyward-Bey’s absence.

Breakout player: Rod Streater, WR. See above. The Raiders have a need at WR, and Streater came through with 39 catches after being an undrafted free agent last season. There probably is not a better option for Oakland’s No. 2 job, meaning Streater could see a lot of passes thrown his direction.

Where they stand: Your guess is as good as any. Did you read that list of key transactions above? It’s like the “War and Peace” of offseason moves. Aside from a few key contributors — that handful of WRs, Darren McFadden, Branch, Lamarr Houston, the offensive line — the Raiders mostly wiped the slate clean after 2012. The roster has more talent than it did last season, but how long will it take QB Matt Flynn (or Tyler Wilson) to get in a groove and what will be the learning curve for a defense with up to nine new starters? Coming off a 4-12 campaign, it feels as if the Raiders have laid the groundwork to be competitive over the next few seasons … but they may take some more lumps this year.

San Diego Chargers

Key moves: Signed RB Danny Woodhead, OT Max Starks, G Chad Rinehart, G Rich Ohrnberger, DE Jarius Wynn, DE/OLB Dwight Freeney, CB Derek Cox; drafted OT D.J. Fluker, LB Manti Te’o, WR Keenan Allen, CB Steve Williams; lost OT Jared Gaither, G Louis Vasquez, DT Aubrayo Franklin, DT Antonio Garay, OLB Shaun Phillips, LB Takeo Spikes, CB Antoine Cason, CB Quentin Jammer, S Atari Bigby; hired head coach Mike McCoy, OC Ken Whisenhunt, DC John Pagano

Where they got better: The offensive line. Louis Vasquez was a flower in a trash heap last season, playing well on the interior for a patchwork line that allowed 49 sacks of Philip Rivers. He’s a Bronco now, leaving Chad Rinehart or Rich Ohrnberger to take his spot. That switch probably scores as a downgrade, but the Chargers’ signing of Max Starks and draft choice of D.J. Fluker, for their two tackle spots, makes up for it. Starks is far from a Hall of Famer, but he’ll help on the left side; Fluker could be dominant on the right. The Chargers even have some depth now, with Ohrnberger, King Dunlap, David Molk and others. The line remains a work in progress, but the Chargers at least are moving in the right direction now.

Where they got worse: The defensive line. Well, maybe not worse, but the Chargers unquestionably have less proven depth here. That’s mostly thanks to the exits of Aubrayo Franklin and Antonio Garay from the middle of the Chargers’ 3-4 front. Cam Thomas will try to take their place, with Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes flanking him. Thomas is the veteran of that trio, with three years experience. San Diego badly needs Jarius Wynn to pitch in some meaningful snaps at end, and the Chargers will spend training camp attempting to find someone to help Thomas at nose tackle — UDFA Kwame Geathers, at 6-foot-6 and 355 pounds, might be the ticket.

Breakout player: Marcus Gilchrist, S. The Chargers have shifted Gilchrist around, from cornerback to safety, during his first two seasons. His move to safety has been made official, for the time being, and he has the inside track to start alongside the outstanding Eric Weddle. And Weddle’s consistent presence will allow Gilchrist to roam a bit, giving him a chance to contribute both against the run and as a deep pass defender.

Where they stand: Perhaps more so than any other team in the league, the Chargers needed a shot in the arm. The coaching change from Norv Turner to Mike McCoy could do the trick. This is a roster in flux, however, with growing questions about Rivers’ future as the team’s quarterback. It’s somewhat amazing that the Chargers won as many games as they did (7) last season, given their warts. From that pure won-loss perspective, they’re not far from the playoffs. The roster, especially shaky at WR and CB, tells a bit of a different story, even as San Diego attempts to rebuild on the fly and contend.

40 comments
OK
OK

Manti Te’o, the Reverend Tebow of the AFC West.

BillFilice
BillFilice

No question this is Denver's to lose.

However, I am having trouble with the claim SD's OL got better when they have a backup replacing the LG, a rookie RT who struggled in pass protection in the SEC, a washout RT moving to RG. Not to mention a C that has not been effective since 2008 and its tough to just assume they are better there.

I also find it amusing that so many who said DHB could not play are now quick to say his departure is now a hit to the WR corps.

Now all of the guys who we were told sucked are leaving and we are told that's a reason to claim Oak will be WORSE?

He also forgets to mention Jacoby Ford will be back. 


Denver runs away with this division IMO.


raiderpete61
raiderpete61

Nice balanced perspective on the Raiders. It seems that most writers simply repeat what they hear from others without looking at the team or considering what has taken place with the Raiders. Lots of changes? For sure, but they were needed. I agree that the roster is at least as talented as last year, if not more so. I see a 2-3 game improvement in record if Flynn or Wilson can perform at a decent level. McKenzie is changing the culture and we will see the beginnings of it this year. 

John4
John4

The Broncos should win the AFC West, but the Chiefs should provide some competition?  Huh?  The Chiefs will be lucky to be 7-9.  The Broncos will be about 9-7.  They should have the division won by the end of week 15 (of 17).  The Raiders are looking at 4-12 (or worse).  The oddsmakers have their over/under at 5.5 wins, so the "under" is absolutely easy money.  The Chargers can lose any week, and are looking at 5-11 or 6-10.  The Broncos have a nice easy path to the Division title.  This time, hopefully Peyton can win a playoff game!

BrendanMiles
BrendanMiles

Peyton had his shot last year and blew it. The Chargers and the Chiefs in the division as well as all other teams in the AFC will be gunning for the Broncos this year and it's going to take it's toll on Manning in the second half of the season. Any way, the winner of this division won't go past the first week in the playoffs.

Racyman57
Racyman57

I doubt that the Chiefs can win a division with a healthy Peyton Manning leading a talented Bronco roster, but they have the talent and now the coaching to contend for a Wild Card spot.  The Chiefs totally underacheived, last season, largely due to the QB position and possibly as bad a job of coaching as I have seen in my 40+ years of being a fan.  If Alex Smith can continue to perform at the level he has the past two seasons, or better, this team has too much young talent not to be, at least, a .500 team (which would actually be a disappointment to me, I can see a 10 win season).  There are no glaring weaknesses, at any position and Reid/Dorsey have supplemented the roster with some veteran depth and leadership.  There is no reason that this team can't be a contender for the foreseeable future and win a Lombardi in the next 2-3 years.  Anything less is unacceptable, for us long -tortured Chief fans.

Frotoon
Frotoon

I'm looking forward to seeing what Alex Smith and Matt Flynn can do. Smith really elevated his game the past couple years and has lots of years under his belt. Flynn never got to play last year but he did put up a couple of monster games for GB.

ianlinross
ianlinross

Burke and his pre-season predictions aren't worth the laptop he's writing on.

16882
16882

Every year it's the same old s#&!.  The media always wants to crown the chefs to win it all.  Lets see, Alex Smith vs. Payton Manning.  What a moron

Salj12
Salj12

@raiderpete61 As a Bronco fan I hope to see your team improve.  Tho I do believe you'll have to wait another year.  Which isn't bad if you look at next years draft & the cap room Oakland will have.  

ChrisSanchez
ChrisSanchez

@John4 Denver has a top 5 offense and defense and has one of the easiest schedules in the NFL and you have them going 9-7...lol....what a moronic statement

SweetSteve22
SweetSteve22

@BrendanMiles Peyton should only get better given the WR's are better than they were last year and theoretically they should have a more consistent run game too. Saying he's missed his shot after one season is pretty dumb..

John4
John4

@Racyman57 Lombardi for the Chiefs in the next 2-3 years?   You CANNOT be serious! 

ChrisSanchez
ChrisSanchez

@Frotoon Flynn got a chance with a loaded team, now he has a chance with a weak team, two very different scenarios.  The fact that a 4th round rookie passed him on depth chart is very alarming and telling.


BillFilice
BillFilice

@16882 San Diego too. The love fest is finally calming down but why are they opening prime time on MNF?

John4
John4

@16882 Who are the "chefs"?  Did you read ANY of the article?

duckfan59
duckfan59

@16882 He obviously looked at that thar purdy pitchur and got distracted from actually putting those funny lookin' letters together.

donald5
donald5

@16882 "This may not be a 10-win (Chiefs) team, but a minimum of six wins is realistic."

I suggest a few reading comprehension exercises that might help you get through these articles with a firmer grasp of what was written.


doghockey
doghockey

@16882 I like the way that you finished your post with a little dig at yourself for not being able to grasp the concept of the article.

jb22
jb22

@16882Um, what?  From the article...

"...This is the one division that will head into this season with an absolute, obvious favorite to finish first. That team is the Denver Broncos..."

Try reading the article before commenting.

John4
John4

@BillFilice Not a fan or "hater" of the Raiders.  Just telling it like it is.  The Raiders will be lucky to win more than 4 games in 2013.  For those of you who think otherwise, great.  Simply go to Las Vegas and put your own hard earned money on the "over" for the Raiders for the 2013 season.  I'm trying not to be disrespectful to anyone, and certainly am not being disrespectful to Bill Filice now, but I do have an opinion.  If anyone else has a varying opinion, by all means, please enlighten me. 

Finally, if the Raiders are heading in the right direction, and they win more than 5 games this year great.   As I said, not a "hater".  Peace.

John4
John4

@ChrisSanchez Chris - If it's so moronic, why don't you just tell me how many wins you think the 2013 Broncos will have?  It's not hard.  Just back up your statement with a prediction.  How many games WILL the Broncos win in 2013?

Scramble
Scramble

@ChrisSanchez @John4 Did you really look at their schedule. They play ten of the best quarterbacks in the league. Manning can't move and his arm may be suspect this year and hopefully he doesn't become a Dumer/Suggs sandwich his first game with Haloti adding the condiments.

BrendanMiles
BrendanMiles

@SweetSteve22 @BrendanMiles It's not dumb when you look at his record. Unless the Broncos get home field advantage again this year, which I doubt, Manning just doesn't have the tools to win playoffs on the road. It was all set up for him last year and he came up short. He'll also be another year older and a tougher schedule will take it's toll, especially when he finishes on the road to Houston then Oakland. The team to watch in the AFC is Miami, they're capable this year of going 8-0 at home, and with New England no longer dominant, the AFC East is there for the taking.


John4
John4

@BillFilice Bill - I do think we can agree about San Diego.  They are not a good team, and can lost any week.  Their RBs are below average, they cut their FB, their WRs are average, but do not have any game changers there, their OL is terrible,  It's so bad that Dallas might not have the worst OL in football in 2013 because SD will. Their TE is obviously very good, but has little help.  Their QB is an enigma.  As for the SD defense, does anyone stand out?  A pro bowl type player anywhere on the SD defense?  Anyone anyone?  Eric Weddle, maybe.  San Diego is in decline and will not be good in 2013.  I think they could realistically/potentially lose about 10 games.  

scBlais
scBlais

@duckfan59 @16882 Now we know what happens when parents only give their kids picture books growing up.

BillFilice
BillFilice

I think we will win 6 or 7 with the defensive upgrades and a return to power blocking which had the team at #6 in rushing the year before. Last year, Davis died and we had to wait for the GM hiring and Greg Knapp and his ZBS were all that was out there by then. Tony Sparano & Greg Olsen run a power scheme like Hugh Jax did where D Mac averaged 6.1 YPC. The running game is the key to getting man and man free coverages taking pressure off the QB. I think we win 6 or 7.

BillFilice
BillFilice

@John4 @BillFilice I don't doubt you but we are not talking like Charger fans are. I know we are still a work in progress and your points are valid. 

However, here in SD, Charger fans are talking about winning the division with the "upgrades" .

 Raider fans are not the ones in denial of reality. 


John4
John4

@bdelander See?  While you might be a bit optimistic, and the NFL schedule ALWAYS has a surprise or two, at least your claim of 12-4 is intelligently stated.  Your comment is refreshing, and sure beats comments like the one above by Sanchez that essentially says "You think the Broncos will be 9-7?  What a moron".  We'll see how they finish.  Best of luck to your Broncos in 2013.   

bdelander
bdelander

I'm a lifelong Broncos fan, so take that for what it's worth. But here's my prediction: 12-4

vs. Baltimore W

@ NY Giants L

vs. Oakland W

vs. Philly W

@ Dallas W

vs. Jacksonville W

@ Indianapolis W

vs. Washington W

BYE

@ San Diego L

vs. Kansas City W

@ New England L

@ Kansas City W

vs. Tennessee W

vs San Diego W

@ Houston L

@ Oakland W

Salj12
Salj12

@BrendanMiles @SweetSteve22 This is some of the dumbest nonsense I've heard in quite sometime.  How do you doubt they'll get home field advantage?  Don't just say stupid things without backing it up.  When you look at the other teams in the AFC, they are head & shoulders the class of the conference.  I also don't know what you're talking about in terms of tougher schedule?  I'm not predicting a perfect season, but I'm also not an idiot.  14-2, 13-3 sounds about right   

John4
John4

@BillFilice Bill - I have enjoyed your comments.  It's nice to hear intelligent opinions on this site.  Basically Bill, I enjoy the NFL for its betting.  My favorite is a moneyline bet on the underdog.  I frequently will parlay two moneyline underdogs.  The payoff on a two team moneyline parlay can easily be 6 or 7 to 1, so money can be made on those bets.  I also get a kick out of people who come on here with interesting claims about their favorite teams.  The Chiefs winning a Lombardi in the next 2-3 years?  At the end of the day, the NFL provides 17 weekend opportunities for betting on the games.  Is there really any other reason to watch the games? What a bettor will do with the Raiders is see how well the new QB (Flynn) will bond with the WRs.  I know they brought in that GM from the Packers' organization (McKenzie, a former OL, I think), but I don't see improvement this year.  To think I hope the Raiders lose is ridiculous.  (Unless I have their opponent on the moneyline that week).  Raiders' fans are truly among the most loyal in the NFL.  They deserve improvement.  Peace.  

BillFilice
BillFilice

@John4 @BillFilice The Chargers are razor thin everywhere and can't afford one injury. Throw in the 2 new CB's have never been more than slot corners facing #3 WR's. Their O line is not improved at all despite the hype and they have new coaches and new schemes.No SS worth a damn, No quality FB, A soft RB, An aging Gates who has reached the age most TEs slow way down.

The depth issue will kill them once they suffer their first injury as they have ZERO quality depth ANYWHERE on the field.


Freeney going to cover RB's out of the backfield? If he isn't then that negates the ability to disguise fronts in the 34 base. Freeney will be a situational pass rusher who they line up as a DE on nickel downs and NOTHING MORE. 


They will not put him in coverage on RBs, and without that option, the 34 is predictable allowing teams to adjust the pass protection and pick up the zone blitz the 34 utilizes so well. 


Their fans will be shell shocked come week 6.