To get the most comprehensive idea of what the Raiders will be facing in their division opponents this year, we must look outside just this Raider team. So we here at TFDS decided to put together a season preview and prediction of how the entire division looks, team by team.
To give each team it's required attention, we split the analysis duties among the three of us. I took the Chargers, Patrick Patterson took the Broncos and Bret Armstrong took the Chiefs. Then Bret, combined with my Raiders' season prediction article, added the Raiders and we think we came up with a pretty good breakdown of how we think the AFC West will shake out this coming season.
San Diego Chargers
By Levi Damien
The Chargers are going to be without a whole slew of players that have helped them succeed in the past few years. Future Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson was let go, Pro Bowl WR Vincent Jackson and Pro Bowl offensive tackle Marcus McNeil are both holding out for contract reasons and at this point will both be out at least until week 6-- perhaps week 10. Pro Bowl corner Antonio Cromartie joined LT in New York with the Jets and solid blocking tightend, Brandon Manumaleuna, signed with the Bears. Other departing players were Safeties Clinton Hart and Kevin Ellison, nose tackle Jamal Williams and backup QB Charlie Whitehurst.
The team replaced their departed stars with other team's cast-offs and rookies. They brought in Nathan Vasher to try and take over Cromartie's duties, traded for disgruntled Cowboy receiver Patrick Crayton to replace Vincent Jackson and signed journeyman tight end Randy McMichael to try and replace Manumaleuna. All of whom are step down from their predecessors. Then they replaced as many players as possible through the draft. First round RB Ryan Mathews, 4th round S Darrell Stuckey, and 5th rounders NT Cam Thomas and QB Jonathan Crompton.. Which if you were counting, that still leaves the team without a left tackle to replace Marcus McNeil.
Being without their Pro Bowl left tackle while relying on rookies and cast-offs to pick up the slack for other lost stars and Pro Bowlers, is not a great position to be in. However, the Chargers still have Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates. They have also stepped up their efforts to ensure the runningback has good leading blocking-- something LT would have really appreciated last season. Ryan Mathews is thought to be a step up at this point because LT is on the downside of his career. Darren Sproles will compliment Mathews just as he did Tomlinson in a combo that worked quite well in previous seasons. In the end, the Chargers will still be strong. The difference will be the kinds of close games they pulled out last year, they won't pull out this year. Luckily they play in a division with two weak teams (Broncos, Chiefs) and, like the other AFC West teams, play against arguably the weakest division in football this year, the NFC West. These two factors alone will be just enough for them to win the AFC West.
Predicted finish 10-6
By Patrick Patterson
The Denver Broncos are a team in transition. Their second year coach Josh McDaniels came on like gangbusters sending their Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler to the Bears. He followed that up by running their top receiver Brandon Marshall out of town. McDaniels's abrasive style seemed to pay off early in 2009 when the Broncos started 6-0, but they missed the playoffs after a late-season swoon, which was helped along by a Raider win at Invesco Field.
The Broncos fielded a formidable defense last year, but the hopes of that returning were dashed when Elvis Dumerville was lost for the season early in training camp. Dumerville was a terror against quarterbacks in 09 and had just signed a long term extension prior to camp. The departure of their defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and the ascension of former Raiders linebacker coach Don "Wink" Martindale to replace him raises more questions about the defense.
This is not the Mike Shanahan insert no-name running back for 1200 yards Broncos. They are going to need a big year out of second year back Knowshon Moreno. His primary backup is oft injured veteran Corell Buckhalter. At quarterback Kyle Orton will start for the second consecutive year. They will be looking to have some sort of packages where they bring Tim Tebow onto the field to take advantage of his athleticism. However, there are still many questions about Tebow's throwing motion and he won't be taking Orton's job any time soon.
Overall, look for the Broncos to struggle to find an identity. Even with Dumerville fully healthy, they could not build on the momentum of a 6-0 start a year ago and finished out of the playoffs. Look for them to sputter early and never catch any momentum.
Projected finish 7-9
Kansas City Chiefs
By Bret Armstrong
Unfortunately for the Kansas City Chiefs, it is a lot easier to emulate the New England Patriots than it is to recreate what they did when they employed Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennel, and Scott Pioli. In addition, they do not have Coach Bill Belichick and they will not be allowed to cheat by recording the defensive sideline signals of their opponents. And I don't care what anybody tells you, Matt Cassel is no Tom Brady, and that is due in part to the fact that the NFL doesn't consider him "the golden one" and in part because he never even played a snap of college football at USC and only had one good season with what was a pretty decent team when he was in New England.
One thing they do have that the Patriots never really had is a potentially dangerous ground game. Jamaal Charles was terrific over the final nine games of last season and adding Thomas Jones this offseason gives the Chiefs a great 1-2 punch in the backfield. Jones has gotten better every year, but some think that is due to the fact that the New York Jets had an offensive line with four first-round draft picks on it that sent three players to the Pro bowl last year. That is something the Chiefs lack as well.
On defense, the pressure will be on to prove that the switch to a 3-4 scheme was a positive decision. Last year the Chiefs lacked the proper players for the scheme, but they are hoping to fix that this year with the maturation of Glen Dorsey and Tyson Jackson. They have a good linebacker crew that includes Derrick Johnson, Tamba Hali, and Demorrio Williams and they have a decent secondary with Brandon Flowers, Brandon Carr, and fifth overall draft choice in 2010, Eric Berry.
Prediction finish: 7-9
By Bret Armstrong
On offense, they added Jason Campbell, Hue Jackson, and a new starting center, rookie Jared Veldheer. But in order to win, they need the guys who were already there to bring it this year. Darrius Heyward-Bey showed against Seattle that he can perform when the lights and cameras are on. Expect Louis Murphy and Michael Bush to be playmakers for the offense this year and join Zach Miller as legitimate threats to opposing defenses. The Raiders need help from third-year running back Darren McFadden.
The Raiders' defense could be one of the most significant overall unit upgrades in NFL this season. The front seven added about a whole athlete worth of bulk and the secondary added some nice depth through the draft. Rookie MLB Rolando McClain is projected by some, like ESPN's John Clayton, to be the defensive rookie of the year this season. Tyvon Branch finished eighth in the league last year with 108 tackles and will only be better this year. Richard Seymour is moving inside to eat blockers alongside Tommy Kelly. Nnamdi Asomugha is expected to have more maneuverability this year in coverage. The defense has a lot of potential to say the least.
The Raiders have improved tremendously from last season in many areas, but they left out two areas that will most likely need to be addressed next season: the offensive line and the special teams unit. The left tackle, Mario Henderson could be a problem if he doesn't get better against speed rushers. Cooper Carlisle is supposed to be a well aged veteran, but he lets too much pressure come from his side up the middle on passes. The special teams' coverage unit has been dominated in preseason play and needs to improve. But I expect Sebastian Janikowski to win at least one game for the Raiders with a huge kick at the end of a game.
Predicted finish: 9-7
That means between the three of us we have the AFC West looking like this at the end of the season:
San Diego Chargers 10-6
Oakland Raiders 9-7
Kansas City Chiefs 7-9
Denver Broncos 7-9