AFC West Preview

P { margin-bottom: 0.08in; }H2 { margin-bottom: 0.08in; } Baring any injuries, this is the one division that will head into this season with an absolute, obvious favorite to finish first. 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 in the AFC West.

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.

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.

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