2006 NFL Preview: AFC West

Denver Broncos
Head Coach: Mike Shanahan
2005 Record: 13-3
Key Additions: RB Mike Bell, WR Javon Walker, DE Kenard Lang
Key Subtractions: RB Mike Anderson, DE Trevor Pryce, TE Jeb Putzier

Offense: Head coach Mike Shanahan and the Denver front office made some interesting changes to an offense that scored over 24 point per games in 2005. The team opted to let No. 1 running back Mike Anderson walk after a 1,000-yard season with 12 TD’s. Prior to training camp, the belief was that Tatum Bell and Ron Dayne would battle it out for the starting job. But Shanahan surprised everyone early in camp by naming undrafted rookie Mike Bell of the University of Arizona as his No. 1 back. Bell will receive handoffs from quarterback Jake Plummer, who will have some pressure on him after the Broncos moved up in the draft to select highly touted quarterback Jay Cutler of Vanderbilt. Cutler may not see the field this season, but it’s no secret that he will be the future in Denver. At wide receiver, the team added Javon Walker through a trade with Green Bay. Walker, who should be back at 100% after tearing his ACL in the second game last season, will be paired with Denver receiving stalwart Rod Smith. Third receiver Ashley Lelie is demanding a trade and his days in Denver could be extinct.

Defense: The Broncos’ defense excelled in 2005, particularly at stopping the run. The team lost defensive end Trevor Pryce in the offseason, but has Courtney Brown, Ebenzer Ekuban, and Kenard Lang to fill his shoes. Gerard Warren and Michael Myers return as starting defensive tackles. The linebacking trio of Al Wilson, Ian Gold, and D.J. Williams remains in tow. The secondary also returns as a whole with Champ Bailey (8 interceptions last season) and Darrent Williams at cornerback and John Lynch and Nick Ferguson (5 interceptions) at safety.

Projection: With the other three teams in the division in a transition mode, it’s hard to see the steady Broncos not winning the AFC West. Plummer should be motivated to have a big season with Cutler breathing down his neck. Considering Denver’s history in cultivating running backs, starting an undrafted rookie should not be as scary as it may sound. The defense was dominant at times in 2005 and, if healthy, should repeat its success of a year ago. 12 wins and a potential first round bye could in store for Denver.

Kansas City Chiefs
2005 Record: 10-6
Head Coach: Herman Edwards
Key Additions: CB Ty Law, DE Tamba Hali
Key Subtractions: WR Marc Boerigter, RB Tony Richardson

Offense: Dick Vermeil announced his retirement at the end of the 2005 season, culminating an overall successful run in Kansas City. To replace the Hall of Fame Vermeil, the Chiefs went out and paid a price to wrest Herman Edwards away from the New York Jets. The team hopes Edwards can bring a much needed toughness to the defensive side of the ball. The offense requires little tinkering after another monstrous season. The Chiefs led the league in total yards in ’05, scoring over 25 points per game. Quarterback Trent Green led the offense with another 4,000-yard season. With Priest Holmes out with potential career-threatening injuries, Larry Johnson established himself as one of the top backs in the league with an amazing 1,750 yards and 20 TD’s. The receiving corps remains the same with world class tight end Tony Gonzalez and receivers Eddie Kennison, Samie Parker, and speedster Dante Hall.

Defense: The defense has always been Kansas City’s Achilles’ heel and the organization did little in the offseason to improve the unit. A lot of faith is being put in Edwards’ defense-first mindset to motivate the players. The team did draft defense with its first round pick in defensive end Tamba Hali, who will start with Jaren Allen, who notched 11 sacks in ’05. Kawika Mitchell, team leader in tackles, returns at middle linebacker, flanked by second-year player Derrick Johnson and Kendrell Bell. The team did make a bold move in the secondary by signing Ty Law, who grabbed 10 interceptions last season under Edwards in New York, to play cornerback with Patrick Surtain. Greg Wesley, with his 6 interceptions from last year, starts at free safety while Sammy Knight holds down the strong safety position.

Projection: With so few roster changes, it would be difficult to predict anything but status quo for the Chiefs. The offense will produce copious amounts of yardage and points while the defense could give most of it back. Another 9 or 10 win season is certainly within reach, but the team could again be on the outside looking in at the playoffs in a tough conference.

Oakland Raiders
2005 Record: 4-12
Head Coach: Art Shell
Key Additions: QB Aaron Brooks, CB Tyrone Poole
Key Subtractions: QB Kerry Collins, DB Renaldo Hill, DT Ted Washington

Offense: A dismal 4-12 season prompted owner Al Davis to try a blast from the past and bring back Art Shell, who Davis fired after the 1994 season, as head coach of the Oakland Raiders. Shell inherits a troubled team with a new starting quarterback. Aaron Brooks left the New Orleans Saints to sign a two-year in Oakland as a replacement for Kerry Collins. While Brooks has had a poor start to the preseason, he does possess talent and has weapons to work with on the field. None of those weapons is bigger than wide receiver Randy Moss, who caught 8 TD’s and managed over 1,000 yards despite being hampered by injuries most of the season. Defenses double teaming Moss could benefit fellow receivers Doug Gabriel and Ronald Curry. Jerry Porter remains a holdout from the team after demanding a trade. At running back, Lamont Jordan should build on his solid season as a first-year starter where he accumulated 1,025 yards and 9 scores.

Defense: The Raiders were among the worst defensive teams in 2005, ranking 27th out of 32 teams in total defense. The lone bright spot was the play of defensive end Derrick Burgess, who led the entire NFL with 16 sacks. With big Ted Washington gone, Warren Sapp and Tommy Kelly will do their best to plug up the middle at the defensive tackle spot. Danny Clark and Kirk Morrison developed into nice surprises at the linebackers, both notching over 110 tackles. Second round draft pick Thomas Howard of UTEP could get the nod at strongside linebacker. The team’s first round draft pick, defensive back Michael Huff of the University of Texas, will start at strong safety while Stuart Schweigert roams at free safety. Nnamdi Asomugha, Fabian Washington, and Tyrone Poole will battle it out at the cornerback position.

Projection: Much of Oakland’s success in 2006 will depend on how well Aaron Brooks can throw the ball. He can be shaky at times and spectacular other times. Even without Porter, there’s enough on offense where Oakland can score some points. The defense is another story and barring massive improvements across the board, 6 wins should be the limit for the Raiders.

San Diego Chargers
2005 Record: 9-7
Head Coach: Marty Schottenheimer
Key Additions: CB Antonio Cromartie, S Marlon McCree
Key Subtractions: QB Drew Brees, WR Reche Caldwell

Offense: A new era will begin in San Diego this season as quarterback Philip Rivers, the 4th overall pick in the 2004 draft, takes over the reigns of the Chargers’ offense. Rivers, who has not started a game in his two years as a pro, replaces Drew Brees, who revitalized the franchise two seasons ago with stellar play and, most importantly, victories. But after handing out a large contract to Rivers as a rookie, the team couldn’t afford another season with two players making big money at the same position. It’s rare that the entire season can rest on the shoulders of one player, but Philips assumes the pressure. The Chargers made hardly any personnel changes on either side of the ball. Superstar running back Ladanian Tomlinson returns and should post 2,000 yards rushing and receiving even in a bad season. Antonio Gates, perhaps the best tight end in the sport, gives the inexperienced Rivers a go-to receiver. Veteran Keenan McCardell and up and comer Eric Parker will start at wide receiver.

Defense: In 2005, the defense for San Diego did yeoman’s work, particular in stuffing the run. The group yielded a league-best 84.3 yards per game on the ground. Luis Castillo and Igor Olshansky rush from the defensive ends position while Jamal Williams penetrates at nose tackles. Donnie Edwards, after a 154-tackle season, returns with Randall Godfrey and Steve Foley as the starting linebackers. Shawne Merriman, with 10.5 sacks in his rookie season, will play the tweener spot again on the D-line and at a linebacker. In the secondary, Quentin Jammer holds down one cornerback spot while first round pick Antonio Cromartie of Florida State and Drayton Florence battle for the second starting spot. Terrence Kiel and Bhawoh Jue start at safeties.

Projection: Philip Rivers will ultimately decide the fate of this football team in 2006. If he stumbles as a first-year starter, which is not out of the question, the Chargers might not be above .500. With the talent at the other 21 positions on the field, the potential exists for a big season if Rivers can find his groove early on. More than likely, Rivers will struggle adapting to the position and the Chargers will take a step back to 6 or 7 wins.

Projected 2006 AFC West Standings:
Denver Broncos: 12-4
Kansas City Chiefs: 9-7
San Diego Chargers: 7-9
Oakland Raiders: 5-11

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