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AFC West Preview

Denver Broncos

Key Additions: Javon Walker, WR; Kenard Lang, DE; Kyle Koiser, OT; Nate Webster, LB; Willie Middlebrooks, DB; Jay Cutler (Draft), QB, Mike Bell (Draft), RB

Key Losses: Gary Kubiak (offensive coordinator), Trevor Pryce, DE; Mike Anderson, RB; Jeb Putzier, TE

Offensive Outlook

At quarterback Jake Plummer is the guy (for now) and he is coming off of a career year where he threw for almost 3,400 yards and 18 touchdowns (only 7 picks). So what was Plummer’s reward for his performance in ’05? The Broncos traded two first round picks to move up in the draft and acquire Jay Cutler from Vandebilt. That move, to me, makes it seem like Mike Shanahan more remembers Plummer’s performance in the AFC Championship (four turnovers) rather than his overall performance on the season. The early return on Cutler is that he looks impressive, and after his first preseason performance he may just have what it takes for a quarterback controversy to surface at Mile High. Plummer will likely be looking over his shoulder all year, which doesn’t usually bode well for players who seem to struggle in the mental approach to the game.

At running back Mike Anderson is out and rookie Mike Bell is in, at least for now. Ron Dayne is probably the best fit to be the next starter, having run in the same zone-blocking scheme at Wisconsin, but it remains to be seen if he can be a starter in this league for sixteen games. Tatum Bell, given his struggles in blocking anyone, just doesn’t have the confidence of the coaches to be the every down guy. He does have nice big play ability, but that’s not enough to get him any more than 10-15 touches per game. Dayne should end up winning the job, but look for the Broncos to run by committee more so than they ever have under Shanahan. A player added via trade is also a possibility.

The Broncos biggest off season acquisition was on draft day when they traded for former Green Bay receiver Javon Walker. Walker, coming off a season ending injury last year, when healthy is one of the games best players at the position. Rod Smith, showing no signs of slowing down at the age of 36, is also one of the games best and the two together may rival the Harrison/Wayne and Johnson/Houshmandzadeh duos of the world. The key will be Walker’s ability to return to full speed following his injury, since last season’s number two receiver, Ashley Lelie, will likely be traded for tight end, defensive line or running back depth any day now. At the third receiver spot it looks like third year receiver Darius Watts has finally worked his way out of the Shanahan doghouse and is ready to contribute significantly in the offense. If Walker isn’t ready to go early on, Watts will be called on to fill the void.

Tight end is a position where Denver usually has their most depth, but given the departure of Jeb Putzier and injuries to various others this is the slimmest they’ve been at the position in years. Starter Stephen Alexander is more known for his inability to stay healthy than for his production on the field, and if he goes down the Broncos have little to nothing behind him in the way of experience. The back up will likely be rookie Tony Schleffler and given the Broncos often use of two tight end sets he’ll be called on for major duty early on.

The offensive line has been the strength of the offense for as long as I can remember and that will not change for the ’06 season. In fact the unit is deeper than ever, and now have capable back ups at every position along the line.

Defensive Outlook

The Broncos struggled getting to the quarterback last season (John Lynch was their leader in sacks with 4), and they did little to none to improve upon the defensive line in the off season. This unit is tough against the run (2nd in the league), but fails to get to the quarterback with just their front four. Due to their lack of addressing this problem in the off season I look for much of the same regarding sack production this season. Fourth round pick Elvis Dumervil was effective getting to the passer in college, but is far too undersized to carry that over to the NFL in his rookie year. Losing Trevor Pryce also doesn’t help, but signing Kenard Lang to replace him does.

I really like their starting trio at linebacker and in my opinion can be one of the best units in the league. Al Wilson, DJ Williams and Ian Gold are the starters and all are effective in both the running and passing games, and the depth behind them is pretty adequate.

In the secondary we all know about shutdown corner Champ Bailey (coming off a career year for interceptions with eight) and safety John Lynch, but the rest of this unit is pretty good as well. Nick Ferguson’s big play ability (5 picks last year) will likely result in him again starting at strong safety, but the starter opposite Bailey isn’t as closed a case. Darrent Williams, who started the first thirteen games of his rookie season last year before getting injured, has a slight edge over fellow second year player Domonique Foxworth who will likely again be the Bronco’s primary nickel back.

Overall Outlook

The offense will again likely go as Jake Plummer goes. If Plummer can ignore the pressure being put on him by rookie Jay Cutler, and just build on his success from last season then the Bronco offense should remain in good hands. Due to the offensive line, no matter who the running back is the production should be there. If Walker can get to 100%, the passing game should be as good if not better than it was when Ed McCaffrey started alongside Rod Smith. The defense needs to find better ways to get to the quarterback, but defensive coordinator Larry Coyer gets too conservative at times and the front four’s inability to generate pressure on their own will again haunt this unit. I still think this team is very capable of winning the division and even contending again for the AFC, but if Plummer struggles early and they have to turn to Cutler it may go downhill fast. Prediction: 11-5

Fantasy Outlook
As always having the Broncos number one running back is a nice luxury, but as always (at least since Clinton Portis was traded) determining who that player will be is very difficult. Mike Bell currently holds the spot, but after a lackluster performance in the first preseason game it looks like he hardly is entrenched at the position. They’re rumors that Ron Dayne and Tatum Bell are both on the trading block, but the likelihood of either being traded seems very low. Either way, due to my belief that the Broncos will be running by committee more so than ever, any of the three seem a risk in fantasy. Tatum Bell may be your best option simply because he is always a threat to make the big play. Rod Smith still seems to warrant being selected in the top half of the draft (1100 yards and 6 touchdowns and a Pro Bowl appearance last year), but if Javon Walker is able to return healthy those yardage numbers should decrease. Walker, given his injury situation, will be a gamble in earlier rounds but may be a steal in middle rounds. Darius Watts is an interesting sleeper pick if Walker were to go down, but using a draft pick on him is something I would not recommend. With the lack of a proven runner in the backfield, Denver may look to the air more often than ever giving Jake Plummer some added worth in fantasy as well. As long as interceptions aren’t a negative, Plummer should put up top ten numbers at the position. Denver tight ends usually put up nice yardage and find the end zone in this system, but with Putzier gone (he was the third leading receiver last year) to Houston Stephen Alexander is a viable option going into the season, but the rookie Schleffler is probably the better player to acquire for the long term. Given Alexander’s injury history he hardly seems like a player you want to use a draft pick on. The defense also should be steered clear of given their lack of a pass rush (no sacks), and their special teams have been fairly lackluster since Delta O’Neal left for Cincy.

Kansas City Chiefs

Key Additions: Ty Law, DB; Quentin Griffen, RB; Chris Johnson, DB; Tamba Hali (Draft), DE; Brodie Croyle (Draft), QB

Key Losses: Willie Roaf, OT; Tony Richardson, FB; Todd Collins, QB; Gary Stills, LB; Marc Boerigter, WR; Chris Horn, WR

Offensive Outlook

This unit as a whole has been one of the most productive in the NFL for over five years despite a lack of a playmaker at the receiver position. This has mainly been due to their effective running game and All Pro tight end Tony Gonzalez. Both took a huge hit a few weeks ago when All World offensive tackle Willie Roaf announced his retirement from the game of football to return to school. Their offensive line is still one of best units in the league, but you don’t just lose Roaf an expect people not to notice. The team is holding out hope he will return (they have yet to remove him from their roster on the team’s official website), but the chances of that happening seem slim. OG Will Shields has also started to show signs of decline, but was still able to pull it together late last season and earn his 11th straight Pro Bowl selection (we all know, however, that at this position name recognition plays a huge role in getting voted in).

The Chiefs got some experience of life without Willie last season when he missed six games with injury and were still able to effectively move the ball on the ground during his absence. It was in the passing game where the Chiefs took the biggest hit. Without Roaf there to lock down the blind side, Tony Gonzalez was forced to stay in and pass protect rather than release and become another receiving option for Trent Green. They now have to count on Kyle Turley, who has been out of the league for two years and is scarcely underweight, to come in and not only start at tackle, but at left tackle. A feat he’s likely not going to be able to accomplish.

The quarterback and running back positions are set in stone, but the depth behind them isn’t quite as solid. Trent Green has avoided injury since joining the Chiefs, but with Roaf gone he’s likely going to be on his back more so than ever. Todd Collins is now in Washington, leaving only journeymen Damon Huard and two rookies to back up Green.

With Priest Holmes still not being cleared to play there is no longer any controversy as to who the starting running back is in Kansas City. Last season Larry Johnson put up numbers that over a sixteen game season would have easily surpassed the record for rushing yards in a season. This season without Roaf and lead blocker Tony Richardson he’s likely not to have nearly the kind of success he did in ’05, but still should be very effective nonetheless. It isn’t quite clear who the back up will be, but if Holmes is able to return it will certainly be him. If not, it looks to be a battle between newly acquired Michael Bennet, Dee Brown or Quenten Griffen. All are undersized and injury prone, and would be a huge drop off from either Johnson or Holmes.

At tight end with Tony Gonzalez, Jason Dunn and Kris Wilson the Chiefs are undoubtedly one of the deepest teams at the position. It’s at receiver where the Chiefs lack a true playmaker. The losses of Marc Boerigter and Chris Horn probably won’t help either. Eddie Kennison will be one of the starters at the position (assuming he quits whining about a contract that has four years still left on it), but the other starter remains a question mark. Samie Parker currently holds the spot, but may be pushed by second year receiver Craphonso “Jones” Thorpe. First year head coach Herm Edwards has also pledged to use Dante Hall more this year, which if they can get him in the open field the human joystick should be able to do the rest.

Defensive Outlook

This unit has long been the glaring weakness of the team, and just like at receiver team management has failed to address it nearly enough in free agency and early in the draft. This year they made more of a concerted effort using three of their first four picks on that side of the ball to go along with last year’s first round selection of Derrick Johnson. Defensive minded Herm Edwards stepping in as head coach should also lead to improvement as well.

Defensive line remains a question mark going in to the season, as Kansas City will likely start the same four players that struggled last year. Eric Hicks and Ryan Sims have shown promise at times, but neither has been nearly effectively enough to consistently pressure the quarterback or stop the run. And Sims has come nowhere near the expectations that were set for him when he was selected sixth overall in ’02. The other starter at defensive end, Jared Allen, is coming off two productive seasons of nine and eleven sacks respectively and should be fresher in games following the drafting of Tamba Hali. In Hali, Hicks and Allen the Chiefs hope to have fresh legs at all times at the end position hoping that will lead to more sacks in ’06. At the other tackle position is a battle between last year’s starter Lional Dalton and newly acquired Ron Edwards and James Reed. None are special players by any means.

At linebacker if Kendrell Bell can stay healthy and Derrick Johnson and Kawika Mitchell continue to improve, this unit can help the Chiefs defense get out of the cellar in the league. The depth is very slim, however, so any injury to any of the three would likely be disastrous. Also, look for defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham to blitz more with these guys now that they have added more experience in the secondary.

Speaking of the secondary this unit can’t possibly be any worse than they’ve been the past two seasons where they were 30th and 32nd against the pass respectively. Adding former NFL cornerback Herm Edwards alone should help improve on that. Another noteworthy addition is that of cornerback Ty Law. Law has clearly lost a step, but is crafty and experienced enough to still be considered one of the league’s best. Patrick Surtain hasn’t been the same player in Kansas City that he was in Miami, but teaming with Law should increase his chances at making plays. Greg Wesley and Sammy Knight round of the secondary at the safety positions, but neither are locks to remain starters. Rookie Bernard Pollard hits a ton and will breathing down the neck of both Knight and Wesley for a chance to get on the field.

Overall Outlook

The Chiefs have made some decent moves on the defensive side of the ball, but I still see some holes at the starting positions and absolutely no depth along the line or at linebacker. A good secondary is nice to have, but without an effective pass rush or an ability to stop the run a good secondary becomes a mediocre one. The offense has bailed out this team in years past, but without a playmaker at receiver and the absence of Willie Roaf it will be much harder for them to put up the numbers they’ll need to hide a sub par defense. The Chiefs were a .500 team (3-3) in Willie Roaf’s absence last season, which is exactly what I predict for them in ’06. Prediction: 8-8

Fantasy Outlook

Trent Green has quietly been one of the most consistent quarterbacks in fantasy over the years, but touchdowns have always been lacking due to the explosive running game. Look for more of the same this year and only consider Green an above average back up at the position. Tony Gonzalez’s numbers will likely be more like they were a year ago rather than in seasons passed, but still giving him good enough numbers to be considered the first tight end after Antonio Gates is selected. Larry Johnson may not have a season like he did a year ago, but still look for close to 1,600 rushing and double digit touchdowns leaving him worthy of serious consideration as the first overall pick. The only receiver I’d draft here would be Kennison and even he is a third option at best. The defense’s lack of a pass rush and knack for giving up the big play makes them completely worthless in the fantasy world. Hali and Derrick Johnson may change this by way of sacks, but I’d play wait and see rather than waste a draft pick. Dante Hall in the return game no longer warrants selecting this unit anymore either.

Oakland Raiders

Key Additions: Aaron Brooks, QB; Tyrone Poole, DB; Duane Starks, DB; Lance Johnstone, DE; Michael Huff (Draft), DB

Key Losses: Charles Woodson, DB; Ted Washington, DT; Ed Jasper, DT; Renaldo Hill, DB; Tim Johnson, LB

Offensive Outlook

I thought for sure the Aaron Brooks and Randy Moss pairing would be a match made in heaven, but after two preseason games I’m not so sure anymore. Brooks has struggled and Moss has already started to question his new head coach. Following Monday night’s game Moss voiced his displeasure about being pulled from the game early as well as further displeasure towards the Vikings organization. First in Brooks’ defense (sound familiar?) the offensive line has looked horrible in both games, and last night against the Vikings second team they were getting tossed around. Secondly in Art Shell’s defense, with Jerry Porter already hurt and the injuries Moss sustained last season I understand benching the guy and limiting his playing time. It’s not like Randy needs the reps.

In the end I still think this offense will come together and be one of the better units in the NFL. It’s certainly one of most talented. Brooks’ mobility will enable him to keep plays going when last year the immobile Kerry Collins would just be dead in the water. You would think there would have to be an improvement along the offensive line now that Hall of Fame lineman Art Shell is again at the helm, and this along with some reshuffling should do the trick. Well, sort of.

The Raiders were 29th in the league a year ago running the ball and Lamont Jordan only averaged 19 carries a game. I think this was due more so to the fact that the Raiders were trailing in most games, than to the fact that the coaches just didn’t want to run the ball. With Art Shell now at the helm you can bet that there will be a more concerted effort at establishing the run early in games. I’m not sure that the Raiders currently have the personnel to do so, but there is no doubt Shell will get it at some point. That point may not be this season, but Shell knows the position and is more than capable of finding the right players to do the job. He’s already started a mini overhaul by using three draft picks at the position in his first draft so look for they’re to be short leashes if the starters struggle early on.

LaMont Jordan still needs to prove he can be an every down back in the NFL, but he took a nice step towards doing that last season starting 14 games and amassing over 1,000 yards on the ground. He also gained over 560 yards receiving proving he’s more than capable out of the backfield as a receiver. The depth behind Jordan is minimal so if he were to go down they’d likely slide fullback Zack Crockett over to running back. Crockett is a nice short yardage back, but as a long term solution really isn’t ideal.

At receiver no team in the NFL is more talented, but injuries have plagued this unit the past two seasons. Last year Randy Moss was hampered for most of the year with hamstring issues, and Ronald Curry again suffered an achilles’ tear. Four-year receiver Doug Gabriel shows flashes at times, but needs to show more consistency and versatility to contend for a starting position on this team and in the league. If Jerry Porter can resolve first his injury issues, and secondly his issues with the new coaching regime, and Ronald Curry can somehow make it back to the field there is no reason to believe that this unit will again will be one of the better groups in the NFL. Both happening seems unlikely.

Defensive Outlook

If Derrick Burgess can continue his dominance in getting to the quarterback (league leading 16 sacks last season) and Warren Sapp can return from injury effective then this may be one of the surprise front lines of the ’06 season. Ted Washington is out and Tommy Kelly is permanently in, inside that is (he played end and tackle last season). Tyler Brayton moves back to the defensive line as well finalizing a promising group of starters. The depth along the line is adequate, but vastly unproven.

Their linebacking unit may be the youngest in the league and will likely have starters with a total of only five years of experience. Kirk Morrison, who led all rookies in tackles last season will start at middle linebacker, along with four year veteran Sam Williams on the strong side, and rookie second round pick Thomas Howard on the weak side. The depth is young as well and is made up of a handful of rookies, namely Darnell Bing (who actually played safety in college), and a handful of other players that would likely not be on many other NFL rosters.

There looks to also be a youth movement in the secondary where the most experienced player currently slated to start has only five years of experience. And rookie first round pick Michael Huff will likely unseat that player, Derrick Gibson, by the beginning of the regular season. Tyrone Poole and Duane Starks have been signed to help fill the void left by Charles Woodson, but going along with the youth direction this team seems to be going in it’s highly unlikely either of them will be anything more than a nickel back on this defense. Huff and second year player Fabian Washington have the skills and confidence to be big time players in this league, but due to their inexperience will likely see more downs than ups while learning the ropes in the ’06 season.

Overall Prediction

Even though Al Davis and the majority of the blindly optimistic Raider nation again think this team can compete for a Super Bowl this year, based on the direction Art Shell is seemingly going in with the roster it seems he may be looking at this season a little more realistically. With younger starters getting the nod over more experienced veterans at just about every position on defense, Shell understands that in the long run getting these younger guys experience now will far more benefit the franchise in the years ahead. A luxury a first year coach has over a more tenured one (even though this is obviously not Shell’s first year as the Raiders head coach). Going along with this theme Aaron Brooks too may be replaced at some point during the season for second year player Andrew Walter even though he may give the Raiders the best chance to win now. Given the apparent youth movement it looks to again be another long year for the silver and black. Prediction: 6-10

Fantasy Outlook

Aaron Brooks is a perfect fit for this offense and given their struggles along the offensive line he may also return to the running quarterback he’s been in years passed. Look for his numbers to at least mirror what Kerry Collins was able to do, but include a couple rushing touchdowns as well. There is always the chance that Shell will turn to Walter if Brooks or the team as a whole struggles, but with the talent at receiver that this team possesses he may be worth picking up during the season as well. Given Art Shell’s determination to run the ball Lamont Jordan will probably be a nice number one running back and a great number two. This is of course assuming he can take the physical beating of 25 carries a game. Randy Moss is still a top-flight receiver and given Brooks’ efficiency with the deep ball should have a nice bounce back season in ’06. Porter, assuming he stays should be picked around the same time the Rod Smith’s of the world are coming off the board and Doug Gabriel may warrant a selection, but only because of Porter’s current up in the air status. Due to the use of the tight end in this offense Courtney Anderson, Randal Williams or whoever becomes the starter is probably worthy of starting every week at tight end. Anderson has the bigger upside, but both will probably be called on to contribute. The defense is another one you’d probably be better off steering clear of, but due to the sacking ability of Burgess and big play ability in the secondary they may warrant a start when your starting defense is on the bye.

San Diego Chargers

Key Additions: Marlon McCree, DB; Aaron Shea, TE; Antonio Cromartie (Draft), DB; Charlie Whitehurst (Draft), QB

Key Losses: Drew Brees, QB; Ben Leber, LB; Reche Caldwell, WR; Bob Hallen, C; Justin Peele, TE

Offensive Outlook

The Drew Brees era has officially come to an end in San Diego paving the way for the Phillip Rivers era to begin. Rivers has only thrown 30 career passes and has yet to start a NFL game. He is supposedly known for his leadership skills, work ethic, smarts and quick release, but what would you expect to hear from a front office that drafted him fourth overall when they already had a more than capable player manning the position. Not to mention a front office that then cast aside that capable player in order to basically hand the keys to the franchise over to the unproven signal caller.

Well maybe not the keys to the franchise, but the keys to an offense that was run quite efficiently by the since departed Brees. At his disposal Rivers will have undoubtedly the best running back and tight end in the game, which along with ageless wonder Keenan McCardell at receiver should help him make the transition from spectator to starter. The best blocking fullback in Lorenzo Neal should help as well.

After McCardell the receiving corps is fairly unspectacular, but third year receiver Eric Parker has more than exceeded expectations as an undrafted rookie. Last year’s second round pick Vincent Jackson fought injuries in his rookie season, but will have to step up to fill the void left by Reche Caldwell’s departure. This receiving corps is far too mediocre to expect first year starter Rivers to match Brees’ numbers over the past three seasons.

Along the offensive line they certainly have some questions, but none is as glaring as the health of left tackle Roman Oben. Oben, the most accomplished and consistent player on the Chargers current line, suffered a foot injury last season and has yet to fully participate in training camp this season. If Oben isn’t ready it will trigger a domino effect resulting in many inexperienced players moving to new positions, which is not what you want especially when you’re bringing along a new starting quarterback.

Defensive Outlook

Now on defense fewer question marks arise, but they are certainly there nonetheless. The Chargers front seven is among the best in the league, but it’s in their secondary where they can’t seem to get it right. The Chargers sport a 3-4 look and their starters along the defensive line are as good as they come. Luis Castillo, Jamal Williams and Igor Olshansky are big specimens with big motors and are the main reason that San Diego was first against the run a year ago. The depth, however, is lacking and probably should have been addressed more so in this year’s draft.

The linebacking corp, led by Donnie Edwards and last season’s defensive rookie of the year Shawne Merriman, is also very talented and one of the best units in the league. The other two starters, Steve Foley and Randall Godfrey, are productive and experienced. They’re rumors that Edwards may be traded before the beginning of the regular season (keep your fingers crossed Saints fans), but unlike along the defensive line depth is not an issue as the top two reserves, Stephen Cooper and Matt Wilhelm are good enough to be starters in the league right now.

Now on to the secondary where the talent is there, but the production has not been. Former fifth overall pick Quentin Jammer has fallen quite short of expectations coming into the league and only has two interceptions in the last two seasons. Two other high draft picks Terrence Kiel and Drayton Florence (both second round picks in ’03) have also failed to meet expectations, and all have struggled through injuries throughout their careers. Marlon McCree was signed to add credibility and stability to the unit, but the coaches have yet to determine which safety spot they want to play him in. Antonio Cromartie was drafted in the first round of this year’s draft, but after sitting out his last year of college football with an injury it’s hard to judge what he will be able to contribute in his rookie season. Nobody’s job is safe here, but with inconsistency at every level does it really matter?

Overall Prediction

Having LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates will certainly help advance Rivers’ development, but to expect this offense to match the production it had under Brees this season is just too far fetched. With question marks along the offensive line and at receiver it’s just not going to happen. Teams will be stacking nine to ten men in the box begging Rivers to throw, and if he struggles early on who knows what that could lead to. There is no adequate back up to turn to on this current roster if Rivers is to struggle, so it looks like this franchise will ride or die with his right arm. Defensively the Chargers again should be stout against the run, but if someone goes down along the defensive line then all bets are off. If Donnie Edwards is traded before the season starts (again Saints fan trust me get on your knees) the Chargers will lose a leader on defense, but that’s a role Shawne Merriman was born to fill so they’ll lose nothing in the form of leadership. I have trouble believing in Rivers in his first season in an offense that has too many question marks the major one being him. The defense as well hasn’t made enough moves in the secondary to improve, and are counting way too much in Quentin Jammer to all the sudden get it in his fifth NFL season. Prediction: 7-9

Fantasy Outlook

It’s hard for me to warrant the drafting of Phillip Rivers at any point in the fantasy draft, but I would take a wait and see approach there. They do play the Raiders twice, the Titans, Bills, Bengals, Rams, 49ers and Cardinals so he may be an adequate bye week fill in depending on who your starter ends up being. Gates’ value probably doesn’t fall off because of Rivers and if anything increases due to the tight end’s role as a safety valve at times in an offense. Don’t expect him to be around any later than the third round of any league. LT is still a top three pick, but look for less yards on the ground and more through the air and he’ll likely not exceed his total of 20 touchdowns from a year ago. McCardell is the only receiver worth drafting, but due to Rivers is reduced to a third option or bye week replacement at best. The defense only had 10 interceptions a year ago, and due to their lack of any upgrades will probably struggle creating turnovers again. Darren Sproles will again return kicks, but still gives no real reason to use this defense unless absolutely necessary.

Friday I will have my preview of the NFC West�

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