The AFC West started as an offensive division but defense is the letter of the day as of late. By the end of the year, the Chiefs and Broncos were two of the best defenses in the league. This year, defense and running the ball will be key. Let's see how the teams stack up.
The arrival of Peyton Manning into town may seem like the cure all for a team that couldn’t produce much offensively last season. Tim Tebow was the savior and he was pedestrian at best. The thing is, the running attack kept the defense fresh. With Manning comes the possibilities of more time on the field for the defense. However Manning is the king of clock control so if the Broncos are to be successful, Manning will need to play like he played during the last Super Bowl season in Indy.
Willis McGahee will also be key. Finding carries for Willis to maintain his dominance he showed last year will be important. Willis is the key to the success of the Broncos in the red zone.
To fix the defense, John Fox dug into his coaching past to find a new defensive coordinator. The Broncos hired Jack Del Rio to replace Dennis Allen as the team’s defensive coordinator, reuniting Fox with his first defensive coordinator from Carolina. Denver also hired strength and conditioning coach Luke Richesson, who spent the last three seasons on Del Rio’s staff in Jacksonville. Richesson replaces Rich Tuten, whose contract was not renewed after 17 seasons with the Broncos.
Del Rio, a former NFL linebacker, joined Fox’s first staff in Carolina in 2002. After one year in that role, in which the Panthers’ defense improved from the No. 31-ranked defense in 2001 to No. 2 in the NFL, Del Rio was hired to be head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Del Rio inherits a Denver defense that improved from last in the league in 2010 to No. 20 this year under Fox and Allen, with three players (cornerback Champ Bailey, linebacker Von Miller and defensive end Elvis Dumervil) who were voted into the Pro Bowl. A fourth player, safety Brian Dawkins, made the Pro Bowl roster as an alternate.
Prediction – 2nd Place
Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs will welcome back their injured stars from the 2011 season and hope better health awaits them in 2012. It all starts and ends with the health of Jamaal Charles. If Charles is healthy the Chiefs will get back half of its offensive production from two years ago and it will open up things for Matt Cassell on the perimeter. The Chiefs defense needs to bolster its depth and stay productive. In regards to free agency, the Chiefs landed cornerback Stanford Routt, who turns 29 before the season. He is a press-man corner and fits Romeo Crennel’s scheme. While he allowed too many touchdown passes (8) and committed too many penalties (17) last year, Routt posted career highs in interceptions (4) and pass breakups (15). Pro Football Focus graded Routt as the NFL’s 19th-best corner in terms of coverage. While Carr will command more money, PFF had him 21st.
Kansas City also worked on their existing players and signed defensive tackle Amon Gordon to a new deal. A journeyman former fifth-round pick, Gordon appeared in all 16 games for the first time in his career last season, tallying 23 tackles and two sacks in just 85 snaps. He’ll be used as a rotational pass-rushing specialist in 2012. Defensive end Tyson Jackson restructured his contract Jackson finally came close to playing up to his draft status in 2011, excelling against the run.
The Chiefs invested their No. 11 overall draft pick in Memphis defensive tackle Dontari Poe The Chiefs didn’t re-sign Kelly Gregg, so Poe should be starting day 1. Probably will be a 2 down linemen. One of the more polarizing players in the draft, the 346-pound Poe saw his draft stock rise meteorically at the combine after running a sub 5.0 40-yard dash and putting up a combine-high 44 bench reps. He’s one of the classic examples of the debate between potential and previous production. His size and speed suggest he could be elite in the NFL, but just eight tackles for loss and one sack against Conference USA opponents in his final season is a concern. Kansas City had a vacancy at nose tackle following Kelly Gregg’s retirement. Poe could emerge as a dominant force in the middle of Crennel’s 3-4 defense or fall flat along the likes of former first-rounder’s Ryan Sims or Jimmy Kennedy.
Prediction – 3rd Place
A new coaching staff will be running the show now in Oakland, as Dennis Allen takes over as head coach and new defensive coordinator Jason Tarver.
The Raiders are pretty set on the offensive side of the ball. They can only hope that they can get more time out of often injured Darren McFadden and that Carson Palmer somehow returns to form. McFadden has been injured for about as many games as he has played as a pro but when healthy he is amongst the best in the league. The Raiders mortgaged their team last season when Jason Campbell went down because they thought they had a chance to win games. It ended up costing the coaching staff their jobs.
Defensively new GM Reggie McKenzie fell into a terrible situation. Faced with serious salary cap issues, no real assets that they could afford to trade away and holding no draft picks until overall pick No. 95 at the end of the third round—a compensatory pick at that—McKenzie’s hands were tied firmly behind his back. There was only so much he could do with the hand that he was dealt.
With the few draft picks the Raiders had to work with, they drafted outside linebacker Miles Burris from San Diego State. A relentless pass rusher at San Diego State, Burris’ best position in the long term probably projects as SAM ‘backer. In OTA’s, Burris worked with the first-team defense at weak-side linebacker with Aaron Curry getting time off. Burris is learning both outside spots during the instructional workouts.They also added defensive end Jack Crawford from Penn State, defensive lineman Christo Bilukidi from Georgia State and outside linebacker Nathan Stupar from Penn State.
Prediction – Last Place
San Diego Chargers
Offensively the Chargers had their worst season in a while. Last season Philip Rivers struggled but most quarterbacks would kill to have his pedestrian numbers from a year ago. They were also hampered by inconsistency at wide receiver as contract woes and lack of experience held them hostage most of the season. It also didn’t help that Antonio Gates was injured most of the crucial stretch of the season.
Defensively the Chargers need help defending QBs. Their defense allowed a 68.2 Total QBR last season, highest in the league.
Prior to the start of the draft, the Chargers addressed a number of positions in the offseason, reaching a deal with outside linebacker Jarret Johnson. The Ravens wanted Johnson, but not enough to keep him in Purple. Jets coach Rex Ryan was also interested in reuniting with Johnson. Turning 30 in August, Johnson has established a niche as one of the league’s most effective outside linebackers against the run and least effective in reaching the quarterback. He won’t fill San Diego’s need for a pass rusher, but he can form an effective tag-team with Antwan Barnes. Johnson will also add a hard edge to a defense that had gone soft.
Chargers signed safety Atari Bigby, formerly of the Seahawks. Bigby made two starts as a rotational safety in Seattle last year, recording 18 tackles and a sack. He’ll likely compete for the same role with the Chargers following the departure of SS Steve Gregory to New England.
Chargers brought in LB Demorrio Williams, formerly of the Chiefs. The 31-year-old will stay in the AFC West as a backup to Takeo Spikes and Donald Butler in San Diego.
San Diego also brought back a number of players, like nose tackle Antonio Garay and defensive end Luis Castillo. Castillo, 28, has played 16-game seasons just twice since entering the NFL in 2004. He missed all but one game in 2011 with a fractured left leg.
Prediction – 1st Place