Jussel: In AFC West, other teams still chasing the Broncos
First things first for the Denver Broncos. They must win the AFC West.
Should be easy, right?
The Broncos won the West last season with staggering ease, their 13-3 mark six games in front of San Diego’s 7-9. The Raiders finished 4-12, with the Chiefs bringing up the rear at 2-14.
That’s old news. Let’s chase around the division to find out how things are stacking up with Denver’s Western rivals.
In Kansas City, the Chiefs have brought in Andy Reid as head coach and a new quarterback in Alex Smith. Reid will be an immediate upgrade over Romeo Crennel on the sideline. Ditto Smith over journeymen Brady Quinn and Matt Cassel at QB.
The Chiefs also have one of the top running backs in the league in Jamaal Charles, who scared the bejesus out of every Chief fan when he went down to a foot injury this week. He is, however, expected only to miss one preseason game.
Other offensive strengths of the Chiefs have always included the line, which excels at run blocking. They added the No. 1 pick in the draft to their line in Eric Fisher, who has stepped in immediately at right tackle.
They also have Dwayne Bowe at one of the wide receiver spots, but the problem is there is only one of him, with other downfield threats virtually nonexistent.
Defensively, they have two outstanding linebackers in Tamba Hali (nine sacks last season) and Derrick Johnson, and decent D-backs in Brandon Flowers, Sean Smith and Eric Berry, but their front three has underperformed and not been upgraded.
Other than Charles’ nick, they are healthy in camp and have much more talent than a team that went 2-14.
Prediction: The Chiefs win four games against the other West teams and tack on another four to make it 8-8.
Next, we check in at Oakland, where Dennis Allen is searching everywhere, anywhere, for talent.
The Raiders’ rebuild starts at quarterback, where Matt Flynn was acquired in a trade from Seattle. Flynn has a decent running back in Darren McFadden, but very little else in terms of threats.
Here’s your trivia question for the day: Who are the Raider starting wide receivers?
Here’s the answer: Denarius Moore, a third-year player who caught 51 passes last season, and Jacoby Ford, a fourth-year player who has 44 catches in his career.
The Raider offense will be challenged.
As will the defense, a unit which allowed nearly 28 points a game last season. The top pickup in offseason was Charles Woodson, the ancient defensive back who is now listed as a starting safety.
As camp reached its third week, nine new starters were penciled in on defense, with six new starters at secondary and linebacker. That’s not conducive to winning in the NFL.
Prediction: The Raiders will be the dregs of the NFL, finishing with only a couple of phantom wins in going 2-14.
And now, the Chargers, a team that will be led for the first time by Mike McCoy, Denver’s offensive coordinator last season. McCoy is reshuffling the deck on the fly in his first training camp, having to deal with a number of injuries.
Starting wide receiver Danario Alexander, who was turning into QB Philip Rivers’ favorite target, went down the first week of camp to a torn ACL, putting him out for the season.
Last week, another starting WR, Malcom Floyd, was thought to have torn his ACL, only to have it diagnosed as a strain, although he is still having evaluations. The current starters at wideout are Vincent Brown and former Bronco Eddie Royal, with rookie Keenan Allen in the mix.
Other concerns are: the offensive line, where four new starters will be on display, including rookie D.J. Fluker at right tackle as they attempt to protect Rivers; tight end, where onetime superstar Antonio Gates is showing plenty of signs of slowing; and depth.
Defensively, the Chargers have plenty of talent, including draft pick Manti Teo (he also suffered a sprained foot and is expected to miss at least a week of camp as he tries to fit in as the team’s new middle linebacker) and free-agent pass rusher Dwight Freeney. Strong safety Eric Weddle is one of the best.
Prediction: The Chargers will beat the Raiders twice and the Chiefs once. They may also give Denver a hard time at least once. But injuries will mount, and they will stumble in the second half of the season to finish 7-9 for a second straight season.
Next up, we’ll look at the progress of the Broncos as they go about the business of trying to stay ahead of the AFC West pack.
Rick Jussel is a former Daily Sentinel sports editor (think Dark Ages) and Grand Junction High School journalism teacher who belongs in the Armchair Quarterback Hall of Fame, if only there was one.