Ah, the AFC West. Home of rabid crowds, rich tradition and … well, not much else these days.
We continue with our Q and A series on each division with the sure-to-produce-one-playoff-team West. Will anyone challenge the Chargers? Does the division have a strength? Are there any sleeper players ready to break out into greatness?
Let our “Fantastic Four” answer.
Who’s your breakout player for 2010?
Ben Stockwell: Antoine Cason, CB, San Diego. He took a step back in terms of playing time from his rookie season and his play improved with it. With Antonio Cromartie gone, Cason has the platform to emerge as a solid all-around corner opposite Quentin Jammer.
Neil Hornsby: Chiefs CB Brandon Flowers gets next to no recognition for the excellent work he does. If the world comes to its senses and starts seeing talent on poor teams as well as good ones, he’ll be a star. He’s a quality all-arounder who not only can cover and play solid run support but blitzes effectively when called on to.
Khaled Elsayed: Malcom Floyd would seem the obvious answer, but I wonder if being a bigger part of the Chargers offense may be a bit more than he is ready for and actually highlight some weaknesses in his game. Instead, I’m looking at Robert Ayers and wondering what he can do as a full-time starter outside in Denver. He generated a decent amount of pressure as a nickel rusher and seemed more than capable in run defense, so I think he could do something in Elvis Dumervil’s absence.
Sam Monson: Jared Veldheer, C, Oakland. He’s supplanted Samson Satele at C for Oakland after spending time rotating at left tackle with Mario Henderson (our lowest-rated T in 2009). From preseason looks, the rookie is athletic and has some skills about him that he could surprise.
The over-under lines for season win totals in the division are: San Diego, 10.5, Denver, 7.5, Kansas City, 6.5, and Oakland, 6. On which team would you put your theoretical $100?
Neil: I’m wasting no time in pinning my colors to the “Broncos will struggle” mast. Denver under the 7.5.
Khaled: I’m going to go with Kansas City under 6.5 wins. I just don’t see it happening at this time. They haven’t addressed enough issues with their defense, and as good as Tamba Hali is rushing the passer and their cornerbacks are in coverage, the whole package is a long way from complete. Couple that with an offense that doesn’t fill me with confidence — even if they do give Jamaal Charles the ball as much as he deserves it.
Ben: Denver, under 7.5. If the Broncos who started the season 6-2 last season show up this could be $100 down the drain. However, with the way this roster has developed, the 2-6 Broncos of the second half seem more likely to re-emerge.
Sam: Oakland, take the over. The Raiders have made some improvements and with Jason Campbell leading the way at QB they have a viable offense, if not a fantastic one.
What do you see as the positional strength of the division?
Neil: This still looks like the worst division around, which means the talent does get a little thinner on the ground. With no major strength, I’ll go with a relative one in cornerbacks. Champ Bailey, The two Brandons in KC and Nnamdi Asomugha are all fine players.
Khaled: Agreed, there are four pretty good cornerbacks there. Apologies to Chargers fans, but I’m nowhere near as high on Quentin Jammer and I think it says a lot about Antoine Cason that he was benched for Steve Gregory in nickel situations last year.
Ben: Cornerbacks. I think there’s some legitimate strength here in the West, and it will be interesting to see how Asomugha fares if he is deployed at LCB or tracking teams’ No. 1 WRs in 2010.
Sam: Since everyone is agreed on cornerback, I’ll at least mention the safeties. Eric Weddle, Tyvon Branch and Brian Dawkins all finished in our top 20 among 88 qualifying safeties, and rookie Eric Berry of Kansas City could wind up there if he lives up to his pedigree.
Who is going to make the playoffs from the division, and do they have a shot to win it all?
Khaled: I have to go by the Chargers by default. I can see Denver causing some surprises on the back of a defense I think will play well, but Oakland and Kansas City should settle for just not being as bad as last year. Philip Rivers is good enough to lead this team into the playoffs, but that defense is going to prevent them going that far. The Chargers’ Super Bowl window has shut, in my opinion.
Neil: Agreed. I’m picking the Chargers but I don’t think their defense is good enough to go to the Super Bowl.
Sam: San Diego is still too strong for anyone to mount a serious challenge, but the Chargers are heaping even more on Rivers now and it might be too much for a Super Bowl.
Ben: It’s San Diego, but the Chiefs and Raiders could get into the hunt. Mismanagement is hurting the Chargers, and they appear ripe for a step back in 2010.