There’s not long to go now before the meaningful action begins with the start of the 2013 NFL season. To give you an idea of what our team is thinking heading into the season we’re asking four of them four questions, for every division.
It’s our Four Analysts, Four Questions season preview.
The analysts are Khaled Elsayed, Sam Monson, Steve Palazzolo and Ben Stockwell, so let’s see what they’re looking forward to seeing heading into the year.
1. Which player from the division do you see having a breakout year?
Khaled: I’m keeping an eye out on Cam Thomas of the Chargers. The former fifth round pick has the kind of talent that sees him making some big plays but he’s always struggled to consistently turn in the performances. I think this year as the starter from day one he’ll respond to the extra responsibility and put up some healthy numbers. He’s a guy capable of getting off blocks and up field.
Sam: You know, I’m warming to Eric Berry. I’ve been pretty down on him chiefly (sorry) because he can’t cover tight ends man-to-man to save his life. In truth, I think he might be a more natural linebacker than he is a safety, but nobody’s employing me as Director of Pro Personnel, so I’ll live to fight another day on that one. I’ll still happy slap anybody that talks to me about Pro Bowls, but he might not be as bad as I’ve been thinking either. This preseason he has graded in the green (+1.1), and the Chiefs seem to be playing him around the box and giving him some reign to read and react. I think with another year removed from injury he just might breakout into something approaching the player some people seem to think he already is.
Steve: The argument can be made that Charger Corey Liuget’s +11.5 grade last season represented a breakout after his -8.3 rookie campaign, but I can see him taking it a step further and moving toward the top of the class of the league’s 3-4 defensive ends. I see a jump up from his ninth-ranked 6.3 Pass Rush Productivity as long as the Chargers let him get after the quarterback.
Ben: I’ve got more than a few doubts about the Chargers, as you’ll see later on, but with the signing of King Dunlap I think they’ve made one of the best under-the-radar moves of the offseason. I always felt Dunlap got a bad rap from Eagles fans unfairly based on a couple of poor games when the majority of the games he played for the Eagles were very good, particularly in pass protection. In the past three seasons combined he has played almost 1,500 snaps and over that span has a +14.2 grade overall and a +16.3 pass protection grade. The nine sacks are high, but when you consider that three of those came in one bad game against San Francisco in 2010, you can see how that number can be misleading. The Chargers were let down by Jared Gaither last season and, while Dunlap needs to beat out Max Starks for the starting job still, if given the chance I can see Dunlap proving his doubters from Philadelphia wrong.
2. The over/unders are Denver 11.5, Kansas City 7.5, Oakland 5.5 and San Diego 7.5. Which team would you put your theoretical $100 on?
Khaled: Even without Von Miller I think the offensive firepower on the side of the Broncos will be enough to get them to 12 wins. It comes down to my faith in Peyton Manning being a little bit sharper than last year and having a new toy to work with in Wes Welker. They may struggle to generate much pressure, but they’ll win shootouts.
Sam: I don’t think the Chiefs were as bad last year as their record. I say this largely because I thought they’d be a pretty good side last year and looked like a fool! But the quarterback spot was the biggest issue they had, and while they haven’t found themselves a Pro-Bowler or anything, they have got a guy who is capable of solid play when surrounded with a talented roster, which is exactly what KC has. Vegas has them at 7.5 wins — I think they can hit .500 and go 8-8.
Steve: I’m still scarred from diving headfirst off the Chiefs’ bandwagon in the middle of last season, though they’re 7.5 number is tempting. Instead, I’ll go with under 5.5 wins for the Raiders who just lack the talent to do much damage this season. Their only chance of exceeding the total might lay in the hands of Terrelle Pryor, and I’m not ready to crown him as anything more than a project at this point.
Ben: From having had “the most talented roster in football” for what seemed like five or six years and doing nothing with it, the Chargers to me do not look like a good football team anymore and I think they’re in for another tough year. I’d be putting my $100 for this division (I’ve got a lot of money to gamble if I can afford $100 per division) on the Chargers to finish with fewer than 7.5 wins this season. Philip Rivers came close to the league’s elite but has fallen away considerably and I don’t see the supporting cast around him picking him up.
3. Which rookie are you most looking forward to seeing in regular season action?
Khaled: Courtesy of some fumbling and bumbling, it looks like Montee Ball is going to be asked to carry the load as the Broncos’ top back. He hasn’t exactly wowed during preseason, but I want to see if he can add something to that Broncos’ offense, or if he’s just another guy.
Sam: How can you answer anything other than Eric Fisher to this question? For months Luke Joeckel was the consensus No. 1 pick, but the Chiefs eventually decided that Fisher was a better player and took him, then flipped him to the right side of the line when they failed to trade away Branden Albert. He’s been nicked up and struggling in preseason, so we haven’t seen anything to suggest they were right so far. Will we see it in the regular season?
Steve: It’s not often that Darrelle Revis comparisons are thrown around, nor should they be, but those were the rumblings when some analysts described Raiders first-round pick D.J. Hayden. Here’s to hoping he stays healthy to see if he’s capable of reaching that lofty status. It was a huge risk for the Raiders who, as mentioned, are devoid of talent, but hitting a home run with Hayden would be a major piece in their rebuilding efforts.
Ben: I didn’t get to look much at college players last season, but the one scouting report that never tallied with his draft ranking and where he was eventually drafted was D.J. Fluker. For an offensive tackle whose pre-draft rep was as a high first-round pick there were consistent mentions of “vulnerable pass protector” and “right tackle only”. Was he hard done by and the snippets in the scouting reports were just a poor approximation of a more thorough analysis? Is he a quality NFL right tackle who is just so right footed that he can’t play left tackle, as our own Sam Monson explored this phenomenon last season, or were the scouting reports accurate that he is a vulnerable pass protector, and if so, will that weakness be exposed in the NFL as his and Philip Rivers’ downfall?
4. Who will make the playoffs and can they win it all?
Khaled: I have a feeling this will be a clean sweep. I think 12 wins is the Broncos’ end game, and I don’t see any other team getting close to that. There’s a lot of talk about the Chiefs this year, but I think with an inferior defense and offensive line to what he had in San Francisco, we’re going to remember that Alex Smith isn’t the supremely talented guy some would make him out to be.
Sam: Denver is the runaway winner of this division, if only due to the fact they’re the only side in it with a legitimate quarterback. The Chiefs got better there, and the Chargers can remember what it was like when they too had one, but neither can come close to Manning, even at this point in his career. Nobody else makes the postseason out of the West, and Denver is probably the AFC’s best-placed team to take it to the stronger-looking NFC.
Steve: The Broncos are clearly the class of the division and as long as Peyton Manning stays healthy, they’re a lock to win the title. Beyond them, I’m not sure the Chargers will be as bad as many make them out to be, but they seem like a .500-type team. The Chiefs should push for second place as long as QB Alex Smith takes to head coach Andy Reid’s offense.
Ben: In spite of losing Von Miller for the first half-dozen games of the season, I still can’t see past the Broncos for the division. They still have Peyton Manning, they still have a trio of receivers to cause sleepless nights for any defensive coordinator. At the worst they’ll be in for a few shootouts in the first six weeks of the season and Manning to Thomas, Welker and Decker doesn’t seem a bad group to going into a shootout with. When they get Miller back the defense gets its key player and the Broncos will be tough to stop. Having consigned the Chargers to a high pick with my second answer, I think the AFC West is the spot for a worst-to-first candidate this season with the Chiefs. A roster that talented should never have been anywhere close to the No. 1 overall pick, and with better coaching from Andy Reid this team is a threat for double-digit wins and I see them taking a wildcard spot in the AFC. However, when it counts Reid’s pass happy nature will hold the Chiefs back and they’ll fall in the wildcard round — but after their dreadful underachievement last year, that’ll be a step in the right direction.