AFC West Odds
NFL analyst Jeff Scott gives an overview of what the AFC West teams added and lost in the offseason along with his opinion on who the teams to beat will be. A recap of last season and some wagering advice will also be included.
The Broncos had high hopes for the 2014 season but they didn't materialize. QB Peyton Manning couldn't duplicate his record-setting 2013 campaign and they meekly exited the playoffs in the divisional round, 24-13 losers to Indianapolis. Manning dealt with a quadriceps injury late in the season that sapped his arm strength. They did find a running game, behind unheralded RB C.J. Anderson but it just wasn't enough. Denver parted ways with HC John Fox days after the season despite his 4 division titles. GM John Elway brought in his old backup, Gary Kubiak, to run the show and got rid of several starters (9 players who started at least 6 games). The defense will switch to a 3-4 but have the personnel to do it. Their window is closing fast and last year seemed like their last great chance.
Manning will learn another new system but he will still have several of his favorite plays in the game plan. The offense is leaning a little more to the run and that should help Manning stay upright and healthy. Anderson averaged 4.7 ypc and is the starter for now but RBs Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman will get carries also. The O-line will look very unfamiliar as 3 starters from last year are gone and LT Ryan Clady is out for the year due to a torn ACL. LT Chris Clark will replace Clady and the team is hoping rookie OL Ty Sambrailo can with the job at RT. FA G Shelley Smith is expected to start as is C Gino Gradkowski (trade with BAL), who Kubiak is familiar with from their time together with the Ravens. G Louis Vasquez is the only returning starter. All in all an unsettled situation. TE Julius Thomas left for the FA riches in Jacksonville and his departure leaves a big void. The team has 6 TEs in camp but look for Owen Daniels to be one of the starters. He is not Thomas however. WR Wes Welker is also gone leaving WR Demaryius Thomas as the unquestioned NO.1 target in the passing game. He had a monster year in 2014 (111-1,619-11) as did WR Emmanuel Sanders (101-1,404-9). They are the top two options but there is very little after them.
New Def. Co. Wade Phillips is a 3-4 guy and he has a lot to work with. He's got two big DEs, a couple of NTs and two outside pass rushers. That's a lot for a team making this transition. The addition of OLB Shane Ray in the draft means OLBs Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware will get rest and not burn out by season's end. ILB could be an issue as both projected starters are dealing with injuries. The secondary looks set with CBs Aqib Talib and Chris Harris and safeties T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart. The Broncos ranked 3rd in total defense last season and 2nd in run defense. There will be a feeling out process with the new defense but I expect the front seven to adapt to it quickly. If ILBs Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall are healthy, they should have no trouble being a top end unit again.
The Broncos will have some competition in their division this year as Kansas City and especially San Diego have improved. Denver has a relatively easy early-season schedule as they host BAL, visit KC and DET, host MIN and visit OAK and CLE. There are 4 road games in there but all are winnable. They also host GB and NE and visit IND and PIT. The Broncos have the most talent in the division but they need their revamped O-line to be ready quickly as Manning has little to no mobility left in his 39-year old legs. A balanced offense should keep teams from teeing off on Manning and Clark was the LT in 2013 when Manning had a huge year. This is still a strong, deep team but I think they have slipped a little and will be hard-pressed to return to the big game.
San Diego Chargers
San Diego was sitting at 8-4 in 2014 with a playoff spot in their sights but a 1-3 finish doomed them to the sidelines in January. QB Philip Rivers had another big year but a 30th ranked rushing attack, an inability to stop the run (26th) and lack of a pass rush (29th) were too much to overcome. Steps have been taken to alleviate all of those failings but Rivers remains the key. Offseason trade rumors were just noise as the San Diego brass wasn't interested in moving their star QB. A potential move to LA did have some substance to it but that is in the future.
The big addition on offense is rookie RB Melvin Gordon, who they traded up to get in the 1st Round. He's a pounding back with speed and should be a fine complement with the returning RB Danny Woodhead, who missed the last 13 games in 2014 with a broken leg. A strong running attack will take pressure off of Rivers and an O-line that has been retooled. G Orlando Franklin comes over from Denver and should be a mauler inside after playing a lot of OT with the Broncos. 2nd-year player Chris Watt takes over the center position vacated by long-time Charger Nick Hardwick. TE Antonio Gates will miss the first four games of the season due to suspension and this will give TE Ladarius Green his chance to prove he is Gates' heir apparent. WRs Keenan Allen and Malcom Floyd are back and they are reliable if unspectacular. FA WR Stevie Johnson should be a decent No.3 receiver.
The D-line was a main culprit in the poor run defense of last season. DE Corey Liuget is legit and he led the team with 4.5 sacks. DE Kendall Reyes and NT Sean Lissemore did not have good seasons and their starting jobs are at risk. San Diego has a good collection of big youngsters ready for more PT on the line. NTs Ryan Carrethers and rookie Darius Philon will push Lissemore while DE Ricardo Mathews will put the pressure on Reyes. OLBs Dwight Freeney and Jarret Johnson are both gone opening up two spots on the outside. The Chargers would love Melvin Ingram (1st rounder in 2012) to claim one of the spots. He has had injury woes and has lacked consistency but has a real chance to stick (maybe his last chance?). Jerry Attaochu was a 2nd-round pick last year and he is expected to be the other starter. He may not be ready but SD needs him to be. ILB Donald Butler did not play well last season before injuring his elbow. Manti Te'o lacks quickness and toughness, tough liabilities at his position. Eyebrows were raised when the Chargers spent a 2nd round pick on ILB Denzel Perryman this year but he should be a starter by season's end. He brings physicality, instincts and a high football IQ to the position. S Marcus Gilchrist left in FA but the team returns the 3 other starters from a year ago. CB Brandon Flowers proved to be a great pickup last year and 2014 1st rounder CB Jason Verrett has great coverage skills but missed 10 games due to injury. He has a frailty to him and needs to toughen up. FA CB Patrick Robinson will be waiting in the wings if he goes down again. FS Eric Weddle, the team's lone Pro Bowler, is back after a contract dispute over the summer. He'll be joined by SS Jahleel Addae who hits like a truck. This secondary will definitely be better if the front seven can generate any semblance of a pass rush.
San Diego was 0-4 against Denver and Kansas City last year and that needs to change if they are to make the playoffs. They don't play Denver until Week 13 and finish the year at the Broncos. They get PIT and MIA at home and have to visit CIN, GB and BAL. That's some tough road games but there is no reason they shouldn't go 4-2 within the division. They have a lot of winnable games on their schedule and should win no fewer than 10 games. They are a strong contender for the playoffs but need to play their best against Denver as the Broncos have a much better defense and more overall team talent.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs were motoring along in 2014 and sat 7-3 after Week 11. Then the wheels came off. A three-game losing streak followed and they finished 9-7, one of 4 AFC teams to finish with that mark, a game out of the playoffs. The losing streak started with an inexplicable 24-20 loss at Oakland. They also were beaten 26-10 in Week 1 by Tennessee! Those two losses were unforgivable and the main reason they were on the sidelines come playoff time. They did rout Miami and NE in back-to-back weeks (34-15, 41-14) and also defeated the Seahawks, the only team to beat both of the Super Bowl participants. Despite all that, the big story at season's end was the dubious record set by the wide receivers of catching 0 touchdown passes all year. That's right, ZERO! While QB Alex Smith is certainly cautious, it's unbelievable that he couldn't connect with any wideout all year. As a result, 3 WRs were let go at season's end.
This offense will always lean to the conservative side with Smith under center. Smith completed 65.3% of his passes and had a TD/INT ratio of 18/6 but the inability to connect on a TD pass with any of his WRs is certainly partly his fault. The addition of FA WR Jeremy Maclin should help and rookie WR Chris Conley will get a chance to impress in camp. TE Travis Kelce led the team in receptions, yardage and tied for the TD receiving lead. He is an ascending player and an obvious favorite of Smith's. However, this offense still revolves around RB Jamaal Charles and that's a good thing. One of the top backs in the league, Charles ran for 1,033 yards and 9 TDS, good numbers considering he dealt with various injuries all year. He still scored 14 total TDs and remains the most important offensive player to his team in the league. RB Knile Davis had 134 carries in a backup role but averaged only 3.5 ypc. The O-line didn't have a good year in 2014 and have a big challenge in 2015. C Rodney Hudson, by far their best lineman, left for Oakland in free agency. G Mike McGlynn and OT Ryan Harris are two other 2014 starters that aren't back this year. FA G Paul Fanaika will battle for one spot while G Ben Grubbs (obtained via trade) is slated to start at the other guard spot. They are counting on two players, OT Jeff Allen and C Eric Kush, who combined for one game last season.
The defense couldn't stop the run in 2014 but ranked No.2 vs. the pass. The return of DE Mike DeVito and ILB Derrick Johnson, who both missed 15 games last year, should improve the run D. NT Dontari Poe is a stud and made the Pro Bowl last season. ILB Joshua Mauga was a surprise starter last year and led the team in tackles. OLB Justin Houston had 22 sacks and is one of the two most disruptive pass rushers in the league (along with J.J. Watt). OLB Tamba Hali is slowing down and took a pay cut to stay with the Chiefs. He'll be challenged by last year's No.1 pick OLB Dee Ford. CB Sean Smith had a strong campaign and is expected to be joined by this year's No.1 pick, CB Marcus Peters in the starting lineup. SS Eric Berry is still battling Hodgkins lymphoma and his availability is in question. SS Tyvon Branch was signed away from the Raiders but he has missed most of the last 2 seasons with injury. FS Husain Abdullah is a reliable tackler but doesn't make many big plays.
The Chiefs know they should have made the playoffs last year and look for them to buckle down when facing inferior opposition. They may not make the playoffs in 2015 but expect them to be in the race all year. They visit HOU to start the year and then have to battle DEN, GB and CIN with the last two on the road. They also visit the Ravens but get PIT, DET and BUF at home. Three of their last four games and four of their last six games are at home, so they will have a real shot at a playoff berth if they are 6-4 or better after Week 11.
The Raiders were never in the playoff hunt in 2014 as they started the year 0-10. They finished 3-13 and their 3 wins hurt three potential playoff teams (KC, BUF and SF). Rookies QB Derek Carr and OLB Khalil Mack were better than advertised but the team still lacked talent at most positions. HC Dennis Allen was fired after a 0-4 start and was replaced by interim HC Tony Sparano. After the year, GM Reggie McKenzie hired Jack Del Rio to be the head coach and Oakland started all over. However, a second decent draft by McKenzie (after two poor ones) has added more talent to the Raiders.
The offense will have a new look after the unproductive RB Darren McFadden was let go. RB Maurice Jones-Drew retired after showing he had nothing left. Enter RB Latavius Murray. The youngster was strangely buried until getting his chance late in the year. He didn't disappoint, rushing for 424 yards and a 5.2 ypc. RB Trent Richardson was added to be a complement back but he has failed spectacularly with two teams (CLE and IND) who were dying for a running game. FA Roy Helu is a great 3rd-down back who can contribute as a runner or receiver. Carr had a good rookie year despite some detractors. They point to his low yards-per-pass number but he had very little to work with on the outside. He completed 58% of his passes and had a TD/INT ratio of 21-12, good numbers with no running game. The receiver position and RB position have been upgraded as well as the O-line. Carr should make a decent jump in his second year. WR Amari Cooper was the 4th pick in the draft and gives Oakland their first true No.1 receiver since Tim Brown. He is an adept route runner and should make a smooth transition to the NFL. WR Michael Crabtree was added in free agency, 6 years after the Raiders passed on him in the draft to take...Darrius Heyward-Bey. WRs Andre Holmes and Rod Streater return. TE Mychal Rivera finished 2nd in receptions in 2014 but will have his hands full keeping rookie TE Clive Walford off the field. The O-line was strengthened with the signing of C Rodney Hudson. The line has two keepers at LG (Gabe Jackson) and LT (Donald Penn) but need productivity from the right side.
The defense wasn't terrible last season and ranked 21st overall. The line welcomes NT Dan Williams, a space eater on the inside. The LB corps, long a weakness for this team, was upgraded with the signings of MLB Curtis Lofton and OLB Malcolm Smith. Smith may start as a backup but he will see plenty of snaps. FS Nate Allen was added in free agency after having a career year with the Eagles. SS Charles Woodson is back at 39 years of age and led the team with 4 interceptions in 2014. The one position of concern is at corner. CB D.J. Hayden was wildly over-drafted by McKenzie in 2013 (12th overall) and has done little to justify his selection. He will be one starter and is expected to be paired with T.J. Carrie, a 7th-round pick last year. CB Keith McGill could be in the mix as well.
Oakland is a better team than they were last season but they have a very tough schedule and it may not show in the win column. They visit PIT and DET and host CIN, BAL and GB. They start the season with home games against the Bengals and Ravens and will be hard pressed to win either. They should be more competitive but this team is not a threat to win the division or make the playoffs, the only team in the AFC West you can say that about.
Division Prediction - Wagering Value
Oakland is not in the equation so that leaves Denver, Kansas City and San Diego to battle it out. The Broncos play a first-place schedule and that could hurt them this year as they don't appear to be as good as they have been the last two seasons. They have the best personnel but enough questions to give you pause. The Chiefs should be able to throw a TD pass to a WR at some point but their O-line has serious issues. They will fight but Smith's limitations mean they are unlikely to claim the division. That leaves the Chargers. Their defense has major problems but Rivers gives them a chance to be in every game. Gordon's arrival should really help the offense and we'll side with them at 3.5-1 to take the division. Don't bet the house on this one.
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