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Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Pulling Linemen Previews 2011 - AFC West

The AFC West has been pretty predictable for many recent seasons, with the San Diego Chargers claiming the divisional crown and post-season football after a traditionally slow start. In 2010, however, there were some surprises. The Chargers again started slow, but this time didn't manage to catch the rampant Kansas City Chiefs - and neither of these two could beat Oakland, who went 6-0 in the division. And in Denver, well, they had Tim Tebow...

PreviewsNFC South | AFC East | NFC West

Denver Broncos – All change in Mile High...?

For Broncos fans I really hope not quite ALL change... Recent times have been tough in Denver. Josh McDaniels singlehandedly dismantled their offence over 2 seasons, and after a surprising 6-0 start in 2009, the Broncos have a record of 6-20, including their worst single season result of recent years, finishing 4-12 in 2010. McDaniels didn’t make it to the end of 2010, and his departure also ushered in changes in the Broncos front office. Joe Ellis (former COO) was promoted to team president, and former QB John Elway brought in under the title of Executive VP of Football Ops to oversee the GM and HC positions. It was his decision  to hire John Fox as HC in January 2011. But it’s about here that I hope the changes stop, for Denver’s sake.

Keys to success: Keeping the offence potent. Despite a horrible record in 2010, the Broncos have some positives to take away from the season. They finished 7th in the NFL in passing offence, with Kyle Orton finishing with 3653 yards for 20TDs and 9 interceptions in only 13 games. Brandon Lloyd emerged as the team’s top receiving threat, leading the whole NFL with 1448 yards.  The running game was nothing to write home about (1544yards, 3.9YPC), but it was enough to balance the passing attack and keep defences honest.
And this is why I am absolutely baffled that Kyle Orton was nearly shipped out to Miami in the off-season (only contract numbers really got in the way), and a certain ex-Florida Gator suggested as the teams #1 QB. Not only was Orton not the problem in 2010, he was a high point. The QB whose situation was most similar to his in terms of playing time was Ben Roethlisberger (12 starts, to Orton’s 13), and he finished with 3200  yards, 17TDs and 5 picks – numbers very similar to Orton’s. Yet I don’t hear many people arguing Roethlisberger had a season worthy of dropping him. That is, however, what happened to Orton is weeks 15-17. In his place, rookie Tim Tebow started the final 3 games of the season. He played pretty well for a rookie, completing just under 50% of his passes for 651 yards, 4 TDs and 3 picks, as well as rushing for 199 yards and 3 more TDs (stats from his 3 starts only). What he didn’t do, however, was any better than Orton. The Broncos won one of the three games Tebow started (by 1 point in a comeback win over Houston), and lost by 16 and 5 points against Oakland and San Diego respectively. Yet for some reason, despite Orton’s excellent numbers, and Tebow’s average ones, swathes of people are calling for Tebow to be named the starter in Denver and for Kyle Orton to be cut/traded/benched... WHY!? Do you people have a problem with a successful passing attack!? To make matters worse, this season so far, Tebow has been horrific in training camp. According to Michael Silver of Yahoo! Sports, members of the Broncos organisation had this to say last week:
If everything was totally equal, and this were a competition based only on performance at this camp, Tebow would probably be the fourth-string guy. Kyle [Orton] is far and away the best, and Tebow’s way behind [Brady] Quinn too. And I’m telling you, Adam Weber is flat-out better right now.”
Orton is far and away the best. Tebow’s way behind Quinn. ADAM WEBER, AN UNDRAFTED FREE AGENT ROOKIE, IS FLAT-OUT BETTER. This is coming from SOMEONE INSIDE THE ORGANISATION! They want him to be good! He's just not! How much more evidence do people need that Tebow is not the saviour!? Well maybe his gamesmanship is worth something, and he performs in real game situations...? Against a frankly dreadful Seahawks team on Saturday night, Tebow managed to complete 54.5% of his passes, was sacked 3 times, and fumbled the ball twice. You’re right, that does sound like #1 QB production... Orton is the undisputed starter, and Broncos fans should be very happy with that. Tebow fans, well, go back and watch his Florida tapes instead. You're obviously not interested in how well this team does.
Three of Denver's top 4 QBs: Tebow - Quinn - Orton (L-R)
If it wasn’t for the fact that #15 Broncos jerseys were amongst the best sellers in the league last year, then Tebow might already be looking for work elsewhere. As it stands, he is due a $6.275 million guaranteed option bonus on September 2nd, and if and when that gets paid the Broncos might as well keep hold of their investment (at least until he earns some trade value) – I mean, he’ll probably be a serviceable 3rd string. If he can beat out Adam Weber...

Biggest hurdle to overcome: Not having a defence. Just any kind of defence. With numbers like Orton’s and Lloyd’s, you’d expect the Broncos to have finished with a much better record than they did; but unfortunately for them they had two major problems: defending the run, and defending the pass. They finished ranked 25th and 31st in these two categories respectively, and gave up 471 points – a league worst statistic. Of course they suffered from the loss of their best defensive player with a season ending injury – Elvis Dumervil tore his pectoral muscle in training camp last year and went on to IR when it became apparent he wouldn’t make it back before seasons end.  He will return in 2011, along with first round draft pick Von Miller, who is already starting to make waves in pre-season, including sacking Tarvaris Jackson in the aforementioned meeting with the Seahawks last Saturday. Unfortunately for Denver, injuries are again taking their toll, with DJ Williams suffering from a dislocated elbow, Ty Warren out with a torn tricep, and Brodrick Bunkley ailing from a sprained knee. Still, with a defensive-minded HC like John Fox on board and the switch to a 4-3 defence, this unit can hope to be better in 2011. Quite frankly, it couldn’t be much worse.
Can Knowshon prove his worth in 2011?

Keep an Eye On: Knowshon Moreno and Willis McGahee. If there’s one thing John Fox loves to do on offence, it’s run the football. That’s how he got DeAngelo Williams and Jonathon Stewart to both have 1000 yards years in 2009. Now I’m not saying that Moreno and McGahee are the same kind of tandem as Williams/Stewart, but if one thing’s for certain, these guys will get plenty of looks in 2011. That’s a good thing for Knowshon certainly, who despite posting reasonable numbers over the past 2 years, has never lived up to the expectations he set when coming out of Georgia. In our recently published Fantasy Files piece, I picked Moreno as my sleeper for 2011. Hope he does me proud.

Schedule: A bit of a nightmare for Denver. Despite finishing as the 2nd worst team in 2010, they will face the 3rd hardest schedule in the league. The AFC West has the bad fortune to be facing the AFC East (inc. Jets and Patriots) and the NFC North (Packers, Bears, Vikings and Lions) this year, and all four teams will be in for tough matches all season long. Opening the season with visits from the Raiders and Bengals, then a trip to Tennessee is a relatively easy start for the Broncos, and may allow them to put some wins on the board early.

Prediction: 5-11 – In such a difficult schedule, wins are hard to come by. The Broncos will need to make the most of their opportunities this season to avoid picking in the top 5 again next year.

Kansas City Chiefs – One year wonders, or the start of something special...

The Chiefs were one of the biggest surprised of 2010. A lot of people had them finishing below .500, and practically no-one saw them challenging the Chargers for the division crown. In the end, breakout seasons for Jamaal Charles (1467 yards at 6.4YPC) and Dwayne Bowe (72 rec for 1162 yards and 15TDs), combined with stellar defensive play from Tamba Hali and rookie Eric Berry (14th in the league in total defence, plus 3 picks returned for TDs), propelled the Chiefs to a record of 10-6, and a Wild Card playoff game with the Baltimore Ravens. Unfortunately for the Chiefs, here they met their match and by all accounts were out-classed, finally going down 30-7.
Tamba Hali needs to get another 14.5 sacks in 2011
to keep the Chiefs of the rise
For the Chiefs, the off-season approach was very much “if it aint broke, don’t fix it”, with only minor personnel changes on the playing and coaching staff. Charlie Weis has left as OC, and been replaced by former O-line coach Bill Muir. He’ll be aided by Jim Zorn, who’ll act as his QB coach. The Chiefs have added Jared Gaither to the O-line, and friend of TPL Anthony Becht into the TE rotation, but little else has been done on the offensive side of the ball. A key addition to the D is NT Kelly Gregg, acquired from Baltimore, who will shore up the run defence – a position that many expected the Chiefs to address in the draft by selecting NT Phil Taylor with t he 21st pick in the 1st round. Instead, the Chiefs traded the pick away to Cleveland (who selected Taylor), and took controversial WR Jonathon Baldwin at #26 instead – going directly against Scott Pioli’s self-enforced policy of avoiding draftees who have been in trouble with the police. Pioli will have to hope that Gregg plays well at NT and that Baldwin keeps in line whilst in Kansas City, otherwise this pick might be one that comes back to haunt him.

Jamaal Charles beats a diving
James Laurinaitis in 2010
Keys to success: Playing to their strengths. The Chiefs finished #1 in the NFL in 2010 in rushing yards, with Thomas Jones adding almost 900 yards to the total contributed by Charles. There is no doubt that the success of Matt Cassell and Dwayne Bowe last year came off the back of defences being scared witless at the prospect of stopping such a potent rushing attack. Even with the addition of Baldwin in the draft, and the development of former Cardinal Steve Breaston, the Chiefs need to remember what got them so far last season. They’ll also have to play a fine balancing act with Charles. He only took 230 carries last season, and acted as the starter for just 6 games, so there is certainly room to expand his role. However, the Chiefs do this at their peril; more carries could mean huge production for JC, and based on last year’s form up to 2000 yards; but it could also expose him to more hits, more wear and tear, and lead to him losing that breakaway potential he seems to have on every carry.

Biggest hurdle to overcome: The Chargers. The AFC West schedule is very tough this year, and it’s going to make divisional matches triply important when it comes down to deciding who makes the post-season and who doesn’t. Last year, the Chiefs and Chargers split the spoils, and KC will need to do at least that again this year if they hope to make the playoffs.

Keep an Eye On: FS Kendrick Lewis. A relatively unheralded 5th round pick last season in the same class as starting strong safety Eric Berry. He was thrust into the starting lineup after Jon McGraw was injured early in the season, and responded by recording 30 tackles and 3 interceptions. The Chiefs secondary is crowded with talent, but given another chance I expect Lewis to shine again and earn the starting role.
Schedule: The 7th hardest, including a visit from the Steelers. Welcoming the Raiders in week 16 followed by a trip to Denver in week 17 is a nice way to finish the season, and maybe provide 2 wins that put the Chiefs into the post-season again.
Prediction: 8-8 would leave the Chiefs on the verge of post-season football. But with such a tough schedule, they'll need to surprise a few teams (much like they did in 2010) to get above .500 once again.

Oakland Raiders – Divisional wins are not enough
In 2010, the Raiders became the first team in NFL history to go 6-0 in divisional matches, yet still somehow miss out on the playoffs. They went 2-8 against non-divisional opponents and ended up missing the post-season by 3 full games. The Raiders offence had a good season by all accounts, finishing 10th in YPG, and a surprising 6th in total points scored. The major driving force behind these numbers was Darren McFadden. The third year running back finally had a season where he was fit enough and consistent enough to earn a large proportion of carries – and he repaid the Raiders by rushing for 1157 yards and 7TDs,  and hauling in 47 catches for a further 507yards and 3TDs. His YPC jumped from 3.4 in 2009 to 5.2 in 2010, despite having well over twice the number of carries. The cast around him wasn’t really able to contribute as much, with a constant carousel at QB, and a receiving corp either injured or unable to catch. On the otherside of the ball, the defence wasn’t too bad either. They allowed the 13th most points in the NFL, but were only 22nd in yards allowed. The keys to their success were the dominant CB Nnamdi Asomugha, who effectively shut off half the field to opposing QBs, rookie MLB Rolando McClain, and pro-bowl defensive lineman Richard Seymour.
Unfortunately for the Raiders they’ve lost two key pieces of their team going in to 2011. Nnamdi has very publicly gone to join the “Dream Team” in Philadelphia to form one of the most feared CB trios in football (Asomugha, Dominique Rogers-Cromartie and Asante Samuel). And 2010 head coach Tom Cable has been let go by Al Davis, much to the disapproval of many within the Raiders locker-room, perhaps most vocally Shane Lechlar – the longest serving Raider on the team.

Keys to success: Darren McFadden. Pure and simple. He needs to produce the same type of form he showed last year if the Raiders stand any chance of succeeding in 2011. The roster is fairly devoid of stars and major playmakers, so Run DMc needs to be the #1 guy. In order to help him, the Raiders drafted one of the top interior linemen available in the 2011 draft: Stefen Wisniewski from Penn State, but also let go former #2 overall pick Robert Gallery, who had been playing at OG for the Raiders since 2007 (when he was moved there after being disastrous at both left and right tackle). Despite his essentially non-existent ability to pass block, Gallery was a monster at interior run-blocking, and his loss may well hurt McFadden if other guys can’t step in and fill the void left by Gallery.
After football, Al Davis can look forward to a successful
modelling career

Biggest hurdle to overcome: Al Davis. It’s all too easy to have a go at Al Davis, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to do it. Davis is renowned for his eccentric style in terms of running the Raiders front office and evaluating NFL talent. He values height/weight/speed seemingly far more than he does ability and skill set – his theory being you can teach a player skill, but you can’t teach him a 4.2 40-yard dash time. In the past, this hasn’t really seen him well. In 2006, he went with Michael Huff with the 7th overall pick as a need at safety, despite him having no standout talent. In 2007, he was mesmerized by JaMarcus Russell’s arm strength into selecting him #1 overall.  In 2009, he was taken with Darius Heyward-Bey’s pace, ignoring his lack of hands. It looked like things were taking a turn for the better in 2010, with Rolando McClain and Lamar Houston being taken in rounds 1 and 2 –both needs for the team, and both players with good value at the picks they were taken. 2011 started well too, with Wisniewski in round 2. DeMarcus Van Dyke was the team’s next pick; the cornerback out of Miami ran a 4.28 40 at the combine (that’s more like an Al Davis guy…), and the Raiders took him in the 3rd round. This preseason he’s been pretty horrible – getting picked on by the likes of Drew Brees and Kevin Kolb. If his early form doesn’t improve, then he may too go down in the books as one of Al Davis’ experiments that went wrong.
Another guy with unquestionably good measurables but suspect intangibles is Terrelle Pryor. The former OSU QB, and the man held responsible by many for the fall of Jim Tressell and potentially damaging the Buckeyes for years to come, was taken by the Raiders in round 3 of the supplemental draft. At 6’5, 233lbs and with lightning pace, Pryor is exactly the kind of prospect Al Davis loves to gamble on. He’ll be suspended for the first 5 games of the 2011 NFL season, so will have time to learn the playbook and get involved with the team before ever seeing the field, but based on his selfish, entitled and cavalier attitude whilst at OSU, is he the kind of guy you want in a dressing room? Al Davis would.

(Ed: It has just been revealed that Terrelle Pryor scored a 7 on the Wonderlic test. That's a 7. To put that into perspective, it's out of 50. JaMarcus Russell scored a 24. Ryan Fitzpatrick scored 48. Wonderlic inc. claims that "A score of 10 suggests a person is literate." Pryor scoring a 7 suggests 1 of 2 things: either he is illiterate, or he is so arrogant that he couldn't be bothered to take 30 minutes out of his life to do a multiple choice test that might affect his future career path. Way to go Terrelle...)

Will Campbell finally get his chance to shine?
Keep an Eye On: Jason Campbell. For the first time in ages, he is in the undisputed starter of a team. For his final years in Washington there were constant calls for him to be given the boot, and last year despite being named as starter, he was benched at half time during a week 2 match-up with the Rams. Now that Bruce Gradkowski is in Cincinatti, Campbell’s backups are Trent Edwards and Kyle Boller (neither of which are going to have the fans calling their names), and Campbell has the chance to perform without the constant threat of benching. He’ll need some help from his receivers if he’s going to do anything though, and with Louis Murphy out, Chaz Schilens always one step away from IR, and Darius Heyward-Bey dropping more passes than he catches, it might be a big ask for Campbell to produce.
Schedule: 23rd hardest in the NFL, with a trip to the Texans and a visit from the Browns their reward for finishing 3rd in the West last year. Don’t expect the Raiders to go 6-0 in divisional matches again in 2011, or to win 8 games.
Prediction: 4-11 – I expect the Raiders to win 2 or more games this year against non-divisional opponents. Unfortunately, I also expect them to lose more divisional games than they win. Hard season ahead.

San Diego Chargers – Finally time to live up to their potential

2010 was statistically ridiculous for San Diego. During the regular season they had the #1 offence  (#2 passing and #15 rushing) and the #1 defence (#1 vs pass, #4 vs run) in the NFL, yet almost impossibly finished the season 9-7 and out of the playoffs for the first time since 2005. How? Special teams. The all too often forgotten runt brother in the triplets of NFL phases, the Chargers special teams units committed error after error early in the season, including allowing a 94yd punt return TD by Dexter McCluster in week 1, allowing two KO return TDs by Leon Washington in week 3, and having two punts blocked by the Raiders in week 5 (one for a safety, the other for a TD). This, now traditional, slow start, left the Chargers at 2-5 by week 8. They did manage to rally around one another after this poor start, aided by the return of their #1 receiver Vincent Jackson from a contractual holdout, and by their week 16 matchup with the Bengals were in the playoff hunt at 8-6.  The Bengals, slightly rejuvenated by their WR experiment (dropping T.O. and Ochocinco), managed to put 34 points on the Chargers D, and this left them at 8-7 and out of playoff contention. Despite this, QB Philip Rivers had a career season, leading the NFL with 4710 passing yards and a TD-INT ratio of 30-13. His QB rating of 101.8 was second only to Tom Brady, and he did this without VJax for the first 10 weeks.

Raider Brandon Myers blocks Mike Scifres' punt in week 5,
leading to a Raiders TD (Terry Schmitt)

Keys to success: Success in all 3 phases. It’s an obvious one really. When you’re ranked #1 in two phases and still don’t make it to the playoffs you have some serious issues with the final one. Former ST co-ordinator Steve Crosby was not resigned by the Chargers (shock), and replaced by Rich Bisacchia. He will hope to have a better pool of players to work with in 2011 to supplement talented punter Mike Scifres and standout kicker Nate Kaeding. Defensive co-ordinator Ron Rivera was lost to the Carolina Panthers and replaced by Greg Manusky – he will hope to build on Rivera’s success and utilise some of the new weapons at his disposal, including ILB Takeo spikes who he brought with him from San Francisco. The Chargers used their first 3 picks in the 2011 draft on defensive players, and 18th overall selection Corey Liuget is already making people take notice of him in the pre-season. They resigned FS Eric Weddle to a huge FA contract to keep him on board, so the defence looks set to continue its dominance of 2010. Finally, the offence has retained all its key weapons from last year, with Vincent Jackson available from week 1, and TE Antonio Gates hopefully back to full fitness. Only 3rd down RB Darren Sproles and WR Legedu Nanee (who showed glimpses of greatness in Jackson’s absence) have been lost to free agency, and one of the best offensive lines in football remains intact, led by guard Kris Dielman, centre Nick Hardwick, and last year’s 5-week holdout LT Marcus McNeill (who now has a 6 year, $48.895 million contract to his name).
Biggest hurdle to overcome: The same as the Chiefs. The biggest hurdle for them to overcome in The San Diego Chargers. If they can get out of their own way, and stop sabotaging themselves with dreadful special teams’ mistakes and pedestrian starts to the season, the Chargers should run away with the division. They may need to supplement their potent passing offence with a more effective running game, otherwise defences will start dropping more men off in to coverage or coming with some exotic blitz packages to throw Philip Rivers off his stride. They will hope rookie Jordan Todman can continue his good pre-season form in to the competitive matchups.

Brian Dawkins knocks the ball loose from Ryan Matthews
(Doug Pensinger)
Keep an Eye On: Ryan Matthews. He has a really bad case of fumblitis which he caught early on last year and struggled to shake. The former1st round pick put the ball on the turf 5 times last season, and has already done it once in the preseason.  Chargers fans will love to see more productivity like he showed in week 17 of 2010 (26 carries, 120 yards, 3 TDs), and less dropsies like the ones he also showed in week 17 (2 fumbles). If his ball security doesn’t improve, expect Mike Tolbert and rookie Jordan Todman to start taking carries away from him – a bad sign for a second year RB.
Schedule: 9th hardest, and welcoming the Ravens to Qualcomm Stadium. Their traditional slow start will happen with vs. Vikings, @ Patriots, vs. Chiefs, vs. Dolphins – if they can come out of these games at 3-1 they’ll be set up for the season.
Prediction: 11-5 – They have the firepower and the defensive ability to compete with the best teams in the NFL, they should do no worse than 5-1 within the division, and there are favourable matchups across the rest of the schedule. They have the potential for a 1st round bye in the playoffs if they execute.

- Phil Gaskin (@sosayitisaid)
- The Pulling Linemen

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