The biggest news of the offseason was the Denver Broncos signing Peyton Manning, and that's where we'll begin our look at the AFC West.
Denver comes off an AFC West title despite losing the final three games and essentially backing into the division championship. One would have to wonder if Manning truly felt the Broncos gave him the best chance to reach another Super Bowl in the twilight of his career at 36 years of age and coming off somewhere between two and five neck surgeries, depending on whom you choose to believe. Peyton has to wonder if he is going to be asked to win games with his arm, required to outscore to opposition. The Bronco defense leaves much to be desired as their 2011 numbers will attest.
The Denver "stop unit" – I use the term loosely, as you will see – ranked in the bottom half of the NFL in most important defensive categories, including total defense, scoring defense and Defensive Passer Rating. This group is considerably below any of the Colts defenses that Manning had in his formative years. Even with those Colt teams, he only made one Super Bowl.
Now the Broncos will play a first place schedule in 2012, considerably more difficult than last year's, while having made few improvements in the secondary from an 8-8 team. Denver did add several former teammates of Manning's from his Indy days to open up the offense, but whether he can remain upright during the 2012 year is this season's largest question mark.
The draft has the potential to have been good to Denver, with a pack of selections that could be outstanding. Ronnie Hillman from San Diego State, Omar Bolden from Arizona State along with his college QB in Brock Osweiler could be huge surprises. Getting Derek Wolfe to shore up the defensive front was a smart pick.
In Kansas City, the key word to sum up the 2011 season would be "Injured Reserve." The Chiefs' bad fortune started early with the losses of Eric Berry, Tony Moeaki and Jamaal Charles early on and went from bad to worse with the season-ending injury to quarterback Matt Cassel in Week 10. Forced to use Tyler Palko as his replacement, the KC offense became even more anemic and barely averaged 13 points per game.
The combination of injuries, losses and locker room dissention ultimately cost head man Todd Haley his job with three weeks remaining in the year. Succeeded by defensive coordinator and former Browns head coach Romeo Crennel, the Chiefs managed to finish the year on a relatively high note, beating the then-undefeated Green Bay Packers behind newly acquired starting quarterback Kyle Orton who also led them to a win over his former team, the Broncos.
Kansas City made some moves to improve the offensive production with the addition of Steve Breaston in 2011 at wideout plus OL Eric Winston this year, and also just added CB Stanford Routt on the defensive side. The issue now is the defensive line where the drop-off was dramatic with only 29 sacks in 16 games, down 10 from the 2010 season.
The No. 1 draft selection of Dontari Poe from Memphis is curious, to say the least. In tape of his college games, Poe was rarely a factor in getting into the backfield to pressure the quarterback and was out of position in many cases. His combine workouts were super, however, making him another of the physical freaks that may never make an impact in actual game action.
If the Chiefs can get improvement on the offensive line and return to the strong rushing team of 2010, along with a better effort from the defensive front, there is no reason that they cannot challenge for the AFC West title. They are gifted with a fourth place schedule and should have many of the players lost to injury back healthy in 2012, giving KC a secondary and rushing attack to make a dent in this year's division.
The Raiders made another typical strange move after the 2011 year, despite Al Davis passing away and no longer playing puppet master. His son is now in charge and obviously inherited the same style of mismanagement from his pop, firing Hue Jackson despite him having little to work with and watching his GM and owner mortgage the future in the trade for Carson Palmer
The offense never really hit a stride and struggled with turnovers and ineptitude. When the stars of your franchise are your placekicker and punter, that speaks volumes. Despite being handed a very poor situation, Jackson kept the Raiders in the playoff hunt until the final weekend. For their appreciation, they cut him loose and hired Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, who oversaw one of the worst defenses in the NFL in 2011 and has zero head coaching experience.
Oakland didn't have a draft pick until the third round and there is nothing that says "instant impact" in any of their six total picks. The Raiders' efforts in free agency did little to fix the major issues, and signing Matt Leinart to back up Palmer only re-establishes the USC connection without the NFL playmaking ability. Oakland has little depth on the roster, and facing the NFC South along with the AFC North will do little to add optimism to the upcoming season. Look for another year of rebuilding in the Bay Area.
The San Diego Chargers are the wild card in this year's AFC West chase. They have missed the playoffs two consecutive seasons and despite most people's projections that the Norv Turner was due to come to an end, he has remained in his job somehow. This is a man who has done less with more than any NFL coach in recent memory.
In 2010, the Chargers missed the postseason despite ranking No. 1 in both offense and defense. Special teams let them down week in and out that year, and while the defense slipped somewhat last season, they still had the usual great production from Philip Rivers and the offense. Special teams improved, but only slightly, and will need to get much better this year for the Bolts to move back to the top of the division.
Cornerback is the biggest issue along with injuries to the offensive line which was decimated in 2011. Combined with poor play from the secondary, the injuries on the line prevented the offense from keeping pace on the scoreboard. San Diego made some good moves to address the defense with their first three picks in the draft, and grabbed a sleeper tight end in the fourth round in Ladarius Green from Louisiana-Lafayette. Green will be the understudy to the talented but oft-injured Antonio Gates and could make an immediate impact.
Roscoe Parrish comes over from Buffalo in free agency along with Eddie Royal from Denver to shore up the pass catching unit. Otherwise, their free agent class was relatively unimpressive. I look for San Diego to be in the fight until the end, but a return to a deep playoff run seems unlikely given the division's improvements and the lack of secondary talent in a wide open passing league.
Next Week: NFC North