<strong>June 30, 2004</strong>
Source: <a href="http://www.profootballweekly.com/PFW/Commentary/Columns/2005/modglin063005.htm">Pro Football Weekly</a>
In Pro Football Weekly's continuing series of division-by-division pre-training camp closeups - while the NFL remains closed down with June about to turn into July - it's my turn to take a look at the good and the bad issues that could have the biggest impact on each of the teams in the AFC West.
When I look at the AFC West, I could honestly see any of the four teams winning the division - but only if things really click in Oakland. I can't fathom a similar scenario in any other division, and despite a few holes here and there, it shouldn't come as a shock to see each member of the quartet finish between 9-7 and 11-5 in what figures to be a hotly contested scrum.
The good: Last year's fourth-ranked defense could be even stronger in 2005
The Broncos possessed a quietly solid defensive unit last season. Basically the only thing they couldn't do was intercept passes and cover punts. But clearly they felt they needed more firepower, and they took a chance on four Browns defensive linemen, including two underachieving former first-round picks in DE Courtney Brown and DT Gerard Warren. If Brown can stay healthy and Warren decides to come full steam on every play, the reward will dwarf the risk because talent has never been the issue. The Broncos also lured speedy OLB Ian Gold back after a one-year hiatus in Tampa Bay. He is slated to handle the weak side, while D.J. Williams, who has all the makings of a star, will shift to the strong side. Either way, with Al Wilson a staple in the middle, this could be - and should be - the league's best LB corps. The Broncos used three of their first four picks on cornerbacks, kept the majority of their own key free agents (CB Lenny Walls, DT Luther Elliss, etc.), will get Trevor Pryce back healthy and inked P Todd Sauerbrun, whose powerful leg is sure to like the mountain air. Plenty of depth on the D-line, an all-star group of linebackers and a secondary that includes Champ Bailey and John Lynch should be enough to keep up with the high-powered offenses in the division.
The bad: Denver may be relying on too many unknowns to make a legitimate Super Bowl push
What has Jake Plummer ever won in the NFL? That's what people are asking when I tell them how the Snake broke some of John Elway's franchise passing records in his second year in Denver. The bottom line is: Can Plummer keep from forcing the issue and making blunders when it matters most? Will the aforementioned ex-Browns D-linemen pan out or stay mired in bust status? Will Walls be the answer the Broncos need opposite Bailey? Will RB Tatum Bell hold up to the rigors of a 16-game schedule? Is the offensive line anywhere close to what it had been? Lots of serious questions that won't be answered for some time.
The good: The offense remains one of the best, and now the Chiefs have added the necessary ingredients to make a move defensively
The time had come for the Chiefs to bring some talent on defense. It was painfully obvious to everyone in K.C. - from the guys in the locker room to the beer vendors and cheerleaders. Standing pat with the team's own underperforming players the year before caught the ire of fans, so GM Carl Peterson opened the checkbook this offseason for LB Kendrell Bell, S Sammy Knight, CB Patrick Surtain and DE Carlos Hall and drafted Butkus Award winner Derrick Johnson in the first round. The moves provide a nice blend of veteran presence, toughness, speed and eye-opening talent.
The bad: A revamped CB lot will be noticeably thinner early on, and the Chiefs could still use a wideout to step up
Eric Warfield, the team's only consistent cover man in 2004, is likely to be suspended four games to start the season for violating the league's substance-abuse program. Youngster Julian Battle, eager to prove his worth as a fill-in replacement for Warfield, tore his Achilles in a summer minicamp. The Chiefs face the Jets, Raiders, Broncos and Eagles in the first month of the season. Not good. Veteran WR Johnnie Morton was cut after refusing to take a pay cut. That may not have made more than a ripple around the league if the Chiefs had someone ready to roll, but they don't. They like Samie Parker, Marc Boerigter and rookie Craphonso Thorpe, but are they starting material? On any other team but the Chiefs?
The good: Adding Randy Moss and LaMont Jordan to this offense is giving defensive coordinators nightmares
First, you trade for the sport's ultimate gamebreaker. Two days later, you sign a talented, bruising running back anxious to prove he's of starting caliber after sitting in Curtis Martin's shadow. Kerry Collins' best trait as a passer is probably the way he delivers the deep ball, and that skill will be put to the test with Moss, Jerry Porter and Ronald Curry on the outside. Arguably the league's best WR corps is right there in Silver & Black. Norv Turner has a good history of working with running backs (Emmitt Smith, Stephen Davis, LaDainian Tomlinson, Ricky Williams), and now he gets the pounding, between-the-tackles runner he lacked last year, when the Raiders became shamefully one-dimensional down the stretch. The Raiders' offense should have no trouble putting up points, but -
The bad: One has to wonder how much a woeful defense has improved this offseason
DE Derrick Burgess, CB Renaldo Hill and DTs Kenny Smith and Ed Jasper are all nice players, but there's a chance none of them will start, on a team that finished 30th in total defense last year. Rookie CBs Fabian Washington and Stanford Routt, LB Kirk Morrison and DT Anttaj Hawthorne will help, but how soon can the Raiders really expect big contributions? Rob Ryan had all kinds of trouble in his first year as a pro coordinator, but at least he'll get a shot at mending the mess that was created last fall when several Raiders appeared to be miscast and generally lost within the scheme. Porous coverage, lackluster tackling and injuries didn't help his cause, but it was rare to see the club on the same page, and that can't happen in 2005.
The good: The Chargers, predicted by every scribe with a pulse to finish near the bottom of the NFL barrel last season, turned from a 4-12 team to a 12-4 team and became the feel-good story of 2004. They could be even better this season.
Most Improved Player of the Year Drew Brees is working harder than ever this offseason, they say. This, after a breakout season that took him from lame-duck passer to franchise-tag recipient. The defense, led by ILB Donnie Edwards, improved in every major category in Wade Phillips' first year as coordinator and then went out and drafted potential difference-makers in OLB Shawne Merriman and DT Luis Castillo with its first two picks. The confidence is brewing in Southern California, and the Bolts are out to prove last year's surprise was less fluke and more the start of a trend.
The bad: The Chargers, facing a rough schedule and void of a No. 1 wideout, could come back to earth
A large part of the parity in the NFL - on the list right under free agency and the salary cap - comes from rewarding the best teams with the most difficult schedules. Besides having to deal with the high-flying offenses of the AFC West, the Chargers must contend with a docket that includes visits to Super Bowl champion New England, Philadelphia, the Jets and Indianapolis. Hosting teams like Pittsburgh and Buffalo will be no easy task either. Then consider the fact that the Chargers are loaded with No. 2 and No. 3 types at the WR position, but no one who can truly occupy safeties on a regular basis, and there is at least some reason to believe 12 wins would be another surprise.