1: Kansas City Chiefs
2011 was a lost year for Kansas City, as they saw three of their best players (safety Eric Berry, running back Jamaal Charles and tight end Tony Moeaki) go down with season ending injuries early in the year. They later lost starting quarterback Matt Cassell in week 10 for the remainder of the season and saw head coach Todd Haley get fired late in the season. This resulted in a last place finish in the AFC West, disappointing for a team coming off of a playoff appearance.
However, KC is poised for a big rebound season. This team has a lot of young talented players (players who led the team to the aforementioned playoff season in 2010) and will almost certainly have better injury luck than last season. The return of the explosive Charles, 2010’s rushing champ, will bolster a running game that has also added Peyton Hillis. If these guys can stay healthy, they will likely be the best running duo in the league.
The passing game boasts the inconsistent but dangerous Dwayne Bowe, impressive pass catching tight end Tony Moeaki and 2011 first rounder Jonathan Baldwin. The team is expecting a breakout season from Baldwin, who has the physical talent to be a dangerous receiving threat. Matt Cassell is limited, but he has proven he can win if he is surrounded with talent. That certainly seems to be the case this year; this offense won’t be a juggernaut but it should be able to put points on the board.
The defense was solid last year and should continue to be so. Lead by pass rusher Tamba Hali and linebacker Derrick Johnson, they are generally stout against the run and can make quarterbacks uncomfortable in the pocket. The secondary lost cornerback Brandon Carr to free agency, but added a capable replacement in Stanford Routt.
Likewise, the entire defense should benefit from the return of Berry, an elite ballhawk capable of making game changing plays against the pass. 2011 saw pretty much everything go wrong for this team. This roster is much more talented than their 7-9 record says, and a return to normalcy with regards to injuries and head coaching stability will enable them to retake a division that is very up-for-grabs.
2: Oakland Raiders
The Raiders were surprisingly in the mix for a playoff berth the entire season but fell short for a variety of reasons. This team isn’t quite deep or good enough to be a serious contender, but they have enough talent to stay in the mix for the division again.
Offensively, much is dependent on the health of Darren McFadden. This is a truly frightening proposal, as anyone who has owned McFadden in fantasy football can attest (damn him!). When healthy, McFadden is one of the best backs in football, possessing a rare blend of speed and power that makes him a threat to score every time he touches the ball. He has yet to make it through an entire season intact.
Backup running back Michael Bush has left for Chicago as a free agent, but the team added Mike Goodson to replace him. Goodson is a talented young player who was productive when given the chance last year. He should be capable if McFadden goes down again.
The passing offense should improve now that quarterback Carson Palmer has had a full off-season to digest the system. He will be throwing to Darrius Heyward-Bey, Denarius Moore and Jacoby Ford, three talented but inconsistent players.
The defense has its share of talented players but was erratic as a unit last year. Its strength is up front, where Richard Seymour is still a load and is surrounded by guys like Tommie Kelly and Matt Shaughnessy.
Oakland has enough good players to compete with anyone if they play to potential but inconsistent focus and undisciplined play cost them a playoff berth last season. The hope is that the arrival of new GM Reggie McKenzie and head coach Dennis Allen will finally bring a degree of stability to allow the program to grow. In the meantime, their talent will keep them winning enough games to stay competitive.
3: Denver Broncos
I have written about the Broncos previously on this site. Many have pegged them as a Super Bowl contender due to the arrival of Peyton Manning. I simply don’t see it.
Manning is a 36 year old quarterback coming off of multiple neck surgeries. Even if he stays healthy, he’s unlikely to have the same arm strength that helped him rack up statistics and MVP awards during his Colts’ heyday. This Denver roster is full of holes. The offensive line is bad. The running game is in the hands of a 30 year old back who has had an up-and-down career.
The defense has a good pass rush, but a mediocre secondary and had trouble stopping the run last year. Even 80% of Manning is a huge upgrade to their passing game, but a good passing game won’t be enough to cover up the weaknesses elsewhere on this roster. Denver was a four or five win team talent-wise that snuck into the playoffs under some pretty extraordinary circumstances last year. They won’t sneak up on anyone this year.
(For a more in depth look at the Broncos, read Denver Broncos: Peyton Manning Will Not Bring Instant Success)
4: San Diego Chargers
The Chargers have been on the decline for several years now but this looks like it could be the year the wheels fall off. The plan was for Ryan Matthews to be a workhorse back this year, but he has already broken his collarbone this preseason. This injury shouldn’t sideline him for a huge chunk of the season, but it is troubling considering his inability to stay healthy so far in the pros.
The offensive line has plenty of question marks considering the retirement of longtime guard Kris Dielman, the release of injury-prone left tackle Marcus McNeil and the enigmatic history of Jared Gaither.
Philip Rivers is an excellent quarterback, but his receivers took a big hit with the loss of Vincent Jackson to free agency. V-Jax was an elite deep threat who attracted the attention of every defense he faced.
The team is counting on free agent additions Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal to replace Jackson but this seems to be wishful thinking. Both guys are young and talented, but both have been inconsistent so far in their career. The result will be a heavy reliance on tight end Antonio Gates. Gates reportedly has looked lighter and quicker than he has in years, however he will be hard pressed to carry the offense for long stretches at his age without Jackson and Matthews to occupy the defense.
San Diego’s defense has a decent front seven but the secondary is leaky. Eric Weddle can’t cover up the deficiencies of the aging Quentin Jammer and inconsistent Antoine Cason by himself. This team won’t be terrible, but it is time to let go of the myth of San Diego being one of the more talented teams in the league. They are actually very average at this point and even the presence of Philip Rivers won’t be able to mask it this season.