1. San Diego Chargers – This is a team that went 14-2 and got its coach replaced by a guy with a 54-70 record as a head coach in the NFL. Go figure.
Norv Turner takes over from Marty Schottenheimer, whose failure to win a playoff game last season ended his unhappy time working with GM A.J. Smith. Now Turner is on the hotseat because he’s been handed a team Smith feels is Super Bowl ready.
Smith may have a point. The Chargers return 18 starters, including 11 Pro Bowlers, on a team that won its final 10 games and lost by a turnover to the Patriots in the playoffs after seemingly having the game won.
The Chargers’ offense is dynamic because of the presence of LaDainian Tomlinson, tight end Antonio Gates and surprisingly game ready Philip Rivers, whose first year at quarterback went swimmingly. The fact that San Diego found a way to retain Tomlinson’s powerful backup, Michael Turner, is testimony both to Smith’s negotiating ability and the potential of the Chargers.
While the wide receiving corps could have used an upgrade, there is little to quarrel with when the discussion is offensive weapons. Turner has long been considered one of the best quarterback coaches and offensive coordinators in the game and this time as head coach he has all the pieces in place to create an offense to rival the Colts. If he doesn’t, he may not be around long.
Defensively, San Diego has two explosive game changers in linebacker Shawn Merriman and Shaun Phillips. Merriman led the NFL in sacks and Phillips was second to Merriman in that category among linebackers. They create havoc behind a defensive line anchored by perhaps the best nose tackle in the game, Jamal Williams and two young and rising defensive ends, Luis Castillo and Igor Olshansky.
The secondary remains somewhat suspect but the front seven will be disruptive and create turnovers which should take some pressure off them and the offense should score on anybody and everybody. They may not go 14-2 again but barring significant injuries they should go far deeper into the playoffs than a year ago. For Turner’s sake, they better.
2. Denver Broncos – After collapsing down the stretch when the move was made to replace quarterback Jake Plummer with untested Jay Cutler and missing the playoffs, the Broncos fired five assistants and spent big money in free agency to sign running back Travis Henry, tight end Daniel Graham and cornerback Dre Bly. Head coach Mike Shanahan believes they didn’t rebuild but rather reloaded because he has faith in the shotgun arm of Cutler and the downhill power running style of Henry.
Henry is coming off a 1200-yard season with the Titans and fits the mold of the one-cut-and-go style Denver demands because of its zone blocking system. Cutler, meanwhile, gets his first full season as the starter and off what he showed in the final five games of 2006 much is expected of him. He has the arm to heave it down field and if he can develop the judgment to dump the ball short when he’s in trouble to Graham, who the Broncos feel will be a more productive receiver than he was in New England, the offense figures to be productive.
It could be much more than that if wide receiver Javon Walker gets some help from Brandon Marshall and free agent slot receiver Brandon Stokley, who is dangerous if he can stay in one piece after last season’s Achilles injury.
Defensively, Denver was stunned when cornerback Darrent Williams was gunned down in the back of a limo and died in Walker’s arms only hours after the team failed to make the playoffs but recovered personnelwise by signing Bly. He’s no Champ Bailey but he gives new defensive coordinator Jim Bates two guys who can hold up in single coverage, thus freeing Bates to run an aggressive 4-3.
Bates is well respected and should put a spark into the Broncos because he likes to attack, as do most defensive players. He’s got the linebackers to do it if shifting D.J. Williams to middle linebacker to replace departed team co-captain Al Wilson, who was released because of neck injuries, works out. If he can’t hold up, Williams will move back to the strongside and Warrick Holdman, his replacement outside, or Nate Webster will fill in.
3. Kansas City Chiefs – The Chiefs found a way to reach the playoffs last season and hope to do it again with a veteran defense that added new starting linebackers in Donnie Edwards and Napolean Harris, a move that should keep Kendrell Bell fresh to be a force as a situational pass rusher or push him to be productive enough to beat out Harris. Edwards led the Chargers in tackles the past five seasons so his addition not only solidifies the Chiefs but may have created a problem for their chief divisional rival.
The suspension of pass rusher Jared Allen will hurt until he returns but Tamba Hali showed as a rookie he’s a high energy player who can be disruptive with or without him. Head coach Herman Edwards also believes he got a steal when he signed ex-Bear defensive tackle Alfonso Boone to bolster the inside pass rush and help free up Hali. If he’s right and their aging corners, Ty Law and Patrick Surtain, hold up this group that could give Edwards the kind of defense he covets.
Offensively the battle is on at quarterback between young Brodie Croyle and surprisingly productive Damon Huard. Edwards favors a conservative offense built around his steam-roller running back, Larry Johnson, so whichever man wins the job will be asked to keep himself and the offense under control and limit his mistakes. Huard’s experience seems to make him the better fit short term but Croyle will get the chance to prove he’s the future.
In the end though, the Chiefs will go as far as their defense and Johnson carry them. Johnson rushed the ball an NFL-record 416 times last season. Edwards has promised to make more use of Michael Bennett but in the end it will be difficult to take the ball away from Johnson if he runs as he did a year ago, when he piled up 1,789 yards and 17 rushing touchdowns while averaging 4.3 yards per carry.
Johnson has scored the Chiefs’ last 34 rushing touchdowns, which gives you an idea of how valuable he is.
4. Oakland Raiders – People don’t call McAfee Coliseum the Black Hole for nothing. The Raiders can’t remember the last time they won a division game (2004) and have gone 15-49 since being destroyed in the Super Bowl four years ago. Owner Al Davis tried to go back to the future last year by hiring his former coach and Hall of Fame tackle Art Shell but the dry rot was too much for Shell to overcome as the team fell to 2-14 and scored only 12 touchdowns. Now Davis has gone in the opposite direction, hiring the youngest coach in the league in 32-year-old Lane Kiffin, who has never even served as a college offensive coordinator. Kiffin is nothing if not confident but that may change after he sees this collection compete. Or not compete, as they failed to do a year ago.
Kiffin is the Raiders’ 8th head coach since 1995 for a reason: the Raiders are lost. He inherits a dearth of offensive talent and uncertainty at quarterback with No. 1 pick JaMarcus Russell and lightly regarded Josh McCown his two choices. They will lead an offense that has already lost its projected starting running back, Dominic Rhodes, to a four-game suspension and has an offensive line so filled with suspects it should be on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. That group allowed 72 sacks last season and had to have given Shell moments to ponder activating himself and then line coach Jackie Slater, two Hall of Famers closer to 60 than 30, in favor of the group he had to send out there. New line coach Tom Cable is well-respected and is installing more zone blocking schemes to try and help this unit but he may have to be a magician to stabilize a group that very likely will only have one player in the same position as a year ago.
Kiffin must also find a way to get more out of malcontent wide receiver Jerry Porter than Shell did. That shouldn’t be too difficult since Porter only caught one ball last season and was not active for 12 of the team’s 16 games.
Defensively, Oakland finished third in fewest yards allowed last season. It is fast and aggressive under coordinator Rob Ryan but Ryan thought he deserved a shot at the head job and didn’t get it so who knows how things will go between him and Kiffin if the guy who the University of Minnesota declined to hire as head coach falters as his boss?
Final in a series of previews of AFC teams for