The AFC West has been ruled by the Broncos in the Manning era, but the gap has been closing recently:
Denver Broncos 10-6
San Diego Chargers 9-7
Kansas City Chiefs 8-8
Oakland Raiders 5-11
Expected Wins: 10.01
Scouting Wins: 10.18
DVOA Wins: 9.5
2014 Record: 12-4 (11.0 Pythagorean)
The sky is falling:
Let’s not throw dirt on the man yet. He still finished fourth in DVOA (23.9%), and third in DYAR (1,412) last season. However, it is hard to get the image of a hobbled (torn quad) Manning unable to get anything on the ball against the Colts. He struggled down the stretch, and there are serious concerns as to whether Manning can withstand a full regular season without wearing down. He’s 39 years old and has had major neck surgery, so the player who starts the season isn’t necessarily going to be the player who makes it to the playoffs. That’s especially true given the disaster-in-waiting that is the Broncos’ offensive line.
Rookie second-round pick Ty Sambrailo was supposed to add depth to the offensive line. Instead, he’s taking over at tackle for Ryan Clady. Clady tore his ACL in minicamp and is gone for the year. I am very skeptical of Sambrailo, as he had shoulder surgery a few years ago and isn’t as strong as you’d expect given his size. The starting left guard job hasn’t been decided. Ben Garland is battling Shelley Smith. Smith washed out in Miami, but he’s still the likely starter, as he is the more experienced of the two. Center Gino Gradkowski came over in a trade from Baltimore because new head coach Gary Kubiak liked what he saw from Gradkowski with the practice squad. Right guard Louis Velasquez is the only premium starter on the line. He struggled at right tackle last season, but was dominant at guard. Chris Clark is expected to hold down the right tackle job. The offensive line is moving to a zone blocking scheme, which can hide poor talent, but this might be asking a bit much of a mere scheme. If I were putting together a line to protect an increasingly fragile quarterback, this is not how I would go about it.
If Manning does have time to throw, he has an elite pair of receivers to get the ball to. Demaryius Thomas is coming off of a down year (9.2% DVOA, 317 DYAR). Oh, also 111 receptions for 1,619 yards. He’s a workhorse and he was just rewarded with a new contract right before the deadline. He’ll play across from Emmanuel Sanders. Sanders is coming off of a career year (29.6% DVOA, 457 DYAR). It was a monster season for Sanders, but it’s unlikely he’ll be able to repeat it, especially since he is currently dealing with an injured hamstring. After those two, the Broncos are shockingly thin. 2014 second-round pick Cody Latimer is currently the #3WR, but he is coming off an awful rookie season where he couldn’t get onto the field. He ended up with two receptions. Two. The Broncos have to hope he’s much improved this season. If not, Manning will have to turn to Owen Daniels and Virgil Green. Daniels has stuck with head coach Gary Kubiak through thick and thin, and knows his offense better than anyone on the team. Green has seen minimal usage in his four seasons in Denver, but will have to step up now that Julius Thomas and Jacob Tamme are gone. Frankly, someone other than Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders is going to have to step up. Let’s see what you have, Mr. Latimer.
2013 undrafted free agent C.J. Anderson produced 260 DYARLOS last season despite only having 223 carries + targets. He was the Broncos’ secret star last season and has earned the starting job. 2013 second-round draft pick Montee Ball produced -30 DYARLOS last season. He missed 11 games due to injury, so let me assure you that he sucked in limited usage. He’s shown few skills as a receiver or in pass protection, so he may tumble down the rotation fairly quickly. 2012 third-round pick Ronnie Hillman would be the likely beneficiary of such a fall, although he’s been nothing special in his three years with the Broncos.
I can’t stress enough how big the loss of Terrance Knighton is. The Broncos were dominant against the run over the past two seasons, and he was the biggest reason why. The Broncos are moving to a 3-4 defense (as preferred by new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips), and there will be significant pressure on nose tackle Sylvester Williams. Marvin Austin Jr. will back up Williams in the rotation. I’m not sure either is a perfect fit, but so far Phillips seems content. They’ll be flanked by Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe, although they’ll have to wait on Wolfe, as he’s serving a four-game PED suspension. Vance Walker will likely start in Wolfe’s absence. (Defensive tackle Antonio Smith’s availability is unknown. He signed with the Broncos this offseason, and then was investigated for child abuse. The Broncos and league have both been quiet as to his possible future).
The move to the 3-4 means DeMarcus Ware will play outside across from Von Miller. Ware had a good year (ten sacks, 37 hits+hurries), but Miller stole the show with 13.5 sacks and 55 hits+hurries. They’ll be expected to carry the pass rush again, but they’ll have help from a new member of the rotation: rookie first-round pick Shane Ray. This is what I wrote about Ray before the draft:
Strikes against Ray: Marijuana, Foot Injury, Arrest (for excessive speed and a lane violation?!) and awful Pro Day. His SackSEER projection is bollocks, so there is a lot not to like here. What he does have going for him is an explosive first step and almost unreal snap reaction. On some plays it looks like he’s synchronized with the center, but much quicker off the ball. His backside pursuit is excellent, but like Gregory, he can be run at. Similarly, he has not developed coverage skills yet. Frankly, Ray might be a bit of a project, so his fall in the draft might end up being a long-term blessing if it allows him time to develop his game without being considered a bust. Right now, the expectation is he comes off the board around #20. If that is the case I expect him to provide good value in the long run.
The Broncos took Ray with the 23rd overall pick, so we’ll see if I was right about him being a good long-term value. Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan are slated to start inside. Marshall is dealing with an injured foot and is expected to be healthy to start the season. Both linebackers have to show they’re fully recovered from injuries, as Trevathan is coming back from knee replacement surgery, while Marshall had a Lisfranc injury. The depth here is thin. Corey Nelson can come in on passing downs, and Steven Johnson can play the run, but neither is a complete player who can start inside.
Aqib Talib and Chris Harris are among the best starting cornerback tandems in the NFL. Talib was his usual excellent self, but Harris surpassed him with a revelatory season. 2014 first-round pick Bradley Roby survived a trial-by-fire, and should be well equipped to play nickel cornerback. He may also see some time at free safety. Free agent pickup Darian Stewart currently has the leg up on that job, coming over from Baltimore with Kubiak. T.J. Ward is a strong safety/linebacker hybrid and a very good one at that. This is an excellent secondary, with quality depth.
If you are going to have two kickers, they’d better be awesome at their jobs. Connor Barth is solid on field goals, and Brandon McManus is strong on kickoffs. Barth’s leg is not strong enough to kick off, and McManus isn’t accurate enough to be the sole kicker. I’m not sure the pair of them are worth two roster spots, but Denver hasn’t found anyone who can do both jobs. Punter Britton Colquitt was mediocre as well. You’d think playing in Denver would provide an edge in special teams, but that hasn’t been the case.
The Broncos may have missed their window to win a Super Bowl with Manning. Each playoff loss was brutal in its own way, Denver had Baltimore on the ropes, and then collapsed defensively. Seattle brutalized them. Manning couldn’t throw, and thus the Broncos had no real chance last season. This year is going to be a challenge. Manning has a pair of elite targets and a solid running back, but the offensive line might be utter garbage. Defensively, they have a nice pass rush, and a great secondary, but will they be soft against the run? Also, will their inside linebackers be able to stay healthy? There are some serious land mines the Broncos have to dodge, none bigger than Manning’s health. The Broncos don’t face an easy schedule, and if the words “Brock Osweiler” become relevant, they’re screwed. Still, it’s difficult for me to predict an injury. If Manning stays healthy, the Broncos are one of the best teams in the AFC. 10-6. (Update: The Broncos win expectation increased 0.3 wins this preseason. That’s a pretty strong vote of confidence in Peyton Manning)
Kansas City Chiefs
Expected Wins: 8.66
Scouting Wins: 7.61
DVOA Wins: 7.9
2014 Record: 9-7 (10.1 Pythagorean)
There are five teams in the AFC that have never won an AFC Championship Game. Houston is still a fairly new franchise, so let’s cut them some slack. Jacksonville is 0-2 in their lifetime. The Browns are 0-3, having been tortured by John Elway and the Broncos. The Jets are 0-4. You might be wondering how they won a Super Bowl without winning an AFC Title, but remember, it was Super Bowl wins by the Jets and Chiefs that forced the merger. As for the Chiefs, they didn’t get to the AFC Championship Game until Steve Young replaced Joe Montana in San Francisco. Montana’s Chiefs fell to Jim Kelly’s Bills, and the Chiefs haven’t been that close to the Super Bowl since. The Jets and Browns are widely mocked. No one cares about the Jaguars, and the Texans are still a bit too new to build up a history of futility, but why aren’t the Chiefs lumped into the same boat as the Browns and Jets? The Browns may not have won a Super Bowl, but they have four NFL Championships. I’m genuinely curious as to how the Chiefs have avoided becoming branded with a scarlet L. The Chiefs have gone 3-13 in the playoffs since winning the Super Bowl. Their current streak is L8. That’s brutal. It’s been 21 years since they’ve won a playoff game. That brings us to Alex Smith, who shall attempt to play the role of c-c-c-combo breaker:
To be fair to Smith, he did play an amazing game against the Colts two seasons ago: 31/46, 378 yards, 4 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 121 DYAR. That’s some pretty amazing stuff. Unfortunately, Luck was epic, producing 179 DYAR. The Colts came back from a 31-10 deficit and won 45-44. However, that’s ancient history. Last season, the Chiefs managed to lose to Tennessee, Oakland, and Arizona (Drew Stanton edition). They ended up missing the playoffs when one more win would have put them in, thus extending the streak.
So, can Alex Smith break the streak? To do so, he’s going to have to overcome his fear of interceptions. He’s thrown 54 touchdowns and 18 interceptions in his last 40 regular season games. That’s a great ratio, but it comes at a high price. In minimizing his interceptions, Smith has eschewed the big plays that come along with taking risks. The fact that the Chiefs didn’t throw a touchdown to a wide receiver last season is a fluke, but one caused by Smith’s conservatism. His DVOA (4.1%) and DYAR (493) were reasonable, but Smith is the kind of player who “doesn’t lose you the game.” That puts a lot of pressure on the rest of the team to win it.
Admittedly, Jamaal Charles does a great deal to try and win it. His 250 DYARLOS last season was impressive, but it was a steep drop from the 382 he produced in 2013. The entirety of the dropoff came in the passing game, as he increased his rushing DVOA from 247 to 249. He’s never averaged less than 5 yards-per-carry and he’s one of the best running backs in the NFL. Backup Knile Davis has produced -94 DYAR over the past two seasons. He’s been terrible, and yet he manages to generate almost universal praise. I have no idea how he does it. He’s a pretty good kick returner, and the Chiefs seem comfortable with him as Charles’s backup, so I guess he’ll get a chance to show he’s better than his advanced stats would suggest.
Jeremy Maclin bounced back from a torn ACL that ended his 2013 season before it began and produced the best season of his career: 85 receptions, 1,318 yards, 10 touchdowns, 7.4% DVOA, 222 DYAR. That’s the kind of season you want to have heading into free agency:
Good luck living up to that contract with Alex Smith throwing to you. Or not throwing to you, as the case may be. 2014 undrafted free agent Albert Wilson parlayed 16 receptions for 260 yards into the #2WR job. Have I mentioned that the Chiefs haven’t won a playoff game in 21 years? Wilson played well last season (14.8% DVOA), but his limitations will show up over a larger sample size. Rookie third-round pick Chris Conley showed just how far a coachable attitude can take you in the draft. He was a shocking reach and expectations should be very low despite his lofty draft status. The wide receiver depth here is thin, but that just means more balls can go to tight end Travis Kelce. Baby Gronk lived up to his nickname last season: 67 receptions, 862 yards, 5 touchdowns, +9.9 +/-, 23.0% DVOA, 174 DYAR. New England it threw to Gronk 16% of the time he was on the field. For Kelce the Chiefs only targeted him 13% of the time. Perhaps they should play him and target him more this season. Apart from Maclin and Charles, I’m not sure who else they plan to use. Maybe Jason Avant, but he’s been awful the past two seasons (-86 DYAR).
You can’t say the Chiefs aren’t trying to improve their offensive line. Eric Fisher is the only returning starter. You can’t fire the #1 overall pick when he’s still on his rookie contract. He was only a little below-average last season, so perhaps there is hope that he’ll live up to expectations. The Chiefs traded for Ben Grubbs to play left guard. He excelled for the Saints last season. We have a positional battle at center, where 2013 sixth-round pick Eric Kush has the edge over rookie second-round pick Mitch Morse. Morse was another absurd reach from the Chiefs. There’s another battle at right guard, where Paul Fanalka has the edge over Jeff Allen. Donald Stephenson looks to start at right tackle. A lot of these guys had very few snaps last season, so this line looks like a work in progress.
Kansas City might have some serious problems on defense. Dontari Poe had back surgery in late July and he’s likely to miss the start of the season. His return date is indefinite, so a defense that crumbled against the run last season just took a big hit. Jaye Howard, Hebron Gangupo, and rookie seventh-round pick Rakeem Nunez-Roches are going to try and fill that Dontari Poe-sized hole. Mike Devito and Allen Bailey look to start as the defensive ends. Devito is coming back from a ruptured Achilles, so he’s a question mark for now. Mike Catapano is also in the mix after missing the entire 2014 season with a gastrointestinal virus. I do not envy him.
Tamba Hali is coming off of a bit of a down year (six sacks, 27.5 hits+hurries), but thankfully Justin Houston was able to pick up the slack (22 sacks, 40 hits+hurries). Hali is beginning to slow down, so it will be up to Houston to keep up that frenetic pace. 2014 first-round pick Dee Ford will also be in the rotation more this season. My bust warnings are already tingling with him, but we’ll see if he’s just a slow starter, career-wise. Inside, Josh Muaga looks to be paired with Derrick Johnson. Johnson tore his Achilles in Week One last season and we’ve yet to see if he’s back up to full speed. Neither Muaga or Johnson has a firm grip on his job. Muaga was mediocre at best last season. Rookie fourth-round pick Ramik will have a chance to play his way into the starting lineup, as might rookie fifth-round pick D.J. Alexander. It’s hard to call a fifth-round pick a reach, but he wasn’t on any draft board that I could find. The Chiefs saw something from him, but I’m not sure what. If Tali slips, and Ford doesn’t pick up the slack, this will be a very poor front-seven despite the contributions of Houston. This defense was mediocre last season, but even that’s not a given this year.
Cornerback Sean Smith is very good at his job and the Chiefs will be happy to see him when he returns to work week four at Cincinnati. Don’t drink and drive, kids. In his stead, the Chiefs will throw rookie Marcus Peters into the fire. This is what I wrote about Peters before the draft:
“I wouldn’t take him in the first round. The talent is there, but he got thrown off his college team. If they think they’re better off without him, do you really think he’ll be worth it in the pros? Hard pass.”
Suffice to say, the Chiefs’ scouting department thinks differently than I do. 2014 third-round pick Phillip Gaines is expected to start across from Peters early in the season. Whoever looks worse will likely get stuck with the nickel job when Smith returns. The depth here is pretty questionable, so I’d say “look for teams to spread the Chiefs out,” but it’s also so tempting to run against them. Decisions, decisions. Thankfully, Eric Berry can return to the field after a bout with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. The Chiefs aren’t sure when he’ll be ready to start. Right now, Husain Abdallah is holding down the free safety job, while Tyvon Branch is battling Ron Parker for the strong safety role. Branch has the edge, if he can stay healthy. That’s been a problem for him, as he’s only appeared in five games over the past two seasons. A healthy Berry would make a huge difference, but for now this defense looks like it is in some trouble.
The Chiefs’ special teams have been fantastic for the past two seasons. Despite turnover in personnel, they’ve excelled at returning both kicks and punts. Punter Dustin Colquitt helped as well, with genuinely elite directional kicking. The only major weak link was rookie kicker Cairo Santos. He struggled with accuracy early in the season, and kickoffs throughout. I’m assuming kickers can improve leg strength with full offseason of conditioning, but honestly that’s something I’ve never looked into. I’m expecting some regression to the mean for the Chiefs’ return game. The special teams should still be a bit above-average overall, but probably not nearly as good as they were the past two seasons.
I have to say I’m surprised by this roster. There are a few stars, but they’re surrounded by a load of question marks. I am not seeing a winning record here. They’re also only playing seven games at Arrowhead, as they are the designated home team in their game in London against the Lions. Apart from that, their home slate looks very manageable, so they should be able to pile up a fair number of easy wins. Also, for all of the odd moves he makes, Andy Reid is much better than most of the coaches he’ll be up against. 8-8.
Expected Wins: 5.66
Scouting Wins: 5.48
DVOA Wins: 6.5
2014 Record: 3-13 (3.1 Pythagorean)
There are legitimate debates as to who is the worst quarterback ever to start a Super Bowl. Kerry Collins, Joe Kapp, David Woodley, and Rex Grossman all have strong cases. Trent Dilfer is pretty clearly the choice if you only count Super Bowl winners. But remember, he faced Collins. I’d have to go with Kapp if pressed, but the point here is that it’s a close call no matter who you go with. There is no such debate with Super Bowl coaches. Bill Callahan took over a Jon Gruden Raiders team and it rolled to the Super Bowl, only to be demolished by Gruden’s Buccaneers (who had been Tony Dungy’s team). Callahan only lasted one more season before being replaced by Norv Turner. Norv was succeeded by Art Shell (his second coaching stint with the Raiders). Shell was replaced with Lane Kiffin, who in turn gave way to Tom Cable. Cable gave way to Hue Jackson, who lasted one season before being replaced by Dennis Allen. Allen lasted 2.25 seasons before getting fired. Tony Sporano coached out the rest of the season, and he has given way to Jack Del Rio. Since getting blown out of the Super Bowl, the Raiders have won 56 games in 12 seasons. This has not been a well-run franchise, and while they’ve been drafting fairly well recently, I don’t see the Del Rio hire as a good sign. His decision-making was… questionable. Perhaps he has become more enlightened since his time in Denver. We shall see.
Any questions about Del Rio will be moot if Derek Carr doesn’t continue to develop. The general feeling is that Carr gives the Raiders a real chance to eventually climb back to respectability. Don’t worry about his stats (-14.9% DVOA, -150 DYAR), and instead focus on his command. There are a lot of ways quarterbacks can fail. Some quarterbacks can’t adjust to the speed or workload of the NFL. Others don’t develop the accuracy, or ability to read defenses. Carr has shown that the NFL is not too fast for him, and that’s a good sign. Accuracy is the next step. Reading defenses comes with watching film and experience on the field, so I’m assuming that will continue to develop with time. Accuracy is partly natural talent, and partly a developed skill. We’ll see how far Carr has come early this season now that he has some premium talent to work with.
Amari Cooper is the complete package: Fast, smooth, with excellent technique and hands. There simply isn’t anything to criticize, save for the fact that he is a rookie, and will be going up against professional cornerbacks with much more experience. Then again, experience is no guarantee:
Cooper will be playing across from Michael Crabtree. Crabtree appeared to be damaged goods after returning from an ACL tear. That’s why this is the contract he was able to wrangle from a franchise desperate for wide receivers:
Not quite the payday he was looking for. My expectations for Crabtree are low, as he hasn’t shown anything close to the explosiveness he had pre-surgery. The depth here is awful, as the next two men up are Rod Streater (didn’t come back from a foot injury sustained in week three last season), and Andre Holmes. Holmes led the Raiders in receiving last season with 693 yards, but he’s a replacement level option and is currently out with a broken hand. Speaking of replacement level, your 2014 Raiders starting tight end:
Mychal Rivera: 58 receptions, 534 yards, 4 touchdowns, -22.6% DVOA, -97 DYAR
He’ll be looking to improve on those numbers this season. Woof! Then again, expectations should be low for the 2013 sixth-round pick, as he would be a backup on most teams. He’ll be backed up by rookie third-round pick Clive Walford. I went on record before the draft that I preferred Walford in the third to Maxx Williams in the second. Walford will need some time to develop (and is currently being held out of practice with an undisclosed injury), but has more talent and upside than Williams. I’m expecting good things for him in the future.
I know running backs are fungible, but looking at Latavius Murray as Oakland’s #1RB makes me reconsider. His numbers weren’t bad in limited usage last season (1.7% DVOA, 35 DYAR), but watch how he handles contact. He doesn’t inspire confidence. Roy Helu put up 150 DYARLOS last season in Washington, but he’s shown his limitations and is a tough sell as an every-down back. That brings us to the Raiders’ other option: Trent Richardson.
The man has no vision or instincts, and thus he’s always playing on hard mode. That doesn’t work in the NFL. It’s possible that Murray and Helu can carry the load together, but the more we see of Richardson, the worse it will be for Oakland.
The left side of Oakland’s offensive line was very good last season. Left tackle Donald Penn and 2014 third-round pick left guard Gabe Jackson finished eighth and fifth in my respective rankings. Penn is getting up there in years, but Jackson looks like a great find and should be a long-term asset. The Raiders upgraded at center, signing Rodney Hudson away from the Chiefs in free agency. Hudson did not come cheaply (5 years, $20M guaranteed), but he was #2 in my rankings last season. Things get a bit sketchier when you head over to the right side. Austin Howard struggled at right guard last season, and is moving over to tackle. That leaves a positional battle at right guard between Khalif Barnes and Tony Bergstrom. I’d give the edge to Barnes, who played pretty well at both guard and tackle last season. Howard has spent most of his career at tackle, and last year can be written off as a failed experiment. Of course, had he been succeeding at tackle we wouldn’t have seen him at guard. Overall, this line is much better than I was expecting, and could help Derek Carr avoid his brother’s fate.
The Raiders have taken some steps to improve their defensive line. They signed tackle Dan Williams to play alongside 2014 fourth-round pick Justin Ellis. For a 334-pound man nicknamed “Jelly,” Justin Ellis was surprisingly mobile last season. Williams and Ellis should form a solid pair, although neither brings the pass rush that the departed Antonio Smith provided (three sacks, 22.5 hits+hurries). Justin Tuck will start at defensive end, but who he’ll start across from is unknown. Tuck led the Raiders with five sacks last season, although that understates his presence, as he had 28 hits+hurries. C.J. Wilson, Shelby Harris, and rookie second-round pick Mario Edwards Jr. are all potential options at end. Before the draft, there was some discussion as to whether Edwards was a better fit as a 3-4 DE or a 4-3 DT. The Raiders are taking a third path if they put him at end. He’s strong and can handle the run, but his pass-rush skills are suspect. Running out three defensive tackles can work, but the Raiders will need their linebackers to pick up the slack.
Khalil Mack was a monster last season. Ignore the fact that he only had four sacks and focus on the 39.5 hits+hurries. He was excellent against the run as well. 2013 third-round pick Sio Moore was impressive last season, before a hip injury ended up taking him off the field. His ability to return to form will be key. Curtis Lofton should benefit from the sheer amount of beef in front of him. They’ll occupy the offensive lineman, he’ll try to lead the NFL in tackles. Overall, this front-seven has a decent amount of talent, but the depth is a bit weak, as is the pass rush. That is going to be a problem.
The Raiders’ secondary has been getting its butt kicked for years. The weak pass rush is a major issue, but it isn’t the only one. 2013 first-round pick D.J. Hayden has been a disappointment. He’ll likely be starting across from 2014 seventh-round pick T.J. Carrie. Carrie surprised as a rookie, but he doesn’t have the talent to be a #1CB. Hayden may lose his job to 2014 fourth-round pick Keith McGill. McGill played sparingly last season, so I’m not sure what to expect from him. Charles Woodson is 38 years old and he’s a shadow of a shell of the player he used to be. That he’s still starting reflects poorly on the Raiders’ depth at safety. Speaking of that, he’ll be playing alongside strong safety Nate Allen. Allen was a free agent pickup, but despite his four interceptions last season, the Eagles were not sad to see him go. He was a liability in coverage, so look for teams to attack him this season. Well… I guess it might be hard to notice that specifically, as this entire secondary looks ripe. I hope the Raiders get lucky with some of these youngsters, or else it could be a long season.
Kicker Sebastian Janikowski and punter Marquette King are both quality performers, but after that, the Raiders’ special teams go downhill fast. The coverage and blocking units are both substandard. That makes it difficult to judge the quality of the returners, but it really is a moot point. The fact is this isn’t a very talented roster, so it is difficult to find quality players that can be spared for special teams.
I like the offensive line and the offense now has one elite weapon, but this is still one of the weakest rosters in the NFL. The quarterback is young and should be improved this season. The Raiders also face a tough schedule, although not nearly as tough as the slate they faced last season. A lot of this will come down to Del Rio and his ability to get the most out of his roster. An improved quarterback + a softer schedule should be worth about one additional win over last year’s baseline. 5-11. (Update: Like the Broncos, the Raiders have also impressed in the preseason. Picking up roughly a quarter of a win in terms of expectations.)
San Diego Chargers
Expected Wins: 8.30
Scouting Wins: 8.53
DVOA Wins: 8.5
2014 Record: 9-7 (8.0 Pythagorean)
Now that is what I’d call a tight spread of projections. There is pretty much universal agreement that this is an 8- or 9-win squad. Two years ago they had a great offense and the worst defense in the NFL. 9-7. Last season the offense (and special teams) took a step back, but the defense improved. 9-7. This offseason Philip Rivers signed a contract worth… oh my:
He’s 34 years old and has already peaked, so this is a pretty bold move by the Chargers. Brady and Manning have shown it is possible to be effective well into your late 30’s, but that’s not the historical norm. Rivers started the season looking like he was going to repeat his monster 2013 season (34.8% DVOA, 1,884 DYAR). After six games, his YPA was 8.82 (anything over 7.0 is good, over 8.0 is great). It fell to 6.82 for the rest of the season. He still finished ninth in both DVOA (12.6%) and DYAR (918), but that wasn’t good enough to lead the Chargers to the playoffs. The Chargers are counting on him for another 30 touchdowns and 4,000 yards, but that won’t be enough without help from the running game and defense.
Branden Oliver led the Chargers in rushing last season with 582 yards. There wasn’t any evidence that he was the long-term solution, so the Chargers traded up and grabbed Melvin Gordon. Beware of Wisconsin running backs, they may be products of the system. Gordon has good eyes and balance. He hasn’t shown much in terms of blocking or receiving skills. Frankly, I hate taking running backs in the first round, and in this case I think the gap between Gordon and Todd Gurley was fairly large. I don’t like this pick, but I understand why they made it. Gordon gives the Chargers a chance to revitalize a pedestrian running game. Danny Woodhead may steal some of his playing time on third downs, which should help keep him fresh for a possible playoff run.
2013 third-round pick Keenan Allen followed up a monster rookie season (28.2% DVOA, 343 DYAR), with a stinker (-8.0% DVOA, 43 DYAR). He missed the final two games of the season with a broken collarbone, but should be healthy to start the season. Malcom Floyd had another solid season (23.1% DVOA, 252 DYAR) and has found his niche as San Diego’s premier deep threat. He’s 34 years old, so there are concerns he may start to slow down. Stevie Johnson has the inside track for the #3WR spot, ahead of Jacoby Jones, Austin Pettis, and Dontrelle Inman. Johnson was effective in limited usage last season for San Francisco (23.4% DVOA, 139 DYAR). Allen’s broken collarbone gave Inman a chance to shine, and he took it (12 receptions, 158 yards, +2.5 +/-, 24.0% DVOA, 49 DYAR). That was quite a two-game run. Pettis has averaged 45 DYAR a season over the past three years, and is a precision short range target. Antonio Gates rebounded from gradual decline (142 DYAR in 2012 and 2013 combined) with his best season in years (24.1% DVOA, 204 DYAR). He may have been trying to keep up that rate of production this season, as he was caught using PEDs and will be suspended for the first four games of the season. That will give 2012 fourth-round pick Ladarius Green a chance to shine. Over the past three seasons, he’s been great (33.3% DVOA, 164 DYAR) in a very small sample (59 targets). Is Green good enough to hold down the job full-time? Your guess is as good as mine.
Left tackle King Dunlap put together another great season, finishing a clear third in my rankings. He’ll play next to Orlando Franklin. Franklin is a failed right tackle, but he played very well at guard last season for the Broncos and I expect him to fit in well in San Diego. Last season the Chargers went through centers the way Spinal Tap went through drummers. Chris Watt will try to show the Chargers just how much better things can be when one man starts all 16 games. Then again, right guard Ronnie Troutman started 15 games last season, and he got his butt kicked in almost all of them. Right tackle D.J. Fluker had a very poor season as well. Both Fluker and Troutman will need to improve for this line to return to respectability.
The Good: Corey Liuget had 4.5 sacks, 24.5 hits+hurries, excelled vs. the run.
The Bad: Kendall Reyes only managed to grab 1 sack. He did have 15.5 hits+hurries and held his own against the run.
The Ugly: Sean Lissemore failed in pretty much every aspect of his job. There aren’t many mammals that can play nose tackle in the NFL, and he doesn’t appear to be one of them. 2014 fifth-round pick Ryan Carrethers is going to try to work his way to the top of the rotation. Speaking of rotations, the Chargers didn’t use Lissemore, or any other nose tackle, all that often. That may change if they ever find one they like.
2012 first-round pick Melvin Ingram and 2014 second-round pick Jerry Attaochu face the same problem: Can they live up to their draft status? Ingram has had more time to develop, but has had trouble staying healthy. Attaochu is still fairly raw, and there will be a lot of pressure on him to perform. Manti Te’o has quietly shown steady improvement. The defense needs him to stay healthy and on the field, as Donald Butler has been a huge disappointment. Rookie second-round pick Denzel Perryman was a solid addition and should form a long-term pairing with Te’o.
The Chargers have a very good secondary, if it can keep all of its key pieces healthy. Safety Brandon Flowers proved he was worth his free agent deal and re-upped with the team. 2014 first-round pick Jason Verrett was solid in six games last year, but a shoulder injury ended his season. He’s working to get back to 100%. Free agent pickup Patrick Robinson looks to be the next man up if Verrett can’t go. Rookie third-round pick Craig Mager probably needs some time to adjust to the NFL. No disrespect to the Sun Belt Conference, but it is a pretty big jump. Free safety Eric Weddle made the Pro Bowl on a mixture of production and name recognition. He’s still a solid asset, but not a dominant player. Jahleel Addae is getting first crack at the strong safety job, partly due to his ability to act as a fifth linebacker. Jimmy Wilson would be the next man up if Addae doesn’t work out. Overall, the depth here is pretty good. So much so that I wonder if the Chargers should have focused a bit more on the pass rush instead of pass coverage.
The Chargers retained kicker Nick Novak. He went 22/26 on field goals last year. Given the cumulative difficulty of the kicks, that was merely a touch above average. He was the worst kicker in the NFL in kickoff distance. He should have been cut. Punter Mike Scifres missed time with a shoulder injury last season, but should be 100% in week one. He’s only average though, and wouldn’t be difficult to replace if necessarily. For what it is worth, Novak has shown he can punt in a pinch. The rest of the Chargers special teams are mediocre, but again, the big problem is Novak. He is going to hurt the Chargers this season.
On one hand I’m skeptical of the Chargers’ front-seven. On the other hand, the overall roster should be healthier than it was last season. Their schedule also appears notably easier than it was last season. Rivers may eventually make the Chargers regret this contract, but he’s still one of the best quarterbacks in the AFC. 9-7.
AFC Playoff Seeds:
1. Indianapolis Colts 11-5
2. New England Patriots 11-5
3. Denver Broncos 10-6
4. Baltimore Ravens 10-6
5. San Diego Chargers 9-7
6. Pittsburgh Steelers 9-7
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Denver Broncos
The Steelers are are going to be in many shootouts this season. This is no exception, but they get gunned down. Broncos 35, Steelers 27.
San Diego Chargers @ Baltimore Ravens
This turns out to be a mismatch as the Chargers are outclassed on both sides of the ball. Ravens 27, Chargers 13.
Baltimore Ravens @ Indianapolis Colts
The Colts are the weakest conference favorite of my lifetime, and would be one of the weaker #1 seeds if they end up getting it. Home field advantage is all for naught. Ravens 38, Colts 34.
Denver Broncos @ New England Patriots
Manning’s worst nightmare: another playoff loss at the hands of Brady and Belichick. Well, okay, alright, maybe not his WORST nightmare:
But it’s right up there. Patriots 31, Broncos 17.
AFC Championship Game:
Baltimore Ravens @ New England Patriots
These are still the two best and most complete teams in the AFC. I’m tempted to take Baltimore here, but picking against the defending champions at home is a bit much. Patriots 27, Ravens 20.
I wish I saw Baltimore, Indianapolis, or even Denver coming out on top, but I don’t. The Patriots are still the class of the AFC. As to who they’ll face, you’ll have to read on.