ESPN pundit Bill Williamson has written an article analyzing the AFC West. With all the changes that have taken place there in the offseason, it promises to be an interesting division...with the San Diego Chargers still the overwhelming favorite to win the division. Heres' Williamson's synopsis of each team...with my comments, in bold print within parenthesis, being dispersed throughout.
Its' amazing to consider just how much of an influence that the Patriots have had on the AFC West, and how they have been impacted by the teams in this division. At the end of the discussion of each AFC West team, I have included my comments on how the New England Patriots have been impacted by that particular team, and/or how the Patriots have impacted that team.
1.) San Diego Chargers:
a.) Reason to be optimistic: It's simple: The Chargers are the best team in the division -- by a long shot. That's why the Chargers should feel good about themselves. Because of all of the upheaval with the other three AFC West teams this offseason, San Diego is entering 2009 bigger favorites than last season.
San Diego did very little tinkering this offseason, but it did add some interesting pieces on defense in the form of linebackers Kevin Burnett (free agency) and Larry English (first-round pick in the draft). San Diego didn't need much to continue to have the best roster in the division.
b.) Reason to be pessimistic: If there is a chance for San Diego to falter in this division, it will be the pass defense. The pass defense struggled for much of last season, even though it did improve some when Ron Rivera became the defensive coordinator.
Improving the pass defense has been the focus of the entire team in 2009. San Diego general manager A.J. Smith said at the team's minicamp earlier this month that if the pass rush doesn't improve, the Chargers, who had to rally at the end of the season to win the AFC West title in 2008, could struggle again (as I fear could be the case with the Patriots as well).
Still, the team is hopeful that the return of Shawne Merriman and the drafting of English will help the pass rush and, in turn, help the secondary.
(Other reasons for pessimism are the fact that LT isn't nearly the multiple rushing/receiving threat that he once was...and the OL is thin. The right side is average at best. LT Marcus McNeill has experienced back troubles, which seemingly worsen with each passing season.
On defense, the heart of their defense, aging NT Jamal Williams, seems to be slowing down...and is becoming injury prone. Furthermore, one doesn't know whether Shawne Merriman will be the same player he was prior to knee surgery.
Finally, theres' the "Norv Factor". Though he's done a great job with QB Philip Rivers, he has yet to prove that he is an elite head coach. Because the Bolts barely escaped with the AFC West Divisional title, and beat the Colts in the postseason, Charger fans tend to overlook that their heroes were an 8-8 team last season. Norv was an eyelash removed from being fired).
c.) Patriots Impact/How Impacted:
The Chargers have never fully recovered from losing to the Patriots in the playoffs at home, 24-21, in 2006. That loss cost Marty Shottenheimer his job. Say what you want about Marty, but the Chargers seemed to be a more dominant team under his direction, than while coached by Norvice.
In 2008, to compensate for foolishly keeping LT, and allowing RB Michael Turner to leave without compensation, the Chargers dealt their 2nd round draft choice in 2009 (47th overall) to the Patriots, in order to acquire RB Jacob Hester. Thus far, Hester has not been the "short-yardage" RB that they envisioned. Meanwhile, the loss of their 47th overall pick prevented them for further shoring up their OL or secondary.
The Patriots would use that 47th pick as part of a package, along with their own 4th and 6th round selections, to move up to the 40th overall pick...which they used to select NT Ron Brace.
Finally, the Pats owe the Chargers a debt of gratitude for releasing SS Rodney Harrison in 2003. Rodney had been the heart and soul of the Patriots defense for the past 5 years, and helped them win two SBs.
2.) Denver Broncos:
a.) Reason to be optimistic: The running game should be strong. The team drafted Georgia's Knowshon Moreno with the No. 12 pick despite a crowded backfield.
It is clear Denver is going to be a running team after the Jay Cutler trade. It looks like Kyle Orton, acquired in the Cutler trade, will lead the offense, but the run will set up the pass in Denver (My guess is that Orton will turn out to be better than expected in Denver. He'll have a better OL, and a better cast of skill players to work with, than he had in Chicago).
New Denver coach Josh McDaniels said that Moreno can be a three-down back. McDaniels also said he believes Moreno can help the entire offense. Watch for Denver to try to incorporate veteran pickups J.J. Arrington
and Correll Buckhalter
and perhaps holdover Peyton Hillis
into the running game.
Each player offers a different aspect to the offense. With a strong offensive line and good receivers and tight ends, Denver's offense has a chance to succeed. And it will begin with the run.
b.) Reason to be pessimistic: The front seven is weak. It was Denver's biggest question mark going into the draft and it remains the biggest issue afterward. With 10 picks, Denver dedicated only one pick to the front seven: Tennessee's Robert Ayers at No. 18. And the team really doesn't know what it is going to do with him. He'll probably be a hybrid defensive end-linebacker (True...but that is how the draft fell. Moreno was a better pick at #12 than DE Brian Orakpo, or LB Brian Cushing. The top NT, BJ Raji, went at #9. Ayers, in my view, will turn out to be a better player than Orakpo, Larry English, or Aaron Maybin, who were all drafted ahead of him. The only mistake they made was in trading their #1 draft pick in 2010 for the 37th overall pick, which they used to select CB Alphonso Smith. NT Ron Brace Or ILB Rey Maualuga might have made more sense at #37.)
The Broncos really needed a legitimate defensive lineman as they transition to a 3-4 scheme. If Ayers is going to bounce around, he isn't the anchor the team needs. The linebacking crew had a chance to be decent, but the front three is going to be very inexperienced and very unintimidating with the trio Kenny Peterson, Matthias Askew and Ronnie Fields having a chance to be the starters.
c.) Pats Impact/Impacted:
Obviously impressed with the job Pats' OC Josh McDaniels did with Tom Brady and Matt Cassel, Broncos owner Pat Bowlen hired the 32 year old to coach his team. Whats' unknown is how much authority was given to McDaniels on personnel decisions.
In any event, it became clear that Josh was less than enamored with QB Jay Cutler, his stats notwithstanding. Did Josh force a trade attempt for Matt Cassel? Was it something that Pat Bowlen agreed to? Did the Broncos try to low-ball the Pats? Indecision in whether to trade Cutler and/or trade for Cassel, led to losing Cassel to the Chiefs, and to the souring of feelings between Cutler and the team. Steeped in the "Patriot Way", McDaniels probably wasn't impressed with Cutler's gun-slinging mentality, immaturity, and penchant to turn the ball over. As a result of these things, Cutler was traded to Chicago for the ungodly price of two #1 draft choices, and servicable QB Kyle Orton.
McDaniels also raided the roster of his former team, signing away free agent WR Jabar Gaffney, and long snapper Lonnie Paxton. It also remains to be seen how much the Patriots miss McDaniels as their OC/QB coach.
3.) Kansas City Chiefs:
a.) Reason to be optimistic: I am not thrilled with the trade of Tony Gonzalez to Atlanta (I don't understand why he wouldn't be thrilled with this deal!!? Former Chiefs GM Carl Peterson couldn't snare a 3rd rounder for Gonzalez in 2008...and Pioli ends up with the Atlanta Falcons' 2nd round pick in 2010 (after turning down their 2nd round pick this year...the 55th overall selection.) What a great deal for a team that is rebuilding!), but the offense has some decent pieces.
There is good leadership on the unit and it starts with new head coach Todd Haley. He proved as the offensive coordinator in Arizona that he is an innovator and a leader.
Then there is new quarterback Matt Cassel
, who was stolen from New England along with linebacker Mike Vrabel
for a second-round pick. Cassel has yet to prove he is anything more than a one-year wonder. (If Williamson is saying that Cassel is therefore a question mark, how can he say in the same breath say that the Chiefs stole him?)
But he will be put in a position to succeed in Kansas City and will be running a similar system to what he ran with the Patriots. If Cassel can develop a fast chemistry with receiver Dwayne Bowe
, the offensive line comes together and Larry Johnson
, assuming he is on the team, still has something in the tank, the offense has a chance to decent.
b.) Reason to be pessimistic: Statistically speaking, the Chiefs are the worst pass-rushing defense the NFL has ever seen. Kansas City set an NFL record for the fewest sacks in 2008 with 10.
One would think finding pass-rushers would be a priority through free agency and the draft, but the Chiefs have been very quiet. Yes, they added defensive end Tyson Jackson with the No. 3 pick in the draft. However, Jackson is known as a better run-stuffer than a pass-rusher. Thus, on paper, little has been done to improve an anemic pass rush (Obviously, this pundit doesn't understand the nuances of a 3-4 defense. Huge DEs like Jackson are necessary to anchor a 3-4, like Ty Warren and Richard Seymour do in the Patriots' 3-4. Though Pioli tried, he couldn't get the value he wanted in a trade down...and chose instead the one guy available who was best suited to fit as a 3-4 DE. c.) Patriots Impact/Impacted:
Having traded his 34th overall pick to obtain Cassel, Pioli couldn't add a Connor Barwin Pass-rushing OLB/DE project. But, he did select Purdue DE/DT Alex MaGee, who could form a DE bookend with Jackson).
BB's right hand man, Scott Pioli, is now the chief Chief in Kansas City. He immediately placed his brand on his new team by acquiring QB Matt Cassel, and veteran LB Mike Vrabel, for his 34th overall pick in the 2009 draft. His selection of DE Tyson Jackson with his 3rd overall pick clearly demonstrated that the "Patriot Way" would become The Way in Kansas City.
The Patriots would use that 34th overall pick to select SS Patrick Chung, who they hope will develop into a younger version of Rodney Harrison.
Of course, any discussion involving these teams must include the Bernard Pollard knee shot on Tom Brady. It remains to be seen whether Tom will fully recover. Though the Brady injury was a huge disaster for the Pats, the old addage about there being a silver lining in every cloud proved true...as the Brady injury allowed Matt Cassel to emerge. In turn, this led to the Patriots parlaying Matt's success into the acquisition of Chung. Lets' all hope that this Chung turns out better than the last Chung (OT Eugene) that the Patriots drafted.
4.) Oakland Raiders:
a.) Reason to be optimistic: The foundation to most successful offenses is a supreme running game. This gives Oakland a chance to break a six-year downturn. The Raiders have potentially one of the most dynamic running games in the NFL. They certainly have one of the most varied running attacks in the league (I've always thought that the key to a good running game was a strong OL...not an "elite" stable of RBs).
The three-headed monster of Darren McFadden, Justin Fargas and Michael Bush will keep teams off balance. McFadden is a game-breaker who is most effective if he is not overused. Fargas is a tough-yardage getter. He is very rugged. Bush is good in short-yardage situations and he is explosive. None of these players will carry an offense alone, but together they can do some damage.
If this group can stay healthy (which has been an issue), it will give Oakland a strong identity on offense.
b.) Reason to be pessimistic: While the running game is looking primed in Oakland, the passing game could hold back the offense.
Last week during the Raiders' minicamp, quarterback JaMarcus Russell suggested that Oakland's offense will be relying on the run first. That's all well and good, but Russell needs to help the running game or defenses will concentrate on stopping the run and neutralize Oakland's biggest strength.
Russell has been inconsistent in his young career and he must make strides this season. There is no questioning Russell has some skills, but he needs to do a better job of showing it (Why not build up the kid's confidence by telling him that he's the guy...and then build the offense around his talents. Instead, the Raiders stupidly bring in competition for the starting QB job, in the form of 39 year old Jeff Garcia.
If Al Davis likes the vertical game, so much so that he used the 7th overall pick on fleet footed WR, Darrius Heyward-Bey, than why bring in a guy who is best at running the West Coast offense? Dumb mixed messages such as this, sent to both players and coaches, are among the many things that are killing the Raiders. For Raider fans, its a shame. Believe it or not, the Raiders' roster is loaded with talent. If only they had a BB or Bill Parcells running their team, instead of you know who.).
He also needs help from his receivers. The team drafted Darrius Heyward-Bey with the No. 7 pick to make an immediate impact. However, if his collegiate inconsistencies continue (it was a huge mistake to choose him over WR Jeremy Maclin), he may not be able to help right away. c.) Patriots Impact/Impacted:
Apparently, BB likes and respects Raiders' owner Al Davis...and the feeling is apparently mutual. These teams have engaged in several draft day trades over the past few years.
In 2007, Uncle Al nearly gift-wrapped a SB for the Patriots, when he traded WR Randy Moss to them for just a 4th round draft choice. In fairness to Davis, he had to get what he could for Moss, for salary-cap reasons. While most teams thought Moss to be a washed up head case, the Patriots were willing to take a chance on him...and it paid off big time.
The Patriots traded the first pick in the 6th round of the 2005 NFL draft to the Raiders, in return for their 5th round pick in 2006...which BB used to draft reserve OT Ryan O'Callaghan.
Finally, in this years' draft, the Patriots traded their 47th overall pick acquired from San Diego, their 4th round pick (#124 overall), and their 6th round pick (#199 overall), to the Raiders for their 40th overall pick, which BB used to select NT Ron Brace.
Any opinions on the interactions between the Pats and the AFC West teams...or on any of the moves made by any of these teams?