On the surface, and pretty much all the way down to the core of the division, this is a one-team race going into 2013. The Denver Broncos, quietly building their strength for several years before the addition of Peyton Manning brought them as close to the top as they’ve been since the Shanahan years, are that team. The rest of the division will have to reach deeper than deep to possibly contend for the title…but that may be asking too much, especially considering the Chargers, Chiefs and Raiders all finished the 2012 season with losing records. Whether or not any of them can contend will depend on the new systems, schemes and roster additions they’ve made.
1 – Denver Broncos
While Tim Tebow and the bulk of the same Broncos team heading into 2013 turned many heads with their postseason appearance in 2011, the new regime, including head football man John Elway and new HC John Fox, quickly set about jettisoning Tebow and cashing in on the Peyton Manning sweepstakes. It paid off, at least in the regular season; 5 more games won and a 13-3 overall record. However, they got no further in the playoffs than they did when Tebow was behind center, losing a nail biter in the Divisional round to the Baltimore Ravens. Despite that, a few key additions and a year’s worth of chemistry-building between Manning and his deep receiving core make the Broncos easy favorites to represent the AFC in the Superbowl.
Where to start? Manning disproved many doubters by showing no ill effects from a series of neck surgeries, operations that many doctors claimed were career-threatening. His arm strength is still there, and his mental acumen, always his strongest suit, is peerless. The duo of Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker provide Manning with an envious receiving core, and you can bet the bank on newcomer Wes Welker becoming a prominent part of the passing game as well. While his touches were limited, Ronnie Hillman provides the sort of swingback that should excel in Manning’s offense. Rookie Montee Ball may be the real deal, and Knowshon Moreno, despite his ups and downs, is a capable back, giving the team a stable in the backfield. Joel Dressen and Jacob Tamme provide reliable outlets at the TE position. Few teams in the league have the skill position depth and talent that the Broncos possess.
Denver tied for the league lead in sacks last year, a dominant pass rush led by Von Miller and his 18.5 contribution to the team’s 52 overall QB takedowns. Along with solid LB play, the Broncos defense in 2012 gave up a paltry 289 points, a number bested by only 3 other teams. Champ Bailey continues to play solid football at his advanced age, and overall the names across the defense may not jump out at you, but they play fundamentally sound and have a great leader in coordinator Jack Del Rio.
Causes For Concern:
Injuries across the offensive line are already starting to stack up, and that is a dangerous thing when the season hasn’t even started yet. When Dan Koppen went down for the season, the team turned to Peyton Manning, who in turn lured his ex-Colts teammate Ryan Lilja out of retirement to at least add depth to the position. Projected starter Manny Ramirez has zero starts in his career. LT Ryan Clady is recovering from shoulder surgery, and is being treated delicately at this point, the team knowing full well the importance of protecting Manning’s blind side.
The team’s Achilles’ Heel in 2012 was its safety play, and the projected starters (Mike Adams, Rahim Moore) are the same as they were last year, which has to raise some eyebrows. The team hopes that the aged Quentin Jammer can help provide depth and situational play at the position, and also that ex-Eagle Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie can play more inspired than he did in Philly in 2012 at the CB position. The depth in the secondary is generally thin, and if the pash rush isn’t consistent, this is an area that can be (and was last year) exploited. Losing pash-rush specialist Elvis Dumervil to the now-infamous fax machine debacle will hurt, but the team has to hope that Shaun Phillips, taken off the hands of division rivals San Diego, can help lessen the loss.
The Broncos in 2013 are the closest thing to a sure bet for the postseason as you’ll find. Their division is more than a step behind them in terms of talent, and all Denver has to do is continue to play up to their capabilities to take it, and hopefully win a playoff game or two. The path to the Superbowl is longer than the regular season, and more than anything, Peyton Manning knows this and has to keep his eyes on the prize, because it wasn’t just the secondary that cost them an AFC Championship appearance in 2012.
2 – San Diego Chargers
The last couple of years in San Diego have been rough. The constant run of playoff appearances is a thing of the past, and many of the team’s best players have either moved on or moved past their prime. The current state of the franchise at the end of 2012 was seemingly the final straw for HC Norv Turner, as he was replaced by former Broncos OC Mike McCoy. Also in is new GM Tom Telesco, whose job now will be to replenish a roster that is notably thin on talent on both sides of the ball. That could start in-house, with young guys stepping up and established veterans (Phillip Rivers in particular) playing up to expectations.
Despite his struggles in recent seasons, Rivers is still an excellent QB. Problems arising around him are mostly to blame for his increased INT numbers and general statistical dropoff, something that needs to be rectified if San Diego wants to progress. Antonio Gates, even at 33, is still Rivers’ best option in the passing game, but he’s not quite the same unstoppable force he was in his youth. The WR position is essentially a handful of journeymen, and the Chargers have to work at developing 2nd year wideout Vincent Brown and promising rookie Keenan Allen to help improve a position that hasn’t looked the same since Vincent Jackson took his talents to Tampa Bay. The RB position is flaky at best, and it’s hard to tell what it will look like if Ryan Mathews doesn’t (finally) step his game up. The addition of Danny Woodhead offers a versatile option both running and catching the ball. The offensive line should be improved, with 1st round pick D.J. Fluker at RT and the consistent Nick Hardwick providing strength in the middle.
Defensively, things are looking up. DE Corey Liguet made a big jump in production in his 2nd season, and was probably a Probowl snub in 2012. Newcomer Dwight Freeney might still have something left in the tank going into his 11th season, and he’ll need to help soften the loss of pass rush specialist Shaun Phillips. One of the biggest moves the Chargers made this offseason (having nothing at all to do with the non-football headlines, mind you) was drafting Manti Te’o. I have a very good feeling about the kid, and he should end up being the piece that helps shore up the middle of the defense, a spot that was worrisome just a year ago. In the secondary, Eric Weddle is one of the absolute best at his position, and knowing he’s back there at FS making big plays is a definite comfort. The addition of Derek Cox (Jacksonville) should help the CB position at least moderately, as he does have solid ball skills but needs to improve his overall consistency.
Causes For Concern:
If improvement isn’t seen on the offensive line, the Chargers are going to be in serious trouble once again. Rivers was sacked a whopping 49 times in 2012, and the run blocking wasn’t much better, but that blame is shared with the lack of a quality running game. If the team is serious about putting Eagles castoff King Dunlap at LT, you can expect the rush coming at Rivers’ blind side to be problematic, as Dunlap is simply a huge body without the footwork needed to stop the edge rush. The running game looks thin behind Matthews, irregardless if he steps his game up, and as I mentioned, the lack of proven talent at WR is also a worry.
While the defensive side of the ball looks to be the team’s strength at this point, there are still questions. Cam Thomas had issues clogging the middle at DT. Rookie Kwame Gathers may have to step into this pivotal position and help improve the interior of the defense. The back 7 is a mixed back, and beyond Te’o (if he pans out, of course) and Weddle, things are shaky at best. Donald Butler is solid at one OLB, but Freeney’s motor may be depleted, and there are serious questions as to where the pash rush will come from. The secondary is in general solid, but depth concerns remain, and the entire unit, which was a top-10 in most statistical categories in 2012, needs to remain healthy and continue to progress in order to give the team a chance at success.
If a handful of pivotal situations play out in their favor, the Chargers could compete for a wild card slot, but don’t expect them to outplay the clearly superior Broncos this year. The offense is such a question mark at this point that it’s hard to give them the benefit of the doubt in terms of a postseason berth, something that was commonplace only a few years ago. Things have changed in San Diego, and that change may continue for another couple of seasons before the Chargers are back to where they need to be.
3 – Kansas City Chiefs
2012 was a disaster for the Chiefs, and yet they still sent 5 players to the Pro Bowl. The changes that needed to be made were blatantly obvious, and with the departure of Romeo Crennel and Matt Cassel, Kansas City hopes their replacements can make better use of what is a very talented roster overall. Andy Reid’s last three seasons in Philadelphia were bad, and being from the area, I can tell you that he had worn out his welcome well before the 2012 season even started. The fresh start that Kansas City represents might be just what he needs to bring him back to his glory days. At QB, Alex Smith’s sudden demotion and eventual dismissal from the 49ers may play to the benefit of the Chiefs, who grabbed him up early in the offseason and are looking forward to seeing if his increased productivity in San Fransisco can translate in another town.
It’s hard to call him a strength, but it’s also not fair to call him a weakness: Alex Smith is what he is, a capable QB whose game is often only as good as those of the players around him. Lucky for him, he’ll be handing off to one of the most electrifying HBs in the game in Jamaal Charles. Here’s a guy who has averaged over 5 yards per carry over his first four seasons; the real deal. For Alex Smith, when he’s not feeding Charles, he has one of the NFL’s better wideouts in Dwayne Bowe to target. Rounding out the offense are impressive bookend tackles, including this year’s first overall pick Eric Fisher starting on the right side, and after some confusion regarding what team he’d end up playing for in 2013, Branden Albert is back to solidify the LT position.
Defensively, Kansas City has some excellent pieces, including perennial Probowlers Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson. The former is a pass rushing specialist who has totaled 33.5 sacks over the past three seasons. Johnson is an all-purpose, playmaking OLB who gets to the ball consistently. The team has some solid depth in the secondary as well, with Brandon Flowers and Miami transplant Sean Smith projected as the starting CBs, with Dunta Robinson and Quintin Demps providing solid support as nickel and dime players. Eric Berry came off of a rookie season-ending injury to show flashes of high potential in 2012, and he has the natural ability to take another step forward this year.
Causes For Concern:
For whatever reason, a team with excellent playmakers on both sides of the field absolutely bombed in 2012. It’s up to the new regime and Andy Reid in particular to figure out why this happened, and to maximize the talent at hand. There’s little doubt the Chiefs have the talent to compete for a playoff spot, but until they prove it as a team, doubt remains.
The most glaring weakness on this team is its lack of passing options beyond Bowe. Alex Smith thrived in San Fransisco due to a combination of a consistent running game and a handful of reliable options to target. Donnie Avery, at this point in his career, is not the type of guy you want projecting as your 2nd WR, and Dexter McCluster has been nothing more than potential not being reached so far in his career. The team reached at a couple of players (Anthony Fasano, and former 1st round pick for the 49ers, A.J. Jenkins) in the hopes of rectifying what could be a one dimensional offense, but Fasano has been little more than an occasionally clutch 3rd down type of option, and Jenkins was let go far too easily by a 49ers team in need of WR depth to expect the lights to suddenly come on. The interior of the offensive line is also not as strong as one would like, but Fisher and Albert can do plenty to help mask that.
When you look at the team’s defensive roster, you scratch your head trying to find true weaknesses. I think their biggest problem in 2012 was a lackluster offense not keeping the ball long enough to spell the D, which resulted in a worn down and exhausted unit by the 3rd quarter of most games. If Reid and Co. can make the offense click, the defense should follow suit.
Kansas City are an enigma at this point; talent everywhere, results nowhere to be found. Will they end up in the postseason in 2013? I don’t think they will, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they stuck in as a wildcard considering the talent across the roster. But there has to be a real change amongst the roleplayers and non-stars across the roster for this to happen. If the support isn’t there, no amount of big runs by Charles or sacks by Hali are going to count for anything by season’s end.
4 – Oakland Raiders
The Death of Al Davis was, beyond the sadness it brought to Raider Nation, a wake-up call in Oakland. For far too long, Davis’ way was sinking the Raiders into the ground. Bad drafting practices, bad trades, and what you get is a playoff drought going on 11 years. For the first time, somebody other than Al Davis is the General Manager, and former Packers executive Reggie McKenzie has, to date, made some smart moves, including bringing in the defensive-minded Dennis Allen as head coach in 2012. While 4-12 is hard to consider progress, there’s no doubt the Raiders are headed in the right direction under new leadership. Regardless, a roster almost entirely depleted of top-end talent will take longer than a couple of offseasons to rectify, and Oakland fans shouldn’t get their hopes up for 2013.
I almost feel ashamed when looking at the projected depth chart, trying to find anyone beyond Darren McFadden and Sebastian Janikowski that could be considered strong players. Center Stefen Wiesniewski is a solid up-and-comer, and Denarius Moore has shown flashes of maybe being a dependable weapon in the passing game, but beyond them, the offense has holes everywhere, including at the most pivotal position: Quarterback.
The defense projects more or less the same way. Lamarr Houston is a real talent at DE, but he’s on a very lonely island amongst roleplayers across the rest of the line. The team drafted DJ Hayden in the hopes of shoring up one of the NFL’s worst secondaries, but 1st year CBs are notorious for being inconsistent at best. They also brought back Charles Woodson into the fold after shining with the Packers for years, but beyond his on-field experience, it’s difficult to see him being a difference maker.
Causes For Concern:
They’re everywhere, and 2013 is going to essentially be a tryout for next year’s roster. There are too many journeyman and so-so’s to count, and throw in the young, unproven talent, and the level of worry for the Raiders is about as high as any team in the league.
All that concern peaks at the QB position, where the team acquired Matt Flynn in the hopes that that one unforgettable game in Green Bay might translate into something consistent. Terrelle Pryor is working his tail off in practice and has shown glimpses of what he was in college, namely a force to be reckoned with, but he’s not quite NFL-ready at this point in his career. If Flynn falters, Pryor may have to get up to speed quicker than anticipated.
Another real issue is the continuing health issues of HB Darren McFadden. When healthy, he’s undoubtedly one of the best in the business, but he’s been healthy far too irregularly for the Raiders’ liking. Last year, his issues were more stemmed in a ill-conceived zone-blocking scheme that didn’t fit his running style. That scheme was ejected for 2013, and if he can stay healthy, McFadden should prosper. If he ends up on the injury report, any chance Oakland has at at least competing against some of their weaker opponents will lessen significantly.
There’s always a chance. That’s why all 32 teams play the games. But there isn’t a team in the NFL that you could be safer in saying “not a chance” about when talking about the postseason in 2013. No, the Raiders, while in their infancy of catching up with the rest of the NFL in terms of putting a solid roster together, should be happy by simply matching their win total from last season.