2015 Division Preview Series: AFC West
This is part four of our eight-part division preview series. I will pose two questions per team, one about offense and one about defense, and then predict each team's 2015 record and final standing in the division. The other AFC previews can be found here: East, North, South. Tune in each Sunday for a new part of the series!
Denver Broncos (12-4 in 2014, 1st in AFC West)
The Broncos have performed incredibly well over the last four years, at least in the regular season. Head coach John Fox and his staff led Denver to a record of 46-18 and four division titles. But after disappointing playoff defeats (including a 35 point blowout in the Super Bowl), Fox et al. were shown the door. Gary Kubiak and a new staff look to bring the Mile-High City a championship.
Kubiak is offensively-minded and likes to run the football. Manning calls plays at the line after reading the defense. There's a chance that these two bump heads. With different ideas as to how the offense should be run, a coach-quarterback controversy wouldn't be surprising. Kubiak prefers his quarterback under center, whereas Manning has lined up in the shotgun 73% of the time in the last two years. Hopefully, the savvy 39-year-old Manning will rise above such tension, but distraction could be especially costly.
I say especially costly because the protection from the offensive line is shaky at best. Manning needs to ensure his decisions aren't telegraphed before the snap and that his blockers are set. One big hit and the veteran passer could find himself hurt again.
Last year, Denver's passing offense declined dramatically after Week 9. Some analysts have speculated that Manning got hurt mid-season and never fully recovered. This narrative does a lot to explain why the Broncos looked like the best team in the NFL through October, but then struggled and ultimately rolled over at home against the Colts in the playoffs.
If Kubiak implements his system judiciously and a healthy Manning retains the freedom he's earned in 15+ years at quarterback, the Denver offense should be able to maintain its deadly form in 2015.
Can Wade Phillips improve the defense?
Kubiak brought in Phillips as defensive coordinator in January. Notably, Phillips succeeded in turning around the Texans' defense from 2010 to 2011. The defense skyrocketed from 31st to 6th in the League. With this sort of expertise, the Denver defense appears to be in good hands.
Better yet, no major transformation is needed. In 2014, Denver's defense ranked 4th in DVOA. Probability dictates that the Broncos will regress toward the mean. If Phillips can somehow keep Denver's defense in the top five, he would earn every penny of whatever Pat Bowlen is paying him.
Fortunately, the talent is plentiful. Blitz packages featuring Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, and rookie Shane Ray should strike fear into the hearts of QBs and O-lines alike. The secondary includes three 2014 Pro Bowl selections and had the best pass defense DVOA on plays where the quarterback wasn't pressured. The strong secondary and vicious rushers should force mistakes from opposing offenses. Phillips will have a tough time making this defensive unit better only because they are so good already.
Prediction: 11-5, 1st in AFC West
A new coaching staff, a revitalized Peyton Manning, and a rock solid defense will translate to wins for the Broncos. If Manning goes down, however, all bets are off. Assuming his health, look for Denver to win the AFC West and make things difficult in the playoffs for other AFC contenders.
Kansas City Chiefs (9-7 in 2014, 2nd in AFC West)
Will a wide receiver catch a touchdown pass?
Here's an interesting stat: in 2014, all players listed at wide receiver for the Kansas City Chiefs combined for zero touchdown receptions. Any touchdown pass to a "receiver" was actually to a tight end or back lined up wide or in the slot. There were only six such receptions.
As odd as that may be, it tells us something important: QB Alex Smith has not produced. The Chiefs' quarterback makes close to $1 million per game and has masqueraded as a legitimate talent in the general opinion of football fans. But numbers never lie: Smith's WPA is 4.04, worse than Ryan Fitzpatrick's, the second string QB for the Jets. His Total QBR has been below average every year, except for 2012, when Colin Kaepernick led the 'Niners in the post-season anyway.
Smith is not bad; he simply cannot be expected to produce a lot of points. When playing foil to a solid defense (like the Chiefs', which allowed the second fewest points in the League), Smith is serviceable. But serviceable won't get a team over the hump in a competitive conference and division.
A wide receiver may finally catch a touchdown pass this year, but if it comes from Smith, the Chiefs will not beat out the Broncos in the AFC West.
Will Justin Houston have to carry the Chiefs' defense?
Linebacker Justin Houston signed during this offseason for $52.5 million guaranteed. In 2014, he was one sack shy of a new NFL reco rd. He's the poster boy for a mean Chiefs' defense, which (as mentioned) allowed the second fewest points in the League last year.
Undoubtedly, part of the Chiefs' defensive success is owed to Houston, but not all of it. Several of Kansas City's veterans had down years, but cumulatively, their production was significant. Tamba Hali, Dontari Poe and Jaye Howard solidified the front seven. In the 2015 draft, the Chiefs picked up some young talent to use in a rotation at linebacker. At safety, there also is some depth with a returning Eric Berry, Husain Abdullah, and Tyvon Branch.
Cornerback is still a weakness for KC. Brandon Flowers left in 2014, and although Sean Smith performed well in his place, the corner has to serve a three game suspension for a DUI. The lack of depth at CB will be exploited early in 2015 during games against Denver and Green Bay. In these games, it looks like Houston will have to compensate up front.
Ultimately, the Chiefs should still be good, but not great defensively. Age, injury, and regression to the mean will limit their ability to create points or big plays as a defensive unit. Houston will have to do as much of the heavy lifting as he can.
Prediction: 8-8, 3rd in AFC West
Retaining Houston should go a long way toward preserving their defensive edge, but the Chiefs will not have enough offensive firepower to compete with the Broncos or Chargers. In the NFL, the passing threat is necessary for an effective ground game (not the other way around). Jamaal Charles has racked up the carries, and defenses won't give him room to run anyway if Alex Smith is under center.
Oakland Raiders (3-13 in 2014, 4th in AFC West)
Will Derek Carr improve?
The Raiders have been dysfunctional for so long that nobody expects anything worthwhile from the organization. But in order for the Raiders to break their streak of twelve losing seasons, they need to find a diamond in the rough. Playoffs and contention for the division are not even close to realistic, but a talented quarterback can turn any team around.
Derek Carr enters his second NFL season with young weapons around him. Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree are good enough for Carr to exercise different facets of his game. Trent Richardson and Latavius Murray will combine to give the offense viable options on the ground. Most importantly though, Jack Del Rio comes in as the new head coach.
While the Raiders have drafted poorly, their system stifled whatever talent they had stumbled upon. The overhaul with Del Rio should prevent the team from becoming the veritable black hole of the League. In fact, as one of the most aggressive coaches in the League (as measured by the Aggressiveness Index), Del Rio will give Carr and the Raiders' other young offensive players plenty of opportunities to hone their skills. Under this system and with these teammates, Carr should make strides toward becoming a solid NFL quarterback. Unfortunately for Oakland, his sophomore year improvement will not yet translate to many wins.
How will Ken Norton Jr. develop the defense?
Del Rio hired a new defensive coordinator in Ken Norton Jr., with whom he played linebacker on the Cowboys in the early '90s. Norton previously worked with Seattle and has experience developing linebackers. This skill will be crucial for the Raiders because their defensive anchor is Khalil Mack.
Mack was undoubtedly the best rusher on a weak defense in 2014. He always seemed to get to the quarterback, but actually racked up a mere 4 sacks. This discrepancy might suggest that Norton needs to coach his defense to finish plays. Additional conditioning work or schemes more protective against a loose runner might do the trick.
If Norton properly nurtures Mack and makes the defense better at closing out plays, the Raiders' pass protection will still be anemic. Heading into 2015, their secondary does not have the talent to keep the ball out of receivers' hands. In fact, there is so little talent here that the focus should remain on the front seven; this way, the Raiders can solidify up front and then sign above-average corners and safeties in free agency. For now, look for them to get lit up.
Prediction: 6-10, 4th in AFC West
The young talent on this team, if cultivated well, will pay dividends long-term. The improvements made this year, however, will not bring the offense to a competitive level in the division and will not compensate for the remaining holes on defense.
San Diego Chargers (9-7 in 2014, 3rd in AFC West)
Will Philip Rivers stay with the Chargers?
Rivers is one of the best active quarterbacks without a Super Bowl appearance. He will be a Hall of Fame candidate when his career ends, and he will make over $20 million per year in his next deal (this is the final year of his extension in San Diego). He deserves that much, but is there any chance he can win big? After all, that's what he really wants.
Given an aging roster and multi-year plateau (i.e. the Chargers have not won more than 9 games since 2009), Rivers will not be the one to hoist a trophy. Because of this stark reality, the Chargers need to retool. The rumors of a move to LA make sense in this context. The organization needs young blood and a change of scenery. If Rivers wants to win, he needs those two things as well.
The Chargers will not get over the hump as currently constituted. Trading Rivers before his age diminishes his value is smart. There were rumors of a deal involving Marcus Mariota around the time of the draft. Getting a new QB would be ideal, but it's probably best to move Rivers sooner for as much as possible, whatever that may be.
If he stays for the entirety of his last year, the Chargers won't win in the playoffs, but they will grind out a winning season. After all, the thing Rivers has been good at is putting up strong numbers in the regular season.
Will Corey Liuget have a breakout season?
Assuming Rivers is around, the Chargers are a much better offensive team than defensive. The defense's goal in 2015 is to avoid losing games for the offense. The person paid the most to accomplish this is DE Corey Liuget. San Diego signed him for five years and $51 million, despite underwhelming production. If he steps up, the defense might be able to preserve leads for the offense.
The secondary is certainly talented enough to hold onto leads and will maybe even create points. Brandon Flowers and Jason Verrett are poised to be one of the best CB duos in the AFC. Eric Weddle may turn in another All-Pro year at safety. But unless Liuget comes through to anchor the front seven, quarterbacks will take their time to beat the secondary. Liuget is getting the money and so this burden falls on him.
If Liuget rises to the challenge, the Chargers' defense could finish better than average, but won't be top five.
Prediction: 9-7, 2nd in AFC West
It won't be pretty, but with Rivers and talented defense, the Chargers should manufacture a winning season. They probably will fight for a wild card spot in the season's final weeks, but don't expect them to put up much of struggle against the real powers of the AFC.