Peyton Manning and three rebuilding teams: what could possibly go wrong? Lots of things, one of which already has gone wrong. The Von Miller suspension won't jeopardize the Broncos playoff chances, but no team has more riding on a massive regular season. Few teams needed change at the top more than the Chiefs and Chargers, who have the talent to be very pesky spoilers. The Raiders are just digging out of a pile of debt, but a team with nothing to lose can be dangerous in its own way. With one team in win-now mode and three looking to the future, the AFC West will be fascinating, even if the standings are predictable.
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In a tweet: Now that we know Manning's neck is fine, let's put even more on his shoulders.
What's New: Wes Welker joins Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas to give Manning the best receiving corps in the NFL: a trio which combined for 297 caches, 3,852 yards, and 29 touchdowns last season. Rookie Montee Ball, the NCAA's career rushing touchdown leader, replaces old-timer Willis McGahee in the backfield rotation. With Elvis Dumervil gone and Von Miller suspended for the first six games of the season, a mix of veterans (Shaun Phillips) and up-and-comers (Derek Wolfe, on the mend from a scary neck injury) must find a way to generate pass rush.
What's Old: Peyton looks like the Peyton of old, and every offense he leads starts to look like the mid-2000s Colts … at least until John Fox mistakes Manning for Jake Delhomme and orders him to kneel on the clock to force overtime.
Football Outsiders Stat: Dumervil and Miller combined to generate 64 hurries last year. That's four hurries per game, and the Broncos must try to reproduce at least some of that while Miller is out for the first six games.
Best-Case Scenario: A Super Bowl victory, with Welker creating a critical-mass situation on offense and step-up defensive performances from the likes of Wolfe, Wesley Woodyard, and safeties Rahim Moore and Duke Ihenacho until the Miller cavalry arrives.
Worst-Case Scenario: Just about anything south of the Super Bowl will be a disappointment, so stakes are high. Leaving a Peyton injury doomsday situation aside, a slow start caused by the Miller suspension, coupled with a few losses due to a so-so offensive line and inexperience at running back, would force the Broncos to play three playoff games, some of them on the road. The future is immediate for the Broncos; the last thing they want to do is try to arrive at the Meadowlands via Houston and Foxboro.
Bottom Line: The Broncos overcame a slow start last year, and they may have to overcome one this year. It feels strange to be pessimistic about a team that will have no trouble winning the division, but too much is riding on this season to shrug off a suspension to a major player and some other preseason rumblings (minor injuries to Welker and Champ Bailey, for instance). Broncos fans will be in that terrible limbo where regular-season wins feel obligatory and losses feel like disasters. It's a weird ailment that Manning has carried with him throughout his career, and only a February win can cure it.
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Kansas City Chiefs
In a tweet: Romeo Crennel's headset smells like barbecue sauce! Keep it away from Andy Reid until … whoops, never mind.
What's New: The greatest 2-14 team in NFL history swept out the Belichick Wannabe Brigade of Scott Pioli and Romeo Crennel. In their place: Andy Reid, a low-key empire builder who oversaw the rise and fall of an Eagles decade; and GM John Dorsey, who comes from the Packers school of slow-and-steady roster revitalization. Alex Smith is a quarterback who can deliver passes more-or-less on target. First-overall pick Eric Fisher will make sure the happy-footed Smith has some time to throw. Cornerback Sean Smith gives the Chiefs a potentially-great secondary.
What's Old: The Chiefs have as much blue and red-chip talent as some Wild Card teams. Tamba Hali, Derrick Johnson, Eric Berry and Brandon Flowers form the core of a defense that would have looked much better if the offense didn't keep turning the ball over at its own 20-yard line. Branden Albert is playing out his hefty contract, so Fisher can start his career at right tackle with a proven protector watching Alex Smith's back. Jamaal Charles is the best player in the NFL you never think about (unless he is on your fantasy team). These are Pro Bowl caliber players at or entering their prime, a luxury new coaches and GMs rarely enjoy.
Football Outsiders Stat: The Chiefs offense turned the ball over inside its own 30-yard line 13 times last year. So roughly once per game, the offense spotted the opponent (at least) an easy field goal. Smith's greatest attribute is his ability to avoid sloppy turnovers. A solution to this simple problem will make the Chiefs much better in a hurry.
Best-Case Scenario: Competent quarterbacking and Reid's detail-oriented approach are all it takes to get the Chiefs into the .500 range. Fisher and other youngsters kick-start an accelerated rebuild.
Worst-Case Scenario: Last season was the worst-case scenario, in every possible way. Things will get better. But here are two things that could make Chiefs fans edgy: 1) Any signs of Reid-Dorsey-Clark Hunt power struggles; 2) Reid giving Charles just nine carries per game as he reverts to the pass-crazy tactics that sped the Eagles downfall.
Bottom Line: The 2008 draft brought Charles, Albert, and Flowers. Later drafts brought Berry, Tyson Jackson, and useful role players like Tony Moeaki. Unfortunately, the Chiefs lacked organizational coherence and coaching vision, got too caught up in a Patriots impersonation, and kept waiting for a quarterback to fall from the sky. Reid has a reputation as a slow-moving vehicle, but he turned the Eagles around quickly in 1999-2000, and he has the talent to do the same thing in Kansas City. Neither Reid nor Dorsey will fall for quick-fix solutions, however, so the Chiefs might sacrifice a win or two this year if it means getting the roster situated for future years.
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San Diego Chargers
In a tweet: Read this or D.J. Fluker will eat you like a Kodiak bear eating a tasty salmon.
What's New: Grouchy A.J. Smith and groggy Norv Turner have been replaced by newcomers Tom Telesco and Mike McCoy. Telesco and McCoy inherit a roster that has been slowly achieving entropy since the Chargers' energetic 13-3 season in 2009.
What's Old: Philip Rivers is entering the third year of a slump and near the end of one of those back-loaded contracts quarterbacks are never supposed to near the end of. Rivers is too good to replace but too old to drop a lavish extension upon, making him the thorniest of Telesco's adopted problems. On offense, stalwarts Antonio Gates, Malcom Floyd, and Nick Hardwick give the Chargers an old-school Marty Schottenheimer flavor. On defense, the new regime parted ways with 30-somethings like Takeo Spikes, Demarrio Williams and Quentin Jammer who clung to the Chargers roster as Smith went into denial about rebuilding.
Football Outsiders Stat: The Chargers offensive line had 31 Blown Blocks which resulted in sacks, the third-highest total in the NFL. The offensive line was so bad that it cannot be repaired in a year, but Telesco-McCoy took the first steps, acquiring Steelers veteran Max Starks and drafting half-man, half-bear D.J. Fluker.
Best-Case Scenario: Rivers proves he has a few years left, Telesco finds his price and the veterans keep the Chargers near .500 while the rebuild occurs behind a curtain.
Worst-Case Scenario: The "rebuild behind the curtain" fails, and the Chargers remain a 7-9 team whose leaders are mostly holdovers from two coaching staffs ago.
Bottom Line: The Chargers desperately needed their regime change; Smith and Turner would have kept running Rivers out on the field and going 7-9 until fans demanded that the franchise move away. The age gap between the Rivers-Gates generation and the few promising youngsters on the roster reveals just how terrible Grouchy and Groggy were at finding, developing and keeping talent. The Chargers are finally in a position to move forward again, though it will take some pushing to overcome three years of inertia.
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In a tweet: Know Your Credit Score: Dial 1-888-Cap-Mess! If your name is Reggie McKenzie, please hold for a counselor.
What's New: The Raiders are exploring the unglamorous world of fiscal responsibility! GM Reggie McKenzie is using the 2013 season to settle old cap debts. Think of it as eating mac-and-cheese for a month while sending your paychecks to the credit card company. The Raiders roster is stapled together out of dirt-cheap veteran rentals. McKenzie then sought value in the draft by focusing on super-talented square pegs: D.J. Hayden, a great cover corner whose college career was interrupted by a terrifying injury; Menelik Watson, a left tackle from England who plays like he grew up in Dade County; and quarterback Tyler Wilson, who looked like a first round pick before Bobby Petrino joined the Sons of Squickarchy motorcycle gang.
What's Old: Old debt. There is $49-million in dead money on the ledgers, accounting for 38% of the team's cap space. Instead of paying new players, the Raiders are paying for the bloated contracts they gave Carson Palmer, Richard Seymour and first-round draft blunders like Darrius Heyward-Bey.
Football Outsiders Stat: The players at the top of the tight end depth chart, Richard Gordon and David Ausberry, have just 12 combined NFL catches.
Best-Case Scenario: Hayden and Watson develop, a quarterback asserts himself (Terrelle Pryor, inspired by the low hurdle that is Matt Flynn, may be doing just that) and McKenzie looks forward to 2014 with a handful of assets and a repaired credit rating.
Worst-Case Scenario: Mark Davis inherits the sins of the father and grows impatient with McKenzie and Dennis Allen, or someone else in the organization starts drinking from the lead-lined water fountain. Instead of lying still and waiting for the medicine to take effect, another weird Raiders power play erupts, and the Raiders start spending money stupidly again.
Bottom Line: The Raiders roster looks like a baseball AAA-affiliate: mostly fringe veterans, sprinkled with prospects. It is bad in places and terrible in others, but at least that is a short-term problem. McKenzie and Allen face a rebuilding project so massive that it must wait a solid year to begin. Flynn, Charles Woodson, and the other veterans are on hand to keep the team respectable and create a positive environment for the prospects. Pryor could make the Raiders fun for casual fans, Hayden and Watson for prospect hunters, but folks looking for weekly competitive football will have to search elsewhere.
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