To kick off our 2009 NFL season preview, we bring you a breakdown of the AFC Western Division. Teams are ranked by their projected finish.
1. San Diego Chargers
So what if the lights are going out on Shawne “Tequila” Merriman’s career?
Fact is, the AFC West is so bad that the Chargers should be able to pencil themselves in for a division title in each of the next three years or so.
Their window is closing thanks to a number of aging stars, but their depth is fantastic and they have weapons at every skill position.
Tailback LaDanian Tomlinson can still run the ball, backup Darren Sproles is a capable super-sub, and quarterback Phillip Rivers looks like a young Dick Vermeil but plays like a young Joe Montana.
Merriman might be an annual distraction for this club, but he’s little more than a bump in the road on the way to the playoffs.
2. Kansas City Chiefs
Outside of San Diego, the rest of this division is a total crapshoot. Oakland and Denver are flat-out bad, which leaves the door wide open for an up-and-coming Kansas City club.
The Chiefs will rely on a number of fringe big-name players to carry their team. It starts and ends for this club in the backfield, where QB Matt Cassel and RB Larry Johnson will be counted on to produce big numbers in spite of question marks surrounding both.
Save for last season, Cassel is an unproven commodity with absolutely no track record in this league.
Johnson, on the other hand, has a checkered past and will be pushed for PT by backup Jamaal Charles.
Newcomer Bobby Engram should play a big part as the slot receiver, assuming the role of safety net with TE Tony Gonzalez’s departure.
First-year head coach Todd Haley — the offensive coordinator with Arizona in 2008 — will look to move the ball through the air early and often in KC.
Expect a lot of offense and little D from this team that looks to improve on a 2-14 2008 season.
3. Oakland Raiders
Assuming they manage to finish the season ranked somewhere better than last place in this division, the Raiders might very well be the all-time worst non-last place finisher in NFL history.
Outside of RB Darren McFadden and CB Nnamdi Asomugha, everyone on this team looks bad, including the sparring coaching staff and the walking death in the front office.
There is little talent on either side of the ball, and naming a receiver from the current roster would pose a task to even the biggest football buff (for the record, Chaz Schilens, Johnny Lee Higgins, and Javon Walker are all considered starters).
Quarterback JaMarcus Russell is in a make-or-break year, and veteran backup Jeff Garcia is a vulture circling, ready to take Russell’s job at a moment’s notice.
Even with Justin Fargas and Mike Bush in the running back rotation, this is without question McFadden’s team. The former Arkansas Razorback was the lone bright spot in a miserable preseason for the Raiders, but even he might have a tough time running behind a shaky O-line.
Look for the silver-and-black to challenge Denver for the cellar, but come out on top as the lesser of two evils in 2009.
4. Denver Broncos
This year’s edition of the Broncos is like a midday soap opera on UPN. There’s drama and turmoil, but the fact is nobody cares.
New coach Josh McDaniels has rubbed everyone the wrong way since coming over from the Patriots organization. He ended up necessitating a trade of QB Jay Cutler, distancing troubled wideout Brandon Marshall, and angering some fans in the process. Now the rookie head coach will be hard-pressed to win ballgames with a patchwork crew of youngsters and wishy-washy vets.
Tailback Knowshon Moreno, a first-round pick out of Georgia, is the most promising Bronco on the roster. He should get the first opportunity to start in the Denver backfield, but will be spotted with frequency by backup Correll Buckhalter, among others.
Quarterback Kyle Orton lacks the arm strength to incorporate fleet-footed WR Eddie Royal on deep routes. Expect the two to find success when Royal is in the slot and Orton is utilizing a quick release.
On defense, the Broncos should have confidence in veterans Champ Bailey and Brian Dawkins, both of whom will be patrolling the secondary. Opponents might not have any trouble running on this team, but completing passes could be a whole different matter.
If the Broncos end up being as bad as we think they’ll be, they won’t end up benefiting from their failures in the near future. That’s because they traded their 2010 first-round pick to Seattle during the ’09 Draft. Expect Seahawk fans to be rooting against the orange-and-blue all season long.