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AFC West preview

We head west for the last of Ian Steven's divisional previews for the AFC. Follow the astute analyst of the pigskin via @deevo82.

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AFC West

Denver Broncos

Could this be the swansong for Peyton Manning? The old gunslinger about to walk into the sunset as his time is drawing nigh.The Bronco’s on-field general has turned 39 and it seems that the effects of Father Time have caught up with the quarterback.

Having already endured a lot of speculation about the power of his grip after extensive neck surgery, the Tennessee grad suffered a thigh injury in 2014 that left him badly hobbled, with the laser-like accuracy of his passing dropping off noticeably towards the end of the season. Manning needs to be protected and left untouched during the game if the Broncos are to have a productive season, and that is a task made all the more difficult with All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady suffering an ACL tear, ruling him out of the 2015 season. Second round pick Ty Sambrailo has been given the job of protecting Manning’s blind side, which sounds like a recipe for disaster as Manning is about as mobile as Susan Boyle in a darkened broom cupboard.

Offensive tackle issues aside, the Broncos have a lot of talent on offense. John Fox’s men picked up free agent Evan Mathis, who left Philly wanting a raise, but bizarrely signed for the Broncos for less than he was making, as he badly misjudged the market. Mathis consistently graded out as one of the best guards in football and he is s steal at this point.

CJ Anderson and Montee Ball should continue to share carries in the backfield whilst Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas form possibly the best receiver partnership in the league.

The defense returns Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware at outside linebacker. The duo combined for 24 sacks last season and are a constant nightmare for opponents to scheme for.

The talented secondary returns three starters from last season in Aqib Talib, Ryan Harris and TJ Ward – although Ward will miss the first game due to being suspended for allegedly throwing a beer mug at a lady in a strip bar – no confirmation as yet if the said beer mug contained beer at the time.

Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs disappointed last season with a 9-7 record, which perhaps shows you the level of the turnaround since Andy Reid took over the franchise.

KC famously did not have a touchdown reception by a wide receiver last year and the Arrowhead franchise immediately took care of that issue in free agency, splashing out to sign Jeremy Maclin to reunite the Missouri product with his old head coach.

Wearer of the largest smile after free agency was Alex Smith, the Chiefs quarterback, who must be relishing the upgrade at flanker. The only other real target for Smith is Travis Kelce who is tuning into an excellent tight end.

For the passing game to click into action, the running game needs to gain yards early. Jamal Charles is one of the biggest breakaway threats in the league, forcing opposing defences to respect the run and opening up passing lanes in the process for Smith to exploit.

The biggest story of the Chiefs offseason was the return to training camp of Eric Berry after the safety was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in November. Berry was given the all clear to play on July 28th and has contributed in the pre-season. More of Berry later on in the week when I tackle the player props.

An injury doubt for week one is nose tackle Dontari Poe who has had surgery for a herniated disc in his back. For a man as large as Poe, it is unlikely he will immediately be back to his best, which will hurt the run defense.

The undeniable strength of the Chiefs is the linebacking corps with NFL sack leader Justin Houston, Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson making up arguably the best personnel grouping at this unit in the league. The pass rushing ability of Houston coupled with the injury to Denver’s Ryan Clay could well be enough to swing the balance of power in the AFC West.

San Diego Chargers

It’s a tumultuous time in Southern California with perpetual rumours that the Chargers are considering a move to Los Angeles, prompting franchise quarterback Philip Rivers to stall over signing a new contract. The veteran eventually agreed to a four-year extension but will the city of San Diego still have an NFL franchise by that time?

Rivers has to be enthused about the immediate future of the Bolts as first round selection Melvin Gordon was added to the backfield. The rookie rushed for 2,587 yards last season for Wisconsin. I’ll type that again in case you think it is a typo – 2,587 yards. That was in 14 games with an average of 7.5 yards per carry. Only one player in the history has rushed for more yards and that was a guy called Barry Sanders – and he was kind of good. Gordon won’t get that type of room to run in the NFL but he is a carbon copy of Jamaal Charles and could push for a 1,000 season in his rookie year.

As much as Gordon will make Rivers giddy for actually having a running game since LaDainian Tomlison left town in 2010, there must be some concern that his perpetual safety blanket in Antonio Gates is suspended for the first four games of the season due to performance enhancers. Gates is the go to man in the redzone and Rivers will miss his presence.

Malcolm Floyd and Keenan Allen return at wide receiver giving Rivers a duo of dependable talents that should see the quarterback eclipse the 4,000 yards passing mark once again.

The Chargers have strengthened their offensive line by signing Orlando Franklin away from Denver. It is just as well that Rivers is 6’5” as left guard Franklin is 6’7” and left tackle King Dunlap is a whopping 6’9”.

Defense is usually a struggle for San Diego but the unit finished ninth overall in total yards last season. Linebacker Melvin Ingram has really impressed in the off season and looks to be the cornerstone player on the defensive side of the ball. Eric Weddle and Brandon Flowers provide experience in the secondary.

Oakland Raiders

December, 2002 is the last time the Oakland Raiders had a winning record. That is a long time for a franchise used to success, winners of three Super Bowls and general thorn in the side to the establishment figures in the NFL.

That record will likely extend for another season as there are too many holes in the roster for head coach Jack Del Rio to be able to savage but there is a glimmer of hope beginning to emerge in the Bay Area.

Quarterback Derek Carr was the 36th pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, the fourth quarterback selected but a case could be made for Carr outperforming the three signal callers selected above him. Carr had no real talent surrounding him but he still managed to post 3,270 passing yards with a 21-12 touchdown-interception ratio which is impressive for a rookie.

Reggie McKenzie set about addressing the lack of options in the off-season, signing diva wide receiver free agent Michael Crabtree whilst drafting Amari Cooper from Alabama who looks like he was born to play the receiver position.

It is doubtful that the Raiders will get much out of their running game with Latavius Murray their starter so it looks likely that most of the pressure will be on the arm of Carr in 2015.

Another bright spot for the silver and black is on defense as Khalil Mack has lived up to his hype out of college and is a dominant force at outside linebacker. Mack looks like the sort of player the Raiders can gradually build a defense around and could well get into double digits for sacks this year.

Ultimately, as talented as Carr and Mack are, the rest of the Raiders roster struggles to keep up and it will be another long season in Oakland, but they should do well enough to finally escape always picking in the top five in the draft.

Verdict

Denver are 1.57 to win the division and I think those are pretty short odds considering the issues on the offensive live. Manning is the ultimate professional player and if he can stay healthy – big if – then the Broncos have enough playmakers to win the division. They may even turn into a run first unit in a bid to keep Manning upright.

The real value is with Kansas City. They are priced at 6.00 with Stan James to win the division. They could well pip the Broncos as they are a well-coached outfit but with a price of 3.00 with Skybet to make the playoffs, that is by far the better option. The Chargers are also worth a consideration as well and could push for the second wildcard spot, but the Chiefs are more likely to take a game off the Broncos which could be the difference in the divisional standings.

2 pts on the Chiefs to make the playoffs @ 3.00 with Skybet.

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