NFL 2012 Season Preview: AFC West

We are under the one month window before the 2012 NFL season, which has all of our writers here at The Waiver Wire gearing up for another year of debates, poorly made bets and trash-talking. This year, we’ve decided to break down the season-to-be division by division. We will preview all eight divisions and pick our division winners, likely wild cards for both the AFC and NFC, and even which teams will be lining up for the Matt Barkley 2013 Draft Sweepstakes. 

Last year, the AFC West was all about Tebow-mania. But then this offseason, the Broncos shipped Tim Tebow to the New York Jets and signed free agent Peyton Manning. Can the Broncos make it to the playoffs with Manning, who missed the entire 2011 due to a neck injury, behind center? How will the Philip Rivers and the Chargers rebound after a disappointing 2011 campaign? Are the Chiefs healthy enough to make a run? Can Oakland contend for the division crown?All the answers and more from Vinny Ginardi and Steve Sabato.

Previous Previews: AFC EastAFC North

1. Denver Broncos

SS: The change from Tim Tebow to Peyton Manning will give the Broncos’ offense a completely new look this season. The main question surrounding the Broncos’ offense is whether or not Peyton Manning is healthy enough to hold up for the entire season, and continue playing at the level he’s been expected to play. Manning has already stated how excited he is to have a target like DeMaryius Thomas, and the Broncos added two pass-catching tight ends in Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme (who played with Manning in Indianpolis), as well as returning Eric Decker and Brandon Stokley, while adding Andre Caldwell from Cincinnati. Willis McGahee will continue to fight off Father Time this season, and the Broncos added Ronnie Hillman in the draft, to lighten his load. The running back corps may also be supported by Lance Ball who was serviceable in a limited role last season. I don’t expect Knowshon Moreno to make the team, opening the season 4th on the depth chart, after failing to impress the new administration last season.

The Broncos experienced strong contributions last season on the defensive end from rookie Von Miller, who helped the defense forget it was missing Elvis Dumervil. Safeties Quinton Carter and Rahim Moore played in 31 of 32 possible games, as rookies, last season. Denver’s defense will need them to take the next step in their development this season, and should benefit from them each having a year under their belt. The defense also added Tracy Porter (Manning’s nemesis from Super Bowl XLV), and Drayton Florence, who will give the cornerback pool some depth beyond Champ Bailey. Their defense came up big in a handful of games over the middle portion of the season, but the problem was, these big games came against the likes of Tyler Palko, Caleb Hanie, Kyle Orton, and Mark Sanchez. Holding the Chargers to 13 points and winning in overtime was the most impressive performance this defense had last season. However, there is a decent amount of young talent on this roster that looks to take a step forward in 2012.

I think the Broncos have the potential to run through the AFC West like a bat out of hell. Manning showed the same Peyton Manning arm strength in the pre-season opener against Chicago, and despite having a few passes tipped, looks like he’ll be able to shake off the rust before the regular season starts. The running game should be respectable enough for defenses to be kept honest, and Manning to have room to throw. My main question is whether or not the defense can keep the offense in the lead, if their young guns take the steps forward they need to, Dumervil comes back effective, and the linebackers stay solid, this should absolutely be an 11 win team.

2. Kansas City Chiefs

VG: The injury bug was no friend to Kansas City last season. Running back Jamaal Charles, coming off a year where he ran for more than 1400 yards and averaged 6.4 yards per carry, only attempted 12 carries before going down with an injury and missing the rest of the season. The same can be side on the defensive side of the ball, where potential stud safety Eric Berry missed 15 games with a torn ACL. Those are probably the most important offensive and defensive players the Chiefs have. The good news? Both players are expected to return this season.

Kansas City made an underrated move by signing running back Peyton Hillis. He’s a different kind of runner than Charles, which should benefit the offense in multiple ways. In addition and most importantly, he offers insurance should Charles suffer another major injury. This is a team that ranked 31st in points scored last season, but with the return of Charles and the signing of Hillis, the Chiefs offense will be much improved.

The Chiefs were an above-average defensive team last season, allowing 21.1 points per game. That should only improve this season, when the running game allows the Chiefs to control the ball for longer periods of time (Kansas City ranked 8th worst in time of possession in 2011). Pair Eric Berry with cornerback Brandon Flowers, and the Chiefs have one of the scariest secondaries in the league.

Should Peyton Manning go down with an injury or under perform, the Chiefs could steal the Division. If he’s the Manning of old though, the Chiefs will likely finish second with hopes of competing for a Wild Card spot.

3. San Diego Chargers

VG: The story last year was disappointing performance from quarterback Philip Rivers. Everyone knows about the interceptions, he threw 20 in all (seven more than 2010), but his touchdown total dipped from 30 to 27 and his completion percentage dropped from 66 to 62.9. But, of course this was only one year, and if the end of last season was any indication, then Rivers can return to the quarterback that we have seen in the past. In his last six games, Rivers threw for 12 touchdowns and only three interceptions, and compiled a quarterback rating of 103.4. Isn’t it possible that Rivers just went through a rough stretch to start the year and his abilities haven’t really declined?

In a year where the Chargers were thought by many to run away with the division and potential make a run to the Super Bowl, San Diego disappointed,  finishing 8-8 and missing out on the playoffs. But outside of the turnovers, the offense was one of the best in the league, tying for fifth most points per game (25.4) and ranking sixth and yards per game. Ryan Mathews took a big step last season and could break out even more this year, now that he will get a heavier workload with Mike Tolbert out of town. Of course, this was before he hurt his clavical and now will miss 4-6 weeks before the season even starts. But will the passing attack be as lethal? While Rivers experienced a down year last season (for his standards), things won’t be any easier this year. Antonio Gates is another year older and coming off a year riddled with injuries and number one wide receiver Vincent Jackson is playing for Tampa Bay. Rivers is going to have to do more with less.

Defensively, the Chargers were below average, allowing more than 23 points per game. Of course, having a turnover-prone offense usually makes things more difficult for the offense. The Chargers ranked 25th in turnover differential in 2011. If they are going to have a chance to compete for the division title, San Diego will need to do a better chance of taking care of the ball and forcing turnovers.

After years of loft expectations followed by disappointment, the Chargers are flying a bit under the radar this season. Maybe they will surprise for once.

4. Oakland Raiders

SS: The Raiders had a pretty weird off-season. This made sense, because their regular season wasn’t particularly normal either. They traded for Carson Palmer, who had been retired. They weren’t particularly good, finishing 8-8, but they were in the running for the AFC West title right up until the end of the season. All of this, despite losing their best offensive player in Darren McFadden to a foot injury in the middle of the season. They didn’t have a pick until #95 in the NFL Draft, because of the previous deeds of a spastic front office, and stayed relatively quiet in free agency.

I liked that the Raiders went out and signed Mike Briesel away from the Houston Texans. He was part of one of the best offensive lines in football, and will help create space for Darren McFadden, as well as keep Carson Palmer from getting killed. Stefen Wisnewski, 2011 2nd round draft pick, will step in at Center for Samson Satele, who is now replacing Jeff Saturday in Indianapolis. They signed Philip Wheeler away from Indianapolis to play strong side linebacker, which didn’t seem like a particularly good move, but this was a defense that ranked 29th in scoring in the NFL last season. They needed all the help they could get.

I think the Raiders can surprise people. Carson Palmer averaged 8.4 yards-per-attempt last season. This means he operated within the Raiders’ deep-strike attack pretty efficiently. His ability to throw the deep ball accurately will remain key for the Raiders. They have arguably the most athletic receiving corps in football with Darius Heyward-Bey, Denarius Moore, and Jacoby Ford. All of those dudes can leave scorched earth in their wake, and Carson Palmer can get them the rock. Darren McFadden is coming back healthy, and while they lost backup plan Michael Bush to Chicago, Taiwan Jones is another player on that offense who can burn people with his speed. This offense has the potential to be lethal. However, a defense that, beyond the defensive line, has very little depth and overall ability, leads one to believe that they could lose a lot of games due to this liability. I think with another off-season to add talent to the defensive side of the ball this team could be a contender. They’re just not there yet.