The AFC West is a division replete with intrigue, storylines, grandiose expectations and passion. I had to include the Raiders in that tag somehow, didn't I?
In all seriousness, the AFC West race figures to be hotly-contested battle with all four teams in the mix. Of course, the arrival of Peyton Manning in Denver has everyone ready to "Crown them," as Dennis Green would say, but the Chiefs, Chargers and Raiders will not go quietly.
Of course, the division took center stage during Thursday's exhibition. Fans and pundits crowded around television sets to watch Manning in Chicago, while others were left wringing their hands following Ryan Mathews' injury. Let's break down the AFC West.
Overview : John Elway made the big move to bring future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning to Denver. Questions about Manning's neck, his health and ability to throw downfield will persist through the preseason and into the regular campaign. Still, you have to admire the team to making a huge bet and taking the PR fallout associated with trading Tim Tebow.
Assuming he's healthy, the offense will produce points under Manning. Will the Denver defense perform more consistently?
Quarterback : Manning made his highly-anticipated preseason debut on Thursday against the Bears. He went 4-for-7 for 44 yards and threw an interception near the red zone that bounced off of a Denver receiver. Manning looked sharp in his brief appearance, thus piquing the interest of the fantasy realm. Are you re-thinking your cheatsheet?
Former Chicago quarterback Caleb Hanie threw three touchdowns and nine interceptions in six games while replacing Jay Cutler last season. Adam Weber from Minnesota and 2012 first-round selection Brock Osweiler round out the quarterback quartet. The Broncos are anticipating a full season of watching and learning at the feet of the master from Osweiler.
Running Back : He's not flashy, but he's effective. Willis McGahee, he of the 1,199 rushing yards last season, returns as the lead back for Manning in 2012. True balance in the offense with Manning under center makes McGahee a strong RB2 play, as we can expect an up-tick in his red zone work.
Knowshon Moreno is back for another run as McGahee's backup, but he'll be tested by rookie Ronnie Hillman and Lance Ball for touches. Moreno appeared in the team's opener against Chicago and produced 26 total yards on six touches.
Wide Receiver : The Broncos possess two exciting options that fantasy owners are rushing to the draft board to select in what is expected to be an explosive and efficient option in the Manning mold. Deep play threat Demaryius Thomas' catch and run against the Steelers has been shown one million times this offseason, while Eric Decker's steady play across the middle has been celebrated, particularly owners in PPR leagues. Both are being selected as early WR2 options with grand hopes.
I want to tag another player in this receiving corps, former Bengals receiver Andre Caldwell. Caldwell caught a total of 124 passes in four years with Cincinnati and will battle Brandon Stokley for the No. 3 role in this offense.
Tight End : The Broncos upgraded the position for 2012, bringing in former Colts tight end Jacob Tamme, who starred for the squad in 2010, and red zone beast Joel Dreessen. Fantasy owners have dived upon Tamme as a low-end TE1 option with Dreessen coming off boards as a mid-to-late TE2 selection.
Kicker : Matt Prater received a huge contract this offseason. He'll earn it behind Manning and this Denver offense. Last year, Prater attempted only 25 field goals, converting 19 of them. He has a strong leg and offers bonus potential, having converted seven field goals from distance of at least 50 yards in the past three years.
Defense : The Broncos, led by Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller, produced 41 sack and came up with big plays at opportune times in support of Tim Tebow. The unit still ranked 24th in total defense at 24.4 points allowed per game and produced only 19 turnovers. John Fox is hopeful that a more efficient, consistent offense will put the playmakers in a position to do their thing and keep them from having their tongues dragging in the fourth quarter.
San Diego Chargers
Overview : The talk in San Diego is the same as it has been for years. Is Norv Turner on the hot seat? And, will this team finally fulfill its promise? Philip Rivers is back to lead the offense, but the Chargers have already been hit with a huge injury.
Quarterback : How much do I need to write about Rivers? He's thrown for at least 4,000 yards in four consecutive seasons while averaging 30 touchdown passes. Forget that there's no obvious "No. 1 receiver." A healthy Antonio Gates more than fits that billing.
The backup situation is tenuous, at best. Charlie Whitehurst is back in the San Diego fold alongside former New England draft pick Kevin O'Connell. Neither player inspires much confidence should Rivers face an injury.
Running Back : All offseason, fantasy owners were wringing their hands when considering the draft value of Mathews. He posted big numbers in 2011, but injury concerns dampened owners' enthusiasm. On Thursday, Mathews was injured on his first carry of the preseason. He sustained a broken collarbone and will reportedly be sidelined for up to six weeks. That leaves the Chargers in a bind after watching Mike Tolbert walk away to Carolina. The primary backup is Ronnie Brown, who did little as a member of the Eagles. He stood as a fine, experienced backup to Mathews, but now gets thrust into the starting role with fullback Le'Ron McClain, Curtis Brinkley and Jackie Battle working into the mix.
The Chargers will take a long, hard look at the veteran free agent options (Cedric Benson?) and monitor the early cuts (Kahlil Bell in Chicago?).
Wide Receiver : Former No. 1 receiver Vincent Jackson took the money and rolled to Tampa Bay, therefore leaving a number of options vying for top spots in the San Diego offense.
- Robert Meachem looks to break through following several years of being just "one of the guys with upside" in Drew Brees' efficient attack.
- Malcom Floyd has long been an intriguing deep threat, but he has not been able to stay healthy.
- Vincent Brown popped onto the fantasy radar for several weeks in 2011 and rates a "sleeper" tag from his current WR4 draft position.
- Finally, there's Eddie Royal. Royal was once a PPR machine in Denver. He's working to find a role in the slot in Norv Turner's offense, but has been slowed by a groin injury.
Tight End : The reports of a leaner, meaner and healthier Gates this summer have been plentiful. In fact, I wrote one of them. In the workout I witnessed, Gates looked sharper in his cuts and had a bounce in his step that we hadn't seen in some time. It remains to be seen whether he can stay healthy through a full campaign, but the starting points is better than recent memory.
Veterans Randy McMichael and Dante Rosario are in camp for San Diego, but my eyes are on long-term project Lardarius Green. Green, a 6-foot-6 potential red zone terror, was a fourth-round selection this spring.
Kicker : Nate Kaeding missed all but the opening kickoff last season. He's back in camp, working to reclaim his job from Nick Novak. Novak started the 2011 season well for San Diego, but sputtered terribly down the stretch. Barring an injury setback, it's believed that Kaeding wins his job back.
Defense : The Chargers have retooled the defense for 2012 following a disappointing campaign. San Diego ranked 22nd in total defense at 22.6 points allowed per game and generated only 24 turnovers. The development of Corey Liuget, a second-year defensive end out of Illinois, is paramount to the improvement of this veteran-laden squad.
Kansas City Chiefs
Overview : There's a lot to like about this team under Romeo Crennel. The young defense is aggressive with a nose for the ball. Several key players return from injury on both sides of the ball. Can they outlast the competition in what figures to be a logjam in the standings?
Quarterback : Matt Cassel was limited to just nine games last season, a huge disappointment following his dominant 2010 campaign (27 TDs against seven INTs). Health concerns, his and others, obviously limited his effectiveness, and his top option remains in holdout mode. As a result, fantasy owners aren't turning toward Cassel until the low-end QB2 selections. If Dwayne Bowe reports early (see the WR bit below), there's tremendous upside here.
Brady Quinn is the veteran backup in camp with the Chiefs. Second-year quarterback Ricky Stanzi has demonstrated great progress in camp. He's seen by many as a potential starter in the league and may get the nod if an injury befalls Cassel.
Running Back : I made the argument for Jamaal Charles as the No. 1 overall running back last year. Alas, we never got to see him play through the campaign for a chance to prove or disprove my theory. Instead, Charles' spent the past year rehabilitating a torn ACL.
He returns to the lead slot for the sleeper Chiefs, but the team fortified the backfield by bringing former Cleveland battering ram Peyton Hillis aboard. Hillis has reportedly looked strong in camp while showing glimpses of his former brilliance. He's rising on draft board as owners ponder a 60/40 split of the workload in Kansas City with goal-line potential.
Wide Receiver : Reports surfaced that holdout Bowe is expected to return to the squad in time for the season opener. That revelation certainly helps to boost my confidence in the "sleeper" tag I put on this unit a while back. Though Bowe's touchdown total dipped markedly in 2011, he caught nine additional passes and matched his 2010 yardage output.
Second-year receiver Jon Baldwin rates as an intriguing "sleeper" play for 2012. He caught 21 passes for the Chiefs as a rookie and has turned heads in camp. Baldwin has clearly benefitted from the extra work in Bowe's absence.
Steve Breaston quietly amassed 61 receptions for the Chiefs last season. He's been an efficient No. 3 target for the past four years, dating back to his breakout 1,000-yard season for the Cardinals. Breaston stands as Baldwin's chief competition for an expanded role.
Tight End : Tony Moeaki missed the 2011 season, one of several key contributors missing from the Kansas City roster. The third-year tight end out of Iowa posted a fantastic rookie season and will be counted on to resume a prominent role for Cassel.
The Chiefs also added Kevin Boss, who spent a single season with the rival Raiders. Remember, Boss was a plug-in fantasy option who enjoyed a solid run in lineups as a member of the Giants.
Kicker : Ryan Succop received few chances last season, though he did convert 10-of-15 opportunities from distances of at least 40 yards. The healthy returns of Charles, Moeaki and the addition of Peyton Hillis bode well for his fantasy status this season.
Defense : The youthful Kansas City defense has the "sleeper" tag for 2012. Last year's unit ranked 12th in total defense (21.1 points allowed per game) despite the absence of Eric Berry and the obvious offensive deficiencies. The Chiefs generated 29 sacks and forced 32 turnovers.
Overview : Dennis Allen takes over an Oakland squad that looks to finally put a full season together. The Raiders have had early success the past few years, but injury woes have left them outside of the group playoff picture. Is Carson Palmer the man to end the streak?
Quarterback : Palmer joined the team under odd circumstances in 2011. He sat out and watched the early part of the campaign before Oakland acquired him in a deal with the Bengals. Palmer averaged 275 passing yards and threw 16 touchdowns against 13 interceptions in 10 games. The Raiders possess a number of speed options in receiving corps, acting in compliance with the Al Davis standard. Palmer could be looking at a big second act if the youthful receivers respond to a full offseason of workouts.
Running Back : Fantasy owners face a difficult decision when it comes to Darren McFadden. He's an all-world talent and rates among the best running backs in the game ... when he's healthy. Given the dearth of workhorse tailbacks, McFadden's value escalates this summer, but he carries tremendous risk.
The loss of Michael Bush to the Bears leaves the Raiders without a durable, tested backup. Mike Goodson played well as a member of the Panthers in 2010, but saw limited action for Carolina in 2011 before being placed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury. Taiwan Jones is a pure speed threat.
Wide Receiver : The Raiders possess a number of intriguing young receivers, all of whom follow Al Davis' mantra of "Go Deep."
- Darrius Heyward-Bey led the team with 975 receiving yards on 64 receptions. He posted eight games with at least 70 receiving yards last season.
- Denarius Moore was the next leading receiver despite logging just 33 receptions. He's seen as the top option in the group and warrants WR3 consideration.
- Jacoby Ford electrified the fantasy world for a brief time in 2010. He was limited to nine games in 2011, producing 19 catches for 279 yards. Ford may spend the bulk of his time in the return game.
- That leaves rookie Juron Criner as a candidate to emerge immediately. The 6-foot-3 option from Arizona has an opportunity to break into the rotation barring the arrival of a veteran option (Plaxico Burress?).
Tight End : Kevin Boss left for Kansas City, leaving Oakland with two untested tight end options. Brandon Myers, a fourth-year player out of Iowa, caught 16 passes for 151 yards last season. Second-year tight end David Ausberry out of USC caught two passes. The passing game figures to open up a bit in Palmer's second run with the squad, portending to additional opportunities for the duo. Neither appears on the preseason fantasy radar.
Kicker : I call him "Super Jock." You can use your Google machine to find its history if you don't remember the toy. Sebastian Janikowski remains a powerhouse option and bonus point hero, having converted 11-of-17 attempts from distances of at least 50 yards in the past two years.
Defense : The Raiders tied for 29th in total defense last season, allowing an average of 27.1 points per game. They produced a strong pass rush (39 sacks), but were run over to the tune of 137 yards per game.