Thursday, September 07, 2006

2006 NFL preview: AFC West

How the mighty have fallen. Remember when Priest Holmes was the uber-fantasy player? Bigger than LaDainian Tomlinson. Bigger than Peyton Manning. If you had Holmes, you were the envy of your league. That was 2003.
In 2006, Holmes isn't even fantasy-worthy. Pushed aside by the emergence of Larry Johnson in the Kansas City backfield last year, now injury-prone and washed-up, Holmes will start the season on the Chiefs' physically-unable-to-perform list. If he reclaims any part of his career, it will be as a bit player.
NFL running backs get a lot of glory if they're good. But it's not a position you get into for the job stability.

1. San Diego Chargers (11-5)
My surprise pick of the AFC. San Diego has the weapons on offense to take over a largely mediocre division. That includes Phillip Rivers, who is getting his long-awaited chance to prove himself after being the consolation prize when Eli Manning whined his way out of San Diego two years ago.
LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates are the best in the NFL at their respective positions. The receiver corps is a bit thin, but still has some punch.
I don't think the Chargers have the defense to do much once they get to the postseason, but get there they should.
The x-factor: Rivers. He can be better than Drew Brees. If he is, he has the weapons at his disposal to do big things.

2. Denver Broncos (9-7)
The Broncos seem to be a fashionable dark-horse selection to advance to the Super Bowl this season. With magic man Mike Shanahan as your coach, I suppose anything is possible. But I just got the feeling that the Broncos were a decent team that overachieved their way to the AFC Championship Game last year. I expect them to regress this year.
We've gone past the water-into-wine phase with Bronco running backs. With Mike and Tatum Bell, Shanahan is treading dangerously close to throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks. Neither back staked his claim to the feature back position in training camp.
Jake Plummer had a good year last year. But I've never been a huge fan of The Snake. He takes the gunslinger mentality to the extreme. Too often, he's pass-first-think-later. It showed in the AFC title game loss to the Steelers.
The x-factor: the Bells. If Mike or Tatum emerges as a legit feature back, it will allow many more pieces to fall into place for Shanahan.

3. Kansas City Chiefs (7-9)
Coach Herm Edwards loves his running backs. This team is stacked in the backfield. Starter Larry Johnson can be spelled by Michael Bennett and Dee Brown. There's even the off chance that Priest Holmes might be able to contribute again at some point.
If only the rest of the roster were so deep.
QB Trent Green comes with my personal seal of approval. I drafted him in my fantasy league. His stable of targets, however, leaves something to be desired. WR Eddie Kennison and TE Tony Gonzalez are both well past their primes, and they're the best of the bunch.
The defense will rely heavily on LBs Derrick Johnson and Kendrell Bell to provide the leadership. CB Ty Law arrives low on gas and plagued by injuries.
The x-factor. the receiver corps. If they give Green reliable targets, this could be a playoff team.

4. Oakland Raiders (5-11)
I had to re-check the Raiders Web site to make sure that Art Shell had, in fact, been re-hired as the head coach. Who dredges up the failures of the past like that? It would be like the Browns suddenly deciding they wanted to give Jim Shofner a second look.
I chalk it up to another chapter in Al Davis' long, slow, painful descent into senility.
It's not all on Shell, however. The likely advent of another lousy season in the Black Hole will be more the product of Shell's roster.
LaMont Jordan is a decent enough running back. Too bad his rushing is going to be complimented (compromised?) by the throwing of Aaron Brooks and the catching of Jerry Porter. How long do you think it's going to be before Randy Moss spouts off because Brooks isn't finding him downfield? He might not just fake-moon the crowd the next time around.
On defense, the Raiders are anything but scary. Warren Sapp was a beast in Tampa Bay. Now, he's just fat, a postmodern Jerry Ball who can no longer get into the backfield.
The x-factor: Davis. The sooner he relinquishes control of the team, the better off the Raiders will be.

Up next: the NFC North

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