Chris Burke and Doug Farrar break down the burning questions from the AFC West, including breakout second-year players, the worst defense in the division and more.
Which 2nd-year player in the AFC West is poised to break out in 2014?
Chris Burke: Sio Moore, LB, Oakland.
Working in relative anonymity on a disappointing Raiders squad, Moore turned in a solid rookie campaign -- 50 tackles and 4.5 sacks in 11 starts. His role could increase in 2014 if he overtakes veteran Kevin Burnett for the starting weakside gig. There will be more support for him elsewhere on defense, too, especially with Khalil Mack arriving to play on the strongside, which is where Moore saw most of his action during the '13 campaign.
He actually may be a better fit on the weakside anyway, though the lack of available options forced Moore to shift over last season. With Mack occupying attention on the other side of the field, Moore would find ample room there to chase the football. That's really what he does best, as an aggressive but mobile linebacker.
Doug Farrar: Montee Ball, RB, Denver.
With Knowshon Moreno off to Miami, it's time for Ball, selected in the second round of the 2013 draft, to become Denver's main man in the running game -- and offensive coordinator Adam Gase couldn't be happier about the notion.
“We drafted him in the second round to be a big contributor," Gase said in late May. "I know I keep saying the same thing, but we do have a lot of confidence in him. He brings that full package of a good running back, running the ball, catching the ball out of the backfield and protecting ... I’d say he’d probably be the one guy [who] made the most improvement. And to see him make the next jump in his second year, we’re looking forward to that.”
Ball gained 559 yards on 120 carries in his rookie campaign, but showed breakout flashes against the Chiefs' solid defense (117 yards on 13 carries in Week 12, and 77 yards on 13 carries the next week). Now, as Peyton Manning's primary ground-game mover, it will be up to him to show as much skill in pass protection and route concepts as he showed when rushing for 3,753 yards and 55 touchdowns in his last two seasons at Wisconsin.
“It took quite some time to adjust to the speed of the game, the intensity," Ball said of the NFL experience on May 30. "And like I always told people, better late than never. I think it came at the right time. I would have loved for it to happen early on, but that’s the emphasis that I’m putting on this year, just to start fast, which I’m doing now during OTAs and I’ll do it during minicamp next week, and roll into training camp with the same mentality. I think it’ll help me out preseason and the season.”
Ball had to watch former college teammate Russell Wilson hoist the Lombardi trophy at the expense of his Broncos in February. Perhaps with a more prodigious rushing attack in the bag, Ball can return the favor in early 2015.
Which 2nd-year player in the AFC West has the most to prove in 2014?
Chris Burke: D.J. Hayden, CB, Oakland.
Staying in the Black Hole for this pick as well. The Raiders rather surprisingly used the No. 12 overall pick on Hayden last year, despite Hayden having endured a near-death experience in college due to a heart ailment. The return on that investment has not arrived yet. Hayden played just eight games as a rookie, landing on injured reserve with a groin injury, and he wasn't all that effective when he did get on the field.
Talk is cheap, but the Raiders are buzzing about his potential in Year 2.
"He's honing his technique, he looks explosive and he's put on weight and strength," defensive coordinator Jason Tarver told Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle. "And he's really focusing in on learning the little things in the defense so that he can play faster and be more aggressive on certain types of routes.
"He's definitely on the upswing."
Having signed Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown (both ex-49ers) and drafted Keith McGill, the Raiders have a little more wiggle room if Hayden struggles again. They are clearly counting on him, though, to be an impact corner.
Farrar: Manti Te'o, ILB, San Diego.
Talk all you want about the catfishing scandal -- the real cause for concern regarding Te'o, the former Notre Dame standout defender, was the way Alabama ran all over him in the 2013 BCS championship. Against the closest thing to an NFL rushing attack he had ever seen, Te'o looked overwhelmed when trying to match the speed and strength of his opponents.
Still, the Chargers took the Heisman finalist in the second round of the 2013 draft, and hoped he'd be a catalyst on a defense that really needed a spark. It didn't work as well as anyone would have hoped. Te'o missed his first preseason and first three regular-season games with a sprained foot, and though he played reasonably well at times, San Diego's defense was a relative disaster. Te'o finished his first season with 48 tackles, no forced fumbles, no sacks, four passes defenses and a handful of quarterback hits and hurries.
“[I had] a lot of beginner’s mistakes,” Te’o said in April. “But the best thing about that is there’s a lot of room for improvement. I’m looking forward to this year, just getting together with my teammates again, and having a year under my belt on the field and with the playbook.”
The Chargers were ghastly against the run last season -- only the Bears allowed more than San Diego's 4.46 yards per carry -- and the Bears made significant improvements to their defensive fronts. For the Chargers, it will be more up to Te'o and his teammates to move to a different level.
Chris Burke: Sanders.
This is strictly a pro-Peyton Manning/Denver offense answer, because Sanders will be option No. 4 or 5 in the passing game -- behind at least Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and TE Julius Thomas -- compared to Jones' standing as a top-two guy in Oakland.
But Denver has Eric Decker's 87 catches and 1,288 yards to replace this season. Some of those numbers will be dispersed among Thomas/Welker/Thomas, while rookie Cody Latimer figures to eat into it a bit, too. That still leaves plenty of chances for Sanders, who has proven himself to be a reliable pass-catcher in the NFL. Sanders was an integral part of the Steelers' attack, especially in 2013, because of his ability to find space and make catches in traffic. Manning will be quick in learning to trust him.
Jones will be a major cog in Oakland's passing game, but it's Oakland's passing game. Peyton Manning's deep ball isn't what it used to be, but he still has the ability to sling it downfield with good protection, and Sanders proved with the Steelers that he can tilt coverage very well. In 2013, per Pro Football Focus, Manning completed 38 of the 83 passes he threw more than 20 yards in the air for a league-leading 1,299 yards, 12 touchdowns and five interceptions. Last season, Sanders totaled an amazing 214 yards on the six deep passes he caught. With Eric Decker out of the picture, and rookie Cody Latimer more of a reliable possession receiver, it will be up to Sanders to pick up the slack and challenge every free safety he faces.
“When you watch him on film from when he was at Pittsburgh, you just see that quickness off the line, the vertical speed, his ability to separate down the field," Gase said on June 3 of Sanders, who will play outside and in the slot. "We’ve seen basically all that same stuff we saw, so he hasn’t lost any of that within the last year -- or the last four months, whatever it’s been. It’s a different kind of dimension for us. I think we’ve got a group of guys, every guy brings a little different element to our passing game, and not saying what we had before wasn’t any good, but it’s just a little different element for us.”
At its best, Sanders' vertical ability will force coverage away from Demaryius Thomas and leave more openings underneath for Latimer and Wes Welker. It's the kind of thing that could put a new stamp on a passing game that's already very tough to stop.
Fact or fiction: The Chargers will have the worst D in the AFC West in 2014.
Chris Burke: False.
The Chargers' pass defense was a nightmare for much of last season, finishing 29th in yards allowed. Overall, however, San Diego's defense was far more respectable -- 11th in points allowed at a little more than 21 per game.
This season, they should have Melvin Ingram and Dwight Freeney back at full strength. They also added talented rookie Jeremiah Attaochu in Round 2, a pick that gave them more punch for their pass rush. And fellow rookie Jason Verrett immediately steps onto the roster as the team's best cornerback.
That final statement highlights San Diego's main remaining weakness: a secondary, save for Verrett and S Eric Weddle, that may be overmatched again. Assuming Verrett helps stabilize the pass D at all, the entire unit should take a step forward this year. When all is said and done, the Chargers could wind up with the No. 2 defense in this division behind only Kansas City.
Farrar: Fact. The Chiefs come into the 2014 season with the division's best defense, though it's vulnerable whenever Justin Houston is hurt. And the Broncos made several significant improvements in the draft and through free agency, adding DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward and Bradley Roby. That's a lot of toughness. The Raiders went with more spackle players of the short-term variety like Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley, but Oakland's defense wasn't as poor as San Diego's last season. San Diego drafted TCU cornerback Jason Verrett in the first round to try to improve a pass defense that was horrible, but Verrett may be too small and too injury-prone to make shutdown corner status in the NFL. Two other 2014 draft picks, Jeremiah Attaochu and Ryan Carrethers may help over time, but neither projects as a true impact player right from the start, and the team did almost nothing in free agency to improve its prospects.