AFC West preview: After defensive upgrades, Broncos still set the pace
In the three seasons that John Fox has been their head coach, the Denver Broncos have a regular-season record of 34-14 and have taken the AFC West each year. They did so in 2011 with a little Tim Tebow miracle dust, but it's been the hand of Peyton Manning that has guided the franchise in '12 and '13. Denver's stunning loss in Super Bowl XLVIII shouldn't minimize those accomplishments, and the Broncos appear to be approaching divisional dominance at a few new angles in 2014. Thus, although the San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs enjoyed impressive turnarounds in 2013 due to new coaching staffs, Denver has to be considered the class of the West -- and quite possibly, of the entire AFC.
That said, the division will not be as easy for anyone to take in 2014. Last season, each AFC West team benefited from a relatively easy schedule; this time around, there's the NFC West and AFC East to deal with. The Chargers and Chiefs aren't surprises anymore, and they appear to be built for consistent success, but neither challenger is without its flaws.
It all adds up to a division that could well be the class of the AFC, and if the West produced the conference's Super Bowl representative again, few would be surprised.
The favorite: Denver Broncos
Yes, the Broncos have basically the same offense that set an NFL record for points in a regular season last year -- Peyton Manning and Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas lead an attack as dynamic as any you'll see. But after the Seahawks embarrassed them in the Super Bowl, the Broncos went the "If you can't beat them, join them" route and added several new pieces to a defense that stands to be greatly improved.
To a unit that ranked 21st against the pass and ninth against the run in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics in 2013, Denver added cornerback Aqib Talib, safety T.J. Ward and edge rusher DeMarcus Ware. These were precisely the kinds of players that upended Manning's offense in February -- a lockdown pass defender (Talib), an enforcer in the back seven (Ward) and an extra piece for the pass rush (Ware). Add in first-round cornerback Bradley Roby from Ohio State and the return from injury of slot cornerback Chris Harris, and if all goes as planned, the Broncos could be even more formidable in 2014 -- and depending on how long Manning wants to play, in the years to come.
Dark horse: San Diego Chargers
Last season, first-year head coach Mike McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt did a stellar job redefining San Diego's offense. In place of Norv Turner's three-vert passing game and power running concepts, McCoy and Whisenhunt gave quarterback Philip Rivers new route concepts and hot reads and allowed Ryan Mathews to be the one-cut-and-go running back he was meant to be. Mathews responded with a career year, and Rivers enjoyed his best season in quite a long time. Whisenhunt was hired to be the Titans' head coach, but former quarterbacks coach and new offensive coordinator Frank Reich should keep everything in place.
If the Chargers are going to parlay those accomplishments into an unexpected division title, they'll have to improve a defense that was awful against the pass and the run last season. They picked up cornerback Brandon Flowers after the Chiefs released him, which should be a huge upgrade, but defensive coordinator John Pagano is on the hook to make more out of what he has than he did in 2013.
The Chiefs, who surprised just about everyone by going from 2-14 to 11-5 in Andy Reid's first year as head coach, may experience some regression, and there are serious questions about what happens to their defense if outside linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston are out for any amount of time. Still, this is another team that could make life more difficult for the Broncos.
Most important player: Dee Ford, OLB, Chiefs
The Chiefs had 47 sacks last season, but in their six losses (regular and postseason) they had just six sacks total. And when Hali and Houston were banged up, the diminished pass rush presented complications for a secondary that is now without Flowers, one of the team's most consistent players over the last few years. Ford, who had 10.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss for the Auburn Tigers last season, was taken in the first round to pick up the slack. Ford is better in space than when taking on blockers, and he's not totally consistent in his pass rush, but in defensive coordinator Bob Sutton's multiple fronts, he could add a crucial element to Kansas City's defense.
Rookie to watch: Cody Latimer, WR, Broncos
The Broncos lost Eric Decker to free agency, and Latimer, the second-round pick out of Indiana, will be asked to serve a very important role in any Manning offense -- the possession receiver who catches the ball consistently (especially in traffic) and extends drives with his production. Latimer caught 72 passes for 1,096 yards and nine touchdowns last season, and he'll certainly get his share of opportunities in Denver's prolific passing offense.
“His height-weight-speed was very impressive, then the way that he plays the game is a little different than probably a lot of receivers out there, especially in the NFL," Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase said of the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Latimer at the team's rookie minicamp in May. "He’s a physical specimen, and when he plays, he plays his size. To see him catch the ball as well as he does and then his blocking is unbelievable. I don’t think I’ve really seen a college guy go after it the way he has in the past, and hopefully he just carries that over to this level.”
He'll be given every opportunity to do just that.