AFC West Capsules

By United Press International   |   Sept. 3, 2002 at 5:59 PM
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Capsules summaries from the AFC West:

Denver Broncos

Coach: After a three-season record of 25-23, Mike Shanahan looks to get the Broncos back where they belong. Shanahan, known to many as the "Mastermind," for his many formations and offensive-minded schemes, should have no problem in guiding the Broncos back to a playoff berth while guiding a top-five offense. Back as defensive coordinator is Ray Rhodes. Rhodes made strides with a defense that was suspect and vulnerable. Rick Dennison will coach the offensive lineman with the highly respected Alex Gibbs now an assistant coach to Shanahan. Gibbs will work with the lineman and handle overall coaching duties.

2001 season: Finished third in the AFC West at 8-8.

Major adds: DT Lional Dalton, S Izell Reese, OT Ephraim Salaam, TE Shannon Sharpe.

Major losses: QB Gus Frerotte, FB Howard Griffith, DT Leon Lett, LB Bill Romanowski, OT Trey Teague.

Quarterback: With all the pressure on him this season, Brian Griese looks to return to his form of two years ago. All of his offensive weapons were taken away from him last season. Receiver Ed McCaffrey broke his leg, receiver Rod Smith played on two bad ankles all season, fullback Howard Griffith was forced to retire due to a neck problem and running back Terrell Davis suffered through knee problems all year. As a result, questions were raised about Griese's leadership and toughness. With all of these weapons healthy outside of Davis and a good crop of rookie talent coming in with receiver Ashley Lelie and running back Clinton Portis, expect Griese to silence his critics. Steve Beuerlein appears to be finally recovered from elbow surgery and is a capable backup.

Running backs: The biggest blow to the Broncos season before it even started was the retirement of Terrell Davis. But Shanahan drafted Clinton Portis in the second round and he will probably be used as a third-down back. It is expected that Shanahan will start Olandis Gary and fullback Mike Anderson in the backfield. Although, many believe the best move will be to run Anderson as the primary back. Expect all three backs to be featured in this high octane offense.

Receivers: A healthy Ed McCaffrey will make a major difference to this offense. No one knows that more than fellow receiver Rod Smith, who was often double teamed a year ago. The two together are arguably the best pair in the NFL. First-round pick Ashley Lelie is a big play receiver who will stretch the defense and provide much needed depth to the receiving unit. Future Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe returns home to Denver. He will not be the Sharpe of old, but he has plenty in the tank to make this offense even more dangerous. Desmond Clark and Dwayne Carswell will also be used in double tight end sets.

Offensive line: Known as the cornerstone to the Broncos' success since their Super Bowl days, the offensive line is all technique and conditioning. They are quick off of the ball and wear their opponents down by the fourth quarter. However, there are a few changes this year in free agent tackle Ephraim Salaam and guard Lenny Friedman now moving to full-time duties. Those two will combine with Pro Bowl center Tom Nalen, tackle Matt Lepsis and guard Dan Neil to form one of the best groups in the league.

Defensive line: A much-needed move was made to the front four as Trevor Pryce moves from defensive tackle to end. Pryce has the combination of speed and power to harass quarterbacks. The rest of the defensive line will include monster tackles Chester McGlockton and free agent aquisition Lional Dalton. These two will plug the middle and allow Pryce to roam free at the end position. However, the key to the Broncos defensive success will come from the other end position where Kavika Pittman and Reggie Hayward will play.

Linebackers: The loss of Bill Romanowski seems devasting in terms of leadership and toughness, but the Broncos have themselves one of the best young linebacking units in the league. Taking over the signal calling will be Al Wilson, who is a hard-nosed linebacker. On the strong side, John Mobley looks to continue his success from a 93-tackle season a year ago. Expect Mobley to record well over 100 tackles and earn a possible trip to Honolulu. The weak side will be covered by Ian Gold, who gets his chance to start after impressing the staff in his limited action. Gold is an extremely versatile linebacker who can cover opposing backs.

Secondary: Deltha O'Neal emerged as one of the top young corners in the league last season, intercepting nine passes. Denard Walker is the other starting cornerback. The question is at the safety position where Kenoy Kennedy and free agent signee Izell Reese must step up. Both are big hitters and make opposing receivers think twice before coming over the middle.

Special teams: The Broncos have themselves one of the most consistent legs in the league in Jason Elam. He converted 31 of 36 field goals last season and was designated as a franchise player before re-signing. Punter Tom Rouen will handle the punting duties while O'Neal returns punts and Kevin Kasper returns kickoffs.

Prediction: Expect the Broncos to be around the 10-11 win mark and win the AFC West. A Super Bowl contender.

Kansas City Chiefs

Coach: Dick Vermeil is slowly starting to transform the Chiefs offense into a clone of the St. Louis Rams. Now in his second season with the Chiefs, Vermeil is looking to get the Chiefs back to the playoffs. Helping him on the offensive side of the ball will be offensive coordinator Al Saunders, who will look to open up the offense with more weapons in place. Defensive coordinator Greg Robinson works was with the Broncos when they won back-to-back Super Bowl titles.

2001 season: Finished fourth in the AFC West with a 6-10 record.

Major adds: K Morten Andersen, WR Johnnie Morton, OT Willie Roaf.

Major losses: WR Derrick Alexander, LB Donnie Edwards, K Todd Peterson, OT Victor Riley.

Quarterback: Trent Green was intercepted a league-high 24 times last season and is expected to be much better in 2002. Green was helped out when Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez ended his holdout.

Running backs: Priest Holmes led the NFL in rushing last season with over 1,500 yards and also led in total yards from scrimmage. It will be hard for him to repeat that in 2002.

Receivers: Made adding a top receiver an offseason priority and signed Johnnie Morton. He is not afraid to go over the middle with his 6-3 frame and can also get deep. Receiver Marvin Minnis is recovering from a broken foot.

Offensive line: Free agent signee Willie Roaf will be the key to the offensive line at left tackle. If healthy, after battling through knee problems last season, he will open holes for Holmes. John Tait switches from left tackle to right tackle. Will Shields is a perennial Pro Bowl guard.

Defensive line: Talk about putting a lot of pressure on two rookies. The Chiefs planned to start first-round pick Ryan Sims at defensive tackle and use second-round pick Eddie Freeman in the line rotation. However, Sims finally signed in late August and will probably not make an immediate impact. On the outside, ends Eric Hicks and Duane Clemons look to rebound after a subpar season in which they only combined for 10 1/2 sacks.

Linebackers: The departure of Donnie Edwards leaves a huge gap for the Chiefs to fill on defense. He was their leading tackler the past four seasons. Middle linebacker Marvcus Patton is a tackle machine, but Mike Maslowski and Lew Bush have much to prove.

Secondary: More question marks. Outside of free safety Jerome Woods, who is a ferocious hitter, and cornerback Eric Warfield, the Chiefs are shaky here. William Bartee has unseated veteran Ray Crockett at the corner position while Jason Belser and Greg Wesley are battling it out for the strong safety slot.

Special teams: The 42-year-old Morten Andersen can still kick with the best of them. Punter Dan Stryzinski had a very good season last year, averaging nearly 41 yards per punt. Dante Hall looks to handle returns on both punts and kickoffs.

Prediction: Will make strides, but will probably fare no better than 8-8.

Oakland Raiders

Coach: Bill Callahan takes over an aging but talented football team, succeeding the popular Jon Gruden. Callahan worked as the team's offensive coordinator and line coach under Gruden. Defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan will rely on his secondary led by Charles Woodson and Rod Woodson.

2001 season: Won the AFC West with an 10-6 record. Beat the New York Jets in the wild card round, but lost to New England in the divisional playoffs.

Major adds: DT Sam Adams, DT John Parrella, LB Bill Romanowski, S Rod Woodson. Major losses: LB Elijah Alexander, DT Grady Jackson, DT Darrell Russell, LB William Thomas, OG Steve Wisniewski.

Quarterback: When talking about preparation and attention to detail, there is no quarterback in the league better than Rich Gannon. He is the master of watching game film and exploit the opponent. Gannon should not skip a beat with his offensive weapons in place.

Running backs: By the end of last season, Charlie Garner emerged as the team's number one back. But who receives the majority of the reps will be determined by Callahan. The Raiders have a nice change-of-pace ground attack with the elusive Garner while having the smashmouth runner in Tyrone Wheatley.

Receivers: Jerry Rice and Tim Brown know all the tricks of the trade. Rice is the NFL's all-time best, but turns 40 in October. Brown gladly shared the spotlight with Rice and excelled. Promising Jerry Porter is expected to make a major contribution as the third receiver. Tight end Roland Williams is steady and the Raiders selected Doug Jolley in the second round.

Offensive line: Will miss Pro Bowl guard Steve Wisniewski. The strength of the line is at the tackle positions with Barry Sims and Lincoln Kennedy. Center Barret Robbins returns after missing all but two games last season.

Defensive line: Replaced the interior of the defensive line, signing John Parrella and Sam Adams to replace Darrell Russell, who was suspended for the season for violating the league's substance abuse policy, and Grady Jackson, who signed with New Orleans. Pass-rushing end Trace Armstrong returns after suffering a torn ACL last season. Tony Bryant will start at the other end position.

Linebackers: Even with the addition of the energetic Bill Romanowski, this group may be in trouble if MLB Greg Biekert is released. The team's leading tackler is unhappy with his contract status. First-round pick Napolean Harris should start at outside linebacker after making plays all over the field in the preseason.

Secondary: The strength of the defense. Charles Woodson is a top cornerback and is healthy after playing most of last season with a toe injury. Woodson will also be called upon to mentor cornerback Phillip Buchanon, a team's first first-round pick. Tory James will likely start at the other corner spot opposite Woodson. Signed veteran safety Rod Woodson to provide leadership and toughness. Derrick Gibson, the team's first-round pick in 2001, is expected to start at strong safety.

Special teams: Sebastian Janikowski connected on 23 of 28 field goals and made the clutch field goal when called upon. Shane Lechler earned a Pro Bowl berth in just his second season in the league. Veteran Terry Kirby will run back kickoffs while Buchanon may be called on to returns punts.

Prediction: Even with an aging team, expect the Raiders to challenge the Broncos for the division title. Have tough non-division games against Pittsburgh, Tennessee, St. Louis, Miami and San Francisco.

San Diego Chargers

Coach: After being fired by Washington, Marty Schottenheimer returns to the AFC West. He has had only one losing season in 16 years as coach. His philosophy is "MartyBall," which is an offense built around a strong running attack, conservative playcalling and a hard-hitting defense. Cam Cameron is the offensive coordinator and Dale Lindsey inherits an underrated defense.

2001 season: Started 5-2 and finished 5-11 for 5th in the AFC West.

Major adds: TE Stephen Alexander, LB Donnie Edwards, DT Jason Fisk, OG Bob Hallen, KR Tamarick Vanover.

Major losses: LB John Holecek, TE Freddie Jones, DT John Parrella.

Quarterback: Schottenheimer named second-year player Drew Brees as his starter ahead of 39-year-old Doug Flutie. Brees is an efficient passer has impressed with the coaches with his decision making. In the event Brees struggles, Flutie will be ready.

Running backs: Schottenheimer probably accepted the job because the Chargers have a franchise back in LaDainian Tomlinson, who rushed for more than 1,200 yards and caught 59 passes as a rookie. Terrell Fletcher is the third-down back and Fred McCrary is the fullback.

Receivers: Curtis Conway should be Brees's favorite target. He had a career-high 1,125 receiving yards last season. Tim Dwight was promoted to No. 2 receiver, but the Chargers are hoping that Trevor Gaylor emerges. Drafted Reche Caldwell, a burner from Florida. Signed free agent tight end Stephen Alexander to replace Freddie Jones.

Offensive line: Vaughn Parker anchors a suspect offensive line in which two free agent signees - left guard Bob Hallen and center Cory Raymer - will start. Have high hopes for rookie guard Toniu Fonoti, who was drafted in the second round.

Defensive line: End Marcellus Wiley burst upon the scene last season and recorded 13 sacks. He will tag team with fellow end Raylee Johnson to form quite a formidable duo. Free agent defensive tackle Jason Fisk was signed after the Chargers lost run-stuffing tackle John Parrella.

Linebackers: Junior Seau has made 11 straight Pro Bowls and will move to weakside linebacker. Rookie Ben Leber, a third-round pick, is slated to start at strongside linebacker. Signed Donnie Edwards, a Schottenheimer favorite from his days at Kansas City, to start at middle linebacker. Edwards led the Chiefs in tackles each of the last four seasons.

Secondary: Rodney Harrison may be the NFL's best strong safety. Rogers Beckett is improving at free safety. Ryan McNeil is the team's best cornerback and made his first Pro Bowl last season. Drafted cornerback Quentin Jammer in the first round, but he has yet to sign. Meanwhile, Alex Molden remains a starter at cornerback.

Special teams: After inconsistency from the likes of kicker Wade Richey last season, the Chargers decided to bring back Steve Christie. Darren Bennett is one of the NFL's best punters. Tamarick Vanover, another favorite of Schottenheimer from his Kansas City days, is a dangerous returner. Running back-returner Ronney Jenkins led the NFL in kickoff return average last year.

Prediction: Schottenheimer will make the Chargers better. They should improve three games to 8-8.

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