AFC West: Each Team’s Greatest Weakness

Alex Smith cost too much, but he shouldn’t be a weakness for the Chiefs.

Peyton Manning’s arrival in the AFC West last year was as predictable as everyone imagined it would be. The Denver Broncos easily swept past the Oakland Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers for the division crown and a place in the playoffs. While the Raiders look to be falling further behind as salary cap problems handicapped their movements again this off-season, the Chiefs and Chargers have made moves to try and catch up.

Both teams have installed new coaching staffs. Coaching was a major problem for both the Chargers and Chiefs last year, but it was only a part of the whole puzzle. Much like the off-season changes were just a part of the whole effort for the off-season.

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Denver Broncos

By re-signing Ryan Clady, adding Louis Vasquez and Wes Welker, the Broncos have given Peyton Manning all of the tools he needs to succeed. Any contributions from rookies Montee Ball or Tavarres King will be just the icing on a very tasty cake. With Manning on the roster, any weaknesses can be overcome, while he will elevate the production of average players. Therefore, it’s obvious that the Broncos’ weakness will lie on the other side of the ball.

After the Elvis Dumervil fax fiasco that landed him with the Baltimore Ravens, the Broncos didn’t make a rash signing in free agency to try and replace him. They waited until the NFL draft came around to see if any top pass-rushers fell to them at the bottom of the first round. One did, but it wasn’t a replacement for Dumervil. At least, it wasn’t a direct replacement for Dumervil.

The Broncos took talent over need when they drafted defensive tackle Sylvester Williams. Williams and free agent signing Terrance Knighton should be able to dramatically improve the play of the Broncos’ interior defensive line from last season, but they still face the prospect of entering the season with Robert Ayers starting across from Derek Wolfe.

Ayers has Talent, but he’s definitely not on the same level as Dumervil when it comes to rushing the passer. The Broncos understand that and quickly made a move to sign free agent Shaun Phillips after the first round of the draft. Philips will be a backup linebacker who plays defensive end in nickel formations. Although he is a good, veteran player, his pass-rushing skills have diminished in recent years and he is expected to just be a complement to Von Miller.

The defensive line as a whole on third downs may be improved this year with Miller-Wolfe-Williams-Philips, but the loss of Dumervil is going to put massive amounts of pressure on Miller to pressure the quarterback.

Kansas City Chiefs

There is no question that Andy Reid overpaid for Alex Smith when he acquired him from the San Francisco 49ers. Not only is Smith just an average quarterback, he is not the type of quarterback who is used to throwing the ball as often as Reid typically asks his quarterbacks to. In spite of that, Smith is not going to be a bad player on the field and should be far from their greatest weakness.

Instead, the Chiefs’ biggest problem could be the spine of their defense. Something that never stood strong last year despite having a defensive-inclined head coach. Dontari Poe was drafted ahead of last season to be the team’s nose tackle, but his workouts have always been infamous in that they don’t translate onto the field. During his rookie season, he did little to convince anyone that he would become the difference-maker that Scott Pioli and Romeo Crennell pictured he could be.

To make matters worse, Glenn Dorsey has moved on to sign with the San Francisco 49ers. Dorsey gained a bad reputation because he never lived up to being that top first round talent, however he was still a good player for the Chiefs and their best on the defensive line. Without Dorsey, the Chiefs are left with Tyson Jackson and free agent addition Mike Devito at defensive end. Jackson really needs to turn his career around as the bust label is already firmly attached to his draft status, while Devito is a good player but not someone who is going to carry the unit on his own.

At inside linebacker, Derrick Johnson will return but Brandon Siler’s place is up for grabs. Siler won’t be missed, but his replacements won’t excite anyone about the potential for the position. Akeem Jordan is a decent free agent addition who is following Reid from Philadelphia. Jordan played strong-side linebacker in a 4-3 with the Eagles, but will move inside in a 3-4 now for the first time in his career. Jordan will be staving off competition from rookie fourth round pick Nico Johnson and free agent addition Zac Diles.

Eric Berry had somewhat of an excuse last season coming off a torn ACL. However, now that he has been back playing for over a year, expectations will be through the roof for the very talented safety. Berry played well as a rookie and needs to replicate those displays if the Chiefs are to get where they want to be on defense. With Kendrick Lewis beside him, Berry needs to be a difference-maker because Lewis is not going to impact games positively on a weekly basis.

Oakland Raiders

It’s almost futile to identify a greatest weakness on this roster. The real challenge would be to find a legitimate strength. The Raiders’ past two seasons of gutting their roster to fit inside the salary cap has really torn all the talent from their team. Bad trades, bad contracts and bad ideals have destined the team for a top five draft pick after this season. They should probably be the favourite for first overall.

The Raiders’ defense was terrible last year and they’ve completely rebuilt it this year. They haven’t made big splashes or unearthed value free agent additions, they’ve downgraded in terms of talent and destroyed any continuity that existed between the unit last year.

Screen shot 2013-05-08 at 12.50.43Youngsters Lamarr Miller and DJ Hayden have a lot of talent, while Tyvon Branch is a good starting safety, but the impact of those players will be drowned out by the dysfunction and displays that come with throwing below-par talent together and expecting a real unit to emerge.

San Diego Chargers

When the Chargers overhauled their coaching staff this off-season, they made a concentrated effort to keep defensive coordinator John Pagano on the roster. Pagano is not as celebrated, because he’s a defensive coordinator, but he has a similar affect on players as Peyton Manning. The Chargers will feel comfortable with average players in certain positions on the defensive side of the ball because Pagano will get the best out of him. It’s a trait that only a few defensive coordinators in the league have and it’s a very valuable commodity that will eventually see Pagano move on to be a head coach somewhere.

As it has done for some time, the Chargers offensive line is threatening to ruin their season again this year. New faces have arrived, but the same lack of talent exists. First round draft pick DJ Fluker should lock down the right tackle position, but even if he doesn’t he should be able to play guard in a pinch from Week 1. Relegating Jeromey Clary to the bench is a brilliant move for the Chargers, but they would have ideally done it by adding a left tackle and flipping free agent addition King Dunlap to right tackle.

Instead, Dunlap is slated to start at left tackle this season with Fluker at right tackle. This should improve the unit over last year, but not enough to be confident about their chances of consistently keeping Rivers upright. Dunlap is ideally a backup swing tackle opposed to a starter, while Fluker is talented but remains a rookie. If the Chargers can land a free agent starter at left tackle such as Max Starks, then they could be better served with Dunlap at right tackle still and Fluker moving inside to guard.

However, that doesn’t appear likely at this stage.

The Chargers have Nick Hardwick carrying over as their starting center, but two new guards have arrived in free agency who are expected to start. Rich Ohrnberger was let go by the Arizona Cardinals, which is saying something in itself, and Chad Rinehart was a backup for the Buffalo Bills. Rinehart and Ohrnberger are not worthy starters in this league, which means the offensive line will need to be much better as a unit than it projects to be individually.

You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf


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