INDIANAPOLIS -- With the NFL combine kicking off, let’s take a look at several of the potential storylines involving the AFC West during the draft-preparation event:
It all starts at No. 2: The draft epicenter of the AFC West this year is in Denver. That’s the reward for going 4-12 and taking a major step backward. The Broncos will be looking for defensive help, and every move made by Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers, Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley, LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson and several others will be scrutinized by the defense-hungry Broncos in the next several days.
Scouting Wisniewski II: The Raiders don’t have a first-round draft pick (New England gets the No. 17 pick from the 2009 Richard Seymour trade). The Raiders don’t pick until No. 48. One player Oakland will likely look at closely is center/guard Stefen Wisniewski. He is the nephew of former Raiders offensive line great and new assistant line coach Steve Wisniewski. That combine player-coaching staff meeting would be fun to watch. Wisniewski, who followed his famous uncle to Penn State, would fill a need in Oakland. I can see the Raiders taking a long look at him.
Pass-rushers galore: This is a strong class for pass-rushers and that should benefit both the Chargers and Chiefs. San Diego picks No. 18 and the Chiefs pick No. 21. I could see both teams taking a pass-rusher with their top picks. The better the pass-rushers do in Indianapolis, the larger the range of prospects for the Chiefs and Chargers. That group should include Missouri’s Aldon Smith, UCLA’s Akeem Ayers and Cal’s Cameron Jordan.
Oakland and the second-tier QBs: The Raiders could look at a quarterback in the second round to groom beyond Jason Campbell. This might be the time to groom a young quarterback in Oakland. If Washington’s Jake Locker and Arkansas' Ryan Mallett tumble and TCU’s Andy Dalton, Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick and Florida State’s Christian Ponder impress, these prospects could all be possibilities in the middle of the second round. Last year, Carolina took Notre Dame’s Jimmy Clausen at No. 47. He was the third quarterback taken.
What about Julio? In addition to pass-rushers, I could see the Chiefs and Chargers considering a receiver early. One player who would fit both teams is Alabama’s Julio Jones. If Jones performs well, there is likely little chance either team will be able to snare him. It will be difficult to imagine Jones falling below the Rams at No. 14 if he stays the course. So, he could require moving up to get.
Will A.J. fall in love again? The Jones’ situation brings us to San Diego general manager A.J. Smith. Last year, he moved up 16 spots to take Fresno State running back Ryan Mathews at No. 12. Smith admitted that he fell for Mathews early and that moving up to get him was long his plan. Will it happen again at the combine this year? If so, Smith is prepared to move up. The Chargers have extra picks in the second and third rounds. So, he is prepared for anything.
Williamson High feeding the AFC West? If Denver takes Fairley, it will mark the second time a player from Mobile, Alabama’s Williamson High School will be taken with a high pick in four years. In 2007, Oakland took Williamson product JaMarcus Russell with the No. 1 pick.
Does Bowers have a dash of Peppers? Bowers will be very popular with teams. He is a top pass-rusher and he has been compared to Julius Peppers. I’m sure new Denver coach John Fox can’t wait to spend some time with Bowers to further examine the Peppers’ comparison. Fox drafted Peppers with the No. 2 overall pick in 2002. It was Fox’s first year in Carolina. If Fox takes Bowers with the No. 2 overall pick in his first season in Denver, the Peppers’ comparison will only heighten.
Will Newton help Denver? If Auburn quarterback Cam Newton impresses the Carolina Panthers, he could be the No. 1 overall pick. The Broncos are hoping for Newton to wow the Panthers. If so, that means every defensive player in the draft will be on the board for Denver at No. 2. Denver is looking defense all the way after being last in the NFL in total defense and points allowed in 2010.
The Chiefs and the SEC: Who are the Chiefs going to take? Well, I think we have to look at the SEC first. Kansas City general manager Scott Pioli has a history of taking players from the SEC early. Both of the players the Chiefs have taken in the first round under Pioli, Tyson Jackson and Eric Berry, are SEC alums. Overall, the Chiefs have taken SEC players in the first round in the past four years.
All eyes on Von Miller: The physically impressive Miller is the type of player who could fit in Denver, San Diego and Kansas City. The question is whether or not he is a realistic target for any of those teams. If Miller has a great combine, he could move into the conversation for Denver at No. 2, but that might be a tad high. Denver could try to move down a few spots to get him, but trading down from No. 2 will be difficult. The No. 2 pick hasn’t been traded in 11 years. San Diego and Kansas City could potentially try to move up for Miller. I think San Diego would be a better bet. It has more trading ammunition than the Chiefs have and the Chiefs will likely be happy to stick at No. 21 and see what falls to them.
Casey Matthews' time? The Oregon middle linebacker could be popular. He is the younger brother of Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews, who blossomed into one of the NFL’s better defenders in his second season. Teams could be swayed by Mathews’ potential and look at him as high as the second round. I could see Denver, San Diego and Kansas City all taking a look at him.
The Robert Quinn factor: The former North Carolina defensive end could be an X factor. He didn’t play in 2010 because he made contact with an agent. He was considered a top prospect. If he has a great combine, he could work his way into the conversation for Denver.
Oakland and the stop watch: Whoever posts the fastest 40-yard dash at the combine has to be considered an Oakland prospect. The Raiders covet speed as much as any team in the league. Last year’s fastest man at the combine was Jacoby Ford. Oakland grabbed him in the fourth round and he looks like a future star.
Will the Chiefs find a backup QB? I would be surprised if the Chiefs brought back backup Brodie Croyle in 2011. So, the team could be interested in looking for a young backup. I could see Kansas City studying prospects in the third and fourth rounds.
The Duke works the combine: New Denver VP of football operations John Elway will be at the combine. This is his first season as a football personnel man and he will be a big part of Denver’s process at the combine.