The pressure is on these four in the AFC West

Posted by ESPN.com’s Bill Williamson

With the NFL regular season starting this weekend, let’s look at the player on each team in the AFC West who faces the most pressure heading into the season:


Denver: Kyle Orton, quarterback: We are not sure if Orton will be able to play Sunday when the Broncos start the post-Jay Cutler era in Cincinnati. Whenever Orton begins his Denver career, the pressure will be immense.

It won’t help him that he is coming off an index finger injury on his throwing hand. Orton probably will try to gut it out and play against the Bengals. Guts may be Orton’s best attribute. The guy tries, but it may not be enough.

The Broncos got Orton from the Bears in the deal for Cutler, who was traded after he got into a major rift with Denver coach Josh McDaniels. McDaniels hand-picked Orton to be his new quarterback because he fit McDaniels’ system.

Now, Orton is in charge of making Denver a success. He will be compared to Cutler every week. That could be difficult. Cutler is much more gifted than Orton and that was evident when the two shared a field in a preseason game last month. Orton didn’t ask to be put in this position, but here he is and he’ll have to deal with it.

Orton is in for a rough season. Yes, he has some talent on offense. But his shortcomings, Denver’s uncertainty on defense and the Broncos’ rough schedule will make Orton’s first year in Denver tough sledding.


Kansas City, Matt Cassel: Like Orton, it's not a sure thing Cassel will be at full strength or even playing Sunday. The Chiefs open at Baltimore, but Cassel could be hampered because of a knee sprain he suffered Aug. 29.

Cassel’s pressure really has nothing to do with his injury. It will be waiting for him when he’s healthy.

Cassel is the face of the Scott Pioli and Todd Haley Chiefs. The Chiefs’ ownership wants this to be a long partnership for the team that has won six games total in the past two years.

Acquiring Cassel -- who excelled as Tom Brady’s injury replacement in New England last year – was the first major move of the new regime. Cassel was given a guaranteed $40 million this summer.

There is no doubt Cassel is the centerpiece of this franchise. The Chiefs are banking their franchise’s hopes on a player was a career backup until he flourished with a stacked Patriots team.

Now, he will have to succeed with a lesser roster. There was really no pressure on Cassel in New England. There are immense expectations on Cassel in Kansas City.

This will eventually be a solid pairing, but 2009 may be less than spectacular. Cassel has a makeshift offensive line and his receivers are not a strong group. It could take a while for the player expected to bring instant dividends to Kansas City.


Oakland: JaMarcus Russell, quarterback: It’s all about Russell in Oakland this year. He needs to make big strides.

The Raiders showed their commitment to Russell when they cut backup Jeff Garcia. It became evident Garcia wasn’t in Oakland to have a support role for Russell. He wanted Russell’s job. The Raiders don’t want Russell’s job to be taken away.

They want him to succeed. Now, it’s time for him to show it.

Russell has terrific physical skills, but his first two years were pocked by inconsistencies. Russell was been up and down in training camp and in the preseason. His statistics were decent in the preseason, but there were few “wow” plays by Russell. He needs to show he can lead Oakland’s offense with authority.

Russell needs to improve his leadership and show more urgency.

Russell can develop into a solid NFL quarterback. But he may have continued growing pains this season. His 2009 success also hinges on help from his receivers and offensive line, two groups that have done few favors for Russell thus far in his career.


San Diego: Shawne Merriman, linebacker: A lot is expected from Merriman. He is one of the most important players on this roster.

Of course, there is a chance of distraction after Merriman’s arrest last week for battery and false imprisonment after an incident with a woman whom he has described as an acquaintance.

The incident puts extra pressure on Merriman. On the field, Merriman is trying to show he can be the dominant player he was before he suffered a major knee injury that kept him out of all but one game last season.

Merriman, who led the NFL with 39.5 sacks in his first three NFL seasons, was missed in San Diego. The Chargers’ pass defense wasn’t the same and the Chargers were pushed around without him.

The Chargers think having Merriman back for a full season will make the defense a top-tier unit again. Merriman has struggled with the injury at points this summer and recently said he will not be at full strength until a few weeks into the regular season.

If Merriman is at full strength, so are the Chargers and the sky is the limit for both the player and the team. But Merriman has to stay both healthy and hope his legal issues don’t cloud the team in what is a crucial season for him.