Print and Go Back ESPN.com: AFC West [Print without images]

Wednesday, July 31, 2013
Potential X factors in AFC West

By Matt Williamson

Examining an under-the-radar player from each team who could loom large in 2013.

Denver: Manny Ramirez, center

Ramirez
After losing J.D. Walton and now Dan Koppen, Ramirez is moving from guard to center to fill a gaping void in the middle of Denver’s offensive line. This is a concern, as Ramirez not only must practice snapping the ball, both with Peyton Manning behind center and from the shotgun, but must gain comfort blocking from the pivot, which presents different angles than from guard.

Also, the Broncos are looking to go to a more up-tempo attack, which puts added stress on the center to get the linemen aligned. Fortunately for Denver and Ramirez, Koppen’s injury occurred very early in training camp, giving them ample time to recover and gain confidence in the position change. And we know Manning will spend as much time as it takes to help Ramirez acclimate.

But, as it stands right now, center is the only position that has me worried at all in Denver’s outstanding offense. I still have a hunch that Manning overcomes this hardship and puts up a ton of points with this high-powered attack. I was very tempted to choose ultra-talented tight end Julius Thomas for this honor, but I am forecasting 2014 to really be when Thomas bursts onto the scene. To listen to more of my thoughts on the Broncos’ center situation, click here .

Kansas City: Travis Kelce, tight end

Kelce
Dwayne Bowe will be the Chiefs’ No. 1 receiver in what should be an offense that throws the ball quite a bit. Bowe is a great player, but he will be the focus of every defensive coordinator that Kansas City will game plan against and I have some doubts whether Bowe is capable of consistently beating coverage that is rolled his way. So another receiving option or two needs to step up big for Andy Reid and Alex Smith this season. Along with interior pass rush, that is the biggest concern I have with this team right now.

Jonathan Baldwin has the ability to be that No. 1 option, but hasn’t come close to living up to his abilities. A personal favorite of mine who could really surprise and step up in his second season is Devon Wylie, but he is probably not an every-down player. He could become an excellent slot option, though. Dexter McCluster has been an enigma since joining the league, and like Wylie, isn’t built for every-down duties. The Chiefs did sign Donnie Avery, and his pure speed could open up room for others, but he has very poor hands is a true one-trick pony.

That leaves the tight ends, and this is a good group overall. Expect Kansas City to employ a high percentage of multiple-tight end sets. Out of Tony Moeaki, who constantly fights injury, Anthony Fasano, who is a very solid all-around player, and Kelce, I expect Kelce to quickly rise to the top and become an excellent middle-of-the-field option for Smith, who needs easier type of throws to consistently move this offense. Kelce could be a star before long.

Oakland: David Ausberry, tight end

Ausberry
Whether it is Matt Flynn, Terrelle Pryor or Tyler Wilson behind center for the Raiders this year, Oakland’s quarterback is going to need a lot of short-to-intermediate, easier-defined throws in order to succeed. Oakland’s wide receivers have some talent, and Denarius Moore should emerge as a strong option on the outside, but a tight end presence is definitely needed for Flynn or either of the younger quarterbacks to remain in their comfort zone.

Oakland drafted two tight ends late, Nick Kasa and Mychal Rivera, but neither looks ready to make an immediate every-down impact. The Raiders also have Richard Gordon, who is pretty much strictly a blocker, which has value when considering the present issues with Oakland’s offensive line. With Brandon Myers now in New York, that leaves an excellent opportunity for Ausberry, a pretty athletic specimen who could see a lot more targets than many might expect. Somewhat undersized, Ausberry is much more of a move option than Gordon. Both could see plenty of action on the field together, with their highly varied skill sets, but it will be Ausberry who sees passes thrown his way.

San Diego: Max Starks, offensive tackle

Starks
The Chargers have a wealth of talented, young offensive skill position players, but their collective talents could be mostly wasted if San Diego’s offensive line doesn’t do a much better job opening holes in the run game (the team averaged a measly 3.6 yards per rush in 2012) and protecting Philip Rivers, who has been under siege the past two seasons. That pressure has influenced Rivers in a very negative way, as he has not been able to set up and throw the deep ball, which has been a staple of the Chargers’ passing game the past few seasons. Rivers also has forced far too many passes that he just shouldn’t have even considered attempting.

As much as any passer in the league today, Rivers needs a clean pocket -- and, wow, he has not gotten it. He was sacked 49 times last year. It surprised me that the Chargers didn’t do more over the offseason to improve this massive weakness. But they did use the 11th pick overall on D.J. Fluker, a real masher in the run game who reminds me a lot of the Ravens’ Kelechi Osemele. Like Osemele, Fluker could be a great guard, but he was drafted to be San Diego’s right tackle. Starks is competing with King Dunlap for the starting left tackle job. I am not going to tell you Starks, who also has a lot of experience at right tackle, or Dunlap is a great player. In fact, they both have very slow feet and the Chargers’ coaching staff will have to design more quick-hitting pass routes. But I will say that both of these veterans are an upgrade from what San Diego finished the 2012 season with at offensive tackle by a substantial margin.

If both are at least adequate, the Chargers’ edge pass protection and run blocking overall should be improved from one year ago -- which could allow San Diego’s weaponry to thrive. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if this coaching staff eventually comes to the conclusion that Starks and Dunlap should be the starting tackles, with Fluker moving inside to guard, putting Jeromey Clary on the bench where he belongs. If that is the case, San Diego’s offensive line will be better at three of the five positions than a year ago. That would allow the offense to at least function with some consistency.