AFC West: 2011 AFC West Soon to be Stars

Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson looks at AFC West players on the verge of a breakout in 2011.

This wasn’t an easy decision. Antoine Cason came to mind, but he had a bit of a breakout campaign in 2010. Meanwhile, the running back whom San Diego traded up to land in the 2010 draft, Mathews, disappointed in Year 1. I am not excusing his play last season, but I do think that Mathews will rebound in a big way in Year 2.

When they made the draft pick, the Chargers surely saw Mathews as their workhorse runner. He is big, strong and physical. Mathews is built to carry such a load, especially on an offense like San Diego’s, which is so adept throwing the ball -- especially deep downfield. Mathews needs to improve in pass-protection. That certainly isn’t an uncommon problem, though, for a young back, and Mathews is just 24.

Mathews didn’t log the snaps that the Chargers had envisioned. His high ankle sprain lingered, and he had an arm injury, too. Although I think durability is a concern with Mathews, I also think we didn’t see what he is truly capable of. As his injuries lingered, Mike Tolbert stepped up and gained the trust of his teammates and coaches. Tolbert was also better in production than the rookie. Darren Sproles probably will be playing elsewhere next season, but Tolbert will remain in the picture to spell and push Mathews. In the end, with Mathews’ worries about staying healthy, having Tolbert in the picture -- and Jordan Todman, to a much lesser degree -- could be good for the long-term production of Mathews.

Mathews is more talented than Tolbert, who runs hard, but isn’t as dynamic or elusive as Mathews. Mathews has more speed than we really got to see last season. As a rookie, Mathews did finish the season strong with a 26-carry, 120-yard rushing performance, albeit against a poor Denver rush defense. Mathews did finish the season with a 4.3 yards per attempt average, and he did catch 22 passes in his rookie season despite missing significant time. He has soft hands for a big back and showed a nice ability to run routes out of the backfield. I expect his production to rise considerably in 2011.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.
Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson looks at AFC West players on the verge of a breakout in 2011.

The Kansas City Chiefs have a talented young roster, so choosing one guy wasn’t easy to do. Eric Berry certainly could have been the choice. But at the end of March, I highlighted the safeties in the AFC West in my Scouts Eye column. And honestly, I really want to talk about Tony Moeaki, who is a personal favorite of mine.

Moeaki played a lot of snaps as a rookie. He quickly established himself as Kansas City’s starting tight end, and I think he will only get better. Moeaki does everything well. Although he's not the biggest guy, he is a very good blocker -- both in the run game and in protection. He is a natural knee bender who strikes his opponent on the rise, keeps his light feet moving and doesn’t give up until the whistle blows while maintaining inside hand position.

But Moeaki’s ability as a pass-catcher impresses me most. He has sticky hands and an excellent ability to go up and contort his body to secure the poorly thrown pass in a way few tight ends in this league can do right now. Moeaki is a sharp route runner and will only improve with his ability to sit down in a zone or exploit man coverage by linebackers and safeties. The Chiefs have a great running game and will have even more weapons at Matt Cassel’s disposal next season -- Dwayne Bowe, first-round pick Jonathan Baldwin and Dexter McCluster returning from an injury-plagued rookie season. Moeaki should see plenty of favorable matchups. Keying on one specific weapon the Chiefs’ passing game will be tough to do in 2011.

Moeaki, a third-round pick in the 2010 draft, could end up being one of the true bargains from that entire draft class -- and also one of the best tight ends in football.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.

Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson looks at AFC West players on the verge of a breakout in 2011.

I discussed Lamarr Houston quite a bit in my recent Scouts Eye column profiling all the defensive lines in the AFC West. But he still had to be the choice for me. Houston will be one of the best defensive linemen in the league. I firmly believe that. The Oakland Raiders are deep up front, and he can be brought along somewhat slowly. Houston has an immense talent level and showed very good production as a rookie.

Houston proved to be a great run defender with an excellent combination of power and quickness. He plays low, is quick to shed and will get better and better with this as he enhances his hand placement when taking on a block. And who better than Richard Seymour to teach Houston such a skill?

Houston also is raw as a pass-rusher and should benefit a great deal from watching and studying Seymour in this department as well. Houston just explodes off the football, and I have a hard time coming up with a defensive tackle in the league who is a better athlete than Houston.

Houston was a little up and down during his rookie season, which was to be expected. But he will only be 24 years old when the season starts. As he becomes more comfortable in the NFL and enhances his fundamental skills, I expect those inconsistencies to quickly disappear. Then? Look out.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.


Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson looks at AFC West players on the verge of a breakout in 2011.

The switch to the Denver Broncos’ new 4-3 defense might favor Robert Ayers more than any other player on Denver’s roster. The former 2009 first round pick fits his new defensive end role better than playing outside linebacker in the old 3-4 scheme. This 25-year-old could be poised to take a big step in the right direction next season.

Ayers is a sturdy end who can secure the edge in the run game. As of right now, he is better versus the run than the pass, but he does have some upside as a pass-rusher. He should benefit from the attention that Elvis Dumervil will demand on the opposite side on most downs and surely the attention that rookie Von Miller will command as a pass-rusher on throwing downs. When Miller does line up with his hand on the ground, Ayers could potentially take on a Justin Tuck-like role as a tough interior pass-rusher who can out-quick his slower interior offensive line opponent. But so far, Ayers has recorded only one and a half sacks in his three seasons in the league. Obviously that isn’t good enough. If Denver adds a defensive tackle or two in free agency with pass-rush skills, Ayers could find himself as a two-down player.

Both Dumervil (knee) and Ayers (foot) missed time with injuries last season. Before his injury, Ayers was playing very well -- even in his new role at linebacker. But he wasn’t the same when he returned after missing five games in the middle of the season. A fresh Ayers could take a big step forward.

Other players that I considered include Perrish Cox and Chris Kuper. Two wideouts also crossed my mind -- Eddie Royal could certainly rebound well and play like he did as a rookie, and Eric Decker's skill set could make him one of the more reliable receivers in this league before long.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.

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