AFC West: Adrian Wilson

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie Justin Edmonds/Getty ImagesDominique Rodgers-Cromartie has been "really, really good" in his first season with the Broncos according to John Fox.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie were a match made of necessity.

The Broncos needed some athleticism at cornerback, preferably a player who was taller than 6-foot. Rodgers-Cromartie? Well, he needed a new start after two seasons as part of the failed “Dream Team" free-agency initiative with the Philadelphia Eagles.

"He’s an extreme talent," Broncos coach John Fox said. "We saw that in studying the free-agency pool of players."

And perhaps lost in the historic seven-touchdown binge quarterback Peyton Manning dropped on the football nation Thursday night is that Rodgers-Cromartie showed he's a defensive back worthy of working as a team’s No. 1 guy. Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald once called him the best athlete he had faced in the league -- but a guy who was going to have to be pushed to get there.

The Broncos' message to Rodgers-Cromartie, 27, before he signed in Denver had more than a tinge of tough love in it. It was long the lines of: They liked him enough as a player to offer him $5 million for the season, but he shouldn't bother accepting it unless he was ready to listen to some things that might be uncomfortable.

"Hey, I was with that," Rodgers-Cromartie said. " ... Coming in [to the NFL], I was happy just to be in the league and not really understanding everything that is put into it as far as the time, your body, the offseason, the studying, the playing. Now I understand that the older I get, you have to take it ... seriously because at the end of the day, it is just an opportunity for us to play and the opportunity can be gone at any minute."

With Champ Bailey out of the lineup Thursday against Baltimore because of a left foot injury, Rodgers-Cromartie was asked to step up. He lined up at Bailey’s left cornerback spot and was often matched with Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith. The Ravens threw at him just once in the game. When all was said and done, Smith -- who had blistered Bailey and the Broncos in January for two touchdown catches in the Ravens' playoff win -- had four catches for 92 yards.

Smith’s biggest catch of the night, a 34-yarder, came in the fourth quarter, with the Broncos holding an 18-point lead and Rodgers-Cromartie elsewhere in the formation.

"But he’s a very talented guy who matched up well with 82 [Smith]," Fox said, “and we’ll continue to do that moving forward."

The book on Rodgers-Cromartie for much of his career from personnel people around the league was that he’s gifted, but not committed. His concentration simply wavered too much for him to be trusted with the most difficult assignments, no matter how much potential he might have.

But the Broncos believe surroundings mattered and that Fox -- a longtime defensive backs coach as an NFL assistant, including under Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll -- defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, and the Broncos' assistants could make it happen. And there was proof Rodgers-Cromartie had listened to the message before in his career. When the Cardinals advanced to the Super Bowl in Rodgers-Cromartie’s rookie season, he said, veterans Antrel Rolle and Adrian Wilson snapped him into shape. The two had discovered Rodgers-Cromartie was not taking notes on the team’s upcoming opponents or his duties in specific situations.

The Broncos were looking for a similar reset with Rodgers-Cromartie, something they say they’ve gotten so far.

“He’s been really, really good," Fox said. “And very responsive to his position coaches ... He’s just going to get better."

Fox added that Rodgers-Cromartie, as well as some of the other defensive backs, struggled with some of the Broncos’ work in zone coverages against the Ravens. It wasn’t "quite as well-oiled" as it needed to be.

But Bailey’s return will give the Broncos more options in matchups, even if they simply line up Bailey, as usual, on the left side, with Rodgers-Cromartie on the right, and leave them be.

It is all a one-season audition for Rodgers-Cromartie. Even though he's under contract for two years, the second year voids five days after the Super Bowl. And while it’s wise to never turn early reviews into too much before the whole story is told, the Broncos certainly would be ready to talk if things continue on their current path the next five months.

"The main thing for me is just get established," Rodgers-Cromartie said. "I'm that new guy, and these guys were pretty good last year. I just want to help and be as good a player as I can be. I think I still have a lot in me."
The San Diego Chargers continue to make cuts, as they have jettisoned safety Atari Bigby.

This move is not a big surprise. Bigby, who had 79 tackles last season, was not considered a top starter. The Chargers probably will be able to easily find a replacement. In-house candidates Darrell Stuckey and Brandon Taylor are possibilities. One potential replacement could be former Arizona safety Adrian Wilson, who was cut Friday. Former Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt is now on San Diego’s staff.

On Thursday, San Diego cut linebacker Takeo Spikes. The Chargers also will likely cut defensive tackle Antonio Garay and left tackle Jared Gaither.

As for free agency, don’t be surprised if the team shows interest in Colts cornerback Jerraud Powers. He was in Indianapolis with new San Diego general manager Tom Telesco. The team will let starting cornerbacks Antoine Cason and Quentin Jammer test the market.
The NFC West is accustomed to catching its share of grief, and then some.

The St. Louis Rams own six victories over the past three seasons, the Seattle Seahawks own nine over the past two and the San Francisco 49ers haven’t posted a winning record since Mike Rumph was a promising rookie cornerback for them (2002). The Arizona Cardinals have been better lately, but now they’re reduced to Derek Anderson versus Matt Leinart.

No wonder AFC West blogger Bill Williamson thinks the new-and-improved Oakland Raiders would win the NFC West. But would they? NFC West blogger Mike Sando would put them third, behind the 49ers and Cardinals, even with Jason Campbell under center in Oakland.

[+] EnlargeCampbell/Russell
AP Photo/Ben MargotJason Campbell (8) is in, JaMarcus Russell (2) is out and that alone should make the Raiders a better team in 2010.
Bill Williamson: Advocating for the Raiders is neither easy nor perhaps sane. After all, the Raiders have been the bastion of football futility for much of the past decade. Oakland has lost 11 games or more for the past seven seasons. That is an NFL record for bad, bad times.

The misery has to end sometime and this year may be the year Oakland finally emerges from the dregs of the league and becomes a legitimate, competitive team. The horrendous JaMarcus Russell era has ended. Jason Campbell is far from an elite player, but he is an established NFL quarterback who knows what he is doing. That alone should allow Oakland to be much more productive on offense. This is a team that scored just 17 offensive touchdowns in 2009. Campbell could help the team score 20-25 more touchdowns this season.

Mike Sando: Let’s say Campbell posts a passer rating in the mid-80s and the Raiders back him with a defense ranked in the top 10. The Raiders would take that scenario, no questions asked. The reality, though, is that Campbell’s passer rating last season was 86.4 and the Redskins -- his old team -- fielded a defense ranked 10th in yards allowed. It all added up to a 4-12 record against a weak schedule. I like some of the Raiders’ talent on defense, but 25 teams allowed fewer yards per game last season. It’s a stretch to pencil in Oakland for a No. 10 ranking on defense in 2010 and a greater stretch to say they'd win the NFC West.

Williamson: The defense in Oakland is going to improve. The Raiders have added two potential stars in middle linebacker Rolando McClain and defensive end Lamarr Houston, both in the first two rounds of the draft. The run defense has been horrible in recent seasons, but it should be much improved.

Sando: I watched Frank Gore carry twice against the Raiders’ starting defense Saturday night. He gained 58 yards on those runs, and Mike Iupati, the 49ers’ rookie left guard, took out McClain pretty easily on one of those Gore carries. Preseason isn’t much to go on, but Gore probably could have had 150 yards if the 49ers had left him in the game.

Williamson: I can see why the 49ers removed Gore from the game. He’s always getting nicked up and that probably will be the case again this season. Follow me for a minute here. Oakland should easily compete to win eight games. Sure, it is not the stuff of playoff dreams -- at least in a real division -- and it won’t be enough to unseat San Diego in the AFC West, but this isn’t about the Raiders’ division. It’s about the NFC West, which managed a league-low 12 victories outside the division last season (the AFC West had 18). There is no anchor team in the NFC West, unless you count the sinking Cardinals. San Francisco? Come on. These teams are not markedly better than the Raiders. Arizona is a mess as it enters the post-Kurt Warner era and San Francisco always seems to fall short of its potential. Put Oakland in the NFC West and you’d have your 2010 division favorite.

Sando: There’s no way Campbell would hold up in the NFC West behind that horrible offensive line. The 49ers roughed him up Saturday night (Campbell has a stinger and wrist injury as a result). A week earlier, the 49ers roughed up Brett Favre (the Vikings had to yank him after only four plays). The Cardinals’ defensive front also would mangle Campbell. They feasted upon the Chicago Bears' Jay Cutler when both teams’ starting units were on the field Saturday night. Cutler had zero points, four sacks and two interceptions in five drives. Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell would feast on the Raiders’ offensive line. It'll happen soon enough. The teams meet in Week 3.

Williamson: Let’s get back to the quarterbacks. No legitimate contender in the NFC West has one better than Campbell. Matt Leinart's career is on life support in Arizona and his replacement, Derek Anderson, is the quintessential stop-gap solution. Alex Smith is as fragile as a porcelain vase. Matt Hasselbeck is very much on the back nine of his career and Sam Bradford is just not ready to carry a team on his back. Not this year, at least.

Campbell is the most reliable of all of the above-mentioned quarterbacks heading into this season. He is a smart game manager who is not going to lose games. He will trust his young receivers and his potentially strong running game.

Sando: Granted, the whole Leinart-Anderson debate isn't helping the NFC West's credibility. But the coaching in Arizona is solid and the team still has good talent throughout its roster. Jason Campbell might be an upgrade for the Raiders, but the Redskins did bench him during an ugly loss to the Kansas City Chiefs last season. Last time I checked, the Chiefs weren’t good, even by AFC West standards.

[+] EnlargeAlex Smith
AP Photo/Matt SlocumAlex Smith threw 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 11 games last season.
Williamson: Campbell might not win games alone, but nine times out of 10, he won’t lose them alone, either. The Kansas City game was an aberration. Campbell posted a passer rating of at least 90 in nine regular-season games last season. Kurt Warner did it eight times despite playing with a far superior supporting cast. Campbell has the potential to lead Oakland to around 20 points a game while throwing 20-25 touchdown passes and limiting his interceptions to under a dozen or so. Can any quarterback in the NFC West say that this season? In a league where quarterbacks reign supreme, Campbell would be the best quarterback in the NFC West. He'd give Oakland a strong chance to be the best team in the division.

Sando: The 49ers had a chance to go after Donovan McNabb and they chose Smith instead. I didn’t think it was the wisest move, but it’s no stretch to think Smith will finish the 2010 season with better numbers than Campbell will post in Oakland. Smith had 18 touchdown passes with 12 interceptions in 10-plus games last season. Campbell was at 20 touchdowns and 15 interceptions over a full season. Smith has a clear edge over Campbell in available weaponry, and he's finally getting comfortable. Don’t tell Al Davis this, but Michael Crabtree was a better choice than Darrius Heyward-Bey. Crabtree had more catches in 11 games last season (48) than any wide receiver for Oakland, and his total would have ranked tied for third on Campbell's Redskins. Better yet for Smith, Crabtree isn’t necessarily the best option in his arsenal. Vernon Davis is a first-team Pro Bowl tight end, Josh Morgan is a decent No. 2 and newcomer Ted Ginn Jr. looks like he’ll provide a welcome speed element on the outside. It’s ironic that the 49ers have the pure burners -- Ginn and Davis -- Oakland usually covets.

Williamson: Smith and Campbell have both faced tough circumstances in recent seasons. They've gone through coaching changes, gotten knocked around and faced criticism. Campbell has persevered far more impressively. He’s held up physically and finished with more touchdown passes than interceptions in each of the four seasons he has played. Smith has done it just once -- last season -- and never as a full-time starter. He couldn’t even beat out Shaun Hill heading into last season.

Sando: Drawing the NFC West as part of the NFL's scheduling rotation is going to help Campbell, but it’s not like the Redskins played a tough schedule last season. I heard Mike Shanahan call it soft during a recent radio interview. He's right. With Campbell at quarterback in 2009, the Redskins lost to the Lions, Panthers, Chiefs and Giants (twice). They barely beat the Rams, 9-7. They scored 17 points or fewer in 11 of 16 games. That doesn’t look very good on a quarterback’s résumé.

Williamson: The Raiders are not all about Jason Campbell. Quietly, Oakland has added some very talented pieces throughout its roster. While Oakland has crashed and burned in the first round lately, it has not gotten enough credit for late-round finds. The unheralded results form the makings of a solid roster.

There are legitimate stars on this team.

Start with left cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. If league observers would take their eyes off Revis Island for a minute, they would realize there is dominant cornerback play on the left coast, sans the snazzy nickname and lengthy contract holdout. Asomugha is one of the brightest, most instinctive players in the NFL. Consider that he plays a premium position and you have a highly valuable player.

The linebacking corps has a chance to be very good with McClain and Cleveland refugee Kamerion Wimbley. Wimbley showed his pass-rushing potential with four sacks in a limited role against Chicago in the second preseason game. Three-time Super Bowl champion Richard Seymour is anchoring a new-look and potentially outstanding defensive front.

Offensively, Campbell has some young, intriguing weapons to play with. Tight end Zach Miller is a blossoming star and one Campbell should utilize often. Young receivers Chaz Schilens, Louis Murphy and Heyward-Bey all have a chance to reach their immense potential very soon. Running backs Michael Bush and Darren McFadden could give defensive coordinators fits on a weekly basis because of their varied skills. There’s talent in Oakland that teams in the NFC West simply can’t match.

Sando: Asomugha arguably would be the best player in the NFC West, but Larry Fitzgerald, Patrick Willis and Steven Jackson wouldn't be far behind. Kamerion Wimbley? I'll take Dockett, Adrian Wilson, Gore, Davis, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Justin Smith, Matt Hasselbeck, Marcus Trufant -- the list goes on, and I've probably missed a few.

This debate will be tough to settle, but we can say the scheduling rotation should help one or more teams from each division pump up their records. NFC West teams eagerly can look forward to facing the Chiefs, Denver Broncos and possibly the Raiders. AFC West teams can feel the same way about games against the Rams and Seahawks, at least.

I'll be heading to Oakland in Week 2 for the Raiders' game against the Rams. St. Louis has managed only three victories over the past two seasons, but they're 1-1 against Campbell during that time, losing by two points at Washington in 2008 after suffering a fourth-quarter fumble inside the Washington 10.

If Bradford plays as well as he has recently, I won't be shocked if the Rams make it 2-1 against Campbell over the past three seasons.

Posted by's Bill Williamson

Taylor Mays' decision to go back to USC for his senior season is a hit to the AFC West. Mays is needed in the AFC West.

The division is missing a nasty, defense-changing safety.

Mays, a teeth-rattling bad man from USC, has a chance to be the next great safety in the NFL but it will have to wait another year. Any one of the four AFC West teams could use Mays.
They all could use a game changer.

Look at the four teams remaining in the playoffs: They all have standout safeties. Baltimore has Ed Reed, Pittsburgh has Troy Polamalu, Philadelphia has Brian Dawkins and Arizona has Adrian Wilson. All for players are major reasons why their respective defenses are so special.

It used to be that safety play wasn't as valued as other positions. Not anymore. Get yourself an impact safety and your defense instantly improves. Players like Reed and Polamalu affect their units so much because they are so smart and instinctive. They intimidate with their hard-hitting tackles and dominate with their mental aptitude.

Mays has this type of potential and there is not a team in the AFC West that wouldn't benefit from taking him.

Denver, which also has other pressing needs, may have ended up taking him at No. 12. The Broncos coveted Reed and Polamalu out of college, and with the retirement of John Lynch don't have an enforcer at the back of their defense. Mays would change that.

San Diego likely would have also seriously considered Mays with the No. 16 pick. The Chargers love Eric Weddle, who just finished his second season. Teamed with Mays, the two would make a formidable pairing for years to come. It could be just the move that gets the Chargers over the hump.

The AFC West needs a player like Mays to catch up with the NFL's elite. But it will have to wait another year to get a crack at him.