AFC West: AFC West positional rankings
1. Shane Lechler, Oakland: He is the premier punter in the game. His leg is registered-weapon material.
2. Mike Scifres, San Diego: His talent is close to Lechler’s. This is the best 1-2 punter division punch in football.
3. Dustin Colquitt, Kansas City: His talent is close to Lechler’s and Scifres’. This is the best 1-2-3 punter division punch in football.
4. Sebastian Janikowski, Oakland: Janikowski is the best placekicker in this division. He missed eight field-goal attempts last season, but he is a fine weapon for Oakland.
5. Matt Prater, Denver: This is one of the better young kickers in football. He is terrific on kickoffs, and he missed just two field-goal attempts last season.
6. Nate Kaeding, San Diego: Kaeding is a strong kicker. He was injured a lot last season and has struggled in critical situations, but, overall, he is a plus kicker.
7. Ryan Succop, Kansas City: He has a chance to be become a very good kicker. He has a strong leg.
8. Britton Colquitt, Denver: Dustin’s little brother punted well in his first full NFL season. He appears to be a keeper, and he rounds out a fine group of kicking specialists.
1. Tamba Hali, Kansas City: Hali is a special player and a big reason why the Chiefs have had a resurgence.
2. Derrick Johnson, Kansas City: Johnson had a terrific bounce-back season in 2010. He is a playmaker.
3. D.J. Williams, Denver: Williams is an underrated player and a bright spot on a poor defense.
4. Shaun Phillips, San Diego: Phillips is a solid pass-rusher who brings energy to the NFL’s top-ranked defense.
5. Rolando McClain, Oakland: McClain is a hard-nosed player, and it looks as though he has a bright future.
6. Von Miller, Denver: This is just the starting spot for the No. 2 overall pick in 2011. He should zoom up this list quickly.
7. Kamerion Wimbley, Oakland: Not a complete player, but he has made an impact as a pass-rusher.
8. Stephen Cooper, San Diego: Solid player, but he may leave as a free agent.
9. Kevin Burnett, San Diego: The same goes for Burnett.
10. Brandon Siler, San Diego: The same goes for Siler.
11. Quentin Groves, Oakland: He’s a high-energy player. He’s decent, not great.
12. Larry English, San Diego: It is time for the No. 16 pick of the 2009 to show his worth.
13. Jovan Belcher, Kansas City: He’s an under-the-radar player who made a lot of plays for the Chiefs.
14. Justin Houston, Kansas City: Kansas City has high hopes for this third-round pick. Expect him to play right away.
15. Mike Vrabel, Kansas City: The Chiefs want to bring back this 35-year-old veteran for one more season in a reduced role.
16. Nate Irving, Denver: The third-round pick is expected to start right away at middle linebacker.
17. Jonas Mouton, San Diego: The Chargers are very high on this second-round pick.
18. Travis Goethel, Oakland: A special teams standout, Goethel has big potential.
1. Richard Seymour, Oakland: He is the class of the division. He is aging, but he is still a brilliant player.
2. Glenn Dorsey, Kansas City: He made great strides in 2010, his third NFL season. He had adjusted well to the 3-4, and he is the anchor to a young defense.
3. Tommy Kelly, Oakland: Kelly had his best NFL season in 2010, and he pairs very nicely with Seymour. He is tough when he is motivated.
4. Elvis Dumervil, Denver: Dumervil is back to end in a 4-3 after excelling in a 3-4 defense. He struggles against the run, but he is a force as a pass-rusher.
5. Lamarr Houston, Oakland: I really like this second-year player. He is a potential star.
6. Antonio Garay, San Diego: Garay had a terrific season in 2010. He is a tremendous nose tackle.
7. Luis Castillo, San Diego: Castillo is a solid player, but I’d like to see more impact plays.
8. Matt Shaughnessy, Oakland: He’s another fine young player for Oakland. He has made the most of his opportunities.
9. Tyson Jackson, Kansas City: Jackson has been just so-so. This is a huge season for the No. 3 overall pick of the 2009 draft.
10. Corey Liuget, San Diego: The No. 18 overall pick of the 2011 draft will start at end, and he will get a chance to make an immediate impact.
11. Wallace Gilberry, Kansas City: He’s an underrated player. He can get sacks in bunches.
12. John Henderson, Oakland: He is aging, but he can still help Oakland as a run stuffer.
13. Robert Ayers, Denver: This is a big season for Ayers, the No. 18 pick in 2009. New coach John Fox likes him, so he’ll get a chance to start.
14. Trevor Scott, Oakland: Scott has a chance to be very good. He has natural pass-rushing ability.
15. Ron Edwards, Kansas City: He’s steady. The Chiefs want more help at tackle, but Edwards is OK.
16. Shaun Smith, Kansas City: The Chiefs need to bring him back. He can make an impact.
17. Marcus Thomas, Denver: Denver wants this free agent back.
18. Allen Bailey, Kansas City: The Chiefs are very excited about this third-round pick. He could play right away.
19. Kevin Vickerson, Denver: Denver re-signed him in March.
20 Vaughn Martin, San Diego: It’s time for this project to make a move.
21. Cam Thomas, San Diego: The Chargers still have high hopes for this second-year player.
This is the fifth in our series of position-by-position rankings. It is a little different this season because we’re ranking the players before free agency starts and before rosters are set. We will adjust accordingly as we go along. Onto to a solid group of offensive linemen:1. Ryan Clady, Denver: Clady was a little rusty early last season due to an offseason knee injury. He is still an upper-echelon player and a cornerstone on a weak Denver team.
2. Nick Hardwick, San Diego: Cagey, tough veteran is the anchor of a strong line.
3. Kris Dielman, San Diego: Big, tough Pro Bowler who is a lot to handle for defensive tackles.
4. Marcus McNeill, San Diego: There’s a reason why the Chargers gave him a long-term deal. He solidifies this line.
5. Ryan Lilja, Kansas City: He was a great addition last year. He helped set the tone for a strong run game and is a real tough guy.
6. Brian Waters, Kansas City: He’s aging, but Waters is still near the top of his game. He’s a great leader.
7. Casey Wiegmann, Kansas City: The Chiefs hope to get one more season out of the steady Wiegmann.
8. Chris Kuper, Denver: He’s an underrated player who gives Clady a lot of help on the line.
9. Louis Vasquez, San Diego: The young guy on the Chargers’ offensive line has been a good fit.
10. Branden Albert, Kansas City: He’s a good, not great, player who needs to improve in 2011.
11. Jeromey Clary, San Diego: Everyone wants the Chargers to replace him, but he’s a gamer.
12. Jared Veldheer, Oakland: Veldheer has a chance to zoom up this list soon. I look forward to seeing him at left tackle for a full season.
13. J.D. Walton, Denver: He got great experience as Denver’s center last season and has potential.
14. Cooper Carlisle, Oakland: Oakland could replace him. But he always gives an honest effort.
15. Barry Richardson, Kansas City: Like Clary, everyone wants to replace him. But Richardson looks like he has another season in him with the Chiefs.
16. Zane Beadles, Denver: Like Walton, Beadles got a lot of great experience as a rookie last season. He’s not great, but he should get better.
Footnote: Veteran Ryan Harris (Denver) and Robert Gallery (Oakland) are expected to leave through free agency and that’s why they are not listed. We are not averse to listing rookies, but we are keeping promising rookies Stefen Wisniewski (Oakland), Orlando Franklin (Denver) and Rodney Hudson (Kansas City) and second-year player Bruce Campbell (Oakland) off this list. I simply want to see each of these guys play before ranking them.
1. Jamaal Charles, Kansas City: Charles is one of the best running backs in the NFL. He is explosive and his statistics are eye popping. Give him the ball twice and you get a first down. He is fun to watch and he’s a credit to the division.
2. Darren McFadden, Oakland: It was great to see McFadden put it together in 2010, after two injury-filled seasons. His durability still worries me, but McFadden developed into an inside and outside threat in 2010. Like Charles, McFadden is a joy to watch.
3. Ryan Mathews, San Diego: This is a bit of a projection and I’m giving him the nod over Michael Bush and Thomas Jones because he is his team’s starter. Mathews has to stay healthy and he has to control his fumbling issues. But when he played as a rookie in 2010, Mathews showed flashes of being an excellent player.
4. Michael Bush, Oakland: I’m going with Bush over Thomas because I think he’ll have a better year in 2011. Bush is younger and he is effective paired with McFadden. Oakland has to hope that he is not a free agent when the lockout ends. He’d be popular on the open market.
5. Thomas Jones, Kansas City: Jones will be 33 and this is likely his last season in Kansas City. He can still be effective in the Chiefs’ strong offense. He’s a pounder and a team player.
6. Mike Tolbert, San Diego: I think this guy is one of the most underrated players in the division. He is a human bowling ball and he can tear through defenses. A Mathews-Tolbert pairing is pretty strong.
7. Darren Sproles, San Diego: I don’t expect Sproles to be around much longer. He is a free agent and he will test the market. But he’s in the division now and he’s got value, so he belongs on this list.
8. Knowshon Moreno, Denver: Frankly, Moreno hasn’t done much to impress me. He has some ability, but he has to stay healthy and start living up to being the No. 12 overall pick of the 2009 draft.
9. Marcel Reece, Oakland: The fullback position is dying in the NFL. Yet, I’m a big fan of Reece and he’s a key part of Oakland’s offensive success. He’s a multi-faceted player and he belongs in this group because of his blocking and receiving abilities.
Let’s start with the quarterbacks:
1, Philip Rivers, San Diego: Rivers keeps improving. He is an elite-level quarterback, who was spectacular in 2010. He is the best player in the AFC West. It’s that simple.
2, Matt Cassel, Kansas City: Cassel came on strong in 2010, earning a Pro Bowl berth. He flourished under offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. But Cassel did flounder in the two games after it was announced Weis was leaving. The Chiefs must ensure Cassel continues to make positive strides. At his best, Cassel can be a winning quarterback and a difference maker. At his worst, Cassel can be ineffective and mistake-prone. Cassel needs to be more consistent.
3. Jason Campbell, Oakland: Campbell had an up-and-down 2010, his first season with the Raiders. He was replaced three times, but he settled down late in the season and he made some big plays for Oakland. The Raiders believe in him and they think he will make strides in 2011. Like Cassel, he must show better consistency. If Campbell has a big 2011 season, I could see him being No. 2 on this list next year. If not, I could see Oakland looking for another starting quarterback in 2012.
4. Tim Tebow, Denver: The Broncos haven’t decided who will be the starter in Week 1. The general thought is Denver will move forward with Tebow at some point in 2011 ahead of veteran Kyle Orton. Tebow has potential. But there’s no way he could start anywhere but last in this division group. The big question is where Tebow will be in terms of next year’s list? Will he show enough in 2011 for the Broncos to name him the long-term starter or will Denver try to find another quarterback?