AFC West: AFC West weaknesses

Posted by Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson

Last year, the Chargers were solid in pass protection, but their run blocking was poor. In a division that featured some very porous defenses, San Diego averaged just over 4 yards per rushing attempt, with LaDainian Tomlinson only mustering 3.8 per rush.

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Darren Sproles' ability to break off long runs inflated San Diego's overall rushing average a bit, but in a down-by-down situation, the running game was not up to par. The offensive line was not the only reason for this problem, but collectively they certainly did not play great and little was done to improve the weakest overall position of the group -- offensive tackle.

Starting left tackle Marcus McNeill was expected to be a fixture on the blind side for years to come, but his play has steadily declined since joining the league and there are some long-term concerns with his back and neck. The Chargers need him to regain the form he showed as a rookie and to stay healthy.

 
  Paul Jasienski/Getty Images
  The Chargers need tackle Marcus McNeill to regain the form he showed as a rookie.

Even if McNeill is able to get back to where he was, the opposite side is possibly the weakest starting spot (along with strong safety) on the stacked Chargers' roster. Jeromey Clary is the starting right tackle, and while there are some tackles in this league who see significant playing time who are lesser players than Clary, that list isn't very long. He ably replaced Shane Olivea during the 2007 season, but was more of a liability than an asset last season. In fact, the right side of the line could be problematic.

San Diego is able to effectively use double tight end sets and has the luxury of putting the massive Brandon Manumaleuna next to Clary with Antonio Gates as the other tight end. At over 280 pounds, Manumaleuna is as much offensive lineman as he is tight end. However, this right tackle liability could potentially result in Manumaleuna receiving more minutes than San Diego would prefer, which obviously would keep a more dangerous player (like Malcolm Floyd for example) on the sidelines.

While that is a bit of a concern, the real worry here is depth. If McNeil were to go down, the Chargers would then be in trouble. They drafted two interior linemen with promise, but there isn't a suitable replacement at tackle.

The identity of the Chargers' offense has changed into more of Philip Rivers' squad than Tomlinson's. This is a wise decision, as Rivers is San Diego's best offensive player. While the run blocking was lacking a year ago, problems at the tackle position is obviously worrisome in protection as well.

While this is certainly a potential problem, I still see no reason why San Diego would not steamroll the rest of the pathetic AFC West. Not to mention, the rest of the division isn't exactly loaded with dominant edge pass-rushers. But come playoff time, teams like Baltimore, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh most certainly are.

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

Posted by Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson

I like the way Oakland runs the football under coach Tom Cable. Its zone-blocking attack is well coached and quite effective while its stable of running backs is among the best in the league. But I am still far from convinced that the Raiders' passing game will be significantly better in 2009. There are just too many question marks.

 
  Kyle Terada/US Presswire
  JaMarcus Russell took some positive steps last year, but he's still far from being an established passer.

First, the good. I am a believer in tight end Zach Miller as an excellent -- and safe -- intermediate option for JaMarcus Russell, who needs all of the reliable options he can get right now. Miller should be primed for a breakout season.

Also, the running backs, particularly Darren McFadden, should have an expanded role catching the ball. McFadden has the potential to contribute in many ways in this phase of the game. If he's used properly, McFadden should be a true asset as a receiver in a similar manner to how New Orleans utilizes Reggie Bush. But that is about where I stop saying good things about the Raiders' passing game.

Obviously, Russell has a world of ability, but he is still quite far from being an established passer. He took some encouraging steps to finish the 2008 season, but his accuracy and touch are still questionable, as is his ability to manipulate a defense and make anticipatory throws. His 53.8 completion percentage from a year ago might tell us all we need to know about his ability to put the ball where it needs to be. Inaccurate quarterbacks do not succeed in the NFL.

Russell's supporting cast hasn't exactly helped his cause either. Although there have been changes made, I am not sold that this group is much better than a year ago, when the Raiders failed to have a wide receiver haul in more than 22 passes. Javon Walker has been the definition of a bust since being signed to big money. Chaz Schilens and Johnnie Lee Higgins have their roles, but neither should be a primary option. Schilens is a physical possession guy and Higgins can run by nearly anyone covering him, but both need to refine other aspects of their games.

Of course, the Raiders did select Darrius Heyward-Bey in the first round. Like many others, I feel as though Oakland pulled the trigger on Heyward-Bey too early on draft day, but he does fit what they crave out of the wide receiver position. Sure, he is raw and needs work in several areas, but his burst and long speed are undeniable. Louis Murphy is another rookie who could factor in and yes, you guessed it, he can really run as well.

Some other aspects of this attack give me pause, though. First off, is the protection going to be a lot better? Maybe slightly, but I can't see it dramatically changing. LT Khalif Barnes has underachieved of late and Samson Satele is a slight downgrade from Jake Grove at the pivot. Still, while depth is worrisome, the offensive tackle play should be improved, Mario Henderson has shown some promise, and the starting guards are quite solid. Overall, the line has been upgraded, but just not by leaps and bounds.

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AFC: South | East | West
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Also, signing QB Jeff Garcia was curious. He very well could be better than Russell and very well could have been the best available option when he was signed, but his style of play could not be any more radically different than Russell's. Can the Raiders possibly keep the same style of play calling with the noodle-armed Garcia in the game instead of Russell, who has a rocket for a right arm? Will they have two different playbooks to utilize Garcia's roll-out abilities and quick-hitting skills?

Everything could come together for Oakland's passing attack this season. There are a lot of young players who do have upside. But overall, there are just too many question marks for my taste.

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

Posted by Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson

The Chiefs were the worst pass-rushing team in the history of the NFL last year. So, what did they do to improve this massive weakness? Very little. Certainly Kansas City's pass rush wasn't the only problem that needed to be addressed by Scott Pioli and company --but I can't say more or less ignoring it was the right decision either.

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AFC: South | East | West
NFC: North | South
The Chiefs are switching to a 3-4 scheme and should be able to create more pressure with Clancy Pendergast's innovative and aggressive schemes, but far more needs to be done. It should also be noted that Kansas City has a fine young secondary that should only improve as they mature another year. Obviously that will help the cause as well.

But I just don't see many good pass rushers here. Tamba Hali did a nice job opposite Jared Allen, but by no means is he a top option. Plus, he is changing positions in the new scheme, even though he is best suited as a 4-3 defensive end. Hali managed only three sacks last year -- and I see him as the Chiefs' best pass-rusher.

 
  Tom Hauck/Getty Images
  New Kansas City outside linebacker Mike Vrabel is not the answer to the team's pass-rushing woes.
What about Mike Vrabel, you ask? I love his style of play, but his game is declining. I saw Vrabel as a throw-in with Matt Cassel; he might not have made the Patriots' final roster in 2009. He has value to the Chiefs for his leadership and mentoring ability in the new scheme, but he is no longer an overly threatening pass-rusher. With the status of the Patriots' outside linebacker position, do you think Bill Belichick would have let one of his favorite players leave town if he could still perform at a high level? He may eclipse the four sacks he registered last year, but he isn't going to approach the 12.5 he had in 2007. In the three previous seasons before 2007, Vrabel managed a total of 14.5 sacks. That is the pace he will show Kansas City.

This is a dismal situation. There isn't a young outside linebacker on this roster who can play the role of understudy to Vrabel and work his way into a starting role. Derrick Johnson is not physical enough to play on the line of scrimmage and is more a 4-3 weakside linebacker. He doesn't fit the new scheme -- much like Hali and last year's fifth overall selection, Glenn Dorsey. Johnson should be an inside backer instead of playing on the edge. Kansas City's roster is far from perfect, and when the 2009 season ends, you can be assured that outside linebacker will rank right at the top of needs for this club.

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

Posted by Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson

Despite allowing 28 points per game last season, the Denver Broncos used only four of their 10 draft picks on the defensive side of the ball. Of those four selections, only the 18th overall pick, Robert Ayers, is a front-seven player. And, oh yeah, Denver is changing its defensive scheme to a 3-4.

Scouts Inc.: Weaknesses
AFC: South | East | West
NFC: North | South

The Broncos did draft three defensive backs and also added Renaldo Hill, Andre' Goodman and Brian Dawkins on the back end. The secondary has a chance to be vastly improved and is now fortified for the long term. But if a defense allows opposing quarterbacks to sit back in the pocket without much heat, NFL receivers are going to get open. Denver sacked opposing quarterbacks only 26 times last season, and only three defenses allowed more than the Broncos' 7.7 yards average in the passing game.

 
  Ron Chenoy/US Presswire
  The Broncos are hoping rookie Robert Ayers can give their pass rush a boost.

Of course, if a defense can't stop the run, pass defense becomes even less important. Only the winless Detroit Lions allowed a greater yards per rush average than Denver last year.

There are some pass-rushers in this front seven. Ayers has a world of upside and may end up being a force at outside linebacker. My worries with him are that he never eclipsed 3.5 sacks in any of his college seasons and will be learning a new position -- as will just about everyone on this front seven. It also is conceivable that Ayers plays defensive end in this scheme, which would be another adjustment. Denver's defensive coaching staff is excellent, but in learning new techniques, surely there will be growing pains.

Elvis Dumervil is an excellent pass-rusher. He doesn't get the publicity that he deserves as an edge rusher, but he is technically sound, has a variety of moves that he sets up very well, has great initial quickness and knows how to use his lack of height to his advantage to get under blockers' pads and bend the edge. But teams routinely run at him, and he struggled to hold the point from his 4-3 defensive end position last year. Moving a little farther away from the ball might help, but I also have doubts about his ability in coverage along with his run support.

Jarvis Moss, a former first-round pick, is a wild card here. He has done little to justify his high draft position, but the new scheme could potentially revitalize his career at outside linebacker. Still, he doesn't appear fluid or loose enough in the hips to be effective with coverage responsibilities.

D.J. Williams is going to be a starting linebacker and there are other able bodies here as well, including newly signed Andra Davis, Boss Bailey and Wesley Woodyard. Davis played in the 3-4 with the Browns, but is a declining player. Still, he is tough, a good leader and a solid enough inside linebacker. Woodyard is smaller, but he is a natural playmaker and will get time as a sub package contributor. All of these players are better off on the inside in the 3-4, yet none are ideal.

The defensive line is in worse shape than the linebackers. It wouldn't shock me if Marcus Thomas became a high-end starter for the Broncos in the near future. Tim Crowder does have some upside as well and could be better suited for the odd front. But there isn't much else to get excited about. Nose tackle is the No. 1 problem; 3-4 defenses without a presence in the middle crumble. There doesn't appear to be a presence in the middle.

Granted, the Broncos have a new coaching staff and will be running a different defensive scheme. And the personnel changes could help their cause. And surely running back after running back will not fall to injury. Everyone knows that having a strong running game is a defense's best friend. But their front seven is still a glaring weakness. I just don't see enough good players up front.

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

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