AFC West: Chris Johnson

Chris Johnson, Dontari PoeAP Photo With Jake Locker out, Chris Johnson,left, may see his workload increase. It'll be up to Dontari Poe and the Kansas City defense to contain him.
Raise your hand if you figured a Week 5 matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and Tennessee Titans in Nashville would feature teams with a combined 7-1 record.

If your hand is up, you’re likely fibbing.

In his first season in Kansas City, Andy Reid has already doubled last season’s win total. In his third season as the head coach of the Titans, Mike Munchak appears to have a revamped team on a good course.

ESPN Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky and ESPN Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher discuss the teams they cover in advance of the game.

Teicher: Jake Locker was obviously playing well but he won’t be available to the Titans on Sunday. What do the Titans lose without him in their lineup and how will their offense change, if it does, with Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback?

Kuharsky: Well, they won't have him running around as much, though he’s more mobile than one might think. But they haven't used Locker on bootlegs and roll outs so much as they might eventually, as they've been going against 3-4s. They moved away from Matt Hasselbeck in March as he was too expensive for a backup, and they were eyeing Fitzpatrick as they made that move. He’s a smart guy, obviously, and has been a good resource for Locker. He entered the Jets game with the Titans holding a big lead and he said his job was simply not to screw it up. He knows his job changes now for however long Locker is out. Fitzpatrick wasn't on a good team in Buffalo, but he turned the ball over way too much. The Titans are 3-1 in large part because they have not turned the ball over at all yet. The Titans are confident in their system and that Fitzpatrick will be able to keep the trend going.

Alex Smith is a minimal-mistake guy, too. How conservative has he been in Reid's offense?

Teicher: Smith opened things up a little more, went downfield a little more against the Giants on Sunday. Most of their long pass plays from the first three games had been of the catch-and-run type, but he has completed some passes down the field. The Chiefs actually have more pass plays of 20 or more yards (14) than their opponents (10). Smith threw his first two interceptions of the season Sunday, but you could argue that neither one was his fault. On the first, Dwayne Bowe ran a lazy slant route and allowed the cornerback to cut in front and make the catch instead. The other interception was deflected by Jamaal Charles, who accidentally kicked it straight to a defender. The throw wasn't a great one, it was slightly behind Charles, but the interception wasn't Smith’s fault. Going down the field a lot doesn't play to Smith’s strengths. He doesn't throw a great deep ball. His strengths are good decision-making and accuracy on shorter routes.

Big plays have hurt the Chiefs in the running game, but Chris Johnson is averaging fewer than 3.5 yards per carry. Is he still capable of exploiting KC’s run defense or are his best days behind him?

Kuharsky: He's definitely still capable of stellar runs. The Titans have faced some stiff run defenses, particularly in Pittsburgh and against the Jets. They rebuilt the interior of the offensive line, but the new threesome hasn't jelled as quickly as they may have expected. And Johnson will benefit from surrendering some carries to the bigger, better-in-short-yardage Shonn Greene, but Greene's been out since early in the opener with a knee injury that required a scope. He could return this week. Tennessee has run it 55 percent of the time, and Fitzpatrick and the Titans could look for that to go up.

Charles isn't just the Chiefs' top rusher, he's their top receiver. If the Titans can control him, how much will they improve their chances?

Teicher: A lot. In the passing game, no other receiver has stepped forward as a consistent threat for the Chiefs. Bowe has scored a couple of touchdowns, but otherwise, his numbers are way down. He’s just not getting open a lot. The other starting wide receiver, Donnie Avery, had a big game against the Eagles in Philadelphia but has otherwise produced little. Likewise, Dexter McCluster had a nice game last week against the Giants, but otherwise has given them almost nothing. The Chiefs are hurting at tight end. Of their top three tight ends at training camp, one is out for the season while the other two are injured and didn't play last week. In the running game, the Chiefs don’t trust anyone but Charles. They drafted Knile Davis in the third round this year, but between fumbles, lining up in the wrong place and running the wrong play, they can’t count on him for much.

The Titans are a lot like the Chiefs in that they are living off a nice turnover differential. The teams are tied for the league lead at plus-9. What’s it going to look like for the Titans when that begins to balance out?

Kuharsky: Not only are the Titans tied with Kansas City with the league-best plus-9, but Tennessee's plus-9 includes zero giveaways. Odds are this team is due to lose a fumble or throw a pick, and Fitzpatrick is more likely to get picked off than Locker, though he should be less inclined to force anything in this system than when he was pressing in Buffalo. But this is a big piece of what they want to do -- play mistake-free and capitalize on mistakes they help prompt.

Looking at the stats, I see the Chiefs are giving up 5.4 rushing yards a clip. Johnson once ran a mile for a touchdown at Arrowhead and then played the drums he found on the sideline to celebrate. Defensively, what's the best plan of attack for the Titans' offense?

Teicher: He played the drums well, too, as I recall. The Titans need to be patient with the running game. They need to stay with it even if they get behind early or it isn’t working well. If they give up on it early, it’s probably going to be a long day for Fitzpatrick and the offense because the Chiefs are relentless in getting after the passer. They have the players and the schemes to make it work, so the last thing Tennessee needs to do is drop-back the quarterback a bunch of times. Though their season stats look ugly, the Chiefs had only one game where their rushing defense stats were completely out of whack. Philadelphia rushed for 264 yards on 27 carries, but Michael Vick accounted for a lot of that. The Chiefs have allowed 11 runs of 10 or more yards and six were in that game. Their longest run allowed in the other three games is 15 yards. But that’s still the best plan of attack for the Titans.

The Titans haven’t received as much attention for the way they’ve played on defense, but they’ve got a lot of guys playing well on that side of the ball. Who are some of the defensive players the Chiefs need to make sure they account for in the running game and the passing game?

Kuharsky: A guy who's probably remembered by Chiefs fans, safety Bernard Pollard, is the defensive tone-setter. The Titans have managed to keep him out of coverage situations downfield, which are not his strength. Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey is a really good, disruptive rusher and effective run-stopper who rates as the best player on defense. Zach Brown is a speedy weakside 'backer who's gotten to the quarterback. And cornerback Alterraun Verner has more takeaways than anyone in the league with four picks and two fumble recoveries. They wondered if he'd be good enough playing more man-press, which they're going to more often. He's been great.

Same question to you. We know Justin Houston's got 7.5 sacks and Eric Berry is a very good safety. Who else keys that defense?

Teicher: They have a lot of guys playing well on defense. Dontari Poe, their nose tackle, has been outstanding. He’s providing some consistent push in the pass rush they haven’t had from the middle of their line in a long time. Inside linebacker Derrick Johnson is playing as well as he ever has. The other outside linebacker, Tamba Hali, had a big game against the Giants with a couple of sacks and a forced fumble. The corners, Sean Smith and Brandon Flowers, have mostly held up well. Dez Bryant of Dallas had a big game against Flowers. He has a sore knee that prevented him from playing Sunday and could be trouble for him again this week. A rookie, Marcus Cooper, filled in nicely for Flowers. A lot of their players seem to have taken to the pressure system put in by new coordinator Bob Sutton.

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Pregame thoughts from Denver

January, 12, 2013
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DENVER -- There are no surprises on Denver’s inactive list for Saturday’s AFC divisional playoff game against Baltimore.

Here are Denver’s inactives: Tracy Porter, Andre Caldwell, C.J. Davis, Chris Gronkowski, Caleb Hanie, Sealver Siliga and Julius Thomas. Porter is the most important injured player of the group. He has a concussion. Denver is remarkably healthy going into this game.

Here are Baltimore’s inactive: Deonte Thompson, David Reed, Ramon Harewood, Chris Johnson, Bryan Hall, Omar Brown and Adrian Hamilton.

As expected, it is quite chilly here. But the skies are clearing up, and it is not as gloomy as it was a couple of hours ago when it was snowing lightly. The field is in good condition.

I think here is a chance the game will be played in dry conditions, although there are reports that the wind-chill factor might be near zero late in the game.

San Diego setting the right tone early

September, 16, 2012
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ChargersChristopher Hanewinckel/US PresswireSan Diego's defense dominated Tennessee and held the Titans to 212 yards.
SAN DIEGO -- Every year the San Diego Chargers seem to set a tone early in the season.

It’s been only two games, but the Chargers deserve to be excited about what has happened so far. Despite being riddled by injuries on offense, they pushed their record to 2-0 with a convincing 38-10 win over Tennessee on a blazing day by the sea.

“It’s safe to say, after two weeks, that all it is, that this is the best start we’ve had around here in awhile,” Philip Rivers said. “We’ve made some mistakes but really both sides of the ball have been good.”

“Attention to details,” San Diego linebacker Takeo Spikes said. ”Credit goes to the coaching staff.”

We haven’t heard those words attached to Norv Turner lately. In the first few years of his tenure that started in 2007, the Chargers seemed to mostly start poorly only to turn it around late. Last year San Diego began 4-1, but it rarely looked good in the process and then the team went on a six-game tailspin.

What was most impressive about San Diego on Sunday, as was the case in a 22-14 win at Oakland last Monday night, was that it had dominant, smart and timely play by Rivers and that it was aggressive, hard-nosed, and physical on defense. Those were major goals for this team going in this season.

Rivers had his worst NFL campaign in 2011 (he improved after a tough first 10 games) and the defense often betrayed the Chargers, especially on third-down conversions, where they ranked last in the league. On Sunday the Chargers held Tennessee to 1-of-9 on third down.

“Last year, we were 4-1, but it didn’t feel right,” Rivers said. “Everything was a grind. We had to grind for first downs and we had to ground for stops. This feels different.”

It’s vital for this season to be different because this entire team is on the hot seat. Turner was kept by ownership -- despite the urging from much of the fan base -- because the players like and believe in him. The team also didn’t think there was a candidate better suited to lead the Chargers than Turner. But things will change quickly if they fail to make the playoffs for the third year in a row.

With an eighth of the season in the books, San Diego looks like it is serious about keeping Turner around. The Chargers have seen the Kansas City Chiefs and the Oakland Raiders stumble badly and both teams deserve their 0-2 starts. The Denver Broncos, however, were impressive in Peyton Manning's debut last week and they play at Atlanta on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” to end Week 2.

But the Chargers showed Denver they are not going to concede anything to Manning.

They quietly changed the culture of the team by bringing in more than a dozen veterans. The Chargers’ depth has been a problem in recent years and adding quality players throughout the roster was the approach general manager A.J. Smith took this offseason.

The free-agent acquisitions are already paying off for the Chargers, who played without four offensive starters. Tight end Dante Rosario, playing because star Antonio Gates was out with a rib injury, caught three touchdown passes from Rivers. Former Kansas City running back Jackie Battle added 69 yards rushing yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries as the Chargers continued to plug along without starting running back Ryan Mathews.

“I’ve said that all the new guys we brought in this year really add something,” Rivers said. “They are all guys who love football and they really help this team. Today, we saw guys like Rosario and Battle just come in do things when we needed them. We’re just very steady now.”

In addition to Gates and Mathews (they both should be back next week against visiting Atlanta barring setbacks), San Diego is playing without left tackle Jared Gaither and promising receiver Vincent Brown. Undrafted rookie Mike Harris is playing for Gaither. Brown will be back in about six weeks and there is no timetable for Gaither’s return.

Still, the San Diego offense is clicking. After going 1-for-5 in the red zone at Oakland, the Chargers were 5-for-6 against Tennessee.

“It’s all because of [Rivers],” said San Diego receiver Malcom Floyd, who had a game-high six catches for 109 yards. “We have guys out, but he keeps us all together and he makes the plays. He gets this offense going.”

However, the Chargers have been much more than an offensive show in 2012. The defense has been outstanding, even suffocating.

The Chargers have completely bottled up star tailbacks Darren McFadden and Chris Johnson. Last week, McFadden was held to 32 yards on 15 carries. Sunday, Johnson had 17 yards on eight carries and the Titans totaled 38 yards on 10 attempts on the ground.

San Diego’s defense is building an identity. It is swarming, physical and mean. This was a stagnant group last season under the fired Greg Manusky, but linebackers coach John Pagano was promoted and the improvements have been dramatic and immediate.

“The defense has been great,” Rivers said. “Offensively, we had some lulls at times, but they just kept plugging and plugging … That’s what good teams do.”

And for the first time in September under Turner, the Chargers can truly say they are a good team.
Tyson Jackson's time in Kansas City is hitting a critical stage.

NFL.com reported that Jackson -- the No. 3 overall pick in the 2009 draft -- has accepted a major contract restructuring. The report said the restructuring was amicable and logical, but it is clear the Chiefs were focused on getting Jackson’s pay scale in line with his production. He was heavily overpaid because of his draft slotting. The Chiefs are in fine salary-cap shape, so this wasn’t a restructuring done out of necessity.

The report states that Jackson’s 2014 contract was voided and he could hit the open market as soon as next year. Jackson will now reportedly see his 2012 contract go from more than $8 million to $4.25 million in base salary, with $4 million guaranteed. According to the report, Jackson will have a $14.72 million salary in 2013 with a whopping a $17.5 million cap figure. Thus, expect Jackson to be either restructured again or cut next year.

Jackson is a decent player. He will never produce up to the standards of being the No. 3 player selected, but he’s not a total bust, either. This new contract allows the Chiefs flexibility moving forward.

It also makes you wonder if the team could add a defensive end early in the draft. The Chiefs have the No. 11 pick and perhaps they could be in play for someone such as Mississippi State’s Fletcher Cox or North Carolina's Quinton Coples.

In other AFC West news:

ESPN Stats & Information has a look at what the Raiders have received for their spent 2012 draft picks.

Former Oakland cornerback Chris Johnson is visiting the Jets, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. Johnson was cut by Oakland earlier this year.

The Raiders are keeping their future stadium options open.

Have the Raiders fallen behind?

March, 30, 2012
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Reggie McKenzie, Dennis AllenAP Photo/Paul SakumaOakland's salary-cap woes have Reggie McKenzie, left, and Dennis Allen in a tough spot.

The Oakland Raiders are one of the most intriguing franchises in the NFL these days. How will the post-Al Davis Raiders evolve?

After Davis' death in October, the much-less-involved Mark Davis turned his father’s beloved franchise over to Reggie McKenzie, a respected personnel man from Green Bay, who is embarking on his first journey as a general manager. McKenzie has entrusted former Denver defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, who at 39 is the youngest coach in the league, to be the next coach of a team that finished 8-8 last season and barely missed the playoffs.

The first focus for McKenzie has been clearing the Raiders’ roster of bloated contracts given to players as the Raiders desperately, and unsuccessfully, chased championships in Davis’ final years.

It has been a necessary exercise as Oakland begins the process of getting out of salary-cap jail. But Oakland has lost more talent than it has brought in the past month.

The question begs to be asked: Has Oakland fallen behind the rest of the AFC West for the 2012 season? It depends on whom you ask, of course. Asked this week if his team will be stronger or weaker in 2012, McKenzie, without explanation, said this: “Honestly, I envision it being stronger.”

However, many folks around the league wonder how.

“I think they have fallen behind,” Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. said. “They are in a tough salary-cap position and they are paying for it now. I just don’t see the improvement.”

Added Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc.: “I do think they have slipped.” Williamson, in an Insider piece, gave the Raiders one of the worst free-agent grades in the AFC.

It’s difficult to look at the list of players Oakland has added and lost and not come to the same conclusion. Even given the need for salary-cap repair, a loss of talent mustn’t be brushed aside.

Here are some of the key players who were either cut or departed Oakland as free agents: linebacker Kamerion Wimbley, running back Michael Bush, quarterback Jason Campbell, cornerback Stanford Routt, tight end Kevin Boss, defensive tackle John Henderson, running back Rock Cartwright, receiver Chaz Schilens, defensive end Trevor Scott and cornerback Chris Johnson.

The projected starters who have been brought in: guard Mike Brisiel and cornerbacks Ron Bartell and Shawntae Spencer.

“You look who has come and who has gone, and it’s scary,” Horton said. “I like Mike Brisiel. He will help. But the two cornerbacks are just guys. They are not starters for a good team. The defense needs improvement and I don’t see it. All I see is the loss of talent. Where is the coverage coming from? Where is the pass-rush coming from?”

In addition to not having much cap room, the Raiders have a small draft class. They have five picks and their first pick is No. 95, at the end of the third round. McKenzie has said the Raiders need a starting outside linebacker. He might not know who that player is for some time.

Compounding the concern in Oakland is the fact that the rest of the AFC West has been aggressive this offseason.

[+] EnlargeDarren McFadden
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesDarren McFadden is an elite running back when healthy -- but the Raiders are an injury or two away, at many positions, from serious trouble.
Denver added the big prize of the NFL offseason -- quarterback Peyton Manning. Kansas City added several players, including Routt and Boss after they were jettisoned by Oakland. The Chargers lost star receiver Vincent Jackson and key backup running back Mike Tolbert, but added several pieces and have been lauded by scouts around the league for using their resources properly and adding to their overall talent level. Speaking this week solely about his own team, Kansas City general manager Scott Pioli said he felt the need to improve his roster because of the improvement around him in the division.

Meanwhile, McKenzie and Allen are seemingly beginning their tenure in Oakland by taking a step back. Asked about the loss of talent while at the NFL owners meetings this week, Allen took a realistic approach.

“You know what, we knew what the situation was when we were going into it,” Allen said. “We knew it was going to be a tough situation. I think Reggie’s done a great job of managing everything as we’ve gone through this. You go through it every year. Every year, you have good players that you lose. And you’ve got to find a way to regroup and replace those guys, and that’s what we’re trying to get done.”

The problem is that Oakland has more holes than it did at the end of last season. In the past couple of seasons, the Raiders were intriguing because they were young and didn’t have many glaring needs. All they needed was their young talent to continue to improve. Now, though, Oakland has holes at tight end and linebacker and depth issues at all layers of the defense, at running back, along the offensive line and at quarterback.

“What if this team gets hurt a lot?” Horton asked. “There is no depth in this team.”

Still, not all is lost in Oakland. Running back Darren McFadden is an elite runner when healthy, the defensive line is an upper-echelon unit, the interior offensive line is strong, the special teams are top-notch, the receiver crew is potentially dynamic and the team believes quarterback Carson Palmer will benefit from a full offseason in the program.

The Raiders are hopeful that their talent can withstand this necessary offseason of cap repair. In a couple of years, if McKenzie continues to be financially prudent, the Raiders should be out of cap jail.

“This team wasn’t far away when I got here,” Allen said at the owners meetings. “We’re excited about trying to build on that and develop this team into a playoff-caliber team. Obviously, we took a couple hits because of the cap situation, but we’re looking forward to trying to develop the team and the players.”

The only question: Has the rest of the AFC West left the Raiders behind in the immediate future?
Jason Hunter is coming back to the Denver Broncos.

The team announced the defensive end has re-signed with it. He has played in all 32 games for Denver since signing with the team two years ago. He will continue to be a role player in Denver. As far as role players go, Hunter is an experienced, solid backup, but he is not a major contributor.

In other AFC West news:

New Denver quarterback Peyton Manning, said in a radio interview he is sleeping at the Broncos’ facility as he is entrenched in learning the team’s playbook.

Sports Illustrated offers a compelling look at the grief former Oakland cornerback Chris Johnson has been dealing with. It’s a worthwhile read.

AFC West free-agency assessment

March, 29, 2012
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AFC Assessments: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Denver Broncos

Key additions: QB Peyton Manning, CB Tracy Porter, TE Joel Dreessen, TE Jacob Tamme, S Mike Adams, QB Caleb Hanie, WR Andre Caldwell.

Key losses: DT Brodrick Bunkley, WR, Eddie Royal, TE Daniel Fells, QB Tim Tebow, QB Brady Quinn, TE Dante Rosario.

Did they get better? The Broncos added Manning and that move changes the course of the entire division. Denver is instantly the favorite to win the AFC West again because of this addition. Yes, there are risks as the 36-year-old Manning missed the entire 2011 season with a neck injury that required several surgeries. Denver is convinced Manning is fully recovered and has been cleared to play.

If the 2012 Manning is anything like the Manning we last saw, Denver will be in good shape and the offense will be dangerous. The key is on defense. It has improved greatly and the Porter and Adams additions should help, even while losing Bunkley will hurt. Overall, this team made huge strides in the offseason.

What’s next: Denver’s biggest need areas are at defensive tackle (the Broncos may need two), running back, safety, receiver and linebacker. However, much of that need is for depth purposes.

Denver’s only true glaring hole is at defensive tackle. Expect the Broncos to use their No. 25 pick on the position. I wouldn’t be surprised if the team’s second-round pick is used on a running back unless the Broncos like one of the remaining veterans on the market.

Kansas City Chiefs

Key additions: CB Stanford Routt, RT Eric Winston, RB Peyton Hillis, TE Kevin Boss, QB Brady Quinn.

Key losses: CB Brandon Carr, QB Kyle Orton, FB Le'Ron McClain, LB Demorrio Williams.

Did they get better? Had it not been for the Manning blockbuster, everybody would be taking about what the Chiefs did. I think the Chiefs’ work in free agency was among the best five in the NFL.

Instead of giving quarterback Matt Cassel serious competition, the Chiefs further committed to him by giving him some strong pieces on offense. Hillis will team with Jamaal Charles to make a dangerous running tandem. Winston is one of the league’s better right tackles and Boss and Tony Moeaki will give opposing defenses fits in double tight end sets. This will be a varied offense that will have many weapons. The Chiefs are solid on defense and Routt is a veteran who is comparable to Carr, but more experienced and is less expensive.

What’s next: The Chiefs could use a nose tackle, help at inside linebacker, secondary depth and offensive line depth. They will get a good player with the 11th pick and I think they will try to solidify the middle of the defensive line with someone like Memphis’ Dontari Poe. If the Chiefs can add an impact defender with that pick, it will complete an outstanding offseason.

Oakland Raiders

Key additions: G Mike Brisiel, CB Ron Bartell, CB Shawntae Spencer, CB Pat Lee.

Key losses: LB Kamerion Wimbley, RB Michael Bush, QB Jason Campbell, CB Stanford Routt, TE Kevin Boss, DT John Henderson, RB Rock Cartwright, WR Chaz Schilens, DE Trevor Scott, CB Chris Johnson.

Did they get better? It’s difficult to argue this team improved. Just look at all the losses. It’s a pure fact of numbers, Oakland lost much more than it brought in. This team has more questions than it did at the end of last season and it has more holes. With limited cap space and the fact Oakland doesn’t pick in the draft until No. 95, the Raiders will have a difficult time adding any more impact players. Depth can be an issue.

I understand why this has happened. The new Oakland regime had to get things in order, and sometimes, before a team can make major steps forward as an organization, it may have to take a step back. There is still a lot of talent in Oakland, but it is clear the other three teams made more impactful additions.

What’s next: Oakland will be challenged to find impact players, but it will need to add depth at several places after finding a starting outside linebacker. Oakland needs depth at linebacker, the secondary, offensive line, running back and at quarterback. I think we will see Oakland be patient and add at spots all the way up into the season.

San Diego Chargers

Key additions: WR Robert Meachem, LB Jarret Johnson, WR Eddie Royal, FB Le’Ron McClain, QB Charlie Whitehurst, S Atari Bigby, TE Dante Rosario, LB Demorrio Williams

Key losses: WR Vincent Jackson, RB Mike Tolbert, G Kris Dielman, S Steve Gregory, QB Billy Volek.

Did they get better? I’ve talked to a lot of scouts who believe the Chargers improved. The truth is they lost two good players in Jackson and Tolbert and so did not improve as much as Denver and Kansas City did. But the Chargers did get creative and added a lot of pieces for the price it would have cost to keep Jackson. They also retained key offensive linemen Nick Hardwick and Jared Gaither. Meachem and Royal give quarterback Philip Rivers some interesting weapons.

Johnson will help the defense and he will make it tougher. The Chargers may have gotten a little deeper while losing some star power.

What’s next: The Chargers still haven’t addressed their greatest need outside of keeping its offensive line intact. San Diego will no doubt use its No. 18 pick on the best available pass-rusher to help Johnson is not a great pass-rusher.

Other needs include a big backup running back, offensive line depth and some more depth in all layers of the defense.

Raiders address depth issues

March, 16, 2012
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The Oakland Raiders have joined the free-agent pickup party.

After cutting seven players in salary-cap dumps, Oakland added former St. Louis cornerback Ronald Bartell and former Houston guard Mike Brisiel on Friday.

Let’s be frank. These signings aren’t going to cause a wave of worry in the NFL as neither is an upper-echelon player. But they fill holes in Oakland and that’s important.

Bartell missed all but one game last year with a neck injury. He has started 66 career games. He will start for Oakland, which entered the day with no experienced starters at cornerback. The Raiders have also shown interest in New Orleans cornerback Tracy Porter, who played for new Oakland coach Dennis Allen when Allen was the Saints’ secondary coach.

I could see the Raiders trying to sign Porter to pair with Bartell. The Raiders, who have lost veterans Nnamdi Asomugha, Stanford Routt and Chris Johnson since last July, are rail thin at the position.

If Porter isn’t signed, Oakland could switch safety Michael Huff to cornerback, but the Raiders would have to come up with a replacement for Huff. Second-year cornerbacks DeMarcus Van Dyke and Chimdi Chewka will also get the chance to develop.

Brisiel will start at guard. Former Houston offensive line coach Frank Pollack was hired for the same job in Oakland this year and the Raiders are going to employ a zone-blocking scheme, which Houston ran. Brisiel is known as a tough, smart player, but he has had injury issues. Oakland could still potentially add to the offensive line at guard or center. Second-year guard Stefen Wisniewski could be moved to center.

The Raiders have several holes, because of their salary-cap moves, so expect more signings. Because the Raiders have limited cap space, expect the next moves to be of the modest variety like Friday's signings. But if the Raiders can continue to find experienced starters, they will be better off for it.
The Raiders placed cornerback Chris Johnson on the reserve/non-football illness list Saturday. Johnson’s sister was shot to death and his mother was wounded in an attack in Texas recently; Johnson has been traveling back and forth from California.

The Raiders signed defensive end Mason Brodine to the 53-man roster to fill Johnson's spot.

In other AFC West news:

The Patriots ruled out Deion Branch, Patrick Chung, Shane Vereen, Brandon Spikes and Sebastian Vollmer for Sunday’s game at Denver.

Denver signed safety Kyle McCarthy and cut fullback Quinn Johnson. McCarthy was cut earlier in the week. The Broncos are banged up at safety — starter Brian Dawkins is questionable with a neck injury that knocked him out of the Chicago game and held him out of two days of practice.

Detroit safety Louis Delmas has been downgraded to out for Sunday’s game at Oakland.

Offensive coordinator Bill Muir is back to the press box to call the game as the Chiefs shift from the Todd Haley regime to the Romeo Crennel regime.

Gunther Cunningham, who spent many years in the AFC West before landing in his current gig as Detroit defensive coordinator, is looking forward to going back to the Black Hole on Sunday with the Lions.

Major kudos to Oakland quarterback Jason Campbell for continuing to be a stalwart in the community after being injured. It’s been a tough season for Campbell, but he’s handled the situation with immense class.

AFC West injury update

December, 16, 2011
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A look at key injury situations in the division heading into Week 15:

Denver starting safety Brian Dawkins (neck) and starting cornerback Andre Goodman (concussion) were both limited Friday. Both players are listed as questionable to play against the New England Patriots on Sunday. Barring setbacks, expect both players to try to play. The Broncos will need the two players as they face the pass-proficient Patriots. Receiver Eddie Royal (concussion) is listed as probable. He missed last week’s game.

In Oakland, Raiders’ coach Hue Jackson said running back Darren McFadden (foot) and receiver Jacoby Ford (foot) are out as expected. McFadden has been hurt for seven weeks and Ford has been out for a month. Jackson said defensive tackle John Henderson (knee), safety Michael Huff (ankle) and running back Taiwan Jones (hamstring) are questionable. Cornerback Chris Johnson, who has been dealing with the death of his sister in Texas, is also out.

For Kansas City, safety Jon McGraw is doubtful with an ankle injury. Receiver Jon Baldwin and cornerback Javier Arenas both practiced fully after they sat out Thursday’s practice because they were ill. They are both probable to play.

In San Diego, linebackers Takeo Spikes and Donald Butler were limited in practice for the first time this week and they are listed as questionable to face Baltimore on Sunday.

Chargers will be blacked out Sunday

December, 8, 2011
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Interest is clearly waning in the 5-7 San Diego Chargers.

The team announced Thursday that Sunday’s home game against Buffalo will be blacked out on local television. About 5,000 tickets remain for the game. Only about 500 tickets were sold since the team announced the game was in danger a blackout.

Even though San Diego snapped a six-game losing streak Monday night at Jacksonville, the Chargers are tied with Kansas City and are two games behind division-leading Denver and Oakland. There has also been heavy speculation coach Norv Tuner and general manager A.J. Smith may be fired at the end of the season.

In other AFC West nuggets:

In Denver, tackle Ryan Clady was back at practice Thursday after missing Wednesday’s session with a knee injury. However, running back Willis McGahee (knee) and receiver Eddie Royal (concussion) missed Thursday’s practice. McGahee told reporters that he will be able to play Sunday against Chicago.

Here’s a video debate on whether Denver first-year coach is John Fox is the reason for Tim Tebow’s success. ESPN Stats & Information has evidence that Denver is winning for reasons that extend beyond Tebow. ESPN columnist Jeffri Chadiha looks at the impact Tebow’s success has had on the NFL.

— New Charger and former Chief Jared Gaither quickly endeared himself to his teammates in San Diego.

In an Insider piece, Mel Kiper explains why he graded John Elway out as his No. 1 ranked quarterback coming out of college in the past 32 years.

The Contra Costa Times reports Oakland cornerback Chris Johnson has rejoined the team. He was in Texas after his sister was killed and his mother was wounded in a shooting.

— Chicago linebacker Lance Briggs expressed his feelings about the idea of losing to Tebow and the Broncos on Sunday.

— Kansas City quarterback Kyle Orton and center Casey Wiegmann continued to be limited by finger injuries for the second straight day. At this point, it’s safe to expect Tyler Palko to make his fourth straight start for the Chiefs at quarterback.

AFC West injury news

November, 18, 2011
11/18/11
8:40
PM ET
Upon my arrival home from Denver, let’s take a look at some key AFC West injury developments heading in the remaining Week 11 action:

In Oakland, the Raiders will definitely be without running back Darren McFadden (foot), receiver Jacoby Ford (foot) and cornerback Chris Johnson (groin) again. However, the team is focused on whether or not star defensive lineman Richard Seymour (ankle) will play Sunday at Minnesota. The team is hopeful Seymour will play. But he missed the entire practice week. Safety Michael Huff suffered a setback and he is questionable to play with an ankle injury that kept him out of last week’s game.

McFadden hasn’t played since week 7. The team is hopeful he could potentially play next week against visiting Chicago. However, with backup Michael Bush playing well, there is no need to rush McFadden back. There’s no timetable for Ford’s return. He was hurt Nov. 10 at San Diego.

In San Diego, as expected, the Chargers will be without several key players. The Chargers’ injury woes begin on the offensive line. With standout guard Kris Dielman out for the year because of a concussion, the team will also be without left tackle Marcus McNeill (stinger) and will likely be without guard Louis Vasquez (ankle) Sunday at Chicago. He is listed as doubtful. The team has been expecting this problem all week.

Receiver Malcom Floyd (hip) and linebacker Shaun Phillips (foot) remain out. They’ve both missed multiple games. Standout defensive tackle Antonio Garay (hip) is questionable to play Sunday.

In Kansas City, defensive end Glenn Dorsey (knee), starting cornerback Brandon Flowers (back) and Brandon Carr (ankle) were limited for the second straight day of practice. They were joined on the limited list by safety Jon McGraw (shoulder). The four players will have an extra day to heal. Kansas City plays at New England on Monday.

Michael Huff out for Oakland

November, 10, 2011
11/10/11
7:25
PM ET
SAN DIEGO -- Below are the Raiders’ inactive for Thursday night. Waiting for the Chargers’ inactives.

Notice that safety Michael Huff is out with an ankle injury. He had hoped to play. He joins cornerbacks DeMarcus Van Dyke and Chris Johnson as secondary players who will not face Philip Rivers.

QB Terrelle Pryor

QB Jason Campbell

S Michael Huff

RB Darren McFadden

CB DeMarcus Van Dyke

CB Chris Johnson

OL Bruce Campbell

Raiders, Chargers limp into game

November, 9, 2011
11/09/11
5:55
PM ET
The Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers will not be healthy when they meet on a short week Thursday night in San Diego in a critical game between the two 4-4 teams.

Oakland coach Hue Jackson told reporters that running back Darren McFadden and cornerbacks Chris Johnson and DeMarcus Van Dyke will not play Thursday. McFadden, who will continue to be replaced by Michael Bush, has been expected to be out. He hasn’t played since early in Week 7 when he suffered a foot injury. The Raiders will try to get him ready for their next game, Nov. 20 at Minnesota.

Newly signed Lito Sheppard start at cornerback opposite Stanford Routt.

The Chargers will try to take advantage of the Raiders’ injuries, but they are banged up. Guard Kris Dielman is out and receiver Malcom Floyd and linebacker Shaun Philips are listed as doubtful. Running back Ryan Mathews is expected to play after missing Sunday’s loss to Green Bay with a groin injury.

The Raiders have several players who are questionable including defensive lineman Richard Seymour, safety Michael Huff, linebacker Rolando McClain, kicker Sebastian Janikowski and offensive linemen Samson Satele and Khalif Barnes.

This is a big game for both times that is tied for first place in the AFC West with Kansas City. The Chargers have lost three in a row and Oakland has lost two straight. Both teams will have to try to get on the right track despite being banged up.

Raiders missing several key players

November, 8, 2011
11/08/11
9:35
PM ET
Eleven Oakland Raiders did not practice Tuesday in the only real practice day of the week prior to their game at San Diego on Thursday.

Among the players who didn’t practice were running back Darren McFadden (foot), offensive linemen Samson Satele (knee) and Khalif Barnes (shoulder), defensive lineman Richard Seymour (ankle), cornerback DeMarcus Van Dyke (hamstring) and Chris Johnson (hamstring), safeties Michael Huff (ankle) and Mike Mitchell (ankle) and kicker Sebastian Janikowski (hamstring).

Some of these players will likely play. McFadden, who hasn’t played since Week 7, isn't expected to be one of them, though. Each team will release their injury report Wednesday.

The San Diego Union Tribune reports receiver Malcom Floyd (hip), guard Kris Dielman (concussion) and linebacker Shaun Phillips (foot) will not play. They have been out. Running back Ryan Mathews, who missed the last week’s game with a groin injury, is expected to play Thursday.

In other AFC West news:
  • The NFL has honored Denver Broncos’ receiver/returner Eddie Royal as its AFC special teams player of the week for his efforts in the Broncos’ upset win at Oakland on Sunday. Royal had an 85-yard punt return for a touchdown to give Denver the lead with 5:53 remaining in the game.
  • I don’t see defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth being a fit in the AFC West. His reputation for being a troublemaker will likely preclude any interest from the team in the division, although Denver could likely use him. He was cut by the Patriots on Tuesday. He is now available through waivers.

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