AFC West: Dante Rosario

There are usually ramifications to all-time postseason blunders and this is no exception. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the Denver Broncos have fired secondary coach Ron Milus.

His firing comes three days after second-year safety Rahim Moore was out of place and allowed Jacoby Jones to get behind him on a desperation 70-yard bomb from Joe Flacco that tied the game. Baltimore would eventually win in double overtime.

UPDATE: The Broncos have acted quickly to replace Milus, whose contract was not renewed. Cory Undlin replaces him. He was with defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio in Jacksonville. Team maintains the Milus firing was not all on Moore.

Countless former NFL players have said that they’ve never seen a safety so out of position like Moore was on that play. Moore, a second-round pick in 2011, made strides in 2012 and the team is not going to give up on him.

So, Milus is paying for not putting his player in position. Is Milus’ firing all about that one play? Perhaps not, but the timing is curious. Plus, He was brought to Denver by head coach John Fox in 2011 after coaching three years for him in Carolina. At the very least, the Moore play was a major part of Milus’ firing.

Denver’s secondary, overall, had a good season in 2012. But the Moore play will forever be remembered for costing Denver the Baltimore game and ramifications were bound to concur.

In other AFC West news:
  • Denver left tackle Ryan Clady has withdrawn from the Pro Bowl because of a shoulder injury. It is not expected to affect him in 2013.
  • New San Diego coach Mike McCoy coached both San Diego tight end Dante Rosario and receiver/returner Eddie Royal in Denver, so he has some instant familiarity.
  • As expected, New Kansas City coach Andy Reid hired former Chicago special teams coach Dave Toub for the same job. Toub is considered one of the best special teams in the NFL. Toub worked for Reid in Philadelphia earlier last decade.
  • Also, former Kansas City defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs was retained as linebacker coach and Emmitt Thomas has been kept as the secondary coach. Reid has brought in Eugene Chung as the assistant offensive line coach. He was in the same role on Reid’s Eagles’ staff last season.

AFC West Stock Watch

September, 19, 2012
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FALLING

Peyton Manning’s sharpness: Yes, Manning finished strong in a loss at Atlanta. He nearly brought the team back from a 20-0 deficit. But the truth is, Manning fueled the Falcons’ big lead. He threw three interceptions in the first quarter. He looked completely out of sorts. The fact that he settled down is a good sign, but the three interceptions were the story of his first loss as a Bronco.

Darren McFadden: McFadden has not been effective in the first two games. He had just 54 yards on 26 carries. There has been a lot of chatter that McFadden is not a good fit for the Raiders’ new West Coast offensive scheme. Whatever the issue is, McFadden needs to get in gear.

Romeo Crennel: The Chiefs’ head coach is his own defensive coordinator. His unit is struggling. The Chiefs have allowed 75 points in two games and they are not playing up to an NFL standard. Yes, the Chiefs have dealt with injuries, but they need to do a better job under Crennel.

RISING

Norv Turner: The Chargers are 2-0 under Turner for the first time since he became the Chargers’ coach in 2007. San Diego has traditionally started slowly under Turner. But he has his team clicking well after two games this season.

San Diego’s defense: The Chargers are building an identity on defense. They are aggressive, fast and physical. They have improved dramatically on third down and they are playing winning football.

Chargers’ depth: Depth has been an issue in San Diego for the past few years. San Diego general manager A.J. Smith made it a point to improve depth throughout the roster this year. It has paid off. Sunday, in a 38-10 win over Tennessee, backup tight end Dante Rosario scored three touchdowns and backup running back Jackie Battle scored two touchdowns. Both free-agent pickups were playing because of injuries.

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.

Thoughts from the San Diego Chargers' thorough 38-10 victory over the Tennessee Titans.

What it means: The Chargers are 2-0 and are in first place in the AFC West. Kansas City and Oakland looked awful and both fell to 0-2; the Chargers shined and showed they are a team to watch in the AFC.

A complete win: The Chargers dominated the Titans in every phase of the game. The Chargers have to be feeling very good about themselves. They are getting it done without four key offensive players and their defense looks much improved. The Chargers have made few mistakes so far this season.

Rosario shines: With tight end Antonio Gates out with a rib injury, backup Dante Rosario caught three touchdown passes from Philip Rivers. It was the first time Rosario has caught a touchdown since 2009. It was the Chargers’ first three-touchdown game from a tight end since Gates did it in 2005.

Battle is tough: Running back Jackie Battle had 69 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries. He looks like he will be a solid backup when starter Ryan Mathews returns from a broken clavicle. Barring a setback, Mathews will likely play next week.

Red zone woes are over: Last week, the Chargers were 1-of-5 in the red zone. This week, the Chargers were much better. They scored five touchdowns in six trips into the red zone. Seeing such instant improvement is a strong sign for this team.

What’s next: The Chargers are the next stop on the Falcons’ AFC West tour. Atlanta won at Kansas City and hosts Denver on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football." The host Chargers hope to catch the Falcons tired after they travel across the country on a short week.
SAN DIEGO -- No Antonio Gates? No problem.

San Diego backup tight end Dante Rosario is having a big day with Gates out with a rib injury. Rosario has caught all three of Philip Rivers' touchdown passes Sunday against Tennessee.

Prior to Sunday, Rosario never had a two-touchdown catch day and hadn’t caught an NFL touchdown since 2009.

It is also the first time a Chargers tight end has had a three-touchdown day since Gates did it in 2005.

There's little chance Rosario unseats Gates as the Chargers’ starter, but he sure is doing the Chargers’ starter proud.

Chargers dominating Titans early on

September, 16, 2012
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SAN DIEGO – The San Diego Chargers look good.

They are hammering Tennessee, 17-0 early in the second quarter.

The Chargers are dominating on both sides of the ball. Offensively, they have improved from their 1-for-5 effort in the red zone in a 22-14 win at Oakland last week. San Diego is 2-for-3 from the red zone so far.

I tell you what; this San Diego defense is much improved. San Diego's pass rush hasn’t been this strong since Shawne Merriman’s heyday of the mid 2000s.

It also a good day so far for the San Diego tight ends without star Antonio Gates, who is out with a rib injury. Backup Dante Rosario caught two touchdown passes from Philip Rivers in the first quarter. However, Rosario has a calf injury and his return is questionable.

Fourth-round pick Ladarius Green marked his NFL debut with a nice run-and-catch on a 31-yard play to setup a field goal early in the second quarter. Many people think Green can be Gates’ successor and he looked nice on his first NFL catch.
SAN DIEGO -- With the outside perception of the San Diego Chargers taking a major tumble, the team, which for so long was built from the inside, changed philosophy in 2012 in a last attempt to keep that proverbial Super Bowl window from slamming shut and causing major upheaval in the organization.

After two playoff-less seasons and a reprieve from ownership, San Diego general manager A.J. Smith made an uncharacteristically heavy play in free agency. Taking advantage of one of the deepest classes in history, the Chargers nabbed more than a dozen free agents to infuse new life into a roster that was still talented but no longer arguably the stoutest in the NFL.

“I love what they have done around here,” said safety Eric Weddle, one of the Chargers' homegrown mainstays. “We hit the lowest of the lows the past two years by not making the playoffs. Getting new blood in here has helped.”

Among the veterans San Diego brought in were running backs Le'Ron McClain and Ronnie Brown, receivers Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal, linebacker Jarret Johnson and defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin.

“The thing about the new guys is they all love football,” San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers said. “They love it. We need guys like that here. … It gives us a new start. Those guys won’t worry about the past. They weren’t here for the slow starts or the six-game losing streak last year. It’s all a new start.”

If this cleansing of the roster doesn’t work, the next restructuring will likely occur up top with the firing of coach Norv Turner and possibly Smith. Yet, in a season of new beginnings, spirits are high.

“I think we can be special,” Weddle said. “There’s still a lot of talent here, with a bunch of new talent. … People may not be expecting much from us this year because we haven’t done anything, so that’s fair. But it’s kind of nice to be under the radar for once.”

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeRyan Mathews
Christopher Hanewinckel/US PresswireThe Chargers aim to lean even more heavily on running back Ryan Mathews this season.
1. Ryan Mathews' workload: Outside of Rivers, there is likely not a more important player in this camp than Mathews. The Chargers all know if Mathews flourishes in his third NFL season, the team will have a strong chance to be successful. Mathews, the No. 12 overall pick in 2010, had a solid second season as he ran for 1,091 yards and averaged a terrific 4.9 yards per carry. This year, the Chargers want to see Mathews become consistent and stay healthy. He will likely be given the chance to to carry the ball 25 times a game, catch several balls out of the backfield and be a factor on third down and in short yardage. This camp is designed to get him prepared for a heavy workload. From what I saw and heard, it seems like Mathews might be up to the task.

“He’s working hard,” Rivers said. “Ryan knows what is expected of him.”

2. Sparking the defense: While the offense in San Diego needs some tweaks, the bigger fixes are necessary on defense, where former linebackers coach John Pagano is in charge of fixing a unit that fell apart last season. He replaces Greg Manusky, who was fired after one season on the job. The biggest issue -- it is a major point of emphasis in camp -- is getting off the field on third down. San Diego was last in the NFL in third-down defense in 2011. It gave up a first down on 49.2 percent of all third downs -- according to ESPN Stats & Information, the worst percentage in the NFL since the 1995 Cleveland Browns. The Chargers have added several pieces to the defense and it has a chance to be much more active -- particularly on passing downs, when No. 1 pick Melvin Ingram will be given a chance to make an instant impact as a pass-rusher.

3. Protect the quarterback: The San Diego offensive line was in shambles for much of last season, and it was a big reason why Rivers struggled for the first 10 games. Mainly due to poor health, San Diego used 13 offensive linemen last season -- literally taking players off the street at one point in November. With Jared Gaither, claimed off waivers from Kansas City, solidifying the left tackle spot, the unit improved dramatically late in the season. Gaither was re-signed and is being counted on to protect Rivers’ blind side. The steady Tyronne Green takes over for the departed Kris Dielman. Green has fared well when he's had to play. If this unit remains in good health, it should protect Rivers well. If not, trouble could persist. So far, the unit looks good in camp.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

The passing game looks to be top-notch. After a sloppy start to last season, Rivers finished 2011 strong. He has looked good in camp, and has an interesting group of receivers. Yes, standout Vincent Jackson is gone, but the Chargers have an ensemble group that includes Malcom Floyd, free-agent signees Meachem (New Orleans) and Royal (Denver) and second-year player Vincent Brown. Together, this group should offer Rivers plenty of help.

“We like what we have there,” Turner said. “We like all the pieces. We think we can get some things done in the passing game.”

If the Rivers-led passing attack is back at an elite level, the Chargers will be a threat to win every game. When Rivers is on, San Diego has a chance to score every time the offense hits the field.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

The Chargers must prove they are totally past their doldrums. The team feels good about itself, but it does every summer. We will not know if San Diego is out of its funk until it’s out.

Yes, the depth looks good, but will it be enough if injuries pile up for a fourth consecutive year? Yes, cutting down on turnovers is a point of emphasis in camp, but once the season starts, will the hard work pay off or will the killer interceptions and fumbles continue?

It has gotten to the point where we can’t trust this team until it shows it is has indeed rebounded.

OBSERVATION DECK

    [+] EnlargeEddie Royal
    AP Photo/Lenny IgnelziReceiver Eddie Royal, an offseason pickup, appears to have clicked with Chargers QB Philip Rivers.
  • Tight end Antonio Gates is turning heads on a daily basis. After dealing with foot-related injuries for four years, Gates is finally completely healthy. He’s slimmed down and he is making a lot of plays. If his health remains, the 32-year-old should make a huge impact.
  • Denver might have lost interest in Royal, but there is a place for him San Diego. Expect Royal to get a lot of work. He has impressed the coaching staff this summer and I expect him to be as favorite a target for Rivers during the season as he has been this summer.
  • The Chargers love what they see in Johnson. He is tough, smart and excellent against the run. They think he can bump the defense up a notch.
  • Linebacker Donald Butler looks good after a strong 2011 season, which was essentially his rookie season because he was injured in 2010. He is just another fascinating young defensive piece on this team.
  • Undrafted rookie quarterback Jarrett Lee looks like a keeper. He got extra work because of a knee injury to Charlie Whitehurst. I could see Lee making this roster. The Chargers were burned last year when they tried to sneak undrafted rookie quarterback Scott Tolzien onto the practice squad; he was claimed by San Francisco. If Lee continues to impress, I think the Chargers will find room for him on the 53-man roster. They need to develop a young quarterback at some point and Lee might be it.

  • The Nate Kaeding-Nick Novak battle at kicker will go down to the wire. If Kaeding stays healthy and kicks well in the preseason, he should win the job.
  • The Chargers love the skill level of Meachem. Perhaps he was lost in the shuffle of the dynamic offensive weaponry in New Orleans. He’ll get his shot in San Diego.
  • The Chargers are pumped about McClain, a free-agent pickup from Kansas City. He will play a lot and should be in the mix for some carries. They like the veteran stability he brings to the offense.
  • Center David Molk, a seventh-round pick, is getting some second-team reps. He may have a future.
  • The Chargers are very happy with pre-camp signings Franklin and running back/special-teamer Jackie Battle. Though they both signed late, I see them both being contributors.
  • Keep an eye on ex-Chief Demorrio Williams. The linebacker has been a camp stud, boasting terrific speed. The Chargers like him in coverage.
  • The Chargers will keep their eyes open for help at certain positions, including cornerback and offensive line, as the summer progresses.
  • Third-round pick Brandon Taylor, a safety, might not make an instant impact, but Taylor has impressed and will get some valuable time behind veteran pickup Atari Bigby, who himself has been outstanding this summer.

  • Brown has been getting looks as the third-down back and will be an occasional Wildcat threat.
  • Running back Curtis Brinkley flashed talent at times last season, but because of the logjam at running back, he is a long shot to make the team.

  • Rookie tight end Ladarius Green has nice receiving skills. I can see him making an impact behind Gates and Dante Rosario (a very nice backup). Green, a fourth-round pick, needs to learn to block at an NFL level, but he has terrific hands and natural size.
  • Undrafted rookie tackle Mike Harris has taken advantage of an early camp injury to Gaither, getting some reps with the first team. The UCLA product has a chance to make the team. Rivers has joked that Harris has gotten more first-team reps than any undrafted rookie tackle in the history of the NFL.

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.

Tight ends split from Denver

March, 19, 2012
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It looks like Daniel Fells and Dante Rosario could see the writing on the wall.

As news broke that Peyton Manning will sign with Denver, Fells signed with the New England Patriots and Rosario signed with the San Diego Chargers. Tight ends Dallas Clark and Jacob Tamme may be on their way to Denver for a Colts’ reunion.

Rosario will add depth in San Diego, and his signing continues a trend of intra-AFC West movement. He clearly thought he better get a new job because of Clark and Tamme’s potential arrival in Denver.

The Broncos currently have Julius Thomas and Virgil Green at tight end. They were rookies last season. Green will serve a four-game NFL suspension to start the season for using banned substance. The team expects Thomas to make strides in his second season whether or not Manning gets to play with some familiar faces.
A theme developed in the divisional playoff round: the dominance of the young, athletic tight end. Whether it was New England’s Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, or San Francisco’s Vernon Davis or New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham, the tight end took over.

It is clear a way to offensive success in the NFL is having one of these types of players. Let’s take a look at each AFC West’s teams situation at tight end:

Denver: The Broncos have an interesting crew of tight ends. It has veterans Daniel Fells and Dante Rosario and youngsters Julius Thomas and Virgil Green. Fells is a good blocker and receiver and the team would like to re-sign him. But they are excited about Thomas (who like Graham was a college basketball player) and Green. Thomas was a fourth-round pick and Green was a seventh-round pick. Green is further along than Thomas right now, but the team believes Thomas -- who was bothered by an ankle injury all season -- has Graham-like potential.

Kansas City: The Chiefs have a young stud in Tony Moeaki. They just need him to get healthy and to stay healthy. Moeki set some Kansas City rookie tight end records in 2010 (yes, the great Tony Gonzalez was a Chief rookie at one time), but missed all of the 2011 season with a knee injury. He is improving and the team is excited about his future.

Oakland: The Raiders signed Kevin Boss after Zach Miller shocked the team by signing with Seattle last summer. Boss has big-play ability, but he has some limitations. The Raiders could like to see more plays and better health from Boss in 2012.

San Diego: Antonio Gates is one of the best tight ends the NFL has ever seen. He has been dealing with injuries the past few seasons and he is likely on the back nine of his career. Still, he will be an impact player in the immediate future. Watch for San Diego to look for an eventual replacement fairly soon.
Willis McGaheeBruce Kluckhohn/US PresswireWillis McGahee rushed for 1,199 yards and four touchdowns during the regular season.
When Willis McGahee was cut by Baltimore this past summer, he was simply looking for a situation where he could contribute.

He found a perfect situation in Denver, where the Broncos were looking for a veteran complementary back. McGahee said in camp he was looking forward to a new start and he joked that he had so few carries in recent years that not only did he have plenty of tread on his tires as he neared his 30th birthday, he didn’t even need a "tire rotation."

Fast-forward five months later and McGahee -- who turned 30 in October -- has been the driving force in the Broncos’ surprising playoff push.

With quarterback Tim Tebow struggling to provide a consistent passing game in recent weeks, Denver’s primary chance to move the ball Sunday against visiting Pittsburgh in an AFC wild-card matchup will be on the ground. Denver had the No. 1-ranked run game in the NFL this season.

It all starts with McGahee.

McGahee has been one of the best free-agent acquisitions in the NFL this year. He has easily been Denver’s MVP in a surprise turnaround season for the franchise. A first alternate to the Pro Bowl, he had 1,199 yards and averaged 4.8 yards per carry. In 2010, he had 380 yards on 100 carries for the Ravens.

McGahee’s resurgence has been stunning. In the two previous seasons, he had a combined 209 carries for the Ravens. Usually, running backs slow down when they turn 30. McGahee has been revitalized.

McGahee has been the best running back in Denver since training camp started. He was signed to help 2009 first-round draft pick Knowshon Moreno. However, McGahee performed better than Moreno from the start of camp and was soon the No. 1 back. And when Moreno was lost for the season with a torn ACL, the Broncos didn’t look back.

It was McGahee who sparked the offense when Tebow took over. McGahee adjusted to the option offense with Tebow at quarterback and had seven 100-plus-yard games this season.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, McGahee has been especially dominant up the middle. He is averaging 5.3 yards per carry up the middle, which is the fourth-best average in the NFL. He converted 26 first downs and had five carries of 20-plus yards.

As part of Denver’s varied offense with Tebow running the show, McGahee also has been effective out of the shotgun formation. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he has the second-most rushing yards out of the shotgun this season with 388.

Expect the Broncos to force a heavy dose of McGahee against Pittsburgh in all running situations as they try to build a comfort level for Tebow and try to kill the clock.

McGahee’s teammates know what a key he has been and how important he will be against the Steelers. The nine-season veteran has earned his teammates' respect for being a grinder.

“He rarely gets tackled by one person,” Broncos tight end Dante Rosario said. “You always see his legs churning and he’s always trying to get that extra yard.”

McGahee has dealt with several nagging injuries this season. He did miss one game, but he has kept coming back for much more work than he was originally tabbed for this season.

“The guy works hard,” rookie tackle Orlando Franklin said. “He’s always here; he’s doing rehab all the time. He’s doing treatment. He’s always looking to get better, whether it’s in the ice tub, whether it’s watching film, whether it’s running extra gassers. He definitely works hard, and he proves it on the field. It’s definitely paying off for him.”

The Broncos’ top-ranked run game will face off against the NFL’s No. 1-ranked defense (and the No. 8-ranked run defense). Pittsburgh allowed an average of 99.8 yards per game. McGahee has often said he feels that he gets stronger as the game progresses. That will need to happen Sunday if the heavy-underdog Broncos (8-8) are to have a chance of beating the Steelers (12-4).

Broncos coach John Fox hopes McGahee can win a battle of attrition against the Steelers.

“There’s a wear-down effect on your opponent, as well,” Fox said of McGahee’s impact on opponents earlier in the season. “It’s like body blows in a heavyweight fight. They might take their toll, maybe not in the first five rounds but in the last five rounds. Part of that’s just a culmination of sticking to it and pounding it until you open it up.”

That has been the story of McGahee’s unexpected success all season.

Denver Broncos cutdown analysis

September, 3, 2011
9/03/11
3:25
PM ET
Check here for a complete list of the Denver Broncos' roster moves.

Surprise move: The cuts of defensive lineman Jeremy Jarmon and safety Kyle McCarthy were unexpected. Jarmon was brought in through a trade from Washington for Jabar Gaffney. He was expected to be part of Denver’s defensive-line rotation. McCarthy was working with the first-team defense for parts of camp. But in the end, 2010 draft picks David Bruton and Darcel McBath were kept over McCarthy.

No-brainers: There was talk that Derrick Harvey could be cut. But the team needs to keep him, especially with Jarmon out. The former No. 8 overall pick from Jacksonville is needed on Denver’s tenuous line. While he probably will never live up to his lofty draft position, Harvey is solid against the run and could help Denver. Also, I’m not shocked that Denver kept only rookie tight ends Julius Thomas and Virgil Green behind starter Daniel Fells. They cut Dante Rosario and Dan Gronkowski. The Broncos really like their three tight ends.

What's next: The Broncos have the No. 2 waiver priority. Expect them to use it often. Denver probably will look at defensive linemen, cornerbacks, offensive linemen and running backs on the waiver wire. The Colts cut defensive tackle Tommie Harris. DT is Denver’s greatest need, but the Broncos might be reluctant to pursue a player who has been cut by the Bears and Colts this year. Recently cut defensive linemen Jacob Ford (Tennessee) and Marcus Harrison (Chicago) could be appealing to Denver.
Now, Denver’s tight end meeting room is getting really crowded.

The Broncos just came to terms with St. Louis tight end Daniel Fells. He signed for one year with a bonus. Fells should get the first crack at starting for the Broncos. He played for Denver tight ends coach Clancy Barone as a rookie in Atlanta.

Fells is 270 pounds and he can catch and block. He had 41 catches for the Rams last season. The Broncos added former Carolina tight end Dante Rosario earlier Sunday. Veterans Dan Gronkowski and Richard Quinn could have difficulty making the team. The Broncos like draft picks Julius Thomas (fourth round) and Virgil Green (seventh).
ESPN’s John Clayton reported the Broncos have agreed to terms with Dante Rosario, who played for new Denver coach John Fox. The Broncos are still in the mix for St. Louis’ Daniel Fells.

If the Broncos sign Fells, they could have major change at the position. Even if Fells is not signed, there should be change at tight end in Denver. Veterans Dan Gronkowski and Richard Quinn could have difficulty making the team. The Broncos like draft picks Julius Thomas (fourth round) and Virgil Green (seventh). Rosario is an athletic player who has good hands. Fells had 41 catches for the Rams last year and he is a threat as a blocker at 270 pounds.

Meanwhile, former Denver defensive tackle Ron Fields went to Miami. He is now with Mike Nolan on his third team, joining the Broncos and 49ers. The Broncos are visiting with former New England defensive lineman Ty Warren and there is a chance he signs with them.

Meanwhile, San Francisco may be closing in on bring back defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin. He had been connected to Kansas City, but the Chiefs signed nose tackle Kelly Gregg on Saturday.

Former Denver tight end Daniel Graham agreed to terms with the Titans.

Could Michael Huff play cornerback in Oakland? It’s an interesting thought, but it’s risky. If that’s the case, perhaps Oakland will still pursue San Francisco safety Dashon Goldson.

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