AFC West: Gary Horton

Charles WoodsonAP Photo/Matthew HintonDefensive back Charles Woodson is the Raiders' lone representative on ESPN.com's top-100 list.
Today, the Raider Nation rejoices.

One of its beloved players is getting due respect. For the first time since our 100 top offensive and defensive players in the NFL project began Monday, there is an Oakland representative.

To commemorate his return to Oakland, venerable safety Charles Woodson checks in as the 68th-best defensive player in the league. Yes, Oakland gets the love its rabid fan base so hungers. Congratulations.

Don’t get used to it.

Hate to play the spoiler role, but Woodson is the first and only player to appear on either list. He is the only Oakland defensive player on the list, and there will not be any offensive players from Oakland on the top-100 list. Oft-injured running back Darren McFadden had some momentum, but he did not make the list.

One Oakland player in the top 200? Here’s a little perspective: The Raiders’ Bay Area rival, San Francisco, has three defensive players in the top 11. All four of Seattle’s defensive backs made the top 100.

Is this Raider hating? I’d doubt that’s the case. ESPN enlisted 63 voters, including former players and reporters (I was one of the voters). We graded more than 500 NFL players and the results were tabulated. I can assure you there was nothing sinister at work.

Woodson stands alone because a large group collectively thought he was the only Raider who was deserving.

It’s no shock Oakland doesn’t have much representation on this list. These have been hard times for the Pride and Poise. Oakland hasn’t had a winning record since 2002, and it is tied for the second-longest current playoff drought in the NFL.

Oakland is considered to have one of the weakest, thinnest rosters in the NFL heading into the 2013 season. General manager Reggie McKenzie, in his second season as the replacement to the late Al Davis, is basically starting over. It hasn’t been easy for McKenzie.

He inherited a terrible salary-cap situation and a dearth of draft picks because of poor decisions made in the Davis era. The result is a bare-bones team. And, yes, a roster not worthy of getting much top-100 recognition.

“It is as bad as it looks in Oakland,” ESPN analyst Matt Williamson said.

Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. agrees. He was not shocked to see Oakland nearly get snubbed.

“I liken them to a Triple-A baseball team right now,” Horton said. “They lost so many players to free agency because of the cap restrictions and all they have replaced them with are bargain-basement free agents. It’s going to be rough there.”

Still, both Williamson and Horton believe McKenzie’s plan of starting over is the right thing to do, because he has no choice.

While the recent past has been bleak and the immediate future doesn’t show much promise, McKenzie’s plan could help infuse some more talent on the roster. The Raiders may have a surplus of $69 million in salary-cap room next year.

That doesn’t necessarily mean McKenzie will spend wildly and build an instant Pro Bowl roster. His front-office roots are in Green Bay, and he has said he will subscribe to the Packer way as he reconstructs Oakland’s roster. That means keeping his own players first. McKenzie has shown that philosophy this summer by locking up potential free agents kicker Sebastian Janikowski and long-snapper Jon Condo to long-term deals. Other players, such as injured left tackle Jared Veldheer, defensive end Lamarr Houston and fullback Marcel Reece, could also be candidates to be re-signed before they hit free agency.

While the program is clearly in tough shape, it would be inaccurate to portray this roster as talentless. There are about 1,900 players in the league, and some of the good ones do don Silver and Black.

There is promise. In addition to the above-mentioned players, Oakland building blocks include center Stefen Wisniewski, young receivers Rod Streater and Denarius Moore, safety Tyvon Branch, cornerback D.J. Hayden, offensive tackle Menelik Watson and linebacker Sio Moore.

The cupboard is not bare. But the truth is there are few established stars currently playing in Oakland. McKenzie knows it is his job to develop them.

“When I first got to Green Bay, there wasn’t a bunch of studs there,” McKenzie said. “Then we got Brett Favre and then we got Reggie White. And things started to look a little better. Right now, we have to turn some of these guys into studs and keep building. That’s the only way this thing is going to work.”

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Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning was ranked the No. 2 player in the league by the NFL Network. Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson was the No. 1 player in the league, as voted by current players. Peterson beat out Manning for the league MVP after the season.

Our annual AFC West top players rankings -- complied by a voting panel consisting of me -- will be revealed in the near future. I have a feeling Manning will be high on that list, too.

In other AFC West notes:

New Oakland punter -- and colorful personality -- Chris Kluwe was a guest on the Conan O’Brien Show on Thursday.

In an Insider piece, Gary Horton looks at the scheme changes Insider the San Diego Chargers are undergoing now under a new regime.

Saturday is the 30th anniversary of the death of Kansas City star running back Joe Delany. He died while trying to save three drowning children. Delaney, then 24 years old, and two of the children died. Delaney was a true American hero. I have mentioned his unbelievably selfless act every summer I’ve written this blog. It’s the least I can do.
AlbertAP Photo/Ed ZurgaKansas City is keeping Branden Albert at left tackle and moving Eric Fisher to right.

When he was considering how to use the No. 1 overall pick in April's NFL draft, new Kansas City Chiefs general manager John Dorsey was not worried about age-old conventions.

He was looking for the best player available, NFL principles be damned. After the Chiefs took Central Michigan left tackle Eric Fisher and did not trade left tackle Branden Albert to Miami during draft week, they quickly announced that Fisher would play right tackle. There was some scoffing. Using the top pick on a right tackle?

“I wasn’t going to be pigeonholed by the way things used to be or are expected to be,” Dorsey said. “My goal is to put the five best linemen on the field that we can. Having Eric Fisher and Branden Albert on the field together helps us achieve that. We want big, fast guys who can help keep our quarterback upright and move well in the running game. That’s what we want in our right tackle, and we think Eric gives us that.”

Traditionally, teams have used premium picks on left tackles because of their athleticism and their blindside protection of quarterbacks. Right tackles were considered less important and less athletic. Those road-grading days may be over. Teams are burying the old thinking about right tackles and adjusting as the game becomes faster and more athletic.

“The line between left and right tackle is more blurry than it ever has been,” ESPN analyst Matt Williamson said. “You don’t have to have a big, fat masher on the right side anymore. The league is changing. … So I totally understand the pick of Fisher and the plan to keep Albert and put Fisher on the right side. The league is going that way.”

The Chiefs weren’t alone in using a top pick on a player who will start his career at right tackle. Jacksonville took Texas A&M’s Luke Joeckel at No. 2, and Philadelphia took Oklahoma’s Lane Johnson at No. 4. They, too, are expected to start their NFL careers on the right side. The idea of three of the first four picks' being taken to play right tackle would have knocked old-school general managers off their chairs 10 years ago.

“The game is changing. It has changed in the past 10 years, last five years, and in the past two years,” Dorsey said. “You have to roll with it and make a decision that best fits your team.”

[+] EnlargeEric Fisher
Jamie Squire/Getty Images"I'm just trying to play offensive line," No. 1 overall draft pick Eric Fisher said. "I really love everything that comes along with it."
Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. didn’t blink when the Chiefs took Fisher to make him a right tackle, at least for the time being. Teams are using more spread offenses and are moving toward a faster-paced passing game -- hence the need for more athletic players on the offensive line. The Chiefs recently hired Chris Ault, the Pistol offense innovator, as a consultant. The team plans to use some Pistol with quarterback Alex Smith, who is known for his mobility. Thus, Fisher -- who soared up draft boards because of his great athleticism -- is a good fit for Andy Reid’s offense.

“These days with the way offense is going, you see more and more offenses wanting two athletic, bookend tackles that can push outside and block on the run,” Horton said. “You don’t see too many 270-pound tight ends helping the right tackle in pass protection much anymore. And in the running game, teams are looking to go outside the tackle so often. So I see the change at right tackle. I was really impressed by what the Chiefs did. I really like the Albert-Fisher combination.”

So do the Chiefs. They considered trading Albert to Miami during the draft, but now want to strike a long-term deal with him. Albert is interested in staying in Kansas City, too. If they can agree, Fisher will probably stay at right tackle. If not, and Albert leaves as a free agent, Fisher will probably move over to left tackle.

For now, Fisher is on the right side -- he did play some right tackle early in his college career -- and said he feels good about it.

“I’m just trying to play offensive line,” Fisher told reporters in Kansas City recently. “I really love everything that comes along with it -- it’s a different territory in there. I’m really liking it. It’s a very similar system to what I ran in college, so like I said, I’m picking it up pretty well.”

The man Fisher is blocking for isn’t worried about his adjusting to the right side. Smith, acquired in a trade with San Francisco this year, is just happy the team used the No. 1 pick for more protection, regardless of where Fisher plays.

“I think a lot gets made up about the one tackle -- left tackle -- these days,” Smith recently told reporters in Kansas City. “You have to have all the spots. You have to have both guys. … For a quarterback, those guys are your best friends.”

Luckily for Smith, the Chiefs believe he needs two best friends.

Guides for your draft needs

April, 15, 2013
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The NFL draft is 10 days away.

We have you covered as we hit the stretch run of the draft speculation period. In an Insider piece, we are presenting a Mel Kiper draft tool . You can maneuver his latest mock draft and see how a change could affect the draft. Give it a whirl.

Also, in a must-read Insider project, Todd McShay, Kiper, Chris Sprow and Gary Horton created a draft page for each team. It has everything you need to know going into the draft.
Please check all of this information out and enjoy the journey to the draft.

 

The Carson Palmer dilemma

October, 19, 2012
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Carson PalmerAP Photo/Jeff ChiuQuarterback Carson Palmer hasn't lived up to expectations since coming to Oakland last season.
The Hue Jackson era lasted 16 games in Oakland.

However, the ramifications of the inexperienced-coach-gone-wild could affect the Raiders’ organization for years.

Sunday marks a pivotal game in the current state of the franchise when the Raiders host Jacksonville. It will be the 16th game with quarterback Carson Palmer in Oakland, thus marking his first full season with the club. The Raiders are 5-10 since acquiring Palmer.

That is the problem when evaluating Jackson’s knee-jerk trade for Palmer and for figuring out what the Raiders should do with Palmer -- who turns 33 in December and who hasn’t had a great NFL season since 2007 -- moving forward.

The Palmer situation is a true dilemma for the new Oakland regime, which inherited him. First of all, Palmer is not a bad quarterback. He is serviceable. The Raiders could do a lot worse than Palmer. New Oakland general manager Reggie McKenzie and new coach Dennis Allen have supported Palmer. Palmer is a true professional. He works hard. He is liked by his teammates and he has a strong approach to the game.

But the truth, and the problem, is Palmer hasn’t made the Raiders a winner and there is doubt he’ll ever become a difference-maker as he continues to get older. Will the Palmer trade ever pay off big like Jackson (now, incidentally, an assistant in Cincinnati) thought it would when he called it the “best trade in football”?

And make no mistake, Jackson (fired when the Raiders went in a new direction in January) traded for Palmer with the intent of winning immediately and winning big.

In Week 6 of last season, the Raiders lost starting quarterback Jason Campbell to a broken collarbone. Instead of going with backup Kyle Boller, Jackson went big and traded for Palmer, thinking he was the answer to his Super Bowl dreams. The price was steep. Jackson gave up a first-round draft pick in 2012 (which turned out to be the No. 17 overall pick) and a second-round pick next year. If the Raiders don’t turn around their season, that choice could end up being a top-35 pick.

Jackson made the trade because he thought Palmer, who was essentially retired from the Bengals because he no longer wanted to play for the team, would keep the Raiders on their playoff pace. Yet, Oakland went 4-6 after the trade. This season has been no better as Palmer has been unable to make a difference on a team that has big holes throughout the roster and is just 1-4.

Palmer has thrown 19 interceptions in 15 games as a Raider. Last week, he soiled an otherwise strong performance by throwing an interception that was returned for a touchdown late in an eventual 23-20 loss at Atlanta.

Palmer has been far from a disaster on the field. He is on pace for career highs in attempts, completions and yards passing. But there have been few explosive plays and Oakland is 31st in the NFL in touchdowns scored, and its 17.4 scoring average is the fifth lowest in the NFL. Palmer, known as a premier deep-pass thrower, has struggled in that area this season. His Total QBR is 51.1, which is 20th in the NFL.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Raiders averaged nine more points and committed a half turnover less in the 16 games prior to Palmer’s arrival. The Raiders’ passing yardage is up 59 yards with Palmer, but is that worth the increase in interceptions and the decrease in victories?

Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. thinks Palmer is a poor fit for the West Coast offense used by new Oakland coordinator Greg Knapp.

“I just don’t see the fit,” Horton said. “Plus, he makes a lot of bad decisions. It just seems like it was a bad trade from the start.”

Will Oakland decide to cut bait on the Palmer trade next year? If the losing continues, the Raiders could get a top-five pick. That could put them in position to draft a top quarterback such as USC’s Matt Barkley or West Virginia’s Geno Smith. But it isn’t that easy.

The Raiders have big needs at all levels of the defense. Oakland may be best served to bypass a top quarterback for now and address more pressing needs. Then, there’s the presence of 2011 supplemental pick Terrelle Pryor. The Raiders could choose to continue to groom him under Palmer.

But if Palmer stays in Oakland for the next few years, will he give the Raiders a chance to win big? If he can’t win now, who is to say he will improve? Is he anything more than a pricey stop-gap option?

“I tend to doubt it,” ESPN.com's Matt Williamson said. “This franchise just needs so much to really be a contender. By the time all those other needs are filled, Palmer will be declining even worse.”

That was not Jackson’s plan when he made the trade he is no longer involved with, but forever connected to.
Romeo Crennel John Rieger-US PresswireRomeo Crennel looks to prove he is the long-term solution for the Chiefs.
Romeo Crennel has proved he can lead the Kansas City Chiefs in the short term.

Now, as he begins his second tour of duty as a permanent head coach, Crennel must prove he is the answer in Kansas City for the long haul.

Although the Chiefs’ brass looked at other candidates, it really was no contest. Crennel was the choice for the job once he led the Chiefs to a 2-1 record as the interim replacement for Todd Haley, who was fired in December. Promoted from defensive coordinator, Crennel led the Chiefs to a win over the Green Bay Packers (then 13-0) in his first game.

There is no doubt that Crennel, who went 24-40 as the head coach in Cleveland from 2005-2008, had the support of his players. He had won before as a defensive coordinator, he is respected by his peers, and he is respected by his players for his above-board and calm demeanor. He was the perfect elixir after the uneven, high-volume days of Haley.

“Romeo was the right guy for the job,” Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. said. “The players love him and they played for him. But the key is, can that continue with him being the guy? Playing over your head for a coach you like can work for a few games. It can’t work over 16 games. So, now that the interim tag is off of Romeo, the question is, can he prove he is the right choice for the long term?”

If recent history is any indication, Crennel’s task is not an easy one. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last coach to lead his team to a winning record in his first year as the permanent coach after being the interim coach was Art Shell in 1990. He led the Raiders to a 12-4 record.

That’s a long 22 years.

Since 2000, according to Elias, seven coaches were promoted after being an interim coach, including Oakland’s Tom Cable in 2009. The best records in the first year as the permanent coach were registered by San Francisco’s Mike Singletary in 2009 and Dallas’ Jason Garrett last season. Both teams went 8-8. In total, the coaches had a combined 43-69 record.

In addition to the waning support of players, there are other reasons that interim coaches haven’t had much success on a permanent basis. Many league observers think an organization may settle to keep their interim coaches rather than paying for a new coach and his staff. As a result, the same bad habits of the previous regime can creep in.

Horton thinks Crennel's personality and the team's upward trajectory will work in the Chiefs' favor.

“I like Romeo’s team,” Horton said. “I think he can win. I don’t see this as a case of [Kansas City general manager] Scott Pioli settling. I think he got his top choice for the job. … I just like the way this team is set up and think it has a real shot to be good right away.”

In a telephone interview this week, Shell said Crennel is entering an exciting time. He said the interim period is chaotic for a coach, but now Crennel is able to construct his own program.

Crennel added new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll and several other coaches while keeping some assistants from Haley’s staff. Crennel remains the Chiefs’ defensive coordinator.

“This is his time,” Shell said. “As the interim guy, you are just holding on. Now, it’s time to set the foundation and let everyone know the way it is going to be on a permanent basis. It’s an important time.”

I think Crennel, who at 65 is the second-oldest current head coach in the NFL behind Super Bowl champion Tom Coughlin, is comforted by his experience in Cleveland. He has often said this offseason that he will learn from that experience as he begins his next chapter as a head coach.

“A lot of times you don't get second chances in this business” Crennel said earlier this offseason. “You just go along and try to do the best job that you can at the job that you have. If you do that and people take notice, then they give you chances. So, I've got a second chance and I'm going to try to do it better than I did the first time around.”

The good feeling Crennel has built within the locker room remains as the Chiefs transition from the offseason program to training camp, which begins in four weeks.

“I love [Crennel], his coaching style,” cornerback Javier Arenas said. “You want to play for him. I felt great about coach Haley. I loved coach Haley as a head coach, but now with [Crennel], I absolutely love the way he goes about things and want to execute what he lays on the table -- him and the rest of the coaches -- and that’s just part of the game, wanting to play for a coach and wanting to help the team be successful."

If it works in Kansas City in 2012, Crennel will enjoy rare immediate success for a promoted interim coach.
In an Insider piece, Insider Gary Horton thinks Oakland Raiders fullback Marcel Reece is the ninth most versatile player in the AFC. I can see that. I expect Reece to be part of a lot of offensive sets in Oakland, the same as he was with the past regime.

By the way, you have to check out who Horton has as the No. 1 most versatile player in the conference. Here’s a hint: We used to talk about him a lot here.

In other AFC West news:

— Several members of the Chiefs’ organization returned to Joplin, Mo. on Friday to continue to help in the recovery of last year’s devastating tornado. The Chiefs have been heavily involved in the recovery process.

— Former San Diego safety Kevin Ellison has been arrested for arson in the state of Washington. Ellison was a sixth-round pick in 2009, and he started nine games as a rookie. He was arrested for driving with a controlled substance in 2010. The Chargers cut him weeks later. He then briefly played with Seattle.

— The Broncos and Matt Prater continue to work toward a new deal in an attempt to get the franchised kicker in camp in time.

— Former Denver quarterback Tim Tebow is headed back to San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium.
Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. had three AFC West players ranked among his 10 players from the AFC who he expects to break out in 2012. They are Oakland receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey (No. 7), Kansas City safety Kendrick Lewis (No. 9) and Denver receiver Demaryius Thomas (No. 10).

Using Horton’s piece as inspiration, I am offering a choice for a breakout player for each AFC West team. In the interest of keeping things fresh, I am not taking any of the three players Horton selected, although they are all fine players.

Denver safety Quinton Carter: I think we will see Carter, a fourth-round pick in 2011, become a key part of Denver’s defense in 2012. He played a lot in 2011. Carter, who can play both safety spots, made some plays and grew up quickly. I think he will be a solid starter this season.

Kansas City guard Jon Asamoah: The 2010 third-round pick became a starter last season and quietly became a good player. I think we will see Asamoah grow even more in 2012 and become a plus player. This line has a chance to be very good again; Asamoah is a big part of the future.

Oakland center Stefen Wisniewski: I am a big Wisniewski fan. I think he can become a Pro Bowl player. He was terrific at guard as a rookie and he is now playing center. I expect Wisniewski, who played his rookie season with a torn labrum, to be successful at center instantly and quickly show why he is one of the NFL’s better young linemen.

San Diego defensive end Corey Liuget: Don’t be surprised if Liuget explodes in 2012. The No. 18 overall pick last year had his moments, but he wasn't a standout. I think new defensive coordinator John Pagano is going to put Liuget in position to make plays and I think he is going to show people that his name is one to remember for the long haul.

Who is ready to break out?

June, 7, 2012
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Will 2012 be the year of the breakout kings in the AFC West?

Gary Horton of Scouts Inc., thinks so. Horton looks at the top-10 candidates for breakout seasons Insider in the AFC. He has three players from the AFC West on his list.

He has Oakland receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey at No. 7, Kansas City safety Kendrick Lewis at No. 9 and Denver receiver Demaryius Thomas at No. 10. All three players are believable candidates.

Actually, Heyward-Bey may have already broken out. He had 64 catches last season after struggling in his first two. If Lewis can continue to improve, the Chiefs will be nasty in the back of the defense with Lewis and Eric Berry.

I think Thomas is a no-brainer and he could have been put much higher on the list. He is immensely talented and playing with Peyton Manning will take him to the next level.

In other AFC West notes:

Stefen Wisniewski's toughness cannot be questioned. He played his rookie season with a torn labrum. He had it repaired this offseason and he should be ready to go when training camp starts at the end of next month.

The Denver Post reports that the Broncos and kicker Matt Prater are working on a five-year extension and a new deal could be done soon. The Broncos franchised Prater and he has been staying away from the team this offseason.

After reporting to the team, fullback Marcel Reece made it known he wants to sign a contract to make him a "Raider for life." I’m sure the Raiders would like to lock him in at some point.
How much respect does John Fox have for Junior Seau?

Enough to fly from Denver to San Diego on Friday after the Broncos’ rookie minicamp practice to attend a celebration of life in Seau’s memory at Qualcomm Stadium on Friday night. Fox will return to Denver for the Broncos’ practice Saturday. Fox will be joined by Denver vice president John Elway and quarterback Peyton Manning at the ceremony.

The Chargers are hosting the event. Seau committed suicide May 2. He was 43.

Fox, a San Diego native like Seau, was on the Chargers’ staff in 1992-93. Seau was part of that team.

“I have the utmost respect (for Seau),” Fox told reporters Friday afternoon before flying to San Diego. “It was a tragedy losing a guy of that magnitude both as a person and as a player. It is going to be about celebrating Junior and his life and I’m more than happy to be there.”

In other AFC West news:

In an Insider piece Insider, Gary Horton looks at scheme changes for each AFC West team.

AFC West notes

April, 5, 2012
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ESPN’s Ashley Fox has a strong feature on Memphis defensive tackle Dontari Poe, chronicling his rise on the football field and his struggling while growing up. The Chiefs could take him at No. 11. It’s worth a read.

Oakland coach Dennis Allen told the Oakland Tribune more than 90 percent of the team has attended the first week of the offseason workout program. That is about the average in the league. The workouts are not mandatory, but teams highly encourage players to attend and often players have bonuses tied into their attendance to the program.

Gary Horton of Scouts Inc., in an Insider piece, offers the top six draft needs for each AFC West team.

Maligned Kansas City quarterback Matt Cassel is defended by one of his teammates. I’ve always gotten the impression Cassel has the support of his teammates.

Joe Avezzano, who coached the Raiders’ special teams from 2003-05, died at the age of 68. Condolences to his family and friends.

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?
In an Insider piece, Insider Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. looks at the five best destinations for San Diego free agent receiver Vincent Jackson. In the end, though, Horton reasons that the best spot for Jackson is to stay in San Diego. That’s the scenario both Jackson and the Chargers want.

Jackson
Jackson
However, because there is a remote chance the Chargers will place the franchise tag on Jackson by Monday’s deadline, the more likely scenario is that the Chargers and Jackson will discuss a deal once he hits the open market. If the Chargers are in the same range of Jackson’s best offer, he will likely be inclined to stay in San Diego.

In other AFC West news:

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported the Titans are not expected to place the franchise tag on cornerback Cortland Finnegan. That is relevant to the AFC West for a couple of reasons. Finnegan will provide competition for Kansas City cornerback Brandon Carr on the open market. Finnegan will also likely attract the interest of the Broncos and the Raiders. Both teams are looking for cornerbacks, although Finnegan will be pricey on the open market.

Former Denver cornerback Perrish Cox was acquitted in a sexual assault trial Friday. I have been asked often Friday if I think the Broncos could re-sign him. I don’t see it. I think the Broncos have moved on. Perhaps Cox will get a chance elsewhere in the NFL, but I don’t expect it to be in Denver.

In a radio interview, San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers talks about the retirement of guard Kris Dielman, and how strange it was to recently work out with a division rival.

An Insider piece connects LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers to the Broncos. I think the Broncos would do back flips if Brockers was available at No. 25.

Former NFL coach Brian Billick looks at why he thinks the Chiefs are a good fit for Peyton Manning.
Tim TebowJustin Edmonds/Getty ImagesThe Denver Broncos are 7-1 this season with Tim Tebow as their starting quarterback.

Just how long can this Denver Broncos circus act last?

It is officially time to wonder what kind of damage the Broncos could administer if they actually get into the playoffs -- and how they match up against the best teams in the AFC.

After going 7-1 with Tim Tebow as the quarterback and riding a six-game winning streak (including the past four games in which they trailed in the fourth quarter, only the second time in history that has happened), the Broncos are on pace to win the AFC West and be the No. 4 seed. Denver -- which has a 78.8 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to ESPN.com's Insider Insider Playoff Predictor -- leads Oakland by one game in the AFC West. If Denver beats Kansas City at home in Week 17, the Raiders will have to finish with a better record than the Broncos to win the division because of tiebreakers.

The Broncos will face their greatest challenge of the Tebow run Sunday, when they host 10-3 New England. In the most anticipated game of Week 15, we stand to find out a lot about the Broncos, who are winning with a wicked combination of Tebow’s late brilliance, the league’s best running attack, timely, stiff defense and clutch special teams play, all guided by first-year coach John Fox and his staff in one of the best coaching runs in the NFL this season.

Denver doesn’t necessarily have to win this game to win the division, but if the Broncos can stick with the Patriots, it could send quite a message about their readiness for January football. Because Denver is winning with complete football, it is taking on the look of a team no one wants to see on the same side of the playoff bracket.

“My head says it will end this week, but my heart says they have a real shot,” Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. said. “I think it’s going to end every week, and then it just goes on. I talk to a lot of smart football people every day and no one has any answers for it. But we’re buying in. I think this game against New England should be the end, but I can also see Denver pulling it off.”

Part of the phenomenon that has been the Broncos' season is the evolution of expectations for them. After a 45-10 drubbing by Detroit on Oct. 30 in Tebow’s second start, the Broncos were 2-5 and had the look of a team that would be picking in the top five and looking for a new quarterback in the offseason. Analysts gave the Broncos no chance. And they weren’t alone: I remember talking to several people in the Broncos’ organization that day, players included, and despair hovered over the team.

Since that day, however, the Broncos have mesmerized the league and caused several analysts to change their tune. ESPN analysts and previous Denver skeptics such as Merril Hoge, Steve Young and Trent Dilfer all said on the air this week that they are buying into what Tebow and his teammates are doing. When asked on ESPN this week if he could see Denver ending up in the Super Bowl in less than two months, analyst and former NFL head coach Herm Edwards responded this way: “I can’t say no."

Beyond the comebacks, the Broncos are answering a lot of questions. Against Oakland (a 38-24 win) and Minnesota (35-32), they proved they can outscore teams. Against Chicago, Denver proved it can win when Tebow has to throw 40 times. And Denver is 5-0 on the road with Tebow as the starter. What might make Denver tough to beat in the playoffs is that it is playing at a high level in all areas, as this ESPN Stats & Information post explains.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick said he is not taking the Broncos lightly going into Sunday’s game.

“They’re a good football team and they’re playing great,” Belichick told reporters this week. “They’re well-coached; solid team. Defensively they do a lot of things well. They run well. They have good pass-rushers, cover well. They’ve made a lot of big plays, third-down stops, short-yardage, goal-line, red area, turnovers. They’ve made them all at the right times. They’re real good on special teams, good coverage team, good kickers and good returners. Offensively they do a good job of running the ball, getting it down the field. They have a lot of long passes. Again, they’ve made the big plays when they had to in critical situations at the end of the game, fourth quarter, overtime, third down, all those kind of things. They’re at the top of their game.”

How Denver hangs with New England should provide some gauge of its playoff hopes. But what about against other AFC big hitters -- Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Houston?

“It’s like the Patriots, I don’t like their chances,” Horton said. “But then again, I do like their chances because of what the Broncos have done in the past six weeks. I think Denver’s strategy in every game will be to keep it low.”

Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. doesn’t think Tebow could win in the playoffs against the Ravens, Steelers or Texans.

“I can’t say I see Tebow doing well at all against any of these three defenses,” Williamson said.

Haven’t we been saying that for weeks?

“I’m dumbfounded," Horton said. “But I’m not going to underestimate Denver anymore. Maybe they won’t do anything if they get to the playoffs, but did you ever think we’d even be talking about them having a chance at the playoffs this late in the season?”
Philip RiversHarry How/Getty ImagesUnder Norv Turner, Philip Rivers and the Chargers never delivered on championship potential.

The championship window has closed in San Diego.

Once considered the best roster in the league, the San Diego Chargers have seen impressive depth dwindle, they’ve gotten old in key spots and they have lacked toughness. The result has been a steady decline in the last two years.

“They are one of the most confusing teams I’ve ever seen,” Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. said. “You expect so much from them and then they don’t deliver … They should be so much better, but then you watch them and they can’t do it. I just don’t get them.”

The Chargers -- widely considered as a Super Bowl contender going into this season -- stagger into a Monday night game at Jacksonville on a six-game losing skid. It is the Chargers’ longest such streak in 10 years.

After starting 4-1 and looking like a playoff team, San Diego is now 4-7 and apparently on course to miss the playoffs for the second consecutive season. After owning the AFC West for four years, the Chargers are 13-14 since the start of the 2010 season.

When a rift developed between general manager A.J. Smith and coach Marty Schottenheimer after the Chargers went 14-2 in 2006, Smith hired Norv Turner to take a stacked roster to the Super Bowl. That probably won’t happen. Turner, who is 45-30 as Chargers coach, is expected to be fired unless the Chargers, who are three games behind in both the AFC West and the AFC wild-card races with five games to go, make a miraculous playoff run. Smith's job could also be in danger, particularly if San Diego ownership wants to break the bank and make a run at someone like Bill Cowher or Jon Gruden. There have also been indications that the team is open to continuing with Smith as the top football decision-maker.

However, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported Saturday that the team may be leaning toward firing Smith.

The Chargers have long been lauded for their roster of big-name talent. In the past decade, they drafted potential Hall of Famers in LaDainian Tomlinson, Drew Brees, and Philip Rivers and signed potential Hall of Fame tight end Antonio Gates. They also drafted Shawne Merriman, who had a strong first three years as a premier pass-rusher before disappearing because of injuries.

All the Chargers have remaining from that group is Rivers, who turns 30 this month, and Gates, who is 31 and who has been dealing with serious foot injuries for three years.

Whoever coaches the Chargers in 2012 – Cowher and Jeff Fisher are already being mentioned as potential candidates – will have some work to do. Some solid core players remain, starting with Rivers, who is struggling through his worst NFL season. Still, the Chargers probably will have to be rebuilt in several areas.

“They aren’t as deep as we always thought they were,” Horton said. “They have problems on the offensive line, their receivers aren’t that strong and the defense doesn’t pass rush anymore."

Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. thinks San Diego has some core players -- but not a ton of them, and some of them have question marks. Williamson says Rivers, receiver Vincent Jackson, Gates, guard Kris Dielman, defensive tackle Antonio Garay, linebacker Shaun Phillips, cornerback Quentin Jammer and safety Eric Weddle are all players who can help the team in the future. Williamson also thinks the team’s last two first-round picks, running back Ryan Mathews and defensive lineman Corey Liuget, have a chance to be core players.

Jackson, who has been inconsistent this year, is a free agent after the season. The Chargers may place the franchise tag on him. Rivers, Gates, Dielman (out for the season with a concussion), Garay, Phillips and Jammer will be 30 or older next season. Still, Williamson believes a coaching change could help provide a spark.

“It’s not all Norv’s fault, but he is not maximizing his team’s potential, which is obviously a key component to his job,” Williamson said.

Horton said he believes that if the Chargers do make a coaching change, they need to bring in a taskmaster. There have been whispers among scouts the past couple of years that the Chargers get outmuscled too often. There have been times when San Diego has been manhandled on both lines, including a few instances against the more physical Raiders.

“I like Norv, but I get the feeling they are not playing hard for him,” Horton said. “They always look soft to me, and they often don’t play with a sense of urgency.”

Still, the Chargers have not been blown out this season and they could have won all seven of their losses; indeed, they have made crucial fourth-quarter (or overtime) mistakes in each of their losses. Turner said this week that effort is not a problem.

“Go through the tapes and there’s great effort,” Turner said. “These guys play hard.”

The players I have talked to in San Diego’s locker room know that change is likely to come, and they say they feel bad that Turner is probably going to be the person to pay for the team’s failures. But it is clear that the Chargers’ time as elite playoff contenders is over. If they are going to re-open their Super Bowl window, it will probably be with new leadership.

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