AFC West: J.J. Arrington

The Denver Broncos are reportedly planning to put Pro Bowl linebacker Elvis Dumervil on the injured reserve.

This is not a surprise. The only surprise is that it took so long. Dumervil has been expected to miss the entire season since he tore his pectoral muscle early in training camp. The Broncos were holding out hope Dumervil could possibly return very late in the season. But because of several injuries, Denver cannot afford to keep Dumervil on the 53-man roster on the small chance he’d play in 2010.

This move is more paper work than anything. Denver, internally, came to grips weeks ago that the season likely would be played without Dumervil.

Denver cut seven players and put running back LenDale White on the injured reserve Friday. Among the cuts were second year defensive tackle Chris Baker and seventh-round pick Jammie Kirlew. He could be a candidate for the practice squad. The team had high hopes for Baker, an undrafted free agent last year, but he didn’t do much this summer.

Kansas City cut seven players. Among the cuts was backup guard Ikechuku Ndukwe.

Pittsburgh has allowed veteran center Justin Hartwig to pursue a trade. Oakland and Denver are two teams that could potentially look at centers.

With White out and Denver’s running back crew banged up, perhaps it will consider bringing back J.J. Arrington. He was cut by the Eagles on Friday. Denver traded him for linebacker Joe Mays early in camp. Mays has been terrific in Denver. Before signing White, Denver was also considering Ladell Betts, who was cut by New Orleans.
The Denver Broncos made a curious cut Tuesday by releasing linebacker Akin Ayodele.

lastname
Ayodele
Ayodele started the Broncos’ first two preseason games at inside linebacker and had eight tackles in those games, including six Saturday night against Detroit. Ayodele was signed to compete for a starting job during the draft weekend when Denver didn’t draft an inside linebacker early.

There has been no explanation why Ayodele was cut. Unless there was an off-field issue the team had with Ayodele, the Broncos probably cut him early to give him a chance to catch on elsewhere because they knew he wouldn’t make the final roster. Still, it's unusual for a player to start two games and then be whacked.

The Broncos have been high on Joe Mays since he was acquired in a trade for J.J. Arrington right before camp started and third-year player Wesley Woodyard has long been considered a potential standout by the team. It will be interesting to see what Denver does at the spot. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Broncos keep their eyes open for a 3-4 inside linebacker on the waiver wire in the next couple of weeks.

Camp Confidential: Denver Broncos

August, 11, 2010
8/11/10
11:46
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ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 23

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- After he watched one key player after another limp to the training room this summer, Josh McDaniels came to a conclusion: The Denver Broncos are going to find a way to get better as a result.

Call it medical motivation.

“Sometimes, when everybody around you thinks the sky is falling because of injuries, it could rally a team,” the second-year Denver coach said. “That’s what we are doing. We are going to be motivated to show we can withstand what has happened to us. We’re not sitting here feeling sorry for ourselves.”

McDaniels swears Denver is having a productive training camp despite being the most injured team in the NFL. The biggest hit was the loss of star linebacker Elvis Dumervil. He is likely out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. Other players who have been lost during camp include running backs Knowshon Moreno and Correll Buckhalter, receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, safety Brian Dawkins and linebackers D.J. Williams and Jarvis Moss. Don’t forget that left tackle Ryan Clady is out until sometime in September after hurting his knee in the offseason.

Still, McDaniels said it’s not a time of despair, because everyone but Dumervil is expected back in the near future.

“It hurts to lose Elvis, but maybe the other injuries are good that they happened now,” McDaniels said. “We are not worrying about who is not here. We trust our depth and we’re dealing with it.”

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeTim Tebow
AP Photo/Jack DempseyTim Tebow got a new haircut on Tuesday, replacing the monk haircut from earlier in the week.
1. How will the Tebow factor affect the team? There is not a rookie in the NFL who is getting the attention that Tim Tebow is receiving. From special Nike shoes to a hideous training-camp haircut to operating in short yardage situations, the Tebow Watch is in full force.

The question is how his work in camp will affect the team on the field. The former Florida star quarterback has operated in short-yardage situations and he will likely be used in the Wildcat formation and in the red zone. That likely means Denver will keep quarterbacks Kyle Orton, Brady Quinn and Tebow on the 45-man roster on game days. In June, McDaniels said he was leaning away from that.

But it is clear that Tebow is being groomed to be active as a rookie. Unless Tebow completely leapfrogs Quinn in training camp and in the preseason, Denver could be using three quarterbacks on game days, which will take away from another position.

2. Can this team forget the final 10 games of 2009? Denver was the most perplexing team in the NFL in 2009. It shocked the league by starting 6-0. However, it suddenly fell apart and lost eight of its final 10 games.

Which team will we see in 2010? McDaniels, of course, won’t guarantee anything, but he believes Denver is heading in the right direction because of a strong training camp.

He said the team is making big strides this year because his program is established after 14 years under Mike Shanahan. McDaniels pointed out how much smoother and productive Denver was in its team scrimmage last weekend compared to last year’s scrimmage.

“It’s night and day,” McDaniels said. “Everybody knows the system now and that has helped camp.”

[+] EnlargeKnowshon Moreno
Ron Chenoy/US PresswireKnowshon Moreno, the team's leading rusher last season, is out with a hamstring injury.
3. Can the running backs stay healthy? Moreno (hamstring) and Buckhalter (back) are supposed to be ready this month. But seeing the top two running backs go down on the first full day of camp had to be scary for Denver. The team has big plans for Moreno and Buckhalter.

Denver brought in veteran LenDale White to help in camp and perhaps as a short-yardage runner once he serves a four-game NFL suspension. The team is discussing signing former Oakland tailback Justin Fargas, perhaps as soon as Wednesday.

This is still the Moreno and Buckhalter show, but the Broncos have been forced to look at other options. Expect Moreno and Buckhalter to be handled very gingerly for the rest of camp and in the preseason in an attempt to ensure their health for the start of the regular season.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

The Broncos are excited about their receivers.

Brandon Lloyd and Matthew Willis have been outstanding. Eddie Royal is playing well in camp and the team hopes he can bounce back from a poor first season under McDaniels. After catching 91 passes as a rookie, Royal had just 37 catches last season.

Add rookies Thomas and Decker and Denver could have a decent receiving crew. That looked shaky after the team sent talented but troubled Brandon Marshall to Miami in April.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

How can it be anything other than the injury to Dumervil? He is arguably Denver’s best player and he just signed a huge, new contract. Denver was looking for him to have a dominant season. Dumervil led the NFL with 17 sacks last season.

Denver will have to find a pass rush elsewhere. A top candidate is 2009 first-round pick Robert Ayers. He struggled as a rookie. But he has been good in camp. Ayers will get every chance to turn it on and help make this bad situation workable.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • [+] EnlargeKyle Orton
    Jeff Fishbein/Icon SMIKyle Orton passed for 3,802 yards, 21 touchdowns and 12 interceptions for the Broncos last season.
    Orton has quietly been a star in camp. He had a strong offseason and is, by far, the most accurate of three quarterbacks. While the future is Tebow’s in Denver, Orton is going to do everything he can to make 2010 special before he hits the free-agency market in 2011.
  • Quinn, the current No. 2 quarterback in Denver, has been inaccurate often. The Broncos still like Quinn, who was acquired from Cleveland in March. However, with Orton being the immediate starter and Tebow being the future starter, he has his work cut out for him to find a spot in Denver.
  • Keep an eye out for fifth-round pick Perrish Cox. He’s been outstanding in camp. “Every day, I look up and Perrish is making another big play,” Royal said. Cox is second at left cornerback behind star Champ Bailey. Cox will likely be the nickel cornerback. He is also dynamic as a return man.
  • While Cox is ascending, second-year cornerback Alphonso Smith is still not progressing. Smith was the No. 37 overall pick in 2009. Denver gave up its first-round pick for Smith in 2010 (which was No. 14). He floundered as a rookie and he is not showing much improvement in camp as Cox is stealing the show.
  • Richard Quinn, a second-round pick in 2009, is blocking very well in camp. He still must improve as a receiver, but Denver should feel comfortable with him in double tight-end sets with starter Daniel Graham.
  • So far, defensive end Ryan McBean is holding off free-agent pickup Jarvis Green. However, the team likes Green and he is very versatile.
  • Denver likes what it sees in former San Diego defensive tackle Jamal Williams in the early stages. With Dumervil out, a lot of Denver’s defensive burst must start from him at nose tackle. That may mean Williams may be on the field more than Denver likes. But he is showing, even at 34 and after missing all but one game in San Diego last year, he could still be a force.
  • Denver knows it won’t all be roses, but it is at terms with rookies J.D. Walton (center) and Zane Beadles (guard) starting. Both players have showed intelligence and toughness in camp. Most importantly, they are big and strong and they are well suited for the power-blocking scheme McDaniels is adopting. Denver is scrapping the zone-blocking scheme used during the Shanahan era. One of the reasons is McDaniels wants a bigger offensive line that can stay fresh throughout the season.
  • D’Anthony Batiste is doing well at left tackle. The Broncos think he will be a valuable backup when Clady returns from a knee injury in September.
  • Inside linebacker Joe Mays, acquired from Philadelphia for running back J.J. Arrington less than two weeks ago, is impressing. He has worked some with the first team. He is likely to be a key backup and a special teamer.
  • Veteran defensive lineman Marcus Thomas is buried on the depth chart. If he doesn’t pick up the rest of camp, he could be a candidate to be cut.
  • Punter Britton Colquitt, the younger brother of Kansas City punter Dustin Colquitt, is doing well and he will likely win the job. He is going unchallenged, but if he falters, Denver could scour the waiver wire. So far, he is showing that may not be necessary.
The Denver Post is reporting that second-year running back Knowshon Moreno might have torn his hamstring during the team’s first full day of training camp.

The Broncos have given any definitive updates on Moreno’s status. He was taken off the field on a cart.

Moreno, the No. 12 overall pick last season, is Denver’s starting running back. We will give updates as we get them.

Also, Denver running back Correll Buckhalter suffered an upper back injury. Denver is very thin at running back with the two injuries and Friday’s trade of J.J. Arrington to Philadelphia.

The Broncos visited with free agent Brian Westbrook in May. They could explore that option again, although he is simply a complementary player at this point.

UPDATE: I just spoke to ESPN’s medical analyst Stephania Bell. She said hamstring tears vary in severity and the recovery time can be from a few weeks to several months. So, if Moreno has a tear, it could be serious.
J.J. Arrington has been a Bronco for two years, but he will not play a game for the team.

In a surprise move, Denver traded the running back/return man to Philadelphia for linebacker Joe Mays.

According to people close to Arrington, the move was totally unexpected. Arrington was headed into the season with the inside track to be the third-down running back and perhaps a returner. Denver resigned Arrington this year after signing and cutting him last year after he needed knee surgery.

The question now is who Denver’s third-down back will be. The trade could potentially mean Denver will revisit signing free agent Brian Westbrook. In June, Denver sources said they were no longer interested in Westbrook because the team wanted to see what Arrington could do. The source said Westbrook could come back into play in training camp if the team wasn’t sold on Arrington.

So, it’s something to think about.

Eddie Royal and rookie Perrish Cox will likely have the inside track for the return man roles. Mays, a third-year player, will compete for a roster spot. Denver needs some depth at inside linebacker.

On the radar: J.J. Arrington

July, 15, 2010
7/15/10
1:00
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NFC On the Radar: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A player, coach or issue that should be on your radar as training camp approaches.

[+] EnlargeJ.J. Arrington
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiJ.J. Arrington is getting another chance with Denver.
The Denver Broncos are giving J.J. Arrington another chance to be their short-yardage back. Denver signed Arrington as a free agent in 2009. But he failed his physical because he needed major knee surgery.

Denver re-signed Arrington this year with the hope he can give the team a spark. The Broncos desperately need a third-down back who can produce. Arrington, who also could be in the return-game mix, has ability and showed flashes while with Arizona. If he can stay healthy, the Broncos will use him extensively.

Denver visited with veteran third-down back Brian Westbrook in May. But the Broncos decided to take a long look at Arrington in training camp. If Arrington can stay healthy, and if he looks good, Denver will keep him. If not, and Westbrook is still a free agent, the Broncos could come calling.

But Arrington will be given the chance to succeed in Denver. It’s clear the Broncos want it to work out with Arrington or they wouldn’t have brought him back.
We’re completing our position-by-position rankings with the returners. It’s an interesting group, because it’s a work in progress for much of the division. But there’s some talent here:

1. Darren Sproles, San Diego: One of my favorite things to do on an NFL Sunday is to watch Sproles return a kick or a punt. The blogging stops and all attention is paid to this dynamic little man. He can score every time he touches the ball.

2. Eddie Royal, Denver: Royal is better at punt reruns than kick returns. He had two touchdowns on punt returns at San Diego last season and can make things happen. If healthy, running back J.J. Arrington may handle kickoff returns and rookie cornerback Perrish Cox could take on punt-return duties to spell Royal.

3. Dexter McCluster/Javier Arenas, Kansas City: The Chiefs could still use Jamaal Charles on kickoffs because he is so dynamic. But I think the team will want to save their star running back for offense. There’s a reason why both McCluster and Arenas were drafted in the second round. These guys are going to get a chance to shine in the return game.

4. Jacoby Ford, Oakland: The Raiders struggled in the return game last season. After starring on punt returns in 2008, Johnnie Lee Higgins struggled last season. I expect the super-fast Ford to get a chance to return punts and kicks in 2010. Like every other team in the division, except San Diego, the Raiders have question marks in their return game.
The Kansas City Chiefs have given up on promising, but oft-injured, running back Kolby Smith. However, the Denver Broncos are willing to give him a chance to succeed in the NFL.

In a mildly surprising move, Denver claimed Smith off of waivers on Tuesday. The Chiefs cut Smith on Monday because he was stuck behind Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones in Kansas City’s backfield.

Smith joins a Denver backfield that includes Knowshon Moreno, Correll Buckhalter and J.J. Arrington. Smith is 5-11, 219 pounds. He will get a look in short-yardage situations. The Broncos were looking into bigger tailbacks Toby Gerhart and Montario Hardesty before the draft.

If he can stay healthy, Smith is worth the risk.

Meanwhile, Denver also went a long way in deciding its punting situation. It cut punter A.J. Trapasso. That means Britton Colquitt is the only punter on Denver’s roster. He will likely get camp competition but Colquitt -- the younger brother of Kansas City’s outstanding punter Dustin Colquitt -- has impressed Denver’s staff and unless he is terrible in training camp and in the preseason, he should take over as Denver’s punter.

Denver also cut rookie free agent linebacker Korey Bosworth. The UCLA product is the nephew of former Seattle Seahawks linebacker Brian Bosworth.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Indications from Denver’s minicamp Friday is that the team is softening its pursuit of free-agent running back Brian Westbrook.

Westbrook visited Denver in May and the Broncos were satisfied with what they saw from the back, who is recovering from several injures. The former Philadelphia star has also talked to Washington and St. Louis.

The Broncos, however, are now focused on how third-down back J.J. Arrington fares in training camp.

If Arrington suffers an injury setback or if he doesn’t perform well, Denver could then see if Westbrook is still available.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter is reporting Denver is visiting with former Philadelphia running back Brian Westbrook.

He visited Washington earlier Wednesday.

It is interesting that Denver is showing an interest in Westbrook. The Broncos already have Knowshon Moreno, Correll Buckhalter and J.J. Arrington at tailback. The Broncos had interest in rookie prospects Toby Gerhart and Montario Hardesty prior to the draft partly because of their size and how it would add to Denver’s backfield.

Westbrook, 30, is 5-foot-10, 203 pounds. However, Westbrook has struggled recently with knee and concussion issues.

Westbrook doesn’t look like he’d give Denver a missing aspect to its offense, especially at his age and with his injury history. Still, Denver coach Josh McDaniels has a history of working with multiple running back options, so he must see some value in Westbrook. If Westbrook ends up in Denver, expect it to be in a limited role.

Meanwhile, rookie Denver quarterback Tim Tebow has bypassed lucrative endorsement opportunities to concentrate on his rookie season. This decision should further ingratiate Tebow with the Broncos. Any athlete who puts his primary job ahead of making endorsement money has to be appreciated.
The Denver Post reports the Broncos have brought back running back J.J. Arrington. He was signed by the Broncos last year but the deal was scuttled because he was hurt. Arrington will have a chance to a third-down back.

'You pick it' responses

June, 5, 2009
6/05/09
3:00
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Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

We had a blow-out winner in this week's "you pick it" feature.

Readers believe the AFC West story of the week is Denver receiver Brandon Marshall staying away from the team because he wants a pay raise.

The other candidates were Denver cutting running back J.J. Arrington after he failed a physical and the Chiefs cutting the fourth player of their 12-member 2008 draft class. The Marshall story, though, was a runaway winner.

Below are some of your responses. Thanks to those who participated.

Gabriel from Kansas City: It would have to be Brandon Marshall wanting a new contract. To start out he is the Broncos best reciever on the roster.A ProBowl receiver. Brandon Marshall deserves a new contract. But he cant stay out of trouble the past two seasons. So the Broncos most likely are not goin to give Brandon a new contract.

Aaron from Fort Collins: Brandon Marshall "holding out" is this weeks story line. He's fresh off hip surgery, a new system being installed, and he's got off the field issues (resolved or not, it's still a risk). Whatever happened to honoring a contract these days? Show up, shut up and play.

Parker from Boulder: Story of the week has got to be the Chiefs cutting another young player. In the past two drafts the Chiefs have had a lot of picks and following each draft they have been getting high draft grades. But if they aren't making good picks or can't coach these players well enough to keep them they are never going to finish rebuilding. The Chiefs are once again going to be starting a lot of rookies and 2nd year players which is good for rebuilding but only retaining 8 out of the 12 you picked just one year ago will prevent you from ever building a squad, even if you are focusing on playing your young players, especially considering their lack of FA activity.

Zach from WA: It has to be the Marshall situation. While he claims to be in Florida for health reasons and not money, it is still a red flag to the broncos because they need him around the camps. But also another huge story is Marshall avoiding suspension. Put that on your list of storylines.

Danny from Phoenix: The story has to be Brandon Marshall holding out. I really enjoy watching the NFL continue to place character a distant second to ability, and this one should be a doozy. When (not if)the Broncos reward such ridiculous behavior of a woman batterer by giving him a raise, it will further justify poor behavior and tantrum throwing by players. I dont care if he thinks he isn't getting paid enough, at least Boldin made it to the superbowl before throwing a hissy fit!

Matt from San Diego: Bill, Marshall holding out (or maybe holding out) is the only story of the three presented. When a team like KC drafts twelve guys, you know they're going to cut some over the next year or two. As for Arrington, well, seven was a crowd. But if B.M. wants more money, he should make like a guy every team wants and quit whining.

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

Here are the candidates:

Marshall holding out? The Denver Post is reporting that Broncos' Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall is staying away from team activities because he wants a pay raise. His contract expires after next season.

Kansas City cuts another 2008 draft pick: Brian Johnston, a seventh-round pick last year, was cut by the new Kansas City regime. He was the fourth of the team's 12-member draft class to be cut this offseason.

Denver cuts Arrington: The Broncos cut running back J.J. Arrington months after signing him to a four-year, $10 million contract. He was cut because he failed his physical. Arrington will be out for the year. Denver gave him a $100,000 signing bonus. Most of his new money was going to be tied into a roster bonus.

The guidelines are easy. Choose your story of the week and hit my mailbag with your thoughts. I will post some of your responses later in the week.

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

The Broncos' difficult offseason with running back J.J. Arrington came to a head Wednesday when the team released him.

Arrington, signed to be a third-down back in Denver, was released because he failed a physical. He had a knee injury he suffered with Arizona. He was recovering from the injury when Denver signed him earlier this offseason. Apparently, he was cut after he could not participate in a passing camp this week.

Arrington's time in Denver was ill fated. He was signed on the first day of free agency but the deal was voided by the league because of contractual issues. Arrington eventually signed a four year, $10 million deal with Denver. He received a $100,000 signing bonus and a $1.7 million roster bonus. He could conceivably sign back with Denver when his knee problem heals.

Denver certainly doesn't have a shortage of running backs. It drafted Knowshon Moreno with the No. 12 overall pick. New Denver coach Josh McDaniels has said Moreno has potential to be a three-down back. The team also signed veterans LaMont Jordan and Correll Buckhalter during free agency. The team also has holdovers Ryan Torain and Peyton Hillis

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

Earlier this offseason we looked at the progress being made by the AFC West teams. With the draft in the books and all four rosters virtually set (other than a few tweaks) for training camp, here is a major reason for optimism and a major reason for pessimism for each AFC West team:

Denver Broncos

Reason to be optimistic: The running game should be strong. The team drafted Georgia's Knowshon Moreno with the No. 12 pick despite a crowded backfield.

It is clear Denver is going to be a running team after the Jay Cutler trade. It looks like Kyle Orton, acquired in the Cutler trade, will lead the offense, but the run will set up the pass in Denver.

New Denver coach Josh McDaniels said that Moreno can be a three-down back. McDaniels also said he believes Moreno can help the entire offense. Watch for Denver to try to incorporate veteran pickups J.J. Arrington and Correll Buckhalter and perhaps holdover Peyton Hillis into the running game.

Each player offers a different aspect to the offense. With a strong offensive line and good receivers and tight ends, Denver's offense has a chance to succeed. And it will begin with the run.

Reason to be pessimistic: The front seven is weak.

It was Denver's biggest question mark going into the draft and it remains the biggest issue afterward. With 10 picks, Denver dedicated only one pick to the front seven: Tennessee's Robert Ayers at No. 18. And the team really doesn't know what it is going to do with him. He'll probably be a hybrid defensive end-linebacker.

The Broncos really needed a legitimate defensive lineman as they transition to a 3-4 scheme. If Ayers is going to bounce around, he isn't the anchor the team needs. The linebacking crew had a chance to be decent, but the front three is going to be very inexperienced and very unintimidating with the trio Kenny Peterson, Matthias Askew and Ronnie Fields having a chance to be the starters.

Kansas City Chiefs

Reason to be optimistic: I am not thrilled with the trade of Tony Gonzalez to Atlanta, but the offense has some decent pieces.

There is good leadership on the unit and it starts with new head coach Todd Haley. He proved as the offensive coordinator in Arizona that he is an innovator and a leader.

Then there is new quarterback Matt Cassel, who was stolen from New England along with linebacker Mike Vrabel for a second-round pick. Cassel has yet to prove he is anything more than a one-year wonder. But he will be put in a position to succeed in Kansas City and will be running a similar system to what he ran with the Patriots. If Cassel can develop a fast chemistry with receiver Dwayne Bowe, the offensive line comes together and Larry Johnson, assuming he is on the team, still has something in the tank, the offense has a chance to decent.

Reason to be pessimistic: Statistically speaking, the Chiefs are the worst pass-rushing defense the NFL has ever seen. Kansas City set an NFL record for the fewest sacks in 2008 with 10.

One would think finding pass-rushers would be a priority through free agency and the draft, but the Chiefs have been very quiet. Yes, they added defensive end Tyson Jackson with the No. 3 pick in the draft. However, Jackson is known as a better run-stuffer than a pass-rusher. Thus, on paper, little has been done to improve an anemic pass rush.

Oakland Raiders

Reason to be optimistic: The foundation to most successful offenses is a supreme running game. This gives Oakland a chance to break a six-year downturn. The Raiders have potentially one of the most dynamic running games in the NFL. They certainly have one of the most varied running attacks in the league.

The three-headed monster of Darren McFadden, Justin Fargas and Michael Bush will keep teams off balance. McFadden is a game-breaker who is most effective if he is not overused. Fargas is a tough-yardage getter. He is very rugged. Bush is good in short-yardage situations and he is explosive. None of these players will carry an offense alone, but together they can do some damage.

If this group can stay healthy (which has been an issue), it will give Oakland a strong identity on offense.

Reason to be pessimistic: While the running game is looking primed in Oakland, the passing game could hold back the offense.

Last week during the Raiders' minicamp, quarterback JaMarcus Russell suggested that Oakland's offense will be relying on the run first. That's all well and good, but Russell needs to help the running game or defenses will concentrate on stopping the run and neutralize Oakland's biggest strength.

Russell has been inconsistent in his young career and he must make strides this season. There is no questioning Russell has some skills, but he needs to do a better job of showing it.

He also needs help from his receivers. The team drafted Darrius Heyward-Bey with the No. 7 pick to make an immediate impact. However, if his collegiate inconsistencies continue, he may not be able to help right away.

San Diego Chargers

Reason to be optimistic: It's simple: The Chargers are the best team in the division -- by a long shot. That's why the Chargers should feel good about themselves.

Because of all of the upheaval with the other three AFC West teams this offseason, San Diego is entering 2009 bigger favorites than last season.

San Diego did very little tinkering this offseason, but it did add some interesting pieces on defense in the form of linebackers Kevin Burnett (free agency) and Larry English (first-round pick in the draft). San Diego didn't need much to continue to have the best roster in the division.

Reason to be pessimistic: If there is a chance for San Diego to falter in this division, it will be the pass defense. The pass defense struggled for much of last season, even though it did improve some when Ron Rivera became the defensive coordinator.

Improving the pass defense has been the focus of the entire team in 2009. San Diego general manager A.J. Smith said at the team's minicamp earlier this month that if the pass rush doesn't improve, the Chargers, who had to rally at the end of the season to win the AFC West title in 2008, could struggle again.

Still, the team is hopeful that the return of Shawne Merriman and the drafting of English will help the pass rush and, in turn, help the secondary.

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