AFC West: Ronnie Brown

Although special teams coordinator Kevin Spencer has an experienced group returning for the San Diego Chargers in 2014, it could still use help in the return game.

Locks: None
Looking good: Nick Novak, Mike Scifres, Mike Windt
Free agents: Ronnie Brown, Lavelle Hawkins

The good: Novak had one of the best seasons in franchise history for a kicker, tying John Carney's team record for most made field goals in a season with 34. Novak also set a franchise record for accuracy with a 91.9 percent conversion rate (34 of 37) on field goals. Scifres was among the best punters in the NFL in placing the ball inside the 20-yard line, finishing with a league-best 30 of his 56 punts inside the 20. Windt avoided having his name mentioned during the year, which means no bad snaps and a full 16-game season played as a long snapper -- both good things.

The bad: Novak finished in the bottom of the league in touchbacks, with 19.6 percent of his kickoffs resulting in opposing teams getting the ball at the 20-yard line. The Chargers averaged just 22.1 yards per kick return, which was No. 23 in the league. San Diego's punt returner also is the team's No. 1 receiver in Keenan Allen. That's probably not a good combination.

The money: Novak is due to make $1.325 million in base salary in 2014, which seems reasonable for an above-average kicker in the league. Scifres is set to make $3.2 million in non-guaranteed base salary for the upcoming season -- that seems a little high for an above-average punter. For comparison sake, San Francisco punter Andy Lee has earned All-Pro honors four times and will make $1.9 million in base salary in 2014. Scifres is signed through 2016 and turns 34 this year. Windt is set to make $730,000 in base salary in 2014.

Draft priority: Low. All three specialists proved their worth and should return, but there's nothing wrong with adding competition during training camp. San Diego's most obvious need is adding someone with juice in the return game who can help flip field position and get extra first downs for the offense. Brown and Hawkins both returned kicks last season and neither player showed that they are someone that can routinely create big plays in the return game.


When the 2013 season began, the AFC West didn't really come up when the national conversation turned toward divisions that would provide the most playoff teams or Super Bowl potential from top to bottom.

Yet with four teams left in the AFC's postseason bracket, two of them call the division home, with the No. 1 seed Denver Broncos and the No. 6 San Diego Chargers set for the season’s third meeting on Sunday. They split the two games in the regular season, with each team winning on the road -- the Broncos by eight in San Diego and the Chargers by seven in Denver.

It will be the first time the Chargers and Broncos have met in the postseason, but San Diego is 2-0 in playoff games against Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning with wins in the 2007 and 2008 postseasons.

ESPN.com Chargers reporter Eric Williams and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss the matchup.

Jeff Legwold: Eric, there were some who questioned the Chargers’ playoff worthiness when all of the dominoes fell in the regular season’s final week and they earned the AFC’s No. 6 seed. But with the win in Cincinnati, how do they see themselves at the moment -- playoff underdog or a team with a chance for more?

Eric Williams: Veteran players emphasized this week that playoff opportunities are precious, noting the fact that the Chargers have not made the playoffs since 2009. So guys like Philip Rivers and Eric Weddle want to see how far they can take it. Both mentioned the Chargers are only eight quarters away from the Super Bowl -- unbelievable when six weeks ago this team was 5-7 and an afterthought at making the postseason. Giving players more confidence is the fact that San Diego beat the Broncos in Denver just a month ago. The Chargers understand the deck is stacked against them facing a well-rested Manning. But they are playing with house money, and I suspect they will play with a lot of confidence and urgency on Sunday.

How is Manning handling all of the questions concerning his so-so record in the playoffs? And will that serve as motivation on Sunday?

Legwold: If you had to make a list of questions that cause Manning to put up the verbal deflector shields the fastest, the glove, anything that includes the phrase “all the way back," cold weather and the playoff record would be among the top items. He handles most everything in the public domain with a professional mixture of grace and the ability to move the conversation on -- he’s got plenty of experience in front of people to be sure. But in the end, Manning is a driven player -- one of the most driven players to have worn a helmet -- and everything is motivation. He doesn’t often let people on the outside see all that, but offered a glimpse after his 400-yard day against the Titans this season on a frigid afternoon when he told the team’s flagship radio station people could take the Manning-struggles-in-the-cold narrative and “stick it where the sun don't shine." So, the lure of the Super Bowl is always powerful for him, but he certainly uses plenty of things to maintain his focus, and any sort of criticism is in that pile somewhere.

Rivers has always been a thorn for the Broncos, but he attempted only 20 passes -- completing 12 -- in the Chargers’ win in Denver on Dec. 12, and he went 12-for-16 passing in the Chargers’ win over the Bengals last week. Is relying on the run the best thing for the Chargers’ offense, and would you expect a similar approach Sunday?

Williams: It all depends on the health of Ryan Mathews. The Fresno State product probably does not get enough credit for San Diego’s resurgence this season. But the Chargers have morphed into a running team the second half of the year. San Diego is 7-1 when Mathews rushes at least 19 times in a game. His ability to get to the edge of a defense with his speed, along with his physicality, has created a nice balance to San Diego’s offense so that Rivers doesn’t have to make all the plays. Mathews has a lingering ankle injury. He’s expected to play on Sunday, but how effective Mathews will be remains to be seen. If Mathews can’t play, Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown will pick up the slack. San Diego coach Mike McCoy has confidence his team can win in a shootout if they have to open the offense up.

You’ve talked about Denver’s inconsistencies on defense, which has been a problem all season. Will Champ Bailey play in this game? And if so, how will that help the secondary?

Legwold: Bailey played, essentially as the nickel corner, in the Broncos’ final two games of the regular season and will be in the lineup on Sunday. He played 35 snaps against the Houston Texans and 22 snaps against the Oakland Raiders. While those offenses had their fair share of struggles this season, the Broncos had two of their best outings of the year, surrendering 13 and 14 points to go with 240 and 255 yards, respectively, in those two games. Bailey hasn’t played out of the slot a great deal in his time with the Broncos, save for when the receiver he was matched with would line up there, but he has all the tools to be very good in there -- smart, plays with anticipation and has the ability, even in his 15th season, to change directions quickly and react on the ball. It has made the Broncos' secondary much better than what the Chargers have seen in the two meetings this year -- Bailey didn’t play in either game. The Broncos just have more options in how they deploy people in coverage and it gives them a top three at the position of Bailey, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Chris Harris. That’s a quality trio that enables the Broncos to do a few more things to try to affect Rivers.

Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano has, for the most part, taken a page from the Bill Belichick manual for facing Manning -- coverage over pressure. How would you expect the Chargers to defend Manning and the Broncos’ offense? And how aggressive do you think they will be doing it?

Williams: I expect going in that Pagano will try a similar approach to what his defense executed so effectively in the last matchup: a mix of pressures and looks that force Manning to get the ball out quickly to underneath routes, and then rallying to the football. San Diego wants to limit big plays, keep the ball in front of them and tackle well. But one thing the Chargers have had success with is making in-game adjustments when things are not going well. The wild card here again is McCoy. Because he’s worked with Manning in the past, McCoy understands his strengths and weaknesses, and what he likes to go to in certain situations. And that will be used in Pagano’s game planning for Sunday.

San Diego surprised the Broncos a month ago by winning in Denver. What did the Broncos learn from that setback? And what are a couple key things Denver needs to accomplish in order to defeat the pesky Chargers and move on?

Legwold: That game came on a short week and you could see the table getting set for a Broncos' loss in the days leading up to the Dec. 12 win for the Chargers. Many of the Broncos players spent a great deal of time talking about how much they didn’t like playing on Thursday nights, how good the rest would be in the weekend that followed. And then they played like a team more concerned about just getting through a game than winning it. There have been no such issues this week. The Broncos will be focused on the task at hand this time. On the field, they have to keep the Chargers from converting third downs and putting drives together. San Diego repeatedly pounded away in the run game at the Broncos' lighter personnel groupings, particularly in the nickel, and the Broncos can’t allow that to happen again. The Chargers' defense was effective rushing Manning over the left side -- especially between left tackle Chris Clark and left guard Zane Beadles. This time, if the Broncos keep Manning cleaner on his blind side, they will move the ball.

CINCINNATI -- It’s been six years since San Diego Chargers running back Ronnie Brown galloped that far on the football field in anger.

[+] EnlargeRonnie Brown
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsChargers RB Ronnie Brown saw his most extensive action of the season on Sunday at Cincinnati.
"A long time, especially for an old guy like myself," Brown said, smiling. "It felt good, but I think the biggest part was us getting a victory. I think it pretty much put the icing on the cake at the end of the game."

Brown's 58-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter on Sunday sealed a 27-10 playoff win for the Chargers over Cincinnati. Brown hasn’t had a run that far since a 62-yard touchdown scamper in a 38-13 win against New England on Sept. 21, 2008. That season, Brown sometimes served as the Wildcat quarterback for the Dolphins.

The No. 2 overall selection in the 2005 draft for the Dolphins, at 32 years old Brown is one of nine players on San Diego’s roster 30 years old or older.

He helps provide a calming influence in the locker room.

“He shows up to work every day,” San Diego coach Mike McCoy said. "All he does is work and help his teammates out, and that’s all you can ask. He’s a true professional -- a great guy to be around. We’re very fortunate to have him.”

Brown’s long run helped contribute to San Diego’s season-high 196 rushing yards against Cincinnati, and was the team’s longest run of the season. Brown finished with eight rushes for 77 yards.

The Chargers might have to take advantage of Brown’s fresh legs even more this Sunday in the team’s AFC divisional round game at Denver.

Workhorse running back Ryan Mathews entered the contest with a balky ankle. Mathews rushed for 52 yards on 13 carries, but gave way to Danny Woodhead and Brown after one carry in the second half.

"We're doing what’s best for the football team," McCoy said, when asked about Mathews' injury status. "We rested him a little this week, as we’ve done the past couple weeks. We’re still playing, so we have to do what’s best for the team moving forward."

What’s best for the team moving forward could mean more carries for a healthy Brown over playing a hobbled Mathews.

Brown should be ready for the increased workload. Besides handling kick return duties, Brown’s played in a total of 14 snaps in the month of December before San Diego’s playoff win against Cincinnati.

“Every guy is important,” San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers said. "Ronnie Brown is a team favorite and a great teammate. He's so unselfish. He’s dressed so many games and not played. When he’s called on, you see why he was picked high in the draft and why he’s had a heck of a career. We’re glad we got him."
SAN DIEGO -- Ronnie Brown played the 2010 season with Richie Incognito during his six-year tenure with the Miami Dolphins.

The two also worked out during the offseason in Arizona. What Brown remembers is a friend who worked and played hard, not the loud-talking, intimidating figure accused of bullying fellow teammate Jonathan Martin and has been suspended by the Dolphins, San Diego's opponent this weekend.

“From a personal standpoint, he never did anything disrespectful,” Brown said. “He’s a different guy. He enjoys life. He plays a lot. So I think sometimes people kind of take it out of context.

“Sometimes you form a persona that people outside kind of view as, so any little thing gets escalated, so you have to be kind of careful sometimes. And I think that’s one of those situations.”

Incognito has been suspended indefinitely following allegations of harassment and misconduct toward teammate Martin, a second-year offensive lineman drafted out of Stanford. The Dolphins (4-5) have lost five of their past six games, dealing with a major distraction since Martin left the team on Oct. 28 following a lunchroom incident.

San Diego head coach Mike McCoy said the turmoil in Miami will not have an effect on how his team approaches the game.

“The most important thing is it’s about us,” McCoy said. "That’s every week. We have to do a better job first. We can’t worry about issues. No one is going to feel sorry for anyone on Sundays. That’s the way we are going to approach it, and we are going to go out there and do the best job we can to get a win this weekend and take care of our side of the ball No. 1.”

Miami Dolphins defensive back Jimmy Wilson put on a good front when asked if he believes the Incognito-Martin situation has affected his team’s locker room. But realistically, a situation that created so much of a national stir has to affect a team’s performance on the field.

“I invite everybody in the whole world to come into this locker room and see what type of men we got in here, what type of coaches that we have,” Wilson said on a conference call with San Diego-area reporters this week. “This is not a bad locker room. All of us are funny guys, laugh-and-joke-a lot guys. We’re about our business, and we want to be a great team.

“Everybody thinks we have a bad coach in here, but it’s a joke. We’re all a bunch of young guys who like to have a good time.”

Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin answered a few questions from reporters on the issue before saying that he would not answer any more questions until a league review on the matter is complete.

“It’s all about playing as well as you can at one particular game -- putting your focus and your concentration and your energy into the opponent that you have next,” Philbin said. “That’s all you control at the present time.”

San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers said that sometimes issues that appear to be distractions to team from the outside are not an issue inside a locker room.

“I can’t speak on this particular distraction that the Dolphins are dealing with, but there are certain things that are perceived as distractions from the outside that are really a nonissue on the inside,” Rivers said. “Obviously, the magnitude of what that is and how big of a deal it is -- that’s different in every circumstance. When I think of some so-called distractions with us over the years, they really never were inside that locker room or on the practice field.”

And as far as the mood inside San Diego’s locker room, Rivers says the culture and relationships remain positive.

“I think it’s a close group,” he said. It’s a friendly group. When I say friendly I mean from corner to corner. It’s not a very cliquish group in the sense of you don’t really see the packs.

“Sure you hang out with your group, understand that, but just in general you’ll see [Nick] Hardwick chatting it up with the defensive backs. It’s a very friendly, open group. I can’t imagine one guy in the locker room thinking the team doesn’t have a healthy working environment. They enjoy coming here day to day.”
SAN DIEGO – When it comes to getting carries, an offensive coordinator is never going to satisfy everyone in the running back room.

Everyone wants their touches. And when a running back is playing in a pass-first offense, those touches can be few and far between. But through four games, San Diego Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt has done a nice job of managing the workload between his stable of running backs.

“A lot of it is package-driven,” Whisenhunt said. “We go in there with a lot of different personnel groups, and we have different guys playing in different spots within those groups. If we’re having success with that group, then whatever the rotation is, those guys are going to get more plays on any given Sunday.

“We’re certainly conscious of the fact that Ryan [Mathews] is running the ball very well and we’re trying to get opportunities for him to do that. But Danny [Woodhead] has been playing well for us. Ronnie Brown has been playing well for us. It’s really a good problem to have to be honest with you.”

[+] EnlargeRyan Mathews
Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsRyan Mathews is the Chargers' top rusher and every-down back, but his role changes near the goal line.
San Diego is running the ball only 41.5 percent of the time (148 passing plays vs. 105 running plays). But when the Chargers have run the ball, they've been pretty effective, averaging 105 yards a contest.

Mathews is the team’s every-down back. The Fresno State product has a team-high 226 yards on 64 carries, a 3.5-per-carry average. His longest run is 20 yards. Mathews also has seven catches for 66 yards, including a 14-yard touchdown. But he has not scored on rushing touchdown this season.

According to Pro Football Focus, Mathews has only one carry inside the opponent’s 10-yard line this season, and only four of his carries have come inside the 20-yard line. Brown has handled both carries for San Diego from the opponent’s 1-yard line this season.

Even though he has not received touches near the goal line, Mathews said he’s comfortable with his team’s new offense, and his role in it.

“We've got a bunch of great running backs here that can all make plays,” he said. “If the personnel is called up, and your number is called up, then you go in the game and do your best on every play.”

Woodhead has been used mostly in passing situations and in the red zone. The Chadron State product is the second-leading receiver for the Chargers, with 22 catches for 162 yards. Woodhead had his first, two-touchdown-reception game against Dallas last week, twice beating Cowboys linebacker Bruce Carter on wheel routes.

Woodhead also has 90 yards rushing, and is the closest player in terms of skill set the Chargers have had since losing Darren Sproles to New Orleans in free agency in 2011.

The unselfish Woodhead said that whenever his number is called, he’ll be ready.

“That’s the last thing I’m concerned about is how many touches I get,” Woodhead said. “I don’t want to get into that, because then the focus would be on myself. I want to focus on what we have to do to win the game. And when I’m out there, if I get the touch, I’m going to try and do the best I can with it. But you’ve got to realize that there’s 10 other people helping me if I get yards.”

Brown has been used mostly in goal-line and passing situations. Brown has 55 yards rushing, including a 1-yard touchdown. And then there's Le'Ron McClain, who at 6-foot and 260 pounds remains one of the most bruising lead-blocking fullbacks in the business.

The diversity of runners the Chargers have on the roster allows them to attack opponents in a lot of different ways, keeping defenses from just focusing on Philip Rivers and the passing game.

“I know Ryan would like to get the ball 20 times, but every back would,” San Diego coach Mike McCoy said. “Every receiver wants 10 catches. It’s a team game. There is going to be games from week to week where certain guys are the best guy for the situation.

“Ryan is the guy we are going to pound the ball with. That’s what we put him in there to do, and he did a good job with it running physical and making the most out of his opportunities. We’re going to play a number of guys. We not worrying about giving this guy this many touches, we’re going to do what’s best to win.”

Upon Further Review: Chargers Week 3

September, 23, 2013
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An examination of four hot issues from the San Diego Chargers' 20-17 loss at the Tennessee Titans:

Offensive line woes: San Diego headed into Sunday’s contest already down an offensive lineman when D.J. Fluker was ruled out because of a concussion. Michael Harris played solid in place of Fluker at right tackle. But the Chargers potentially lost two more starters up front against Tennessee. San Diego coach Mike McCoy told reporters after the game left tackle King Dunlap had a concussion. Left guard Chad Rinehart also had a turf toe injury in the second half and did not return. Already thin up front, the Chargers do not have enough quality depth to withstand that many starters being out heading into next week’s Dallas game.

[+] EnlargeRonnie Brown
AP Photo/Mark ZaleskiRonnie Brown's touchdown was San Diego's first rushing score in almost a year.
Throw to score, run to win: While the Chargers have one of the top passing offenses in the NFL through three games, they still have trouble consistently running the ball. San Diego’s struggles to move the chains late to close out games can be partially attributed to the team’s inconsistent ground game. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Ronnie Brown's 1-yard touchdown run in the second half was San Diego’s first rushing touchdown since Week 5 against the Saints last year. That’s a head-scratching statistic. The Chargers finished with a respectable 102 rushing yards against Tennessee. Ryan Mathews led the way with 58 rushing yards on 16 carries. Third-down back Danny Woodhead added 31 yards on the ground and had seven catches for 55 yards. But the Chargers failed to successfully run the ball when it mattered most -- at the end of the game.

Turnover drought: Seahawks coach Pete Carroll says that one of his primary philosophies is “It’s all about the ball” -- meaning take care of it on offense and look for ways to create turnovers on defense. Through the first three games, San Diego has struggled in one of the top indicators on whether a team will win or lose: turnover differential. San Diego has created one turnover through three games, which is among the worst in the league. However, the Chargers did create a sudden-change situation when Tennessee punter Brett Kern fumbled the snap, recovering his own fumble at Tennessee’s 30-yard line. The Chargers turned that opportunity into a Nick Novak 44-yard field goal. The Chargers have a minus-3 turnover differential through three weeks.

Third down struggles: Heading into Sunday’s contest, the Chargers were converting an impressive 58.6 percent of their opportunities on third down, tops in the NFL. But against Tennessee, the Chargers finished just 3-of-9 on third down, including being 0-for-3 in the first half. Just a week ago, San Diego ran a season-high 79 plays against an up-tempo Philadelphia offense. However, that same offense managed just 53 plays compared to 68 plays for Tennessee. The Titans’ ability to effectively run the football also led to a 31:38 to 28:22 edge in time of possession.

Broncos notes: Manning sharp

August, 3, 2013
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- A year ago, the Broncos held their annual summer scrimmage, and many of those packed into the stadium's lower bowl that night wondered if, after a year off because of multiple neck surgeries, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning would be able to take a hit.

Saturday night, in a downpour, those in the seats watched with delight as Manning made like Kevin Costner in Bull Durham and took two belly flops in the rain.

"We were just trying to do something ... it was fun," Manning said. "I think I got pretty good range. (I) felt like a kid. I don't know the last time I got to do that."

When the rain finally let up and the lightning stopped, the Broncos did take the field following a 45-minute weather delay for an abbreviated workout. And Manning was smooth against the second-team defense, going 4-of-6 on 10-play scoring drive.

Manning finished the touchdown drive with a 4-yard toss to wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. Manning rolled right and threw back to the middle, where Thomas was the third read on the play.

Manning did wear a glove on his throwing hand in a steady rain.

"Thought I threw it pretty decent given the weather," Manning said.
  • Rookie running back Montee Ball and tight end Julius Thomas each made an appearance during the 12 plays the starting offense had the ball, showing that the plan is for them to have roles early on when the regular season rolls around. Ronnie Hillman opened at running back with the starters.
  • Manning said the Broncos were watching the Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony in the locker room during the delay."We weren't sure what we were going to do," Manning said. "We were sitting around watching the Hall of Fame, we got to see some of the speeches."Manning said he texted Bill Parcells, during Parcells' speech, offering that the team was watching the former Giants, Patriots, Jets and Cowboys head coach. Manning added Parcells' speech "made me proud to play football."
  • Broncos coach John Fox said the team made it through the 36-play scrimmage with no new injuries "so that was good." Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (ankle) and tight end Jacob Tamme (thigh) did not participate.

Links: Moore rises to Allen's challenge

August, 2, 2013
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Denver Broncos

The team has opened negotiations to give punter Britton Colquitt a contract extension, writes Mike Klis of the Denver Post. Colquitt had a net average of 42.1 yards per punt and he placed 27 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line last season.

Brandon Moree of DenverBroncos.com has highlights from Day 8 of training camp.

Cornerback Champ Bailey knows a position switch to safety is in his future, writes the AP's Eddie Pells. "You’ve got to look at history," Bailey said. "Ronnie Lott. Rod Woodson. Aeneas Williams. They all did it, and they all did it before I did. History says this is about that time. I understand that and I’m not naive about it."

Kansas City Chiefs

In an effort to lose weight, nose tackle Dontari Poe has given up barbecue, writes Randy Covitz of the Kansas City Star. "It might be the hardest thing I’ve had to do since I’ve been here," said Poe.

Receiver Jon Baldwin, a first-round pick in 2011, has been plagued by dropped passes early on in camp, the AP reports.

The Chiefs made a few roster moves Thursday, adding offensive tackle Mike Tepper and cornerback Kamaal McIlwain.

Oakland Raiders

"Setting the edge" isn't the most glamorous part of a defensive end's job, but it's a task that suits Oakland's Jason Hunter just fine, writes Jerry McDonald of the Bay Area News Group. "Basically, setting an edge is getting an extension on that tackle and knocking him back, that way it stops the line of scrimmage so the (running) back can't just get to the edge, and it forces him back inside to where the help is," Hunter said.

Tracy Porter says he's moved past having his jersey number taken away from him and given to Charles Woodson, writes Scott Bair of CSNBayArea.com. "The jersey situation is what it is," Porter said. "It got some attention because I spoke out about it. I didn’t like the way it was handled, but whatever man. I’m not going to leave camp because my jersey number was switched."

After coach Dennis Allen said Tuesday that the team didn't have a go-to receiver yet, Denarius Moore rose to the challenge. On Thursday, Moore had a great day of practice and earned praise from Allen, who said Moore "clearly responded to the challenge,” writes Bair.

San Diego Chargers

The Chargers' defensive line has lots of potential, but it is definitely short on experience, writes U-T San Diego's Kevin Acee.

U-T San Diego's Chris Jenkins takes a look at tight end John Phillips, who signed as a free agent after spending the first four seasons of his career with the Dallas Cowboys. "I was just looking for something new, looking to establish myself,” said Phillips. “Hopefully, I can get out here and be more versatile in this offense. Maybe I can carve out a role for myself where I can catch more balls."

Running back Ronnie Brown thinks he can make some waves in coach Mike McCoy's offense, writes Ricky Henne of Chargers.com. McCoy "offers me opportunities to do some different things besides just running the ball," Brown said. "He accentuates the things you’re good at, so I’m going to be involved in the passing game and get to show my versatility as a back, what I’m capable of doing and what I’m comfortable doing."
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What are the three key camp issues facing each AFC West team?

DENVER BRONCOS

Offense: The Wes Welker Factor
Peyton Manning has a new toy. But with the wealth of options in this offense, it seems unlikely Welker will match his production from his days with Tom Brady. Manning will love exploiting the mismatches Welker creates from the slot. Welker’s experience in New England's up-tempo offense should pay off as Denver transitions to a similar pace. It is difficult to find weaknesses in the Broncos’ offense right now.

Defense: Pass-rush issue
Elvis Dumervil is now playing for Baltimore. Von Miller is one of the league’s premier defensive players and pass-rushers, but more is needed. Where will it come from? Derek Wolfe showed some flashes as an inside pass-rusher during his rookie season and on passing downs. Robert Ayers should also be effective when moved inside. Will the edge player opposite Miller -- Ayers on early downs and Shaun Phillips, most likely, on passing downs -- be able to produce? The wild card here is rookie Quanterus Smith.

Wild card: Pass coverage in the middle
Denver had a lot of problems last season covering opposing tight ends in the middle of the field. On paper, it doesn’t look as though the problem has been addressed. Denver’s safety play is average at best, but the middle linebacker spot manned by Joe Mays is the real issue. Look for opposing offenses to keep Denver in base defensive personnel and attack the middle of the field.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

Offense: The Alex Smith Factor
Smith needs plenty of resources to be successful. But if he just makes fewer mistakes at the position than Matt Cassel did a year ago -- something that seems highly likely -- then Kansas City will be much more competitive. Smith also has underrated running skills, and the Chiefs should orchestrate plenty of designed quarterback movement and runs.

Defense: Interior pass rush
The Chiefs were among the worst defenses in the NFL last season at creating pressure on the quarterback between the tackles. Although the team made drastic changes across the roster, this area was not addressed. Unless Dontari Poe steps up in his second season -- and pass rush isn’t really his game -- little should change for Kansas City.

Wild card: Secondary receivers
The Chiefs are very light at wide receiver outside of Dwayne Bowe. They have three strong tight ends and could employ plenty of multiple-tight end sets. Jamaal Charles should see plenty of passes thrown his way, but another outside threat needs to step up. Donnie Avery has the speed to open up room for others, but his hands are highly inconsistent. Jon Baldwin and Dexter McCluster have yet to find their place in this league. Keep an eye on Devon Wylie.

OAKLAND RAIDERS

Offense: Man-blocking scheme
For some unknown reason, the Raiders switched in 2012 from a predominantly man-blocking scheme, in which Darren McFadden thrived, to a zone-blocking scheme. That was a failed experiment, especially for McFadden, who is entering the final year of his contract. Switching back could allow him to be the foundation of Oakland’s offense.

Defense: No pass rush
I fear the Raiders will be among the worst defenses in the NFL next season at rushing the passer. Lamarr Houston is a very talented player, capable of greatness, but he isn’t a typical edge pass-rushing defensive end. Andre Carter has had success in this area, but his best days are behind him. I like the additions of Pat Sims and Vance Walker at defensive tackle, but both are run-stuffers. Opposing quarterbacks are going to have a lot of unobstructed time in the pocket this season. Calling Jadeveon Clowney ...

Wild card: Building blocks
The Raiders are not going to win the Super Bowl. Instead, they must determine which players are their building blocks. I was impressed by the way the front office, despite many limitations, addressed the team's needs during the offseason. But many of their signings were only one-year deals. Which players do they want to bring back? Many players on Oakland’s roster are auditioning this season.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

Offense: Pass protection
Philip Rivers needs to be protected, which San Diego hasn’t been able to do lately. Although the Chargers used a first-round pick on D.J. Fluker, who is a much better run-blocker than pass-blocker, I don’t see noticeable upgrades on the offensive line. I also don’t see much upside or potential star power in the group. Changing the scheme could help by getting the ball out of Rivers’ hands quicker, but he could be headed for another punishing season.

Defense: Time to step up
The Chargers have several promising young defensive players who could be ready to break out. Eric Weddle is among the league’s best safeties, and Corey Liuget has already established himself as a real force on San Diego’s defensive line. Kendall Reyes might not be far behind Liuget and should become more of a household name this season. Manti Te’o could have an instant impact in his rookie season and pair with Donald Butler to be one of the better inside linebacker tandems in the league.

Wild card: Receiver situation
Antonio Gates isn’t what he once was, but he still makes plays and Rivers trusts him. The Chargers have many other receiving options now: Danario Alexander, Malcom Floyd, Keenan Allen, Vincent Brown, Robert Meachem, Eddie Royal, John Phillips, Ladarius Green, Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown. How will that sort out? My favorites are Allen, Vincent Brown and Green. Getting these young weapons plenty of reps could pay off in the long term for San Diego.

Links: New stadium in future for Raiders?

July, 16, 2013
7/16/13
11:25
AM ET
Denver Broncos

Last season, offensive lineman Ryan Clady turned down a long-term deal with the Broncos. The Denver Post's Jeff Legwold gives you his key as to why Clady and Denver were able to work out a new contract this week.

Of course, having a healthy Clady only helped the situation.

John Elway, who runs the Broncos' football operations as executive vice president, reacts to the suspensions of two team executives after their recent DUI arrests.

Kansas City Chiefs

Reid Ferrin of KCChiefs.com gives you a look at the team's equipment staff and the work they're putting in to get ready for training camp.

Oakland Raiders

Matthew Artz of the Oakland Tribune reports that the Raiders want to build a 50,000-seat stadium in Oakland, but the team might not be able to cover even half the costs.

Raiders.com takes a look at the team's rivalry with the Broncos through the years.

San Diego Chargers

The Chargers added solid veteran depth at running back in the offseason with Ronnie Brown and Danny Woodhead. But Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com writes that Chargers coach Mike McCoy expects Ryan Mathews to be "the guy" at the position.

McCoy was busy earlier this week trying to drum up interest in the team in downtown Los Angeles, the team's secondary market, writes Jill Painter of the Pasadena Star-News.

NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

How does each AFC West team look at running back, and what still needs to be done?

Denver Broncos: The Broncos still have Willis McGahee, but he could become a salary-cap casualty. McGahee still runs hard and effectively (he’s averaged 4.4 and 4.8 yards the past two seasons), but this will be his 11th season and he missed six games in 2012. When McGahee went down last year, Knowshon Moreno filled in admirably. But his role is undefined right now after the Broncos used high picks on the position in the past two drafts. They used a second-rounder this year on Montee Ball, which was a win-now type of pick. Ball is a no-nonsense runner who handled a heavy workload in college. He fits this athletic zone scheme quite well, and I just have a hunch that John Elway saw a little of Terrell Davis in Ball when he made that selection. Ronnie Hillman was Denver’s third-round pick in 2012. With his lateral agility, Hillman is unlike any of the top backs on this roster. If he proves himself as a worthy pass protector, Hillman could be a very solid third-down back who also gets snaps on early down-and-distance situations. Lance Ball remains on the roster, but it seems like an uphill climb for him to make the final cut, which is also the case for Mario Fannin and Jeremiah Johnson. Of course, whoever is getting carries for Denver will be aided greatly by Peyton Manning’s fantastic skill of getting Denver in the correct play at the line of scrimmage and exploiting defenses that are playing the pass heavier than the run.

Kansas City Chiefs: Jamaal Charles is a superstar who could even get more productive, especially as a receiver, with Andy Reid as his head coach. As a runner, he is more than just a home run threat, but few are as dangerous as Charles when he gets some daylight. The 26-year-old speedster caught just 35 passes a year ago. That number might double in 2013. Charles is in line for a gigantic season. The Chiefs used an early third-round pick on Knile Davis. There were quite a few backs on the board I would have picked before Davis, but he is a fine combination of speed and size, although injuries and fumbles are major issues for this incoming rookie. Also in the fold are Shaun Draughn and Cyrus Gray, who will have to prove their worth on special teams and in the passing game to stay with the team.

Oakland Raiders: The Raiders are going back to a power-run scheme, which suits Darren McFadden better and might get him back on track. But scheme will not help him stay healthy, which is clearly the biggest knock on him to this point. He is still young, and when right, McFadden runs with great aggression to go along with long speed. McFadden also can be a major contributor as a receiver. One of my favorite players in the league is Marcel Reece, who stepped up huge last season with McFadden out of the lineup. Reece does it all. He is equal parts fullback and running back but has extremely soft hands and is an excellent route runner. Every team in the league would love to him on its roster, even though he might never be considered a full-time running back. The Raiders also signed Rashad Jennings, who had a terrible year for Jacksonville in 2012. He, too, struggles to stay on the field, which might open up a prominent spot for Latavius Murray, a sixth-round pick this year. Murray has a rare combination of size and speed, but is very much a work in progress. Look for him to get an opportunity at some point, as McFadden is up for free agency after this season. The Raiders will need to see what they have in Murray.

San Diego Chargers: Ryan Mathews is right there with McFadden as the most maddening and untrustworthy running backs in the NFL. But once again, it looks like Mathews will be getting an opportunity to be San Diego’s foundation back. And there is no questioning his ability, which ranks among the best in the league. At 25, he should be thriving now, even behind San Diego’s poor offensive line. He has missed 10 games in his three seasons as a professional. Surprisingly, the Chargers didn’t bring in another runner as a backup plan if Mathews once again cannot stay on the field. They did add Danny Woodhead, though, who is an excellent all-around player and the type of back the Chargers have not had since Darren Sproles. Expect him to be used as a receiver on many quick-hitting pass plays, which is much easier from a protection standpoint on the Chargers’ suspect offensive line. Mathews is a very good receiver, but questionable in protection, while Woodhead is an excellent receiver but lacks the size to play a ton of snaps. Ronnie Brown was San Diego’s third-down back last year and is highly reliable, although not flashy, particularly in the passing game. Brown, like Mathews, has had a tough time staying healthy.
We continue our AFC West 2013 positional rankings with a group of running backs that offers a lot of questions:

1. Jamaal Charles, Kansas City: Charles had a tremendous season in 2012 after coming back from a torn ACL. He is a top-level back.

2. Darren McFadden, Oakland: McFadden had an off season. The Raiders hope he bounces back as they return to a power-running game that he excels in. As always, health is the key for the big-league talent.

3. Ryan Mathews, San Diego: Mathews is similar to McFadden. He has big ability and has shown it, but he just can’t stay healthy.

4. Willis McGahee, Denver: I had a difficult time ranking Denver’s running backs, because there might be some big flux. But McGahee has had a lot of success, so I will list him first among Denver’s options for now.

5. Marcel Reece, Oakland: Reece doesn’t carry the ball much, but he is a versatile talent who helps Oakland’s offense.

6. Knowshon Moreno, Denver: Moreno finally played well last season and he showed he can help. But injuries are an issue.

7. Danny Woodhead, San Diego: The Chargers are excited about this former Patriot. He is versatile and the Chargers expect to use him a lot.

8. Montee Ball, Denver: I won’t be surprised if this second-round pick is Denver’s Week 1 starter and makes the top three of this list next year.

9. Ronnie Hillman, Denver: This second-year player is a good change-of-pace player who can also be a riser on this list next year.

10. Ronnie Brown, San Diego: He was solid last season. I’m not sure what his role will be, but he’s on this list for now.

11. Rashad Jennings, Oakland: I wouldn’t be surprised if he is bypassed by sixth-round pick Latavius Murray early in the season.

12. Knile Davis, Kansas City: The third-round pick has big potential. He can really help Charles. But he must fix his fumbling issues.

AFC West running back update

April, 13, 2013
4/13/13
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With the draft less than two weeks away, here’s a look at the running back situation for each team in the division:

Denver Broncos: They could add another body here, but the Broncos’ running back situation is serviceable and capable of developing into more if Ronnie Hillman takes a step forward in his second year. Hillman probably will never carry the full load, but he is Denver’s best big-play option out of the backfield and could become a force in the passing game once Peyton Manning & Co. trust him with protection and route-running. Willis McGahee's role should remain intact for the most part, and he is effective moving the chains and churning out tough yardage. Knowshon Moreno looked like a draft bust, but you can’t deny how well he played once given the chance last season -- very effective as both a runner and receiver. In fact, Moreno was probably the Broncos’ best running back in 2012, although I still think McGahee is the superior ball carrier. Of course, every defense will fear Manning and the Denver passing game, especially now that Wes Welker has been added. Plus, Denver improved its offensive line by signing Louis Vasquez. So overall, this is a pretty sound unit.

Kansas City Chiefs: Jamaal Charles is a great player who could even step up his production, especially as a receiver, in Andy Reid’s offense. He is a big play waiting to happen but also consistently churns out yardage even when his blocking isn’t superb. Expect a huge year from Charles in 2013. That said, the Chiefs would be wise to address the No. 2 running back spot in the draft or late in free agency with a bigger back to complement Charles. Right now, Shaun Draughn and Cyrus Gray, both heading into their second full seasons, are the only backups of note. Draughn carried the ball 59 times and caught 24 passes in 2012; Gray touched the ball only nine times during his rookie season. Reid could further utilize Draughn’s pass-catching skills, but he really was a liability in protection last season. The Chiefs need more from Draughn and Gray in 2013, and should find an improvement elsewhere.

Oakland Raiders: This might be the strongest position on the Raiders’ terrible roster, at least when Darren McFadden is actually healthy. But even when McFadden is on the shelf, which he so often is, the Raiders are not too bad off. Marcel Reece is just a heck of an all-around football player. A fullback in title, Reece is an outstanding receiver who caught 52 passes last season, a serviceable blocker and a solid runner. He is the type of player every team should want. Mike Goodson, who is talented but hard to rely on, is out. In is former Jaguar Rashad Jennings, who is bigger than Goodson and should fit the man blocking scheme Oakland will bring back. But Jennings also is tough to rely on due to his injury history -- and he really didn’t play well last season when he was healthy. Still, Jennings has produced at this level and was a good signing considering McFadden’s injury history. McFadden is only 25 years old, but he has never played more than 13 games in his five NFL seasons and appeared in only 19 over the past two seasons. And frankly, he was less than impressive when he did see the field in 2012, although next season’s scheme change could really benefit him. Even with this uncertainty, the Raiders probably will address their multitude of other needs in the draft rather than taking a running back high.

San Diego Chargers: The Chargers signed Danny Woodhead to go along with Ryan Mathews and Ronnie Brown as their primary running backs. Woodhead can act as a slot receiver and move all over the formation to create mismatches in the passing game as well as contribute with some carries. This is a fine addition, but Brown acted as the Chargers’ third-down back last season. With the problems with San Diego’s offensive line, checking down to Brown became a favorite decision for Philip Rivers. Few running backs have Mathews’ talent, but his injury history and lack of reliability are troubling -- especially for a former first-round pick. The new coaching staff might not be as enamored with Mathews as the previous, but it is easy to overlook the fact that Mathews was rather effective running the ball last season for a team that had blocking woes. He also gives the Chargers three backs who catch the ball well, although none excels in protection. Woodhead, Brown and Mathews combined to catch a whopping 128 passes in 2012.
Midweek mail call:

Logan Starks from Lincoln, Neb., wants to know if I think Alabama running back Eddie Lacy could be Denver’s choice with the No. 28 pick.

Bill Williamson: I think Lacy could certainly be a possibility. In fact, in my last mock draft, I have him tabbed to be Denver’s choice. But with Elvis Dumervil leaving, the Broncos will also be looking at pass-rushers. Executive Vice President of Football Operations John Elway is known for going for the best available player. But Lacy, I believe, will be in the conversation.


Antonio Spellman from San Diego wants to know if I think the Chargers will add another running back.

BW: I think they could draft a running back in the mid-rounds. Ryan Mathews is the starter, but he has yet to prove he can stay healthy. He needs help. The team signed Danny Woodhead and he will have a role on third down and in the red zone. Ronnie Brown was brought back as a backup. The team claimed Fozzy Whittaker off waivers from Arizona. New San Diego offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt coached Whittaker and he likes him. But I can still see them adding another tailback into the mix.


Md. Ellis from Council Bluffs, Iowa, wants to know what the Raiders should expect in terms of compensatory picks in 2014.

BW: Well, Raiders fans should hope not much. That would mean that the players who left in free agency fared better than the ones brought in. The comp pick formula is based on several things, including salary, performance and honors received by outgoing free agents weighed against the performance against incoming free agents. Yes, a lot of outgoing Oakland players got paid well this offseason opposed to several players who were signed by Oakland. But the incoming free agents will play a lot. So, if the Raiders get a slew of comp picks it will mean the incoming free-agent class didn’t fare that well.
Via the great John Clayton, I have some updated NFL salary cap numbers for each AFC West team. Remember, the salary cap is always fluid, so this is more of a guide of where each team stands as free agency moves to the second phase.

Denver Broncos

Cap room: $8.44 million

Comment: This is a result of the Elvis Dumervil fiasco. Denver needs to find a pass-rusher whether it’s Dumervil or another player.

Kansas City Chiefs

Cap room: $5.48 million

Comment: This does not include the deal for lineman Geoff Schwartz. The Chiefs can find some more room, but they’ve done a lot of heavy lifting so far.

Oakland Raiders

Cap room: $7.54 million

Comment: This does not include the deals for Nick Roach, Pat Sims and Kevin Burnett. The Raiders can find some more room by restructuring or cutting Carson Palmer and Tommy Kelly.

San Diego Chargers

Cap room: $9.95 million

Comment: This does not include the deals for Derek Cox and Ronnie Brown, so the number is closer to $7 million.

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