AFC West: The Big Question

NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Can the Chargers still be a serious Super Bowl contender without Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeill?

Earlier in this saga, I asked Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. if he thought San Diego could make a deep playoff run without Jackson and McNeill. Williamson didn’t think so.

McNeill
McNeill
Jackson
Jackson
I agree that it would be tough. The AFC is stacked and any team that wants to make a serious run will need its full arsenal of players. Having McNeill and Jackson sitting on their couches on Sundays in the fall certainly won’t make San Diego a better team.

Still, if those two players really do hold out into November (the current expectation is that both McNeill and Jackson will hold out for the first 10 games of the season unless they unexpectedly get long-term deals), the Chargers will be tremendously challenged. But barring any major injuries, the team could still stay afloat and regroup for the stretch run.

San Diego (which added tackle Tra Thomas and reserve receiver Josh Reed as insurance for potential holdouts) is pretty loaded on offense. While Jackson is the team’s go-to receiver, quarterback Philip Rivers has plenty of options. He can lean on star tight end Antonio Gates and receivers Malcom Floyd and Legedu Naanee while Jackson is out. If Thomas is solid and he keeps Rivers upright, the Chargers can maintain. They won’t be as good as they would be with Jackson and McNeill, but, yes, they can survive.

San Diego plays only two teams (Arizona and New England) that made the playoffs in 2009 during the first 10 games of the season. Five of San Diego’s first 10 games are against teams that had losing records last season.

So, it’s manageable. Playing without Jackson and McNeill for the majority of the season is certainly not ideal, but it may not be devastating to San Diego, either.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Will Oakland receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey make big strides in his second NFL season after a disappointing rookie campaign?

Heyward-Bey will be one of the most closely watched second-year players in the NFL.

[+] EnlargeDarrius Heyward-Bey
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelOakland receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey had just nine catches his rookie season.
He must show improvement after a terrible rookie season. Heyward-Bey had only nine catches for 124 yards in 11 starts. Those are staggering numbers. Heyward-Bey’s college reputation for having unreliable hands continued in his rookie season.

The Raiders were widely criticized for taking the Maryland product with the seventh pick over Michael Crabtree, who was considered the best receiver prospect available. Crabtree, who went at No. 10 to San Francisco, had 48 catches despite holding out for five games.

The Raiders believe in Heyward-Bey. Last weekend, they sent out a rare press release expressing their expectations for Heyward-Bey. Recent reports say he has looked good in OTAs.

The Raiders clearly think Heyward-Bey can provide big things. But after his rookie season, hopes must be tempered. It’s terrific that he has made offseason strides, but the kid must show he can perform and hold onto the ball when it counts.

Heyward-Bey has the ability to make plays in the NFL. He is very fast and a hard worker. But he has a lot of work to do.

If Heyward-Bey can stay in the starting lineup, learn to catch consistently and come up with 40 to 50 catches this season, it would have to be considered a success for him. But the key for Heyward-Bey is to continue to get better catching the ball. Until he shows he can do that on a regular basis, the jury is still out.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Does Kyle Orton have a future in Denver?

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Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesThis season will likely be quarterback Kyle Orton's last in Denver.
There has been a lot said and written about Orton in Denver. The Denver Post has reported that Orton was made available for a trade earlier this offseason, but he is no longer on the market. The team has denied Orton was ever available.

Orton’s future in Denver first became clouded when the Broncos traded for Brady Quinn. Orton’s future in Denver became extremely murky when Denver traded three draft picks to move up and take Tim Tebow in the first round.

Orton is a free agent after this season. I think it is clear Orton will not be in Denver next year. The Broncos want Tebow to play as soon as he is ready. It will be a shock if Tebow is not the opening-day starter in 2011.

There’s little chance Orton will be interested in coming back to Denver as a backup. So, expect this to be his second and final season in Denver. It will behoove Denver to use Orton as the starter while Tebow gets ready this season. But he is clearly a temporary answer as Denver’s quarterback.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Will Chiefs wide receiver Dwayne Bowe bounce back from a rough season?

Theoretically, Bowe is one of the better young receivers in the NFL. But he has to show it again.

Kyle Terada/US PresswireKansas City wide receiver Dwayne Bowe didn't perform to expectations last season.
Bowe had a miserable season last year, his first under new coach Todd Haley. Bowe quickly got in Haley’s doghouse when he showed up heavy for offseason camps. Then he dropped so many passes and was so lackadaisical in training camp he was temporarily dropped to third string. During the season, he was suspended for four games for using a banned substance.

Bowe had only 47 catches and four touchdowns last season. The Chiefs' top pick in 2007 had a total of 156 catches and 12 touchdowns in his first two seasons.

The new Kansas City brass has been impatient with holdovers who have not adjusted. Still, even though he’s tough on Bowe, I get the feeling Haley believes in him. Haley knows that Bowe can be the team’s best receiver. But Bowe has to show it.

His 2010 season has gotten off to a rocky start. He dropped some passes in the OTA practices last week. He also caused waves when he told a story to ESPN The Magazine about veteran players bringing women to the team hotel the night before a game.

This could cause issues for him with some of his teammates.

But the biggest issue, I believe, for the Kansas City staff is if Bowe can keep straight and become the player he was in his first two seasons. He has the talent to do it.

If he struggles again, this probably will be his final season in Kansas City.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Will Shawne Merriman be a San Diego Charger in 2010?

There has been a lot of talk about Merriman’s future in San Diego.

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Donald Miralle/Getty ImagesKeeping Shawne Merriman could be the difference between a good season and a special one.
It has been reported that the Chargers had trade talks with three teams, including the New Orleans Saints, during the draft. However, trade talks are said to have stalled because of high contract demands by Merriman’s agent. The linebacker has since changed agents. Perhaps that could renew trade talks.

Merriman is a restricted free agent who has not signed his tender. He has, however, been working out with the team.

While a trade could happen, I expect Merriman to remain in San Diego in 2010. The Chargers are a good team and Merriman can help make them special.

True, he has not been the same player he was prior to a major 2008 knee injury. But he is a hard worker who is determined to become a major factor again. I think San Diego needs to give him another season to see if he can regain his sack mojo. If not, he is still a solid player.

If Merriman doesn’t become an impact player in 2010, then San Diego probably will let him walk as a free agent. If he does get double-digit sacks this season, perhaps the Chargers will give him a long-term deal.

I think there is no reason not to give Merriman another season in San Diego. Ultimately, though, I do expect it to be his final season in San Diego.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Is San Diego rookie tailback Ryan Mathews up to the task of bringing balance back to the Chargers’ offense?

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Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesRyan Mathews should give the Chargers reasons to smile this season.
It is only May, and San Diego has just seen Mathews at a rookie minicamp. Still, the team is very pleased with what it has seen of Mathews so far.

Thus, San Diego is thrilled it gave up a bundle of draft picks to move up from No. 28 to No. 12 to snare the Fresno State running back last month. I think there is little doubt that Mathews will be an instant impact player, who should vie for offensive rookie of the year honors. The big, strong Mathews is a perfect fit for the Chargers’ offense. That’s why they gave up a lot to get him.

Expect Mathews to be a big upgrade over the LaDainian Tomlinson of the past two years. Mathews is going to extend some drives, eat clock and -- most important -- take pressure off San Diego’s great passing game. His presence will allow quarterback Philip Rivers and his receiving crew to be more dangerous because defense will have to account for the San Diego ground game.

Last season, San Diego had the No. 31-ranked run offense. Mathews’ presence also will allow change-of-pace back Darren Sproles to stay fresher and remain in the role that best suits him. The addition of Mathews is going to be enormous for San Diego for many reasons.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Will JaMarcus Russell be able to fight his way back into the starting quarterback mix in Oakland?

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Kirby Lee/US PresswireJaMarcus Russell threw for just 1,287 yards and three TDs last season.
Russell was expected to be cut once Oakland traded for Jason Campbell on the final day of the draft. He still could be jettisoned.

However, the fact that Russell was brought to Oakland’s minicamp last week means the Raiders have not decided to cut him.

Russell did his part by reporting in decent shape and performing fairly well at the minicamp.

Will it be enough for Oakland to keep him? The Raiders probably will want to reduce Russell’s enormous salary if they want to keep him as a backup. If Russell balks at taking a pay reduction (he has indicated in the past that he would have trouble taking a pay cut), he could be sent packing.

Still, it is clear Oakland owner Al Davis has yet to decide on whether to cut Russell. Many league observers don’t think Davis wants to admit that taking Russell with the No.1 overall pick in 2007 was a mistake. Yet, trading for Campbell was a sign that Davis is making plans to move away from Russell.

If Russell is brought to training camp, he may have a chance to reclaim his starting job if he continues to get in better shape and make strides with his fundamentals. Yet, I think Russell’s road may be too challenging for him to overtake Campbell. Give Russell credit for trying to salvage his career, but it just may be too late in Oakland.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Will quarterback Jason Campbell be the answer in Oakland?

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Robert Benson/US PresswireJason Campbell threw for 3,618 yards and 20 TDs in 2009.
It appears the Oakland Raiders have finally settled on a new quarterback after spending the offseason looking at options.

It seems Oakland has decided to move past the JaMarcus Russell era and didn’t think valiant, feisty backup Bruce Gradkowski could be the answer for an entire season. There has been a faction in Oakland that believed that the Raiders were a solid quarterback away from being a playoff contender. In fact, Oakland coach Tom Cable basically said that a few times last season.

Now, Oakland has a new quarterback in the form of Campbell. He was acquired for a fourth-round pick in 2012 from Washington. Yes, the Redskins basically gave him away.

It was a good move for the Raiders to pick up Campbell. Not only is he now, by far, the best quarterback on Oakland’s roster, but he gives the team hope. There is finally a legitimate quarterback in Oakland.

I think this move will work out to a point. Oakland will score more points and be a solid threat on offense. Campbell has a big arm and the Raiders love that. They will win some games because Campbell, and not Russell, is the quarterback.

But let’s not get too carried away. He is an average quarterback who was replaced in Washington. He has limitations.

But he’s the best current option for Oakland and it’s a good start as the team tries desperately to get decent play from the quarterback position.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Florida quarterback Tim Tebow will be one of the top stories in the draft. Could he end up in the AFC West?

[+] EnlargeTim Tebow
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireCould Tim Tebow's first stop in the NFL be in the AFC West?
The chances of Tebow being drafted by an AFC West team seem higher now than they did a month ago.

He is attracting interest from the division. Denver brought in him for a visit last week and worked him out Monday. Broncos coach Josh McDaniels was complimentary of Tebow during his pre-draft press conference. Oakland coach Tom Cable acknowledged that the Raiders met with Tebow at the NFL combine in February.

There has not been any reported interest in Tebow from Kansas City or San Diego. However, both teams could potentially look at young quarterbacks in the draft.

Still, because of the known interest by the Raiders and the Broncos, they have to be considered the front-runners in the division to draft Tebow.

Both teams could take a quarterback early. Oakland is more likely to draft a quarterback, though, because Denver recently traded for Brady Quinn. Oakland has the No. 39 pick in the draft and that might be a good time to take a player like Tebow, if he is available. Denver has the No. 43 and No. 45 picks and if it really wants Tebow it will have the drafting power to do so.

Ultimately, though, I think it may be a bit of an upset if Tebow lands in the AFC West. I think there is more interest in him around the league than from AFC West teams. AFC West teams have other needs and by the time one of them would be considering Tebow, he will be off the board.

But it will be worth keeping an eye on during the draft.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

The Chiefs will have a tough decision to make with the fifth pick in the first round. Will they take a left tackle or standout Tennessee safety Eric Berry?

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Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesEric Berry could be the defensive playmaker the Chiefs desperately need.
The intrigue of the draft next week may start when Kansas City picks at No. 5.

It looks as if St. Louis will take quarterback Sam Bradford, Detroit and Tampa Bay will take defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy and Washington will likely take left tackle Russell Okung.

Then, it could get complicated. The Chiefs will have a tough decision because there is no clear-cut pick. If Okung somehow slips past Washington, he will be in the mix. If not, Berry could be the choice.

Left tackles Trent Williams of Oklahoma, Bryan Bulaga of Iowa and Anthony Davis of Rutgers are considered top-level tackles. Yet, taking them at No. 5 may be a bit of a reach.

So, the Chiefs may have to decide whether to take a left tackle (Branden Albert would then move to right tackle) or Berry, who is considered the best defensive back available in the draft.

Some believe taking a safety at No. 5 is too high. But Berry, who visited with the Chiefs this spring, is considered a game-changing player.

I believe if Okung is off the board and the Chiefs don’t have a great offer to trade down, Berry will be the choice. The Chiefs have a big need at safety and Berry would be a great addition to a team that has a dire need for an impact player on defense.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

The Oakland Raiders have reportedly been eyeing some of the top-ranked receivers. Will they draft one of them?

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Peter G. Aiken/US PresswireMight the Raiders use a high draft pick on a receiver like Oklahoma State's Dez Bryant?
I’ve found it very interesting that the Raiders are looking at receivers available in the draft. It has been reported that the Raiders have kept a close eye on Oklahoma State’s Dez Bryant, Notre Dame’s Golden Tate and Cincinnati’s Mardy Gilyard. Bryant and Tate could be first-round picks and Gilyard is highly regarded as well.

None for these players are expected to go as high as No. 8, where Oakland picks in the first round. The Raiders have the No. 39 pick, which may be too late to get Bryant or Tate. But if the Raiders want a top receiver, they can figure a way to get him.

What’s so intriguing is Oakland’s roster is stocked with young receivers. They have Chaz Schilens (a seventh-round pick in 2008), Darrius Heyward-Bey (No. 1 pick in 2009) and Louis Murphy (No. 4 pick in 2009). Schilens and Murphy have shown they have solid futures ahead. Heyward-Bey was not good as a rookie, but it far too early give up on him.

What Oakland needs is a veteran receiver to help mold these youngsters and produce while they continue to develop.

But perhaps Oakland is not completely sold on its young receivers. I’d be surprised if the Raiders -- who have bigger needs at tackle, quarterback and defensive tackle -- jumped at a receiver early. But one thing we’ve learned from Oakland’s recent drafts is that we should be prepared for anything.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Is Donovan McNabb a good fit in Oakland?

The idea of replacing hugely disappointing JaMarcus Russell and journeyman Bruce Gradkowski with perennial Pro Bowl quarterback Donovan McNabb is naturally intriguing.

Donovan McNabb
Jody Gomez/US PresswireDonovan McNabb has said he wants to remain in Philadelphia.
McNabb is a much better player than Russell or Gradkowski ever could hope to be. If McNabb were traded to Oakland, quarterback would not be a problem area for the Raiders in 2010. McNabb’s arrival would answer one of Oakland’s issues and instantly improve and give credibility to the offense. But does a trade to Oakland really make sense?

There are several reasons this may not be a great fit for Oakland.

McNabb has played his entire NFL career in the West Coast offense. The essence of that offense is to get rid of the ball. Al Davis loves having his receivers running deep routes. That’s why Russell was drafted No. 1 overall in 2007. He had the big arm that fit Oakland’s offense. McNabb is a pro and he can adjust, but he can’t be expected to fling 60-yard bombs regularly. One of the reasons Philadelphia is interested in trading McNabb is because it believes Kevin Kolb is better equipped to throw the ball more.

Also, Oakland’s supporting cast is not exactly playoff ready. The offensive line is a major project, and McNabb, who will turn 34 in November, is not as nimble as he once was. His running numbers have decreased over the years, and the injuries have mounted. McNabb has played a full season just four times in 11 seasons and has missed 17 games in the past five seasons. Could McNabb survive and be an effective player with Oakland’s offensive line? If not, Oakland’s skill-position players would have a difficult time bailing out McNabb. Oakland’s receivers are green and prone to dropping the ball, and the running game has been inconsistent.

It would be a tad unfair and naive to think McNabb would be able to carry Oakland’s offense at this point. It's understandable if McNabb is reluctant to go to Oakland, which has not had a winning season since 2002.

These issues and McNabb's huge contract and pending free agency make him a dicey fit for the Raiders.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Can JaMarcus Russell make enough strides in the offseason to compete for Oakland’s starting quarterback job in training camp?

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Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesJaMarcus Russell will have to prove he can take the reigns in Oakland.
Russell has so much work to do that he will need the entire offseason to fix issues and come into training camp, which could be his last in Oakland, ready to be a starting quarterback.

Russell began his reclamation project in January when he went to Arizona to work with a trainer. Russell’s main goals were to shed weight and work on his fundamentals. He showed up last week during the second day of Oakland’s offseason workout program and reportedly weighed in at 271 pounds.

His listed weight at the start of 2009 was 261 pounds, but we don't know how much he weighed at the end of the season. He did seem to put on weight after he lost his starting job in November, so it's good news for Russell that he weighs 271 pounds now.

Russell’s issues run deeper than his weight. Even if Russell were to show up at 235 pounds, he still must address his fundamentals. He has terrible footwork. He has an atrocious completion percentage -- 48.8 percent in 2009. He stares down his intended receiver. He can’t read defenses. He has a poor work ethic and is not a leader.

Those are major problems, folks. He has to address each shortcoming before camp and I don't think he has enough time. The fact that he is actually trying is commendable, but this is the former No. 1 overall pick. There are no excuses. He already should be much further along than he is.

I don’t think Russell will be ready by training camp and I see him losing the starting job to Bruce Gradkowski -- who ignited the Oakland offense when he took over last fall.

The Big Question: Brady Quinn

March, 16, 2010
3/16/10
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NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Can newly acquired quarterback Brady Quinn fulfill his potential in Denver?

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James Lang/US PresswireWill a change of scenery help Brady Quinn? The Broncos sure hope so.
That’s what everyone in Denver wants to know. Quinn was not impressive in Cleveland in his first three NFL seasons. Cleveland gave up on the 2007 first-round pick after he failed to make strides in 2009. He was 2-7 as the team’s starter last season.

Still, Denver found it worth its while to take a chance on Quinn. Denver traded backup running back Peyton Hillis and two future draft picks for Quinn on Sunday.

If Quinn is going to succeed as an NFL quarterback, it could be in Denver. Second-year Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels has a reputation for working well with quarterbacks. He made Matt Cassel an instant impact player in New England in 2008 and he helped Kyle Orton make strides last year in Denver. Quinn played for Charlie Weis at Notre Dame. Weis is a mentor of McDaniels. The two coaches have similar philosophies.

Quinn should have no trouble adjusting to McDaniels’ scheme. He is already well versed in it.

Quinn won't face the same pressure to succeed in Denver that he did in Cleveland. He was a first-round pick for his home-state team. In Denver, Quinn comes with a small price tag and low expectations. There is also no rush for him to make an impact. Orton probably will start in 2010.

If Quinn makes great strides in McDaniels’ system, perhaps he can hit the playing field earlier than expected. His primary job now is to correct his issues and become a sponge in McDaniels’ system.

If Quinn embraces this opportunity, there is a chance his career can be salvaged.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A new Tuesday feature on the ESPN.com NFL blog network.

Will Denver receiver Brandon Marshall be in a different uniform in 2010?

This is the burning question in the AFC West.

And I believe the answer is yes. I just don’t see any way Marshall will return to Denver.

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Eric Hartline/US PresswireBrandon Marshall has recorded at least 101 receptions in each of the past three seasons.
I know all parties have said a Marshall return to Denver is possible. I know there have been reports that the Broncos want a first-round pick for Marshall or they won’t let him go. Remember, Jay Cutler wasn’t going to be traded, either.

I think, ultimately, Denver would change its stance if an attractive offer is made. For example, if Denver is offered a second-round pick and a player for Marshall, the Broncos may think that is worth it. In the end, Denver will want value for Marshall.

If he were to stay in Denver in 2010, Marshall would be set to become a free agent in 2011, assuming there will be football played that season. Marshall would surely leave Denver next year unless he got a new, huge contract.

I know the Broncos are reluctant to commit to Marshall long-term because of his off-field problems. Also, Denver was fed up with Marshall after a turbulent 2009 season that featured a trade demand, a summer suspension and a benching in the final game of the season.

Denver has to be ready to move on. So I don’t expect this first-round demand to be a deal-breaker.

Seattle is the only team to show interest in Marshall so far. It has visited with Marshall, but the Seahawks aren’t expected to offer one of their two first-round picks for the receiver. Still, expect Seattle to get creative with its offer if it decides to make a pitch for Marshall. Denver’s best hope for a first-round pick is if there is a bidding war for Marshall.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter has reported that Cincinnati could make a play for Marshall. Other teams such as Miami, New England and the Jets could potentially get involved. More interest could mean higher compensation.

If that’s the case, perhaps the Broncos will get that first-round pick. But in the end, expect Marshall to leave Denver, first-round pick or not.

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