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AFC West: Offensive juggernauts

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Previews: AFC West | NFC West

We'll celebrate the first days of the summer season with the beginning of my preview of the NFL divisions. Over the next four weeks, I'll examine each team, noting its offensive weaponry and putting the spotlight on its chief fantasy contributors. Let's start with the AFC West, home of the darlings of 2004, the San Diego Chargers, and the most intriguing team of 2005, the retooled Oakland Raiders.

Let's get after it.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
The Chargers were the Cinderella story in the NFL last season, reversing their miserable 4-12 season of 2003 to finish 12-4. While big seasons from Drew Brees, LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates garner most of the credit for the team's success, it should be noted that the defense rose 20 spots in the points allowed category over 2003, climbing from 27.6 in '03 to 19.6 in 2004.

Running Game
With top RB LaDainian Tomlinson healthy entering the '05 season, expectations are high for the running game. The schedule will include a number of the top run defenses from last year, including Washington, New England, Pittsburgh and Denver (twice). The Chargers received great production out of Jesse Chatman when Tomlinson needed a breather last season (six yards per carry), but rookie Darren Sproles will look to snag his role as the backup in the running game, while Michael "The Burner" Turner will get looks in the return game.

Passing Game
Brees has to feel confident that he can replicate his success of 2004 with a full complement of receivers this season. Beyond Antonio Gates, he'll get a full season of work with veteran receiver Keenan McCardell. After those two receivers, however, the picture gets muddled. Erik Parker's size is a perennial question mark, Kassim Osgood saw sporadic game action, and Reche Caldwell is returning from a serious knee injury. The Chargers drafted 6-foot-6 Northern Colorado receiver Vincent Jackson in the second round to round out the receiving corps.

Fantasy Power List

  • LaDainian Tomlinson (First Round - 1st overall): He scored at least one touchdown in 14 of 15 games in which he played in 2004. Though clearly hurting, Tomlinson came through for fantasy owners with three touchdowns during the fantasy playoffs. He'll likely be more involved in the passing game this season after catching only 53 passes last year (100 in '03 and 79 in '02).
  • Antonio Gates (Fourth Round): Gates sparked a new order of thinking about the tight end position with his huge 2004 season. Everyone's looking for the 2005 version as they begin breaking down their cheat sheets. He averaged five catches per game over the course of the season and nabbed eight TD catches in the second half of the season. It will be interesting to see how he handles double-team efforts in '05.
  • Keenan McCardell (Eleventh Round): The Chargers went on a phenomenal roll once McCardell was added to the mix in Week 7. He snagged 31 receptions over seven weeks of action, but was limited by hamstring issues and missed the final three weeks of the campaign. If he can avoid the recurrence of those problems this season, he's a great No. 3 receiver for your fantasy squad, particularly if the league rewards you for receptions.
  • Drew Brees (Eleventh Round): Brees lit up scoreboards last season. He tossed for over 200 yards 10 times and failed to throw a TD pass in just three contests. Even if the production of the receiving corps is spotty after Gates and Tomlinson, Brees will still best his '03 totals (11 TDs and 15 INTs). However, I don't anticipate him making another run at the spectacular four touchdown passes per interception that he posted in '04. Brees remains a fantasy backup entering the season with spot starts against the lackluster defenses of division rivals Kansas City and Oakland.

Wild Card

  • Reche Caldwell: "Big Play Reche" got off to a nice start in his third NFL season, hauling in three touchdown receptions of 33 yards or longer in his first six games. Unfortunately, he tore his right ACL and missed the remainder of the Chargers' magical run. Caldwell looked good in the most recent mini-camp and has Marty Schottenheimer encouraged that he can be a big contributor to the offense this season.

OAKLAND RAIDERS
This is certainly a much different team heading into '05, with the high profile offseason moves that netted LaMont Jordan and Randy Moss. However, the team that ranked 31st in points allowed a season ago (27.6) will again struggle. As a result, Norv Turner and his offensive coaching staff will need to devise a scheme to win shoot-outs.

Running Game
To put it simply, the Raiders have nowhere to go but up this season after last season's misery in the backfield. The Raiders employed four different feature backs last year and had only two 100-yard performances (one each by Tyrone Wheatley and Amos Zereoue). The addition of LaMont Jordan immediately upgrades this facet of the offense, as he'll find ample running space behind Barry Sims and Robert Gallery.

Passing Game
Ahh, where to begin here? Obviously, the most heralded move this offseason was the acquisition of Randy Moss from the Vikings. The aforementioned tackle combination of Sims and Gallery should allow Kerry Collins to stand tall in the pocket with plenty of time to find his plethora of receiving options. But, as always, fantasy football's version of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde will keep owners on their toes.

Fantasy Power List

  • Randy Moss (Late-First or Early Second Round): The shift from Daunte Culpepper to Collins has some fantasy owners devaluing Moss. In a recent experts draft, he was the 15th player selected despite his past dominance. With the change of scenery and Moss' strong endorsement of Collins – "he's better than Daunte" – Moss is primed for another monster season.
  • LaMont Jordan (Mid-Second Round): Can Jordan be the man? After four years of backing up Curtis Martin in New York, we're going to find out. He's made the most of limited chances in the past, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. With the big-play potential of the passing game, the offense will be spread to give Jordan ample running room to pile up big numbers.
  • Jerry Porter (Sixth Round): Porter finished just shy of the 1,000-yard mark in 2004, but matched his career high of nine touchdowns. Eight of those touchdowns came in the final six weeks of the season, showing a great chemistry with Collins. With Randy Moss running opposite him, the sky is the limit.
  • Kerry Collins (Eighth Round): Which Collins will we get in 2005? He tossed five touchdowns against 12 interceptions in his first seven appearances last year, but rallied to fire 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions in the final seven games of the season. Norv Turner is fired up about the tools at his disposal and will enjoy the prospects of sending Moss and Porter deep down the sidelines. Collins will make his share of mistakes, but a full season with these targets could push him toward the elite 30-TD club.

Wild Card
Ronald Curry: The former college quarterback exploded on the scene with 50 catches and six scores last season. In the final three games of his abbreviated '04 season (Achilles tendon), Curry caught 19 balls for 309 yards and four touchdowns. There are some who believe that this offense could approach the dominance of the 2004 Colts. If that's the case, then fantasy owners will happily take Curry doing his best Brandon Stokley imitation.

DENVER BRONCOS
While you can always count on the Denver running game, its passing game could also be a major plus if second-year receiver Darius Watts can become more consistent. Rod Smith and Ashley Lelie provide big-play potential for Jake Plummer. One big question mark will be the defensive line. Denver imported the front four of the Cleveland Browns, who ranked dead last in rushing defense last year. Holes on defense may force Plummer to try and play savior, which normally spells disaster for fantasy owners.

Running Game
Since the arrival of Terrell Davis on the scene a decade ago, the Denver backfield has been one of the hottest properties in fantasy football. It made stars out of players such as Mike Anderson, Olandis Gary and most recently, Reuben Droughns. There's no question that yardage and touchdown opportunities await the primary ballcarrier for the Broncos, it's just a question of who fills that role. Tatum Bell?

Passing Game
Like Kerry Collins above, Jake Plummer can be as good or as bad as any quarterback in the game on any given week. At times, he's absolutely magical, like he was in his four-touchdown, zero-interception game against Houston in Week 9. Other times, you're left questioning what goes through his mind, like in his four-interception, zero-touchdown performance against San Diego four weeks later. In any event, Plummer gets time to throw in this offense and manages to elude would-be tacklers. He was sacked only 15 times all season, five of which came in one blowout loss to the Chiefs.

Fantasy Power List

  • Tatum Bell (Mid-Second Round): I'm often asked, "if the Denver backfield is such a goldmine, why isn't Bell going higher?" Simply put, health issues and minor bouts of fumble-itis keep the door open for one of many backs to pilfer carries from Bell. If he's at his best, Bell will see many days like the 123-yard, two-touchdown performance he turned in against Miami in Week 14. If not, the Denver backfield could cause you some headaches. If you must draft early, be sure to handcuff at least one, if not more, of the running backs in the mix to help you rest easy.
  • Ashley Lelie (Seventh Round): Lelie emerged as a big-play threat last year, catching seven touchdowns en route to his first 1,000-yard season. Additionally, he averaged 20 yards per reception.
  • Rod Smith (Seventh Round): With the growth of Lelie opposite him, Smith attained his seventh 1,000-yard season in eight years. He also caught 70 balls for the eighth straight year and reached his highest TD total since 2001.
  • Jake Plummer (Eighth Round): If Collins is Jekyll/Hyde, then Plummer has to be the equivalent of Two-Face in the Batman series. He'll begin leading you to glory and then a flip of the coin has him sabotaging your championship dreams. One thing of note in charting Denver offensive players is that should Plummer go down, Danny Kanell ascends to the top spot at QB. Think about it.
  • Maurice Clarett (Tenth Round): Fantasy owners drafting Clarett believe in two things. First, they clearly have faith in the Denver system. Second, they believe that Shanahan didn't draft the kid for nothing. Former 1,000-yard back Mike Anderson is healthy and currently slotted at No. 2 on the depth chart, but the selection of Clarett has some kind of sexiness to it. If Bell falters, then fantasy owners will wait to see whether Clarett, Anderson, Quentin Griffin or Ron Dayne gets the call.
  • Jeb Putzier (Twelfth Round): First, it's pronounced "Putz-ear." The Broncos figure to expand Jeb's role in 2005, letting him roam downfield to take on linebackers in coverage to improve on his 36-catch, two-touchdown 2004 season. Some liken his abilities to those of former Broncos star and future Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe. You may just be looking at the '05 version of Antonio Gates right here.

Wild Card
Mike Anderson: Tatum Bell and Maurice Clarett are getting the early love on draft day, but it should be noted that Anderson was a possible starter in '04 before being sidelined by injury. He's a guy I'll be keeping a close eye on in training camp, as he looks to vault back to the No. 2 spot behind Bell.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

The Chiefs embody the kind of statements made by Patrick Ewing during his days with the New York Knicks – "We score a lot points and we give up a lot of points." The Chiefs atrocious defense ranked 29th in points allowed last year at 27.2 per game. But, they're focused on turning that around in '05 through the draft and offseason acquisitions. That's great for Chiefs fans, but potentially bad news for fantasy owners. If they cease to allow massive point totals, where's the pressure to work quickly and efficiently on offense?

Running Game
As evidenced last season, whomever lines up in the backfield will be able to attain fantasy celebrity. Priest Holmes, Derrick Blaylock and Larry Johnson all had big days for fantasy owners in 2004. Barring injuries, it appears that the league's fifth-best rushing offense last season will be primed to make another run toward the top this year.

Passing Game
There are still many questions in the passing game beyond Tony Gonzalez, Eddie Kennison and Priest Holmes. The Chiefs have several talented young receivers in Samie Parker, Kris Wilson and rookie Craphonso Thorpe, but how much of an impact they'll make in '05 remains to be seen. Regardless of who lines up opposite Kennison, we do know that the Chiefs will air it out. Trent Green has averaged 518 passing attempts over the past four seasons.

Fantasy Power List

  • Priest Holmes (Early First Round): Even in coming off of a knee injury that sidelined him for the second half of the year, Holmes has been the No. 2 selection in every draft I've witnessed except one, thus far (he went sixth in that one). Even if he plays only one half of the season, Holmes will still be good for 12-15 touchdowns. However, he's one of several running backs that require you to reach for their backup a round or two earlier than you might otherwise.
  • Tony Gonzalez (Fourth Round): He's still the king at the TE position, especially after turning in career highs in receptions (102) and receiving yards (1,258). There appears to be some help in the receiving corps forthcoming (see last week's Mailbag for more on that), which might actually draw some attention away from Gonzo.
  • Trent Green (Fifth Round): Green has taken every snap for four consecutive seasons in Kansas City. He'll need to do it again, or the Chiefs are in trouble. Despite the apparent lack of options, Green topped the 4,000-yard mark for the second straight year in 2004 and recorded his third straight season with 24 or more TD passes.
  • Larry Johnson (Sixth Round): If you draft Holmes, you have to walk away with Johnson. Depending on the flow of the draft, you may need to snag Johnson as early as the fifth round. With three 100-yard rushing games, one 100-yard receiving game and touchdowns in six straight games to close the 2004 season, Johnson will be the first or second backup RB off of the board.
  • Eddie Kennison (Eighth Round): Kennison had eight games with 70 or more receiving yards (five 100-yard games) and scored eight touchdowns in 2004 over a six-game stretch. His TD total was his highest since his rookie year of 1996 with St. Louis and his 62 catches marked a career high.

Wild Card
Freddie Mitchell: While not enough to warrant his selection on draft day, Mitchell's signing with the Chiefs means that he'll have a shot to become that player everyone envisioned him to be coming out of UCLA. I'll admit to getting taunted by Freddie after watching a couple of Eagles' workouts last year. He caught everything thrown at him, blocked well and seemed intent on becoming an impact player. Instead, Mitchell caught 22 passes and two touchdowns and was a fantasy non-factor. Keep an eye on how he works into the Chiefs system, as they'll give him a shot to compete with Samie Parker and Dante Hall. If he can button the lip and get back to work, there may be a spot for him in your fantasy lineup down the line.