AFC West: Chief concern

AFC West: Chief concern
by Cris Carter, Yahoo Sports
August 30, 2004

Cris Carter
Yahoo Sports
Cris' Prediction
   1. Kansas City
   2. Denver
   3. Oakland
   4. San Diego

Cris Carter's division previews:
AFC: East | North | South | West
NFC: East | North | South | West

The Chiefs are the team to beat after addressing their defense in the offseason. Everything comes from the top, and Kansas City made a good move by bringing back Gunther Cunningham to rebuild its defense. I used to play against his defenses in my day. He doesn't have the same talent in this group as he did then, but he will get creative and develop a system to utilize the talent he now has.

The Chiefs ran away with this division last season, but they should be wary of Denver. The Broncos seem to be making a big push for this to be their year.

Kansas City Chiefs (Last season: 13-3, 1st)

Players to watch: Receiving corps
Kansas City needs production from its outside receivers. Can Johnnie Morton and Eddie Kennison take some of the offensive load off Priest Holmes' shoulders? I have no doubt that Holmes will be one of the elite players in the league. Coming out of the backfield, he is second to none running the ball between the tackles. But if those guys outside don't produce, he will face tough defensive fronts.

Burning question: Cunningham the answer?
Everyone realized that it was Kansas City's defense that held the team back last season. And this offseason the Chiefs brought back Cunningham to rebuild the defense, at least mentally. Can he bring back the magic? Kansas City's offense may not be able to outscore every team this season and is counting on an improved defense to slow other teams down.

Bottom line:
The Chiefs won't have the league's best defense, but they don't need to. It's easier to call defenses when you can count on 24 to 27 points per game from your potent offense.

Denver Broncos: (Last season: 10-6, 2nd)

Player to watch: Starting tailback
Whoever suits up as the starter in the backfield has some big shoes to fill. For the past eight to 10 years, the Broncos have gotten 1,200-1,500 yards from that position. Will Quentin Griffin get the nod over Garrison Hearst and rookie Tatum Bell? Or will the Broncos look to the group to fill in for the departure of Clinton Portis?

Burning question: Offense going to suffer?
Denver made good moves to shore-up its defense. But can the team replace Portis and help Jake Plummer on offense? The running game has been a staple for the Broncos. It allows coach Mike Shanahan to come up with creative formations and plays. Plummer won't be able to carry this team if its offense becomes one-dimensional. He is not an accurate enough passer and is not consistent enough week in, week out.

Bottom line:
In a busy offseason, Denver added Champ Bailey and key veterans who know the team concept and realize that everyone is there to win. If Kansas City looks over its shoulder it will see Denver closing in.

Oakland Raiders (Last season: 4-12, t-3rd)

Player to watch: Rich Gannon
Gannon was the MVP two years ago but a non-factor last season. Which version will show up this year? New coach Norv Turner will be patient because he has a lot of respect for Gannon – if the QB remains healthy, that is. If not, Turner will turn to the team over to Kerry Collins.

Burning question: Will Charles Woodson's holdout hurt the team?
Oakland's defense will be much improved after the signings of Ted Washington and Warren Sapp, but will Woodson's holdout hurt the Raiders? You could add any nine players behind Sapp and Washington and be better, but Woodson is the key. He is not only the best player on defense, but also on the team. They need to get him involved early if they want to see real improvement.

Bottom line:
The Raiders have improved, but they look like a .500 team. After such a tough season last year, Oakland has too far to climb to pass Kansas City or Denver. Turner will struggle without a dominant running game. He loves mixing the run with a play-action passing game.

San Diego Chargers (Last season 4-12, t-3rd)

Player to watch: LaDainian Tomlinson
Can the Chargers come up with a different system that can better help Tomlinson? Even with his productivity, San Diego hasn't been a winner. The Chargers need to have a down-the-field presence with their passing game. They have become too predictable with short passing and need to take the pressure off Tomlinson.

Burning question: Where is this franchise going?
The Chargers haven't had a winning record since 1995. The contract dispute and holdout of top pick Phillip Rivers concerned me as well. He is definitely the franchise quarterback and they didn't bring him in early enough. He could be one of the most exciting quarterbacks in the NFL five to ten years from now.

Bottom line:
The Chargers made good offensive moves but aren't much better. Rivers impresses me as a very mature player who takes the team on his back and commands the attention of everyone on the field. San Diego has been missing that.

Defense will be the Chargers' big problem. San Diego's defense needs to be in the top 10 to take the pressure off a young offense. The Chargers ranked second-to-last in points allowed last year, and they are in real trouble if they repeat that performance.

Cris Carter is Yahoo! Sports' NFL analyst. Send Cris a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

Updated on Monday, Aug 30, 2004 8:59 pm, EDT

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