Bolts or Broncos?

BtB Previews the 2007 AFC West
By Paul Bessire, WhatIfSports.com
June 14th 2007

We will preview an NFL division each day for eight days, before presenting final standings, leaders, award winners and playoff results. This analysis is part of a broader endeavor with FOXSports.com's Fantasy Football. Each regular season game is simulated 61 times, with the sum of the averages of those games being our final predicted outcome. This allows us to account for ever player and stat as well as assign probabilities of winning for each team for every game. Rosters and depth charts are up-to-date and as accurate as possible as of June 10, 2007. A schedule of upcoming NFL preview content is listed here.

Today we will preview the AFC West.

San Diego Chargers (11-5)
In stark contradiction to our last preview, the AFC West is the best division in football and the Chargers are still on top (San Diego wins the tie-breaker over Denver). In this case, a three win drop is definitely not a bad thing as the Chargers take the best offensive and defensive players in the world to the table in 2007. The Chargers balanced attack led by LaDainian Tomlinson averages 27.8 points per game, while the defense led by Shawne Merriman allows 17.9 points a game, against a schedule that features games versus six 2007 playoff teams.

Offensive Outlook: The 27.8 points a game are third in the NFL and second (behind Indianapolis) in the AFC. The conversation could begin and end with LT. Tomlinson may not reach 30+ touchdowns, but he still leads the league with 19 combined TDs to go with 2,473 total yards. With the best blocking fullback in football and possibly the top backups (especially by yards per carry), the Chargers have little to worry about with their running game. That leaves the passing attack in the hands of Phillip Rivers who broke out in 2006 with over 3,300 yards. In 2007, he steps out of LT's shadow a little bit with 3,482 yards and 26 touchdowns. Plus, his 12 interceptions are the second fewest of any quarterback with at least 400 attempts. So, to go with the best running back, backup running back, fullback and tight end, San Diego may have the game's most efficient QB. The aforementioned Antonio Gates is Rivers' top target with 75 receptions for 877 yards. Clearly, the receiving corps is the team's biggest weakness, but it adds a weapon with Craig Davis and improves with the emergence of Vincent Jackson. Jackson plays the role of deep threat as well as #1 receiver, averaging 15.5 yards per catch on 45 receptions. This offense is loaded with talent - even the line is young and athletic - and head coach/offensive wizard Norv Turner will only help it improve in 2007.

Defensive Outlook: The 17.9 points a game allowed are sixth in the league. After reading the analysis on the team's offense, it should come as no surprise that the defense is characterized by its speed and ferocity. Don't they know that most Californians are laid back and relaxed? Donnie Edwards returns to Kansas City and that will probably allow team's to pay more attention to Merriman, but Shaun Phillips, Stephen Cooper, Marques Harris and Matt Wilhelm are no slouches. Add those five freaks (plus productive rookies Brandon Siler and Anthony Waters) to a big and (of course) fast defensive line that includes three guys pushing 300 pounds who may all play in the Pro Bowl, and it may be difficult for teams to cross the line of scrimmage, let alone get a pass off. Merriman leads the NFL with 18 sacks to go with his 82 tackles to handily win NFL Defensive Player of the Year. And if they do get a pass off? The starting secondary from 2006 is intact and it adds a rookie in Eric Weddle who can fill in at every position as well as in the nickel package. This team is scary good. The only thing that hurts it is the strength of the other teams in the its division (not to mention opening the season against Chicago and New England).

Schedule (simulated 2007 record in parentheses): Chicago (11-5), @New England (12-4), Green Bay (8-8), Kansas City (9-7), @Denver (11-5), Oakland (7-9), Houston (5-11), @Minnesota (7-9), Indianapolis (10-6), @Jacksonville (9-7), Baltimore (8-8), @Kansas City (9-7), @Tennessee (3-13), Detroit (6-10), Denver (11-5), @Oakland (7-9).

Fantasy Notables (fantasy rank at position in parentheses): Phillip Rivers (13) 3,482 yards, 26 TDs, 12 INTs; LaDainian Tomlinson (1) 1,957 yards rushing, 54 receptions, 19 total TDs; Vincent Jackson (49) 45 receptions, 702 yards, 5 TDs; Antonio Gates (2) 75 receptions, 877 yards, 7 TDs; Nate Kaeding (3) 45/46 XPs, 30/38 FGs; Defense (6) 15 INTs, 49 sacks, 286 points allowed.

Denver Broncos (11-5)
San Diego may win the division, but this impassioned and highly motivated Denver team is not too far behind. The Broncos will win the Wild Card with a team that scores 23.9 points a game and allows just 15.4, against a schedule that features five games versus 2007 playoff teams.

Offensive Outlook: The 23.9 points a game are tenth in the NFL and fifth in the AFC and this is not even close to the strength of the team. The quarterback is in his first full season; the Broncos traded their top rusher from 2006 as well as their left tackle and they are still good? Yeah. Cutler looked great completing 59.1% of his passes; the more stable and experienced Travis Henry replaces Tatum Bell; and, Mike Shanahan knows what he is doing with the line that is still anchored by Tom Nalen and Matt Lepsis. Similar to Rivers' first full season, Cutler does what the team needs to win, throwing for 3,091 yards, 19 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. The rest of the work is done by a group of running backs that, as usual, looks deep, fast and smart. A rejuvenated Henry rushes for 1,446 yards, while his backup, Mike Bell, gains 668 on the ground. Catching Cutler's passes will be former Packer Javon Walker and, well, that's about it. Walker grabs 95 balls for 1,470 yards and eight touchdowns. The rest of the receiving corps, including the aging Rod Smith, gets just 70 catches for 895 yards and six TDs. Daniel Graham joins a group of athletic tight ends with Tony Scheffler and Stephen Alexander.

Defensive Outlook: Even considering the unfortunate loss of starting cornerback Darrent Williams, the defense looks great again on paper. Rookies Jarvis Moss and Tim Crowder join Carlos Hall, Ebenezer Ekuban and Elvis Dumervil as undersized defensive ends who can effectively rush the passer. The ends alone account for 30 sacks on the season. Going into the off-season, the Broncos were much thinner at tackle, where Gerard Warren was the only experienced player. Jimmy Kennedy, Alvin McKinley and Sam Adams, along with rookie Marcus Thomas were added to stuff the run. The linebackers, even without the released Al Wilson, are the fastest in the league with D.J. Williams, Ian Gold, converted end Kenard Lang, Nate Webster and D.D. Lewis. And, the secondary is the toughest in the league. Dre Bly replaces Darrent Williams to help take some pressure off of Champ Bailey. If not for Merriman, Bailey may win the league's Defensive Player of the Year award. He finishes the season with 78 tackles, eight interceptions and a sack. Bly does his part with 52 tackles, 3 interceptions and a sack as well. Couple those two all-pro corners with the experience in John Lynch and Nick Ferguson at safety, and it will be hard to succeed through the air against the Broncos. Of course, with the limited lifespan of the rent-a-tackles and Lynch, the Broncos' window of defensive excellence may actually be narrowing.

Schedule (simulated 2007 record in parentheses): @Buffalo (7-9), Oakland (7-9), Jacksonville (9-7), @Indianapolis (10-6), San Diego (11-5), Pittsburgh (7-9), Green Bay (8-8), @Detroit (6-10), @Kansas City (7-9), Tennessee (3-13), @Chicago (11-5), @Oakland (7-9), Kansas City (9-7), @Houston (5-11), @San Diego (11-5), Minnesota (7-9)

Fantasy Notables (fantasy rank at position in parentheses): Jay Cutler (24) 3,091 yards, 19 TDs, 13 INTs; Travis Henry (12) 1,446 yards rushing, 15 receptions, 10 total TDs; Mike Bell (41) 668 rushing yards, 6 TDs; Javon Walker (3) 95 receptions, 1,470 yards, 8 TDs; Tony Scheffler (22) 22 receptions, 368 yards, 3 TDs; Jason Elam (3) 37/37 XPs, 32/39 FGs; Defense (4) 17 INTs, 40 sacks, 246 points allowed.

Kansas City (9-7)
The Chiefs were fortunate to make the playoffs last year with a 9-7 record. This season, with two better teams in the division, Kansas City is on the outside looking in despite another year above .500. In 2007, the Chiefs will score 22.8 points a game and allow 18.4, against a schedule that features seven games versus 2007 playoff teams.

Offensive Outlook: The 22.8 points a game are 14th in the NFL and seventh in the AFC. Damon Huard and Brodie Croyle split snaps in an attempt to replace now-Dolphins QB Trent Green. Both are adequate, but nothing special, combining for 3,846 yards, 26 TDs and 18 interceptions. Just like the last two seasons though, this offense is built around Larry Johnson. LJ may not set another record for carries, or even get over 400 on the season, but he will still be one of the top five running backs in the league with 2,078 total yards and 14 touchdowns. One has to wonder how long that will last though, as LJ continues to take a pounding week-after-week. Like San Diego, Kansas City added a young rookie out of LSU to an otherwise thin receiving corps. Dwayne Bowe is a physical wideout who may act more as a possession receiver who helps free up space for deep threats Samie Parker and Eddie Kennison, while still deflecting attention from tight end Tony Gonzalez. Fantasy-wise, the Chiefs have a running back and tight end that one would want on his team, it just does not combine for enough when it counts. Especially with the more conservative Herm Edwards, this is an offense that looks good on paper, yet lacks explosiveness.

Defensive Outlook: The 18.4 points a game allowed are eighth in the league. With the return of veteran tackle-machine Donnie Edwards to lead the defense, Kansas City has a great blend of young talent and experience on defense. Emerging star Jared Allen pairs with second-year player Tamba Hali to compose one of the brightest defensive end tandems in the AFC. At tackle, Kansas City improves with two rookies and the addition of former Bear Alphonso Boone. If the Broncos have the fastest linebackers and San Diego the most athletic, the Chiefs may have the most complete trio of starting linebackers. They just do not have a ton of depth behind Derrick Johnson, Napoleon Harris and Donnie Edwards. Despite former Pro Bowlers in Ty Law and Patrick Surtain at cornerback, the secondary may be the Chiefs weakness. Second-year standout Jarrad Page breaks out with 72 tackles, four interceptions and two sacks, but lacks an adequate compliment at safety. Law and Surtain are a step slow, yet still get seven picks between the two of them.

Schedule (simulated 2007 record in parentheses): @Houston (5-11), @Chicago (11-5), Minnesota (7-9), @San Diego (11-5), Jacksonville (9-7), Cincinnati (9-7), @Oakland (7-9), Green Bay (8-8), Denver (11-5), @Indianapolis (10-6), Oakland (7-9), San Diego (11-5), @Denver (11-5), Tennessee (3-13), @Detroit (6-10), @NYJ (9-7).

Fantasy Notables (fantasy rank at position in parentheses): Brodie Croyle (27) 2,733 yards, 19 TDs, 13 INTs; Damon Huard (36) 1,112 yards, 7 TDs, 5 INTs; Larry Johnson (4) 1,709 yards rushing, 37 receptions, 14 total TDs; Samie Parker (40) 60 receptions, 768 yards, 5 TDs; Tony Gonzalez (1) 90 receptions, 1,009 yards, 7 TDs; Justin Medlock (18) 38/39 XPs, 25/31 FGs; Defense (9) 16 INTs, 39 sacks, 295 points allowed.

Oakland Raiders (7-9)
This may look like a big surprise to most, and is technically our biggest predicted turnaround, but the almost-.500 finish for the Raiders is actually more a revelation as to how good this defense actually is and could be if it had any sort of offense whatsoever. Of course, it may also be a revelation of its own that Raiders' fans would absolutely ecstatic to finish in last place, below .500. In 2007, the Raiders will score 18.9 points a game and allow 21.9, against a schedule that features seven games versus 2007 playoff teams.

Offensive Outlook: The 18.9 points a game are 28th in the NFL and 13th in AFC. Josh McCown may just be warming a seat for JaMarcus Russell, but he is a huge upgrade over the myriad of below average quarterbacks who took the helm of the Raiders in 2006. McCown starts the first five games before giving way to the number one overall pick. Russell goes on to throw more interceptions (16) than touchdowns (15), yet, much like Vince Young last season, finds ways to win games that he should not while learning the league and the game. A healthy Lamont Jordan supplies some stability at running back and is joined by Super Bowl winning running back Dominic Rhodes and rookie Michael Bush in a backfield that is far superior to 2006 and provides Lane Kiffin with versatile weapons. Those three backs combine for 1,812 total yards and 11 touchdowns. That may not be impressive in its own, but compared to 2005, that is a big improvement. The receivers have some familiar faces, just not necessarily from last season. Jerry Porter and Doug Gabriel contribute as the deep threats alongside possession receivers Ronald Curry and Mike Williams. Rookie Johnnie Lee Higgins also adds 22 catches and 361 yards as another explosive contributor to the 34-year old coach's revamped offense. At tight end, rookie Zach Miller out of Arizona State looks like he may be the perfect young counterpart to Russell, grabbing 27 balls for 289 yards. With rookies Russell, Bush, Higgins and Miller, the Raiders actually have a great nucleus of skill position players for the future. And with the age on the defensive line, Oakland will need its offense to succeed.

Defensive Outlook: The 21.9 points a game allowed are 17th in the league, yet the team would appear even better than that, if the offense held on to the ball longer. The most experienced unit on the entire team is the defensive line. Derrick Burgess is back to his sacking ways, while Warren Sapp and Tommy Kelly excel in run stuffing and quarterback pressuring. The surprise of the line may be with fourth-round draft choice Quentin Moses. Moses plays more in passing situations to account for six sacks and 39 tackles. The linebackers fit the theme for the division: young, fast and athletic. An emphasis, should be put on youth, as, going into 2007, the starters have only four years of starting experience between them. Kirk Morrison and Thomas Howard are a relevant Oakland team away from being household names and they are doing everything they can to make the team relevant. Three more players looking to join that list are Nnamdi Asomugha, Michael Huff and Stuart Schweigert. Asomugha leads the NFL in interceptions with 10, while Huff and Schweigert combine for 129 tackles four interceptions and two sacks.

Schedule (simulated 2007 record in parentheses): Detroit (6-10), @Denver (11-5), Cleveland (5-11), @Miami (8-8), @San Diego (11-5), Kansas City (9-7), @Tennessee (3-13), Houston (5-11), Chicago (11-5), @Minnesota (7-9), @Kansas City (9-7), Denver (11-5), @Green Bay (8-8), Indianapolis (10-6), Jacksonville (9-7), San Diego (11-5)

Fantasy Notables (fantasy rank at position in parentheses): Jamarcus Russell (30) 2,778 yards, 15 TDs, 16 INTs; Josh McCown (37) 1,071 yards, 7 TDs, 5 INTs; Lamont Jordan (28) 803 yards rushing, 27 receptions, 6 total TDs; Ronald Curry (42) 64 receptions, 790 yards, 4 TDs; Jerry Porter (45) 45 receptions, 775 yards, 4 TDs; Zach Miller (32) 27 receptions, 289 yards, 2 TDs; Sebastian Janikowski (14) 30/31 XPs, 28/40 FGs; Defense (13) 22 INTs, 43 sacks, 350 points allowed.

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