2015 NFL Season Primer: AFC West

Dan Kitchen, Contributor

As the NFL season kicks off this week, it is fun to look ahead and project what the storylines at the end of the season will be. Instead of picking who will play each other in Super Bowl L this year, this exercise will go division by division looking at the players each roster has to offer, including who could breakout or breakdown this year, who the best rookies are, and where the best rookies of next year will likely play on each team. This piece highlights the AFC West.

Denver Broncos

Surprise Player: Virgil Green, TE

This may seem like a deep sleeper pick on the team, but Green is in a situation that is ideal for tight ends: his quarterback is Peyton Manning. Julius Thomas was in a similar position to Green, and then after two seasons with Manning, earned almost fifty million dollars from the Jacksonville Jaguars. Green won’t have a monopoly on the tight end spot (as of now, he isn’t even the starter), but Owen Daniels is most likely past his days of being the only tight end a team needs. Green has the athleticism to create mismatches in limited action, which he can turn into some serious yardage, especially by backup tight end standards.

Bust: Darian Stewart, S

Signed to start opposite Pro Bowl safety T.J. Ward, Stewart is facing a tall task of performing at a level similar to Ward and standout corners Aqib Talib and Chris Harris. This pick doesn’t imply Stewart will be a complete failure, but on a roster devoid of obvious “bust” players, Stewart fits the bill the closest, unless Denver’s trend of running backs either underperforming or getting injured continues with C.J. Anderson.

Best Rookie: Ty Sambrailo, OT

Denver is a unique case for rookie production this season: while most teams will expect a skill position player to step up as their impact rookie, two of Denver’s top three projected rookies are offensive linemen. Fourth-round pick Max Garcia looks to slide into one of the backup spots at guard or center, but the real impact will come from second-round tackle Ty Sambrailo. Currently the apparent man who will guard Peyton Manning’s blind side, Sambrailo has not been as impressive in practice as the Broncos would have liked, but let’s remember that he is facing guys like Von Miller, which will only improve him more when he faces ends that are easier to handle mid-season. Defensive end Shane Ray won’t see as much time as Garcia and Sambrailo while playing behind Miller and DeMarcus Ware, and Garcia’s chances to start took a potentially fatal blow when the team signed Evan Mathis at guard. Sambrailo might have some more growing pains to go through, but by the end of the season, he should be making a positive impact for the team.

Projected 2016 First-Round Targets: Defensive End, Safety, Offensive Line


Kansas City Chiefs

Surprise Player: Alex Smith, QB

I had this entire section typed up for Travis Kelce, but in researching more about other KC players, I got to revisit Alex Smith, and was surprised by what I saw. Alex Smith is incredibly good at minimizing risk. You have to go back to 2007 to find a season where he threw more interceptions than touchdowns, and that difference hasn’t been within five since 2010. He won’t put up numbers similar to Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, but with improved weapons in Kelce and Jeremy Maclin to work with, Alex Smith should come close to putting up career-best numbers.

Bust: Dee Ford, OLB

This is less of a knock on Ford’s ability as it is on the Kansas City roster. There just isn’t enough room for Ford to merit his first-round status. Justin Houston and Tamba Hali are both high-caliber rushers, and the few sacks that they don’t pick up, the defensive line or Derrick Johnson likely will. As long as Dee Ford is played as an outside linebacker, he won’t have enough time to produce at the level a first-round moniker demands.

Best Rookie: Marcus Peters, CB

Contrary to the previously mentioned Ford, Marcus Peters will get his chances right out of the gate to perform as a first-round pick. Already earning some predictions as defensive rookie of the year, Peters can arguably be called the most talented member of the Chiefs’ secondary, and is a clear front-runner to be the top performing rookie on the team.

Projected 2016 First-Round Targets: Wide Receiver, Defensive Line, Offensive Line


Oakland Raiders

Surprise Player: Michael Crabtree, WR

Spoiler alert: later on in this post, I will call another Oakland receiver the top option on their offense. So, how does an established veteran like Michael Crabtree qualify as a player who could potentially surprise everyone this year? It’s simple: all the pieces are lining up for Oakland to redefine their offense. First, Oakland finally has a gunslinger under center with some serious potential in Derek Carr. Second, their offensive line is developing enough that the younger Carr should not experience a career decline for the same reason as the older one. Third, their offense is all set to become one that leans heavily on the pass, rather than balancing between the pass and run. Oakland’s ground game is set for failure, with highly unproven Latavius Murray and bust Trent Richardson the top two options there. Oakland’s offense, to be successful, should put a major emphasis on the passing attack, which gives Crabtree one of the best chances he’s had to shake off the disappointment label that has become attached to him after posting one career 1,000 yard season.

Bust: Justin Ellis, DT

Honorable mention to Malcolm Smith, who was saved only by the fact that he has at least had experience on one of recent history’s best defensive teams, and will be getting his first full-time chance as a starter. But do you know who has had a chance as a full-time starter? Justin Ellis, who, while showing some promise, was clearly in the bottom half of players at his position last season. There may be room for him to develop into a long-term solution at the position for Oakland, but the likelihood is higher that he experiences a decline this season and/or loses his job to someone else.

Best Rookie: Amari Cooper, WR

Likely the easiest rookie pick in the entire AFC. Amari Cooper wasn’t drafted fourth overall to sit behind anyone on the depth chart, or be a secondary option on offense. He was drafted to immediately become the best weapon on a previously anemic offense, and there isn’t a player on that side of the ball who can prevent him from stepping into that role. There also isn’t a rookie on the other side of the ball who can challenge Cooper as the top overall rookie in Oakland, especially if Mario Edwards Jr. can’t earn much playing time.

Projected 2016 First-Round Targets: Running Back, Cornerback, Safety

San Diego Chargers

Surprise Player: Jeremiah Attaochu, OLB

Another candidate for the award below, Melvin Ingram hasn’t lived up to his draft status yet, but also isn’t yet a complete bust. However, his lack of production rushing the quarterback leaves the door open for another player to pick up some of the slack, and Attaochu has an excellent opportunity to do so this season. Drafted in the second round with a ton of potential, Attaochu is a player Charger fans should be watching excitedly, because he and Ingram could form one of the best pass-rushing tandems at linebacker in the league.

Bust: Jacoby Jones, WR

Notice I have Jones labeled as just a receiver here; this post has nothing to do with him as a returner. The depth chart is simply too crowded for Jones to make a large impact – Keenan Allen and Malcom Floyd seem cemented in as the top two targets, with Stevie Johnson a likely third. Factor in the touches that will be given to rookie Melvin Gordon and the passes that will be going Antonio Gates’ way when he returns, and there simply won’t be enough room for Jones to make an impact away from special teams.

Best Rookie: Melvin Gordon, RB

A rookie starting at running back is very likely to be the best rookie on any team, and with Gordon’s best competition Denzel Perryman likely to be a starter for only part of the season at best, Gordon gets to run away (unfortunate pun) with this award. The Chargers gave Ryan Mathews every chance to succeed from his rookie year, and he was plagued with injuries and occasionally poor performance. Gordon should be given that same opportunity.

Projected 2016 First-Round Targets: Guard/Center, Safety, Tight End