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SCOUT'S HONOR: AFC West First Look

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Here is a brief early look at how the AFC West stacks up heading into the 2003 season. It's tough to predict when a veteran core like the Oakland Raiders possess will fade, but they have to be given the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise. This veteran group should remain hungry for another Super Bowl. The offense will remain dangerous as long as Rich Gannon continues to find ways to make things happen on the field. The Raiders have a lot of options with this offense. Charlie Garner provides versatility out of the backfield. They can throw a power run game at opponents, and their passing game has many components with Jerry Porter creating favorable matchups along with veterans Jerry Rice and Tim Brown. Then you have to figure in the multiple tight end sets they'll work into the equation. While they have questions about their top veteran pass rushers, look for Charles Woodson to rebound with a big season. Phillip Buchanon should become more consistent and evolve into a playmaker. Rod Woodson still knows how to make things happen on the field and Bill Romanowski continues to provide a strong veteran presence. And they have intriguing potential in the return game with Buchanon and Ronney Jenkins. That's really an important element of championship teams. The Kansas City Chiefs will be intriguing to watch. They'll put points on the board again and their defense can't get any worse. I expect improvement defensively, but how much is uncertain. Having Ryan Sims from the get-go, Jerome Woods healthy, along with their free agent additions should stabilize things. But big questions remain with their pass rush and secondary. They have guys who can rush the passer, but lack a dominant edge rusher who commands constant attention from opponents. Dexter McCleon should help the secondary, but a lot of hopes remain pinned on Eric Warfield and William Bartee. I just don't see them emerging as instinctive shutdown defenders. They'll continue being vulnerable to the big play. On the offensive side of the ball, their skill players get a lot of attention while the underrated factor their success is along the line. They are a very efficient and athletic unit that allows Al Saunders to spread the field out and create solid matchups for their offense. Overall, the Chiefs have a solid opportunity to overtake Denver in the west, but they must perform much better on the road this season. Jake Plummer brings an added dimension to the Denver Broncos, but they have many other questions to answer before solidifying themselves as a legitimate contender again. They need to cut down on turnovers and sacks, and Plummer needs to play a role in both cases. The biggest question is whether he'll cut down on the interceptions that plagued him in Arizona. He'll have a stronger supporting cast and sound offensive structure to work within. The biggest element Plummer brings is the ability to create plays with his feet. Having Shannon Sharpe for another season should play a positive effect on Plummer, but Ashley Lelie is the one guy who must emerge a threat with his speed to give the passing game a different look. The offensive line remains a question. They need better production from their bookends. It will be interesting to see what impact George Foster makes as a rookie. Foster has tremendous talent, but will need time to learn Denver's blocking schemes. Too many questions linger on defense. Their linebackers unquestionably set the tone, but the secondary is full of uncertainties and the pass rush remains just average. Those aren't places a contending team wants to have this many questions. There is definitely positive energy with the San Diego Chargers. I feel guilty talking about a Marty Schottenheimer team in last place because this is a good football team. LaDainian Tomlinson provides an excellent foundation for their ground game. That won't change, but David Boston gives this offense something it hasn't possessed. Boston can make plays downfield, but can also create matchup problems anywhere on the field with his size and strength. But it won't matter if Reche Caldwell and Stephen Alexander can't produce on a consistent basis. Although Drew Brees has some physical limitations, I like his competitiveness on the field. He just needs to cut down on turnovers this season and play within his strengths. I continue to have some concerns with the offensive line ¿ especially if they suffer from injuries again. I like the transformation towards more speed on the defensive side of the ball, but have big questions upfront. Can Jamal Williams be the same player after suffering serious injuries over the last two seasons? The pass rush could have limitations if Raylee Johnson doesn't bounce back from a subpar year. Brian DeLucia is a respected college and pro personnel consultant around the NFL. Formerly a contributor with Rivals.com and ProFootballDigest.com, Brian is in his third season with FOXSports.com providing commentary around the NFL and NFL Draft.
Tagged: Titans, Colts, Jaguars, Texans, Derrick Mason, Jevon Kearse, Mike Vanderjagt, Edgerrin James, Hugh Douglas, Mark Brunell, Marcus Stroud, Jimmy Smith, Brandon Stokley, Albert Haynesworth, David Carr, Tyrone Calico, Andre Johnson, Dallas Clark

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