Denver has won four straight AFC West titles and doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon with Peyton Manning at the helm. However, just two seasons ago, three teams from the division made the playoffs, and Kansas City and San Diego could get back there in 2015. Oakland still appears to have a long way to go, but this division may be in position to potentially repeat its 2013 success.
Take a look at some of the key AFC West players that could be pivotal to their respective team's success this season:
Ty Sambrailo, Left Tackle, Denver
Broncos (1st place, 12-4)
There may not be a more pressured position than the one rookie Sambrailo has been put in, as four-time Pro Bowler Ryan Clady’s season ended following a torn ACL suffered during OTAs. Now, the second-round pick from Colorado State could be tasked with protecting the blindside of a future Hall of Famer. With a newly implemented zone-blocking scheme and a 39-year-old quarterback, Sambrailo will have to be excellent in pass protection. Losing the injury-ridden Clady is a crushing blow, and there should be some concern about filling the most critical spot on the offensive line.
Another player to watch: running back C.J. Anderson
Jeremy Maclin/Albert Wilson,
Wide Receivers, Kansas City
Chiefs (2nd place, 9-7)
Yes, Maclin is a Pro Bowler and coming off of his best season, but his selection here is more about the Chiefs' struggle at wide receiver last year. They finished the season with no touchdowns from their wideouts and were 29th in passing offense. Alex Smith is no slouch at quarterback and even with a punchless passing game, Kansas City managed to win nine games and just missed making the playoffs. Thus, Maclin needs to continue his strong play, and Wilson, the second-year target who emerged late in 2014, will certainly be needed to complement the Chiefs' new No. 1 wide receiver.
Another player to watch: cornerback Phillip Gaines
Linebacker Manti Te’o, San
Diego Chargers (3rd place, 9-7)
The embattled linebacker whose off the field issues once overshadowed his football career looks to continue his development as a pro. The Chargers' rushing defense ranked near the very bottom of the league last season, so they need to clean that up. He was strong in coverage for them last year, but he must do more to help stop the run. Like Kansas City, San Diego appears to be on the verge of getting back to the postseason, and Te’o could potentially be a difference-maker.
Another player to watch: running back Melvin Gordon
Running back Latavius Murray,
Oakland Raiders (4th place, 3-13)
Oakland was last in rushing offense last season, and that played a role in another forgettable season. Their leading rusher, Darren McFadden, is now gone, although that really isn’t much of a blow to this team. His limited production won’t be forgotten, but that puts the load on Murray to help jumpstart the team’s running game. He had a few big runs last season, but overall he wasn’t very effective either. But as the full-time starter now, he’ll get more carries, and the Raiders need him to produce, in addition to do his part in protecting Derek Carr.
Other players to watch: cornerbacks D.J. Hayden, Ketih McGill, and T.J. Carrie