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Old 08-06-2012, 05:39 PM   #1
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Default Why San Diego Will Win AFC West

Monday, August 6, 2012
Why San Diego will win AFC West
By KC Joyner
ESPN Insider

The general perception about the San Diego Chargers seems to be that their window of championship contention is closed. This mindset is so prevalent that AFC West blogger Bill Williamson recently noted, "The nation has become tired of the Chargers. [They have] been a perennial popular early Super Bowl pick but have fallen short of the playoffs the past two seasons. As a result, not much attention is being paid to the team anymore."

While the frustration with this club is certainly understandable, the Chargers shouldn't be dismissed as a playoff contender. In fact, the Chargers should be considered the favorites to win the AFC West.

Here are five reasons why:

Philip Rivers is the best quarterback in the division

The addition of Peyton Manning to the Denver offense has many believing that the Broncos have the best quarterback in the AFC West, but Rivers is still the king of passers in this division.

His perceived drop-off last year was nowhere near as precipitous as generally thought. As I pointed out in my 2012 fantasy football draft guide, Rivers still had over 600 pass attempts at a 7.9 yards per attempt (YPA) clip (ninth best in the league) and accounted for 28 touchdowns in 2011. His 216 vertical pass attempts tied for third with Cam Newton in that metric, and his 12.0 vertical YPA (VYPA, which accounts for passes thrown 11 or more yards downfield) was tied for ninth. He wasn't far from being an extremely productive quarterback.

Now contrast that to Manning's last full season in Indianapolis in 2010. His 9.7 VYPA in that campaign (ranked tied for 26th) was an anchor that dragged down his overall YPA (6.9, tied for 21st). Even if his four neck procedures get him back to that level, he will likely fall well short of posting top-flight vertical numbers -- and if his arm strength has faltered to any extent, it could be a huge problem for the Broncos.

The Chargers have the best set of receivers in the AFC West

San Diego did take a big personnel hit at wide receiver when it lost Vincent Jackson to free agency, but the Chargers are still stocked with quality pass-catchers.

It starts with Antonio Gates, whose dominance has been tempered the past couple of years because of injuries. Those physical ailments may be behind him at this point, according to Chargers Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle. Weddle, who faces Gates every day in practice, recently said, "He is going to be the best tight end in the NFL this year ... He hasn't looked this good since my rookie season."

San Diego also has great vertical threats in Malcom Floyd (whose 13.1 VYPA ranked ninth out of the 31 wide receivers to tally at least 50 vertical targets last year) and Robert Meachem (14.4 VYPA on 35 vertical targets). Add Vincent Brown (who had a 9.5 YPA last year and has been impressive in training camp) and Eddie Royal (who was making quite a splash at camp prior to suffering a groin injury) and it makes for the deepest set of pass-catchers in this division.

The Chargers have the best running back in the division

Every team in the AFC West can make a case to have the dominant lead running back in this division. It just happens that Ryan Mathews' case is the strongest.

It starts with Mathews' 8.6-yard mark in the good blocking yards per attempt (GBYPA) category that measures rushing productivity on plays with good blocking (which is very roughly defined as when the offense doesn't allow the defense to do anything to disrupt a rush attempt). That total ranked tied for fourth among running backs with at least 90 good blocking rush attempts.

Now contrast that to Oakland. The Raiders have an explosive ball carrier in Darren McFadden, but McFadden has more significant injury concerns than Mathews. Plus, Mathews' GBYPA last year was slightly better than the 8.5 GBYPA McFadden posted in his dominant 2010 season, showing he can be just as productive.

The Chiefs have Jamaal Charles and Peyton Hillis, but Charles is rebounding from an ACL injury and Hillis was the least productive running back in the NFL in the GBYPA metric in 2011.

Denver has Willis McGahee and the fact that he was tied with Mathews in the GBYPA category last year makes this race close in that category. However, McGahee will be 31 years old in October and has posted only one season with more than 250 rushes/receptions over the past four years.

San Diego had the best draft of any team in the division

The Chargers posted a B-plus grade in Mel Kiper's 2012 NFL draft grades, a mark that was higher than the grade given to Denver (C-plus), Kansas City (C-plus) or Oakland (C-minus).

It isn't just the first impression that makes these picks stand out. Rivers recently had high praise for first-round pick Melvin Ingram, and early impressions of second-round pick Kendall Reyes have been extremely positive.

San Diego's defensive woes aren't nearly as bad as generally thought

San Diego's strength on offense might not be enough to vault them to a division title if the defense doesn't hold up its end of the bargain, which is something it didn't do in many ways last season. San Diego ranked tied for 25th in yards per play allowed, 22nd in points allowed and tied for 27th in passing touchdowns allowed.

But it wasn't all bad for the Chargers defense in 2011. Their 2.8 percent forced bad decision rate (a metric that gauges a defense's ability to generate mental errors by opposing quarterbacks) ranked 15th in the league and helped lead to 17 interceptions (ranked 13th).

San Diego also has a very good coverage player in Antoine Cason, as his 5.5 YPA-allowed mark ranked tied for 10th among cornerbacks.

Quentin Jammer, Cason's battery mate at cornerback, used to post numbers near Cason's level but fell off dramatically last season (11.5 YPA) in part because of some off-field personal issues. Now that those issues look to be resolved, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Jammer get back to his previous consistent coverage totals.

Add that level of improved secondary play with the aforementioned impact of Ingram and Reyes (who could work wonders for a pass rush that tallied only 31 sacks last year) and it should equal a much better performance on this side of the ball in 2012.

Combine those factors with the Chargers' motivation to prove the world wrong (something Williamson notes will work as a strong incentive for this team) and it gives San Diego the inside track to win the AFC West.
Tear it apart, OM.
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