It's high noon for gunslingers out west in NFL
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Editor's note: This is the first in a four-part series looking at the NFL's eight divisions heading into the 2012 season.
Quarterbacks are main topic of discussion across the league every year. But this offseason, the league's teams out west have been at the center of the QB discussion. Of the eight teams in the AFC West and NFC West, there's only one team - the Chargers - that doesn't have a question mark at QB, and even the Chargers may have a little cause for concern there.
The talk of the AFC West this offseason, though, has been the Broncos' signing of Peyton Manning. Denver expects Manning to be a significant upgrade over last year's starter, one Tim Tebow, whose name I promise to keep to a minimum in my columns this year.
If the preseason is any indication, Manning's shoulder problems, which cost him the entire 2011 season, won't be a huge concern this year. That's a good thing, because the Broncos will need him to work his magic on their receiving corps. Great quarterbacks make their receivers look better than they really are, and Manning had a reputation of doing that in Indy. If he can do for Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker what he did for Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie, things will be looking up at Mile High.
Manning will also have probably the best running game he's had since Edgerrin James' heyday, and probably the best defense he's ever had. I all things come together, Denver should be the favorites to win the AFC West.
The Chargers are once again being slept on, and they hope for a better result that the 8-8 record they had last season. Philip Rivers is without a doubt the best QB out west, but with Vincent Jackson leaving for Tampa Bay and running back Ryan Mathews banged up, his weapons are in question.
On defense, San Diego reloaded in the offseason, adding linebacker Jarrett Johnson from the Ravens and safety Atari Bigby from the Seahawks. But their biggest acquisition may be first round pick Melvin Ingram, who should be a terror on third downs and is my pick for defensive rookie of the year.
Up in Kansas City, Romeo Crennel's Chiefs may very well be the sleeper team of the AFC. If quarterback Matt Cassel returns to his form from two years ago, he could be the main cog in a very powerful offense. The Chiefs get back Jamaal Charles at running back and he will be backed up by Peyton Hillis. In fact, both could line up in the backfield together on some plays, which would be a defensive nightmare.
The defense should be solid again, especially with the return of young star safety Eric Berry, who missed all of last season because of injury.
Over in San Fran, the 49ers have done everything possible to make sure that his success last season was not a fluke. Not only did they bring in Randy Moss from off the scrap heap, but they also signed the Giants' Mario Manningham and drafted A.J. Jenkins in the first round. All that weaponry at receiver to go along with Vernon Davis at tight end and a running back corps that not only returns Frank Gore but also gets Brandon Jacobs from the Giants makes the Niners' offense just as potent as their defense.
By the way, San Fran's defense may also be the best in pro football and was strong enough to take them to the NFC Championship Game last season. If this unit returns just as strong, then San Fran is a definite Super Bowl favorite.
There's an old saying in football - "If you have two quarterbacks, you really don't have one." That may well be the case with the Cardinals. John Skelton will start ahead of high-priced Kevin Kolb, but that could easily change at any point. Whoever starts, though, will have a great receiving duo to work with in Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd.
The Big Red's defense should once again be a threat, not only because of their personnel, but also because of their use of the 46 defense. That defense helped the Cards make a brief playoff run late last season.
Sam Bradford's receivers aren't as heralded as the Cardinals', but he's still expecting to bounce back from a sub-par sophomore year. The signal-caller and former No. 1 overall draft pick is the key to the Rams' success this year. Running back Stephen Jackson should put up another 1,000-yard season, and they have a young, talented defense that will get a boost from new head coach and defensive guru Jeff Fisher.
But of all the QBs out west, the one that most will be rooting for is Russell Wilson in Seattle. He was already an underdog, with his height at barely 5'11". But now he beats out multi-million dollar free agent signee Matt Flynn for the starting QB job. For those who scouted him in the past, his success isn't that surprising. Other than Andrew Luck, Wilson has the best passing mechanics of any QB in the draft, has excellent mobility and ran a pro-style offense at Wisconsin. If only he had eaten his vegetables as a kid, he would have been three inches taller and a top pick.
Overall, look for Manning's Broncos to come out of the AFC West, with the Chargers, Raiders and Chiefs duking it out every week for a wild card spot. Meanwhile, the 49ers should have the NFC West on lockdown, but look out for the Seahawks if Wilson plays as advertised. The Cardinals and Rams still need to improve on offense.
- Kemp Callwood is The V.I. Daily News Sports Editor. His column appears throughout the NFL season.