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AFC West preview: Joe Flacco looks to resurrect a proud Broncos franchise

Joe Flacco watches from the sideline.
Denver Broncos quarterback Joe Flacco joined the Denver Broncos during the offseason after 11 seasons with the Baltimore Ravens.
(Getty Images)

Quarterback Joe Flacco might not have the job for long — the Denver Broncos are already making plans for their Flacco-less future — but he’s up for the daunting challenge.

He’s tasked with helping a proud NFL franchise get back on its feet.

With rookie second-round pick Drew Lock watching over his shoulder (although he has a badly sprained thumb), Flacco aims to guide the Broncos back to relevance after the club’s first consecutive losing seasons since 1971-72.

The signing of Flacco, 34, didn’t have the splashy appeal of Peyton Manning’s arrival in 2012, but it generated more hope than the four starters who held the job in the wake of Manning’s retirement: Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch, Brock Osweiler and Case Keenum.

Previewing the 2019 NFL season as the league celebrates its 100th year and the Rams and Chargers look to contend for the Super Bowl LIV title.
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In his 11-season career, Flacco has thrown 212 touchdown passes, is 10-15 in postseason games, and was named most valuable player of Super Bowl XLVII. He’s no slouch.

“The biggest advantage is you’ve seen so many things,” Flacco told reporters this summer. “It’s not that you’ve seen everything in this game, because NFL defenses are always changing. But the fact you’ve seen so much in game situations allows you to adapt to those changes at a quicker pace.

“And maybe more importantly, it allows you to realize: ‘Hey, at any point there’s going to be something I was not expecting. But I have the tools to adapt on the fly.’”

Flacco will benefit from the addition of Mike Munchak, a premier offensive line coach determined to get the best out of left tackle Garrett Bolles, who was among the most penalized offensive linemen in the league.

Denver Broncos quarterback Joe Flacco scrambles against the San Francisco 49ers.
Joe Flacco faces a tough task in trying to turn around the Denver Broncos while rebooting his career at age 34.
(Getty Images)

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The Broncos used their top pick on tight end Noah Fant and selected Kansas State offensive lineman Dalton Risner in the second round.

Risner should help spring open holes for running back Phillip Lindsay, the first undrafted offensive rookie to reach the Pro Bowl.

Kansas City won last year despite a lousy defense, so the Chiefs worked hard this offseason to retool on that side of the ball. They lost outside linebackers Justin Houston and Dee Ford but added defensive ends Frank Clark, Alex Okafor and Emmanuel Ogbah.

Also, their new is safety Tyrann Mathieu, who lines up all over the field, and second-round safety Juan Thornhill is getting rave reviews in practice.

The Chargers made the playoffs last season for the first time since 2013 and beat Baltimore in the opening round before losing at New England in an AFC divisional game.

The Chargers could have the league’s most complete team, although they suffered a big setback in training camp when they lost All-Pro safety Derwin James for three to four months because of a foot injury.

But the team has made significant additions too, drafting Notre Dame defensive tackle Jerry Tillery in the first round and Delaware safety Nasir Adderley in the second, and signing seasoned linebacker Thomas Davis.

Oakland is coming off its first last-place finish in the division since 2014. The Raiders went 4-12 in coach Jon Gruden’s first season back, trading edge rusher Khalil Mack to Chicago, where he had 121/2 sacks and forced six fumbles.

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With Mike Mayock at general manager, the Raiders made a slew of big acquisitions in the offseason, the biggest being former Pittsburgh All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown.

Oakland also added offensive lineman Richie Incognito and linebacker Vontaze Burfict, and drafted Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell and Alabama running back Josh Jacobs.

Denver Broncos

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

QB Joe Flacco: The Broncos have cycled through four starting quarterbacks since Peyton Manning. Flacco played in a version of this offense in 2014, so he knows it. His big challenge is protecting the football.

WR Emmanuel Sanders: A 32-year-old receiver coming off Achilles and ankle surgeries doesn’t sound too appealing, but when Sanders is on the field, the Broncos are different and clearly better. His deep threat is essential.

LB Von Miller: Vic Fangio has challenged Miller to be more of a leader and to have another stellar season. He’s focusing on being more controlled and getting fewer penalties. He’s capable of a 20-sack season … if the offense could ever get a lead or force opponents to throw.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

RB Phillip Lindsay: He became the first undrafted offensive rookie to make a Pro Bowl. He’ll be more of a receiver this year than in 2018 and should continue his upward trend.

CB Chris Harris Jr.: He’s in the last year of his deal, so he’s motivated to have a big season. If he’s playing well, he can basically shut down half of the field. He had three interceptions last season.

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OT Garett Bolles: This left tackle is at a crossroads season. It’s his last best chance to lock down this position, and he seems to have taken to Mike Munchak’s coaching. But penalty-prone Bolles has a problem with losing his cool, and one bad play quickly becomes a bad series of plays.

BURNING QUESTION

Can Fangio restore some normality to a franchise that’s had back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 1972?

2018: 6-10, third in division

Last year in playoffs: 2015

Kansas City Chiefs

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

QB Patrick Mahomes: He doesn’t have to put up the absurd passing numbers he had last season — 50 touchdowns with 12 interceptions — but the reigning most valuable player needs to make the same kind of impact. Teams now know what they’re facing.

DE Frank Clark: Dee Ford (San Francisco) and Justin Houston (Indianapolis) are gone, so it’s up to Clark to turn up the heat on quarterbacks. He’s had a bit of a wrist issue in camp but otherwise looks good.

S Tyrann Mathieu: The Chiefs plan to move Mathieu all over the defense. He’ll be in an Eric Berry role, but that star safety was injured so much over the last two seasons that he wasn’t really effective. The team just got by with journeyman replacements.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

WR Mecole Hardman: The Chiefs used a second-round pick on the speedy Hardman when they weren’t sure whether they would have Tyreek Hill this season. This team is going to be blistering fast on the outside.

S Juan Thornhill: Another second-round selection who plays deep safety when Mathieu patrols underneath. Should Thornhill come through, the Chiefs would go from some of the league’s worst safety play to something that’s better than respectable. This has been a sore spot for years.

RB Damien Williams: This former Miami Dolphins back took over last season when Kareem Hunt was released. A career backup, Williams played well as a featured back. But how is he going to handle that full-time responsibility? In his rearview mirror are Carlos Hyde and capable rookie Darwin Thompson.

BURNING QUESTION

The Chiefs will score a lot, but their defense is retooled: new staff, new system, as many as seven new players asked to make big contributions. Is this going to work?

2018: 12-4, first in division

Last year in playoffs: 2018

Los Angeles Chargers

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

RB Austin Ekeler: With Melvin Gordon’s status in limbo, Ekeler’s role grows and becomes increasingly important. Ekeler was beat up at the end of last season, but he’s back to health now and at the top of his game.

OT Trent Scott: With Scott at tackle and either Forrest Lamp or Dan Feeney at guard, the left side of the line is young and lightly experienced. Scott, stepping in at left tackle in place of sidelined Russell Okung, started one game at right tackle last season.

LB Denzel Perryman: When Perryman was injured last year, the Chargers saw a big drop-off in their ability to stop the run. He’s back and healthy now, alongside the seasoned Thomas Davis. That’s good news for the defense.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

G Forrest Lamp: A second-round pick in 2017, Lamp suffered a torn ACL as a rookie and needed two surgeries to repair it. He looks like he’s ready to justify why the Chargers made such a significant investment in him.

DT Jerry Tillery: The Chargers have high expectations for their first-round pick, who is recovering from a shoulder injury last season and subsequent surgery. The standout from Notre Dame should help shore up the run defense and get to the passer.

RB Justin Jackson: Northwestern’s all-time rushing leader is bigger than Ekeler and will push for the bulk of the carries if Gordon isn’t around. He had eight carries for 63 yards and a touchdown in a prime-time victory at Pittsburgh last season.

BURNING QUESTION

The clock is ticking on Philip Rivers, who’s likely to play two or three more seasons if all goes well. Can the Chargers make a successful Super Bowl run before he retires?

2018: 12-4, second in division

Last year in playoffs: 2018

Oakland Raiders

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

QB Derek Carr: The bulk of his starts last year came with rookies starting at both tackles, his best receiver was traded at midseason, and he was in the first year of a new offense. Now, he has a familiar scheme and an improved supporting cast.

DE Arden Key: A third-round pick in 2018, Key was set to be a situational pass rusher last season but was pressed into more action after the Raiders traded All-Pro Khalil Mack. Key played about 40 defensive snaps a game; the team hopes to cut that in half.

LB Vontaze Burfict: He signed a one-year contract, and at this stage in his career it’s fair to speculate how much he has left in the tank. But if he’s going to perform for anyone, it’s defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, for whom he played in Cincinnati. The Raiders are putting a lot on Burfict’s plate.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

OT Kolton Miller: A first-round pick out of UCLA last year, Miller suffered a sprained right knee three times last season yet didn’t miss a game. Healthier, stronger and more confident, Miller is the most promising of last year’s rookie class.

WR Antonio Brown: As great a player as he is, Brown so far has been a distraction from head to toe — from a helmet grievance to frostbitten feet. There’s no doubting his work ethic or his playing skills, but everything else is fair game to watch this year.

P A.J. Cole: An undrafted rookie from North Carolina State, Cole earned a roster spot in May at a rookie minicamp tryout. In camp, he outperformed incumbent Johnny Town-send. Now, it’s his job to help a team that finished 30th in net punting last season.

BURNING QUESTION

Can the Raiders get after the quarterback? The other 31 NFL teams recorded at least 30 sacks last season. The Raiders were the exception. They had 13.

2018: 4-12, fourth in division

Last year in playoffs: 2016


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