Quarterback Peyton Manning and a fortified defense are expected to push the Denver Broncos to the best in the AFC West again for 2014, according to a survey of The Sports Xchange football staff.
While that easy pick of the Broncos was unanimous, opinions on the rest of the division were so diverse that each team received at least one vote for second, third or fourth.
The final tally placed the Kansas City Chiefs second, the San Diego Chargers third and the Oakland Raiders fourth.
Here is an in-depth, unit-by-unit look at the AFC West as analyzed by reporters from The Sports Xchange who cover each team (using roster information as of Sept. 1):
1st -- DENVER BRONCOS
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Peyton Manning. Backup -- Brock Osweiler.
As has been the case the last two years, the Broncos' fortunes revolve around the future Hall of Famer and the offensive line's ability to keep him upright. Manning comes off the best statistical season for a quarterback in NFL history, but a poor Super Bowl XLVIII performance that included two interceptions left a bitter taste in his mouth. The 38-year-old passer has regained a bit more of the arm strength he lost in the wake of multiple 2011 neck surgeries, but his accuracy and precision remain his hallmarks. Osweiler remains the quarterback of the future, but the Broncos hope his time doesn't come for a while.
RUNNING BACKS: Starter -- Montee Ball. Backups -- Ronnie Hillman, C.J. Anderson, Juwan Thompson.
Ball's preseason work was pared to one game after he underwent an emergency appendectomy Aug. 4, but he showed enough in his one possession of duty against the Texans Aug. 23 to show that he was ready for the start of the regular season. Ball was Knowshon Moreno's relief option last year and was more effective on a per-carry, per-play basis down the stretch, easing worries of any drop-off following Moreno's free-agency departure. Hillman offers a speedy change of pace, although he is not in Ball's class as a power runner or blocker. Anderson and Thompson provide depth; neither was drafted, but both are versatile.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Julius Thomas. Backups -- Virgil Green, Jacob Tamme.
Thomas emerged as one of the league's best receiving tight ends last year, but hopes to make the leap as a blocker in what is just his sixth year of organized football. He still has untapped potential, even though he broke Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe's record for receiving touchdowns by a tight end last year. Green was drafted three rounds after Thomas in the 2011 draft and is a capable blocker; he should see more playing time than ever before as the Broncos try and put a bit more emphasis on two-tight end sets. Tamme is a crucial insurance policy for Thomas and slot receiver Wes Welker, could start for at least a handful of other clubs and is invaluable on special teams. Top to bottom, this might be the best trio in the league.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Emmanuel Sanders. Backups -- Andre Caldwell, Cody Latimer, Isaiah Burse.
Thomas is in the last year of his contract and is in line for a massive raise if he continues to be as productive as he's been since the last five weeks of the 2011 season. Sanders overcame a quadriceps injury in the preseason and showed the deep speed the Broncos haven't had in a 128-yard performance against Houston; he is also quick enough to work in the slot, which could be essential if Welker's concussion issues continue. Welker suffered a third concussion in 10 months on Aug. 23, and might be one more hit from having his career in peril. Caldwell is the "super sub" of the unit who can play any spot in a pinch. Latimer is a future starter who had an impressive camp; he's big, strong and fast, with a long stride in the open field. Burse could be a slot receiver in the future, but for now, the rookie is there to handle punt returns.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Ryan Clady, LG Orlando Franklin, C Manny Ramirez, RG Louis Vasquez, RT Chris Clark. Backups -- C/G Will Montgomery, G/T Michael Schofield, G Ben Garland, T Paul Cornick.
Everyone in the starting lineup was with the team last year, but the free-agent departure of Zane Beadles forced Franklin to left guard, a position he last played at the University of Miami. Clark, who replaced the injured Clady last year, will work at right tackle for the first time in his football life. Vasquez was an All-Pro last year and is perhaps the most technically sound guard in the game; his mistakes are rare. Ramirez and Vasquez played together at Texas Tech and have excellent chemistry, particularly in the run game.
Montgomery started in recent years for Washington and is a good insurance policy. Schofield, their third-round pick this year, could be a starter by 2015. Garland is an intriguing prospect who was converted from defensive line last year; the Air Force product finally made the 53-man roster after two years on the practice squad and two on military leave while serving his Air Force post-graduate commitment.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- DE DeMarcus Ware, DE Derek Wolfe, DT Sylvester Williams, NT Terrance Knighton. Backups -- DE Malik Jackson, DE Quanterus Smith, DT Mitch Unrein, DT Marvin Austin.
Ware has been everything the Broncos hoped he would be -- quick, stout at the edge and healthier than he's been in two years. His election as team captain is evidence of the esteem in which he's held less than six months after joining the Broncos. Wolfe's return from last year's cervical spine injury makes the unit more versatile; he and Jackson can move inside on pass-rush downs, working outside in the base package. The growth of Unrein and Williams and the emergence of Austin -- who is finally healthy -- made Kevin Vickerson expendable, but Knighton remains the massive fulcrum of the Broncos' defensive core.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- SLB Von Miller, MLB Nate Irving, WLB Brandon Marshall. Backups -- SLB Lerentee McCray, MLB Steven Johnson, WLB Corey Nelson, MLB/WLB Lamin Barrow, WLB Danny Trevathan.
Miller returned to game action eight months and a day after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament, and looks good to go; he has dropped 20 pounds from last year and looks faster, even though he is coming off the injury. The injured Trevathan will miss at least the first three games of the season, so Marshall, a member of the Broncos' practice squad for 16 weeks last year, becomes the interim starter. Marshall is solid against the run, but has not been tested in coverage. Irving finally earned the starting job in the middle in his fourth season, and should also see action as one of two nickel linebackers while Trevathan recovers. Three of the four backups have never played an NFL game, and until Trevathan returns, proven depth is non-existent.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Aqib Talib, RCB Chris Harris, SS T.J. Ward, FS Rahim Moore. Backups -- CB Kayvon Webster, CB Bradley Roby, SS Quinton Carter, FS David Bruton, CB Omar Bolden, CB Tony Carter.
The Broncos' defensive overhaul is most evident here, as none of the projected starters were on the 53-man roster for Super Bowl XLVIII. Talib and Ward headlined the Broncos' free-agent haul; they are being counted upon to bring aggression to the defense, allowing it to mimic the quick playmaking displayed by the Seahawks in the Super Bowl. Harris and Moore return from season-ending injuries, although Harris' play count may be monitored, since he has yet to play a game a month after being cleared to practice following last January's torn ACL. Quinton Carter's return after missing nearly two years to knee problems and microfracture surgery gives the safety corps a starting-quality player in reserve; look for him to play when Ward is nudged forward into the box as essentially a nickel linebacker.
Webster is the nickel cornerback, but will line up outside while Harris moves inside in that alignment. Roby's improvement was massive in the preseason, and he offers the chance for any of the top three cornerback to take a breather; if Harris is eased back into full work, he could play extensively in Week 1.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Brandon McManus, P Britton Colquitt, LS Aaron Brewer, PR Isaiah Burse, KR Andre Caldwell, K Matt Prater (suspended).
McManus has one of the league's strongest legs, but the Broncos want him to be more accurate from long distance than he was last week, when he hit just one of three attempts from 40 yards or longer. Colquitt was merely solid last year, and with his $3.25 million cap hit this year, the Broncos need him to be elite. Brewer has been perfect on long snaps in his first two NFL seasons. Burse earned the punt return job with a solid performance in the preseason finale, and could get a look on kickoffs, but for now, Caldwell is expected to handle that work.
2nd -- KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Alex Smith. Backups - Chase Daniel, Aaron Murray.
Smith got his new contract and is established as not only the Chiefs starting quarterback, but their offensive leader for the foreseeable future. Daniel arrived last season without a start in an NFL game, but got one last year in the final regular season game and showed he could handle the job. Murray saw his draft position drop when he suffered a torn ACL last November that ended his college career at the University of Georgia.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters - Jamaal Charles, FB Anthony Sherman. Backups - Knile Davis, Cyrus Gray, Joe McKnight, De'Anthony Thomas.
If the NFL was a theater for track & field, the Chiefs might have the fastest 4x100 relay team in the league and they are all at the running back position. Charles, Davis, McKnight and the rookie Thomas can all provide explosion in the K.C. offense. Last year, Charles was Reid's offense, as he was the leading rusher and receiver. Davis and Thomas should have bigger roles this year and take some of the pressure off Charles.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Anthony Fasano. Backups - Demetrius Harris, Travis Kelce.
A healthy Fasano would be a big addition for the Chiefs passing game; he battled shoulder, knee and ankle injuries last year and the normal production from the position in an Andy Reid offense as down considerably. Kelce was the star of the preseason, coming back after a knee injury wiped out his rookie season. He has shown the ability to get open and separate from linebackers and even safeties down the field. Harris is a college basketball player with a world of promise, but inconsistent in his play.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Dwayne Bowe (one-game NFL suspension to start the season), Donnie Avery. Backups - Frankie Hammond, A.J. Jenkins, Albert Wilson.
Overall, the receiver position may be the weakest group on the Chiefs roster for the start of the 2014 season. Bowe will miss the opener because of the second suspension of his career. Avery was not much of factor last season, his first in Kansas City. Jenkins remains an underachiever, Hammond is a first-year player and Wilson is an undrafted rookie.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Eric Fisher, LG Mike McGlynn, C Rodney Hudson, RG Zach Fulton, RT Jeff Allen. Backups - G Laurent Duvernay-Tardiff, T Ryan Harris, C Eric Kush, G/T Jeff Linkenbach, T Donald Stephenson (four-game NFL suspension to start the season).
The major question mark of the 2014 season for the Chiefs, largely because of turnover; only Hudson as the center is starting in the same spot on the line as he did last season. Fisher moved from right to left tackle, Allen went from left guard to right tackle to replace the suspended Stephenson. Fulton is a rookie and McGlynn was signed on Aug. 27 after being released in Washington. The O-Line depth is shallow.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - DLE Allen Bailey, NT Dontari Poe, DRE Mike DeVito. Backups - Jaye Howard, Damion Square, Vance Walker.
What is known for sure about the K.C. defensive line is Poe will be on the field. Last season, he played in 15 regular-season games and the first round of the playoffs and was on the field for 1,063 snaps, or 93.7 percent of the defensive plays. No other interior defensive lineman in the league had more playing time. Bailey has added weight, strength and quickness. DeVito will start the season with his broken left hand in a cast.