Busy offseason results in change at QB position in AFC West

The AFC West once offered a quarterback rivalry that was interesting because the players involved had volatile personalities -- backed up by a whole lot of talent.

With the Denver Broncos having shipped Jay Cutler to the Chicago Bears, the division lost his lively jawing with Philip Rivers of the San Diego Chargers, as well as the expanded trash-talking it generated between their teammates and fans.

But thanks to the Kansas City Chiefs' acquisition of Matt Cassel, the AFC West again has at least two quarterbacks worthy of attention that, until further notice, is based strictly on talent.

Rivers is far more proven, of course. However, it's fair to say that Cassel has all of the makings of a top-flight passer and, with him, the Chiefs' quarterback situation shapes up as being more stable than that of the Broncos or Oakland Raiders.

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Cassel brings four years of education in one of the most effective offensive systems in the NFL. Last season, he got to demonstrate exactly how much he had absorbed through three years after replacing injured Tom Brady as the New England Patriots' starter. Cassel responded exceptionally well, leading the Pats to an 11-5 record. Although the team fell just shy of the playoffs, he earned the chance to become a full-time starter, which he was granted with the trade to Kansas City.

New Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli, the Pats' former vice president of player personnel, would have obviously preferred to have Brady join him in Kansas City. Instead, he was content to have the next-best thing -- another quarterback he selected late in the draft who has learned practically everything he knows about playing the position from the fellow late-round pick who went onto become a larger-than-life icon.

"Every time I go out to the field, even now, I try to emulate what Tom did," Cassel said. "Tom's a professional in every sense of the word. Since I got (to New England), he took me under his wing and just taught me everything that I needed to know about playing the position. And one of the things that's overlooked a lot of times is leadership. You have to be a leader in this game, especially in an NFL locker room. People have to look up to you and how you work and how you perform, but more importantly how you prepare. And he was a guy that taught me all those things."

Cassel said he and Brady talk by phone or exchange text messages at least once a week. He treasures the opportunity to "bounce questions off of him," especially as he tries to establish himself with a new team.

Cassel isn't the only quarterbacking newcomer to the AFC West. The Broncos have three (Kyle Orton, acquired from the Bears as part of the trade for Cutler; free agent Chris Simms, from Tennessee, and sixth-round draft pick Tom Brandstater, from Fresno State) and the Raiders have one (free agent Jeff Garcia, from Tampa Bay).

Here's a closer look at the quarterback situations in the AFC West:

Denver Broncos

New coach Josh McDaniels didn't see Cutler as a good fit for the scheme that helped make Brady one of the greatest quarterbacks in league history and earn Cassel a No. 1 spot. He wanted to bring Cassel with him via a trade, but couldn't get a deal done. McDaniels wound up settling for Orton and Simms, neither of whom has Cutler's tremendous arm nor has been anywhere near as prolific throwing the ball.

Orton's inconsistency made him expendable in Chicago, while Simms became a backup for the Titans after a forgettable start to his career in Tampa Bay. Both are excellent students of the game who will grasp McDaniels' system well and will also have a deep receiving corps with which to operate his spread offense that emphasizes high-percentage throws. The question is, will the rest of the offensive holders from the Mike Shanahan regime buy into the McDaniels' way well enough to provide the support necessary for Orton or Simms to succeed?

Kansas City Chiefs

New coach Todd Haley and offensive coordinator Chan Gailey have some offensive concepts that are similar to those that Cassel ran in New England. Yet, there still is some learning for Cassel to do, not the least of which will be with the players around him. The Chiefs are not blessed with the exceptional receiving duo the Patriots have in Randy Moss and Wes Welker. They also said goodbye to the man who accounted for nearly a third of their receiving yards in 2008, tight end Tony Gonzalez. But Cassel's drive and attention to detail, between and during games, should help them get the most out of Dwayne Bowe and Kansas City's other pass-catchers.

"I just come in and bring my work ethic and try to show these guys through example of what it's about," Cassel said. "And it's about hard work, it's about dedication and it's about taking pride in what you do and being accountable to your teammates."

Oakland Raiders

JaMarcus Russell doesn't display much urgency about the need to make the necessary improvements that will take his game to a higher level. That just might be a function of his easy going personality. But in the ultra-competitive world in the NFL and at a position that demands the greatest amount of passion and commitment, Russell's mellowness could prove to be the undoing of the massive investment to which the Raiders committed by making him the top overall pick of the draft.

Russell's attitude has already been the subject of comments made by coach Tom Cable. And Bay Area reporters covering the Raiders' offseason workouts have described Russell's passing as erratic. Garcia was signed strictly to provide experienced depth, but if Russell ends up struggling for a prolonged period during the regular season, it's conceivable that he could take a seat in favor of the 39-year-old veteran.

San Diego Chargers

Rivers has moved into the elite among NFL quarterbacks. His individual numbers verify as much, as does the fact the Chargers are easily the favorite to again win the AFC West (which only required an 8-8 record last year) and contend for the Super Bowl.

Rivers has supplanted LaDainian Tomlinson as the Chargers' most vital offensive player. Now, he is looked upon to help set up the effective running game that Tomlinson and Darren Sproles will combine to create. Few quarterbacks are as proficient as Rivers at locating the open receiver. And coach Norv Turner will not hesitate to ask Rivers to challenge defenses with his extremely talented throwing arm.

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