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Roster Reset: AFC West

John Elway is playing chess against Bill Belichick while the rest of the division plays checkers.

The Broncos breezed through the division last season while the Chiefs overachieved in Andy Reid's first season, the mediocre Chargers snuck into the playoffs via the backdoor and the Raiders fielded a rosterdevoid ofyoung talent.

A month into the new league year, Kansas City and Oakland have met San Diego in the middle as Elway's team continues to pull further away from the pack.

The NFL's pied piper of free agency, Elway built his Super Bowl contender with a perfect sales pitch to Peyton Manning in 2012 and a bumper crop of veteran additions last offseason.

He hasn't lost a step this year, importing a Hall of Fame pass rusher, a lockdown cornerback and a tone-setting safety to fix a defense that was too often the team's Achilles' heel last season.

No matter what happens in the 2014 NFL Draft next month, the Broncos have to be viewed as the heavy favorites in the AFC West.

*In our Roster Reset series, Around The League will rank teams in each division based on how much they improved this offseason. The AFC West is below. *

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1. Denver Broncos

Why they remain heavy favorites: It's not just the high-profile additions of DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward -- a trio of Pro-Bowl caliber impact defenders.

Speedster Emmanuel Sanders is capable of filling Eric Decker's shoes, and Montee Ball's promotion to the starting lineup offers potential for more big plays in the ground attack. The Broncos' offense remains the league's most dangerous.

The Broncos made it to Super Bowl XLVIIIin spite of injuries that wiped out a handful of core players last season. They are now welcoming back their best offensive lineman (Ryan Clady), most dominant defensive player (Von Miller), a pair of stout run defenders (Derek Wolfe and Kevin Vickerson) and a rangy safety (Rahim Moore) in addition to the high-profile acquisitions.

Armed with a generous new contract, John Fox is back to steer this ship back to the playoffs.

What's next

» Lock up Thomas and Thomas: Elway deemed Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas more important to his record-breaking offense than Decker. Both of the Thomas playmakers are entering the final year of their rookie contracts. The team's capologists can figure out a way to dole out new deals with cap-friendly 2014 figures.

» Middle linebacker:Nate Irving finally showed signs of life as an early-down thumper during the playoff run. The courting of D'Qwell Jackson suggests the coaching staff still isn't completely sold on the 2011 third-round draft pick, though.

» Backfield questions: Has Ball mastered the fundamentals to the point where he's ready to step into Moreno's three-down role? Can Ronnie Hillman escape the doghouse? Fox has always harbored a bit of veteran fetish in the backfield. Might Elway have one more trick up his sleeve?

2. Oakland Raiders

How they improved: For most improved position group in the division, the Raiders' defensive line gets the nod over the Broncos' secondary. Dennis Allen's front four has added versatile pass rushers Justin Tuck, LaMarr Woodley and Antonio Smith in the NFL's latest "over-the-hill gang."

Although the 2013 versions of Matt Schaub and Maurice Jones-Drew are merely theoretical upgrades at quarterback and running back, the offense is in much better shape than last season.

General manager Reggie McKenzie bounced back nicely from the Rodger Saffold fiasco to rebuild the tattered offensive line with legitimate NFL-caliber starters in Donald Penn and Austin Howard. That's progress. Bringing James Jones back home was a coup for the passing "attack."

What's next

» Find franchise QB: Actions speak louder than words. The Raiders have talked up Schaub as an elite quarterback who can take them to the promised land and stay under center for three or four years. The truth is the team can cut bait at midseason with no guaranteed money due next season. McKenzie needs to draft and develop a face of the franchise.

» Draft nucleus players: Coach Dennis Allen has identified tight end Mychal Rivera and linebacker Sio Moore as his "foundation" players. You can be forgiven if those names don't ring a bell. They're not exactly household names. This roster desperately needs young, impact talent.

» Find a taker for Terrelle Pryor: Viewed as a potential savior as recently as October, Pryor is persona non grata following the Schaub trade. The Raiders have already gotten a few "trade feelers."

3. San Diego Chargers

What's changed:Not much of significance. The biggest change was losing offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, who helped get Philip Rivers' career back on track.

Up against the salary cap, general manager Tom Telesco threw in the towel on 2013 free-agent bust Derek Cox and dumped fullback Le'Ron McClain. He also convinced veterans Jarret Johnson and Eddie Royal to accept pay cuts. He used the savings to lock up inside linebacker Donald Butler, one of the few talented young defensive building blocks.

What's next

» Get faster: Cornerback was the biggest weak spot on the roster last season, and it has yet to be addressed in free agency. The Bolts can also use a field-stretcher at wide receiver to complement Keenan Allen. Danario Alexander is no longer in the picture, and Malcom Floyd's football career is in jeopardy.

» Pass rush: There's immediate pass-rushing help on the horizon with Dwight Freeney and Melvin Ingram returning to full health, but defensive coordinator John Pagano needs depth and young legs.

» Reward Ryan Mathews: Mathews has earned a contract extension by running as hard as any back in the league last season. It wasn't a great sign when Telesco gave Donald Brown a higher annual average than most running backs have landed on the open market.

4. Kansas City Chiefs

Why they have regressed: The Chiefs can thank an easy schedule for their 9-0 start last season. At one point, they faced a second- or third-string quarterback in five consecutive victories.

Faced with a tougher slate this year, the roster already has lost roughly 6,000 snaps in free agency when a half-dozen unspectacular but solid starters walked out the door. The offensive line took more than a glancing blow, with left tackle Branden Albert and guards Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asamoah moving on.

As Andy Reid's lone playmaker, Jamaal Charles carried the offense last season. If he goes down with an injury, the 2014 season is shot.

What's next

» Extensions for Smith and Berry: Chairman Clark Hunt acknowledged the Chiefswill make a long-term commitment to Alex Smith after the team averaged 35 points over the final seven games. Safety Eric Berry has made the Pro Bowl in all three seasons in which he's been healthy. Now he's entering the final year of his rookie contract.

» Playmakers for passing game: The Chiefs have the NFL's most overpaid wide receiver in Dwayne Bowe, who can no longer be viewed as a true No. 1 after showing a disturbing lack of playmaking ability last season. Donnie Avery is more of a three than a two. Anthony Fasano isn't getting any younger at tight end.

» Complete the offensive line overhaul:Andy Reid will be leaning heavily on young, unproven players such as Eric Fisher, Donald Stephenson and Jeff Allen. There's a need for insurance.

In the latest edition of the "Around The League Podcast", the guys welcome Browns star Joe Haden to the studio and talk about the uncertain future of Chris Johnson.

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