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Article Preview: NFL Projections: The AFC West

The AFC West promises to be one of the most tightly contested division races in the league this year. No one team of this group is head and shoulders above the rest of the pack, and each squad has both their share of questions and reasons for optimism. The Broncos have ditched the smoke-and-mirror act known as Tebowmania in favor of a future Hall Of Famer, Kansas City has a new head coach and a healthy roster, the Raiders have their first full year of Carson Palmer, and the Chargers still have Phillip Rivers.’

Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs are going to be counting on a number of surgically repaired ACLs to help them improve in 2012. They played the majority of the 2011 campaign without key contributors like Jamaal Charles, Eric Berry, and Tony Moeaki. All three of these players were lost early in the season with torn ACLs, and quarterback Matt Cassel also missed nine games with a broken hand. In spite of all of those injuries, the Chiefs still finished at 7-9 a year ago.

The Chiefs have some good talent to work with, and while their clean bill of health also works in their favor, they haven’t improved their roster on paper as much as the other teams in the division. They won’t be a pushover, but Kansas City just isn’t built outlast the other teams in the division over a full season.

San Diego Chargers

Each of the last three years, when I look at the San Diego Chargers, I always ask myself why Norv Turner is still the head coach of this underachieving football team? San Diego always looks good on paper, and every year they seem to stumble out of the gate, only to go on a run late in the season to finish with eight or nine wins and just miss the playoffs. They’re the Philadelphia Eagles of the west coast in my eyes.

I look at the Chargers, and I just don’t see a lot of reason for optimism. Under Norv Turner, this is a team that always let down and underachieved even when they had the most talent in the division. As long as Rivers is in the lineup, he’s enough to keep the Chargers from falling into the basement of the NFL, but he can’t get them back to the playoffs without some serious help.

Oakland Raiders

Formerly one of the laughing stocks of the league, the Raiders have quietly been taking steps forward in the last couple of years, finishing with two straight 8-8 seasons.

The Raiders have some pretty big issues, but their offense has some real upside that can make them a force if Carson Palmer can play at a high level again. Issues with the coaching staff and defense will prevent them from becoming a playoff team. I see them finishing ahead of the Chiefs and Chargers, but not by much.

Denver Broncos

I have to applaud the Broncos for pulling the plug on Tebowmania. While I’m not a Tebow-hater by any means (in fact I actually root for him), his style of play just doesn’t translate into long-term success in this league. John Elway agreed with that line of thinking, and jumped at the opportunity to sign Peyton Manning after he was released by the Colts.

To me, the Broncos are the most complete team in the division. The addition of Manning makes their offense much more formidable than it was a year ago, even though they may lack elite talent at the skill positions. I don’t think they can contend with the elite teams in the AFC, but as long as Manning can stay healthy, the Broncos will take the division and return to the playoffs.

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Article Preview: Five Thoughts From Eagles-Steelers

1. Kafka Down, Foles and Edwards Up

In the coming weeks, Andy Reid will need to make a decision about who his primary backup quarterback will be.

Mike Kafka, the early favorite for the job was brutal in his first action of the preseason. The third-year quarterback completed five of nine passes for 31 yards, and made a critical mistake in the second quarter, reacting poorly to a pass rush and throwing the ball right into the gut of a Pittsburgh defensive lineman. Kafka’s completions came on short routes, and the former fourth-round pick never attempted to stretch the field. He didn’t do anything to inspire confidence on Thursday night, and probably lost some ground in the race.

Nick Foles shined in his Eagles’ debut. Foles took over in the third quarter, and helped spark his team’s rally by throwing  for 144 yards and two touchdowns. The rookie was poised and patient, and made a great read on a broken play to find Damaris Johnson for a 70-yard touchdown. He got away from pressure on the play and put the ball right on target for the rookie wideout. On the next drive Foles hit Mardy Gilyard for a 44-yard touchdown.

Trent Edwards did what you would expect from a veteran quarterback. He was steady, and ran the offense efficiently. Working with mostly third and fourth-string players, the former Buffalo Bill took the team on two scoring drives in the fourth quarter to retake the lead and set up the winning field goal.

Regarding his backup quarterbacks, Andy Reid said after the game “I keep it wide open at all positions,” head coach Andy Reid said after the game. “Whoever is playing the best is going to play.”

3. First Teams Unimpressive

The first team offenses and defenses put forth disappointing efforts in their first live game action of the year.

The defense showed some flashes at times (with a handful of strong plays from guys like Mychal Kendricks, Phillip Hunt, and Derek Landri), but Juan Castillo’s unit displayed some of the same problems that plagued them a year ago. They couldn’t get off of the field on third-downs, and there was a lot of poor tackling going on. Nnamdi Asomugha was particularly disappointing to me. The former Raider looks lost and unsure of himself out there. He blew three coverages that resulted in two Pittsburgh first downs and one touchdown. Normally it would be easy just to write such a performance off since it’s just the first preseason game, but this is the kind of effort we saw all too often from Nnamdi a year ago. It’s too early to panic about his play, but it is certainly troubling and worth keeping an eye on.

The first team offense accomplished nothing in this game. In two possessions, they managed two three-and-outs. Even though he was only on the field for six plays, Michael Vick still managed to find his way on to the injury report with a thumb contusion.

I was hoping to see signs that Vick had truly changed some aspects of his game, particularly with regarHeds to decision making and taking care of the football. Even though we saw a very limited sample of him last night, he didn’t appear to be much different from what he was last year. He was unsettled in the pocket and seemed to lock on to just one receiver without going through his reads properly. These are these are the same poor traits and habits Vick has displayed throughout his entire career.

It’s easy to write off the poor performances of the starters because its the first preseason game, but I’m still troubled by it. The Pittsburgh Steelers were in the same boat, but they’re starters still showed up and looked like a contending team should in their preseason game.

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Article Preview: Blockbuster: Sixers Trade Iguodala To Denver, Acquire Andrew Bynum

Yes, you read that headline correctly.

Pending league approval, Andre Iguodala is now a former 76er, Andrew Bynum is coming to Philadelphia, and Kwame Brown’s name has been erased from the starting lineup.

The Sixers wanted one of the best big-men in the league, and they got one. They’re taking a major gamble that they’ll be able to resign Bynum to an extension, but such a gamble is well worth the risk. Andre Iguodala had taken the Sixers as far as he could take them. If this team really wants to be a serious contender, they had to move Iguodala and bring in a legitimate superstar.

The Sixers have now put the cherry on top of a dramatic off-season in which they now have a dramatically different team than they finished the 2011-12 season with. Gone are Iguodala, Elton Brand, and Lou Williams, the three biggest names and faces on this franchise in the last five years. In are Bynum, Nick Young, Dorell Wright, and Richardson. The deal also means that Evan Turner is going to become an even more important piece of this team, as he’ll now take over the starting small forward position.

The 2012-13 basketball season promises to be one of the most anticipated seasons in Philadelphia in over 10 years.

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Article Preview: It’s Time To Remove Kyle Kendrick From The Rotation

On Wednesday night Kyle Kendrick turned in a rough start, lasting just 3.1 innings and allowing six runs (all earned) on seven hits. After being removed from the game in the fourth inning, the right-hander was showered with boos from the crowd, and the pitcher wasn’t pleased with the treatment he received from the fans.

With the Phillies all but out of the playoff picture, its time for Charlie Manuel to get a look at some of the younger players in the team’s system to get an idea of what he has to work with in 2013. Kendrick has struggled heavily as a starter this year (2-8 record, 5.01 ERA in 15 starts), but has been steady coming out of the bullpen (2-1 record, 3.95 ERA).

Manuel should remove Kendrick from the rotation, keep him in the bullpen, and call up a young prospect, such as Tyler Cloyd, to take his place as the fifth starter.

Cloyd has had a fantastic season in the minor leagues, with an 11-1 record and 2.12 ERA. Many fans have hoped that the Phillies would give the young pitcher a look this season, but they’ve been reluctant to do so. The Phils don’t trust Cloyd because he doesn’t throw hard, the right-hander rarely surpasses 90 mph. He’s successful because of his control, but the team doesn’t think his minor league success will translate into the major leagues.

While I agree with the team’s assessment of Cloyd’s big-league potential, I do believe they should call the kid up and give him a shot. He’s had such a great year in the minors, I think he’s earned a handful of big-league starts. Why not give him a chance at this point? The Phillies know what Kyle Kendrick is at this point, and with the team out of the playoff picture there’s no reason to keep him in the rotation.

Maybe Cloyd falls on his face in the majors, and maybe he succeeds. The Phillies won’t find out by keeping him in the minor leagues, and they certainly don’t have anything to lose by giving him (and others) a try.

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Article Preview: One Year Later, The Hunter Pence Trade Looks Like A Mistake

Only July 28th 2011, Ruben Amaro completed a trade with the Houston Astros that sent Hunter Pence to Philadelphia is exchange for three minor leaguers, two of them (Jarred Cosart and Jonathan Singleton) were among the most highly coveted prospects within the Phillies organization.

Pence’s time with the Phillies ends as a major disappointment. Amaro paid a heavy price for the 29-year old, and got very little in return. The outfielder played well upon arriving in Philadelphia, hitting .324 with 11 home runs and 35 RBIs in the second half of the 2011 season, and helped the team win a franchise-record 102 games. But that was about it.

When the Phillies needed Pence the most, he disappeared.

While his time in Philadelphia also carried its share of good moments, Pence had too many flaws and didn’t bring enough to the table for the Phillies to want to commit $15 million to him for next year. The Phillies expected a guy that could give them what they used to get from Jason Werth: right-handed power, solid defense, and a five-hole hitter that gives smart at-bats and works a count. They didn’t get anything close to what they wanted, and decided that their $15 million was better spent elsewhere next year.

When all was said and done, Amaro lost three promising prospects, and wound up with one highly-touted minor league player, a spare-part outfielder, a marginal pitching prospect, and two half-seasons from Hunter Pence (complete with disappointing play). The Phillies’ general manager has made some good moves during his era, but he’s also made some major blunders.

Depending on what ultimately becomes of Cosart, Singleton, Santana, and Joseph, the Hunter Pence trade of 2011 could go down as one of Amaro’s worst.

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Article Preview: Ready Or Not, Domonic Brown’s Time Has Come

Once considered an untouchable prospect and future star in the making, Domonic Brown has become afterthought after failing to find a place on the Phillies roster since debuting during the 2010 season.

Brown tore through every level of competition he played in until he was called up to the Phillies in the middle of the 2010 campaign. His struggles in the majors have lead to a loss of confidence, and after hitting just .210 with two homers and 13 RBIs in 62 at-bats, the outfielder’s career has failed to take the next step forward.

The Phillies have a number of gaping holes to fill next season. They’ll need a whopping three new starting outfielders, a third baseman, a fourth starter, and a complete overhaul in the bullpen. And they have less than $35 million available on their payroll to take care of these needs.

Brown is certainly affordable, but also has all of the tools he needs to become a successful major league player. The question is whether or not he can finally make the mental adjustments to succeed.

Of all the top prospects Amaro has traded away in recent years, Brown has been the one guy he’s held on to. The Phillies still expect big things from him, and we’ll know soon enough whether or not he’s worth the wait.

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Article Preview: Can The Phillies Still Count On Roy Halladay And Cliff Lee To Be Elite?

When Joe Blanton has the second most wins within a $70 million starting rotation, you know something has gone horribly wrong.

A year ago, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee were centerpieces of a Phillies team that won a franchise record 102 games. Halladay went 19-6 with a 2.35 ERA, throwing eight complete games and one shutout. Lee finished 17-8 with a 2.40 ERA, and threw six shutouts. Both pitchers were in the running for the Cy Young Award, and were also among the league leaders in strikeouts, combining for 258 strikeouts.

But in 2012, neither pitcher has come close to meeting expectations.

It’s at the point now where the Phillies can’t count on either one of these $20 million pitchers to go out and shut an opposing offense down. After combining for 14 complete games in 2011, neither ace has gone more than eight innings this season. The two pitchers worth more than $40 million combined have produced just five wins between them four months into the season.

The struggles of Halladay and Lee in 2012 have to create serious questions about the 2013 team. Ruben Amaro is going to be counting on the team’s three aces (again) to be this team’s greatest strength. I believe Lee is more than capable of rediscovering his 2011 form, but I’ve got serious doubts about Halladay.

Ruben Amaro must carefully evaluate this rotation from now until the end of the year. He’s got to determine for himself who can still pitch at a high level, and who (if anyone) he should attempt to move in the off-season to free up some room on his payroll.

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Article Preview: Phillies Can’t Afford Three Aces Anymore

With the trade deadline looming, the Phillies are making their final push to sign Cole Hamels to a contract extension. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has made it clear that the team’s goal is to have the ace pitching in Philadelphia for years to come, and the front office is prepared to make a “substantial offer” to make it happen.

Should a team with as many holes as the Phillies really be committing more than $25 million a piece to three pitchers next season?

The Phillies are going to have to fill a number of holes in the off-season. They need a left fielder, a third baseman, a centerfielder, a decent fifth starter, and (most of all) a complete overhaul for the bullpen. They’ve already got sizable amounts of money committed to Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Hunter Pence. Paying an additional $25 million to a single player will allow the Phillies to keep their deep rotation, but it will also mean the rest of the team will be as flawed and unbalanced as they are now.

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Article Preview: What’s Gone Wrong For The Phillies?

The Philadelphia Phillies have limped into the All-Star break with a record of 37-50, and have spent the overwhelming majority of the first half of the season in last place. Very little has gone right for the Phils’ in 2012, and its incredible to look at the overwhelming amount of things that have gone wrong.

Halladay and Lee are both having terribly disappointing seasons. Halladay appears to be physically breaking down, having lost some velocity and spent extensive time on the disabled list. He’s just 3-5 with a 3.98 ERA, and absolutely dreadful in May going 1-3 with a 6.11 ERA.

Ruben Amaro was counting on Bastardo, Qualls, Contreras, Stutes, and Herndon to emerge as a reliable relief crew, but not a single one of them has come through for him. As a result, the Phillies are forced to turn to a pen’ stacked with Triple-A relievers (Raul Valdes, Mike Schwimer, Jake Diekman, B.J. Rosenberg, Brian Sanches, and Jeremy Horst) and predictably the results have been ugly.

With Ryan Howard and Chase Utley out of action for the vast majority of the first half, the Phillies were counting on several players to step up and become offensive anchors in their absence. Most notably, Jimmy Rollins, Hunter Pence, John Mayberry Jr, and Shane Victorino.

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Article Preview: Phils In Trouble, But Far From Finished

The month of June hasn’t been kind to the Phillies. After fighting to go 27-25 in the first two months, and stay within three games of first place in the National League East, the Phillies are now a putrid 4-12 since the calender has flipped to the third month of the baseball season. They’ve fallen all the way to nine games back in the division. The pitching staff is in shambles. The offense is inconsistent at best. The team as a whole has played an ugly, uninspired brand of baseball during the last three weeks.

And yet, its still too early to write this team off just yet.

Baseball’s controversial decision to add a second wild card this season could be the Phils’ ticket to Red October this year. The wild card field is wide open in the National League, and the gap between the Phillies and the logjam of teams in contention for those two spots isn’t large at all. The San Francisco Giants currently have the lead for the first spot at 37-30, and seven teams (Atlanta, New York, Miami, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia) could all be viewed as contenders for that final wild card.

Ultimately, its going to come down to what kind of impact Roy Halladay, Ryan Howard, and Chase Utley can make on the team once they return from the disabled list. All three are major question marks because of their health concerns, but each one of them also has the ability to make a dramatic impact on the team that could push them into the top five records in the National League by the year’s end.

There’s still a chance for the 2012 Phillies, but they need to start playing like it.

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