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PERFORMANCE OF KEY PLAYERS WILL UNLOCK DIVISION TITLE

This is the fourth of eight stories ex-
amining NFL teams by division as they prepare for training camp. Today's installment focuses on the AFC West.
Questions surrounding key players in the AFC West make the division uncertain entering training camp.

It could be the toughest division in the AFC or it could be weaker than last year.

AFC champion Oakland brings back the Gray-and-Black attack. If the Raiders' old warriors stay healthy, Oakland will be a Super Bowl contender again.

Denver has suffered more losses than gains overall. But the Broncos hope new quarterback Jake Plummer will more than make up for it. Kansas City might be ready for a deep playoff run. But the Chiefs' best player, running back Priest Holmes, has a worrisome hip injury. San Diego is making incremental steps forward. Its long-term hopes depend on the development of quarterback Drew Brees.

Here's a review of the offseason moves by each club:

Oakland Raiders (11-5)

What's new: The Raiders lost five starters in a salary cap shake-up -- defensive tackle Sam Adams, end Regan Upshaw, cornerback Tory James, safety Anthony Dorsett and fullback Jon Ritchie. Dana Stubblefield (49ers) was signed to replace Adams. The Raiders pushed cap money into the future by re-doing the contracts of receivers Jerry Rice and Tim Brown, who will be 41 and 37, respectively.

Key issues: Aside from the age of all the best players, the biggest concern is on the defensive line. Ends Tony Bryant and Trace Armstrong were hurt last year. Stubblefield, 32, may not have much left. Talented corner Phillip Buchanon is back from injury and will be better than James. Many considered their top four draft choices reaches.

Denver Broncos (9-7)

What's new: Denver ranked third on offense and sixth on defense last year, yet missed the playoffs. Quarterback Brian Griese didn't produce enough big plays in big games. Enter the talented Plummer. He threw 21 more interceptions (79) than touchdowns (58) the past four years. However, he played with a poor supporting cast. The defense added big defensive tackle Daryl Gardener (Redskins), who is good if his problem back doesn't act up.

Key issues: Can Plummer discover consistency with Mike Shanahan? A secondary that ranked 32nd in interceptions lost corners Denard Walker (Vikings), Tyrone Poole (Pats) and safety Izell Reese (Bills), and had no key additions. Tackle is a worry. The Broncos' first-round pick was Georgia behemoth George Foster, a good looking but very green prospect. Defensive end is wide open opposite Trevor Pryce.

Kansas City Chiefs (8-8)

What's new: The Chiefs were a lot like the Bills last year -- great offense, poor defense. Kansas City did not add as many new pieces to the defense as Buffalo did. Signed were defensive end Vonnie Holliday (Packers), linebacker Shawn Barber (Eagles) and cornerback Dexter McLeon (Rams). Holliday had five of his six sacks last year against the Bills. Barber is no Takeo Spikes. McLeon was mediocre last year.

Key issues: Is Holmes' hip OK? The fact the Chiefs drafted Larry Johnson (Penn State) No. 1 shows they're worried. Was enough done to help the 32nd-ranked defense? Holdover linebackers Mike Maslowski and Scott Fujita better improve. It's tough to be suspect at corner in the AFC West.

San Diego Chargers (8-8)

What's new: Star receiver David Boston (Cardinals) gives Brees another elite weapon to go along with LaDanian Tomlinson. As long as Boston stays healthy, the Chargers' offense looks good. Fullback Lorenzo Neal (Bengals) will be a great escort for Tomlinson. The Chargers ranked 32nd in pass defense last year. Their first three draft picks were cornerbacks -- Sammy Davis (Texas A&M), Drayton Florence (Tuskegee) and Terrence Kiel (Texas A&M).

Key issues: San Diego bid goodbye to warriors Junior Seau (Dolphins) and Rodney Harrison (Patriots). How much will their character and leadership be missed? The Chargers will let their talented secondary learn on the job. Safety Rogers Beckett must develop in his third year. Guard is a concern.
Next: NFC East
e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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