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Chargers have enough left for fifth title in row

This is the fourth of an eight-part series on the offseason moves in the NFL. Today's installment covers the AFC West.

The San Diego Chargers have dominated the AFC West for several years and have realistic Super Bowl aspirations, even with the departure of two franchise cornerstones -- running back LaDainian Tomlinson and nose tackle Jamal Williams.

The expected holdouts of a pair of Pro Bowlers -- wide receiver Vincent Jackson and left tackle Marcus McNeill -- over their contract status are a concern, as are the improvements made by the other teams in the division. But barring injuries, the Chargers' depth should help them take a fifth straight title.

Here's a review of the offseason moves in the AFC West:

>San Diego Chargers

Key gains: RB Ryan Mathews (Fresno State), LT Tra Thomas (Jaguars), WR Josh Reed (Bills), CB Nathan Vasher (Bears), CB Donald Strickland (Jets), LB Donald Butler (Washington), DT Cam Thomas (North Carolina).

Key losses: RB LaDainian Tomlinson (Jets), NT Jamal Williams (Broncos), CB Antonio Cromartie (Jets), WR Kassim Osgood (Jaguars), TE Brandon Manumaleuna (Bears).

Breakdown: The Chargers traded up in the first round to draft Mathews, a physical back with speed, as Tomlinson's replacement. They also franchised backup RB/KR Darren Sproles. Signing Tra Thomas was a message to McNeill that the team is prepared to move on without him. Reed joins a corps that will have its depth tested with Jackson holding out. The defense managed to get along without Williams, who missed the last 15 games last season with a triceps injury. The Chargers hope Cam Thomas can be their new run plugger.

Key questions: Will McNeill and Jackson go through with their threat to hold out into the season if contract demands aren't met? Will Mathews fill L.T.'s shoes? Can Cam Thomas replace Williams? Where are the playmakers in the secondary now that Cromartie is gone?

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>Denver Broncos

Key gains: QB Brady Quinn (Browns), QB Tim Tebow (Florida), WR Demaryius Thomas (Georgia Tech), NT Jamal Williams (Chargers), DE Justin Bannan (Ravens), DE Jarvis Green (Patriots), LB Akin Ayodele (Dolphins).

Key losses: WR Brandon Marshall (Dolphins), TE Tony Scheffler (Lions), LB Andra Davis (Bills), C Casey Wiegmann (Chiefs), G Ben Hamilton (Seahawks).

Breakdown: Drafting Tebow made news, but Quinn is the primary threat to incumbent Kyle Orton. After jettisoning Marshall, the Broncos drafted a receiver with similar skills in Thomas. Free agency brought in a new starting three-man defensive line anchored by Williams.

Key questions: Will Orton hold off Quinn? Will Tebow get any snaps as a rookie? Will the receiving corps be effective without Marshall and Scheffler? Will the re-tooled offensive line find cohesion with two new starters and Pro Bowl LT Ryan Clady recovering from a torn patella tendon? Does Williams, 34, have much left? Can the 30-something secondary hold up?

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>Oakland Raiders

Key gains: QB Jason Campbell (Redskins), MLB Rolando McClain (Alabama), OLB Kamerion Wimbley (Browns), DT Lamar Houston (Texas), DT John Henderson (Jaguars), OT Bruce Campbell (Maryland), OT Jared Veldheer (Hillsdale), WR Jacoby Ford (Clemson).

Key losses: MLB Kirk Morrison (Jaguars), OT Cornell Green (Bills), DE Greg Ellis (free agent), DT Gerard Warren (Patriots), RB Justin Fargas (free agent).

Breakdown: The Raiders finally admitted their draft mistake and released QB JaMarcus Russell. Campbell is a huge upgrade in attitude and work ethic, if not physical ability. The Raiders deemed the productive Morrison expendable after drafting McClain, who brings playmaking talent and a championship pedigree. McClain, along with Houston and Henderson, should help solve problems stopping the run. Ford could have a huge impact in the return game with his world-class speed.

Questions: Will Jason Campbell make the offense run more efficiently? Is McClain the real deal? Is this the year RB Darren McFadden (856 rushing yards and five TDs in two years) finally justifies that top-five draft pick? Will WR Darrius Heyward-Bey figure it out in Year Two? Will Bruce Campbell and Veldheer, a pair of mid-round projects, be pressed into service before they're ready?

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>Kansas City Chiefs

Key gains: OC Charlie Weis, DC Romeo Crennel, RB Thomas Jones (Jets), S Eric Berry (Tennessee), C Casey Wiegmann (Broncos), G Ryan Lilja (Colts), DT Shaun Smith (Bengals), CB/PR Javier Arenas (Alabama), WR/KR Dexter McCluster (Mississippi), WR Jerheme Urban (Cardinals).

Key losses: C Wade Smith (Texans), G Andy Alleman (Colts).

Breakdown: Weis and Crennel, hired to run the offense and defense, respectively, were the top free agent signings. Jones (1,400-plus yards last season) and Jamaal Charles (1,120 yards last season) should be a nice 1-2 punch running behind an improved offensive line. Under Weis' guidance, QB Matt Cassel should improve on his mediocre first year in K.C. Berry brings big-time playmaking talent to a secondary that needs it. The return game will be special if Arenas and McCluster duplicate their college exploits. McCluster will help the passing game as well.

Questions: Can Weis do for Cassel what he did for Tom Brady? The Chiefs missed TE Tony Gonzalez last season. Can rookie Tony Moeaki (Iowa) fill the void? Has the defense gotten past its growing pains after its first year in the 3-4?

Next: NFC East.

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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