Pro Football Weekly presents the fourth of an eight-part divisional breakdown of the players most likely to be attending 2011 coming-out parties in the AFC West.
RB Knowshon Moreno — Since being selected with the 12th overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft, Moreno has failed to live up to expectations. Some observers are beginning to question his abilities, which could give him the motivation he needs to become an effective ballcarrier. Moreno showed some promising signs last season, picking up 113 or more combined yards in five consecutive games from Weeks 10-14. He figures to serve a bigger role in '11 with John Fox at the helm and offensive coordinator Mike McCoy retaining the play-calling duties he took over following the firing of Josh McDaniels. Fox is known as a conservative coach, and his offenses always have been run-heavy. Moreno surpassed 15 carries in only four games last season — three during the aforementioned five-game stretch — and could increase his production with a steady workload. Add in Moreno's success in the passing game, and he becomes a legitimate breakout candidate.
Kansas City Chiefs
CB Brandon Carr — In 2008, the Chiefs drafted CBs Brandon Flowers and Carr in the second and fifth rounds of the draft, respectively. Three years later, the team has one of the top tandems in the league, paired with Pro Bowl SS Eric Berry to form an impressive young secondary. Flowers is the better-known of the two corners, but it is Carr who could see his stock rise the most in 2011. With a versatile skill set as both a good run stopper and smart on-ball defender, Carr can make plays on any down and distance. Although fans would like to see his interception numbers rise — he has only four picks in 48 career games — Carr led Kansas City in passes defensed last season with 25, showing his value as a cover corner. The Chiefs finished last season in the bottom half of the league in pass defense. But with improved production from their young players, especially Carr, that shouldn't happen again in 2011.
DE Lamarr Houston — The strength of the Raiders' defense and a major reason for the team's surprising 8-8 record last season was the pass rush, as Oakland registered 47 sacks, tied for second-most in the league. Five players registered five or more sacks, including Houston, a rookie last season who shifted from collegiate defensive tackle to left defensive end in the pros. Now even more comfortable in his role, the 2010 second-round pick should cause havoc for opposing quarterbacks time and time again. Playing with a nonstop motor and good closing speed, Houston has all the tools needed to be a standout end in Oakland's 4-3 scheme, especially with DT Richard Seymour taking on blockers. Once Houston adds some more moves to beat defenders one-on-one, which often comes from experience, double-digit sacks aren't out of the question.
San Diego Chargers
RB Ryan Mathews — After nine splendid seasons with LaDainian Tomlinson filling the featured-back role, the Chargers opted to let No. 21 leave the team following the 2009 season. They replaced him at running back with Mathews, whom they traded up in the '10 draft to acquire out of Fresno State. While Mathews' rookie numbers weren't "L.T." like — 678 rushing yards and seven TDs — they were solid for a player who missed four full games and parts of a few others because of injuries and had to share the backfield with two other players. Entering his second season, Mathews is set to be the full-time starter in one of the league's top offenses, and his numbers could rise drastically. Mathews has speed and power, along with an ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, making him a suitable complement to Pro Bowl QB Philip Rivers. With defenses doing everything in their power to limit the Bolts' downfield passing attack, Mathews should have plenty of opportunity to emerge as the heir apparent to one of pro football's all-time great modern-day backs.