AFC West 2012 fantasy preview
Lack of viable backup indicates Peyton Manning is expected to play all season
Jamaal Charles appears healthy but could lose stats to new backup Peyton Hillis
Darren McFadden has failed to play a full season in any of his four NFL years
When asking yourself the question this August, "Is Manning going to be healthy enough to play?" answer it with: Uh, look at his backup.
The Broncos not only put their money on Manning, they also didn't bother to insure themselves against Manning's neck that knocked him out of the 2011 season. That should tell you enough about whether Manning is going to play.
The question about whether he will be himself is something that won't be answered until midseason. The good news is this Manning will be available on the board well into the middle rounds for the first time ever.
Manning's arm strength will determine the balance of power in the AFC West, but this is arguably the most balanced division top to bottom. While there is no elite team here, there is no slouch either. It should make for a lot of wide-ranging values in fantasy here this season.
We are already taken our capsule looks at the NFC East, AFC East, NFC North, AFC North, NFC South, AFC South and NFC West. We conclude with the balanced AFC West's depth charts, position battles, injury questions and fantasy positional rankings:
No. 2 RB: The Broncos' lineup is pretty much set with Manning, McGahee, Thomas, Decker and Tamme. There might be some question who is the backup to McGahee, who is now 30 and will be ridden hard in John Fox's run-heavy scheme. That is where the battle between the out-of-favor Moreno and Ball comes in. Moreno has potential, but Fox clearly doesn't like him as a workhorse back. As usual, expect McGahee to get banged up this year, so tracking Moreno, Ball and third-round pick Hillman is important in the latter rounds.
QB Peyton Manning (neck, shoulder) -- The backups are a bunch of nobodies and never-will-bes. Manning has to be expected to be 100 percent this season ... at least 100 percent ready to play, if not 100 percent healthy. Caleb Hanie and Brock Osweiler are on the depth chart, too, but none of them after starter quality. If Manning isn't 100 percent, the Broncos are toast.
RB Knowshon Moreno (knee) -- After ACL surgery Dec. 1, 2011, Moreno is a candidate for the PUP list, or being sent to the street. There might not be much to watch in camp with him. If that is the case, watch the rookie Hillman for a potential breakout as McGahee's backup.
WRs Nos. 1-3: With Vincent Jackson having signed with the Bucs, Rivers will have a new No. 1 wideout to target. Gates remains the primary receiver as the tight end, but the free-agent acquisition Meachem, returning starter Floyd and emerging sophomore Brown will compete for targets. It is most likely going to be a committee here, perhaps even including offseason acquisition Royal. Watch this battle closely, because this remains potentially one of the most explosive offenses in football. Someone is going to surprise from this group.
Kicker: Novak had a solid, if not great, season, but Kaeding should be 100 percent and able to return to his elite fantasy kicker status. Whoever wins the job in San Diego will be a viable fantasy starter, maybe even the highest scoring kicker in the game.
K Nate Kaeding (knee) -- His reconstruction was with his non-kicking leg, so there should be no hesitation with him in training camp. The question is whether Novak is a legit competitor for the primary kicker job.
None: The Chiefs don't really have anyone competing for a starting job, assuming Charles and Moeaki are healthy coming off lost 2011 campaigns.
RB Jamaal Charles (knee) -- The question isn't whether Charles will be ready for camp after major knee surgery last September. It is just how much of a chunk is Hillis going to take out of Charles' numbers. Thomas Jones didn't get in the way of a 2010 breakthrough, but Hillis is younger than Jones was and is expected to be the touchdown vulture on the goal line. It is enough to keep Charles out of the top five, if not the first round, in fantasy. Watch how the pair are used early in the preseason.
RB Peyton Hillis (hamstring) -- The Madden Curse claimed Hillis' season in Cleveland, along with a hammy issue, but he is 100 percent now. He is an ideal complement to the smaller slasher Charles, but that is in NFL terms. In fantasy terms, Hillis is a monkey wrench in Charles potentially being a top-three RB.
TE Tony Moeaki (knee) -- He is expected to be ready for Week 1 after ACL surgery last September. The only question was whether a knee scope of his opposite knee would hold him back, but it shouldn't. He will have competition in offseason acquisition Boss, but Moeaki is potentially an elite tight end that won't really be challenged if he is healthy.
No. 3 WR: Palmer, McFadden, Moore and DHB figure to be the primary picks here, but Ford, Murphy and the rookie Criner are sleepers in deeper leagues. Heck, any of that trio can perhaps even emerge as Palmer's go-to guy, perhaps. It isn't an intriguing position battle to watch, but a full season of the gun-slinging Palmer could make it an important one. Additionally, the lack of a viable pass-catching tight end will allow more than a few receivers to diversify the Raiders' aerial attack.
RB Darren McFadden (foot) -- He was supposed to step into the fantasy elite last season; instead, he wound up back to square one as a monster injury-plagued bust. The fact McFadden hasn't played a full season in his four years should tell you all you need to know when considering him in Round 1. Other backs might have less potential, but at least you can count on them. Also, McFadden's injury stigma makes the speedy Jones an intriguing late-round pick. Goodson is more of a plodding runner, Jones is a potential home-run hitter.
WR Denarius Moore (hamstring) -- This was a recent issue that caused him to miss some time at the end of OTAs. It isn't expected to hold him out of training camp.
1 Philip Rivers SD
2 Peyton Manning DEN
3 Carson Palmer OAK
4 Matt Cassel KC
5 Brady Quinn KC
6 Matt Leinart OAK
7 Charlie Whitehurst SD
8 Adam Weber DEN
1 Darren McFadden OAK
2 Ryan Mathews SD
3 Jamaal Charles KC
4 Willis McGahee DEN
5 Peyton Hillis KC
6 Ronnie Brown SD
7 Knowshon Moreno DEN
8 Mike Goodson OAK
9 Lance Ball DEN
10 Taiwan Jones OAK
1 Dwayne Bowe KC
2 Demaryius Thomas DEN
3 Robert Meachem SD
4 Eric Decker DEN
5 Malcom Floyd SD
6 Denarius Moore OAK
7 Steve Breaston KC
8 Darrius Heyward-Bey OAK
9 Vincent Brown SD
10 Jonathan Baldwin KC
11 Eddie Royal SD
12 Jacoby Ford OAK
1 Antonio Gates SD
2 Tony Moeaki KC
3 Jacob Tamme DEN
4 Joel Dreessen DEN
5 Kevin Boss KC
1 Sebastian Janikowski OAK
2 Nate Kaeding SD
3 Matt Prater DEN
4 Ryan Succop KC
5 Nick Novak SD
1 Broncos DEN
2 Chiefs KC
3 Raiders OAK
4 Chargers SD
Eric Mack writes fantasy for SI.com. You find him on Twitter, where you can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice @EricMackFantasy. He reads all the messages there (guaranteed) and takes them very, very personally (not really).
Swim Daily, Elsa Benitez in Montauk
Bears and Cowboys fighting to gain ground in their divisions