With the four toughest schedules all belonging to the residents of the AFC West, another absolute cage fight will be in store for supremacy. Denver shook up the coaching staff after a Super Bowl hangover while Kansas City looks to tightrope through playoff contention and rebuild. The Raiders look to give Oakland some final hardware before a tearful goodbye and the Bolts try to surprise their new home with a fresh start. Here is how the AFC West will resolve itself once the dust has settled.
Staff Writer Frank Sumrall:
Oakland Raiders: 1st Place
Best Positions: Quarterback, Offensive Line, Special Teams
Many circles around the NFL believed a healthy Autumn Wind squad could have represented the AFC conference instead of the eventual NFL champion Patriots. Maybe it was a year too soon, but Oakland is ready to win their first title since 1984. Whether or not Marshawn Lynch makes an impact, Carr is poised for an MVP-caliber season alongside Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree, Seth Roberts in the slot and Jared Cook as a full-fledged tight end. Add Oakland’s Carr insurance which ranked fourth amongst offensive lines last year and this is easily one of the most potent offenses in the league.
Khalil Mack is a wrecking ball anchor that hopes to stave off the competition. The front seven posted impressive numbers but their efforts were countered by cornerback Sean Smith and David Amerson‘s mediocre seasons. Their situation with rookie Gareon Conley and the rape accusations against him only snowballs their problems in the secondary. Luckily 2015 All-Pro safety Reggie Nelson will supply support alongside Karl Joseph who’s potential is limitless when healthy.
Oakland Raiders: 1st Place
Best Positions: Quarterback, Offensive Line
The Raiders put together an impressive campaign last season that may have ended differently had Derek Carr not been injured. He will return healthy and will aim to lead the Raiders to their first division title since 2002. In order to keep him upright, Oakland boasts one of the best offensive lines in the entire NFL. ProFootballFocus.com ranked the Raider big men fourth overall with Donald Penn coming in as the third best left tackle. With the addition of Marshawn Lynch, this offense could be extremely potent and scary good.
If Gareon Conley enters the season with a clean slate, this will be a vastly improved group. Unfortunately, that is a big IF, and even still, he is a rookie that will have to go up against the likes of Keenan Allen, Demaryius Thomas, and Emmanuel Sanders four times. Sean Smith was the big free agent signing of last year, but he vastly underperformed. He will need to improve in 2017 if the Raiders hope to improve their chances as top AFC contenders.
Los Angeles Chargers: 2nd Place
Best Positions: Running Back, Wide Receiver
The Chargers chased greener pastures for the Hollywood desert after turning in one of the most unfortunate and unlucky seasons in recent memory. While unfair or not, to reward the incumbent fans of Los Angeles with a postseason birth so early on, the Chargers will shake up the AFC. Melvin Gordon‘s pound for pound grunt attack bodes well with the splashy quarterback play of Philip Rivers. While the edge goes toward Derek Carr as the best gunslinger in the wild west, Rivers’ potential Hall of Fame resume is not cemented yet. This offense is deadly with a healthy Keenan Allen complemented by speedster Travis Benjamin and Dontrelle Inman. The versatile offense even hosted a 1,000-yard campaign from Tyrell Williams.
Across the pond lurks the turnover-hungry beasts in Verrett and Hayward, gifting the offense a defensive crutch. Throw in Joey Bosa who adds to the daunting group of AFC West pass rushers and this team is poised to make a splash worthy of Hollywood glamor.
Weaknesses: Offensive Line
How does any team with such a sound roster that plays with so much adaptability from the injury bug get derailed? A porous offensive line. Philip Rivers was chased like a rabid dog across the turf as his pocket folded like a lawn chair. The key to gridiron success is keeping the quarterback comfortable and making the opponent’s quarterback uncomfortable. This easily can be the Achilles’ Heel to an otherwise great roster.
Los Angeles Chargers: 3rd Place
Best Positions: Defensive Line, Tight End
After sitting our last year’s Training Camp over a contract dispute, Joey Bosa took the NFL by storm. He posted 41 combined tackles and 10.5 sacks in his rookie campaign. Bosa will be paired with Corey Liuget on the edge and Brandon Mebane in the middle. These are three of the better down-linemen in the league.
As far as the tight end position is concerned, Antonio Gates returns for another season in his Hall of Fame career, and Hunter Henry is becoming a household name as one of the more potent touchdown catching TEs. Philip Rivers has always utilized his tight end to the best of their ability and this season will be no different.
Weaknesses: Offensive Line
As strong as the defensive line is, the offensive line is just the opposite. The Chargers ranked 31st last year as an offensive line unit. A lot of changes were made in the offseason as Russell Okung was brought over from Denver via free agency, and two guards, Forrest Lamp and Dan Feeney, were taken early in the 2017 Draft. However, it is hard to say that a chemistry will be created right off the bat. It could be a few weeks into the season before this group plays like it’s capable of, and they get the joy of squaring off against the vaunted Denver pass rush in the season opener.
Kansas City Chiefs: 3rd Place
Best Positions: Linebacker, Tight End
Andy Reid has a very difficult challenge ahead of him. Balance a rebuild while still contend for a playoff spot in the league’s toughest division. Reid’s teams continue to play above their means during his stretch in Arrowhead. But this year the Chiefs will, despite staying competitive, drop. Travis Kelce remains as their most steady and productive player on offense and can hopefully keep them afloat. They are a defensive team at heart and no one has more heart in the NFL than Eric Berry who continues to post amazing campaigns against all odds. Marcus Peters stands as one of the best man coverage corners while the linebacker corps are the toast of the NFL. Tamba Hali, Justin Houston, Derrick Johnson and Dee Ford all stand as elite talents that can alter the landscape of the gridiron.
Weaknesses: Wide Receiver, Running Back
Outside of the “Catching Kelce” star, the offense is full of question marks and pocket holes. Will Alex Smith keep the starting job against Mahomes? Can Spencer Ware provide a swiss army knife role in the offense? Can Tyreek Hill develop into a number one receiver and move beyond gadget plays? And will Chris Conley help fill the void of Jeremy Maclin? This team with clipboard genius Andy Reid has the potential to continue their dominance. But on paper, this is a mediocre offensive roster made of swiss cheese.
Kansas City Chiefs: 4th Place
Best Positions: Special Teams, Tight End
Travis Kelce may be the most dominant tight end in the NFL not named Rob Gronkowski. There is no argument, however, that outside of quarterback, no position player is more important to his offense than Kelce. With 117 targets and 85 receptions last season, Kelce is the #1 receiver in KC. This was even more evident with the release of Jeremy Maclin earlier this month.
Tyreek Hill watched his draft stock slip due to off-the-field issues, and boy did that pay off for the Chiefs. He was a monster on special teams and a tremendous change of pace on the offense. Andy Reid put all his chips on Hill during the offseason by letting Jamaal Charles walk, and releasing Maclin. Hill will have to prove that he is not just a gimmick player.
Weaknesses: Wide Receiver, Running Back
Tyreek Hill and Chris Conley are the Chiefs starting receivers. Need I say more? I realize that Kelce is their true number one, but this has to be one of the weakest receiving corps in the entire NFL. Kansas City has been the model of consistency since Andy Reid got there, but their lack of creativity on offense is one of the many reasons they never have deep playoff runs. Couple that with Spencer Ware‘s 900 yards and only 3 touchdowns, and you have a very mediocre offense. Kareem Hunt was a good value pick in the draft that could pay dividends in the future, but for now, it is the weakest rushing group in the AFC West.
Denver Broncos: 4th Place
Best Positions: Secondary, Wide Receiver
How the mighty have fallen. Two years removed from their Super Bowl victory and now they plummet to the bottom of the barrel. In such a tough division, one team has to bite the dust. Their defense remains intact with superstars across the field. But with every passing season defenses slowly erode for a myriad of reasons. Their offense has some stability with a great Thomas-Sanders duo alongside Sonic rusher, C.J. Anderson. But their weakness happens to come at the most important position.
Weaknesses: Quarterback, Tight End
It’s hard to stay optimistic with their situation under center. Trevor Siemian had his moments but his ceiling continues to whisper ‘stop-gap’ quarterback. Paxton Lynch‘s raw talent still waits to be molded into a starting quarterback. And an offensive crutch in a tight end has been missing since Julius Thomas left for sunny days in Florida. Denver is the only team in the division without a franchise quarterback; a huge disadvantage on their shoulders. With Gary Kubiak and the 2015’s Assistant Coach of the Year Wade Phillips leaving Mile High this offseason, the leadership on this team could falter as their western rivals will feast on the once behemoth club.
Denver Broncos: 2nd Place
Best Positions: Wide Receiver, Secondary, Edge Rush
The Broncos will look to rebound after a disappointing 9-7 record in 2016. The core of the team that won Super Bowl 50 is still all in tact. Demaryius Thomas and Emmanual Sanders are still two of the most revered receivers in the game. Third round draft pick Carlos Henderson could add a dynamic in the slot that the Broncos haven’t had on offense in quite some time. He was a monster last season in yards after the catch.
— Sayre Bedinger (@SayreBedinger) April 30, 2017
The “No Fly Zone” returns all four starters along with Bradley Roby in the Nickel, who would be a starting corner on just about every other team. The depth at the safety position is also extremely undervalued, as Justin Simmons and Will Parks had many big moments in their rookie campaigns.
And then we get to Von Miller, arguably the best edge rusher in all of football. He returns hungrier this season, alongside Shane Ray who finally becomes a full-time starter with the retirement of DeMarcus Ware. Sprinkle in Shaquil Barrett, Derek Wolfe, and rookie DeMarcus Walker and you have an outside presence that is feared by every quarterback in the league.
Weaknesses: Offensive Line, Special Teams, Quarterback
The biggest glaring issue for the Broncos last season was the offensive line. GM John Elway put his best foot forward to improve this unit by signing Ronald Leary and Menelik Watson in free agency, and draft Garret Bolles in the first round of the draft. Bolles has impressed coaches so far in OTA’s and the unit as a whole now has a mean steak, but chemistry and continuity are still one of the biggest question marks heading into the season.
Whenever the Denver Broncos get brought up, usually the first question is always “Who is going to play quarterback?” Trevor Siemian wasn’t electric last season, but he also wasn’t all that bad. In fact, he threw only 101 yards less than Smith and three touchdowns more than the division champ. If he wins the starting role he will provide consistency at the QB position. Then there is the gunslinger. First round pick Paxton Lynch. Coaches in Denver aren’t giving us much as to who is leading the race, but the common thread is that Lynch’s big play ability is uncanny. Lynch’s skills will be showcased once training camp begins and it will be his job to lose.
The Special Teams unit gave up a lot of big plays last year while making very few. Team captain Kayvon Webster left for the Rams in free agency which will leave a huge void in the special team’s room. Late round draft pick Isaiah McKenzie and third round pick Brendan Langley will try and spark a unit that needs to be revamped.
Final Division Predictions:
Oakland Raiders: 12-4
San Diego Chargers: 10-6
Kansas City Chiefs: 7-9
Denver Broncos: 6-10
Oakland Raiders: 13-3
Denver Broncos: 11-5
Los Angeles Chargers: 9-7
Kansas City Chiefs: 8-8