Making sense of the AFC West

The AFC west is one of the most intriguing divisions in the NFL. With a lot changing for each of the four teams, who is the front runner for the division heading into the 2018 season?

Let’s take a look at each team out west.

Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs have won the last two AFC West titles. However, much has changed in KC this offseason. The two most important changes were both made via trade. In what I think has been one of the more understated moves of the offseason, the Chiefs traded one of the best young corners in the NFL, Marcus Peters. The move was puzzling considering what the Chiefs got in return, as well as Peters’ propensity for big plays, which will be sorely missed.

Secondly, and more importantly, the trade of Alex Smith showed just how much they believe in Patrick Mahomes. The second-year man from Texas Tech has long been praised for his cannon right arm, but whether or not he is a viable starting quarterback remains to be seen.

Kansas City spent big money getting Sammy Watkins, someone who will give Mahomes a reliable big body to pair with speedster Tyreek Hill and All-Pro Travis Kelce.

The other question mark for the Chiefs will be defense.

Kansas City ranked 28th overall in total defense last season, surrendering more than 360 yards a game. General manager Brett Veach spent all but one draft pick on the defensive side of the ball, including the first two picks along the defensive line.

Kansas City will be fun to watch, especially on the offensive side of the ball, but early season struggles from Mahomes and a very unproven defense could be enough to keep KC from reaching the postseason.

Oakland Raiders

Entering the 2017 season, the Raiders were a hot pick to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. A lot can change in a year.

The Raiders are now looking for answers in the form of  Jon Gruden. Oakland finally pried the former coach out of the broadcasting booth to the tune of $100 million. Now, Gruden will have to produce in what will be the team’s final season in Oakland. Offensively, the silver and black were middle of the pack last season, despite having Derek Carr. Gruden has had some, uh, interesting ideas for reigniting the offense:

Oakland has a solid offensive line in place, posting a 4.6 adjusted sack rating according to Football Outsiders. Despite having a solid offensive line, the Raiders ranked 25th in rushing last season. The addition of Doug Martin should help, but it may be time to accept that Marshawn Lynch is no longer a number one running back.

One of the biggest factors to moving the offense forward will be getting Amari Cooper back on track as Cooper struggled last season with injuries and drops, leading to a career-low 680 yards. Carr to Cooper was a lethal connection in Cooper’s first two NFL seasons.

It is also worth noting that the Raiders made some additions that should help their 23rd ranked defense from last season. PJ Hall is a huge body in the middle at defensive tackle and Arden Key could form a dynamic pass rushing duo with Khalil Mack. That is, if the Raiders can get Mack to end his holdout.

Oakland seems like one of those teams that will make a lot of headlines in 2018, however not for the best reasons. I simply do not think Gruden is the man to lead the Raiders to the next level.

Denver Broncos

Just two seasons ago, Denver were the undisputed kings of the AFC West, winning five division titles in a row and reaching two Super Bowls during that time. Since the retirement of Peyton Manning, they have struggled with stability at the quarterback position. Their outstanding defense has been squandered by an inability to put points on the board.

Denver had a great draft in April, adding to an already scary defense with the selection of Bradley Chubb, who by the way is a freak of nature. John Elway also added big bodied receiver Courtland Sutton in the second round and tailback Royce Freeman in the third, someone who could bring a physical edge to the Broncos offense. Freeman is one of the most hard-nosed runners and gifted tackle-breakers in this year’s rookie class.

The most important move made was bringing in Case Keenum. The move officially marked the end of the Paxton Lynch experiment, a complete misfire by Elway and company. Keenum is a steady leader, posting a 22/7 TD/INT ratio in 2017. Steady is just what the Broncos need in this transition period for the franchise. However, Keenum has shown what he can do with a capable supporting cast, throwing for 3,547 yards with Minnesota in 2017.

Denver won just five games last season, but with a top level defense and a revamped offense, they could surprise some people in 2018. While I don’t think they will have enough fire power to win the division, a year of learning and growing could set them up for a big year in 2019.

Los Angeles Chargers

The Chargers are one of the hottest teams in the NFL entering the 2018 season with a huge buzz. Philip Rivers is in the twilight of his career, looking for one last shot at a Super Bowl.

The Chargers are one of the more talented teams in the NFL, on paper, but will have to prove themselves in order to make a run this season. In what can only be explained as a curse, the Chargers have already lost two starters to season-ending injuries, Jason Verrett and Hunter Henry. LA chose to be conservative in free agency, a decision that may come back to bite them should more injury issues occur.

Mental toughness will be a theme for LAC throughout the 2018 season, not just in dealing of injuries, but in finishing close games. LA lost four games by one possession in 2017, inexcusable for a team trying to make the playoffs. Head coach Anthony Lynn has stressed the importance of starting strong in 2018, to avoid another disastrous 0-4 start.

The Chargers’ brass went defense early and often in the draft, beginning with the selection of the ultra athletic safety Derwin James. Already possessing one of the best pass rushing duos in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram and an elite corner in Casey Heyward, the Chargers appear to have a formidable defense.

Ranking fourth in total offense last season, the Chargers have a potent offensive attack led by Melvin Gordon, Keenan Allen, and the aforementioned Rivers. The receiving core also gets a lot stronger with 2017 first round pick Mike Williams returning healthy.

Oakland will occupy the AFC West cellar, likely winning six games like last year. Denver will be one of the more improved teams in the NFL, possibly winning eight or nine games.

Kansas City will come in as the runner up with nine wins with Los Angeles owning the West. LA got better on defense, has the ability to put points on the board in bunches, and will be hungry as hell after narrowly missing the playoffs last season.

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