Atop the AFC West sit the Chiefs, as the other three teams chase to varying degrees of success. Over the last few months, I have been grading both the AFC and NFC teams off of their draft selections and free agency. I have evaluated both the most improved teams and the impact that these improvements have had on some of the veterans already on these teams. Now’s the time to see how each team stacks up against the Chiefs and the rest of their division. It’s also time to make some way too early predictions.
Over the next few weeks, I will be breaking down each division and taking a shot at ranking the teams in them. The NFC East is already in the books. Without further ado, I present the AFC West. Let’s see how the Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Las Vegas Raiders, and Los Angeles Chargers stack up against each other.
Since Patrick Mahomes took over at QB for KC this division has been all about 3 teams lining in the shadows of the Chiefs. This year, it feels slightly different. These teams are no longer living in the shadow, but now are actually chasing the Chiefs. And one of them is closing the gap quickly. The Broncos have done this by beefing up their defense, the Raiders by strengthening both units a little. The Chargers, however, have made both their offense and defense elite. Will it be enough? Only time will tell.
In an off-season where their division was upgrading their offensive lines and a few of the teams upgrading weapons, the Broncos did very little to add to their offensive side of the ball. Many thought they were going to make a huge splash in the draft with one of the young QBs, many still believe that they will land Aaron Rodgers. The truth is, however, that Teddy Bridgewater is the only QB they added. It also looks like he is projected to be Drew Lock’s backup.
RB Javonte Williams is the one real upgrade Denver made to its offense. He looks to split time with Melvin Gordon as the season starts but should expect to seize most of that role towards the end of the season. Gordon has shown signs of slowing down so the time to move on was right.
Another notable addition is that WR Cortland Sutton returns after missing most of the last season with an injury. He joins a young and talented WR bunch that feature Jerry Jeudy and Tim Patrick.
Overall, with one of the worst QB situations in the league and an OL that doesn’t offer much support, there isn’t much room for optimism. Talent is only as good as your ability to get them the ball. In this high-powered, offensive division the Broncos are surely last in that category.
Once this defense gets started, very few teams will be able to pass against them. The Broncos made sure to get coach Vic Fangio the defensive pieces he needed in order to stay competitive in the pass-happy AFC West. In the draft, they selected Patrick Surtain II. In free agency, they added Fangio favorite Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby. Not to mention, they already had Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson in that secondary. It will be tough for most of WRs to get open versus those DBs.
This defense also benefits from the return of Von Miller. We have been waiting to see how the ER pair of Miller and Bradley Chubb stack up versus the elite of the league, but with Miller out in 2020 and Chubb out in 2019 we have not had the privilege yet. This may be the year which we can finally watch it happen.
The Broncos’ secondary and line don’t have the only upgrades this season as they decided to improve all three levels of the defense. Baron Browning was brought in to join an already talented LB core, which features Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell.
Overall, this is the best defense in the division and could turn out to be the best pass defense in the NFL. Fangio now has all the pieces he needs to work his magic with this unit.
Kansas City Chiefs
Super Bowl LV was tough to watch for several reasons. None were bigger than the porous play of the Kansas City OL and the beating they allowed Patrick Mahomes to take. That will not happen again. Joe Thuney and Kyle Long come over in free agency in order to beef up the unit. Next, the Chiefs send their 1st round pick packing in order to snag Orlando Browns from the Ravens. Finally, they select C Creed Humphrey in the draft. All total, the Chiefs let go of six OL men who couldn’t make the cut and replaced them with six who will make an immediate and season-long impact.
These moves alone should be enough for the Chiefs to be viewed as the best team in the league. After all, they retained many of their explosive playmakers, including Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, and Mecole Hardman. And they drastically improved the line that protects Mahomes. Who knows, maybe CEH will develop into a better RB with a fresh start on the line.
The Chiefs easily have the top offense in the division and potentially the best in the NFL. Mahomes has his sights set on 20-0. If its possible, this offense gives as good of a shot as any.
Very little has changed on the Kansas City defense. L’Jarius Sneed and Charvarius Wards now have a year of experience under their belts and should be even more beneficial to the Chiefs passing defense game. On the flip side, Frank Clark and Tyrann “Honeybadger” Mathieu aren’t getting younger.
Free Agents Mike Hughes and Jarran Reed do help to add depth to the DBs and DL respectively, helping to keep their rotations fresher.
Rookie LB Nick Bolton is really the only move to get excited for. As of right now, he is penciled in as a backup, but don’t let that fool you. Bolton has all of the tools to be an energetic, sideline-to-sideline LB once he takes over for Gay or Hitchens. Even if he doesn’t take over this year (no way it doesn’t happen in my opinion), he will still provide great depth at LB for KC.
This defense is improved, but it’s still not going to hang with the elite of the NFL. The rise of younger stars should be canceled out by the decline of older stars. Ultimately, they need Bolton to develop into what he can be. For now, however, I won’t rank them higher than fourth in this division.
Las Vegas Raiders
Many, including myself, criticized Chucky for taking Leatherwood in the first round of the NFL draft. I personally would like to go on the record and retract that. After looking at some of the early footage, you can tell that this guy is going to be great. What’s more, he comes in with a chip on his shoulder, courtesy of the media who criticized the pick. He should be more than able give Derek Carr the time needed to hurl the ball downfield.
When I look at the rest of this offense, it appears to be more of the same to me. They brought in free agent WR John Brown but lost Nelson Agholor. You might even call that a downgrade, being that Agholor fits Carr’s style of play better. Henry Ruggs may prove to be better in his second season, but I didn’t see what I needed to believe it will be a huge impact.
As for the addition of RB Kenyan Drake, this move feels more like subtraction by addition. While I might not be his greatest fan, how could you take the ball out of Josh Jacob’s hands to give to Drake? Unless they plan on utilizing them at the same time (with a great downfield passer?) or are just wanting depth for a potential injury, this move could backfire.
Overall, this offense is still good because of the presence of Darren Waller, but most of the rest of it is far from ideal. In a division with great offenses, the Raider only clocks in at third.
Yannick Ngakoue changes everything for this defense. Clelin Ferrell now slides down to the number two ER, a position from which he can see results. Throw in DT Solomon Thomas coming over from the 49ers and suddenly the Raiders have a strong DL. Free-agent DT Quinton Jefferson and ER Maxx Crosby give that DL dynamics and depth. And they’ll need it too, considering how well the Chargers and the Chiefs beefed up their OLs.
Then, we add rookie S Travis Moehrig to the picture. He was the top S in college football and one of the best to recently enter the NFL. Pairing him with Johnathan Abram makes them one of the best safety combos in the league. The Raiders didn’t stop there either. They also added CB Casey Hayward in free agency. You can tell the Raiders are serious about attempting to slow down the AFC West super-offenses.
Overall, the Raiders have a much-improved defense. I’m sure it will be enough versus their divisional foes but expect them to stack up better versus most of the NFL. With that said, their division also has some very dynamic defense, therefore I will only be ranking them in third.
Los Angeles Chargers
It is extremely clear that Justin Herbert is the next elite QB in football. It is also clear that the Chargers needed to do a better job in protecting him last year. Therefore, they drastically improved their offensive line this season. In the draft, they picked up a monstrous left tackle in Rashawn Slater, who will definitely be able to protect Herbert’s blindside. The biggest edition, however, was when they brought over C Corey Linsley from the Packers. What was once a weakness is now one of the strengths of the team.
As far as weapons go, being able to play a full season with Austin Ekeler will greatly benefit Herbert and the Chargers’ offense. They also added WR Josh Palmer in the draft and TE Jared Cook in free agency in order to bolster the receiving core. Herbert now has plenty of weapons and plenty of protection.
Overall, expect this offense to be a high-flying offense that will give the Chiefs’ a run for their money. They will rank among the NFL’s elite and are second only to Kansas City in the division.
The greatest upgrade to the Chargers’ D comes not in the form of a player, but rather in the form of head coach, Brandon Staley. I quickly glazed over this when they hired him at the beginning of 2021 because the signing wasn’t as high-profile as some of the others at the time. Now, I clearly see how great and impactful of a signing that this truly was. Staley was the defensive coordinator of a team that suffocating against the pass last season.
When comparing the pieces that the Rams did that with last year to those on the Chargers, you can clearly see my reason for optimism. Derwin James returns from injury and should make a dynamic duo with Nick Adderley at S. The CB unit features depth as rookie Samuel Asante Jr and free agent Chris Harris join a unit that already featured an upcoming Tevaughn Campbell. One can already begin to see the resemblance in this deep and talented secondary.
As for the line, Staley had the privilege of working with Aaron Donald these last few years. Now he has Joey Bosa. I’m not saying that Bosa is Donald, but he is a pass rusher with nearly limitless potential, expect a big season from him. Also on the line, Linval Joseph comes from the Vikings and brings with him a presence against the opposing rush game.
Nick Niemann provides depth to a good LB core, featuring the young stud Kenneth Murray.
Overall, this Chargers D may be the most improved unit in the division. Expect them to clamp down on the passing attack similar to the way the Rams did a season ago. If it wasn’t for the Broncos having an elite D with an elite defensive coach the Chargers would be my number one in this division. But still, number two is still great.
The Chargers, Raiders, and Broncos continue to chase the Chiefs, but now the future is beginning to look brighter. Don’t get me wrong, Kansas City still checks in at number one in both the division and the conference, but the gap has been closed. Look for LA to challenge right up into the final few weeks and claim the top wild-card position. Look for Vegas to be competitive, as they slam their rebuilt DL into KC’s new OL. And look for the Broncos to contain their offense, even if they can’t score enough to keep up.
Kansas City – clinch conference, division, and bye.
Los Angeles – clinch top wild card spot.
Las Vegas – barely miss playoffs
Denver – top 5 defense, bottom 5 offense. Appealing for free agent QB in 2022 (Rodgers?).