NFL Previews and Predictions: AFC West

It’s time to finish the AFC portion of our division previews and predictions, and to do so, let’s head out west to take a close look at the AFC West. This division is similar to the AFC North, in that it’s very top-heavy; the top two teams will likely beat up on the other two teams. Can Patrick Mahomes lead the Chiefs to another division title? Is this the year the Chargers make good on their potential? What does Vic Fangio bring to the Broncos? How will the Raiders actually win games in 2019? Let’s discuss.

First Place: Kansas City Chiefs

chiefs
Photo Cred: Sports Illustrated

Record Prediction: 13-3

Best Case: 15-1

Worst Case: 11-5

Power Ranking: 3rd

Offense Ranking: 1st

Defense Ranking: 27th

Initial Thoughts: The Chiefs were one win away from going to the Super Bowl last season, but in classic fashion, lost in overtime as their defense stood no chance against quarterback Tom Brady. They’ve made several changes to the defense as a result, and although it’s unclear if they’ve actually improved that unit, this incredible offense will be able to carry this team to another division title.

Offense: The Chiefs offense is simply unstoppable, and it all starts with their MVP quarterback. In head coach Andy Reid’s highly productive offensive scheme, Patrick Mahomes put up video game-like numbers last season, and that was only in his first season as a starter. One could only dream about what the encore will be, but since the 23-year-old has already emerged as the arguably top quarterback, and the most talented player in the NFL, he should definitely be a top candidate for NFL MVP for the second straight season. After all, he’ll have a plethora of weapons to utilize. Since he was able to avoid a suspension, Tyreek Hill will be at full service for Kansas City in 2019, which is huge since he’s an elite vertical receiver and a top-five receiver. Add him to Sammy Watkins, second-round burner Mecole Hardman, Demarcus Robinson, and arguably the best tight end in football in Travis Kelce, and it’s almost unfair how many quality players Mahomes can target this season. That’s not even including the team’s running backs; Damien Williams was able to replace Kareem Hunt as their featured dual-threat back, Carlos Hyde is the team’s power rusher, and sixth-round pick Darwin Thompson will be the team’s main receiving running back. Heck, even their offensive line remains one of the league’s best, especially in pass protection. Pretty much, this offense could legitimately average 40 points per game next season.

Defense: After sporting one of the worst defenses last season, Kansas City made drastic changes this offseason. By hiring defensive coordinator Steve Spagnolo, they’ll be switching to a 4-3 defense, and as a result, they overhauled the pass rush; the team’s top two pass rushers last season, Dee Ford (49ers-trade) and Justin Houston (Colts-cut), are gone. To compensate for those losses, general manager Brett Veach traded a first-round pick, and more, for former Seahawks edge rusher Frank Clark, only to sign him to a five year, $105 million contract, signed Alex Okafor, and also added Emmanuel Ogbah in a minor trade. It’s not a certainty that those three will produce better than Ford and Houston, but at the very worse, the pass rush, especially since Chris Jones is elite on the interior, should remain very strong. The secondary, meanwhile, will be the opposite. The acquisition of safety Tyrann Mathieu should help, but he, rookie safety Juan Thornhill, and Kendall Fuller all play best in the nickel. Therefore, they’ll have to sort out how to best utilize those three, because after that, the team is relying on the likes of Breshad Breeland, Charvarius Ward, Morris Claiborne (four-game suspension), Mark Fields, and Rashad Felton at outside corner. Therefore, they’ll be relying on the pass rush, because if it’s neutralized, this secondary could be in jeopardy of allowing 500+ passing yards in any given game. Furthermore, unless former first-round pick Darron Lee can emerge as the top linebacker, the Chiefs will be starting two liabilities in coverage in Anthony Hitchens and Reggie Ragland; this defense is not built to thrive in coverage. Despite the new additions, Kansas City may need to average 40+ points a game if they want to win this division.

Final Thoughts: Despite the negativity with the defense, it’s impossible to not be super optimistic about the Chiefs. The offense is flawless, and if the defense can be anything other than a liability, they could be the top team in football. Plus, Reid is one of the top coaches in football, they have one of the top home-field advantages, and they’ve always matched up well with the division rival Chargers. There’s too much going on their side to hold them accountable for their poor secondary.

Second Place: Los Angeles Chargers

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers-OTA
Photo Cred: Chargers Wire- USA Today

Record Prediction: 13-3

Best Case: 14-2

Worst Case: 10-6

Power Ranking: 2nd

Offense Ranking: 5th

Defense Ranking: 3rd

Initial Thoughts: On paper, the Chargers look to be loaded. They have everything you’d look for from a Super Bowl contender; they have practically a flawless roster.

Offense: Sometimes, it feels like Phillip Rivers is overlooked as a premium quarterback. That’s a shame; he remains at least a top-five quarterback and continues to put up incredible numbers, and he seems to be only getting better with age. He’s established an amazing connection with star receiver Keenan Allen over the years, which should continue into this year, while 2017 first-round pick Mike Williams should take a step forward to becoming the main threat opposite of Allen. In addition, tight end Hunter Henry returns after missing last season with a torn ACL, adding more ammunition for Rivers. Obviously, Rivers’ supporting cast has taken a hit with Melvin Gordon’s holdout, but the duo of Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson is more than satisfactory. The offensive line has definitely been iffy in pass protection, but if Forrest Lamp can produce in his third season, perhaps that won’t be the case, though it’s definitely a mild concern. Still, the amount of talent around Rivers, an elite and experienced quarterback, is more than enough to maintain heavy optimism.

Defense: Though having one top-five unit would be enough to get excited about for any team, the Chargers also have a top-three defense to complement their offense. What exactly is their weakness? The secondary is incredible; Casey Heyward is one of the top corners in the NFL and there’s plenty of depth behind him, while second-year safety Derwin James may already be the best at his position, and he’ll be paired by a high-upside rookie in Nasir Adderly (second round). Then comes the pass rush, which is even better thanks to the incredible duo of Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa, who each are more than capable #1 pass rusher in their own right. If first-round pick Jerry Tillery provides any sort of pressure on the interior, it could be game over for opposing quarterbacks. Heck, even the linebackers are fine, especially if second-year player Kyzir White can take the next forward as a converted safety. Though run defense is usually not an important part of team building, since it’s easy to find run-stopping defensive tackles, it does remain an issue for Los Angeles. Brendan Mebane is back, along with Tillery and Justin Jones on the interior, but there isn’t much depth outside of them, and though their linebackers, primarily Denzel Perryman, are fine in stopping the run, they didn’t do a lot to improve a run defense that was absolutely destroyed by the Patriots in the playoffs last year. Still, they may have the best overall pass defense in the NFL, and given the era of football we’re in, Los Angeles probably shouldn’t be sweating their potential problems stopping the run. It also should be mentioned that defensive coordinator Gus Bradley is a proven commodity and has done a great job with this defense.

Final Thoughts: The Chargers are stacked at every important position, and honestly have a better roster than the Chiefs. The issue is that they lack any sort of home-field advantage, and it’s hard to play 16 road games a season. The roster may be able to overcome it, as they did last year, but compared to the advantages the Chiefs have, the difference in talent isn’t substantial enough. Still, this team will definitely win double digits and could still reach the Super Bowl as a wildcard team; they are that talented.

Third Place: Denver Broncos

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Photo Cred: Denver7

Record Prediction: 7-9

Best Case: 8-8

Worst Case: 1-15

Power Ranking: 22nd

Offense Ranking: 28th

Defense Ranking: 5th

Initial: Since the Broncos won the Super Bowl in the 2015 season, general manager John Elway has been trying to bring the team back to contention. The problem is, the quarterback position continues to be a major liability, and by acquiring Joe Flacco, they’ve committed once again to mediocrity.

Offense: Even if Flacco is an “upgrade” over Case Keenum, there isn’t much to get excited about regarding the Broncos offense. After all, Flacco is a below-average to average starter at best, and although Courtland Sutton could breakout this season, the rest of the receiving corps is bleak. Emmanuel Sanders is recovering from a torn Achilles and is already 32-years-old, and after Sanders and Sutton, there is zero depth. Yes, first-round tight end Noah Fant could be a weapon, but rookie tight ends always tend to struggle, so it would be unreasonable to expect too much from him. The offensive is improved on the right side following the additions of guard Dalton Risner (second round) and tackle Ja’Wuan James (free agency), but losing center Matt Paradis hurts and Garrett Bolles remains a major question mark, even if bringing in offensive line coach Mike Munchak should help. Even Phillip Lindsay isn’t a sure-thing at running back, as he came out of nowhere and likely already hit his peak, while there isn’t anything intriguing behind him. Eventually, we may see Drew Lock in here if Flacco struggles or the team falls out of contention, but it would take Patrick Mahomes to give this offense any excitement.

Defense: The Broncos defense, on the other hand, remains a premier unit. The face of defense, Von Miller, is back to create pressure off the edge and wreck havoc for quarterbacks, and it’ll be fun to watch what 2018 5th overall pick Bradley Chubb has to offer after a promising rookie season. The pass rush will terrific, and the same goes for the secondary. Chris Harris, in the nickel or on the outside, is an outstanding cornerback, and he’ll be complemented by corners Kareem Jackson and Bryce Callahan. All of those players play best in the nickel, but head coach Vic Fangio likely has a vision for him. Even the back-end should be strong with safeties Justin Simmons and Will Parks, and the interior defensive line is sturdy with run defenders. The only concern I have with this defense is the linebackers , but Todd Davis and Josey Jewell isn’t the worst pairing, even though they’re the clear weak link of this defense. Still, I love the overall talent on this defense, and matched with an amazing defensive play-caller in Fangio, they definitely will exceed expectations this season.

Overall: This defense is so strong, that if the offense can even be a top 20 unit, they’ll be a true playoff contender. However, I have serious doubts that it’s capable of achieving that, and as a result, the Broncos should once again be a mediocre team in 2019.

Fourth Place: Oakland Raiders

raiders
Photo Cred: Silver and Black Pride

Record Prediction: 3-13

Best Case: 6-10

Worst Case: 0-16

Power Ranking: 30th

Offense Ranking: 23rd

Defense Ranking: 32nd

Initial Thoughts: The Raiders went on a mini-spending spree this offseason, generating plenty of immediate hype. However, after a poor draft, that hype has simmered down tremendously, and with no clear strength, they’ll struggle mightily to win many games this season.

Offense: At one point in his career, Derek Carr looked to be a rising quarterback. Now, he’s plateaued out as a conservative, check down specialist, and at this point, he’s more of an average placeholder than a franchise quarterback. His weapons are improved this season with the additions of receivers Antonio Brown, Tyrell Williams, Hunter Renfrow, Ryan Grant, and JJ Nelson, but I have concerns about all of them. Brown regressed significantly last season and may struggle with a worse quarterback, Williams is more of a deep-ball specialist than a complete receiver, Renfrow is exciting but limited to the slot, and Grant and Nelson haven’t proven to be anything more than #4 receivers at best. Yes, Trent Brown should be a massive upgrade at right tackle, and center Rodney Hudson and guard Gabe Jackson are glues out their position. Still, left tackle Kolten Miller was a liability last season, while guard Richie Incognito is suspended for the first two games and didn’t play a game last season; the left side of the offensive line is a major weakness. The best offensive player on this team may be first-round rookie running back Josh Jacobs, but although he’s a true three-down back, he mays too insignificant of a position for him to be a true difference-maker. Despite all the flashy pieces, the Raiders won’t even be a top 20 offense this season.

Defense: Last season, the Raiders defense couldn’t stop anyone and had just 13 sacks, a shockingly low amount. After spending big on offensive free agents, it was clear that the focus of the draft would be adding impact defensive players, yet Oakland failed to improve this unit much. That putrid pass rush last season has been somewhat “upgrade” with the selection of edge rusher Clelin Ferrell with the fourth overall pick, but his ceiling is that of a #2 pass rusher, and he’ll have to be the #1 pass rusher with little help on the edge. Maurice Hurst is a player to keep an eye on as an interior pass rusher, but he won’t be enough to elevate this pass rush much at all; Oakland may have the worst pass rush once again. At least the secondary has some intriguing players; cornerback Gareon Conley is developing, safety Lamarcus Joyner is versatile, and rookies Jonathan Abram and Travon Mullen could be instant contributors. Still, there is little cornerback depth behind Conley, outside for possibly Mullen, Joyner struggled last season, and Abram and safety Karl Joseph are at this point run defenders and aren’t strong in coverage. Even worse is the linebacker room, which features three aging liabilities in coverage in Vontaze Burfict, Brandon Marshall, and Tahir Whitehead. It’s impossible to have any sort of hope for a team that has red flags at every spot on defense, especially since they, unlike the Chiefs, don’t have a strong offense to carry them.

Final Thoughts: The Raiders may have some flashy names, but I don’t see any way that’ll translate to wins. It’s much easier to identify the few, if any, strengths they have, rather than the weaknesses they seem to have at every spot. That’s not a good sign, and even worse is their schedule, which may be the most brutal in the entire league. Add in that head coach Jon Gruden needs to prove he can adapt to the modern NFL, and you have a recipe for disaster.

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