X-Oakland Raiders 10-6
There is plenty of uncertainty around which city that the Oakland Raiders will be calling home in a few years, but one thing for sure is that this is a team that is finally close to once again being a contender in the National Football League. Since losing Super Bowl 37 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Raiders have not made the playoffs, and they’ve never produced a winning record. And over that stretch, the Raiders have had 9 different head coaches, but they appear to have finally hit pay dirt with Jack Del Rio.
Jack Del Rio
Prior to joining the Raiders, Del Rio was the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars and he led them to a pair of playoff appearances. And what Del Rio has done in a short period time with the Raiders is to change the culture in the Bay Area.
Del Rio inherited a young quarterback in Derek Carr who has continued to grow under Del Rio and Raiders offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. Last year Carr fell just 13 yards shy of becoming only the third quarterback in Raiders franchise history to pass for 4,000 yards. And in Carr’s first two years in the National Football League, he has quickly shown a tremendous pocket presence that has already seen him make the Pro Bowl.
The Raiders have had a long affinity for the speed at the wide receiver position. But now the Raiders not only have speed at wide receiver as they also have play makers as well. Last year as a rookie, wide receiver Amari Cooper was able to develop chemistry with Carr which saw Cooper grab 72 receptions and 1,070 yards. Aside from Cooper, the Raiders have a veteran wide receiver in Michael Crabtree as these two are set to become one of the best pass catching duos in the National Football League.
One thing that has hurt the Raiders recently has been there inability to consistently run the football. But last year running back Latavius Murray became the first Raiders running back since 2010 to gain at least 1,000 yards on the ground and with Del Rio committed to establishing the run game, Oakland should be able to have balance on offense this season.
As the Raiders are looking to improve off of their ranking of possessing the 22nd ranked defense last year, an improved unit could symbolize a trip to the postseason. And as Ken Norton Jr. is set to begin his second year as the defensive coordinator with the Raiders, he might have the most talented groups of linebackers in the National Football League under his guidance.
Outside linebacker Khalil Mack was the fifth overall pick of the 2014 National Football League Draft by the Raiders and in a very short time he has become one of the best edge rushers in the league. This off-season saw Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie sign outside linebacker Bruce Irvin who is a pass rush specialist. Irvin spent the last four years with the Seattle Seahawks and he helped them win Super Bowl 48. And the Raiders are hoping that Irvin’s experience, along with his ability to rush the passer will pay dividends this season. Aside from Mack and Irvin, the Raiders used a third-round pick this past April on defensive end/outside linebacker Shilique Calhoun. For the past three years, Calhoun was on the Big Ten Conference’s First-team as he helped the Michigan State Spartans be a national power. Calhoun now gets the opportunity to learn from Norton Jr. who himself was a quality linebacker in the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers, while also possibly having free lanes to rush the quarterback due to the ability of Mack and Irvin.
Three of the Raiders first four games will be on the road, but as long as this young team doesn’t get discouraged, they should be able to hang around as nobody is expected to run away with the AFC West Title this season.
Kansas City Chiefs 10-6
There has definitely been a culture change for the Kansas City Chiefs under head coach Andy Reid. In Reid’s three seasons in Kansas City, the Chiefs have not had a losing record, and he’s become the first head coach in the history of the franchise to accomplish that since Marty Schottenheimer who did it in 1991. Reid and the Chiefs will head into the 2016 National Football League looking to build off the momentum they ended last season with. After beginning 2015 with a record of 1-5, Kansas City would win their final 10 games of the regular season to become the first team in NFL history to start with such a porous record and still qualify for the postseason. In the process the Chiefs were able to win their first playoff game since January 1994, and now it could be the momentum needed for them to get back to the Super Bowl for the first time as a member of the NFL.
Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith doesn’t have the strongest arm in the National Football League, but Reid has made it his business to maximize the signal callers strengths which includes his running ability. And Smith has done a solid job as far as not forcing the football, or relying on the deep pass.
Last year the Chiefs were sixth in the National Football League in rushing offense and they did it with a committee of running backs. When running back Jamaal Charles suffered a knee injury, it gave Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware the opportunity to show what they can do. And although that neither player gained 1,000 yards on the ground, their presence along with a healthy a healthy Charles could give the Chiefs the best group of running backs in the NFL.
But as good as the Chiefs have been in regards to running the football, the same cannot be said about their passing game as they were 30th in the National Football League last year in passing yardage. The Chiefs do have a pair of viable options in the passing game in wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and tight end Travis Kelce, but they are still lacking another solid wide receiver who could change the tenor of what Kansas City is able to do on offense.
2015 saw the Chiefs have the seventh ranked defense in the National Football League and even though that Kansas City had the deal with several losses to the unit in free agency, they should once again be very formidable under defensive coordinator Bob Sutton.
Nose tackle Dontari Poe consistently commands a double-team in the trenches which opens things up for inside linebacker Derrick Johnson. The Chiefs also possess a solid pass rush in the form of outside linebackers Justin Houston, Tamba Hali, and Dee Ford as this trio can change the tenor of what opposing offenses want to do. A young Chiefs player to be on the lookout for here in 2016 is rookie linebacker Dadi Nicholas. Nicholas was the Chiefs sixth-round pick this past April, and whereas Kansas City has plenty of depth at linebacker, he could become an impact player on special teams to begin his National Football League career.
The Chiefs secondary has plenty of talent and they can learn from secondary coach Al Harris who was solid cornerback in the National Football League for more than a decade. Cornerback Marcus Peters enters the 2016 NFL season as the reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year as he snagged 8 interceptions last year. Eric Berry has tremendous range at free safety, and if quarterbacks don’t want to test Peters, they will still have their hands full with cornerback Steve Nelson.
As the Chiefs are looking to make the postseason in consecutive years for the first time since 1995, they have a chance to put themselves in a good position to accomplish that early on in the season with games against the San Diego Chargers, Houston Texans, New York Jets, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Oakland Raiders as they look to set the tone for themselves in the AFC.
Denver Broncos 9-7
In 2010, the Denver Broncos were coming off of one of their worst seasons in franchise history as they only managed to go 4-12. The bad season by the Broncos would result in a changing of the guard as John Elway was named as the team’s executive vice president of football operations. Elway set out to return the Broncos to their winning ways and in each of his five years at the helm, Denver has found themselves postseason bound. Under Elway, the Broncos have had the same winning formula that was prevalent during his playing days which was capped off this past February when Denver won their first Super Bowl Championship since he retired in 1998. But as the Broncos will begin the upcoming National Football League season as the defending Super Bowl Champions, they will have a different look due to the roster overhaul.
Quarterback Peyton Manning has decided to retire and his understudy in Brock Osweiler bolted in free agency to join the Houston Texans. The Broncos also lost linebacker Danny Trevathan in free agency to the Chicago Bears and defensive end Malik Jackson to the Jacksonville Jaguars. But Elway is attempting to keep the Broncos machine rolling.
It was prudent of Elway to not get into a bidding war for Osweiler’s services as he received $18 million per season from the Texans in spite of not being a consistent quarterback. Elway would use a first-round pick of quarterback Paxton Lynch this past April during the National Football League Draft. At 6’7″, 245 lbs., Lynch is a big quarterback and he doesn’t get enough credit for being athletic. The Broncos are going about it in the right way as Lynch is not expected to be the starting quarterback when the season begins and he can gain some valuable understanding as he watches from the sidelines.
The Broncos did acquire veteran quarterback Mark Sanchez from the Philadelphia Eagles. Sanchez has had an up and down career in the National Football League which was highlighted by him helping the New York Jets reach the AFC Championship Games during the 2009 and 2010 NFL seasons. In 72 starts, Sanchez has a career record of 37-35 while he has thrown 86 touchdown passes to 84 interceptions. Sanchez is at his best when he is playing on a team that can run the football along with possessing a solid defense which happens to be two traits that the Broncos have. And as long as Sanchez doesn’t attempt to play hero ball, he can give the Broncos a solid signal caller.
Last year the Broncos didn’t have a running back gain 1,000 yards on the ground, but the combination of Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson did combine for 1,583 yards and 12 touchdowns. Behind a veteran offensive line that includes former Seattle Seahawks left tackle Russell Okung, I expect the Broncos to concentrate more on running the football this season which is typically a hallmark of a team that is coached by Gary Kubiak.
The Broncos do have talent at the wide receiver position in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders as each player went over 1,000 yards in last season. And it will be important for both Thomas and Sanders to develop some chemistry with Sanchez in the passing game.
The Broncos defense is coming off of a year for the ages. The 2015 Broncos joined the 1975 Minnesota Vikings and 1991 Philadelphia Eagles as the only units in National Football League history to be the top-ranked defense while also being first against the run and the pass. This Broncos defense only allowed 44 points in three playoff games en route to a Super Bowl Championship and under defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, they can once again be stingy.
After Trevathan and Jackson left in free agency, it was paramount that Elway would sign outside linebacker Von Miller to a long-term deal. Initially the Broncos attached the franchise tag to Miller this off-season in the hopes of working out a deal. But it didn’t seem like it would happen until Elway and the Broncos upped their offer as far as guaranteed money. The Broncos and Miller would agree on a five-year deal that is worth $114 million that includes $70 million in guaranteed money and it was the right thing for Elway to do. Miller is the reigning Super Bowl MVP and he can single-handedly change the tenor of what the Broncos can do defensively due to his pass rushing ability along with the fact that he consistently commands a double team.
Aside from Miller, the Broncos have quality outside linebackers in DeMarcus Ware and Shane Ray. Ware is set to begin his 12th National Football League season and his 134.5 career sacks are 11th on the league’s all-time list for sacks. Ray has raw potential and he could see more time on the field in this his sophomore campaign in the NFL.
The Broncos still have the likes of defensive end Derek Wolfe and nose tackle Sylvester Willams up front that can consistently command double teams, while their secondary is littered with play makers in the form of cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr., along with strong safety T.J. Ward who is an excellent run defender.
The Broncos will open the defense of their Super Bowl crown against the team that they defeated to win the Vince Lombardi Trophy in the Carolina Panthers on September 8. As the Broncos are the defending champs, they will be taking everyone’s best shot, and the second half of their schedule won’t be easy as it includes four games against the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs which will more than likely decide the winner of the AFC West.
San Diego Chargers 6-10
As the 2016 National Football League season is set to begin, the San Diego Chargers know that they might have the best quarterback in the AFC West in Philip Rivers, but in recent years he hasn’t had the pleasure of having a solid supporting cast. Five out of the last six years have seen the Chargers fail to make the playoffs which included them going 4-12 last season. The Chargers flirted with the notion of moving to Los Angeles as well, but at least for now they will continue to call San Diego home. But will the folks in San Diego be once again proud to cheer on the Chargers?
As things go for Rivers, he is coming off of the seventh year of his National Football League career in which he passed for at least 4,000 yards. And by the end of this season Rivers should pass Dan Fouts to become the Chargers all-time leader for passing yards. But a big reason for the big passing yards by Rivers is due to the fact that the Chargers have lacked a solid running game to offset their passing attack.
Last year the Chargers leading rusher was running back Melvin Gordon with just 641 yards as San Diego was ranked 31st in rushing offense. The Chargers will miss the presence of wide receiver Malcolm Floyd who retired, but they still have Keenan Allen at wide receiver who is one of the best in the National Football League as long as he can remain healthy.
Last season the Chargers were 20th in the National Football League in total defense and they attempted to address that early on during the draft when they used the third overall pick on defensive end Joey Bosa. But with training camp here, Bosa still remains unsigned which isn’t going to go over well with the veterans in the locker room. Under defensive coordinator John Pagano, the Chargers linebacking unit which includes the likes of Manti Te’o, Melvin Ingram, Jeremiah Attaochu, and Denzel Perryman can be special; if they are able to remain healthy.
With a much improved AFC West, it will be tough for the Chargers to keep up under head coach Mike McCoy as this could still be their swan song in San Diego.