2018 AFC West Projections

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Y-Kansas City Chiefs 10-6

In five years as the head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, Andy Reid has succeeded in regards to making this team a contender in the AFC West. Under Reid, the Chiefs have never sported a losing record which includes four postseason appearances. In each of the last two years the Chiefs have won the AFC West, but come January they haven’t been the same team as both times saw them be one-and-done in the postseason. Every playoff loss stings, but the one this past January for the Chiefs was extremely difficult due to the fact that they managed to blow a 21-3 halftime lead at home to the Tennessee Titans. The loss also marked the end of one era of Chiefs football, and the birth of another.

This off-season the Chiefs decided that it was time for them to move from Alex Smith as their starting quarterback. Smith had been Kansas City’s starting quarterback for the last five years, and during that time he enjoyed the best run of his career. Under Reid, Smith made three Pro Bowl appearances, while he became one of the more efficient quarterbacks in the National Football League.

But it is a numbers game as Smith is 34-years of age, and teams are always looking to get younger. The writing was on the wall that the Chiefs did not have Smith in their long-term plans when drafted quarterback Patrick Mahomes in 2017.

Patrick Mahomes

The Chiefs would move up 18 slots in the first round in order to select Mahomes as Reid fell in love with his big arm and athleticism. Mahomes started one game for the Chiefs last year and he was 22-of-35 passing for 284 yards in a win over the Denver Broncos. In college at Texas Tech, Mahomes could sling the football all over the field, and now that he has had a year of tutelage from one of the best quarterback gurus in the business in Reid, the youngster will now have his shot to be Kansas City’s starting quarterback on a full-time basis.

One thing for sure is that when Mahomes goes under center this season, he won’t have to worry about doing it himself as Reid has put play makers around him on offense. Last year the Chiefs were fifth in the National Football League in total offense, and you can expect more explosiveness from the unit.

In 2017, many people did not pay attention when the Chiefs used a third-round pick on running back Kareem Hunt. But it did not take Hunt that long to become a household name as during the first game of the season he was a one-man wrecking crew against the New England Patriots. Hunt was an all-purpose machine as a runner and receiver which included him leading the National Football League in rushing with 1,327 yards. The Pro Football Writers of America were impressed by Hunt as well as they selected him as the NFL’s Rookie of the Year. But now Hunt must avoid the dreaded “sophomore slump” as teams around the league are going to be gunning for him.

Wide receiver Tyreek Hill was a fifth-round pick of the Chiefs in 2016, and already he is a two-time Pro Bowler. Hill gives the Chiefs a level of explosiveness that they have not had at the wide receiver position in some time, while he is also the team’s best special teams player since the days of Dante Hall. After recording 3 special teams touchdowns in 2016, Hill only had one last year due to the fact that teams weren’t kicking to him. But between the offense and special teams, I foresee Reid finding ways to get Hill the football which includes reverses, screen passes, and even lining him up in the backfield.

Travis Kelce

Then there is Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce whom I refer to as the poor man’s Rob Gronkowski. In a very short period of time Kelce has morphed into one of the best pass catching tight ends in the National Football League. At 6’5″, 260 lbs., Kelce is too athletic for most outside linebackers in the NFL to cover which means that a safety has to focus on attempting to stop him. Kelce will be a big target for Mahomes in the red zone, while you can pencil him in for 80 receptions and 1,000 yards as another Pro Bowl season will be in the cards for him.

The Chiefs have an underrated offensive line which includes tackles Mitchell Schwartz and Eric Fisher. Schwartz has been a second-team All-Pro in each of the last two years, while Fisher has been durable as he has made 74 starts in his five years with the Chiefs.

Last year the Chiefs were 28th in the National Football League in total defense and this defense will look different this year under defensive coordinator Bob Sutton. Cornerback Marcus Peters was a two-time Pro Bowl selection with the Chiefs, but Reid felt that is was time to move on from a player who was more of a detriment to the team due to character issues. Kansas City traded Peters to the Los Angeles Rams this off-season for several draft picks. Peters’ departure means that Kansas City will need more production at the cornerback position from Steven Nelson and newly acquired veteran cornerback Orlando Scandrick. Strong safety Eric Berry is a five-time Pro Bowler, but he is coming off of an Achilles injury which limited him to just one game in 2017, and it will be interesting to see if he has lost a step.

Kansas City was 24th in the National Football League in sacks last year with no individual player reaching double digits in the category. In the past few years, veteran outside linebacker Justin Houston has been unable to replicate the success that he had in 2014 when he led the NFL in sacks with 22 in 2014. And as the Chiefs are in need of an improved pass rush, there is no time like the present for Houston to find the formula which led to his success a few years ago.

After losing kicker Cairo Santos to injury, the Chiefs found a gem in his replacement with Harrison Butker. As a rookie in 2017, Butker was able to connect on 38-of-42 field goal attempts which included making four from beyond 50 yards. Butker was also a perfect 28-of-28 on his field goal attempts, and if he is able to replicate this success in 2018, it will be a huge asset for the Chiefs chances to repeat as AFC West Champs.

Kansas City will begin with three of their first four games on the road which includes a pair of divisional matchups with the Los Angeles Chargers and Denver Broncos. However the flip side is that the Chiefs will finish with three out of four at home as they look to make it four consecutive years with a trip to the playoffs.

X-Los Angeles Chargers 10-6

The 2017 National Football League was supposed to be a year of transition for the Los Angeles Chargers. After spending more than 50 years in San Diego, the Charges made the three-hour trek north as they are now calling Los Angeles home. The Chargers would lose their first four games of the season in 2017 which included falling in three of those contests by three points or less. The Chargers would rebound and get into contention to win the AFC West. But a late season loss to the Kansas City Chiefs would end those dreams for Los Angeles as they would fall one game short of winning the division.

Anthony Lynn now has one year under his belt as the head coach of the Chargers, and although that his team fell one game short of making the playoffs in 2017, they never stopped fighting and scrapping. And that attitude should carry over into the new season for the Chargers.

Philip Rivers

Any success that the Chargers want to have this year begins and ends with the play of quarterback Philip Rivers. Rivers has been the Chargers starting quarterback since 2006 and he has gone on to become the most prolific signal caller in franchise history. There isn’t anything pretty about Rivers’ style, but it is effective. Rivers makes those around him better, and he also continues to pile up the stats as he has passed for at least 4,000 yards nine times in the last ten years. At the age of 36, another big passing season will be in the works for Rivers as he takes another step towards getting to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Last year the Chargers had the best passing offense in the National Football League and you can expect them to once again be in that mix. Last year was the first time in the five-year career of wide receiver Keenan Allen that he was healthy, and it showed. Allen tallied 102 receptions for 1,393 yards as he not only earned his first Pro Bowl nod, but he also was named as the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year. At 6’2″, 211 lbs., Allen plays bigger than his size, and having him healthy gives Rivers a legitimate go-to-guy in the passing game.

Wide receiver Tyrell Williams was an afterthought when he went undrafted in 2015, but he has gone on to be a dependable target for Rivers. And even though that more will be expected from second-year wide receiver Mike Williams, don’t expect Tyrell Williams to not fight for playing time.

Like Allen, running back Melvin Gordon was finally able to remain healthy last season and it showed as he was able to rush for more 1,000 yards for the first time in the National Football League. Gordon is a very elusive runner; especially in space as it will be on Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt to get him the football in the open field as much as possible whether that it be as a runner or receiver.

The Chargers were able to bolster their offensive line this off-season when the signed center Mike Pouncey. In seven years with the Miami Dolphins, Pouncey was a three-time Pro Bowler, and now in Los Angeles, he will help left tackle Russell Okung to anchor this offensive line.

But as good as things look for the Chargers offense this year, all is not well due to the fact that they are thin at the tight end position. Third-year tight end Hunter Henry suffered a torn ACL this off-season which will put him on the shelf for the entire year. This led to the Chargers brining tight end Antonio Gates back for his 16th year with the team, and although that he lacks the explosiveness that he once had, he has great chemistry with Rivers which is huge.

For Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, he has a defense that can get after opposing quarterbacks and make life difficult for them. It has not taken defensive end Joey Bosa that long to become on of the best edge rushers in the National Football League as he is relentless in his pursuit of the passer. In just two seasons in the NFL, Bosa already has 23 career sacks, and it will not be that long before he breaks through for a 20-sack campaign.

The presence of Bosa on one side is allowing defensive end Melvin Ingram to put it altogether. Ingram is a hybrid as he can be both a defensive end and outside linebacker which has allowed Bradley to get creative in regards to using him as he can line up on the same side of the defense as Bosa.

Los Angeles needs middle linebacker Denzel Perryman to step up and become more of a leader, while the expectations are high for rookie safety Derwin James. James was arguably the best athlete available heading into this this year’s National Football League Draft and his ability to play the run as well as cover a wealth of space in the passing game will be huge for the Chargers.

Right out of the chute the Chargers will host the Chiefs as it will be a golden opportunity to get off to a fast start and set the tone for themselves in the AFC West.

Denver Broncos 8-8

The Denver Broncos are one of the most consistent winners in the National Football League as since 1997, only the New England Patriots have won more Super Bowl Titles than them. But each of the last two years ended with the Broncos failing to make the playoffs, while 2017 saw Denver finish in the basement of the AFC West for the first time since 2010. Since becoming the Broncos executive vice president of football operations in 2011, John Elway has been one of the best in the business in regards to putting a quality team together. However lately Elway has been missing at the most important position on the field.

In recent years the Broncos have been held back due to their lack of production at the quarterback position. Elway himself was a Hall of Fame quarterback who helped the Broncos win a pair of Super Bowl Titles, but outside of getting the most out of Peyton Manning in his final four years in the National Football League, Elway has struck out in finding a signal caller to lead this team.

Last year the Broncos were 20th in the National Football League in passing offense, while no Denver quarterback was able to reach the 2,500-mark in passing last season. And because of this, Elway and Broncos head coach Vance Joseph are now looking Case Keenum to be Denver’s new starting quarterback

Case Keenum

Keenum has been a journeyman in the National Football League as the Broncos will be his fourth team after he went undrafted in 2012. Keenum is coming off of his best season in the NFL as he helped the Minnesota Vikings reach the NFC Championship Game. However the Vikings didn’t feel that Keenum was their guy long term as they allowed him to leave in free agency, while they focused on signing Kirk Cousins.

With the Broncos, Keenum must prove that he was not merely a product of the Vikings system where he didn’t have to be the guy as he relied on the team’s running game and stout defense.

For years there have been people who’ve speculated the wide receiver Demaryius Thomas was a product of receiving passes from Manning, and he didn’t help to remove himself from that shadow as last year was the first time since 2011 that he failed to reach at least 1,000 yards receiving. Thomas lacks the explosiveness that he had earlier in his career, and you have to wonder if his days as a solid receiver are done.

Running back C.J. Anderson gained more than 1,000 yards on the ground last season for the first time in his National Football League career, and he benefits from running behind an offensive line that is full of guys who play with attitudes. Left tackle Garrett Boles was the Broncos first-round pick in 2017, and he has the potential to be one of the best in the business at his position.

Von Miller

For years the Broncos have specialized in having a strong defense, and this something which will continue this year. Denver may have the best set of linebackers in the National Football League as they are led by outside linebacker Von Miller. The best way to describe Miller in his pursuit of the quarterback is that he is relentless. Miller is a six-time Pro Bowler and throughout his career he has specialized in using speed and leverage in getting to the quarterback. And that ability to get to the quarterback could result in Miller reaching 100 career sacks this year.

A wrist injury has slowed down outside linebacker Shane Ray, but the Broncos are high on their first-round pick this year in outside linebacker Bradley Chubb. Chubb comes to the Broncos fresh off of being named as the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year last year while he was at North Carolina State. Like Miller, Chubb is relentless in his pursuit of the quarterback, and now he will have the opportunity to learn from one of the best in the business in regards to getting after the quarterback.

Three of Denver’s first four games are at home this season which includes division meetings with the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs. But the Broncos will be an up and down team this due to their inconsistent offense.

 

Oakland Raiders 7-9

After the Oakland Raiders went 12-4 in 2016 for their first playoff berth since 2002, they were expected to take that next step and become a title contender in 2017. However the Raiders wilted under those expectations as they limped to a 6-10 mark. The Raiders disappointing season would see head coach Jack Del Rio lose his job, but it was the man that the Raiders decided to replace him with which was even more surprising.

Jon Gruden

After ten years away from the coaching ranks, the Raiders are calling on Jon Gruden to once again lead their franchise. From 1998-2001, Gruden was the head coach of the Raiders as he turned around the fortunes of the franchise which included him leading Oakland to the AFC Championship Game in 2000. But a contract dispute with former Raiders owner Al Davis led to Gruden being traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2002. And in Gruden’s first year with the Buccaneers, he helped Tampa Bay defeat the Raiders in the Super Bowl. Now as the Raiders are owned by Davis’ son Mark, he sought to mend the relationship with Gruden as the team prepare to move to Las Vegas. Overall Gruden’s record as a head coach in the National Football League was 95-81, but after being away from the game for a decade, has it passed him by?

Right off of the bat Gruden will be starting behind the 8-ball due to the fact that he allowed one of the best players in the National League to leave town. All off-season defensive end/outside linebacker Khalil Mack was seeking a contract extension from the Raiders. Gruden didn’t exactly go out of his way to ingratiate himself to Mack as they were never able to develop a relationship. And when it was all said and done, Mack was traded to the Chicago Bears.

In parting with Mack, the Raiders lost a player who was the National Football League’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2016, while he has amassed 40.5 sacks over the last four years. And now a Raiders defense which was already suspect at best is now worse. Aside from Mack, no Raiders defender has reached the 10-sacks mark in any of the last four years as this unit is set up to be torched.

Gruden and the Raiders are putting all of their stock into the ability of quarterback Derek Carr. Carr has reached the Pro Bowl in each of the last three years which led to the Raiders opening the vault for him last season as they gave him $125 million over five years. And as Carr’s contract is eating away at the Raiders salary cap which is partially why they parted with Mack, he must now carry this team.

Derek Carr

Even when Carr came to the National Football League in 2014, there was not a throw that he could not make, and now by working with Gruden, he will be even more polished as a passer which should result in him passing for 4,000 yards in a season for the first time in his career.

But Carr’s success hinges on the Raiders relying on some veterans that are long in the tooth. At 32-years of age, running back Marshawn Lynch is not the player that he was five years ago, and the same can be said about former Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson who is set to begin his first season with the Raiders. Injuries took away from the effectiveness of wide receiver Amari Cooper in 2017 as he needs a bounce back campaign to bring back the glory that he and Carr had before in their “AC/DC” duo.

The Raiders still have a strong offensive line, but just like how Carr’s contract played a hand in Mack being traded, key veterans on the line such as offensive tackle Donald Penn could soon be playing their final games in the silver and black.

Davis is happy to have Gruden back as the Raiders head coach, but the head coach’s stubbornness will do more damage than good for this team in 2018.

X-Wild Card

Y-Division Winner

Source: Pro-football-reference.com

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