AFC West Preview

Jake DeWitt

Kansas City Chiefs (Projected Record: 14-2)
Key Additions
: Chris Jones (2nd-Round Pick, 37th Overall), Mitchell Schwartz (Browns), Sam Barrington (Packers)
Key Losses: Sean Smith (Raiders), Chase Daniel (Eagles), Jeff Allen (Texans), Tyvon Branch (Cardinals), Aaron Murray (Cardinals)

Alex Smith and the Chiefs finished 2015 on a 10-game winning streak after a dismal 1-5 start to the season. They even romped the Texans 30-0 in the AFC Wild Card round.

Somehow, thanks to the emergence of Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West, Kansas City managed to thrive after losing lead back Jamaal Charles to an ACL injury in Week 5. The Chiefs have some significant depth at the position now that all three backs have extensive experience. Behind an offensive line that was solid in 2015, these backs should continue to put up excellent numbers and take pressure off Alex Smith.

Left tackle Eric Fisher showed, at times, that he was worthy of a top overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. The Chiefs signed Mitchell Schwartz, formerly of the Browns, to line up at right tackle to end the inconsistent rotation that plagued consistency in the past. Mitch Morse has solidified himself as a reliable center, solid in both pass protection and run blocking. Laurent Duvernay-Tardif is an emerging right guard in the NFL. Parker Ehringer, a rookie out of Cincinnati, is currently atop the depth chart at left guard.

Jeremy Maclin built an instant connection with Smith in his first season in Kansas City. After Chiefs’ wideouts posted zero touchdowns in 2014, Maclin recorded eight last season along with 87 receptions. The wide receiver depth is below average, with Albert Wilson set as the No. 2 receiver. Yet, the Chiefs’ ability to run the ball and confidence in tight end Travis Kelce seems to mitigate the deficiencies of the wideouts. Kelce hauled in 72 catches for 875 yards and 5 TDs in 2015. He has established himself as a premier tight end in the NFL.

Since Dontari Poe is entering the final year of his contract, the Chiefs drafted Chris Jones to bolster the nose tackle position for the future. The Chiefs return one of those most dominant pass rushing cores in the league led by Justin Houston, who had 7.5 sacks in 11 games in 2015 and 22.0 sacks in 16 games in 2014. He’ll be assisted by Allen Bailey and Jaye Howard. Tamba Hali will lineup at the opposite outside linebacker position, boasting 86.0 career sacks over 10 seasons with Kansas City. Another lifetime Chief, Derrick Johnson, is the leader of the defense at middle linebacker. After missing most of 2014, Johnson recorded 116 tackles last season as proof he was healthy once again.

The secondary lost cornerback Sean Smith and safety Tyvon Branch in free agency. While both losses may seem significant on paper, the Chiefs are confident that 2015 Defensive Rookie of the Year Marcus Peters is ready to defend against No. 1 wideouts each week. Steven Nelson (zero starts in one season) and Marcus Cooper (11 starts in three seasons) are the next corners on the depth chart, but they are still largely inexperienced against dominant wideouts. The lack of depth at the cornerback position is aided by 2015 Comeback Player of the Year Eric Berry, who returned last season after defeating cancer. Ron Parker, who has started 31 regular season games over the past two seasons, lines up at free safety once again.

Based on a 14-2 projected record, I obviously think very highly of this Chiefs team. The biggest difference this season is that Doug Pederson departed to take the head coaching position in Philadelphia, and Brad Childress and Matt Nagy takeover as co-offensive coordinators. If this team can stay healthy, I see no reason why 14 wins is unrealistic for the Chiefs given their easy schedule.

Oakland Raiders (Projected Record: 13-3)
Key Additions
: Karl Joseph (1st-Round Pick, 14th Overall), Jihad Ward (2nd-Round Pick, 44th Overall), Sean Smith (Chiefs), Kelechi Osmele (Ravens), Bruce Irvin (Seahawks), Reggie Nelson (Bengals)
Key Losses: Justin Tuck (Retirement), Charles Woodson (Retirement), J’Marcus Webb (Seahawks)

In case you couldn’t tell by the projected record shown above, I absolutely love what the Raiders did to their roster in the offseason. They did not make many additions on offense, but they made a huge splash landing left guard Kelechi Osmele. For a team that finished 28th in team rushing last year, Osmele should provide Latavius Murray with better opportunities to break long runs. Osmele lines up with veterans Donald Penn to his left, and Rodney Hudson on his right. Gabe Jackson has started 28 games over the last two seasons, and is set to start at right guard in 2016. After missing all of 2015 with an Achilles injury suffered in the preseason, Menelik Watson is healthy and ready to man the right tackle position. The Raiders’ line allowed 33 sacks in 2015, good for 12th in the NFL.

David Carr begins his third season as the starting quarterback for the Oakland Raiders. In 2015 he registered just under 4,000 passing yards, with 32 touchdowns and just 13 interceptions. Second-year wideout Amari Cooper will lineup opposite of veteran Michael Crabtree. This duo has the potential to emerge as one of the sure-handed tandems in the league. Their talents will be complemented by deep threats Seth Roberts and Andre Holmes. The tight end position in Oakland isn’t loaded with studs, but there is some quality depth worth mentioning. As of now, Lee Smith sits atop the depth chart, with Mychal Rivera and Clive Walford poised to see many snaps.

Defense. This defense has been completely remodeled. Oakland snagged cornerback Sean Smith after Kansas City failed to re-sign the veteran. He and David Amerson will take on the top two receivers each week, with D.J. Hayden manning the slot corner position. In case they get beat over the top, former Bengal Reggie Nelson and 14th overall pick Karl Joseph will be there to make plays from the safety positions. Nelson earned his first Pro Bowl selection last season after tying Chiefs’ Defensive Rookie of the Year Marcus Peters with eight interceptions. Sean Smith has 10 career interceptions, and has not appeared in just four regular season games over seven seasons.

Ok, Jake. They added some pieces in the secondary. So what?

Yes, and that will have a profound impact if the Raiders can rush the quarterback like they did in 2015. Oakland recorded 38.0 sacks last season, which was good for 14th in the NFL. 15 of those sacks belong to Khalil Mack, the outstanding edge rusher entering his third season in professional football. He’ll be complemented this season by Bruce Irvin, who knows a thing or two about getting to the quarterback after spending four seasons in Seattle. The team also returns second-year defensive end Mario Edwards Jr., who started 10 games for the Black and Silver in 2015. The team also drafted Jihad Ward with a second round pick to plug up the middle. Man, that’s some solid talent getting after the opposing team. Oh yeah, they could also receive a boost from pass rusher Aldon Smith if his reinstatement from a calendar year-long suspension is granted in November.

Yes, the defense allowed 24.9 points per game in 2015, but that statistic should improve with all of the key moves made by the front office. The offense certainly has plenty of talent starting with Carr. He reminds me a lot of Aaron Rodgers with his meticulous manipulation of defensive schemes. Just wait and see people. The Raiders are for real in 2016.

Denver Broncos (Projected Record: 7-9)
Key Additions
: Paxton Lynch (1st-Round Pick, 26th Overall), Devontae Booker (4th-Round Pick, 136th Overall), Phil Taylor (Free Agent), Russell Okung (Seahawks), Donald Stephenson (Chiefs)
Key Losses: Peyton Manning (Retirement), Danny Trevathan (Bears), Brock Osweiler (Texans), Malik Jackson (Jaguars), Ryan Clady (Trade with Jets)

This team endured the worst offseason in the NFL. Their Hall of Fame quarterback retired. Their backup quarterback signed a lucrative contract with the Texans. Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan – two defensive mainstays – left in free agency. Despite the losses in a business where money talks, the only reason the Denver Broncos are even projected to finish near the .500 mark is the same reason they are the defending champs: the defense.

They brought back Derek Wolfe to man the left end spot opposite of Vance Walker. The middle should be stuffed with Phil Taylor and Sylvester Williams – role players at best. The strength of the defense rests in the back seven. Von Miller, Brandon Marshall, Demarcus Ware, Shane Ray, Todd Davis, and Shaquil Barrett occupy the linebacking positions and pass rushing rotations. The Broncos will need to rely on this group to create continuous pressure to create turnover opportunities for the secondary. Aqib Talib is back practicing in a limited capacity despite being shot in the leg this offseason. He’ll line up at cornerback opposite of Chris Harris Jr. – a top ten cornerback today. Bradley Roby enters his third season with the Broncos as one of the best young defenders in the game. At safety, hard-hitting T.J. Ward is back primarily to make devastating hits over the middle and disrupt the run game. Darian Stewart – formerly with the Ravens and Rams – is slated to start at free safety.

The Broncos offense is comical at best. Despite drafting Paxton Lynch in the first round, Denver enters the season with a camp battle at quarterback between Mark Sanchez and Trever Siemian. Based on experience alone, I feel like this is Sanchez’ job to lose. But, it may come down to whichever player makes the least amount of mistakes throughout the preseason. The team drafted Devontae Booker in the fourth round to put pressure on C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman, both of whom are coming off terribly inconsistent seasons. Booker is a legitimate threat to wrest the starting job from Anderson and Hillman at some point in 2016. Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas return as the leading wide receivers in Denver. Yes, Thomas had 105 receptions, but he needs to improve upon his nine dropped passes. That is far too many for a receiver with his talent. The front office tried to patch a broken offensive line with Russell Okung (left tackle) and Donald Stephenson (right tackle). Max Garcia and Ty Sambrailo return as guards, with Matt Paradis lined up at center. It remains to be seen if the line will gel, but this group can’t be much worse than last year’s group that allowed 39 sacks.

It’s hard to imagine a team led by any of the quarterbacks on this roster returning to the Super Bowl. If the quarterbacks can improve upon the 2015 Passer Rating of 76.3 (2nd-worst in the NFL in the regular season) then it will surely be a step up. I’m not saying the Broncos can’t make the playoffs, I’m just saying I don’t think they will.

San Diego Chargers (Projected Record: 3-13)
Key Additions
: Joey Bosa (1st-Round Pick, 3rd Overall), Hunter Henry (2nd-Round Pick, 35th Overall), Travis Benjamin (Browns), Casey Hayward (Packers), Brandon Mebane (Seahawks), Dwight Lowery (Colts), Andre Williams (Giants)
Key Losses: Malcom Floyd (Retirement), Ladarius Green (Steelers)

As a franchise, the Chargers are a mess. I hate to say that because I enjoy the passion with which Philip Rivers plays, Antonio Gates is one of the best to ever play tight end, and I grew up watching LaDainian Tomlinson torture defenses. But, is the team going to stay in San Diego? Are they moving to Las Vegas or Los Angeles? The financial situation in San Diego is scary for the fans. It is very reminiscent of the ugly situation in which the Browns almost left Cleveland for good. To pile on, the team has yet to sign third overall pick Joey Bosa. The impasse in contract negotiations lies in offset language and deferred signing bonus. While dangerous precedents were set by other players in the league agreeing to both conditions, the Bosa Camp has yet to give in to the Chargers’ demands. I commend you, Joey Bosa.

Back to the field. The Chargers took steps to shore up a receiving core depleted by injuries in 2015. In addition to Keenan Allen, the group of pass catchers is led by Travis Benjamin and Antonio Gates. Things didn’t get off to a great start though as Stevie Johnson tore his meniscus on the third day of training camp and is set to miss all of 2016. Despite a disappointing year from Melvin Gordon, I actually like the running back committee of Gordon, PPR stud Danny Woodhead, and Brandon Oliver. The offensive line they’ll be running behind isn’t great, but it could be much better in 2016. King Dunlap and Joe Barksdale occupy the tackle positions, Orlando Franklin and D.J. Fluker line up as guards, and Matt Slauson will be giving the ball to Philip Rivers.

The cornerbacks are the most complete group on the Chargers roster. Jason Verrett, Brandon Flowers, and Casey Hayward have the ability to change the course of a game by intercepting passes at any time. They’ll be assisted over the top by Dwight Lowery and Jahleel Addae. The linebacking group is perhaps slightly above average too, with Manti Teo, Denzel Perryman, Kyle Emanuel, and Melvin Ingram slated to start. What is most troubling about the Chargers is their inability to rush the quarterback. San Diego placed 24th in sacks last season with 32. Joey Bosa should help the cause, but he and the front office need to sit in a room and lock the door to figure out this contract dispute.

Overall, I’m pretty low on the Chargers this year. They play in a very competitive division, and have the least talented roster. They could finish better than 3-13, but with all the distractions surrounding their future in San Diego, and the Bosa contract dispute, the Chargers are already off on the wrong foot in 2016.

Update (8/30/16): San Diego released former Packers wideout James Jones. Multiple reports indicate he was slated to be the fifth starter, and was not part of special teams units. He played in a West Coast style offense for ten years, and was not adapting to Ken Whisenhunt’s offensive scheme.

Author: Thrive Nation

Amateur sports journalism blog, primarily posting about the latest happenings in EPL, MLB, NFL, and Boxing.

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