It looks like a changing of the guard, at least temporarily, is on the horizon in the AFC West. Denver is dealing with the retirement of Peyton Manning, Oakland is on the rise, San Diego is quietly amassing a talented roster at the skill positions and Kansas City still looks like an elite team. Certainly most of the divisions will look drastically different this year but none may approach the type of change coming in the AFC West, which should be very competitive all season long.
Kansas City Chiefs
People seem to be sleeping on Kansas City this year which is strange given that they have, by far, the fewest question marks of any of last year’s playoff teams. Alex Smith continues to be a solid, if unspectacular, game manager for the team. Travis Kelce and Jeremy Maclin give the Chiefs multiple weapons in the passing attack and Jamaal Charles will return in some form to a unit that didn’t really miss him last season. The Chiefs also have one of the more underrated offensive lines in the NFL and figure to continue playing a physical possession controlling style of football. Defensively the Chiefs are missing Justin Houston for at least the first 6 weeks of the season, a loss they can afford with Tamba Hali and Dee Ford on the roster. Eric Berry is back to form and Marcus Peters is one of the better cornerbacks in the league. Kansas City should be able to pick up where they left off last year and finish 12-4.
San Diego Chargers
People are down on the Chargers, largely because of the drama surrounding their franchise, and the fact that they have largely underwhelmed for most of the last decade. Before Keenan Allen’s injury last season the Chargers were, perhaps, the best offense in the NFL. That they were unable to overcome the loss of a single receiver was also telling. Allen returns this year along with new addition Travis Benjamin to give the Chargers two very good starting receivers. THey also still have Antonio Gates. The most exciting part of this offense during the pre-season was the offensive line’s ability to open up huge lanes for Melvin Gordon, who then got huge yardage. If that trend continues during the season, and I think it will, the Chargers should again have one of the league’s best offenses. Defensively the Chargers added Joey Bosa during the draft and then promptly lowballed him, forcing him to miss camp. Bosa will play early but might not be effective until mid-late season. San Diego needs someone to step up and fill the shoes of Eric Weddell, their defensive leader for the last several years. Weddell’s unceremonious departure from the team is yet another indictment on the organization know mostly for unceremoniously dumping it’s best players (See Drew Brees, Junior Seau and Ladainian Tomlinson.) Still, the Chargers are due for some good luck and this is a talented team and my sleeper pick for the playoffs. 10-6.
The Raiders appear to have found a real gem in Derek Carr and have nicely supplemented the receiving talent on their team through both the draft and free agency. Their offensive line looks suspect but the Raiders will be able to score a lot of points behind Carr, Amani Cooper, and Michael Crabtree. Latavius Murray is an explosive runner that gives them the potential to be a balanced offense, despite a pedestrian offensive line. On the defensive side of the ball Khalil Mack is a superstar and Bruce Irvin complements him very well. The Raiders have a solid group of workmanlike players that could turn into a great defensive unit, especially if Karl Joseph stabilizes the secondary at safety. I’m still not convinced they will be able to stop people consistently. The Raiders will be improved but I’m not sure how much their record will reflect that. I predict them to go 7-9.
Lost in the retirement of Peyton Manning and the free agent defection of Brock Osweiler is the loss of defensive tackle Malik Jackson. Jackson was an extremely important piece of the Broncos defense and will not be easily replaced. The team is going with Trevor Seiman at quarterback, after drafting Paxton Lynch in the first round. Lynch probably isn’t ready to start anyway and Seiman has looked good so far for the Broncos - good enough to make Mark Sanchez redundant anyway. CJ Anderson should get the lion’s share of the carries this season which could offer some more stability to their running game and DeMaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are among the best receiving duos in the NFL. The Bronco’s defense will still be an elite unit but I worry that they will miss Jackson in critical situations like third down and goal line plays. Jackson was equally talented at both occupying blockers and getting penetration and DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller can expect more difficult paths to the ball carrier or quarterback this season. In short, as talented as the team is, I worry about leadership on both sides of the ball. Therefore I predict the Broncos to go 6-10 in a competitive division.