AFC West Season Preview
The AFC West was a runaway last season as only one team made the playoffs. While Kansas City went on to win the Super Bowl for the first time in a half-century, none of the rest of the teams in the division even finished at .500 on the year. The Raiders changed locations while the Broncos and Chargers have young quarterbacks running the offense. Will any of these teams mount a charge or is Kansas City on cruise control once again?
1) Kansas City Chiefs
The 2019 season was a terrific one for the Chiefs, who reached, and won the Super Bowl for the first time in a half-century. Kansas City’s most recent Super Bowl appearance and win before that came back in Super Bowl IV, when Hank Stram was coach and Len Dawson was the quarterback in the final year before the AFL-NFL merger. Kansas City dropped Minnesota 23-7 in that one to earn the Lombardi Trophy. In 2019, Kansas City rode the arm of Patrick Mahomes along with some critical plays on both sides of the ball, with three fourth quarter touchdowns against the 49ers to erase a 20-10 deficit to run to the title. With that, Andy Reid won his first Super Bowl title as a head coach and got that proverbial monkey off his back. The question for the Chiefs is simple: can they repeat as champions?
2019 Record: 12-4 (1st in AFC West, won Super Bowl LIV 31-20 over San Francisco)
Odds to Win Super Bowl: 4/1
Odds to Win AFC Championship: 2/1
Odds to Win AFC West: 2/9
Key Additions: QB Shea Patterson (undrafted free agent), RB DeAndre Washington (Raiders), T Mike Remmers (Giants), TE Ricky Seals-Jones (Browns), DE Taco Charlton (Dolphins), CB Antonio Hamilton (Giants)
Draft Picks: RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire, LB Willie Gay Jr., T Lucas Niang, CB/S L’Jarius Sneed, DE Mike Danna, CB Bopete Keyes
Key Losses: CB Kendall Fuller (Redskins), DE Emmanuel Ogbah (Dolphins), G Stefen Wisniewski (Steelers), T Cam Erving (Cowboys), TE Blake Bell (Cowboys), LB Reggie Ragland (Lions), S Jordan Lucas (Bears), RB LeSean McCoy, P Dustin Colquitt
Kansas City put together a terrific season that was driven by their explosive offensive attack. The Chiefs were fifth in scoring offense with 28.2 points per contest while ranking sixth in total offense, fifth in passing offense and fifth in passing touchdowns last season. That helped them overcome finishing just 23rd in rushing offense with 98.1 yards per game. The Chiefs were second in the league in points per drive as they averaged 2.62 points a contest. Mahomes finished the year completing 65.9 percent of his throws for 4,031 yards with 26 touchdowns against five interceptions while adding 218 yards and two scores on the ground. He did miss two games and part of a third with a dislocated knee suffered against Denver on a quarterback sneak. With Matt Moore still a free agent, that means either Chad Henne or Patterson will be the backup quarterback.
The receiver group is solid and competent when it comes to delivering big plays. Sammy Watkins (52 grabs, 673 yards, three TD), Tyreek Hill (58 receptions, 860 yards, seven TD), Mecole Hardman (26 catches, 538 yards, six TD) and Demarcus Robinson (32 receptions, 449 yards, four TD) provide a solid quartet of receivers. Meanwhile, All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce (97 grabs, 1229 yards, five scores, one carry, four yards, TD) is a force in the middle of the field that can be relied on to move the sticks. The run game will be led by Damian Williams (111 carries, 498 yards, five TD, 30 catches, 213 yards, two TD) with Edwards-Helaire likely to step into a backup role. With Eric Fisher back to health this season, the offensive line should be intact, even with the departure of Erving, who took over the left tackle spot when Fisher went down.
Defensively, the Chiefs are hoping that they can solidify things a bit instead of being a bend but don’t break defense. Kansas City was seventh in the league in scoring defense by allowing 19.3 points per game on the year. The Chiefs were just 17th in total defense and eighth in passing defense though they struggled against the run. Kansas City was 26th in the league defending the run as they allowed 128.2 yards per game and 29th by allowing 4.9 yards per carry last season. Frank Clark (37 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, eight sacks, four pass defenses, three forced fumbles, fumble recovery, INT) and Alex Okafor (22 tackles, five tackles for loss, five sacks, pass defense) will likely man the end spots. Chris Jones (36 tackles, eight tackles for loss, nine sacks, four pass defenses, forced fumble, fumble recovery) was franchise tagged. He’ll man the middle with Derrick Nnadi (48 tackles, three tackles for loss, sack, forced fumble, INT) to try and create havoc.
Damien Wilson (81 tackles, three tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, forced fumble) and Anthony Hitchens (88 tackles, four tackles for loss, two sacks, forced fumble) will occupy the two every-down linebacker spots as the Chiefs look to a 4-2-5 alignment. Charvarius Ward (74 tackles, 10 pass defenses, two interceptions, forced fumble) holds down one starting corner spot but the spot held by Bashaud Breeland (48 tackles, tackle for loss, eight pass defenses, two INT, two fumble recoveries, TD) could be up in the air due to his off-field issues. That could push Rashad Fenton (15 tackles, four pass defenses, forced fumble, INT) into a more prominent role in his second year. Hamilton or Alex Brown could also see more playing time. The safety spots are handled by Juan Thornhill (58 tackles, five pass defenses, three INT, TD) and Tyrann Mathieu (75 tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks, 12 pass defenses, four INT), which puts them in good hands. Harrison Butker hit 45 of 48 extra point attempts and 34 of 38 field goal attempts last season, giving the team extremely solid production.
The Chiefs have a few spots that they need to tighten up but when you’re the defending champs, you have some leeway to work with in your depth chart. As it stands, the rest of the AFC West is retooling on the fly and that’s something that can’t be overlooked. Kansas City has Mahomes running the offense and a veteran group of targets to work with in the passing game. That’s more than enough to overcome what could be a shaky running game as Edwards-Helaire tries to get up to speed at the NFL level. The Chiefs should have no problem getting to the postseason but they’ll have to carry that magic from last postseason over if they want to defend the title.
Projected Record: 12-4, 1st in AFC West
2) Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos were in a season of upheaval last year as the team started with a veteran quarterback under center, only to end the season with a rookie running the offense. Denver played better down the stretch after a slow start to the year but still ended up outside the playoff picture and with a sub-.500 record. GM John Elway continues to try to come up with finding the right mix to get the franchise back in the postseason. After an offseason of changes and star defensive leader Von Miller contracting the coronavirus, will 2020 lead to a return to the playoffs for Denver or will they end up struggling again?
2019 Record: 7-9 (2nd in AFC West, missed postseason)
Odds to Win Super Bowl: 50/1
Odds to Win AFC Championship: 25/1
Odds to Win AFC West: 10/1
Key Additions: G Graham Glasgow (Lions), RB Melvin Gordon (Chargers), P Sam Martin (Lions), TE Nick Vannett (Steelers), QB Jeff Driskel (Lions), DT Christian Covington (Cowboys), DT Jurrell Casey (trade, Titans), CB A.J. Bouye (trade, Jaguars)
Draft Picks: WR Jerry Jeudy, WR K.J. Hamler, CB Michael Ojemudia, C Lloyd Cushenberry, DE/DT McTelvin Agim, TE Albert Ogwuegbunam, LB Justin Strnad, G Netane Muti, WR Tyrie Cleveland, DE/LB Derrek Tuszka
Key Losses: QB Joe Flacco (released), C Connor McGovern (Jets), CB Chris Harris Jr. (Chargers), DE Derek Wolfe (Ravens), S Will Parks (Eagles), RB Devontae Booker (Raiders), FB Andy Janovich (trade, Browns)
Vic Fangio’s first major challenge in year two of his tenure in the Mile High City is getting more out of the Broncos’ offense. Denver was just 28th in the league in scoring offense with 17.6 points per game. The Broncos scored 16 points or less in eight of their 16 games, though they improved in the second half of the year as they hit the 23-point mark five times in the last eight contests. After Flacco went down with a neck injury that cost him the rest of the season, the Broncos turned to Brandon Allen for a couple games before going to Drew Lock, their rookie quarterback. He was solid enough, hitting 64.1 percent of his throws for 1,020 yards with seven touchdowns and three interceptions in five starts while adding 72 yards on the ground. The challenge for Lock will be establishing chemistry with rookies Jeudy and Hamler while showing that last season’s stretch run wasn’t a fluke. Courtland Sutton led the team with 72 receptions for 1,112 yards and six scores. He’ll be the #1 option in the passing game again with tight end Noah Fant (40 grabs, 562 yards, three TD) a solid target over the middle.
The ground game for Denver will continue to feature Phillip Lindsay, who led the team with 224 carries for 1,011 yards plus seven scores while adding 35 receptions for 196 yards. Royce Freeman (132 carries, 496 yards, three TD, 43 catches, 256 yards, TD) is back and the Broncos added Gordon, who finished with 162 carries for 612 yards and eight scores while adding 42 catches for 296 yards plus a touchdown. He ceded time to Austin Ekeler last season after holding out. Freeman could find himself on the way out of town given the crowded backfield. Denver will potentially have two new starters on the offensive line as Cushenberry could step in to start at center, while Glasgow takes over at left guard.
Defensively, the Broncos were solid last year. They finished 10th in the league in scoring defense by allowing 19.8 points per game. In addition, the team was 12th in total defense, 11th in passing defense and 16th in rushing defense. They did finish fifth in the league in rushing scores allowed. Denver lost Wolfe in free agency but got a more than suitable replacement for him with the acquisition of Casey from the Titans. Casey will step in on the defensive line along with Shelby Harris (49 tackles, eight tackles for loss, nine pass defenses, six sacks, forced fumble) and Mike Purcell (48 tackles, eight tackles for loss) to try and help out the defensive front.
The linebacker group will be led by the duo of Von Miller (46 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, eight sacks) and Bradley Chubb (21 tackles, five tackles for loss, sack), who missed 12 games last season with a partially torn ACL. Todd Davis (team-high 134 tackles, six tackles for loss) and Alexander Johnson (93 tackles, five tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, three pass defenses, two forced fumbles, fumble recovery) man the middle. With Harris Jr. gone at the corner spot, the Broncos hope that picking up Bouye will help make up for that loss. He’ll occupy one spot while Bryce Callahan, who missed all of last season with a broken foot, is expected to get the call at the other spot if he stays healthy. Kareem Jackson (71 tackles, 10 pass defenses, four tackles for loss, two INT, forced fumble, TD) and Justin Simmons (93 tackles, two tackles for loss, 15 pass defenses, four INT), who the team used the franchise tag on, are the safeties. Brandon McManus, who drilled 25 of 26 extra point attempts and 29 of 34 field goal tries last season, will handle the kicking duties.
Denver is trying to improve but playing in a division with the defending Super Bowl champions is going to make it tough sledding. The Broncos have a lot of youth, especially at the skill positions on the offensive side of the ball. Lock has to prove that he can build off those five games that he put up last season. Defensively, the Broncos have to keep the team in games while the offense tries to find its footing. It will take a little time for that to happen. The Broncos are going to improve slightly but it still could be an uphill climb finding a playoff spot.
Projected Record: 8-8, 2nd in AFC West
3) Las Vegas Raiders
The second year of the second era of the Jon Gruden era with the Raiders showed improvement but not enough to get the team to the postseason for just the second time since the 2002 season. For that matter, the Raiders were unable to get to the .500 mark as they finished the season 7-9 for their third straight losing season and their seventh in the last eight years. The franchise underwent a metamorphosis of sorts in the offseason but not so much for massive moves on the field, but more what happened off the field. Instead of being the Oakland Raiders, the team moved to Sin City and is now in Las Vegas. Will the change of venue make things better for the silver and black?
2019 Record: 7-9 (3rd in AFC West, missed postseason)
Odds to Win Super Bowl: 30/1
Odds to Win AFC Championship: 15/1
Odds to Win AFC West: 17/2
Key Additions: QB Marcus Mariota (Titans), LB Cory Littleton (Rams), DE Carl Nassib (Buccaneers), LB Nick Kwiatkowski (Bears), S Jeff Heath (Cowboys), DT Maliek Collins (Cowboys), TE Jason Witten (Cowboys), FS Damarious Randall (Browns), RB Devontae Booker (Broncos), TE Nick O’Leary (Jaguars), WR Nelson Agholor (Eagles), CB Prince Amukamura (Bears)
Draft Picks: WR Henry Ruggs III, CB Damon Arnette, RB/WR/QB Lynn Bowden Jr., WR Bryan Edwards, LB/S Tanner Muse, G John Simpson, CB Amik Robertson
Key Losses: QB Mike Glennon (Jaguars), DE Benson Mayowa (Seahawks), CB Daryl Worley (Cowboys), LB Tahir Whitehead (Panthers), SS Karl Joseph (Browns), RB DeAndre Washington (Chiefs)
Gruden hopes that a year of experience in the system can help get the offense going better than it did last season. Las Vegas finished 24th in the league in scoring offense with 19.6 points per game on the year. The Raiders failed to generate points at a consistent clip despite ranking 11th in total offense, ninth in passing offense and 13th on rushing offense on the year. In addition, Las Vegas was fifth in yards gained per drive (35.4) and third in time of possession per drive (3:01), though they were 19th with 1.86 points per possession on the year. Carr completed 70.4 percent of his throws last season for 4,054 yards with 21 touchdowns and eight interceptions while adding 82 yards plus two scores on the ground. Ruggs, Bowden Jr. and Edwards are going to be looked at to supplement the Raiders’ arsenal of weapons. Witten will work with tight end Darren Waller (90 catches, 1145 yards, three TD), Hunter Renfroe (49 catches, 605 yards, four TD) and Tyrell Williams (42 catches, 651 yards, six TD) in the aerial assault.
Las Vegas has a solid ground game led by the bruising running of Josh Jacobs, who was solid as a rookie last year. He finished the season with 242 carries for 1,150 yards plus seven scores while adding 20 catches for 166 yards. Booker, Bowden Jr. and Jalen Richard (39 carries, 145 yards, 36 receptions, 323 yards) for third-down and handcuff duties. One thing the Raiders need to do is rebuild some offensive line depth. All five starters from a year ago are back but Richie Incognito is going to turn 37 in July and is a loose cannon on or off the field. An injury of two here could really make things tough for the Raiders’ offensively.
Defensively, the team hopes their moves in the offseason shores up what was a leaky group last season. The Raiders were just 24th in scoring defense by allowing 24.2 points per contest. In addition, Oakland was 19th in total defense, 25th in passing defense and 8th in rushing defense. The Raiders didn’t generate much in the way of takeaways as they had the second-fewest in the league with 15. The defensive line will be bookended by ends Clelin Ferrell (38 tackles, eight tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, five pass defenses, fumble recovery) and Maxx Crosby (47 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, to sacks, four pass defenses, four forced fumbles) with Maurice Hurst (18 tackles, four tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, three pass defenses, two fumble recoveries, INT) teaming with Collins or Johnathan Hankins in the middle. Nassib adds depth at the defensive end spot.
Littleton is going to be an impact player for the Raiders after he piled up 134 tackles, six tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, nine pass defenses, two forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, two INT) for the Rams. Kwiatkowski is also going to get a crack at a starting job on the outside with Nicholas Morrow (73 tackles, two tackles for loss, four pass defenses, INT) playing the weak side. Arnette could step in to start at corner from day one opposite Trayvon Mullen (50 tackles, 10 pass defenses, INT) in the secondary. Randall and Heath will compete with Erik Harris (74 tackles, tackle for loss, eight pass defenses, three INT, two TD) at one safety spot while Jonathan Abram, a first-round pick last season, could be getting a crack at the starting lineup at the other. Daniel Carlson connected on 34 of 36 extra points last season and 19 of 26 field goal tries last season. He’ll battle Dominik Eberle for the kicking job.
Las Vegas was very active in free agency as they made additions to both sides of the ball. The biggest question mark may still be Carr, who struggled to put points on the board despite completing better than 70 percent of his throws. How quickly guys like Ruggs and Edwards develop at the NFL level along with Agholor getting up to speed with the team will go a long way to determining how things pan out. The Raiders are still going to have an uphill climb and with so many new faces on both sides of the ball in an offseason of turmoil makes that tough sledding. Hitting the .500 mark might be the top line for the Raiders this season.
Projected Record: 7-9, 3rd in AFC West
4) Los Angeles Chargers
The winds of change are blowing around the Los Angeles Chargers as last year marked the end of an era. After the season came to a close, the Bolts let Philip Rivers walk and therefore have a new starting quarterback for the first time since 2006 when he took over for Drew Brees. Los Angeles was abysmal in close games last season, posting a 2-9 mark in games that were decided by seven points or less. Four of those losses were by three points or less, including an infuriating one where they fumbled the ball on the Tennessee one-yard line in the final minute. It all added up to a five-win season and a different look in 2020. Will it pan out? Time will have to tell on that one.
2019 Record: 5-11 (4th in AFC West, missed postseason)
Odds to Win Super Bowl: 25/1
Odds to Win AFC Championship: 12/1
Odds to Win AFC West: 10/1
Key Additions: G Trai Turner (trade, Panthers), T Bryan Bulaga (Packers), CB Chris Harris Jr. (Broncos), DT Linval Joseph (Vikings), LB Nick Vigil (Bengals), WR Darius Jennings (Titans)
Draft Picks: QB Justin Herbert, LB Kenneth Murray, RB Joshua Kelley, WR/KR Joe Reed, S Alohi Gilman, WR K.J. Hill
Key Losses: QB Philip Rivers (Colts), RB Melvin Gordon (Broncos), FB Derek Watt (Steelers), T Russell Okung (trade, Panthers), S Adrian Phillips (Patriots), LB Thomas Davis (Redskins), CB Jaylen Watkins (Texans), WR Travis Benjamin (49ers), WR Geremy Davis (Lions), LB Nick Dzubnar (Titans), LB Jatavis Brown (Eagles)
It’s an overhaul offensively for Anthony Lynn’s group as they move on from Rivers at quarterback. Los Angeles was 21st in the league in scoring offense with 21.1 points per game despite ranking 10th in total offense. The Chargers were sixth in passing offense but finished only 28th in rushing offense with only 90.8 yards a game. Turnovers doomed the Bolts as they were 29th in the league by committing 31 giveaways on the year. With Rivers gone, at least the early favorite to start at quarterback is Tyrod Taylor, who was four of six for 33 yards and a score last season. He was 22-20 in three seasons as a starter in Buffalo and went 1-1-1 with Cleveland before the Browns went to Baker Mayfield. Herbert was selected with the sixth overall pick so Taylor could merely be a placeholder here too.
There are weapons for whoever runs the offense to work with in the passing game. Keenan Allen set a franchise record with 104 catches last season, which went for 1,199 yards plus six scores. Mike Williams is a big play threat as his 49 grabs went for 1,001 yards though only two scores. Los Angeles franchise tagged Hunter Henry, who caught 55 balls for 652 yards and five scores at the tight end spot. With Gordon gone, Austin Ekeler (132 carries, 557 yards, three TD, 92 catches, 993 yards, eight scores) takes over as the full-time feature back. Kelley and Justin Jackson (29 carries, 200 yards) will fill the secondary roles on the ground. Bulaga and Turner look to fill in holes at right tackle and left guard, respectively, while Mike Pouncey hopes to return after neck surgery.
Defensively, the Chargers have to find a way to generate takeaways, which is something they lacked last year. Los Angeles was 14th in scoring defense by allowing 21.6 points per game on the year. The Chargers were a solid sixth in total defense, including fifth in passing defense and 18th in rushing defense as they allowed 116.6 yards per game. Los Angeles was dead last in the league with 14 takeaways, leaving them with a -17 in the takeaway/giveaway ratio and setting opposing offenses up with short fields. Joey Bosa (67 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, forced fumble) and Melvin Ingram (48 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, seven sacks, five pass defenses, fumble recovery, interception) are on the ends. Joseph and Justin Jones (30 tackles, two tackles for loss, forced fumble) are in the middle of the defensive line.
Vigil and Murray will step in to take over two of the three starting linebacker spots. Murray is going to have a massive load on his plate as a rookie playing middle linebacker. Uchenna Nwosu (31 tackles, five tackles for loss, two sacks, forced fumble) is expected to be on the outside on the other side. Denzel Perryman (68 tackles, five tackles for loss, forced fumble) will be in the mix as well though his health issues have hampered his ability to stay on the field. Harris Jr. gives the Bolts a solid second corner to play across from Casey Hayward Jr. (32 tackles, two INT, eight pass defenses) and allows Desmond King (51 tackles, four tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, two pass defenses, forced fumble, two fumble recoveries) to the nickel spot. Rayshawn Jenkins (54 tackles, two tackles for loss, four pass defenses, three interceptions) and Derwin James (34 tackles, three tackles for loss in five games) will run the safety spots. Michael Badgely hopes to stay healthy to maintain the kicking job this season. He was 19 of 19 on extra points and 13 of 16 on field goal attempts in the eight games he played in last season.
There’s a lot of change for the Chargers this season from last year and that’s going to pose a problem for them. With Taylor likely keeping the spot warm for Herbert, it’s going to be a challenge for them to get much going offensively. The offensive line has to be better than it was last season, especially as defenses will go after Herbert once he takes over. Defensively, Los Angeles improved in the secondary with the Harris Jr. signing and with James returning to health, but the front seven needs work. This is going to be a challenging year for Los Angeles and they likely wind up in the basement of the division again.
Projected Record: 6-10, 4th in AFC West