In part 1 of my pre-season look at ranking the NFL divisions, the NFC West came out on top. However, if you had to ask me which division would I want to pay money to watch, it would be in my second ranked division – the AFC West. It is the home to the current Super Bowl Champions, the Kansas City Chiefs, and their divisional rivals have taken bold steps in the offseason to challenge Pat Mahomes and company.
Kansas City Chiefs
It was nearly a blow out. So nearly a Super Bowl appearance to forget for the Chiefs, after 50 years of waiting. Ten points adrift, only nine minutes to go, with Pat Mahomes having arguably one of the poorest games in his short but electrifying career. Nine minutes on the field is a long time in the NFL. Especially for the reigning AFC West champions. By the end of the night the Chiefs had the trophy and Mahomes was voted MVP.
Last season was by no means straightforward for the Chiefs. They spluttered their way to 7-4 and the respite of the bye week. But they returned from the break with five straight wins. They entered the playoffs as the #2 seed and promptly took part in the most ridiculous of divisional round games versus the Houston Texans. Gifting them a 24-point lead before scoring 41 unanswered points. Nothing came easy to the Chiefs and you can never count them out given the offensive talent on display.
The approach could be distilled down to “we are just going to outscore you” and this will only be helped by the addition of 1st round draft pick, running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. The backfield could be described as the weaker part of the offense, excepting that Damien Williams probably should have been the Super Bowl MVP. Now Edwards-Helaire will add scary talent catching out of that backfield. Which in turn may open up more opportunities for the receivers and tight end Travis Kelce.
However, they can be got at. Defensive Coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo, did a great job last year lifting the defense from ranked #26 overall to #14 (DVOA). But that was mainly off the back of an improved pass defense. However, the Chiefs are currently right up against the cap and with a contract for Mahomes looming there will be limited resources available to shore up the defense. They will remain dependent on their current defensive stars under contract: Chris Jones, Frank Clark and Tyrann Mathieu. The Chiefs will also hope that defensive draft picks such as linebacker Willie Gay JR and defensive back L’Jarius Sneed have the same impact as last year’s superb rookie safety Juan Thornhill.
Las Vegas Raiders
The move has been made. The Raiders have left Oakland for the bright lights of Vegas. The Allegiant Stadium stands ready on Al Davis Way (just off Dean Martin Drive no less). Surely Jon Gruden is an ideal head coach in this situation, always looking to put on a show.
The Raiders made great strides last season. Mainly off the back of one of the most successful draft classes in recent history. Running back Josh Jacobs ran for over 1000 yards and was a candidate for offensive rookie of the year. Throw in pass rushers Maxx Crosby and Clelin Ferrell, receiver Hunter Renfrow, cornerback Trayvon Mullen, and that possibly the best safety of the class, Johnathan Abram, missed the entire season.
The roster was renewed but it was clear the job was not complete. The 2018 4-12 record was improved to 7-9 and probably a sense of disappointment at missing the playoffs. After a 6-4 start, injuries began to take their toll and as the roster creaked they lost 5 of the last 6 games.
Derek Carr remains at quarterback. Whether by accident or by design is up for debate. What is clear, however, is that Gruden and Mayock have provided an array of options at wide receiver, taking three in their first four 2020 draft picks. Henry Ruggs provides ability to stretch the field. Lynn Bowden JR has versatility (and is my one to watch) and Bryan Edwards brings size, toughness and physicality. There will be no excuses for Carr and an expectation that the Raiders will score points. Marcus Mariota, a Mayock favourite, will be waiting in the wings should Carr begin to falter.
On defense the focus was to bring in experience through free agency. Signings included linebackers Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski. As well as safety Jeff Heath and on the line Carl Nassib and Maliek Collins. The secondary was also boosted through the draft with Damon Arnette and Amik Robertson both bringing more competitiveness and toughness to this group.
These new pieces will need to help a 31st rated defense (DVOA) to support the top ten rated offense in order to challenge the Chiefs.
At the end of last September the Broncos sat at 0-4. Veteran quarterback Joe Flacco was struggling to establish himself as the Broncos leader. By the end of the season, rookie Drew Lock had taken Denver to four wins in five games and had been declared as the new franchise QB. All of a sudden the Broncos faithful could see progress and potential.
In the 2020 draft the Broncos appeared to have the same blueprint as the Raiders, bring in top quality receivers. Denver’s first two picks were Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler. Jeudy may be a contender for this year’s offensive rookie of the year such is his production. And Hamler brings incredible speed, a little like Ruggs will for the Raiders. Add in third-year receiver Courtland Sutton (over 1000 yards receiving last year) and consider the range available with Drew Lock’s cannon arm. The Broncos will be a threat through the air next season. Running backs Melvin Gordon and Phillip Lindsay, and tight end Noah Fant complete a talented group who have every opportunity to produce.
Defense has been more of a strength for Denver of late and things remain stable on this side of the ball, led as always by Von Miller. They will be hoping the loss of veteran cornerback Chris Harris is not felt too strongly. However, like the Raiders, the Broncos appear to have concentrated on adding players with the ability to match the firepower of the Chiefs. The final member of this division has taken a different tack altogether.
Los Angeles Chargers
Take a look at last year’s games between the Chargers and Chiefs in the West. The Chargers found a way to slow down Mahomes and the Chiefs offense. Mahomes statistics in both games are nothing to write home about. The Chargers kept both games close, only losing by one score on both occasions.
Unlike the Broncos and Raiders, the Chargers roster changes for 2020 had an equally strong focus on both sides of the ball.
No doubts though that the main news was the changing of the guard at quarterback with Philip Rivers moving on and the drafting of Justin Herbert in the first round. Initially he will sit behind Tyrod Taylor, but for how long? Word is that the Chargers really like Taylor in the starting role but there is little recent game history to go on. If he can recapture his early Buffalo Bills form of 2015 then Herbert will have the necessary time to sit and learn.
Taylor will be assisted by star 3-down back Austin Ekeler, and rookie running back Joshua Kelley. Plus the retention of tight end Hunter Henry should provide a safe target, as long as Henry can stay fit. Rookie KJ Hill, a late round draft steal, will be a reliable route runner to compliment Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. The Chargers should have the ablility to keep pace with opponents.
On defense, the Chargers picked up another leader in linebacker Kenneth Murray. A player who impressed all teams he spoke to prior to the draft. He will bring instant impact. Murray will slot in alongside Drue Tranquill who many expect to have a breakout year in his second season. Veteran Joey Bosa will lead the defense from the trenches, Derwin James returns from a season-long injury and Chris Harris adds experience to the secondary. Mahomes and the Chiefs could expect more struggles against the Chargers in 2020.
Prediction for the AFC West 2020 division standings
The AFC West has, on the face of it, a relatively straightforward season in 2020. On strength of schedule the Broncos (12th) have the hardest proposition. Followed by the Chiefs (18th), Raiders (21st) and Chargers (23rd).
The Chiefs have a tricky early part of the season away at Baltimore and Buffalo plus home to the Patriots. All in the first six weeks. Their bye comes in week 10. Following that they can enjoy an easier ride with only away at New Orleans in week 15 of particular note.
The Raiders also face a tough start with weeks 2-4 seeing the Saints, Patriots and Bills on the docket. Followed by a visit to the Chiefs in week 5. Their week 6 bye could see them 1-4. Opportunities to improve this do appear but they could already be too far back to challenge.
The theme of tough openings for AFC West teams continues in Denver with the Broncos home to the Titans then away at the Steelers. From thereon the fixture list appears relatively kind with no particularly consistent hard run of games. Opportunity strikes early for the Chargers as in their first nine fixtures there are winnable games. Panthers, Jets, Dolphins, Jaguars will all be seen as potential W’s. If they can reach their bye at around .500 then a run at a winning record, if not a wildcard spot, is possible. The Chargers also have the slight oddity of their final three games all being against divisional rivals. This could decide their fate.
Overall, here is how I see the AFC West playing out. If I was paying money I think the divisional matchups would be the ones I would want to see the most. Expect points and lots of them. I can still see the Chiefs taking the title next year. But not by the same 5-game gap as last year. The pack will come hunting and make up some of the ground. Positions 2-4 could pan out any which way with only a game or two between them. I’m taking the Broncos to win out as best of the rest but there’s little to choose which adds to the excitement of this division.
Kansas City Chiefs 11-5
Denver Broncos 9-7
Las Vegas Raiders 8-8
Los Angeles Chargers 7-9
In the last part of the series I’ll take a more whistle-stop tour of the other divisions, going through the best of the rest. Can anyone keep pace with the wild wild west?