One of the most competitive, wide-open divisions in the league, the AFC West features the defending champions Denver Broncos, a Chiefs team who has been knocking on the door for a few years, a Raiders squad that has amassed exceptional talent and should be well positioned to compete… and the San Diego Chargers.
Here’s a team-by-team preview in ascending order.
4. San Diego Chargers
Key personnel losses – Eric Weddle (S), Stevie Johnson (WR- injury), Ladarius Green (TE)
Key personnel additions – Dwight Lowery (S), Casey Heyward (CB) , Travis Benjamin (WR)
With an aging Philip Rivers leading the offense for a 13th consecutive year, a subpar offseason featuring the losses of two key offensive weapons (Stevie Johnson and Ladarius Green) and additions to the roster meant to plug the holes left by the departures of Weddle and injury to Johnson rather than markedly improve the roster, 2016 does not project to be better than the 2015 season. Add in the ongoing contract dispute with number three overall pick DE Joey Bosa, and things are looking outright bleak in sunny Southern California.
If you subscribe to the glass half-full theory, you can point to the return of Keenan Allen from injury and the potential improvement of Melvin Gordon, their 2015 first round pick at running back. By all accounts Gordon had an outstanding minicamp, and there is legitimate reason for optimism regarding Gordon’s sophomore bounce.
Ultimately, this will also be coach McCoy’s last season in charge barring a spectacular season by this roster’s standards (9 or more wins).
In a division featuring the Super Bowl champions Broncos, a Raider team that is one of the leagues most exciting up and coming teams, and a Chiefs team that went 11-5 without their star running back, I do not see reason for optimism regarding the 2016 Chargers. Their strength of schedule ranks at 13, which for a roster without any significant qualities might prove just too difficult to improve on last season’s 4-12 mark.
Forecast: San Diego Chargers 4-12, 4th in the AFC West.
3. Oakland Raiders
Key personnel losses – Charles Woodson (ret.),
Key personnel additions – Bruce Irvin (LB), Sean Smith (CB) , K. Osemele (OL), K. Joseph (rookie – CB)
The Raiders made significant investments in their defense during the offseason and it is very likely this will pay dividends for them in the W column. Having Khalil Mack, a generational talent, along with newly acquired Bruce Irvin gives Oakland one of the top rated front sevens in the league (whether they go 4-3 or 3-4 remains to be seen).
With help on the way in the secondary by way of free agency and draft, the Raider defense should rank among the best in the league.
On the other side of the ball, Derek Carr showed tremendous improvement in his second season, ranking 11th in the league by Pro Football Focus. Amari Cooper possesses a deadly combination of speed and size and should continue to improve on his rookie performance, especially in terms of dropped passes, giving Carr one of the main receiving threats in the league.
With the addition of Osemele to the O-line, the only question on offense remains the running back production. Latavius Murray is a solid option, but it remains to be seen whether he can replicate the solid numbers he posted in 2015.
Forecast: If it all clicks for the Raiders, I wouldn’t be shocked to see them go 10-6 and make the playoffs. In a weaker division and with the weaker strength of schedule (no. 15 overall) I’d have them with a better record. As it stands I have them at 8-8, no. 3 in the AFC West.
2. Denver Broncos
Key personnel losses – Danny Trevathan (LB), Malik Jackson (DE), Peyton Manning (QB)
Key additions – Russell Okung (OL)
After a memorable Super Bowl run, the Broncos will have to defend their title without three of their most important pieces. We can argue about the effectiveness of a 40-year-old Peyton, but having Mark “butt-fumble” Sanchez leading the huddle should not inspire much confidence among the Mile High faithful. More importantly, the losses of two key members of that no. 1 rated front-seven will make it extremely difficult for the Broncos to repeat their 2015 performance.
Super Bowl MVP Von Miller is rightfully the big name who has gotten all the attention with a new long term monster deal, but the losses of Malik Jackson and Trevathan will result in a slight regression of that defensive unit.
It all came together perfectly for the Broncos last year on the back of the wily old fox Peyton Manning, and the no. 1 rated defense in the league, but with a questionable offensive line (28th ranked by PFF), a yet to be named QB starter chosen, significant losses to the defense and the only notable offseason addition being Russell Okung, things aren’t that promising for the defending champs.
The good news is that in a league featuring a higher percentage of passing plays than ever before, the Super Bowl champs still feature the league’s best secondary, despite the fact that one of the key members of that unit, Aqib Talib, took a bullet in the leg during an offseason incident.
The other good news is that the 1-2 WR combo of Demaryus Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders remains among the top receiving core in the league.
Forecast: With elite defensive and receiver units, and with an average strength of schedule (no. 14) the Broncos will be good enough to win double-digit games and perhaps sneak in as a wild card with 10 wins, but will fall just short of the AFC West division title, which brings us to the…
1. Kansas City Chiefs
Key Personnel Losses – Justin Houston (LB – inj) Sean Smith (S), Donald Stephenson (OL), Mike DeVito (DE)
Key Additions – Mitchell Schwartz (OL), Jimmy Wilson (S), Stevie Brown (S), Rod Streater (WR)
The Chiefs (perennial second-best of this division) are well positioned to take the proverbial “next step” in 2016. Having Jamaal Charles back, featuring a loaded defense with returning veteran leaders such as Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson, there’s a compelling argument for the Chiefs to end up on top of this division.
Having a certain level of stability, along with the return of their star pro bowl RB, will go a long way in improving this already very good offensive unit. Even without any long bombs to an average receiving core (Jeremy Maclin and newly added Rod Streater), Alex Smith will continue to manage the offense well and spread the ball. Expect another solid season from Pro bowl TE Travis Kelse, and if he can replicate his 2014 catch percentage (77% vs 66% in 2015), this will give the Chiefs another All-Pro caliber offensive threat in a league where the tight end position is becoming increasingly important.
With Doug Pederson gone to head up the Eagles, offensive play-calling will be the task of head coach Andy Reed. This is where a certain measure of belief in the betterment of Reed’s skills as game manager is required, as we have seen Andy Reed repeatedly mismanage the clock and play-calling at the end of games.
Forecast: With the Broncos losing personnel at key positions, the Raiders still a year or so away from fulfilling their potential on both sides of the ball and the Chargers appearing to be in rebuild mode, this looks to be the Chiefs’ prime opportunity to own this division.
What are your thoughts? Let us know who you think will come out on top of the AFC West.