AFC West preview: It's Super Bowl or bust for the Chiefs
Patrick Mahomes proved he was the real deal last season, leading the Chiefs to a comeback for the ages in the playoffs, and later guiding the team to a Super Bowl title. It was a dream season for the team and their fans, and they enter 2020’s campaign as the top team in the league.
Let’s look at the AFC West and forecast how all four teams will perform this season.
Kansas City Chiefs
2019 record: 12-4, Super Bowl Champions
Key Additions: RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire (draft), LB Willie Gay (draft), OL Mike Remmers
Key Departures: DT Xavier Williams, CB Kendall Fuller, LB Reggie Ragland, DE Emmanuel Ogbah
While the Chiefs didn’t add a whole lot, what they kept was perhaps even more important. They signed Mahomes to the richest quarterback deal in NFL history. They exercised the option on running back Damien Williams. They re-signed stud DT Chris Jones to a multi-year deal, after placing the franchise tag on him. Most impressively, they did all this without having to let go of many major pieces, and they stayed under the salary cap.
How do you improve the best offensive attack in the NFL? Add another weapon to the fold, which is what the Chiefs did with the drafting of RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire out of Auburn. He will be expected to push the incumbent Williams for playing time right away.
You also fill one of the few holes on the defensive side, grabbing LB Willie Gay to replace the departing Reggie Ragland. The departure of Kendall Fuller will leave them a bit weaker at corner, but that was never a major strength for the team to begin with. Why worry about stopping wideouts when you can simply outscore them?
I expect the Chiefs to outscore almost everyone they play yet again this season, and become just the sixth team in the salary-cap era to return to a Super Bowl.
2019 record: 7-9, missed playoffs
Key Additions: RB Melvin Gordon, WR Jerry Jeudy (draft), WR KJ Hamler (draft), CB AJ Bouye, DL Jurrell Casey, TE Nick Vannett
Key Departures: CB Chris Harris Jr, G Connor McGovern
There is hope around the Broncos organization that they finally have their man at quarterback, thanks to the encouraging performance of Drew Lock late in 2019. They also added some major firepower around him, drafting wideouts Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler, and signing RB Melvin Gordon to create a three-headed monster in the backfield. On a whole, the Broncos had what many experts considered one of the best draft classes in the league, and they will hope to make the big step towards the playoffs this season.
Defensively, the Broncos have a few question marks that will need to be addressed if they hope to make a playoff push. Von Miller will be a big one, especially after he confirmed he contracted COVID-19 earlier this year. If he continues to decline, it will be a blow to the defense.
Bradley Chubb is returning from an ACL tear, and the team needs him to regain his 2018 form. To help with the pass rush, they added DL Jurrell Casey, and if all three contribute then this will be a defense to truly fear. If not, their secondary depth could very well be exposed and it could cost them a wild-card berth.
Las Vegas Raiders
2019 record: 7-9, missed playoffs
Key Additions: WR Henry Ruggs II (draft), QB/WR Lynn Bowden (draft), WR Agholor, CB Eli Apple, LB Cory Littleton, LB Nick Kwiatkowski, DE Carl Nassib, TE Jason Witten, CB Prince Amukamara
Key Departures: S Karl Joseph, LB Tahir Whitehead
Our next team is the Oak….excuse me, the Las Vegas Raiders. That still just doesn’t sound right to me, but Sin City now has an NFL franchise. If the name doesn’t feel familiar, the roster might not, either—which is something to keep in mind, given the cancellation of camps and the loss of the preseason.
Jon Gruden overhauled the squad, adding QB Marcus Mariota to a team that already had Derek Carr taking snaps. He overhauled the wideout corps, signing Nelson Agholor and adding Henry Ruggs and Lynn Bowden via the draft. Bowden set the SEC rushing record for a quarterback at Kentucky when he switched from WR mid-season, and Gruden said he will also take some snaps as he looks to utilize his unique skill set. With the additional weapons, and stud running back Josh Jacobs behind him, it’s now or never for Carr in Gruden’s eyes.
The defense saw multiple changes as well, with LBs Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski immediately improve a defense that forced the second-fewest turnovers last season. DE Carl Nassib also will improve a pass rush that finished tied for the worst yards gained against per pass attempt in the NFL. Unfortunately, that still won’t be enough, as their secondary is nowhere near good enough to stop some of the passing attacks they will face this year.
While they won’t be the third-worst passing defense in the NFL again this year after the addition of CB Prince Amukamara, they simply won’t be improved enough to compete for a playoff spot. The one thing they can improve on is penalties. The Raiders gave up 52 first-downs via penalty last year; no other team gave up more than 43.
Los Angeles Chargers
2019 record: 5-11
Key Additions: QB Justin Herbert (draft), CB Chris Harris Jr, DT Linval Joseph, G Trai Turner, RT Bryan Baluga
Key Departures: QB Philip Rivers, LT Russell Okung, RB Melvin Gordon
The Chargers have been synonymous with Philip Rivers for close to two decades, but that's no longer the case. The aging quarterback parted ways with the organization, with Tyrod Taylor and first-round pick Justin Herbert fighting to take his place.
Whoever takes the snaps will have no longer have Melvin Gordon to hand the ball to, but they will have an improved offensive line to protect them as the Chargers made that unit a key focus in the offseason. Unfortunately, outside of Keenan Allen the team has few proven weapons on the offensive side of the ball that actually stay healthy, as WR Mike Williams and TE Hunter Henry yet again dealt with major injuries last season.
The Chargers’ defense has talent to spare, with LB Melvin Ingram, DE Joey Bosa, and S Derwin James leading the way. They added to that talent by bringing in Harris from Denver and DT Linval Joseph from Minnesota. The secondary for the Chargers is outstanding, and they may put up numbers even better than their fifth-best passing yards allowed in the NFL last year.
If the Chargers can get production from the offense, especially if the key players stay healthy, then they could possibly contend for a wild-card spot this season.