AFC West Preview

Posted: 09/07/2016 by levcohen in Football

The AFC West has long been the easiest division to predict a winner of — bar the AFC East, of course. The Denver Broncos have won the division five consecutive seasons, often handily. They’re 50-14 in the last four seasons and have been victorious in the division by an average of three games. The last four seasons, of course, were also Peyton Manning’s four brilliantly successful years in Denver. From 2012 through 2014, the Broncos were successful because of Peyton Manning. Last year, they were successful in spite of him. Entering the first year post-Peyton, are the Broncos’ chances to win the division gone with him?

Kansas City Chiefs (11-5): Last year, the Chiefs won their final 10 games of the regular season, demolished Houston 30-0 in the first round of the playoffs, and then only lost in New England by seven in the second round. If you look at it from that perspective, projected “just” 11 wins — the same total as last season — seems pessimistic. Indeed, there’s a lot to love about this team. This is easily the most balanced team in the AFC West, and it may well be the most balanced team in the AFC. I’ll start with the offense, because I think its efficiency has surprised — and will continue to surprise — a lot of casual viewers. They finished sixth in offensive DVOA last year, thanks mostly to a terrific rushing attack that had easily the best DVOA in football. It’s going to be a run early and often team, and for good reason. The offensive line has changed from last season, with guards Ben Grubbs and Jeff Allen moving on, but the addition of tackle Mitchell Schwartz (the #7 overall tackle last year, per PFF) and likely progression of former #1 overall pick Eric Fisher should negate the losses. The result? A very solid line, and one that is especially adept at providing holes for KC’s running backs. About those RBs: they’re good. Jamaal Charles is the obvious headliner, as he should be. Somewhat shockingly, he’s best running back in NFL history on a per-carry basis. His career average is 5.5 yards per carry. Jim Brown is second at 5.2. But KC’s late-season surge came without Charles, who tore his ACL and is now unlikely to play in Week 1. The Chiefs also happen to have two other good running backs. Spencer Ware is a power back who led the NFL in average yards after contact last season and ran for 5.6 yards per carry, while Charcandrick West led the Chiefs with 634 rushing yards and added 214 through the air. It must also be said that quarterback Alex Smith is also a very athletic and efficient runner. He rushed for a career-high 498 yards last season and gained 5.9 yards per tote. This is great news for the Chiefs, because, as I said before, Charles is unlikely to play at the beginning of the season. For the offense to remain viable, it needs to be the run setting up play-action. When the Chiefs do throw the ball, they’re not looking to take any deep shots because Alex Smith is simply not capable of throwing an effective deep ball. But as long as Smith is as good at protecting the ball as he was last season (seven interceptions), the Chiefs offense will be fine. They don’t have a deep receiving core, but Jeremy Maclin and Travis Kelce are two great targets. And two great targets is all KC needs as long as it maintains its run-first identity.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Chiefs have suffered two major blows. Sean Smith, their top cornerback, has moved to Oakland. More importantly, pass rushing extraordinaire Justin Houston (56 sacks in 70 career games) is on the PUP, which means he’s out at least six games. I believe that the Chiefs can maintain a good defense without those two pivotal players, but they — along with Smith’s limitations — are the reasons I’m unwilling to push them past 11 wins, especially since they haven’t really been replaced. Tamba Hali, who’s questionable for Week 1 with a knee injury, is going to be relied upon to pick up the slack for the pass rush. But he’ll need help, and I’m not convinced that fellow edge rusher Dee Ford, a first rounder two seasons ago who had just four sacks last season, will give him that help. In the secondary, opinions are very split on sophomore corner Marcus Peters. Peters led the NFL with eight interceptions last season and made second-team All-Pro. He also took too many risks and got burned a lot, especially early in the season. If he can become a shutdown cornerback, the Chiefs won’t miss Smith all that much. If not, the onus will be on Phillip Gaines, who played just 169 snaps last season, to replace Smith and make up for some of the All-Pro’s blunders. I think they’ll be just fine at safety, with returnees Eric Berry and Ron Parker providing stability and great all-around play. And the defensive line is loaded, with Jaye Howard, Dontari Poe, Allen Bailey returning and second round pick Chris Jones likely to start right away.

The Chiefs’ plan is simple: dominate the line of scrimmage, protect the ball, and unleash the running game. It certainly worked down the stretch last season, and I expect it to work again this year.

Oakland Raiders (10-6): Predicting the Raiders to win 10 games makes me uneasy for obvious reasons. They haven’t even had a winning record since 2002. But when I look at the roster, I see a playoff team. Besides the retirement of Charles Woodson, the team hasn’t lost a single important piece from the intriguing 7-9 squad last season. And they’ve added quite a lot of talent. On the offensive side of the ball, they bolstered their already-talented offensive line with the signing of pricey ex-Raven Kelechi Osemele. Osemele will slot in at left guard and bring a power element to the line that should help running back Latavius Murray, who was often ineffective last season. The rest of the offensive line is back and with Osemele may challenge Dallas for the best line in football. Heck, tackle Austin Howard, who was terrific last season, is now a depth piece with former second rounder Menelik Watson back from injury. Osemele may have seemed a superfluous signing, but Oakland is betting that better protection for Derek Carr and more running lanes for Murray will move the Raiders’ offense up a few rungs on the ladder. On defense, the Raiders made three high profile and costly ($43 million combined in guarantees and possibly much more) moves at positions of need. Remember Sean Smith, the ex-Chief? Well, he’s now Oakland’s top corner. Ex-Bengal safety Reggie Nelson, a second-team All-Pro last season, is 33 years old but has actually improved with age and now has the experience and instincts to lead a defense from the free safety position. And ex-Seahawk Bruce Irvin immediately will slot in as a dangerous outside linebacker to keep offensive lines honest with Kahlil Mack on the other side.

Speaking of Kahlil Mack, the guy’s a monster. He’s the rare stud pass rusher (15 sacks, five in one game) who is also extremely well-rounded. Despite finishing behind Olivier Vernon and Von Miller among edge rushers in pure pass rushing (he was third with a paltry 92 PFF rating), he leapt over them and was easily the best all-around edge rusher (95.9, Miller next at 93.2) because he was so good in coverage and especially against the run. In fact, his run-stopping dominance rivals J.J. Watt’s… everything in terms of totally transcending everyone else at his position. He posted a 93.8 rating against the run, almost unheard of for an edge rusher and 6.8 points higher than #2 Jadeveon Clowney among rushers. So yeah, I think the Raiders are going to have a pretty good defense, but it’s more because of Mack than it is a result of the impact the new additions may make. This is the year that Mack’s dominance will truly show up in his team’s numbers. I believe he can lift the Raiders in the same way that Watt has long carried the Texans defense.

As for the offense, it’s all up to Carr, because the front office has put him in pretty much the ideal situation. He has the aforementioned dominant offensive line, which allowed him to throw without pressure on 79.5% of dropbacks, sixth highest out of 37 qualifiers. He has last year’s #4 overall pick, Amari Cooper, who flashed as a rookie and looks almost a sure bet to break out this season. He has perennially underrated Michael Crabtree, who outperformed Cooper last season and who is the textbook definition of consistency at the wide receiver position. And he has Latavius Murray, who has shown all the tools to be a terrific three-down back. If Carr plays like he did in the first half of last season (66.2% completion, 2,094 yards, 19 TDs, four INTs), the Raiders will win the division. If he plays like he did in the second half of last season (56.8%, 1,893 yards, 13 TDs, nine INTs), they probably won’t make the playoffs. As usual, I’m betting on something in between.

Denver Broncos (9-7): Sorry, but they’re not really going away. 2015 seventh round pick Trevor Siemian, who’s never thrown a regular season pass in his NFL career, is the next big thing! The Broncos are going to repeat!

No, I’m not serious. The Broncos won’t repeat, and Siemian won’t be very good. But the offense was terrible last season, too! They finished 25th in offensive DVOA and still managed to win 12 games and the Super Bowl. I don’t think their offense will be meaningfully worse last season, but they also don’t have a chance at 12 wins again. Nine or 10 seems reasonable for two reasons. The first is that some defensive regression is inevitably coming. The defense will still be great, but it was easily the best in football last season. That never happens two years in a row. The second is that the Broncos were very lucky last year. Nine of their wins came in one-score games, and they were 9-3 in such games. The defense is good enough to sway close games in their favor, but not by that much. So Denver will have to settle with 9-7 or 10-6.

As I said, the offense is pretty much unchanged (beside going from Peyton Manning to Trevor Siemian, a much less consequential move than I would have thought a year ago). If they had managed to retain Brock Oswiler, who left for Houston, things might be looking a lot better. But with Siemian, it’s still a bad offensive line protecting a bad quarterback who has good weapons to throw to. I think that Emmanuel Sanders is a really good player. He’s the guy I’d be scared of if I were an opposing defensive coordinator, because he always seems to get open, can run all kinds of routes, and has really good hands. Demaryius Thomas is also a terrifying receiver, but for the opposite reasons. He’s huge and explosive and can make contested catches.. but he also has far too many drops and vanishes too often. Thomas had only one catch for eight yards on six targets in the Super Bowl, while Sanders went 6-83 on eight targets. That continued a playoff-long trend, as Sanders accounted for 43% of Denver’s yards through the air in the playoffs. Anyway, the Broncos don’t need to decide which receiver is better. They have both of them, and that’s a pretty nice thing to have. Unfortunately, it’s just about the only nice thing the Broncos have on offense, although rookie running back Devontae Booker is a guy to watch.

You don’t need me to tell you that the defense is stacked. Sure, they suffered some major losses, as tends to happen with the Super Bowl champs. Malik Jackson ($42 million fully guaranteed), Danny Trevathan ($12 million), and David Bruton ($4 million) have all moved on to greener pastures (so to speak). They all played pretty well and deserve the money they got. And Vance Walker’s torn ACL in training camp was a big deal, too. But the defensive roster is still full of talent. Von Miller is Von Miller. Chris Harris Jr. is small, but in my opinion he’s a top-3 cornerback. DeMarcus Ware is still incredible and seemingly ageless. The loss of Trevathan matters less because hard-hitting safety T.J. Ward can basically play linebacker in Denver’s base dime defense. The dime defense was so effective last year because Denver has three good-to-great corners in Harris, Aqib Talib, and Bradley Roby. All three are back this year. So is defensive mastermind/genius Wade Phillips and middle linebacker Brandon Marshall, the Broncos’ only interior ‘backer who played nearly every down last season. The pass rush will remain elite, the coverage will remain elite, and the defense will remain elite. I’m glad that’s settled. In the end, I can’t give Denver more than nine wins for all the reasons I mentioned above. But they’ll certainly be in the mix for a playoff spot come December.

San Diego Chargers (7-9): In another division, I might actually like the Chargers as a sleeper playoff pick. In the AFC South, for example, I’d pick them to win the division. But they play in this division, and they have neither the balance (a la KC and OAK) nor the unit dominance (a la DEN’s defense) that their division mates have. Their offense could conceivably be dominant because Philip Rivers remains one of the best (and THE most under-appreciated) quarterback in football. Rivers, who hasn’t missed a game in 10 years as a starter, churns out year after year of quality play despite often not having much help around him. You may be surprised to learn that he ranks 14th in career passing yards and 10th in yards per game in NFL history. His 95.5 career passer rating ranks eighth in NFL history (granted, the seven guys ahead of him include five active players and Peyton Manning. Steve Young is the other one, in case you were wondering) while his 281 passing touchdowns put him 11th (and likely eighth by the end of the season). It’s also worth noting that he set a career-high in passing yards last season. Much of that was because his team was dreadful and he easily set a career high in attempts, but still. This is made even more incredible by the fact that he has no real running game to lean on (the team averaged 3.5 yards per carry despite investing a first round pick in Melvin Gordon in 2015) and last year’s worst offensive line in the NFL. Sure, they upgraded at center with Matt Slauson, but the line is definitely still going to be really bad. Rivers will be helped by the return of top target Keenan Allen (lacerated kidney last season) and will again rely on the steady hands of future Hall-of-Fame tight end Antonio Gates. The running game can’t be worse and neither can the offensive line, which makes me suspect that the Chargers will finish with better than the 15th ranked offense in DVOA. But they won’t be better-enough to support the below-average defense.

When it takes until the weekend before the season for your #3 overall pick to sign, and when that #3 overall pick is thus not ready for the start of the season, you’re not exactly starting the season off on the right foot. The Chargers will be without Joey Bosa at least this week and maybe for longer, as Bosa needs time to work his way into playing shape. That’s bad news, because San Diego is in serious need of guys who can rush the passer. They have one: Melvin Ingram, a pretty good all-around outside linebacker who managed 10.5 sacks last season. But they need much more, and they are counting on Bosa to provide the help. The cornerbacks are clearly the strongest part of the defense, as Jason Verrett graded out as the second best corner in football last season, Brandon Flowers has a long track record of success to suggest that he can bounce back in a big way this season, and Casey Heyward was signed from the Packers to fill the slot. If Bosa can get back relatively quickly, I think San Diego might be ok against the pass. The run is going to be much more of a problem, because they don’t have good interior stoppers or run-stopping linebackers. They finished 31st in run defense DVOA last year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they finish last this year.

It’s hard to win games when you’re hemorrhaging so many yards on the ground, which I think the Chargers will figure out pretty quickly this season. If this is the year that Rivers really takes a step back, I wouldn’t be surprised to see another 4-12 season. But last year’s 4-12 record was thoroughly undeserved, as they were the second unluckiest team in the league (behind Seattle), so if Rivers is Rivers, they’ll pick up a few more wins this year.

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