With their star quarterback and innovative coach, the Chiefs appear to be the modern equivalent of the 49ers of the 1980s with Joe Montana and Bill Walsh, and that poses a conundrum for the rest of the AFC West. How do you plan for your own season when you go in knowing, deep down, that you won’t win the division?
One way is the Broncos’ path, which is both an acknowledgment and a response to the brilliance of QB Patrick Mahomes and coach Andy Reid. Denver drafted a cornerback, Patrick Surtain II of Alabama, with the ninth pick, and in free agency invested in cornerbacks Kyle Fuller (one year, $9.5 million) and Ronald Darby (three years, $30 million). These moves give coach Vic Fangio his best chance to counter Kansas City’s passing attack and to compensate for his own team’s offensive shortcomings, especially its uncertainty at quarterback. Denver will be rolling with Teddy Bridgewater after the journeyman former first-round pick beat out Drew Lock for the job this summer.
The Chargers have also looked to amp up their defense, replacing coach Anthony Lynn with Brandon Staley, formerly the defensive coordinator of the Rams. Staley, 38, is a Fangio disciple who led his former team to a No. 1–ranked defense in his lone season calling coverages. The Chargers’ hope is that on offense quarterback Justin Herbert will build off his Rookie of the Year season, enjoying improved protection from a line that added All-Pro center Corey Linsley from the Packers and tackle Rashawn Slater from Northwestern with the 13th pick of the draft, while Staley’s new direction will reinvigorate the D. That unit, led by end Joey Bosa and safety Derwin James, back from injury, is talented and had finished in the top 10 of several key statistical categories at the beginning of Lynn’s tenure before falling off the past two seasons.
Then there are the Raiders, who are still waiting for the 10-year, $100 million contract they gave to coach Jon Gruden in 2018 to pay off. Yes, the team has improved steadily in his first three seasons, but it has also failed to make the playoffs and has undergone multiple changes of direction. The roster has its steadying forces—running back Josh Jacobs, tight end Darren Waller and quarterback Derek Carr. But during their tenure Gruden and GM Mike Mayock have built and then dismantled the most expensive offensive line in the league, traded away a dominant pass rusher in Khalil Mack and devoted critical assets toward replacing his production, and made ill-advised moves at wide receiver (Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant). Meanwhile, Las Vegas has the worst secondary in the division, a problem when competing against Mahomes and also an emerging star in Herbert.
This offseason the Raiders signed WR John Brown and RB Kenyan Drake, and drafted Alabama offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood with their top pick. Vegas has chosen to try to keep pace with the Chiefs, rather than focus on dulling K.C.’s greatest asset: its creative passing game. Whatever their methods of attack against Kansas City, the Broncos, Chargers and Raiders will have years to refine and rethink them, because the defending two-time AFC champs will be formidable for years to come.
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Predicted Order of Finish
1. CHIEFS (12–5)
Best Case: The Chiefs continue to refine their winning formula: a top-rated offense complemented by an opportunistic defense. This year the running game takes off behind an O-line that added tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and guards Joe Thuney and Kyle Long, which eases the workload of Mahomes.
Worst Case: The O-line misses longtime tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz. The departure of WR Sammy Watkins to Baltimore hurts because 2019 second-round pick Mecole Hardman doesn’t develop as a reliable option at the position. Even so, Kansas City still has the talent to make the playoffs.
2. CHARGERS (11–6, Wild Card)
Best Case: Herbert builds off his stellar rookie season. The performance of the defense justifies Staley’s status as last winter’s hot coaching hire. Rookie tackle Slater and new center Linsley elevate the offensive line. Winning the division may be too much to ask, but a wild-card berth is not.
Worst Case: The defense misses departed DE Melvin Ingram, and rookie CB Asante Samuel Jr., the second-round pick from Florida State, needs seasoning. At tight end, free agent Jared Cook doesn’t make up for the loss of Hunter Henry. Herbert’s sophomore slump throws the new coaching staff into chaos.
3. BRONCOS (9–8)
Best Case: Denver’s defense is a top-five unit and that, along with competent game management at quarterback, propels the team near the playoffs. Von Miller again terrorizes opposing QBs after missing 2020 with an ankle injury, and rookie Surtain steps right in alongside Denver’s new veteran corners.
Worst Case: Bridgewater is not the solution and the passing game continues to underwhelm, despite the talent among Denver’s highly drafted receivers (wideouts Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler, TE Noah Fant). After the season, the search begins for a new coach and a quarterback, too.
4. RAIDERS (6–11)
Best Case: Gruden finally takes the Raiders to the playoffs, and his vision for developing the team suddenly seems brilliant. Last year’s 25th-ranked defense improves thanks to new coordinator Gus Bradley, free agent DE Yannick Ngakoue and second-round safety Trevon Moehrig.
Worst Case: Leatherwood struggles in his rookie season, and devoting cap space to signing Drake (two years, $14.5 million) when the team has Jacobs proves to be a mistake. Owner Mark Davis reconsiders Gruden. Few coaches miss the playoffs four years in a row and come back for a fifth season.
More Division Previews:
AFC East: Can the Bills Hold Off the New-Look Pats?
AFC North: Cleveland's Time Has Arrived
AFC South: Titans and Colts Rise to the Top
NFC East: It Can Only Get Better
NFC North: Leaders Are the Pack, Again
NFC South: The Champs Have Room to Improve
NFC West: Battle to Be Best of the Best