2021 NFL Offseason Outlook: AFC West

2020 Recap

The Kansas City Chiefs earned a dominant 14-2 record last season with one of their two losses coming to the Raiders in-division. Kansas City hasn’t lost more than one game in the AFC West since 2014, and they look poised to dominate the division once again. The Raiders had stretches of great play last year, but they ultimately fell short of the playoffs at 8-8. The Chargers enjoyed a brilliant season from rookie quarterback Justin Herbert, ending up 7-9, while the Broncos floundered again on their way to 5-11 and 1-5 in the division. Three of four teams return their head coaches, while Los Angeles will introduce Brandon Staley as the team’s new manager.

Kansas City ChiefsKansas City Chiefs

Current Cap Space: -$23.1 million (as of 2/18)

Top Free Agents: WR Sammy Watkins, SS Daniel Sorensen, CB Bashaud Breeland, LB Damien Wilson, WR Demarcus Robinson, C Austin Reiter, CB Charvarius Ward (RFA), EDGE Tanoh Kpassagnon

Biggest Team Needs: IOL, OT, WR, LB, DT

2021 Draft Picks: #31 (R1), #63 (R2), #95 (R3), #127 (R4), #159 (R5), #223 (R7)

Analysis: The Chiefs fell just short of winning back-to-back championships, and they showed some real weaknesses down the stretch of the season. The absences of starting offensive tackles Mitchell Schwartz and Eric Fisher was ultimately catastrophic in the Super Bowl, and while both players should be back this season, it would be wise for the team to look at the long-term future of their tackle spots as both starters are 30 or older. The Chiefs will also likely look to address the interior of the offensive line as center Austin Reiter is a free agent and the unit struggled to keep Mahomes upright and create rushing lanes.

Of course, Patrick Mahomes and the passing offense will continue to be this team’s biggest strength, although the Chiefs do have some decisions to make in that realm. Sammy Watkins and Demarcus Robinson are both set to become free agents, and I’m unsure if the team is ready to elevate Mecole Hardman to being a full-time starter. Look for Kansas City to address the wide receiver position at some point on Day 2 or 3 of the draft. Outside of Tyreek Hill and Traviss Kelce, the Chiefs should look to add another reliable pass-catcher.

The bulk of the Chiefs’ work this offseason will be on the defensive side of the ball after allowing the Buccaneers to coast to 31 points in the Super Bowl.  Linebacker Damien Wilson and playmaking safety Daniel Sorensen are free agents, as are starting cornerbacks Charvarius Ward and Bashaud Breeland. The Chiefs allowed the 10th-fewest points in 2020, but their defense showed some warts, particularly against the run game. With their cap situation a major issue at the moment, there don’t seem to be any easy paths to improving on that side of the ball. With Mahomes, Hill, and Kelce in tow, this team will always be a threat, but the downside of their big-money extensions over the past couple of years is starting to show.

1st-Round Pick Targets: CB Jaycee Horn, CB Asante Samuel Jr., OG Alijah Vera-Tucker, OG Wyatt Davis, EDGE Carlos Basham Jr.

Free Agency Targets: C Alex Mack, WR A.J. Green, CB Cameron Sutton, CB Nickell Robey-Coleman

Las Vegas RaidersOakland Raiders

Current Cap Space: -$18.6 million (as of 2/18)

Top Free Agents: WR Nelson Agholor, RB Devontae Booker, DT Johnathan Hankins, LB Raekwon McMillan, CB Daryl Worley, S Erik Harris

Biggest Team Needs: DT, EDGE, WR, S, IOL, LB, CB, QB

2021 Draft Picks: #17 (R1), #49 (R2), #81 (R3), #121 (R4), #161 (R5), #244 (R7)

Analysis: The Raiders had an awesome offensive season in 2020, finishing in the top ten in both points and yards. However, their defense did not follow suit as they allowed 29.9 points per game, the third-most in the NFL. While there are some tweaks to be made on offense, this offseason will come down to what the Raiders do on the defensive side of the ball. Gus Bradley will replace Paul Guenther as the team’s defensive coordinator, and the front office has to give him some pieces to work with. Three defensive starters from last season will become free agents in defensive tackle Jonathan Hankins, linebacker Raekwon McMillan, and safety Erik Harris, but it wouldn’t be shocking not to see any of them return.

Luckily for Las Vegas, they do have an easy path to creating more cap space. They can save just over $11.3 million by cutting backup quarterback Marcus Mariota before June 1. Releasing veteran guard Richie Incognito would save $5.6 million, and Jalen Richard would save $3.5 million – that’s a combined $20.4 million in cap savings without any dead cap hit. That would give the Raiders enough breathing room to sign a couple of lower-priced defensive free agents – linebacker K.J. Wright stands out as a former Gus Bradley player while there are plenty of inexpensive cornerbacks available.

In the draft, the Raiders will likely select a defensive player with the majority of their picks. Cornerbacks Caleb Farley or Patrick Surtain, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, or edge defenders Jayson Oweh, Gregory Rousseau, or Azeez Ojulari are all viable selections at #17 overall. Maurice Hurst, Clelin Ferrell, Nick Kwiatkowski, and Jonathan Abram represent significant building blocks on defense for this team. Offensively, the Raiders will need to make decisions on both Nelson Agholor and Devontae Booker, but both should be deemed expendable despite their recent contributions with the team’s need for defensive investment. If the Raiders can significantly retool their defense and run it back with the same offense, they will be a playoff threat in 2021.

1st-Round Pick Targets: CB Caleb Farley, CB Patrick Surtain, LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, EDGE Jayson Oweh, EDGE Gregory Rousseau, EDGE Azeez Ojulari

Free Agency Targets: CB Jason Verrett, LB K.J. Wright, EDGE Bud Dupree, S Keanu Neal, CB Quinton Dunbar, CB Mackensie Alexander, CB K’Waun Williams

Los Angeles ChargersChargers Logo

Current Cap Space: $23.8 million (as of 2/18)

Top Free Agents: EDGE Melvin Ingram, TE Hunter Henry, C Mike Pouncey, LB Denzel Perryman, CB Michael Davis, LB Nick Vigil, OG Dan Feeney, OG Forrest Lamp

Biggest Team Needs: OT, IOL, EDGE, CB, LB, WR, TE

2021 Draft Picks: #13 (R1), #47 (R2), #77 (R3), comp. (R3), #108 (R4), #142 (R5), #173 (R6), #179 (R6), #203 (R7)

Analysis: The Chargers’ 2020 season was defined by a dazzling season by rookie quarterback Justin Herbert in which he broke almost every conceivable rookie passing record – yards (4,336), touchdowns (31), and completions (396). Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Austin Ekeler, and Hunter Henry provide him with a dynamic supporting cast, although Henry is a free agent this offseason. Bringing him back should be a priority for the team, and if they can find the money for an additional wide receiver of the inexpensive variety, it would be a worthwhile investment.

The bulk of the Chargers’ work offensively needs to come on the offensive line. Dan Feeney and Forrest Lamp are free agents and haven’t shown much to suggest a long-term future with the team, while longtime center Mike Pouncey retired. Trey Pipkins is not the answer at left tackle, and high-priced right tackle Bryan Bulaga was underwhelming in his debut season with the team. While Herbert’s passing under pressure last season was tremendous, it isn’t the most sustainable thing, and Los Angeles has to find better blocking for him and fast.

Defensively, the Chargers have a few key decisions to make. Melvin Ingram should be the top priority to be resigned, as he should fit new defensive coordinator Brandon Staley’s scheme quite nicely. Denzel Perryman is unlikely to return as a two-down, run-stopping linebacker, while the secondary could use some reinforcement after the losses of Desmond King and potentially Michael Davis. Derwin James will hopefully return this season as one of the most talented young safeties in football, while Joey Bosa is among the elite pass rushers in the NFL. There’s plenty of defensive talent here for Staley to build on. The team’s clear priority in free agency and the draft should be the offensive line.

1st-Round Pick Targets: OT Rashawn Slater, OT Christian Darrisaw, OT Teven Jenkins, OG Alijah Vera-Tucker, OG Wyatt Davis

Free Agency Targets: OT Taylor Moton, OT Daryl Williams, OT Alejandro Villanueva, OG Joe Thuney, C Austin Reiter, C David Andrews

Denver BroncosDenver Broncos

Current Cap Space: $30.8 million (as of 2/18)

Top Free Agents: LB Von Miller (CO), S Justin Simmons, S Kareem Jackson (CO), OG/OT Elijah Wilkinson, DT Shelby Harris, OT Demar Dotson, WR Tim Patrick (RFA), RB Phillip Lindsay (RFA)

Biggest Team Needs: CB, OT, DT, LB, QB, RB, S, WR, C

2021 Draft Picks: #9 (R1), #40 (R2), #71 (R3), #104 (R4), #135 (R5), #166 (R6), #199 (R7), #201 (R7), #216 (R7)

Analysis: It’s been a tough handful of seasons for the Denver faithful as the Broncos haven’t made the playoffs since winning Super Bowl 50. Denver has needs across the board, perhaps most importantly at the quarterback position. New general manager George Paton has spoken highly of Drew Lock this offseason, and a report by the NFL Network’s James Palmer stated that the franchise isn’t interested in trading for a quarterback unless he’s a superstar (i.e., Deshaun Watson). Watson indicated that he was interested in Denver, and the Broncos should push all their chips into the middle of the table to acquire a generational talent. If they don’t, Denver fans will be hoping a full offseason in Pat Shurmur’s system works wonders for Drew Lock; he did play much better towards the end of last season.

The quarterback position is not the full extent of the murkiness of the Broncos’ roster. The offensive line needs some retooling, even after locking down stalwart left tackle Garrett Bolles to a well-deserved, lucrative extension. Ja’Wuan James would have been the starter at right tackle had he not opted out of last season, and he could become a cap casualty despite holding $19 million of dead money. Figuring out how to restructure or move off James’s contract is high on Paton’s to-do list. If James does not return, the Broncos would be wise to resign Demar Dotson, who becomes a free agent – ideally, this is not a major draft need. Lloyd Cushenberry III struggled as a rookie, but Dalton Risner and Graham Glasgow look like the team’s long-term combination at guard. Denver’s skill players are largely set in stone, with Courtland Sutton returning from injury to join Jerry Jeudy, K.J. Hamler, and Noah Fant in a young, talented pass-catching group. Depending on Phillip Lindsay’s free agency demand, he may not return to the team, and Melvin Gordon would become the full-time back.

Defensively, the Broncos have a lot of work to do. Bryce Callahan is the only reliable cornerback left on the roster after A.J. Bouye was released, and Callahan is a free agent after this season. At safety, both Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson will be free agents, and Simmons is going to get a very lucrative deal (PFF projected 5 years for $82.5 million). Jackson has a team option for $12.8 million, and the Broncos could save $10 million in cap space by moving on from him. Von Miller’s team option is one of the more interesting storylines around the NFL, and it remains to be seen whether or not Denver decides to opt into his $22.1 million salary this season. If Miller is released, which would be a sad day for all Broncos fans, he would save the team $18 million in cap room. Jurrell Casey is another player with no guaranteed money this season, and he would save the Broncos $11.8 million in cap space if released. Needless to say, Denver has several avenues to creating cap room if Deshaun Watson becomes available ($15.9 million cap hit this season).

The potential departure of Shelby Harris in free agency would immediately elevate the defensive line to one of the team’s most prominent needs, but Denver should be able to resign him to a lucrative deal. The Broncos will likely also look to add another pass-rusher to the team with Von Miller’s murky future, as well as a potential linebacker upgrade over Josey Jewell or Alexander Johnson. Luckily for the Broncos, there will be plenty of strong defensive prospects available with their first-round pick. Penn State’s Micah Parsons would immediately become the centerpiece of Vic Fangio’s defense as a do-it-all linebacker. Michigan‘s Kwity Paye would provide a massive boost to the defensive line in run defense and in the pass rush. Virginia’s Caleb Farley and Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II would provide instant juice to the team’s pass coverage. I’m expecting Denver to take a defensive prospect in the first round, and they should have plenty of excellent choices available.

1st-Round Pick Targets: LB Micah Parsons, EDGE Kwity Paye, CB Caleb Farley, CB Patrick Surtain II, QB Zach Wilson

Free Agency Targets: S Justin Simmons, DT Dalvin Tomlinson, CB Troy Hill, DT Leonard Williams, EDGE Shaquill Barrett, OT Kelvin Beachum

I've been writing about sports for Lineups since the beginning of 2020 and on my own website since 2018. In May 2021, I graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in sport management. With my educational background in the sports business and a strong knowledge of the inner workings of professional and collegiate sports, I hope to tell enthralling stories about the world of sports as it unfolds around me.

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