AFC West Divisional Breakdown: Mahomes and the Chiefs Repeat
The AFC West proved to be one of the most talked-about divisions in football last year. From Antonio Brown’s rollercoaster-ride in Oakland to the Chiefs winning the Super Bowl, the division provided fans with plenty of drama throughout the season while capping it off with a championship. The division also features a team on the move, as the Raiders move from Oakland to Las Vegas, which should provide the franchise with a fresh start.
As usual, this article includes my perspective on how the AFC West will play out in 2020, taking into account each team’s moves in the offseason as well as odds and win projections from NFL experts.
|Team||Odds to win Division||Win Totals||2019 Record||2019 PF||2019 PA||DIFF|
1. Kansas City Chiefs
As if there were any arguments here, the Chiefs are the runaway favorites for the division and the Super Bowl. Kansas City is fresh off a season where they dominated their opponents, finishing with a 12-4 record while beating the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl. The team has arguably the best player in football in quarterback Patrick Mahomes and one of the best football minds with head coach Andy Reid. The Chiefs currently have the best odds (-390) to come out of the AFC West, and I see little that the three other teams can do to prevent Kansas City repeat.
Simply put, the Chiefs are elite on offense and are built to score at a rapid pace. They put up just under thirty points per game in 2019 (29.9) and kept defenses off-balance the entire season. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes capped off his MVP season in 2018 by throwing for 4,031 yards, and 26 touchdowns to only 5 interceptions. Although Mahomes’ yards and touchdowns were down in 2019, he reduced his interception total from twelve to five. A huge part of Kansas City’s success through the air was the offensive line, which ranked 12th in the NFL last season by Pro Football Focus. Their pressure rate under 2.5 seconds was the second-best in the NFL, trailing only the Saints in that department.
Despite a tremendous pass-blocking unit, the Chiefs struggled on the ground where they averaged only 101.5 YPG, which ranked 22nd in the league. The team should improve vastly in the run game this season, as they took LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire with the 28th pick in the draft. The rookie should start right away even though the team managed to re-sign starting running back Damien Williams in free agency. With the addition of Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City’s offensive arsenal just keeps getting deeper. The team already features Pro-Bowlers Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, and also has wideouts Sammy Watkins and Mecole Hardman who continued to get better down the stretch of last season. The Chiefs will continue to wreak havoc on offense and present matchup nightmares for opposing defenses in 2020.
On defense, the Chiefs were also solid in 2019, holding their opponents to 20.2 points per game. They return most of their entire unit from last year minus cornerback Kendall Fuller, who signed with the Redskins in free agency. Despite the loss of Fuller, Kansas City placed the franchise tag on DL Chris Jones and re-signed starting cornerback Bashaud Breeland. By franchise-tagging Jones, they push off contract negotiations for at least another season. Jones recorded 9 sacks last season and was a significant part of Kansa City’s pass-rush, which recorded 45 sacks in 2019. Kansas City also added corner Antonio Hamilton and former 1st rounder Taco Charlton.
2. Los Angeles Chargers
The team endured another disappointing season in 2019, finishing last in the AFC West with a 5-11 record. All-time team passing leader Phillip Rivers signed with the Colts, and the starting quarterback position is in limbo. The team has a capable veteran in Tyrod Taylor but also used the 6th pick in the draft to select Oregon’s Justin Herbert. In my opinion, Herbert won’t start right away but could develop into a star in the future and propel the Chargers to their title hopes.
The team’s record in 2019 may be a bit of misunderstanding. While they did lose 11games last season, 9 of their losses came by 7 points or less. Also, take into account that quarterback Phillip Rivers threw for 20 interceptions last season. Although Rivers is no longer apart of the organization, the team has a boatload of talent on the offensive side of the ball. Running back Austin Ekeler re-signed with the team after producing 557 rushing yard, 92 receptions for 992 receiving yards, and 11 total touchdowns. Ekeler’s numbers most certainly would’ve been better had he not split carries with Melvin Gordon. Out wide, the Chargers still have Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, and tight end Hunter Henry whom the Chargers placed the franchise tag on.
In 2019, both Allen and Williams recorded 1,000-yard seasons even with River’s outpour of interceptions. Allen compiled 104 receptions for 1,199 yards and 6 touchdowns and made the Pro-Bowl. Williams had the best season of his young career, catching 49 passes for 1,001 yards and 2 touchdowns. Meanwhile, Hunter Henry looked healthy for the first time as a Charger and posted career-highs in receptions, yards, and games played. The Chargers addressed perhaps their only other need on offense, besides quarterback, by adding two starting-caliber offensive linemen. They signed OT Bryan Bulaga in free agency and traded for Carolina Panther’s guard Trai Turner. Both should improve a line that ranked 29th overall last season by Pro Football Focus.
On defense, the team has a ton of talent across the board and added to the unit in free agency and the draft. The group finished 13th in the NFL last season, allowing 21.6 points per game. They’re headlined by the pass-rushing duo Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram and have one of the best young safeties in the NFL in Derwin James. The unit should improve their ranking this season, as they added former Pro-Bowl Chris Harris Jr. and defensive tackle Linval Joseph. The addition of Harris, who primarily plays in the slot, gives the Chargers three outstanding corners along with Casey Hayward and Desmond King. The team also used their second selection in the draft by taking Oklahoma linebacker Kenneth Murray with the 23rd pick of the draft. Murray was the second-ranked linebacker in the draft and will start right away for the Chargers alongside emerging rookie Drue Tranquill.
3. Denver Broncos
Although the Broncos are given the 3rd best odd (+1100) and projected to win 7.5 games, I believe that they are one of the most underrated teams in the NFL. In 2019, the Broncos quietly finished their season with a 4-1 record as they switched to rookie Drew Lock as their quarterback. Denver was elite on defense, recording a top ten finish in opponent scoring, giving up only 19.8 points per game. Offensively, the team was near the bottom on the NFL in points scored per game (17.8), but then again, the transition from Joe Flacco to Lock was only five games.
What excites me most about Denver are the moves that general manager John Elway made during the offseason. In the draft, they selected Alabama wide receiver Jerry Jeudy in the 1st round, where Jeudy projects as an immediate starter. Many scouts pegged Jeudy as the best receiver prospect coming into the draft, and I see Jeudy becoming an All-Pro in the future. The team also added Penn State’s K.J. Hamler in the 2nd round of the draft. Hamler should also start right away with Jeudy as wide receiver was Denver’s most pressing need coming into the draft. With Hamler and Jeudy, the Broncos now have a great, young wide receiver trio alongside Courtland Sutton. In 2019, Sutton exploded for 74 receptions, 1,112 yards, and 6 touchdowns.
In free agency, Denver added former Charger Melvin Gordon, who should give the Broncos an excellent running back committee with Phillip Lindsay. In his career, Gordon has four seasons of at least 600 rushing yards and 8 touchdowns, and he and Lindsay should complement each other perfectly. These aren’t the only weapons that the Broncos have provided Drew Lock with next season, as they have a promising young tight end in Noah Fant, who I think will have a breakout season in 2020. The team also signed guard Graham Glasnow and returns Ja’waun James from injury. The two should provide an immediate boost to an offensive line that ranked 12th in the NFL last season by Pro Football Focus.
As I mentioned earlier, Denver was elite defensively last season. They still have one of the best pass-rushers of all-time in Von Miller, who has 106 sacks during his career. Miller isn’t the only top-tier pass-rusher in Denver, as they have a terrific young player in Bradley Chubb. Through two seasons, Chubb has 13 sacks. Safety Justin Simmons followed up his impressive rookie season with 93 total tackles and 4 interceptions in 2019. Denver lost starting corner Chris Harris Jr. but traded for former Jaguar’s corner A.J. Bouye during the offseason. Bouye has 14 career interceptions and made the Pro Bowl in 2017. Denver also re-signed starting defensive lineman Shelby Harris on a 1-year contract and trade for former Pro-Bowl DL Jurrell Casey. As a member of the Tennessee Titans, Casey has recorded 51 sacks in nine seasons.
4. Las Vegas Raiders
The franchise has moved on from Oakland to Las Vegas and looks for a fresh start as they begin a new chapter to their storied history. The Raiders are coming off a season where they with a 7-9 record, tied for 2nd place in the division. Despite the turmoil surrounding Antonio Brown at the beginning of the season, the team displayed promise that should excite Raider fans in the future. Experts currently give Las Vegas the 4th best odds at winning the division (+1200) and project them to win 7.5 games, the same as the Chargers and Broncos. As all three teams have the same win projections coming into the season, the AFC West should be one of the most competitive divisions in football this season.
In 2019, the Raiders ranked 24th in the NFL in points scored and allowed, so there’s room for a major improvement in both departments. Despite their mediocre record, Raiders fans should be excited about what the team could accomplish this season. The team is full of veterans but has also compiled a good amount of young talent during the past two offseasons. On offense, tight end Darren Waller had been irrelevant in his 4-year career before cementing himself as a great, young tight end in the NFL. Waller posted 90 receptions for 1,145 yards and three touchdowns, leading the Raiders in receiving in 2019. Rookie Josh Jacobs showed why the team spent a 1st-round pick on him in 2019, rushing for 1,150 yards and 7 touchdowns.
The Raiders added to their collection of offensive talent in the draft, making Alabama’s Henry Ruggs III the first receiver taken in the draft (12th overall pick). Ruggs brings needed speed and explosiveness on the outside, as he ran a 4.27 40-yard dash at the combine and scored 24 during his time at Alabama. Ruggs gives Derek Carr an immediate threat on the outside and could develop into a player similar to Tyreek Hill.
On defense, rookie Maxx Crosby surprised last season, recording 47 tackles and a team-leading 10 sacks. Rookies Clelin Ferrell and Jonathan Abram also showed flashes of their potential in 2019. The Raiders were porous in the secondary last season, giving up the 5th most passing yards per game. The team addressed their needs at the cornerback position, signing veterans Prince Amukamara and Damarious Randall in free agency while selecting Ohio State’s Damon Arnette in the 2nd round of the draft. The Raiders also added linebackers Nick Kwiatkoski and Cory Littleton on 3-year deals that will help an already stout run defense that gave up only 98.1 yards per game on the ground in 2019.