NFL 2018 Season Team Previews by Division: AFC West
The AFC West has sent teams to the Super Bowl 16 times, and all but the Kansas City Chiefs have won it at least once. In 2017, the 10-6 Chiefs went to the playoffs and were up on the wildcard Tennessee Titans 21-3 at the half, but lost the game 22-21 to extend their league leading record of consecutive home playoff losses to six.
2017 was the second season that the Chargers were Los Angeles based and the first under head coach Anthony Lynn. Even after a slow 0-4 start, the Chargers still managed to improve on their previous seasons record of 5-11 to end up with a winning record of 9-7. They came a few tiebreakers short of being one of the Wild Card teams in the playoffs.
The 6-10 Raiders played out of Oakland (and probably will through 2019) despite the league approving their eventual relocation to Las Vegas. The team struggled on both sides of the ball in 2017. When the defense had failed to intercept a pass by Week 11, the old defensive coordinator was fired and a new one named. This offseason, a new (old) head coach returns to Oakland.
The 5-11 Denver Broncos missed the playoffs for a second consecutive season. They hadnt had a losing record for seven seasons but poor offense, shaky quarterback play, a new head coach and an eight game losing streak took them to the AFC West basement in 2017.
The Kansas City Chiefs
For the second season in a row, the 2017 Kansas City Chiefs finished first in the AFC West. That also marked the third season in a row under head coach Andy Reid that the Chiefs qualified for the playoffs, a feat they hadnt accomplished since the nineties.
That level of success made the firing of general manager John Dorsey in June surprising.
Unexpected Chief changes
His replacement, Brett Veach, then promoted co-offensive coordinator Brad Childress to assistant to head coach Andy Reid, which leaves Matt Nagy in sole charge of the Chiefs offense. The result was an offense ranked 5th overall last season quarterbacked by 3x Pro Bowler Alex Smith, who ended up throwing for 4,042 yards with a 62.4% completion rate for 26 touchdowns and only 5 interceptions.
And that level of success made the trading of Smith to the Washington Redskins somewhat surprising, as well.
Will the young Mahomes step up in 2018?
When rookie quarterback Patrick Mahomes II started in Week 17 and helped beat the Denver Broncos, the front office was impressed enough to trade away Smith in the offseason. Drafted 10th in the first round, Mahomes spent the entire 2017 season getting to learn from Smith, who by all accounts was an extremely generous teacher.
Mahomes flashed some brilliance during the four games he did play last season, throwing for 390 yards with a 63% completion rate for 4 touchdowns and zero picks. If he can continue putting up those types of numbers in 2018, trading away Smith might not seem so ridiculous after all.
But if he cant, let the second guessing begin.
And then theres the Kansas City defense
When a team blows a 21-3 halftime lead in the playoffs like the Chiefs did against the Titans, theres plenty of blame to go around. Of course, it wasnt the Chiefs defenses fault that of the 264 yards that Smith threw, only 110 of them were thrown after the first quarter. Or that (since released) cornerback Darrelle Revis blocked ball was caught and ran in for a touchdown by the guy who threw it, Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota.
Regardless, defensive coordinator Bob Suttons squad blew an 18 point lead and has given up 186 rushing yards in both the Chiefs last two playoff games. Their defense was ranked 28th overall last season, and since Sutton arrived in 2013, theyve been ranked as high as seventh (twice) and in the mid to low twenties all the other times.
Chiefs busy offseason moves may help
The Chiefs attempted to improve their defense this offseason by releasing some veterans (linebacker Tamba Hali and guard Brian Waters) and signing free agent nose tackle Xavier Williams (ARI), linebacker Anthony Hitchens (DAL) and cornerbacks Kendall Fuller (WAS) and David Amerson (OAK).
Signed wide receiver free agent Sammy Watkins (LAR – 39 catches for 8 TDs) will join Tyreek Hill (75 catches for 1,183 yards and 7 TDs), all rookie running back Kareem Hunt (1,327 yards and 8 TDs) and 2nd team All Pro tight end Travis Kelce (1,038 yards for 8 TDs) to help Mahomes keep the Chiefs offense just as effective in 2018.
Bottom line: The Kansas City Chiefs are a young team led by a young quarterback who has to lead his team into playing equally tough for all four quarters of the game. If that happens and the defense does improve, expect the Chiefs to make another run at the AFC West title in 2018.
ESPN predicts the Chiefs will go 9-7 in 2018.
Bleacher Report predicts the Chiefs will go 9-7 in 2018.
CBSSports.com Vegas Expert has the Chiefs 2018 over/under win total at 7.5
The Los Angeles Chargers
This will be the third season in Los Angeles for the Chargers and their second with head coach Anthony Lynn. The 9-7 Chargers had a rough 0-4 start in 2017, but still managed to improve on their previous 5-11 season with their first winning record since 2014.
Despite quarterback Philip Rivers posting a 96.0 passing rating for an offense ranked 4th overall, the Chargers failed to make the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year. They ended the season in a four-way tie with the Tennessee Titans, Buffalo Bills and Baltimore Ravens for the two Wild Card playoff spots, but the Titans and Bills claimed those spots based on tiebreakers.
Blame the rookie kicker, everyone else does
Rookie kicker Younghoe Koo was released mid season for going 3-for-6 on field goal attempts. Koo had a game-tying kick blocked in Week 1 and missed a game-winning kick the very next week. His December replacement (and the fourth kicker the Chargers signed in 2017) Nick Rose wasnt much better and was waived by the Chargers in April.
Free agent kickers Caleb Sturgis (PHI) and Roberto Aguayo (CAR) were brought in during the offseason to compete for the 2018 starting job.
The Chargers used the 2018 draft on defense
In defensive coordinator Gus Bradleys first season, his squad only allowed 17 points per game, which ranked third best in the league. Where they could use some help is against the rush, where they allowed 131.1 yards per game, which ranked second to last in the NFL.
General manager Tom Telesco did a great job of using the draft to make his defense stronger by selecting much-needed free safety Derwin James (Florida State) in the first round. Then he made it deeper with edge rushing linebacker Uchenna Nwosu (USC), quick-stepping tackle Justin Jones (N.C. State) and versatile center/guard Scott Qessenberry (UCLA).
Chargers offense has a lot of tools
With the sorely needed addition of free agent center Mike Pouncey (MIA), the Chargers offensive line (including Pro Bowl tackle Russell Okung and All Rookie guard Dan Feeney) will continue to protect Rivers as they did in 2017 by only allowing a league leading 18 sacks.
The team drafted the pass-catching running back Justin Jackson (Northwestern) to compliment hard running Melvin Gordon, who rushed for 1,105 yards in 2017 for 8 touchdowns.
Wide receiver Keenan Allen (102 catches for 1,393 yards and 6 TDs in 2017) and his crew of receivers hope to hook up with Rivers and better their 2017 league leading 276.9 yards per game.
Bottom line: The Chargers are bringing back most of their team and have upgraded their positions of need in the offseason. With an accurate kicker, a stronger secondary and a healthy Rivers, the 2018 Los Angeles Chargers will be legitimate contenders to win the AFC West.
ESPN predicts the Chargers will go 10-6 in 2018.
Bleacher Report predicts the Chargers will go 9-7 in 2018.
CBSSports.com Vegas Expert has the Chargers 2018 over/under win total at 9.5
The Oakland Raiders
The Oakland Raiders went from a 12-4 record in 2016, including their first playoff appearance since 2002, to a lousy 6-10 in 2017. With an offense that only managed to score an average of 18.8 points a game (23rd in the league) but a defense that allowed opponents to score 23.3 (20th in the league) and that had zero interceptions until December, getting wins was extremely difficult.
In January 2018, general manager Reggie McKenzie showed why the Pro Football Writers of America had named him NFL Executive of the Year in 2016 by completely cleaning house. He brought in a new (old) head coach, Jon Gruden, and new offensive and defensive coordinators.
Hoping for the same Gruden magic the second time around
From 1998 through 2001, head coach Jon Chucky Gruden took the Raiders from last place to first and to the AFC Championship game in 2000 and the AFC Divisional Game in 2001. He was oddly traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2002 for some draft picks and cash and that same year his Bucs became Super Bowl Champions.
After nine years away from NFL coaching (spent in the Monday Night Football booth), Gruden is back with the Raiders. He signed a 10-year, $100 million contract with a no-trade clause that closes the loophole that allowed his previous trade.
Owner Mark Davis is hoping that the positive affect Gruden had on quarterback Rich Gannon years ago will be repeated on Pro Bowl quarterback Derek Carr, whose passer rating dropped over 10 points from a 96.7 in 2016 to an 86.4 in 2017.
Davis, McKenzie and Gruden have spent the offseason bringing in veterans who may (or may not) still have what it takes to succeed in the NFL.
Bringing in old school talent potential
The knock on the Raiders offseason so far is that theyre bringing in a lot of veteran players who theyre counting on getting to their previous levels. Thats true of wide receivers Jordy Nelson (GB), Martavis Bryant (PIT) and running back Doug Martin (TB), who at top form could all really add to new coordinator Greg Olsons offense that already includes receiver Amari Cooper and running back Marshawn Lynch.
Same with signed free agents cornerback Rashaan Melvin (IND) and linebackers Tahir Whitehead (DET), Derrick Johnson (KC) and Emmanuel Lamur. At top form theyll help revamp new defensive coordinator Paul Guenthers squad and improve its 23rd league ranking in 2017.
At less than top form, though, theyll be a group of aging players putting up sub-par numbers.
Raiders drafted a few tackles and an end
In the 2018 NFL draft, Oakland selected offensive tackles Kolton Miller (UCLA) and massive 6-foot-7 Brandon Parker (North Carolina) since there is a weakness at right tackle and Pro Bowl left tackle Donald Penn is now 35.
They also grabbed defensive end Arden Key (LSU) who Gruden calls a gamble worth taking and traded up to select defensive tackle Maurice Hurst (Michigan) who is a premier pass-rusher and considered a steal.
Bottom line: The Oakland Raiders spent their offseason gambling on hopeful short-term solutions. With brand new leadership and the new system and playbooks that will need to be learned, the 2018 Raiders will be lucky to break even, especially given how good Kansas City and Los Angeles now look.
ESPN predicts the Raiders will go 9-7 in 2018.
Bleacher Report predicts the Raiders will go 7-9 in 2018.
CBSSports.com Vegas Expert has the Raiders 2018 over/under win total at 8.5
The Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos went from being Super Bowl Champions in 2015 to missing the playoffs every season since. The 2017 Broncos started out with an impressive 3-1 record with a defense ranked 3rd in the league and an offense tied at 17th.
But after an eight game losing streak, they could only manage to win two more games and ended up dwelling in the AFC West basement for most of the season. A big reason for that was inconsistent quarterbacking.
The Broncos quarterback carousel
For the two seasons since Peyton Manning retired, the Denver Broncos have been struggling to find a reliable starting quarterback. It started in 2016 with a battle between Trevor Siemian, Mark Sanchez and rookie Paxton Lynch, which Siemian won and then threw for 3,401 yards, 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
In 2017, they brought back Brock Osweiler who started for the struggling Siemian in Week 9. Osweiler got the start three other times that season and threw for a total of 1,088 yards, 5 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. Lynch was also named starting quarterback twice in 2017 and threw for 792 yards, 4 touchdowns and four interceptions.
Bringing in Case for stability
When the Minnesota Vikings quarterback Case Keenum became a free agent after throwing 3,547 yards for 22 touchdowns and only 7 interceptions in 2017 and nearly taking his team to the Super Bowl, Broncos general manager John Elway jumped at the chance to sign him.
Reports back from Broncos OTAs say Keenum is taking all the reps with the ones and is giving offensive coordinator Bill Musgraves offense the consistent quarterback it needed. For now.
The Broncos offseason addressed both sides of the ball
With the fifth pick in the first round, Elway selected the highly sought after pass rushing defensive end Bradley Chubb (NC State) hoping that hell relieve some of the double teams opponents have put unanswered on 2nd All Pro linebacker Von Miller.
They also added cornerbacks Tramaine Brock (MIN) through free agency and drafted Isaac Yiadom (BC) to help replace the departing Aqib Talib and to add to a secondary that only allowed 200.6 passing yards per game in 2017, fourth best in the league.
Broncos lost wide receivers Cody Latimer and Bennie Fowler in free agency, so they drafted Courtland Sutton (SMU) and DaeSean Hamilton (Penn State) to help deepen a receiving corps that already includes Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders.
A trade with Arizona brought in offensive tackle Jared Veldheer, who will be expected to pitch in at right tackle (despite spending most of his career playing left tackle) and help protect Keenum better than the O-line did last season when they allowed 52 sacks, which tied for 3rd highest in the NFL.
Bottom Line: If Casey Keenum can stay healthy and repeat the outstanding numbers he put up last season, expect the 2018 Denver Broncos to be a whole lot better than the 2017 model. But given the tough competition now in the AFC West, mainly the Chiefs and the Chargers, coming out on top of this division might not be in the Broncos cards just yet.
ESPN predicts the Broncos will go 8-8 in 2018.
Bleacher Report predicts the Broncos will go 7-9 in 2018.
CBSSports.com Vegas Expert has the Broncos 2018 over/under win total at 7.5
Right now, thanks to a new kicker and a more stable defense, the Los Angeles Chargers seem to have the edge in the 2018 AFC West. The Kansas City Chiefs will face a tougher schedule than the Chargers, Broncos and Raiders, but if Mahomes can step up in his second year they will compete. The Broncos are counting on Keenums magical 2017 season being repeatable, but thats no guarantee unless they can keep him safe. The Raiders look a bit old and unless Gruden is truly capable of miracles, theyre probably going to be taking up space in the AFC West basement again.