I’m going to upset people here, but it’s the exact purpose of this exercise.
For a long while, we’ve been groomed to associate the Kansas City Chiefs as the premier presence within the AFC West. I’m here to say in my best Lee Corso impression: “Not so fast.”
With quarterbacks excluded, the AFC West becomes a moshpit of exciting talent primed to challenge the Chiefs as division victors. It’s really an exciting development, as just a couple of seasons ago the clubs outside of Kansas City were underwhelming, inexperienced groups with no real path back to success.
Boy, have things changed.
Let’s take a deeper dive into The who’s who of the AFC West, with all things considered.
With their biggest weakness excluded (quarterback), the most well-rounded roster in the division isn’t the team that calls Arrowhead home, it’s the unit in Denver.
Built around the top secondary in all of football and an exciting core of offensive weapons, it’s a difficult task in singling out one position group where the Broncos are inherently weak. Compared to the Chiefs—the division winners each of the last five seasons—the Broncos stack up at every spot to their inter-division foe, especially on the defensive side of the football.
It starts at the apex of the defense, where a unit led by Justin Simmons will deploy an uber-talented array of defenders in Ronald Darby, Bryce Callahan, Kyle Fuller, and ninth-overall selection Pat Surtain II. That’s not to sway attention from the maulers Denver has up front in Shelby Harris, Bradley Chubb, and Dre’Mont Jones, who will welcome the return of the top edge defender of the last decade in Von Miller, who looks primed to return to form as the clear leader in a youth-infused locker room.
Offensively, sure, they are relatively inexperienced, but the tandem of Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton presents one of football’s most exciting pass-catching duos along with Tim Patrick, slot man KJ Hamler, and one of the league’s most athletic tight ends in Noah Fant. Don’t forget about running backs Melvin Gordon and second-round selection Javonte Williams, who could jump onto the NFL scene in his first season.
Denver is an exciting ball club with the deepest roster in the division, there’s just no way around it. Sure, their success will single-handedly rely on the overall play of whoever starts under center, but around him, and for the purpose of this article, the Broncos indeed headline the division's most well-rounded group.
Kansas City Chiefs
With back-to-back Super Bowl appearances, the Chiefs by no means have “fallen off” just because I have them slotted under the Broncos, but having a generational talent at quarterback definitely helps.
But, I think it’s evident the Chiefs had room to improve after a 31-9 drubbing by Tampa Bay in Super Bowl LV. Mahomes scampered for his life from start to finish, and the Buccaneers drove up and down the field on an exhausted Kansas City defense.
But, 2021 is a new year, and the Chiefs have improved. Gone are Sammy Watkins, Eric Fisher, and Mitchell Schwartz, but the addition of Orlando Brown Jr. to shore up Mahomes’ blindside and Joe Thuney to protect the inside will surely have the quarterback sitting comfortably for 17 games and beyond.
But, this isn’t about Mahomes.
I’ll stay away from Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, as you know who they are and what they offer. They’ll get theirs even if Chad Henne were to start in a worst-case scenario. Rather, the progression of Mecole Hardman and Demarcus Robinson will be crucial to the efficiency of the high-powered offensive engine in Kansas City if they want to book their ticket to Los Angeles in February.
While Chris Jones and Tyrann Mathieu are the Chiefs’ most notable defenders, take time and turn on the film of third-level defenders Juan Thornhill and L’Jarius Sneed, who will look to make massive waves as exciting, do-it-all defenders within Kansas City’s secondary. Thornhill provides excellent instincts and versatility while Sneed, a day-three steal last year, has all the tools to progress into one of the league’s top boundary corners.
Los Angeles Chargers
The division is loaded.
The difference in talent of each of the top three rosters is ever so slim, as you could pick any of the three aforementioned franchises out of a hat and win double-digit games. Despite two consecutive seasons in the bottom half of the division, the Chargers look set to go toe-to-toe with their divisional rivals in what will be a battle to the finish for the divisional crown.
Justin Herbert’s development is a story in and of itself, but we’ll save that for another time and focus on the improved unit that will be tasked with keeping the stoic gun-slinger upright. With bookend anchors Rashawn Slater and Bryan Bulaga, the addition of football’s top center last fall in Corey Linsley rounds out a darn impressive unit as the Chargers have shown their commitment to Herbert and his continued adaptation to the pro game by doing everything possible to keep him healthy.
For as talented of a unit Los Angeles is on defense, the depth behind Joey Bosa on the line and a healthy Derwin James remains a big question heading to camp. New head coach Brandon Staley will hope Uchenna Nwosu can fill the large shoes left by Melvin Ingram, while the inability of Chris Harris Jr. to stay healthy has caused reason for concern, despite addressing the secondary in the draft with the selection of Asante Samuel Jr.
One of the league’s most dynamic athletes in the backfield, the return of Austin Ekeler and the addition of Jared Cook in the pass game are two weapons set to earn a significant amount of work for a Chargers offense, headlined by Keenan Allen, primed to set the scoreboard on fire.
Las Vegas Raiders
Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock have got to get to work in Vegas. Despite consistent efforts the last couple of years to address needs through the draft, the Raiders have failed consistently in attempting to re-tool a roster in desperate need of flashes. A once-feared organization, the Raiders have qualified for the playoffs just four times since 1993, and haven’t won a playoff game since their run to Super Bowl 37 nearly 20 years ago.
Tight end Darren Waller is an all-world talent, and much is expected from 2020 first-round pick Henry Ruggs III in his sophomore season, but the onus on the Raiders secondary to improve could be the kicker to the team showing improvement or welcoming in a rebuild come next spring.