Written by Stephen Brown III
2020 NFL Preview: AFC West
With the NFL season (hopefully) starting soon, it’s time to start looking at how the season will shake out. Between the draft, some big names moving this offseason, and the newly expanded playoffs, every team truly thinks they have a shot at playing in January. So, to kick things off, we will look at the division that has the reigning champs: the AFC West.
Many people think that the AFC West might be one of the most boring divisions to dissect in football, and if talking about who’s going to win it, I would agree. However, what makes this division interesting to me is how unpredictable the other three teams are. I could legitimately talk myself into any of those teams being 6-10 or 10-6. Let’s take a deeper dive into each team.
Kansas City Chiefs, Last year record: 12-4, 1st Place
The Chiefs open the 2020 season as the favorites to win the Super Bowl and rightfully so. The defending champs return many of their big pieces on both sides of the ball and also added some firepower to an already potent offense. Plus, pairing the NFL’s best offensive mind with the NFL’s most talented quarterback should make this team perennial contenders for years to come.
Offensively, the Chiefs return pretty much everyone on offense. Patrick Mahomes, Tyreke Hill, and Travis Kelce headline the returners at the skill positions. With their first-round pick, the Chiefs decided to bolster their offense, even more, adding Clyde Edwards-Helaire, arguably the most versatile running back in the draft. With Damien Williams opting out of the season due to COVID-19, Edwards-Helaire should get a huge amount of touches in this offense. This team also bulked up an already solid offensive line, adding veteran guard Kelechi Osemele. Assuming Mahomes plays a full season, there’s no reason this team can’t be the number one offense in football.
Defensively, this team really came into their own towards the end of the season. While they didn’t have any huge additions, they do return some key pieces such as Tyrann Mathieu, Chris Jones, and Frank Clark. The biggest question mark for the Chiefs is their secondary. Breakout rookie Juan Thornhill, who tore his ACL in the season finale last year, will start the year on the PUP. Meanwhile, starting CB Bashaud Breeland was arrested for possession this offseason and is suspended for the first 4 games of the season.
While I believe that the other three teams in this division are improving, I don’t think they are ready to compete with the Chiefs. They should pretty easily win the division and be competing for the one seed in the AFC (which is more important than ever).
Final Record: 13-3
Denver Broncos, Last year record: 7-9, 2nd Place
After the failed Joe Flacco experiment, the Broncos got to see some young QBs in action, namely, Brandon Allen and rookie second-round pick Drew Lock. We likely would’ve seen Lock sooner but a thumb injury kept him sidelined for most of the season. However, his limited action left plenty of room for optimism. In his five starts, Lock was 4-1 with 1020 yards, 7 TDs, 3 ints, and a 64.1% completion percentage. Throw in a couple of game-winning drives and the future looks bright for Lock. This offense in general should be poised for a breakout. Headlined by young, budding stars like Lock, Cortland Sutton, Phillip Lindsay, and Noah Fant, Denver also added Melvin Gordon via free agency and Jerry Jeudy via the draft.
Defensively, this team should be solid, led by future Hall of Famer Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. This team also added AJ Bouye at corner and return Bryce Callahan, who didn’t play a single snap due to injury after getting signed away from Chicago last season. And of course, this defense is run by their head coach, long time defensive guru Vic Fangio.
This is the non-playoff team from 2019 I’m highest on in this division (and possibly the entire AFC) to make the playoffs. On paper, they don’t have a lot of weaknesses. The big knock on this team is their youth. They lack experience which could be detrimental in close games. And just to play devil’s advocate, while Drew Lock had an impressive 2019, taking out his one big game (which seems like an outlier), makes his stats much less impressive. In those other four games, he had 4 TDs, 2 ints, 177.8 ypg, and a 60.5% completion percentage. Those numbers are very game manager-esque. If the Broncos are going to make the playoffs, they are going to need Lock to have numbers more like his game vs the Texans (3 TDs, 1 int, 309 yards) than those other four games.
Final Record: 9-7
Las Vegas Raiders, Last year record: 7-9, 3rd place
The Raiders, otherwise known as Clemson West, is in the third year with Jon Gruden as their head coach. With a couple of years to install his system and recruit his players, this should be the year we see the Raiders take a big step forward. The thing about this team is, they really don’t have a star on either side of the ball. However, they have a lot of good players at every position. They also have a solid mix of young players and veterans.
Offensively, the big addition was the drafting of Henry Ruggs III. While Ruggs was looked at as the second or third best option at receiver in the draft, the Raiders made him the first receiver taken in the draft. And in the true spirit of Al Davis, they drafted the fastest receiver in the draft. Considering the lack of a downfield passer at the QB position, taking a speed threat was questionable. However, Ruggs speed makes him a dynamic weapon that can also be used on the short passing game and in screens (both staples of Gruden’s offense). Elsewhere on the offense, the Raiders return Tyrell Williams, Hunter Renfrow, Josh Jacobs, and Darren Waller. The Raiders also add another former MNF analyst with the signing of Jason Witten at TE. The most intriguing part of this offense, however, is at the QB position. Jon Gruden has never seemed to be a fan of Derek Carr, who just hasn’t seemed to get back to his near MVP form from 2016. Even though Carr has posted back to back 4000-yard seasons with Gruden, Gruden still signed former number 2 pick Marcus Mariota, who Gruden was high on when he was coming out and who Gruden described as a Russel Wilson who’s 6’4. While Carr is the starter going into training camp and possibly the season, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a very short leash. The QB play will be the most interesting story and biggest question mark for this team.
Defensively, this team is very average at every position. They have some potentially good young players like Clelin Ferrell, Trayvon Mullen, and Johnathan Abram (all in their second season) mixed with some veterans like Corey Littleton, Nick Kwiatkoski, Demarious Randall, and Prince Amukamara. The biggest loss to this defense is Maxx Crosby. The rookie fourth-round pick had 10 sacks and four forced fumbles last year. However, he has been diagnosed with COVID-19, so the timing of his return is up in the air. He could be back for the season opener or, if his symptoms are serious, he could be out for the season.
This team was 4-12 in Gruden’s first season and 7-9 last year. However, this team performed pretty well in one-score games. Typically, teams that do well in one-score games regress to the mean and do poorly in such games the following year. For that reason, plus the lack of a big star and the lack of any big offseason moves, I don’t see much, if any, improvement for this team.
Final Record: 6-10
Los Angeles Chargers, Last year record: 5-11, 4th place
This team had high expectations heading into 2019. On paper, they were stacked on both sides of the ball. One 5-11 season later, this team is caught between being in a rebuild and being contenders. The departure of Phillip Rivers and the drafting of Justin Herbert says this team is ready for the next chapter. However, with so many good players still on both sides of the ball, this team could legitimately compete for a playoff spot.
Offensively, the big change is the loss of Phillip Rivers. However, even though the Chargers took Justin Herbert with their first-round pick, Tyrod Taylor seems to be the guy this year. Taylor and head coach Anthony Lynn have history, as Lynn was the OC in 2017 when Taylor made the playoffs with the Bills. While Taylor won’t give you the 4600 yards that Rivers did, he also won’t give you the 20 ints and eight fumbles (three lost). Taylor is the ultimate game manager, and with solid offensive weapons like Austin Ekeler, Hunter Henry, Keenan Allen, and Mike Williams, Taylor should be able to produce enough offense to get this team some wins (assuming the defense holds up).
Speaking of the defense, we could be looking at a unit that has the potential to be a top 10 defense. With Bosa and Ingram (If he doesn’t hold out) coming off the edge, this team is poised to get a lot of sacks. The back end of the defense is just as strong, with Casey Heyward and Chris Harris Jr. at cornerback and Derwin James, the ultimate swiss army knife, playing safety. The linebacking core may have been their biggest weakness heading into the season, but the addition of Kenneth Murray via the draft helps really strengthen their front seven.
Like I mentioned in the Raiders’ section, teams who perform well above .500 in one-score games tend to regress. The opposite is also true, i.e. teams who do well below .500 tend to perform better in one-score games. The Chargers were 2-9 last year in one-score games. Even if they went just 5-6, they were a .500 team. This team was so close to being good. While Tyrod isn’t as explosive as Phillip Rivers, maybe his passive play is exactly what this team needs. In fact, this team is remarkably similar to the Bills team that Tyrod led to the playoffs in 2017.
Final Record: 8-8
While this division is certainly the Chiefs to lose, second place is up for grabs. Whichever team can separate itself from the other two has a good chance to make playoffs. And once January arrives, anything can happen.
If you're a fan of the Chiefs, Broncos, Chargers, or Raiders, check out our Blitzalytics Prospect Encyclopedia to be the smartest person on game day!