With four consecutive AFC West titles and Patrick Mahomes secure under center through the end of the decade, the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs are the heavy division favorite. Kansas CIty's dominance, in fact, may last for years.
All the Chiefs' division rivals have significantly improved, but each has a potentially fatal flaw.
REASON TO BE OPTIMISTIC: Upgrades galore, especially at WR
The Broncos have pieced together their deepest skill-position corps since 2014. Denver will pair rookie wideouts Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler with emerging star Courtland Sutton, 2019 first-round tight end Noah Fant and a redundant yet talented Phillip Lindsay-Melvin Gordon running back tandem. In the offseason, Denver also added five-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman Jurrell Casey and ascending guard Graham Glasgow. Can second-year QB Drew Lock prove worthy of all these augmentations?
Ranking outside the top 20 in scoring each season since 2016, the Broncos bottomed out at 28th last year. They have lacked play-making depth for most of this stretch and spent most of last season without a reliable target outside of Sutton. Jeudy, who runs excellent routes, was rated by Pro Football Focus as the second-best receiver prospect in the past six years. He should be the pro-readiest wideout in this class. That will help Lock. So should Hamler’s speed and run-after-catch prowess.
It is refreshing to see a team devote extensive resources to helping a young quarterback. Lock has a better chance to prosper with this bunch than Sam Darnold does in New York or Dwayne Haskins does in Washington. Lock, a second-round pick, showed flashes in his five-start debut, leading the Broncos to four wins and dominating against a divisional-round-bound Texans team.
FATAL FLAW: Quarterback uncertainty, still
Lock’s 4.6 average completed air yards ranked next to last in 2019. The Broncos will look awful if they are again wrong about a quarterback, especially given the options available this year.
Denver gave Case Keenum a two-year, $36 million deal in 2018 and traded a draft pick for Joe Flacco last year. Both veterans have signed to be backups elsewhere. In the biggest quarterback buyer’s market in free agency’s 28-year history, the Broncos stood down. Cam Newton and Andy Dalton are better than either of Denver’s previous retread QB attempts, and Jameis Winston just threw for 5,000-plus yards (with 30 INTs, but still). GM John Elway opting to leave his mid-level investment (by quarterback standards) unchallenged, rather than pay what turned out to be veteran-minimum money for one of the available ex-Pro Bowlers, represents a big risk for a team that has done so much to enhance its offense.
With next offseason looking like another QB buyer’s market, the Broncos may need a consensus on 23-year-old Lock this year. Unfortunately, the COVID-19-altered landscape will hurt the Broncos more than most. Not only do they have a quarterback with five career starts, a second-year tight end and two rookie wideouts, but new offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur must wait until training camp to work with his young charges on site.
This is a tough task for a young passer, and it could impede Denver’s quest to return to the playoffs for the first time in five years. With a good but not great defense, the Broncos must see noticeable strides from Lock amid bad circumstances.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM: Supporting-cast muscle
Recently extended running back Austin Ekeler will team with a proven receiver duo (Keenan Allen-Mike Williams) and an upper-class tight end (Hunter Henry). Denver’s aerial crew may feature a higher ceiling; Los Angeles’ brings a safer floor. The Bolts also signed three 31-year-old free agents: ex-Broncos cornerback Chris Harris, right tackle Bryan Bulaga and defensive tackle Linval Joseph. Despite letting Gordon find his money in Denver, the Bolts maintained their balanced skill-position corps while bolstering key areas elsewhere on their roster.
Harris’ arrival gives the Chargers a secondary with a strong claim as the NFL's best. Each of its top four cogs — Harris, Casey Hayward, Derwin James and Desmond King — are former All-Pros. The Chargers traded up for first-round linebacker Kenneth Murray, adding to a unit that also houses Defensive Player of the Year candidate Joey Bosa and quality edge-rushing wingman Melvin Ingram.
If the Chargers were to sign Jason Peters to address their glaring left tackle concern, they would have one of the league’s best non-QB rosters.
FATAL FLAW: Incongruent timelines
The Chargers will transition from Philip Rivers’ 14-year run to a first-round quarterback (Justin Herbert) in the worst possible offseason to do so. Tyrod Taylor, who has not been a full-time starter since 2017, is the bridge. With more quarterback certainty, the Bolts would be a scary team.
Taylor working with ex-Buffalo play-caller Anthony Lynn and L.A.’s talented skill contingent represents the best possible scenario for the 10th-year quarterback. But the Bills traded Taylor after their 2017 playoff season and the Browns quickly benched him in 2018. Despite top-10 QBR finishes in 2015 and ’16, the dual-threat signal-caller does not provide much excitement or potential for upward mobility for a team that desperately needs both in its ill-fitting Los Angeles market.
Taylor, however, likely represents the Bolts’ best 2020 option because of the pandemic limiting Herbert’s development. The Oregon alum came to the Chargers as a boom-or-bust prospect. If this truncated offseason delays his starting lineup entrance until 2021, the hands the Bolts hired in free agency may be in decline by that point. Unless Taylor surprises with his production or Herbert proves a quick study and takes the reins early this season, the Chargers’ well-assembled roster is in danger of going to waste.
Las Vegas Raiders
REASON FOR OPTIMISM: New weapons join division’s best ground attack
In Year 3 of the Derek Carr-Jon Gruden parternership, the Raiders are unquestionably better than last season's edition. They return the offensive line that ranked sixth in Football Outsiders’ top run-blocking metric and helped Josh Jacobs compile more rushing yards in 13 games (1,150) than any Raider has in 16 since 2010. The Raiders’ passing-game additions should create more opportunities for Jacobs, and the aerial attack should benefit from the second-year back’s abilities.
In the draft, the Raiders passed on the more polished Jeudy and CeeDee Lamb for the best deep threat, Henry Ruggs. The Alabama product, who has 4.28 speed in the 40-yard dash, is scarily on brand for the Raiders. Ruggs, with potential help from third-round possession receiver Bryan Edwards and Round 3 gadget player Lynn Bowden Jr., should create more play-calling options for Gruden.
A dearth of talent limited Gruden's 2018 offense; his ’19 attack battled uphill all season after the Antonio Brown disaster. Even the oft-criticized Nelson Agholor, who recorded two 700-plus-yard seasons with the Eagles and played a pivotal role for Philly's Super Bowl champion iteration, may help.
Possessing quarterback experience the Broncos and Chargers lack, the Raiders can make a case as the division’s safest bet to join the Chiefs in the playoffs.
FATAL FLAWS: Low-ceiling QB, nearly two decades of defensive futility
But the Raiders would not constantly be connected to other QBs if Gruden-Carr exuded stability. A coach not known for patience now has the newly signed Marcus Mariota, whose $7.5 million base salary exceeds the combined values of the deals for Newton, Dalton and Winston. Carr quietly ranked 10th in QBR and eighth in QB DVOA in 2019, but his 4.9 average completed air yards bettered only four QBs and continued a trend. Carr’s 6.9 career yards per attempt ranks 37th among full-time starting QBs since 2014. The Raiders’ attempt to match a passer not known for deep-strike chops with the 2020 draft’s top vertical threat is counterintuitive.
Carr defenders might cite the Raiders’ limited weaponry since Gruden’s return. Oakland traded Amari Cooper in October 2018 and received zero Brown snaps last year. Las Vegas’ offseason additions teaming with Tyrell Williams and Hunter Renfrow, along with late-blooming tight end Darren Waller, should provide the best possible view of Carr’s capabilities in Gruden’s system. But in a third season with the head coach, and with Mariota now on the roster, this is almost certainly Carr’s judgment year.
The Raiders signed ex-Rams coverage linebacker Cory Littleton and ex-Bears super sub Nick Kwiatkoski, finally spending at this position after years of skimping. They also surprised most by using a mid-first-round pick on cornerback Damon Arnette. Still, the team’s defensive foundation, which remains suspect on the pass-rushing and coverage fronts, trails that of the Broncos and Chargers. The Raiders failed to finish in the top half of the league in scoring defense in their final 17 Oakland seasons.
The Broncos and Bolts have more obvious ways their plans could unravel this season, but it is not especially difficult to envision the Raiders encountering trouble offensively and defensively. This may be the division’s most enigmatic team.
If plans do not work out…
Because the Chargers drafted Herbert sixth overall, this only applies to the Broncos and Raiders. If Lock sputters in Year 2 and Gruden is finally ready to bring in his own quarterback in 2021, Denver and Vegas would be logical Aaron Rodgers destinations — were the Packers ready to transition to Jordan Love after 2020.
The Broncos took this route before with Peyton Manning, whose tenure in Denver doubled as the second-highest peak in franchise history. Elway has built a young skill-position arsenal he hopes Lock will grow with, but that collection's rookie wages could also help accommodate Rodgers' $33.5M-per-year contract. If Jeudy and Hamler show promise alongside Sutton and Fant, but Lock still struggles, the Broncos would have the interesting combination of cheap weaponry and quarterback uncertainty to consider a Rodgers offer.
Carr’s contract can be easily shed in 2021. Gruden has shown an affinity for veterans in his two stints as Raiders coach. Barring a Carr breakthrough at age 29, the Raiders will be linked to QBs again next year. And Gruden likely would not mind being linked to Rodgers.
While the Packers trading Rodgers next year would mean a $31M dead-money charge, they would stand to receive better offers for a 37-year-old Rodgers in 2021 than a 38-year-old version of the two-time MVP a year later. If Green Bay regresses as expected this season, Rodgers trade scenarios will become a talking point. With the Packers surely preferring to deal their longtime starter to the AFC, the Broncos and Raiders — should their current plans prove faulty — would be near the top of the list.
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