AFC West will provide rugged test for Chiefs

We concluded our NFC division capsules before the draft, and now we’ll begin our look at the AFC with the AFC West, home of the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs are favored to win the big prize once again at %plussigne0. The rest of the division is figured to be very average, with all season win totals at 7.5 or 8 games. The AFC West will feature two new venues in 2020, the Raiders’ Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas and the Chargers’ new building, SoFi Stadium, in Inglewood, Calif. We will see if a change of scenery helps anyone prevent Kansas City from winning its fifth straight division crown.

Denver Broncos

2019 record: 7-9

2020 season win total: 7.5

2020 division odds: 10/1

2020 non-division games: at Falcons, at Panthers, at Patriots, at Jets, at Steelers, Bills, Buccaneers, Saints, Dolphins, Titans

Vic Fangio begins his sophomore season as coach, and Drew Lock will do the same at quarterback. Lock is coming off a rookie campaign in which the former Missouri Tiger led his team to a 4-1 record, starting the final five games. Earlier in the season, with Joe Flacco at quarterback and Fangio still getting adjusted as a head coach, Denver lost three heartbreakers by two points each. 

Fangio built his NFL career as a defensive guru, and his influence showed up in his first year as the Broncos ranked 11th in the league against the pass and 16th in defending the run. The offense is where this team sputtered, ranking 28th in passing offense and 20th in rushing offense despite another 1,000-yard season by running back Phillip Lindsay. General manager John Elway went to work on the offense through free agency, acquiring former Chargers running back Melvin Gordon, and through the draft, landing wide receiver Jerry Jeudy out of Alabama with the 15th overall pick and slot receiver K.J. Hamler out of Penn State with the 46th selection. Denver already has what looks to be a budding star in tight end Noah Fant. But Elway wanted more and took a shot by drafting Albert Okwuegbunam in the fourth round. The 6-foot-6, 260-pound tight end out of Missouri ran a freakish 4.49-second 40-yard dash.

Star cornerback Chris Harris was lost via free agency, but Elway pulled off a couple of terrific moves in snagging Pro Bowl cornerback A.J. Bouye from Jacksonville and five-time Pro Bowl defensive end Jurrell Casey from the Titans. 

The skinny: As a GM, Elway has been hit and miss. He has missed on a number of quarterback experiments but also won a Super Bowl behind Von Miller and Peyton Manning in 2015. This offseason haul looks like another positive hit. Denver ranked 22nd in the league in DVOA in 2019, had a turnover differential of zero and finished 7-9. We’ll pin a couple of those losses on Fangio adjusting to being the boss rather than the understudy and also on an awful offense led by Flacco for most of the year. But Lock enters the 2020 season with momentum and a whole menu of weapons. Lindsay, Gordon and Royce Freeman could form a very formidable backfield. Courtland Sutton, Fant and Jeudy could provide an equally threatening passing game. This could be a 10-win team. I don’t think winning the division at 10-1 is a bad bet, but I think Over 7.5 wins is a better bet. 

Kansas City Chiefs

2019 record: 12-4

2020 season win total: 11.5

2020 division odds: -500

2020 non-division games: at Ravens, at Bills, at Dolphins, at Buccaneers, at Saints, Patriots, Falcons, Panthers, Jets, Texans

We know that winning back-to-back Super Bowls rarely happens. The New England Patriots were the last to do so in the 2003 and ’04 seasons. Teams off Super Bowl victories often fail to make the playoffs the next season. Much of this has to do with a shorter offseason, losing players to free agency, contract disputes and the fact that every team in the league is gunning to take down the defending champ. The Chiefs, however, have not changed much this offseason. Despite being an NFL top-5 offense in 2019, the rushing attack ranked 22nd, so the Chiefs drafted all-purpose running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire out of LSU with the final pick in the first round. Kansas City is a %plussigne0 favorite to repeat as champion, and on paper it looks like this team ought to be at least as good as last year. Whether the Chiefs can shrug off the Super Bowl hangover may be the only question.

The two areas of concern in 2019 were rushing defense and rushing offense, where Kansas City ranked 25th and 22nd, respectively. It does not appear that patching up the defense against the run was a huge offseason priority. The Chiefs’ first loss of last season came in prime time in Week 5 at home against the Colts as Indy ran the ball down K.C.’s throat. The Colts possessed the ball for over 37 minutes, tallied 25 first downs and ran for 180 yards in a 19-13 victory. I’m not sure any team wants to get into a shootout with Patrick Mahomes, but grinding it out at the line of scrimmage and pounding the run may be the way teams look to knock off Kansas City in 2020. The 49ers went this route in the Super Bowl until inexplicably ditching the running game in the fourth quarter and ultimately losing.

The skinny: In considering betting on or against the Chiefs, first look at the divisional price of -500. No, thanks. That number indicates that this team is almost sure to win the division, and rarely have we seen certainties in the NFL. Second, Kansas City had a turnover differential of +8 and ranked second in the league in DVOA. Pretty tough to bank on those stats not regressing at least somewhat. Finally, the schedule is very difficult. I think every AFC West rival will be improved, and the Chiefs’ non-division slate presents five teams that made the postseason last year, as well as the Buccaneers and Falcons, whom I also expect to be improved. I think Under 11.5 wins is a solid play.

Las Vegas Raiders

2019 record: 7-9

2020 season win total: 7.5

2020 division odds: 12/1

2020 non-division games: at Falcons, at Panthers, at Browns, at Patriots, at Jets, Bills, Dolphins, Saints, Buccaneers, Colts

Since Jon Gruden took over as coach and Mike Mayock as general manager, they have made it a priority to do nearly a complete overhaul of the roster and arrive in Las Vegas with a fresh start and a team constructed of their own doing. In just two years, that process is almost complete. Las Vegas was one of the most active teams in the NFL this offseason in acquiring free agents, addressing a defense that had an abundance of holes. Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski will be opening-day starters at linebacker. Carl Nassib and Maliek Collins offer solid support for Maxx Crosby and Clelin Ferrell along the defensive line. In the secondary, Damarious Randall will start at free safety alongside second-year man Johnathan Abram. It has been a job well done in addressing a pass defense that ranked 25th in the league.

On offense, Marcus Mariota was brought in to compete with Derek Carr at quarterback. Veteran tight end Jason Witten was acquired as Mayock and Gruden continue to try to fill their team with high-character personnel. Eric Kush provides veteran support on the offensive line, and wide receiver Nelson Agholor, coming over from the Eagles, could be a terrific piece if he can shed his problems with dropped passes.

I like what the Raiders did in the draft, though I think they could have snagged the same players with lower selections. Henry Ruggs gives them a stretch-the-field burner, Damon Arnette strengthens the secondary and Lynn Bowden can run, pass and catch. Louisiana Tech cornerback Amik Robertson is an interesting seventh-round selection and might develop into a real steal.

The skinny: I believe the product set to hit the field in a new city and a brand-new stadium is a good one. Gruden surprised many last season with his hot start against a brutal schedule before finally stumbling to a 1-5 finish over the last six games. With a rushing defense that ranked sixth, a passing offense that ranked eighth and a rushing offense that ranked 13th, this team should have been better than 7-9 and 24th in DVOA. I expect Las Vegas to improve in Year 2 of the Gruden/Mayock project, and I think Over 7.5 wins is very realistic. Carr will be playing for his Raiders life, and if he delivers, 12-1 odds to win the division is not an obvious pass. The problem is, I don’t think anyone in the AFC West has a decent shot to take down Kansas City.

Los Angeles Chargers

2019 record: 5-11

2020 season win total: 8

2020 division odds: 8/1

2020 non-division games: at Bills, at Bengals, at Dolphins, at Saints, at Buccaneers, Patriots, Jets, Falcons, Panthers, Jaguars

After 16 seasons, life without Philip Rivers at quarterback begins for the Chargers. Another first is that the team will begin playing in a new building, SoFi Stadium, in Inglewood, Calif. And it will do so in a new set of uniforms. Even if all else fails in 2020, the new stadium and new uniforms figure to be huge hits.

As to purely football operations, the Chargers were relatively quiet in free-agent acquisitions this offseason, but they did land a few big names. Defensive back Chris Harris Jr. comes over from the Denver Broncos and is one of the best at his position. He joins a stellar secondary and passing defense that ranked sixth in the league in 2019. Injuries across the offensive line seem to be a recurring theme with the Bolts, but they did add a couple of Pro Bowlers in Bryan Bulaga and Trai Turner. Nick Vigil is an improving young linebacker who comes over from the Bengals. And after a year of contract disputes, running back Melvin Gordon has moved on to Denver.

With Rivers signing with Indianapolis, the Chargers were expected to go after his replacement in the draft. And they did, grabbing Justin Herbert out of Oregon with the sixth overall selection. After his junior season, Herbert was tagged to be the next big thing. But a year later, many are unsure about his future in the NFL. Tyrod Taylor is a better quarterback than people think, and if you are a Chargers fan, you hope Taylor can make it through the 2020 season as the starter, allowing Herbert to develop. One of the highest-character grades in the draft went to Oklahoma linebacker Kenneth Murray, who definitely fills a need for Los Angeles. Trading a valuable pick to get him, however, does not look like the most efficient move. UCLA running back Joshua Kelley is a question mark as he joins Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson in the backfield. It’s a similar assessment for wide receiver Joe Reed out of Virginia. The Chargers’ receiving corps gets thin pretty quickly if Mike Williams, Keenan Allen or Hunter Henry are injured, and all have been known to get hurt.

The skinny: The defense looks good, with an excellent secondary, an above-average pass rush and an improved linebacking corps. The offense is the unknown. Los Angeles ranked sixth in passing offense last season, but will that be the same with Taylor and/or Herbert at the controls? The Bolts were 28th in rushing offense, and while the line looks better, they didn’t do much with the running backs. Taylor has been excellent throughout his career in avoiding the interception. Last season the Chargers had a turnover differential of -17, tied for the worst in the NFL. That should improve greatly and could make a big difference in this team’s 2020 success. I lean Over on the season win total, and as far as the 8-1 price to win the division, I do not think it’s a bad play to bet the field in the AFC West. You could bet against Kansas City winning it for a fifth straight time by taking the Broncos (10-1), the Raiders (12-1) and the Chargers (8-1) and, I think, have a good chance to cash a nice ticket.


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