The AFC West is undoubtedly the most exciting and toughest division in football. There was so much movement this offseason and a large chunk of it involved these four teams. Any one of these teams could legitimately finish in first place and it's difficult to imagine any of them ending up at the bottom... but it's the NFL so somebody has to finish last (although the last place team could still make the playoffs - it's wild!).
That being said, I will now be taking out my crystal ball and informing you all precisely how this upcoming season will play out.
If you guys enjoy this series, please let me know! I'd love to see any sort of feedback - be it questions, critique or suggestions! Thanks for reading and have an awesome day!
Note: All win totals are current as of the time of this writing via DraftKings Sportsbook
4. Las Vegas Raiders
Former New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels returns to a head coaching position in the AFC West, this time with the Raiders instead of the Broncos. He gets to coach a very good quarterback, in Derek Carr. He puts up consistently good stats every year - nothing spectacular, but quite solid. Since Carr returned from his 2017 back injury, he has thrown for over 4,000 yards in each of the recent four years (including a career high 4,804 last season), and a combined 90 touchdowns to 41 interceptions (an average of 22-10 per year) on a completion rate of 68.7%. He now has a brand new number one receiver who he actually has history with from playing together at Fresno State (a new old friend, if you will). One would assume this will be Carr's best season yet.
Josh Jacobs is a pretty good running back, entering his fourth season. The team has declined to pick up his fifth year option (along with pass rusher Clelin Ferrell and safety Jonathan Abram) so this is basically an audition for other teams before the 24 year old back hits free agency next offseason (unless the team trades him mid-season, of course). He is a bruising runner who also has pass catching ability. I have no doubt he will find himself in a major role in a two back rotation for a new team (at the VERY least) next year.
Behind him, the Raiders have Kenyan Drake - a 28 year old veteran back who is elusive and quick with receiving skills. Receiving back Ameer Abdullah, Brandon Bolden (a back who McDaniels is very familiar with from their Patriot days) and rookie fourth round pick Zamir White fill out the depth chart. One or two of these guys might not even make the final roster.
Las Vegas traded their first and second round picks to acquire arguably the NFL's best receiver Davante Adams. He immediately takes the number one target role, as he reunites with Derek Carr. While Carr is undeniably a downgrade from Aaron Rodgers, Adams also gets something that he never had in Green Bay: a full offense around him. As the top target with the Packers, he was always the focus from opposing defenses. He had a couple years playing alongside an aging Jordy Nelson and a decent but not great Randall Cobb but nothing compared to this receiving group.
Hunter Renfrow was the 2021 target leader, and had a nice stretch of games between weeks 11 and 13 (a combined 30 receptions for 353 yards and a score in those three games). He ended the season with 103 catches for 1,038 yards and 9 touchdowns - which nearly doubled each of those stats from his 2020 season. Behind Renfrow, the team has new additions Keelan Cole Sr., and former Chief Demarcus Robinson.
Darren Waller is one of the best tight ends in the league, and he teamed with Renfrow to make one of the better receiving duos in the game. The addition of Davante Adams should only help his numbers, as he will now be the main focus from opposing defenses. While Waller's target and reception numbers will probably fall a bit, the quality of those targets should allow bigger plays from the stud tight end when he hauls in his catches.
Like most of the AFC West teams, the Raiders have a nice tandem of pass rushers to help with their switch from the 4-3 to the 3-4 scheme defensively. Maxx Crosby is becoming one of the best young edge rushers in the game. Earlier this offseason, he was signed to a massive extension and Crosby's play has earned every penny of this new deal. In his three year career, he has not racked up less than seven sacks, was the 2019 Defensive Rookie of the Year, made both the All Pro second team and the Pro Bowl last season.
Now he gets paired with veteran free agent addition Chandler Jones. In his ten year career thus far, Jones has picked up double digit sacks in seven of those seasons (and that's including 2020, where he missed 11 games due to a biceps injury). In 2019 (19 sacks) and 2017 (17 sacks) he had incredible seasons of close to 20 quarterback takedowns each, and even has a game from week one of last season where he took down Ryan Tannehill five times in Arizona's dominant 38-13 victory over the Titans.
Crosby and Jones will contribute in taking pressure off of one another, and should pick up 11+ sacks each this season.
With Johnathan Hankins, Andrew Billings, Matthew Butler and Clelin Ferrell on the defensive line with Crosby, there is decent depth there.
The linebackers alongside Chandler Jones are solid, with second year Divine Deablo playing opposite Jones, they will be fine with him as he develops into a solid starter. On the inside, veterans Denzel Perryman and Jayon Brown should lock down the two starting spots inside. Kenny Young, Micah Kiser and Kyler Fackrell are backups who may see rotational playing time.
Cornerbacks Trayvon Mullen Jr., former Colt Rock Ya-Sin, Nate Hobbs and Darius Phillips make for a promising young group. Phillips can play as a depth corner and backup safety, as Hobbs fits in well as the team's starting slot corner. Second year safety Tre'von Moehrig is a great young player (personally I wanted my Broncos to draft him last season to pair with Justin SImmons) with exceptional upside. He pairs well with 25 year old Johnathan Abram to form a good duo on the back end. With 23 year old Tyree Gillespie, veteran Duron Harmon and the aforementioned Phillips behind the two, the safety room has both high in quality and quantity.
2021 Record: 10-7
The Raiders looked pretty weak during most of the season (including five losses in the six games from weeks 9-14), but it was the week 14 destruction at the hands of the big brother Kansas City Chiefs, 48-9 that turned this around for the team.
The Raiders ended up winning their final four games of the season (each one extremely important, as they battled AFC teams also in the playoff hunt). Vegas lost 26-19 to the Bengals in the Wildcard round, but it showed what this team can do.
2022 Key Performer: EDGE Maxx Crosby
Yannick Ngakoue played nicely with Crosby, picking up 10 sacks... no disrespect to the former Raider but Chandler Jones is just on another level. Opposing offenses will have to focus as much as they can on both Jones and Crosby and double teaming the both of them just isn't possible. Crosby is a great pass rusher, and he will put the league on notice, if he hasn't already.
55 Tackles, 15.0 Sacks, 1 Forced Fumble
2022 Over/Under: 8.5
I believe this is a much improved team over last season and they are a better squad than their final record will read. Unfortunately, Las Vegas is in the toughest division in the NFL and in a very competitive and crowded AFC as a whole. The Raiders are a good team, but the other teams around them are just too good for a deep playoff run in 2022.
Crystal Ball Says: 8-9
3. Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs are seeing some big changes from their days of utter AFC dominance. No longer does the AFC West belong to Kansas City, but they will now be fighting for their playoff lives during each divisional game.
Patrick Mahomes is undoubtedly a top 3 quarterback (at worst) in the NFL. Other than some potential drop off stat-wise due to the departure of Tyreek Hill, there isn't anything else to say about him.
The running back room is very mediocre. At the moment, Clyde Edwards-Helaire and former Buccaneer Ronald Jones sit atop the depth chart... neither of them are especially talented in my opinion. I believe the best running back on the roster is Jerrick McKinnon. He is fast, elusive and versatile but has dealt with injuries during his career. McKinnon stepped up big late last season and in the playoffs, leading to the Chiefs bringing him back.
The most intriguing part of this offense is the new-look receiving core. With Tyreek Hill now in Miami, free agent signings Marquez Valdes-Scantling and JuJu Smith-Schuster have plenty of opportunity to break out. MVS should play more of the Tyreek role as the deep threat, while JuJu works the intermediate portion of the field.
The team also selected Skyy Moore in the second round of the draft. He brings more speed and big play ability to this offense, along with Mecole Hardman.
Travis Kelce has been a staple of this offensive unit for years now. He should see more coverage this year, but due to the connection Mahomes has with him (as opposed to his new weapons), Kelce may get more targets than he's used to.
This defense isn't necessarily stout, but has some solid potential. Guys like Chris Jones, first round rookie George Karlaftis, and veteran Frank Clark hold down the line and can both stop the run, and pressure the quarterback.
Young stud Nick Bolton leads the linebacker group (112 tackles and a fumble recovery as a rookie) that has to develop before truly standing out. Jermaine Carter Jr. and Willie Gay are the other starters who aren't quite top tier at their position, but they'll get the job done.
First round rookie Trent McDuffie should step in as the top cornerback from day one. Kansas City knows there's something special about him, as McDuffie is the first cornerback they drafted in round 1 since Marcus Peters in 2015. Despite lacking ideal size, McDuffie has extreme athleticism and is a good tackler. As the team's top guy, he will thrive in his rookie year.
Across from him, L'Jarius Snead is a good second man. Rashad Fenton and Deandre Baker provide depth behind the pair.
The team made a bold move in not re-signing stud safety Tyrann Mathieu. They let him walk in free agency, and instead are going with Justin Reid to pair with Juan Thornhill. Reid is a good safety in his own right and safety will be far from the Chiefs' biggest weakness, but the decision was quite baffling nonetheless.
2021 Record: 12-5
With their full offense in tow, Mahomes led the Chiefs past the Bills in that wild divisional round game, but they ultimately fell short to Cincinnati - who have seemed to have Kansas City's number recently...
2022 Key Performer: TE Travis Kelce
With Hill gone, Mahomes will likely lean on Kelce more than ever - at least until he can get some chemistry going with Valdes-Scantling and JuJu Smith-Schuster. I anticipate a HUGE year for one of the best tight ends of all time.
155 Targets 112 Receptions, 1,478 Yards 12 TDs
2022 Over/Under: 10.5
The Chiefs will be fine this year. I don't expect more than a single playoff win (at most) but with Patrick Mahomes on the team, they won't have to worry about losing more games than they win.
Crystal Ball Says: 10-7
2. Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos are one of the first teams mentioned when discussing who has the potential to go from "worst to first". Obviously new quarterback Russell Wilson is the key to that success. The 33 year old passer was the main ingredient in that Denver-Seattle trade back in March that included multiple 1st and 2nd round picks, Noah Fant, Drew Lock and more.
Wilson remains a top ten quarterback (likely higher) and despite what most people say about his 2021 season, he still played pretty well. Russ dealt with a rupture in his middle finger, which kept him out from weeks 6-8 and hampered him somewhat for the remainder of the season. However, he still ended the year with 25 touchdowns to 6 interceptions on nearly a 65% completion rate. This includes 12 scores to 5 picks and 61% completion (including a week 17 game smashing of the Detroit Lions where Wilson threw 4 touchdowns without a turnover) after the finger injury.
The former Super Bowl champion enters an offense he can truly unlock. He has weapons galore starting with running backs Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon who are both supreme runners of the ball with plenty of pass catching chops to boot.
While Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy aren't up there with D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, the duo plus speedster K.J. Hamler make for the deepest wide receiver group the quarterback has had in his career. It would be even more dangerous, but unfortunately Tim Patrick went down to a torn ACL a couple weeks ago in training camp. Sutton is the prototypical big bodied receiver and can make ridiculous grabs look easy and Jeudy is a great route runner and should see plenty of slot snaps. Hamler is the undersized, yet ridiculously fast deep threat of the bunch.
Despite trading away Noah Fant in the big trade, Denver still has third year pro Albert Okwuegbunam as their starting tight end. His great athleticism and hands should make him poised for a breakout season, but the team has third round rookie Greg Dulcich as a potential weapon as well.
What the Denver offense lacks in top end talent compared to Seattle (namely Metcalf/Lockett vs Sutton/Jeudy), they more than make up for in overall depth, offensive line quality and offensive playcalling (we don't know the last one for sure yet, but the comparison is to Pete Carroll, so the Broncos likely win there).
This should be an interesting defense, with the free agent additions of Randy Gregory and D.J. Jones on the front seven and cornerback K'Waun Williams and linebacker Alex Singleton for quality depth.
The draft brought in the likes of edge rusher Nik Bonitto with the final pick of round 2 (received in the trade of Von Miller), fourth rounders Damarri Mathis (cornerback) and Eyioma Uwazurike (defensive tackle).
With stars already on this defensive unit such as safety Justin Simmons, Bradley Chubb, and cornerback Pat Surtain II, this looks like another year for a top ten Bronco defense.
2021 Record: 7-10
The entire team was in turmoil last season, with constant questions surrounding Teddy Bridgewater vs Drew Lock for starting quarterback, to a week 1 high ankle sprain for Jerry Jeudy forcing him to miss the next six games, to the trade of Von Miller to the eventual Super Bowl champion Rams.
Record wise this team was still in the hunt in December, but mentally the Broncos were shot.
2022 Key Performer: CB Pat Surtain II
Surtain played like a veteran shutdown corner as a rookie, allowing a 51% completion rate against him and a quarterback rating of 61.3 (which ranked 12th in the league). He should only improve with another year of experience, additional pass rush help and an offense capable of sustaining drives every week.
61 Tackles, 1 sack, 5 Interceptions
2022 Over/Under: 10.5
Some people think this is too high of a win total for Denver and they are being overrated going into 2022... they could be right, but the additions of Russell Wilson, Randy Gregory and a new head coach in Nathaniel Hackett make me a believer in this team.
Crystal Ball Says: 10-7
1. Los Angeles Chargers
For years now, the Chargers have been touted as "one of the most talented teams in the league" but have yet to put it all together. In 2022, they show the NFL what they are all about. The AFC West is the toughest division in football, and what better way to put the league on notice than to take first place outright?
Justin Herbert is quickly becoming one of the NFL's best passers, at only age 24. He has thrown for 9,350 yards, 69 touchdowns and 25 picks on a 66% completion rate in his first two seasons - to along with over 500 rushing yards and 8 more scores on the ground. While Herbert has yet to start a playoff game, his talents are undeniable and he'll be making his postseason debut very soon.
Austin Ekeler is one of the most versatile running backs in the league. Compiling an average of 223 touches per season since becoming a full time starter in 2019, Ekeler as a receiver has some of the best hands for a back we've seen in quite some time. His total amount of carries and short yardage opportunities may decrease slightly with the drafting of fourth round pick Isaiah Spiller, but Ekeler will still see 200+ total touches and plenty of looks in the passing game.
Keenan Allen and Mike Williams make for an incredible duo of guys who are so different and work really well off one another. Allen does his work through pure route running and frequent targets, while Williams is the big play guy, who might go for 130 yards and 2 scores one week but only 40 the next. Joshua Palmer and Jalen Guyton are exciting young depth guys behind them who can contribute for Herbert as well.
Gerald Everett comes in as the starting tight end and has the speed and ball skills to be yet another threat in L.A.'s passing attack.
This pass rush will destroy basically any offensive tackle duo there is. Joey and Khalil Mack should go for at least 10 sacks each and it wouldn't surprise me if they both reached 12 this year. Kenneth Murray Jr. and Drue Tranquill make for a solid linebacking duo on the inside, as the Chargers team Austin Johnson, Sebastian Joseph-Day and Jerry Tillery on the defensive line.
Cornerback J.C. Jackson is the big signing coming from New England and is out to prove he's worthy of being called a top 5 cornerback. Across from him is second year stud Asante Samuel Jr. He played very well as a rookie, defending 11 passes and picking off another two. With Michael Davis and Bryce Callahan behind the starters and beastly duo of Derwin James and Nassir Adderly at safety, this could potentially end up a top 10 secondary and a top 5 defensive unit as a whole.
2021 Record: 9-8
Five of their 8 losses came in a one score game, so this team could have been so much greater (although in all fairness, five wins did as well). The overall team improvement should turn those close games into Charger victories more often than not in 2022.
2022 Key Performer: QB Justin Herbert
I've said pretty much all that needs to be said. Herbert is great, his weapons are fantastic, the offensive line is improving and head coach Brandon Staley is a very aggressive play caller.
460/686 (67%) 5,213 yards, 41 TDs 15 INTs
2022 Over/Under: 10
Justin Herbert will continue his ascent, as Ekeler, Allen, Williams and Everett work to benefit the cause as well. The Chargers are an interesting Super Bowl pick, as they have it all - a potentially elite defense, young quarterback leading a great offense, and a very aggressive head coach. Expect points. A lot of points.
Crystal Ball Says: 11-6