By Lucas Kochevar
The division previews continue with the AFC West, but before that, the Jets did a good thing. The Jets and star defensive tackle Quinnen Williams reached a contract extension. Williams sought a similar deal to Giants defensive tackles Dexter Lawrence and he earned it while also earning one more million than Lawrence. Williams finally reached that next level as a defensive star and had 12 sacks. Along with that, he earned first team All-Pro honors and a Pro Bowl. Williams will once again look to anchor the Jets defense from the center. The Jets will need his contribution in a very competitive AFC, including the group of teams I'll talk about today with the Chiefs, Chargers and Broncos.
Kansas City Chiefs (14-3 Last Season)
The Super Bowl champs are looking to cement themselves as the modern day dynasty by capturing their third Super Bowl since Patrick Mahomes became the quarterback. It'll be a bit harder in an AFC that's continuing to improve every year. That along with some losses to the team will prove to be a tough task. The loss I'm most curious about is offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy. Andy Reid does call the plays and Mahomes improvises a ton, but losing a stable voice that you've been winning with could throw things off.
Along with Bienemy, the Chiefs lost receivers Juju Smith-Schuster and Mecole Hardman. The Chiefs will always have Mahomes and Kelce to headline their offense, but it was timely performances from players like Jerick McKinnon that truly separated them from the rest. Now, the Chiefs will look to Skyy Moore or Kadarius Toney to really step up as those next guys. A player I'd watch out for is Justyn Ross. The former Clemson star essentially redshirted last season and has comeback this training camp to show why he was so highly-touted in college. The Chiefs offensive line will also look different with both tackles departing in free agency. They did get solid replacements in Jawaan Taylor and Donovan Smith. On top of that, they still have elite guys on defense too. The Chiefs defense has been the subject of many jokes over the years due to their extreme 'bend, don't break' style of play. This year they'll need to step up, especially if those guys I mentioned on offense don't pan out. Their linebacker acquisition of Drue Tranquill could be huge for their front seven.
I'm hoping this is the year people start putting respect on the Chiefs out of the gate instead of late in the season. I love watching Josh Allen and Joe Burrow as much as the next guy, but the AFC will have to go through Kansas City until proven otherwise. It wouldn't shock me if the Chiefs record took a dip because their schedule is significantly harder with games against Buffalo, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and many other formidable foes. Still, they'll always have the quarterback and coaching advantage. I have the Chiefs winning the AFC West again, but I'm not sure where to place them in the grand scheme of the conference.
Los Angeles Chargers (10-7 Last Season)
The Chargers are up there in the ranks of 'Most Cursed Franchises' and this upcoming season feels very make or break for them. They're approaching one of the last cheap years with Justin Herbert and head coach Brandon Staley is on the hottest seat. The Chargers season ended in an embarrassing fashion last season in the playoffs against the Jaguars. Despite forcing four interceptions and jumping out to a 27-0 lead, the Chargers managed to lose the game. It was performance art for how to lose a game. The blame can be passed to Herbert and the offense by only scoring three points in the second half or you can blame the defense for allowing 31 points. Either way, the Chargers have to play a more consistent level of football to reach their peak.
There's no doubt in my mind that Justin Herbert can be an MVP candidate. He's got one of the best arms in the league and pinpoint accuracy. Herbert should reach that next level on this team with the amount of talent he has around him. Austin Ekeler, Mike Williams, Keenan Allen and Quentin Johnston should all be playmakers to boost Herbert's production. There is some questions about Ekeler's contract situation, but I can't imagine he'll make the same mistake Melvin Gordon made on the Chargers years ago. I also think their offensive line will be good with the return of left tackle Rashawn Slater, who was hurt majority of last season. Expect big numbers from this offense. The defense is another story. I don't know if they'll be bad or not, but they'll have to punch up if they want to keep up with the Chiefs. Eric Kendricks is a veteran presence at linebacker that should help out and Joey Bosa should continue to wreak havoc.
The Chargers will have to do some serious winning to repair their image and I think they could be a real contender if they don't get injured. The biggest X-factor will be the coaching. Head coach Brandon Staley was hired to create a great defense and he hasn't quite held up his end of the bargain. He also hired former Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore to lead his offense. These two guys will be on the chopping block if the Chargers fail to make the playoffs. In a tough AFC, the Chargers will be fighting tooth and nail for a wild card spot. Their schedule features a healthy balance of challenge and fluff that should keep them in the mix. I think the Chargers sit in the third tier of the AFC with potential to make the wild card again.
Denver Broncos (5-12 Last Season)
The biggest disappointment in the entire league last season had to be the Denver Broncos. They made a home run swing for Russell Wilson and hired Nathaniel Hackett as head coach. Wilson was absolutely dreadful and Hackett didn't even make it to the end of the season. With that being said, they took another home run swing at hiring head coach Sean Payton after his season off. Payton looks to bring his years of experience to Denver to run an offense that could revitalize Wilson's career. I'm a notorious Russ hater, but I didn't even expect him to be as awful as he was last season. He missed open receivers, ran into sacks and lost the team. He'll need to do a 180 this season to be taken seriously again.
One of the disappointing parts of the Broncos offense last season was the loss of Javonte Williams to an ACL injury. With Williams back, I think the Broncos offense could look vastly different. Wilson won't have to play hero ball and Williams can slide into an Alvin Kamara role. Jerry Jeudy, Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick make up a strong receiving core that specializes in different areas. This offense has a lot of striking similarities to the players Payton had in New Orleans the last couple of seasons. They also spent some money on upgrading the offensive line with left guard Ben Powers and right tackle Mike McGlinchey. The defense is lead by the secondary with star cornerback Patrick Surtain II. The young star is already in the upper echelon of corners in the league and should help the Broncos against the likes of Mahomes and Herbert.
The Broncos are primed for a bounce back season. Surely it can't get worse than what Broncos fans went through last season. Outside of their divisional games, the Broncos will face off against some bad teams and that should play to their benefit. The Broncos will need Wilson desperately as the offense was the main unit that held them back last season. If they scored just 20 points in more of their losses, they make the playoffs last year. With coach Payton in place, Wilson has zero excuses. With that being said, the Broncos are still far from being a top tier team in the AFC. Similar to the Chargers, they're in that third tier with teams fighting to be a wild card team. I'll be very curious to see how the Broncos look this season.
Las Vegas Raiders (6-11 Last Season)
Oh man, where to begin with the Raiders. I've addressed every team's quarterback and coach situation and the Raiders, by far, have the worst combo out of the four teams in this division. Josh McDaniels is proven to be an incompetent head coach and Jimmy Garoppolo hasn't had a consistent season since the 2020 Super Bowl season with the 49ers. The only consolation is that Garoppolo and McDaniels are familiar with each other from their New England days, but even then, I'm not optimistic for this team. They are entering a new era now that Derek Carr is gone, but I also don't understand the direction of the team. If the Raiders stink it up and get a top two pick in next years draft, they'll make more sense. Until then, they're a team of mismatch puzzle pieces with a few highlights.
They have star power. Davante Adams, Maxx Crosby and Josh Jacobs are among the leagues best at their positions, yet they're surrounded by some junk. The offense could be, at best, league average and I actually really like their skill positions. The receiving core is great with Adams, Hunter Renfrow and Jakobi Meyers. Rookie Michael Mayer could be a pleasant surprise too. The offensive line is where I'm worried. Garoppolo has proven to not be a healthy quarterback and now that he's behind a line that I don't have faith in, I'm curious if he'll play double digit games. The defense also falls off a cliff after Crosby and Chandler Jones. The Raiders have invested serious draft capital looking to improve this unit over the years, yet they cannot produce. Rookie edge rusher Tyree Wilson could change that notion, but behind him is where even more problems begin. The secondary is filled with guys drafted in the last four years and I can't see them fairing well in this division. The Broncos secondary will struggle in this division and they have Pro Bowl talent, the Raiders do not have that same level of talent.
It's going to be a long season for the Raiders. With McDaniels and Garoppolo tied down to big contracts, I'm not sure how the Raiders will get out of this mess. Unless they get some otherworldly performances from unexpected guys, the Raiders will be big time losers this season. They might scrap together some competent stretches, but not much more than that. The best bet for the Raiders is to look forward to drafting Caleb Williams, Drake Maye or an unknown draft riser in next years first round. Las Vegas may want to find the receipt for the Raiders so they can return them to Oakland after this season.
Next Week: NFC West