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Vault Valuables: AFC West Preview



As we look ahead to the 2021-2022 NFL season, we will now begin a new series of blogs, previewing each division, as well as their futures odds to win their division. To begin the series, we will be looking at the AFC West.

 

Kansas City Chiefs

What better place to start than the favorites (+500) to win the super bowl? After winning the super bowl in 2020 and then losing to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2021, the Patrick Mahomes-led Chiefs look to rebound this year.

Offense

Quarterback

While there is a chance MVP Patrick Mahomes has a subpar season (not even a 1% chance in my book), it is far more likely that he continues his generational dominance and leads the Chiefs back to the playoffs. After having surgery on a lingering toe issue, he is already ahead of schedule on his rehab, and will be on the field by the time training camp rolls around. After having a season with a touchdown to interception ratio of 6.3 to 1, and being the favorite for NFL MVP this season (About +400), there is not much to say other than to ride the bandwagon when it comes to the quarterback position.

Skill Positions

Here, we’ll start with the running back position, as this group starts the season with the most unknowns. Second year running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire will be the lead back, but after him, training camp may decide how the depth chart looks. After losing Le’veon Bell to free agency (not an amicable departure), the Chiefs added Jerick Mckinnon and bring back Darrel Williams. Williams will be the short yardage back after proving his worth in the 2020-21 campaign, and Mckinnon (coming back from knee surgeries) is likely to be a pass catching/blocking back. Edwards-Helaire can play both roles, suggesting why he will be the lead. With most of the focus going to Mahomes and the passing game, as well as an improved offensive line, this group should be in for a big year.

Regarding the wide receivers, just about everyone knows who Tyreek Hill is. One of, if not the fastest player in the NFL, he can turn a game upside down on any play. He is one of the betting favorites to lead the NFL in receiving yards (wouldn’t be my pick, as this offense has so many weapons), but behind him, the receiving group leaves much to be desired. After Sammy Watkins departed in free agency to join Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens, the Chiefs are left with Demarcus Robinson, Mecole Hardman, and Byron Pringle, among others. Once again, training camp may determine how the position group plays out, but it seems that Robinson or Hardman will need to step up in Watkins’ absence to become the second receiver to Tyreek Hill. While they may not be as talented as Hill, oftentimes with a great quarterback like Mahomes, that does not matter.

The skill groups for the Chiefs don’t stop there, as they have the best tight end in football: Travis Kelce. Who is the leader out of all the tight ends in expected receiving yards for this upcoming year? You guessed it, it is once again Kelce. Last year, Kelce became the first tight end in NFL history to record four straight seasons of 100+ yards. Matter of fact, he almost led all NFL players in receiving yards last year. Behind Kelce is Demitrius Harris, who sparingly played last year due to Kelce’s continued dominance. Travis Kelce creates matchup problems all over the field, as well as being a great blocker from the tight end spot. Don’t expect anything different from him this year, as he looks to continue his greatness on a stacked Chiefs offense.

Offensive Line

After a pass rushing exhibit by the Buccaneers in the Super Bowl against these very Chiefs, Kansas City invested heavily in its offensive line this offseason. To create/continue this dynasty, you have to keep your prized possession, Patrick Mahomes, healthy. The line’s overhaul this offseason did just that. Matter of fact, they will have five new starters on the o-line after losing Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz to injury/free agency. To begin the rebuild, they signed Joe Thuney in free agency to a five year, 80 million dollar contract to play the guard spot. They then signed Kyle Long out of retirement, as well as Austin Blythe to play center. This vastly improved their offensive line, but GM Brett Veach didn’t stop there. He then traded for Orlando Brown Jr to play left tackle. They also expect guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and Lucas Niang back, after they both opted out due to COVID-19 last season. Even with these 6 new players, they didn’t stop there. They drafted center Creed Humphrey in the second round, and Trey Smith from Tennessee in the 6th round (his stock fell in the draft due to medical concerns). So, with 8 new players coming to play on the offensive line (Thuney and Brown being considered elite), the offensive line was revamped from below average, forcing Mahomes to make magical plays, to PFF’s seventh ranked offensive line in the league. With a new offensive line, Mahomes will have days to throw and the running backs should be able to find large holes to run through.

Defense

Front Seven

The Chiefs defensive line hopes to play well this season, as they added Jarran Reed to pair with elite defensive tackle Chris Jones this offseason. The two time pro bowler will look to continue to wreak havoc in the backfield, while Reed will plug gaps in the run game. On the edges, the Chiefs have Mike Danna and Frank Clark. Here, the spotlight is on Clark. He is currently facing felony charges and a three year sentence for an Uzi found in his car during a traffic stop. While he is elite on the field as a pass rusher, the Chiefs will have to let the legal process play out until he can be on the field. Without Clark, the Chiefs’ pass rush will be severely lacking, and they may need to look to free agency to add a veteren like Melvin Ingram to help out. At the linebacker spot, the Chiefs starters project to be Nick Bolton, Anthony Hitchens, and Willie Gay. Last year, Hitchens played some of the best football in his career as he looked more comfortable in the middle. Willie Gay is hoping to put this offseason to use and have one of the well known “second year jumps.” On the other side, Nick Bolton projects to be the starter as a rookie. While an average linebacking corps, Kansas City will hope for no injuries from the position group, as their depth is lacking.

Secondary

In the secondary, the Chiefs are a bit better. L’Jarius Sneed has the potential, if he continues his momentum from late last season, to be one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. He has all the measurables necessary, and came on at the end of last season. On the other side is Chavarius Ward. While he is good, he is nothing like Sneed. He is capable of covering, but will most likely be targeted the most out of the secondary, due to the other players on the back end. At safety, the Chiefs have former second round pick Juan Thornhill. With a slow start to his career due to injury, he looks to put it together this year, after his snap count began decreasing last season. At strong safety, the most notable player on the back end is Tyrann Mathieu. While he is listed at safety, Mathieu will roam all over the field, and excels in those spots too. Mathieu has been a great player throughout his career, and seems poised to excel in Steve Spagnuolo’s 4-3 defense.

Overall

While the defense is not extremely strong, it is good enough to hold up, as the Chiefs efficient offense puts up about 30 points per game. With the Chiefs being one of, if not the strongest team in the league, it is no surprise that they lead off our NFL preview, as well as the odds to win the Super Bowl and the division.

 

Denver Broncos

After a disappointing 5-11 campaign, the Denver Broncos hope to bounce back with their first winning season since 2016. With the consensus futures odds of winning the division at +400, they hope to make risky betters some money.

Offense

Quarterback

Last year’s starter Drew Lock was extremely up and down, resembling the young player that he is. He has an extreme amount of potential to go with his rocket arm, but he is prone to many mistakes, as he throws into coverage and does not read defenses very well. Behind him, they had nothing last season. Thus, they brought in Teddy Bridgewater via trade. Bridgewater, while still young, seems to be quite the opposite of Lock: consistent, but safe with the ball. Bridgewater doesn’t have the strongest arm, and tends to play it safe with many checkdowns. While he doesn’t turn the ball over often, he does not make many “special” plays like Lock can. For Broncos coaches, it seems like this upcoming season could be filled with a “pick your poison” QB carousel, as reports say neither has truly separated themselves in OTA’s so far. Both quarterbacks will be given the opportunity to win the starting job through training camp and preseason, and I foresee Lock winning the job due to potential and familiarity with the offense.

Skill Positions

After losing the hometown hero Phillip Lindsay in free agency, the Broncos’ running back position will mainly be manned by returning starter Melvin Gordon III and rookie Javonte Williams after trading up for him in the draft. Expect Melvin Gordon to be the lead back (at least to begin the year) and Javonte Williams to be the clear 1B. They are both good, strong runners, as well as capable pass catchers and willing pass protectors. Overall, the pairing should make for an above average rushing attack, as Mike Boone projects to be the third back, as well as core special teamer.

Denver’s wide receiver group is deep, and filled with a lot of young potential. With Jerry Jeudy, Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick, and KJ Hamler among others, this group has a ton of promise. Courtland Sutton is coming off a season ending injury, but has shown that he can be a great receiver. Jeudy’s footwork and route running is already elite, even after just one season. Expect him to come out and possibly be the Broncos’ best receiver. Hamler is a small speedster, and Tim Patrick is a jump ball, redzone threat. They truly have all their bases covered here, as well as good depth.

At tight end, the Broncos have former first round pick Noah Fant. A great receiving threat, he has a ton of potential, and saw last season hampered by numerous injuries. Behind Fant, they have Albert Okwuegbunam. The exciting 4th round pick from Missouri also has great potential as a receiving threat, and saw his rookie season go by the wayside due to injury. Behind them is Austin Fort, who can be a dual threat blocking and catching. All young pieces with a lot of potential, the tight end position group has a lot of room to grow.

Offensive Line

Starting from the left side, Garrett Bolles absolutely turned his career around last year. He went from a terrible pick to an all-pro last year, turning that performance into a large contract extension. He was great last year, and hopes to have a similar season this year. At left guard, Dalton Risner is fine. He is good in the run game, but struggles against quicker defenders. He looks to grow this year, as he is still very young. At center, second year player Lloyd Cushenberry will probably have to fight in training camp with draft pick Quinn Meinerz. Last year, Cushenberry was horrific, one of the worst linemen in football. Hopefully he put the offseason to good use, as he will need to improve to continue to start in this league. The one thing he does have on draft season boy wonder Quinn Meinerz is experience. He has already played in the league for a year, and Meinerz attended D3 Wisconsin-Whitewater which didn’t even play football last year. At right guard is Graham Glasnow. Like Risner, he is essentially average. Nothing special, nothing horrible. He can hold his own. Right tackle is currently the Broncos’ biggest question mark. After a dispute about Ja’Wuan James’ achilles injury, he was released. Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop the need for a starter. As of right now, it appears that veteran Bobby Massie will be the starter, but training camp could allow others to step in and win the job. Overall, this group appears to be average, but with growth, they may surprise.

Defense

Front Seven

The Broncos defensive line has some good players, but their depth is lacking. Dre’Mont Jones, Mike Purcell, and Shelby Harris are surely all impact players, but nothing extremely special. Behind them, there really is not much. They may look to add a veteran defensive tackle to compete in camp and provide much needed depth. On the edges, the Broncos have two studs rushing the passer in Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. Two top five picks, and they have surely lived up to it. While Bradley Chubb is young, improving, and a pro bowler, the same can not be said for Von Miller. While still elite, he is aging, and coming off an injury that ended his season before it started. Assuming they are both in top form, this position group could raise this defense to its potential. At linebacker, Denver has Josey Jewell, Alexander Johnson, and rookie Baron Browning. Jewell and Johnson have both been solid in their own ways, being stout against the run game especially. Browning is a rookie who many were high on during the draft. He slipped, but hopes to prove why that was a mistake.

Secondary

The secondary is truly a strength for this Denver team. At cornerback, they have Kyle Fuller, Ronald Darby, Bryce Callahan, and top ten draft pick Patrick Surtain II. Fuller and Darby are extremely legitimate, above average veterans in this league. Callahan had his season disrupted by injuries, but hopes to put that behind him before this campaign. Surtain II was a top ten pick for a reason. Since high school, he has been regarded as one of the top defenders in football, and he hopes to prove it at the highest level. Behind them there is also great depth. This position group went from arguably their worst last year to arguably their best this year. Safety is also strong for this team. Justin Simmons is one of the top 3 safeties in the NFL, and was rewarded this offseason for that play. His partner in the defensive backfield is Kareem Jackson. Jackson can be a ball hawk and a hard hitter. These two can be a dynamic duo. Behind them on the depth chart are rookie Caden Sterns, Trey Marshall, PJ Locke, and Jamar Johnson. An infusion of youth looks to grow behind the two mainstays at safety.

Overall

While young and brimming with potential at many spots on the field, the Broncos are loaded with uncertainty and questions. Vic Fangio hopes to develop these players, and lead them to the playoffs for the first time since 2015 when they won the super bowl with Peyton Manning. After coming in last in the division last season, the Broncos have the second best odds to win the division at +400. They do not seem like a bet that could win, especially at this value.

 

Los Angeles Chargers

With up and coming quarterback Justin Herbert at the helm, the LA Chargers look to improve their 7-9 record from last year and capitalize on an improved offensive line and returns from injuries. At +600, are the Chargers a good value bet to win the AFC West?

Offense

Quarterback

At Quarterback, the Chargers have Justin Herbert. Herbert has all the tools to be a great quarterback. He showed that he can in his rookie year, but can he build on his phenomenal year this season? After being top ten in yards and touchdowns in his rookie year, as well as his arm strength, athleticism, and measurables, it looks like the sky's the limit for Herbert. The only thing that can be questioned is his decision making, as he got into some trouble last year with interceptions. With Joe Lombardi as his offensive coordinator, Herbert hopes to learn the offense and be the leader the Chargers need.

Skill Positions

At running back, LA has fantasy wonder boy Austin Ekeler. As a threat running and (especially) catching the ball, defenses have to game plan for him at all times. However, he has not been able to sustain a full 16 games as a starter, as last season he was largely injured. When Ekeler was injured, Justin Jackson and Joshua Kelley got their chance to shine. While I wouldn’t say they “shined” by any means, they were serviceable, and look to back up Ekeler again in case of injury.

At wide receiver, there are two locks: Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. Allen was a pro bowler who was by far Justin Herbert’s favorite target, and Williams is a large, jump ball threat who is often injured. Behind them, the position is extremely weak. The other receivers fighting for a starting spot are Tyron Johnson, Jalen Guyton, Joe Reed, and Josh Palmer. None of them have proven to be reliable, and there is a lack of a consistent speed threat on the outside. While there aren’t many in free agency, the Chargers may want to look to nab a veteran during training camp, as there is almost no depth at the position.

At tight end, LA lost Hunter Henry to free agency, but added Jared Cook. While much older than Henry at 34 years old, he is not only serviceable, but consistent. He is also a big body, and a threat to score any time in the red zone. Also, he is not a one way player, as he can block too. The change from Henry to Cook seems to be lateral, especially because Henry was often unavailable due to injury.

Offensive Line

Last season was abysmal for the Chargers’ offensive line. It was filled with injuries, rotating players, and poor play. This offseason, they had a plan to completely revamp it, and revamp it they did. They returned Bryan Bulaga, a right tackle who was hit by injuries last year. They then signed arguably the best center in the league, Corey Linsley, and guard Matt Feiler in free agency. They also added Oday Aboushi to play guard. With four spots on the line filled with good play, they were still missing a blindside protector for Herbert. They went into the draft with a clear need at left tackle, and they got the second best in the draft in Rashawn Slater. With a much improved offensive line, the whole offense should look better.

Defense

Front Seven

On the edges, the Chargers have a good pass rushing duo in Joey Bosa and Uchenna Nwosu. New coach Brandon Staley’s defense will be designed to get Bosa 1-on-1 opportunities with the tackle facing him, something he has not been afforded in the past. On the other side, Nwosu is hoping to take a leap this year and is arguably LA’s biggest breakout candidate. Behind them though, depth is lacking, and they may miss Melvin Ingram. In Staley’s 3-4 defense, it will be Bosa and Nwosu on the edges with Jerry Tillery, Linval Joseph, and Justin Jones in the middle. While showing flashes, Tillery has largely disappointed in his young career. Hopefully he can develop, as tackles tend to take a bit longer. Linval Joseph was a big addition this offseason, as he should be able to shore up the run game. Behind Joseph, Jones, and Tillery, once again, depth is lacking.

Staley’s defense does not use very many linebackers, but the Chargers sure do have some good young talent. After a monster rookie year, Kenneth Murray hopes to replicate what he did. Next to him will be a fight between Drue Tranquill and Kyzir White. Either way, I don’t see a way they can go wrong, and they will probably rotate throughout the season. They also have Nick Niemann as another linebacker for depth or subpackages, but hopefully the injury bug does not hit this position group too hard.

Secondary

This defense has one of the most well known players in the league at safety, Derwin James. There is good reason he is so well known: he is one of the most versatile safeties football has seen. He can play deep, or play down in the box; however, the problem is that he is rarely on the field. He has missed 27 of the last 32 games for the Chargers. The old adage of football is “availability is the best ability,” and unfortunately he has not provided that early on in his career. Behind him, there are more question marks. Nasir Adderley is a young player who has also been ravaged by injuries. With last year essentially being his rookie season, he seemed to question himself playing behind Rayshawn Jenkins. With Jenkins moving on this offseason, the Chargers will need Adderley to step up his play if they want to have a capable safety tandem. Behind James and Adderley, the Chargers have a couple of late round, developmental pieces.

With Casey Hayward cut this offseason, the chargers pivoted to extending Michael Davis (rewarding him for a breakout year) and selecting Asante Samuel Jr in the second round of this year’s draft. Davis and Chris Harris seem poised to take the top two spots on the boundaries while Samuel develops. Being that Harris is a veteran on a contract year, he will hopefully rebound from his injury last year, as well as mentor Samuel Jr, teaching him the nuances of playing cornerback at the highest level. Behind them, the main backup will be Brandon Facyson. While he makes mistakes sometimes, he has played well in spurts, and is a sure tackler.

Overall

A lot of the Chargers’ success this year will depend on development from Justin Herbert, how Brandon Staley coaches, how the offensive line meshes, and whether or not the defense is once again ravaged by injuries. At +600 to win the division, I certainly like this bet better than the Broncos’ +400, but I do not see anyone unseating the Chiefs for a long time to come.

 

Las Vegas Raiders

After an 8-8 year and some key new additions, the Las Vegas Raiders hope to continue to build towards a playoff contending team. So, why then, does Vegas seem to be so low on their chances to win the division at a consensus +1000, the worst out of the four teams?

Offense

Quarterback

At quarterback, the Raiders are poised to run it back with Derek Carr at the helm. Coach Jon Gruden’s wonder boy has the keys to the offense and all the tools to succeed, so why have they not gotten over the hump? Carr seems to have a rocket arm and largely has good decision making skills, but sometimes struggles when not given much time. Also, at times he looks like he can be an MVP candidate, and other times he seems as though he's fallen back down to below average, which is why he is not yet considered an elite quarterback in this league. Going into his eighth year as the starter for this raiders team, he needs to be consistently better if this team hopes to go anywhere come playoff time.

Skill Positions

At running back, the Raiders should be set, as they have their bruising rusher in Josh Jacobs, and brought in a speedster in Kenyan Drake to play right behind him. Drake can be a capable third down back, but they also have Jalen Richard behind him, one of the premier pass catching backs in the league. While it is nice to have the luxury of three capable running backs, the only problem they might have is how to get all three on the field enough during a game.

At receiver, Las Vegas is loaded with depth, but I wouldn’t consider anyone “special.” The only argument you could make is for Henry Ruggs III, the speedy receiver out of Alabama. After a disappointing season, last year’s first round pick hopes to develop into a go to receiver for Derek Carr. Behind Ruggs, the Raiders have John Brown, Bryan Edwards, Hunter Renfrow, Willie Snead IV, and Zay Jones. As I said, all have played legitimate roles on NFL rosters, but no one has been a true number one receiver. Renfrow is the classic sure handed chain-mover, Snead can make some plays, and veteran John Brown has been consistently solid throughout his career. The Raiders are hoping one of these six receivers will step up in a way that Nelson Agholor did for them last season, giving them another option to throw to.

At tight end, the Raiders have one of the feel-good stories in the league, Darren Waller. However, he is not just a feel good story anymore, he is easily one of the top three tight ends in the league, right there with George Kittle and Travis Kelce. While not an amazing blocker, Waller is a mismatch problem, as his rare combination of size and speed poses problems for the safety or linebacker that is trying to cover him. And trust me, the keyword there is trying. Last season, Waller ranked in the top ten for receptions, yards, and touchdowns for all players in the league. So, he is the sort of “cover up” for the Raiders’ lack of elite talent at receiver, as he is essentially one of his own. Behind Waller, Las Vegas has Foster Moreau and Derek Carrier.

Offensive Line

At left tackle, last season’s starter Kolton Miller will return. He is young and improving, but needs to shore up and develop, as he has been up and down throughout his career. As of right now, it seems as though 38 year old Richie Incognito will start at left guard, but remember, in the NFL, 38 is basically dinosaur old. If he can not return to form after missing 14 games last year, 2nd year player John Simpson may step in and play at the guard spot. At center, the Raiders puzzlingly let go of Rodney Hudson, one of the best centers in the game. After losing him, you are not really going to upgrade. Projected starter Andre James will have to develop quickly and be a good communicator if this offensive line is to hold its own. Last year, the right guard was Gabe Jackson. Once again, the Raiders are taking a hit to the line here, as stepping in for Jackson is Denzelle Good, who filled in for Incognito at left guard last year. It won’t be as steep of a downgrade as the Andre James one, but nevertheless, still a downgrade. After paying Trent Brown a massive amount, they traded him back to the Patriots where he had his breakout. In the first round, they surprisingly took Alex Leatherwood, a projected second day guy to replace Brown and start on the offensive line. While he will certainly have ups and downs this season (any rookie in the NFL does), he will at least be on the field, unlike Brown.

With some young players stepping in, as well as getting rid of established, elite talent, Vegas’ offensive line is sure to disappoint this year.

Defense

Front Seven

The raiders play a classic 4-3 base defense. Thus, on the edges are young Clelin Ferrell and free agent signing Yannick Ngakoue. When GM Mike Mayock took Ferrell fourth overall two years ago, let’s just say every single mock draft was ruined. Ferrell was projected to go in the early 20s, and so far he has disappointed. He must play well in order to stay in the rotation, as Maxx Crosby has been one of the better edges in the league since he was drafted. On the other side is Ngakoue who is hoping to have a resurgence after disappointing with the Ravens last year. He is certainly capable, as he had a defensive player of the year type season with the Jaguars in their improbable run to the AFC championship (so much so, they were nicknamed Sacksonville). Inside, they have Quinton Jefferson and veteran Jonathan Hankins. They also brought in former third overall pick Solomon Thomas, who is coming off of a season ending knee injury. Also as depth in the defensive tackle rotation is Darius Philon who hopes to continue his consistent play inside.

Recently, linebacker has been a problem for the Raiders, but they hope to spell that this year with this group. They have Cory Littleton, Nick Kwiatkoski, and Nicholas Morrow. Littleton proved he was capable for two years with the Rams, but fell back down to Earth last year after signing with the Raiders. He hopes to have a bounce back year this season. Next to him are Kwiatkoski and Morrow who have both been average at best throughout their careers in the NFL. Besides the average to below average starters, Las Vegas lacks depth at the position. They may look to add someone after training camp cuts, or via trade before the season starts, as the linebacking corps can make or break a team’s defense.

Secondary

In the secondary, the Raiders have quality players, it is just a matter of if they can put it together or not. On the boundaries, they have the aforementioned Casey Hayward Jr, signed after being cut by the Chargers this offseason. They also have former second round pick Trayvon Mullen from Clemson. Behind them, they have Rasul Douglas and former first round pick (yet disappointing) Damon Arnette. Thus, as previously said, they have the talent, it is just a matter of whether or not they can play well together in their scheme or not. At safety, they are also set with talent. Strong safety Johnathan Abram has been injured for much of his time in the NFL, but when he plays, he can be one of the hardest hitting safeties in the league. Next to him, is ball-hawk Trevon Moehrig. After surprisingly falling to the second round and not being the first safety off the board in this year’s draft, the Raiders nabbed him at 43rd overall, making him their starting free safety, hoping to make an impact from the get go. Behind them, they also have veteran Karl Joseph who has been a starter in this league for a few years. This Raiders secondary hopes to bounce back from a disappointing campaign last year, and anchor the defense this season.

Overall

While adding some key pieces, Las Vegas also lost some definite key pieces on the offensive line. It is easy to see why books are so low on them, but they have the talent to play well, develop, and mesh together. At +1000, they have the lowest odds to win the division. They will not unseat the Chiefs, but it is difficult to see why Vegas has their own team’s odds so low.

 

Recap

Overall, it seems as though it is the Kansas City Chiefs… and then everyone else here. The race will really be for second, third, and fourth place in the AFC West. While -250 is not going to give you good value, the odds are what they are for a reason. The Chiefs will likely go unchallenged this season. Behind them, I see the Chargers coming in second, then the Raiders, and then the Broncos.


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