The AFC West continues to be run by the Kansas City Chiefs, winners of four consecutive division titles and an overwhelming favorite for a fifth. As the rest of the division works tirelessly in the lab to figure out how Patrick Mahomes and company could be dethroned, two teams are rebuilding with new franchise quarterbacks and renewed firepower.
Matching up with the Chiefs pound-for-pound won’t be easy, but the Denver Broncos are trying. Denver added plenty of offensive weapons for Drew Lock in the hopes he is the franchise quarterback the organization has lacked since Peyton Manning retired. The Las Vegas Raiders hope a new city, fanbase, and stadium will generate even more revenue and success for one of the NFL‘s iconic franchises.
The Los Angeles Chargers finally have a place to call home in SoFi Stadium, but they won’t have Philip Rivers. Los Angeles moved on from its longtime franchise quarterback his offseason and selected Justin Herbert in the first round of the NFL Draft, signaling a new era for a franchise that has failed to capture the division title since 2009 and hasn’t reached a Super Bowl since the 1994 season.
Kansas City isn’t giving up the AFC West any time soon, as Mahomes is the vibranium that keeps the franchise operating at a high level. The Chiefs aren’t running out of that metal in the near future either (as long as Mahomes is around), so let’s take a look at the most important question for each team in the division and see if anyone can actually challenge Kansas City in 2020.
Which AFC West teams will go over (and under) their projected win totals? Sean Wagner-McGough joins Will Brinson on the Pick Six Podcast to break down every team in the NFC and AFC West; listen below and be sure to subscribe for daily NFL goodness.
Chiefs: Can K.C. become first the back-to-back champ since the 2003-2004 New England Patriots?
The Chiefs decided to “run it back,” returning 20 of 22 starters from the Super Bowl LIV championship team (only guard Stefen Wisniewski and linebacker Reggie Ragland will not return). Included are Super Bowl MVP Mahomes and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Chris Jones, who Kansas City franchise tagged this offseason.
Kansas City is loaded on offense and will always be a championship contender with Mahomes at quarterback. Remember, Mahomes played the majority of 2019 on a bum knee, yet still threw for 4,031 yards and 26 touchdowns to just five interceptions in 14 games — and was even better in the postseason (901 yds, 10 TD, 2 INT, 111.5 rating). Imagine how Mahomes is going to perform at 100 percent health — and a year away from his mega-deal. Kansas City added another weapon on offense in Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who head coach Andy Reid compares to Philadelphia Eagles great Brian Westbrook.
The Chiefs defense should be improved under another year with Steve Spagnuolo. It’s a unit that allowed just 10.4 points in the final five regular season contests last year and 51 points in the final 10 quarters of the postseason.
The AFC West is better, but the Chiefs still run the division. The Baltimore Ravens are the biggest threat in the AFC to Kansas City heading back to the Super Bowl, but the Chiefs have the talent to win it all again. Getting home-field advantage will be key toward the Chiefs repeating, especially since there is only one bye awarded in the playoffs now.
Broncos: Will Drew Lock be able to take the next step?
Denver fans have to feel optimistic after what they saw out of Lock in the five starts he made last season. Lock was a spark for the Broncos offense, completing 64.1% of his passes for 1,020 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions for an 89.7 passer rating, as Denver had a 4-1 record in games he started.
Denver averaged 21.4 points per game in Lock’s starts, but expectations should be even greater in Year 2. The Broncos added Melvin Gordon to partner with Phillip Lindsay at running back and somehow had Jerry Jeudy fall into their lap at No. 15 overall in the draft while selecting speedster K.J. Hamler in the second round. Those two rookies will be paired with Courtland Sutton, possibly forming one of the best young wide receiver trios in football — and let’s not forget Noah Fant at tight end. This young nucleus could be enough for Lock to have a strong sophomore season in Denver and take the Broncos to the playoffs for the first time since 2015.
However, Huge deterrents to Lock’s success are at the tackle positions, as Ja’Wuan James is coming off a season which he tore ligaments in his knee in the first game after signing a four year, $51 million deal the previous offseason with the Broncos (the injury limited James to three games) — along with Denver declining Garett Bolles‘ firth-year option. There’s uncertainly at both of those spots, which may be why the Broncos are interested in Jason Peters. James recovering from his knee injury and playing well at right tackle will solve a lot of problems.
The lack of a typical offseason minicamp could also hinder Lock, as he will be unable to develop chemistry with his young wideouts and new playmakers. Jeudy and Hamler will also be affected by the virtual offseason, which could result in slow starts.
Lock also will have to learn a new offensive system under offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur after Denver fired Rich Scangarello. That could result in some growing pains early on.
Lock may need a few games to get going in 2020, but the Broncos have enough talent around him to make the playoffs in a seven-team conference format. Denver may be a year or two away from competing for the AFC West, but the Broncos are good enough to snap a four-year playoff drought. Lock’s development is vital toward Denver’s future.
Raiders: Can Derek Carr hold off Marcus Mariota for the starting QB job?
This may be Carr’s last chance to prove he’s the franchise quarterback of the Raiders, as the team signed Mariota to a two year, $17.6 million deal this offseason — a lot of money toward a No. 2 quarterback. Carr still has three years left on his five-year, $125 million extension, but the Raiders can move on from him after 2020 and save $19.625 million in cap space.
Basically the clock is ticking on Carr’s time in Las Vegas, a franchise that spent over $130 million in free agency to field a competitive roster and compete for a playoff berth in the expanded format. Carr set a career high in completion percentage (70.4%), yards (4,054) and yards per attempt (7.9) in 2019, but the Raiders went just 7-9 last season.
Carr’s job security is a question mark. He had one of his best seasons last year, but is this the most Las Vegas can get out of their franchise quarterback? Why would they give Mariota that much money to be Carr’s No. 2, especially since Carr has missed only two regular season games in his six-year career?
The one constant throughout the Raiders’ constant roster overhauls has been Carr, a quarterback head coach Jon Gruden seems committed to build around. Carr finally has a top-15 offensive line, a young stud running back in Josh Jacobs, speed at outside receiver in Henry Ruggs and Tyrell Williams (along with Hunter Renfrow in the slot) and a 1,000-yard tight end in Darren Waller.
All the tools are there for Carr to succeed and have the best season of his career. Unless Carr seriously struggles, his job shouldn’t be in jeopardy. With Mariota around (even in a developmental role), Carr still has to look over his shoulder.
The Raiders should compete for a playoff berth in 2020. If they don’t, Carr is the player who will be replaced this time.
Chargers: When will Anthony Lynn turn to Justin Herbert at QB?
The Chargers continue to field a competitive roster (they are just a year removed from a 12-4 season and a playoff win), but Los Angeles moved on from Philip Rivers after finishing -16 in the turnover battle (second worst in the NFL) and finishing fourth in the league with 20 interceptions thrown.
Out goes Rivers, in comes Tyrod Taylor — who will get the opportunity to start and correct the turnover situation. Taylor has a career interception percentage of 1.47, second-best among active quarterbacks with over 1,000 pass attempts. He has a solid 23-21 record as a starter, tossing 54 touchdowns to just 20 interceptions and posting a quarterback rating of 89.8.
The age-old question still lingers with the 30-year-old Taylor — is he just a very good No. 2 quarterback or can he be a solid NFL starter? Taylor’s three seasons with the Buffalo Bills prove he can start, but his short stint with the Cleveland Browns showed he was just a bridge quarterback until Baker Mayfield was ready to take over the starting job.
Chances are Taylor is the latter in Los Angeles, even though he has a revamped offensive line with Bryan Bulaga, Mike Pouncey and Trai Turner along with an explosive running back duo of Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson. Let’s not forget a nice pass catching trio of Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and Hunter Henry. There’s enough talent on offense for Taylor to hold on to the Chargers starting job as long as he doesn’t turn the ball over.
The Chargers did select Herbert with the No. 6 overall pick, but the virtual offseason and lack of OTAs will hurt his development. Taylor may get an extended look at quarterback thanks to having a year with offensive coordinator Shane Steichen (even if he was in the interim role last year).
If Taylor plays well enough, he could have the starting job the majority of the year. There’s a good chance Herbert may not see the field and earn consistent snaps until December, or even at all in 2020, if that happens.