AFC West Preview 2016

Last week, I only took a look at one division: the woeful AFC South. But this week, I’ll be previewing what I think will be the most stacked division in football. And it goes beyond the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos.

Make no mistake: I could see any team winning this division. Where all the AFC South teams finished last season as average to bottom-tier competitors, this year’s AFC West almost assuredly will all its teams fighting for playoff spots in 2016.

2016 Denver Broncos

Pros:

Let’s start with the most obvious pro: if you’re the defending Super Bowl champions, chances are that your roster has some talent on it. Denver’s defense last year wasn’t just the best defense in the league – it was arguably one of the better defenses of the last fifteen years (lower numbers are valued as greater, for reference).

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There’s also little reason to think the Broncos will regress too much – out of starters from last year, only defensive end Malik Jackson and linebacker Danny Trevathan aren’t coming back. These are great players at their respective positions, but Denver still retained arguably the league’s best pass rushing linebacker in Von Miller, while still keeping the same secondary core of Chris Harris Jr., Aqib Talib, TJ Ward and Darian Stewart: a mix of savvy veterans and rising talent.

Add in the return of vaunted edge rusher DeMarcus Ware and the comically underrated star defensive end Derek Wolfe to make up what’s still easily the most well-balanced defense in the NFL and probably its best front seven even after losing Trevathan and Jackson. Denver’s defense may not end up as historically dominant as last season, but odds are that the 2016 Broncos, like the 2014 Seahawks did before them, can maintain their top dog status on the top of the defensive leaderboards.

If you’re especially hopeful, you can also point at Denver’s upgrade at quarterback: from the remains of Peyton Manning to presumably Mark Sanchez. That sounds like a joke, but consider just how awful Manning was last year, when he was rated one of the worst quarterbacks in football. Sanchez isn’t the kind of guy you can trust with long-term control over a franchise, but as a below-starter, but above replacement-level quarterback, he can succeed if given a strong defense to back him up, as we saw with the Jets several years ago.

Broncos fans don’t need Sanchez to turn into Aaron Rodgers to succeed – they just need him to hand the ball off to CJ Anderson and occasionally make throws to the likes of Emmanuel Sanders in the slot and DeMaryius Thomas down the field. Given the talent at Denver’s offensive skill positions, it’s hard to imagine that even Sanchez would be noticeable worse than Manning last year – and perhaps play more like Brock Osweiler did within coach Gary Kubiak’s zone-blocking, run-heavy offense.

Cons:

Unfortunately, if you’re a defending Super Bowl champion, history is usually not on your side when it comes to repeating. Save for the 2014 Seahawks, who returned to the Super Bowl, and the 2004 Patriots, who won, no Super Bowl champion in the last fifteen years has come back to the big stage.

2015 Patriots – 12-4, lost in the AFC championship game.
2014 Seahawks – 12-4, lost in the Super Bowl.
2013 Ravens – 8-8, missed the playoffs.
2012 Giants – 9-7, missed the playoffs.
2011 Packers – 15-1, got upset in the divisional round.
2010 Saints – 11-5, got upset in the divisional round.
2009 Steelers – 9-7, missed playoffs.
2008 Giants – 12-4, got upset in the divisional round.
2007 Colts – 13-3, got upset in the divisional round.
2006 Steelers – 8-8, missed playoffs.
2005 Pats -10-6, lost in the divisional round.
2004 Pats – won Super Bowl. 
2003 Bucs – 7-9, missed the playoffs.
2002 Pats – 9-7, missed the playoffs.
2001 Ravens – 10-6, lost in the divisional round.

The “Super Bowl hangover” is clearly overstated, as you can see from the records above. Most defending Super Bowl champions are still mostly great teams that can persevere through departed starters, lost coaches, etc. Nevertheless, it’s hard maintaining championship level success: a whole different beast from just staying merely good.

Take Denver’s sustainability in closing out close games. Last year, they were 9-3 in one-possession games during the regular season. If you include the playoffs, that number goes up to 11-3. It’s unfair to completely discredit Denver’s close wins due to its historically great defense last season, but it’s also ridiculous to expect to them to maintain such an absurd record in close games. Expect to see some natural regression to league average or worse next season.

Moreover, while it’s easy to be amazed by Denver’s lack of weaknesses on defense, it’s similarly terrifying to see just how bad its offensive line will be heading into the season. The Broncos upgraded at left tackle, replacing the dreadful Ryan Harris with a more serviceable Russell Okung, but they also lost brilliant left guard Evan Mathis. In Mathis’ place is the out-of-position center Max Garcia, who started five games last year and looked like a replacement level player when he did play.

On the right end of the offensive line is a whole other nightmare for Denver, with its replacements for Louis Vasquez and Michael Schofield being Ty Sambrailo and Donald Stephenson. Both Vasquez and Schofield were extremely disappointing last year, but there’s no reason to think the people coming after them will be any better.

If Denver had a more reliable quarterback, the discontinuity and stagnancy of its offensive line wouldn’t be as big of a problem, but think about how this could be deleterious for a backup like Sanchez. He is a capable enough quarterback to hand the ball off to keep the chains moving, but when forced to make plays, can be rattled under pressure and extremely turnover prone.

Earlier in his career, he worked well with the Jets because they had a line that could protect him. Once that line regressed in quality and terms of play, Sanchez was essentially left to the dogs and unable to successfully make plays for his team, frequently turning the ball over early on in a possession and giving his defenses little field position to work with. Also: here’s an obligatory butt fumble video.

Best Case: The Denver defense is once again the best one in football, while the offense hovers a bit below league average, but not badly enough to drastically affect Denver’s 10-6 record and shot at an AFC championship game.

Worst Case: Mark Sanchez and the offensive line implode, leading the Broncos quarterback situation to spiral out of control and ruin an otherwise fine football team, which begins to look less like the 2002 Bucs and more like the 2013 Bills in terms of a talented defense being totally wasted by an incompetent offense. 6-10 record, missing the playoffs.

2016 Kansas City Chiefs

Pros:

Even just looking generally at the Chiefs, you can tell they’re just about as good as anyone in football. This sounds like hyperbole, but consider their No. 5 overall ranking on DVOA last season, along with their 11-5 record. By all accounts on offense and defense, Kansas City had a talented roster that’s mostly coming back next year on both ends, ready to have another strong season.

The Chiefs surprisingly finished last season as the No. 6 team in offensive DVOA – and that was mostly without star running back Jamaal Charles. With him back, as well as returning receiving options in reliable tight end Travis Kelce and the versatile Jeremy Maclin, the Chiefs have a chance to continue offensively chugging along with a game manager quarterback like Alex Smith.

If Charles returns with a stellar season, it’ll likely be due to Kansas City’s tremendous improvements on the strong side of its offensive line. For example, the upgrade at right tackle, from the terrible, out-of-position Jah Reid to Mitchell Schwartz, constitutes one of the best offseason moves. That alone might be just enough impact for the Chiefs to stay effective offensively, along with going from a turntable rotation of bad left guards to rookie Parker Ehringer, who may not provide an immediate solution, but could turn into a long-term starter.

On defense, Kansas City has all of its front seven coming back, which is impressive for a a defense that finished No. 7 in adjusted line yards and No. 4 in adjusted sack rate. Derrick Johnson, Justin Houston (a monster when healthy), Tamba Hali are already three of the best complementary linebackers in football on their own, but Alan Bailey, Dontari Poe and Jaye Howard are 27, 25 and 27 year-old talents that are either in their primes or entering it soon. It’s rare to see such continuity on a front seven, but it’s an excellent sign for the Chiefs. If the Broncos didn’t exist, you could argue a healthy Kansas City defense as having the league’s most formidable front seven.

The Chiefs don’t have stars at cornerback, but they don’t need to if their front seven can put enough pressure on opposing teams. The presumably starting Marcus Peters and Steven Nelson are both in their second seasons and already looked like starter-quality material as rookies. Given the talent and continuity both on the front seven and within a safety duo of star Eric Berry and the veteran Ron Parker, it’s hard to imagine both Peters and Nelson noticeably regressing – making up a defense that has the continuity, talent and coaching (A fourth season for defensive coordinator and maestro Bob Sutton) to become the best in the league.

Cons:

While Kansas City’s offense remarkably exceeded expectations without Charles in the starting lineup for a chunk of its season, you could argue that its performance was due to a small sample size and a little bit of luck. Per toxic differential, which combines both turnover differential and big play differential, the Chiefs ranked No. 5 in the NFL.

Even with a game manager like Smith at quarterback, it’s hard to maintain that kind of fortune. This doesn’t mean that he will suddenly turn into Blaine Gabbert, but it’s reasonable to expect a regression from his impressive 1.5 interception rate to his career mark at 2.3 this season. A 0.8 percent increase sounds minor, but it has a huge impact, as Smith can tell you himself, having experienced it from 2011 to 2012.

After two years of looking horrendous, former No. 1 pick Eric Fisher finally looked serviceable at left tackle, but he has still looked mostly disappointing given how highly he was regarded in 2013 and how up and down he’s been in his career. Moreover, if second-year right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tarif struggles for another season, it could add another hole in the interior offensive line. To be fair, if there’s any coach that can make guys like Fisher, Duvernay-Tarif and Ehringer work, Andy Reid is the guy, but it will still be difficult if the Chiefs aren’t as lucky in staying away from turnovers.

There’s also a big flaw that stops the Chiefs’ defense from being assuredly greater than its contemporaries: depth, since it doesn’t have any noteworthy players behind the defensive starters. Moreover, while Peters played well as a cornerback last year, that was also with Sean Smith acting as Kansas City’s No. 1 corner taking on most of the responsibility of taking the toughest defensive assignment. It’s tough to say for certain how Peters will fare in a new role.

Best Case: Charles plays like a top-five running back in football and coach of the year Reid makes a patchwork offense still look capable for another season, complemented by the best defense in football. Looking like the most rounded team in football, Kansas City goes 13-3 and possibly wins a Super Bowl with defensive player of the year Justin Houston as its Super Bowl MVP.

Worst Case: The Chiefs’ line regresses and so does the play of Kansas City’s skill position players. Add in injuries to the defense exposing depth problems that hurt the Chiefs’ ability to succeed throughout the season against their cutthroat division. A final, painful mistake in clock management or play calling by the brilliant, but infuriating Reid closes out an 8-8 season where Kansas City misses the playoffs.

2016 Oakland Raiders

Pros: 

It sounds weird, but read the following sentence out loud. The Raiders are a good football team. Maybe you haven’t read a phrase like that since 2002, but if you’ve watched Oakland last season, you know that now is probably the teams’ best chance to content for a playoff spot.

In a division that has the Broncos and Chiefs, the Raiders are equipped to have an offensive line that can take on any defensive front seven in football. It was already enough that they returned starters in left tackle Donald Penn, center Rodney Hudson and guard Gabe Jackson: already all arguably borderline top ten or higher at their positions.

But the Raiders also replaced the dud and out-of-position J’Marcus Webb with Kelechi Osemele, who already had a great start to his career in Baltimore and has the supporting cast around him to succeed like he did in 2014. The only relative weak link on the offensive line is the talented, but oft-injured Menelik Watson in place of Austin Howard, but Watson will also be likely playing with support from the underrated Lee Smith, an underwhelming receiving tight end, but a force to be reckoned with as a blocker.

If the offensive line looks as great as promised, the Raiders skill position players could thrive in another year. As a rookie, Amari Cooper already showed flashes of brilliance and fellow second-year Clive Walford should show additional progress as a receiving tight end to complement Smith. We could soon see that No. 18 rank in offensive DVOA rise up to a top ten finish if quarterback Derek Carr makes the second-to-third year jump that his fans have been waiting for.

It’s not as if Oakland is a one-dimensional team heading into 2016. In fact, the 2015 Raiders finished a higher No. 15 in defensive DVOA and could get even better this year. Anchored by Khalil Mack, an outside linebacker who is just about as excellent as any of his contemporaries in the NFL, Oakland’s defense also features players like promising defensive end Mario Edwards, Dan Williams and a veteran presence on the outside pass rush like Bruce Irvin.  These are great players for coach Jack Del Rio and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. to work with, given their excellent track records with defensive talent.

One key player for the defense is Justin Ellis, who looked like an average starter in his second season, but is reportedly outplaying Williams for a starting nose tackle spot. This is especially impressive given how effective Williams was last year. If the Raiders can find some way to have lineups with both defensive tackles on the field, not only will they have the depth to compete against any offensive line, but they’ll also have two interior gap defenders to shut down any opposing rushers. Combined with a pass rush led by Mack and Irvin, we could see last year’s underwhelming adjusted line yards and adjusted sack rate stats increase to a more fitting spot by the end of the year.

Oakland’s secondary also looks like it could be the best it’s been in a decade. Cornerback David Amerson was secretly one of the better defenders at his position in the league – and this year, he’ll be complemented by Sean Smith, the Chiefs’ former No. 1 corner. Backing them up deep are the consistent Reggie Nelson and first round rookie Karl Joseph, replacing Charles Woodson. Given the depth and versatility of Oakland’s defense up front and in the secondary, Joseph is in an ideal situation for a young defensive back.

Cons:

On paper, Oakland’s offense looks balanced, but in practice, the results could be hard to come by if it doesn’t see drastic improvement in its key skill position players. Keep in mind that even with last year’s offensive line, the Raiders finished only No. 24 in rushing offense DVOA. The same goes for Carr, who has looked promising, but might just not be the same kind of long-term franchise-changing player that someone like Drew Brees or Phillip Rivers is. Especially if the Raiders don’t recover 61.1 percent of their fumbles again.

If Cooper gets hurt and running back Latavius Murray doesn’t significantly improve as a running back, the Raiders won’t have enough offensive options to take advantage of their tremendous offensive line. Wideout Michael Crabtree is a great No. 2 receiver at this point in his career, but there’s simply not enough depth behind him at the skill positions to warrant too much defensive attention. That could be the difference between Oakland’s offense finally breaking out versus it still hovering around or even below league average.

Moreover, the defense still has its problems of defending across the middle of the field. DJ Hayden, coming off a down year, former Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith and Ben Heeney are not players without promise, but they could be easily exposed across the middle of the field if the Raiders can’t get a consistent pass rush going or stop the run.

This sounds like a minor problem, but considering how heavily some of the league’s best teams focus on throwing in the slot and going wide, it’s arguably the worst issue for Oakland to have on its defense – particularly if it can’t find a way to use both Williams and Ellis on the same line without sacrificing speed and versatility on the line.

Best Case: The Raiders make that offensive jump, as Murray, Carr and Cooper all substantially improve behind the league’s best offensive line. Mack makes his case for defensive player of the year and, for the first time since 2002, Oakland wins an AFC West division title at 10-6, possible even making some waves in the playoffs.

Worst Case: Oakland looks like the same promising team from last year, but never fully makes the jump from average to good, as they can’t find a way to break the impenetrable wall of defensive juggernauts like the Broncos and Chiefs. A losing division record leaves the Raiders as the odd men out in a stacked division, with the team finishing a competitive, but still heartbreaking 7-9, fourth-place divisional finish.

2016 San Diego Chargers

Pros:

The 2015 Chargers were bad in ways, but perhaps most painfully near the end of their matches, as seen by their porous 3-9 record in one-possession games, including a stretch from October 12 to November 9 of losing five straight games by eight points or less. If San Diego has anywhere near as awful of a season-killing stretch as that this year in one possession games, I would be both amused and horrified. The same goes for its eyebrow-raisingly bad toxic differential last year, a result of big plays given up by their defense, a lack of big plays on offense and an unfortunate turnover differential.

In 2016, the Chargers’ plan for success will likely rely on how much more effectively quarterback Phillip Rivers can throw the ball down the field from last year, when he had virtually no deep threats. The healthy return of wideout Keenan Allen, as well as Travis Benjamin coming into replace the retired Malcolm Floyd, should go a long way towards improving a passing offense that already ranked No. 8 last year in pass DVOA despite a total lack of a running game behind it. Especially if San Diego can get another productive season from the reliable Antonio Gates and Danny Woodhead.

You can certainly criticize offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and coach Mike McCoy as in-game decision makers, but their track record of growing versatile wideouts is impressive.  Whisenhunt has coached players Santonio Holmes, Heath Miller, Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston, while McCoy was arguably the architect behind the Broncos when they had DeMaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. San Diego’s group of receivers could add their names to the two coaches’ resume.

The Chargers have a cornerback duo that could become one of the best in the NFL. Cornerback Jason Verrett had another standout year from his defensive teammates, but instead of Brandon Flowers on the other side of the field will be Casey Heyward, one of the league’s best nickel backs and slot defenders. Flowers himself could see an improvement as a situational defensive back since he won’t have to worry about defending slot receivers any more.

Another tandem to watch out for on defense could be outside linebackers Melvin Ingram and Jerry Attaochu, who could add their names to a list of developed linebackers for defensive coordinator John Pagano, who has already helped develop strong linebackers of the past for San Diego, like Steve Foley, Randall Godfrey, Shaun Phillips and Shawn Merriman. Perhaps even second year linebacker Denzel Perryman can make his name on that list too.

Cons:

While I think San Diego’s record in close games has a lot to do with bad luck, you could also argue that it came because of McCoy’s bad history of in-game decision making. I’ve written about my issues with McCoy several times before as part of my old Coaching Corner weekly pieces – particularly in his peculiar decisions on fourth down, where he was often unreasonably and indefensibly conservative in his approaches. You can see what I mean here, in a table I made to measure the most risk-averse and risk-taking coaches in the NFL.

It won’t help McCoy if he can’t get a running game started for another season either. Last year, the Chargers were ranked as the second worst rushing team per DVOA and they almost did nothing in the offseason to fix that outside of replacing Trevor Robinson, perhaps the worst center in football last year to get meaningful snaps, with Matt Slauson, maybe one of the league’s best.

But even Slauson doesn’t immediately bring the line to average. Even discounting down seasons from left tackle King Dunlap, guard Orlando Franklin and right guard DJ Fluker: all hurt last year and below replacement level when they played. In fact, right tackle Joe Barksdale might have been the Chargers’ best offensive lineman last year. If he or Slauson get hurt, this is once again one of the league’s worst offensive lines. Barring some improvement from second year running back Melvin Gordon, the Chargers will likely be stuck with another one-dimensional offense, even if their passing is even better this season.

Pagano’s also likely in his last year of defensive coordinator for San Diego if he can’t stop their defensive decline since he took reigns of the defense in 2012. Since then, the Chargers defense have gone from being ranked No. 18 to No. 32 to No. 25 to No. 28 in defensive DVOA. Unfortunately, there’s not much talent outside of the linebacking and cornerback duos within San Diego’s defense, even with the addition of defensive tackle Brandon Mebane to help the Chargers’ woeful No. 31 finish in rush defense DVOA.

The rest of the defense involves the likes of Corey Liuget, No. 3 pick left end Joey Bosa, the disappointing Manti T’eo and a sieve in safety Jahleel Addae, who has looked worse each successive season since being drafted in 2013. Make no mistake: the Chargers are one injury away from, if not already being a part of, becoming one of the league’s worst front sevens and least versatile defenses.

Best Case: Rivers turns the clock back eight years and, along with a receiving cast reminiscent of the 2008 Cardinals, leads a top five passing offense in the NFL, carrying the Chargers to go even with their divisional opponents and beat up on the easiest schedule out of them. With better luck in close games, San Diego somehow finishes 10-6 and with a division title under the back of its MVP-level quarterback.

Worst Case: San Diego’s defense stays bad and the offense isn’t strong enough to overcome botched fourth-down decisions and a tough division. Even worse, an injury to Rivers basically guarantees a disappointing 5-11 finish and awkward offseason where several coaches get fired.

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