Monday 23 October 2017 / 08:45 PM

SEASON PREVIEW: AFC WEST

Our 2016-17 NFL Preview will highlight each division in the NFL, with an in-depth look at each team as we head into training camp and preseason football. We’ll give predictions and summaries of a season. We’ll also push out our first Power Rankings, as well as an early MVP preview and prediction. Our next look is at the AFC West, which features the defending champs in Denver struggling to retain their rule of the division. Here are the predictions, in order of projected finish:

 

  1. Kansas City Chiefs

Offense: The Chiefs looked left for dead following a 1-5 start and the loss of star running back Jamaal Charles. But, the Chiefs instead relied on Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware, who formed a tandem that moved the Chiefs to the 6th best rush attack in the NFL, and the offense behind Alex Smith, Jeremy Maclin, and Travis Kelce took off. The bulk of that offense returns, with the offensive line also getting a much-needed makeover. Everyone returns, including all three backs, for an offense that should be more like its 10-0 version instead of the 1-5 one. Alex Smith should see some serious support this season, and shouldn’t have to run for 400 yards again on impulse.

Defense:  The Chiefs, on paper, look great defensively. But, injury concerns are looming over a defense that has lost some pieces. Eric Berry, Tamba Hali, and Justin Houston haven’t played in training camp, and coach Andy Reid has no idea when he’ll see them. Once they are on the field, the superb secondary and pass rush can come to fruition. But before that, KC has lost some depth on the line, which wasn’t particularly great last season. Jaye Howard developed nicely at the end, but he’ll need some help from the linebackers, especially without Houston and Hali. Derrick Johnson is far fro ma sure thing. But the secondary, anchored by Phillip Gaines and Marcus Peters, will be lights out when Berry returns.

Best Case:  The injury concerns finally subside and the Chiefs defense cranks up the pressure, and they return to top-10 form. The offense bruises people, and the Chiefs rack up 12+ wins, and battle for the top seed in the AFC. The finally catch the Super Bowl buzz and Reid gets back to the big game.

Worst Case:  The defense succumbs to injuries and falls back to average. The offense struggles at the line, and Jamaal Charles and the running backs can’t keep the intensity. The Broncos again lap the Chiefs, and the roster gets another year older.

How They’ll Finish:  The injuries are concerning, but this team is overtly talented. I think this team is still a playoff team. This division is not too deep, and the Chiefs should be able to manage. But when these key members return from injury will to determine the fate of the Chiefs.

  1. Oakland Raiders

Offense: The Raiders turned an immense corner last season, developing an offense that proved formidable for the first time in a long time. Led by Derek Carr, the team’s young and uber-talented new QB, the Raiders developed an offense with a pulse. Rookie receiver Amari Cooper showed flashes of a superstar, and looks to have all the tools to take it to the next level this season. The jury’s out on whether Carr can, as the hype continues to build around the promising QB. He’s got all the tools around him, as the Raiders feature one the best offensive lines in all of football to keep him upright. The running game needs serious work, with Latavius Murray not being consistent enough to be counted on as a starter.

Defense:  Khalil Mack is garnering steam to enter the conversation for the best defensive player in football, emerging as a guy that can do it all. On the edge, there’ nothing offenses can do to prevent him from getting after the quarterback. Outside of Mack, the Raiders struggled to provide a solid defense around him. That’ll change in 2016, as the Raiders brought in some serious talent to help out. Bruce Irvin and Malcolm Smith will anchor a talented linebacker corps, and Reggie Nelson will seek to provide stability in the secondary along with Sean Smith with the departure of Charles Woodson, who was the heart and soul of the defense.

Best Case:  The defense becomes a top unit and Derek Carr becomes a premier quarterback in the league, as Amari Cooper catches 10+ TDs. The Raiders navigate a forgiving schedule and supplant the Chiefs in the division, and en their 14-year playoff drought.

Worst Case:  The defense isn’t improved, as it struggles without big time leadership. Carr doesn’t take that next step, and the offense stagnates. The Raiders find themselves clawing to reach .500, and the growth of the team hits an impasse.

How They’ll Finish:  I love this Raider team. But I just don’t know where the leadership on defense will come from. There’s some great players, but is Mack the type of player to anchor an entire defense in the locker room?  These guys have all the talent in the world to win this division, but I think they are just a bit too young to knock off both KC and Denver, but I do think they can get one of them and end the playoff drought.

  1. Denver Broncos

Offense:  Very much has been made of the quarterback situation in Denver, and it should be. Mark Sanchez and Trevor Siemian are battling in camp to replace Peyton Manning, and neither really make you excited. But it’s hard to not be optimistic when you’re throwing to Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. They are loaded at the receiver position, and they’ve got plenty of support for whoever the starting QB is going to be. CJ Anderson also returns, and the influx of a better collection of talent at the O-line should give some relief for a QB looking just to manage the game.

Defense:  Sure, this defense took some hits losing Malik Jefferson and Danny Trevathan. And doing so may cause them to take a step back. But this is a seriously talented team regardless. Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware are the best linebacker group in the AFC, and they’ve got great backups in Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett. The line is a serious question without Jefferson, however, and the outside linebackers are going to be called on even more to pressure the quarterback. Which is why it’s not bad to have the best corner duo in the NFL in Chris Harris and Aqib Talib. Throw in TJ Ward and Darian Steward, and this is the best secondary in football. This defense is still going to be unreal.

Best Case:  The defense is all world all over again, and it carries the Broncos. The QB takes over and does a great job managing, keeping the offense modest. The Broncos are able to rely on their crippling defense to win 10+ games and capture another division title and push for another trip to the Super Bowl.

Worst Case: The defense takes a solid step back, and the rush is not nearly as effective. The new QB struggles and the offense falls into the bottom third of the league. The defense can’t keep offenses off the board, and the Broncos recede below .500.

How They’ll Finish:  The Broncos are tough because you have no idea who the QB is. Sanchez is okay, but he’s not going to blaze the world on fire either. I think this defense is another level, however. And for that reason, I don’t think they’re falling off a cliff. But they aren’t making a deep run either.

  1. San Diego Chargers

Offense:  Philip Rivers’ Chargers had probably his worst season in San Diego last season, but not by his doing. Rivers threw for a ton of yards, and 29 TDs, to mostly injured targets. The Chargers will get back Keenan Allen, which will help, but have lost Malcolm Floyd to retirement. They’ve replaced him with the capable Travis Benjamin from Cleveland, and also have Antonio Gates back. The passing game will still be prolific, but aging. The offensive line was abysmal in 2015, allowing way too many hits on Rivers and very few chances for a competent running game. They’ve added some young talent, but all focus will be on getting the running back of the future in Melvin Gordon straightened out, as Gordon struggled to find consistency under former OC Frank Reich’s offense. It will be on new czar Ken Whisenhunt to get Gordon figured out and quickly.

Defense:  The Chargers looked to revamp their defense after moving on from Eric Weddle, and took the first step toward that in selecting Joey Bosa with their top draft pick. The only problem, the Chargers have yet to get Bosa in camp, as a contract dispute has the talent sidelined. Without Bosa, this front line looks really weak, and is going to struggle to get to the quarterback. The linebackers are solid, with Manti Te’o playing well, and Melvin Ingram starting to find rhythm with Jerry Attaochu. The secondary has some solid pieces with Jason Verrett and Dwight Lowery, but they are still prone to mistakes deep, and Brandon Flowers was a no-show last season. They’ll need some serious help to upgrade over an average unit last season.

Best Case:  The defense shows life, and the offense pours in the points behind Rivers and some great receivers. The team stays healthy and fights its way through a challenging and deep AFC West. The Chargers steal a wild card spot and get Rivers back to the postseason.

Worst Case:  The defense regresses as Bosa barely sees the field. Rivers is swamped with the lack of a running game, as Gordon is benched early in the season. The Chargers find the cellar again in the AFC West.

How They’ll Finish:  This team has some solid pieces, and of course I love Philip Rivers. But with Bosa still not in camp, and the offense missing too many parts, and the defense, this team just doesn’t have the upside of the other three in the division.

Next Installment: NFC West

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About the author

Austin Albertson

Austin is CBS' senior NFL and NBA analyst, bringing you commentary on everything between the lines and inside the hashes, from the film room to the scoreboard.

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