ALL 32 of the NFL’s franchises are working through their training camps in preparation for the new season.
With that in mind, it’s worth looking at the state of play in each division, this time continuing with the AFC West.
This division is up in the air this season and promises to be one of the more exciting tussles for supremacy for years to come. Denver, the reigning champs – and Super Bowl champs, at that – have a quarterback competition and lost two integral cogs of their top-ranked defence in the offseason. Kansas City, the second team from the AFC West to make the playoffs last season, had my personal favourite draft (more on two choices in particular later) and have an ever-improving offence. Oakland are everyone’s unsurprising surprising pick for a Super Bowl run this season, with a QB who will continue to grow with his WR1 and a young yet bullish defensive core. And San Diego will always be able to keep up offensively while Philip Rivers is in town (whether that town be San Diego or somewhere else).
Despite his numerous accolades, undoubted charisma and un-matched work ethic – the Denver Broncos won the Super Bowl 50 in spite of Peyton Manning. The face of Papa John’s was able to ride into the sunset a champion but not before a regular season where he threw almost twice as many picks as he did touchdowns and he posted his lowest completion percentage since his rookie year. In the postseason he used his savvy to game-manage and allow the Broncos’ mean defence to dominate. Cue a monster Super Bowl performance from star pass rusher Von Miller . Miller and the Broncos were on ropey terms over the offseason over a new contract but after initially using the franchise tag to keep him in Colorado, a 6-year deal worth $114.5 million was signed – meaning the second overall pick out of Texas A&M in 2011 became the highest paid defensive player in NFL history. He deserves it, and he’ll live up to it.
The questions on the defence surround who’ll fill the boots of Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan. Middle linebacker Trevathan figures to be the harder of the two to replace. The secondary of Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr and Bradley Roby remains in tact (just, quite literally). The unit as a whole might not be as forceful as 2015 but up-and-comers like Shane Ray will keep them near the top.
Offence is where the real question lies. Who starts at quarterback? Will it be Mark Sanchez, orchestrator of the butt-fumble? Or will first-round pick Paxton Lynch be thrust into a starting role? Then there’s the wildcard: Trevor Siemian, who at the time of writing is sharing the ‘co-No.1’ quarterback role with Sanchez. The not-so-subtle war of words between John Elway and Brock Osweiler is unpleasant to watch but Denver fans are probably still wishing he was here (even though the 6’7” Lynch looks like a second coming of Osweiler).
The Kansas City Chiefs made the playoffs last year without two-time First-team All-Pro running back Jamaal Charles. Alex Smith will love having him back as will coach Andy Reid. It will open up the passing game more for number one target Jeremy Maclin and emerging tight end Travis Kelce. The defence boasts a real fighter in Eric Berry and 2015 Rookie of the Year Marcus Peters. In the draft the Chiefs added two of my personal favourites – the downright monstrous defensive lineman Chris Jones from Mississippi State and hard-hitting corner Eric Murray. The former should contribute from day one, while the latter will be involved in a competition to replace Sean Smith who left for divisional rivals Oakland. The Chiefs though do have concerns over the long-term health of Justin Houston and Tamba Hali.
Speaking of the Raiders, the theme of this division should be relocation, relocation, relocation. As fervent as the Silver and Black’s fans are the city is reluctant to build them a new stadium. Los Angeles and Las Vegas are the two rumoured destinations. Regardless of whatever big-money move the team may make, the players on the roster will provide plenty of excitement. Khalil Mack made the Pro Bowl and was a First-team All-Pro in 2015. He’s a defensive chess piece capable of rushing from the outside or inside, standing up or with his hand in the dirt. Any time you grab a player from a divisional rival you’re doing something right and along with Smith, the Raiders appear to have resurrected the career of former Washington Redskins second-round choice David Amerson (albeit a four-year deal with $18million guaranteed seems a stretch).
On offence, Derek Carr and Amari Cooper can blossom and grow together like Manning and his Indianapolis teammate and Hall of Famer Marvin Harrison. If the running game can find some consistency, the calls for Oakland to make a deep run into the playoffs will be louder and truer.
Philip Rivers has put up Hall of Fame numbers in San Diego yet is undervalued by more than a few writers. This year he’ll look to pick up where he left off with Keenan Allen, who suffered a gruesome injury last year and decimated the Chargers’ receiving corps. Still, Rivers managed to throw for more yards than ever despite the fact. Some of that was down to poor play from last year’s first-round draft choice Melvin Gordon, which meant the run game was ineffective. The selection of Hunter Henry – college football’s recipient of the John Mackey Award for the best tight end in 2015 – means the Chargers’ two-tight end sets will be one of the most feared in football as eight-time Pro Bowler Antonio Gates mans the other spot. That will help the pass and run games.
On defence, if Joey Bosa learns his place as a rookie and stops fighting the inevitable, he may actually be capable of helping a struggling defence that will have to cope with the loss of stud safety Eric Weddle. The ongoing development of Jason Verrett should help with that, too.
1st – Denver Broncos
=2nd – Oakland Raiders
=2nd – Kansas City Chiefs
4th – San Diego Chargers