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AFC West: NFL 2021 season preview

By Emile Avanessian

Published: 12:28, 10 September 2021

Until further notice, the AFC West runs through Kansas City.

The 2021 NFL season is upon us, we’re here to make sure you’re prepared.

We’re breaking down the teams that make up each of the league’s eight divisions. In this instalment, we round out the AFC with a look at the AFC West.

This division is home to NFL’s most explosive and exciting team (and the oddsmakers’ favourite to lift a second Lombardi Trophy in three years) the Kansas City Chiefs, a potential powerhouse in the Chargers, and a pair of teams (the Raiders and Broncos) that between them would be quite good, but are too fatally flawed in their current states to pose much of a threat.

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Kansas City Chiefs

  • 2020 regular-season/playoff finish: 14-2, lost in Super Bowl to Buccaneers
  • Head Coach: Andy Reid
  • Starting Quarterback: Patrick Mahomes
  • Predicted 2021 finish: 13+ regular season wins, return trip to the Super Bowl

The game’s result notwithstanding, Patrick Mahomes’ showing in Super Bowl LV lived up to his lofty standard. Few quarterbacks in history could have even attempted several throws that he put on target while running for their lives as he was. As great a luxury as that is, keeping Mahomes upright is the priority in Kansas City.

The Chiefs’ offensive line ranked a respectable eleventh in Pro Football Focus’s final 2020 rankings. That was before the group was beset by injuries. Now, it’s important to distinguish between a shorthanded and unsettled performance against an incredibly talented and well-coached Buccaneers defense and some sort of “new normal”. At the same time, an excess of patience can lead to inertia.

Rather than simply demand more from every other element of their brilliant offense: the coaching, the staggering collection of skill talent – tight end Travis Kelce, wide receiver Tyreek Hill, running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire – and, of course, Mahomes, the Chiefs opted to act decisively.

Gone are longtime starting tackles Mitchell Schwartz and Eric Fisher, replaced by holdover Mike Remmers and draft day trade acquisition Orlando Brown Jr, a two-time Pro Bowler with the Ravens. KC also added Patriots All-Pro left guard Joe Thuney in free agency, on a five-year, $80 million deal. Starting opposite him will likely be Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, a starter since 2015 who opted out of the 2020 season. Competing for the spot (though more likely providing depth) is Kyle Long, a former Pro Bowler with the Bears who retired in 2019. Center, meanwhile, comes down to former L.A. Ram Austin Blythe and touted rookie Creed Humphrey. Whoever falls short will provide more depth. Another pair of rookies, Trey Smith and Lucas Niang, will factor in as well.

 In the face of disappointment, KC took a good O-line and made it one of the league’s deepest and most talented.  

The other side of the ball tells a different story.

The Chiefs don’t need a great defense to contend. Given their offensive firepower, they just need competence. Honestly, “below average” might even do the trick.

That’s probably a good thing,

Defensive tackle Chris Jones – the NFL’s best interior lineman not named Aaron Donald – is slated to slide over to defensive end, creating a strong set of bookends with right end Frank Clark. In between is former Seahawk Jarran Reed, a solid free agent signing. In the secondary, KC must replace CB Bashaud Breeland, but second- (L’Jarius Sneed) and third-year (Charvarius Ward) CBs and one of the NFL’s better safety tandems, Tyrann Mathieu and Juan Thornhill, should provide stability and playmaking. That’s the good news.

Starting underwhelming fourth-year man Derrick Nnandi at DT, with little (in terms of quantity and quality) behind him, is less than ideal. At linebacker, 2020 and 2021 second-round picks Willie Gay Jr. and Nick Bolton offer upside, but are unproven.

There’s talent here, though not exactly an abundance. And a lack of depth will almost certainly be an issue at some point.

And yet, whether any of that matters is debatable.

The Bottom Line: The Chiefs head into the 2021 season with some holes, particularly on the defensive front and behind Tyreek Hill at WR. They profiled similarly a year ago. A year ago, they were, once again, outstanding.

This season, they’re also breaking in an overhauled offensive line.

These are issues that can torpedo the fortunes of most NFL teams. Most.

Ever since he entered the NFL, Patrick Mahomes has routinely done things that few can fathom, let alone properly analyse. Such is the nature of his genius. Betting against him finding a way forward has seldom worked out.

Until further notice, as long as he and his weapons are healthy, the Chiefs are Super Bowl favorites.

Los Angeles Chargers

  • 2020 regular-season/playoff finish: 7-9, missed playoffs
  • Head Coach: Brandon Staley
  • Starting Quarterback: Justin Herbert
  • Predicted 2021 finish: 11 wins, and a playoff berth

In 2020, the Los Angeles Rams had the best defense in the NFL. Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey were a huge part of that, though some credit ought to go to defensive coordinator Brandon Staley. Staley’s still in L.A., only now as Chargers head coach.

For one of the game’s most creative defensive coaches, leaving talents like Donald and Ramsey can’t have been easy. On the bright side, the Chargers have a spectacular duo of their own in Joey Bosa and Derwin James.

The frighteningly talented James is potentially the best safety in the game. Unfortunately, injuries (a broken foot in 2019, and a torn meniscus a year ago) have limited him to just 299 snaps since his rookie year, including zero in 2020. It appears that he’s fully recovered and happy to be back on the field. If healthy, he is a superstar-level difference-maker.

Bosa, meanwhile, has dealt with injuries of his own – a left foot injury cost him most of 2018; last season, a pair of concussions cost him four games. When he’s on the field, he’s phenomenal, averaging 13 tackles for loss, more than nine sacks, and nearly 50 tackles per season, winning Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2016, and earning three Pro Bowl selections and the largest contract for a defensive player in NFL history. If he’s healthy, the only question surrounding Bosa is if anyone will help him up front.

The Chargers have a potential third defensive star in linebacker Kenneth Murray. As a rookie in 2020, Murray made an immediate impact, starting all 16 games and recording 107 tackles. He’ll need to take strides in pass coverage, but has the speed, power and smarts of a future star.

The defense suffered significant losses, with safety Rayshawn Jenkins, LB Denzel Perryman and CB Casey Hayward all moving on. Encouraging third-year safety Nasir Adderley and a pair of corners – highly-regarded rookie Asante Samuel Jr and former All-Pro Chris Harris Jr, who looks to be fully recovered from a foot injury that cost him seven games in 2020 – will try to shore up the secondary.

Staley will have a great time scheming around this top-end talent, though a lack of proven depth, particularly at CB and on the line, is concerning.

How have we come this far without mentioning one of the great rookie quarterbacks in NFL history?

In hindsight, that Justin Herbert was only named the starting QB after a botched pregame pain-killing injection in Week 2 punctured Tyrod Taylor’s lung is crazy. In fairness, Herbert was not a surefire star coming out of college, and there is something to be said for bringing a rookie QB along slowly. At the same time…

Once in the lineup, he was phenomenal. The NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year finished top-10 in the NFL in completions (396), passing yards (4,336), passing TDs (a rookie record 31), interception percentage (1.7%; lower is better here) and game-winning drives (3), and completed a stellar 66.6% of his passes, for a near-top-10 7.3 yards per attempt. He was consistent (his only truly bad game came in Week 13) and a big-play threat, with ten completions of at least 48 yards. 

Herbert was highly effective under pressure, posting a league-best 57% completion percentage while under duress. For a rookie stepping in behind a genuinely awful offensive line, this was vital. Ideally, it’s a skill set he’ll use less in 2021, as the Chargers made some huge upgrades up front.

With the 13th pick in the draft, the Chargers selected tackle Rashawn Slater, a consensus top-two O-lineman in the 2021 draft. Then, in free agency, they added guards Oday Aboushi and Matt Feiler, and Packers All-Pro center, Corey Linsley. Meanwhile, right tackle Bryan Bulaga is back (provided a minor preseason hip injury remains just that), after missing six games in 2020. This improved unit should make Herbert’s life in the pocket far more comfortable.

At the skill positions, tight end Hunter Henry is a notable departure, though veteran Jared Cook and 6-foot-8 second-year man Donald Parham should fill the void. Beyond that, one of the NFL’s best all-around running backs, Austin Ekeler, is back as is a balanced, potentially top-10 four-deep (Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Tyron Johnson, Jalen Guyton) WR corps. 

The Bottom Line: There’s a good bit to dream on here.

A spectacular second-year QB, working with a new, highly experienced QB coach (Joe Lombardi, who spent 12 of the past 14 years alongside Sean Payton and Drew Brees in New Orleans), behind a solid line, surrounded by attacking talent. On the other side of the ball, an incoming defensive guru head coach has top-end talents at each level.

Of course, whether in San Diego or L.A, talent and potential have never been issues. Rather, the Chargers’ calling cards have long been injuries and bad bounces. Herbert’s emergence, ahead of schedule and better than anyone had imagined, suggests things may be changing.

There are holes on defense. There’s also the always-dicey position of banking on good injury luck. However, it’s tough to shake the feeling that at some point the Chargers will catch some breaks. Why not now?

Denver Broncos

  • 2020 regular-season/playoff finish: 5-11, missed playoffs
  • Head Coach: Vic Fangio
  • Starting Quarterback: Teddy Bridgewater
  • Predicted 2021 finish: 7-9 wins, without a playoff spot

There’s a popular saying among NFL types: “If you have two quarterbacks, then you don’t have one quarterback.”

Since Peyton Manning retired, the Broncos have searched for a quarterback. What they’ve found is a six-year cavalcade of mediocrity – and one game in 2020 in which they literally did not have a quarterback.

So, when Aaron Rodgers demanded a trade on the eve of the NFL Draft, and put Denver on his reported shortlist of preferred destinations, the Broncos thought they’d hit the jackpot. With talent and depth already in place, and draft capital from which to deal (including the #8 pick in the ’21 draft), the priority became doing whatever was needed to acquire the reigning MVP.

And then, the waiting game. Rodgers was adamant in his desire to leave Green Bay. Denver, trade chips in hand, sat tight. Nothing happened. 

In the meantime, the draft went ahead. Rather than choose between the remaining first-rounds QBs (Justin Fields and Mac Jones), the Broncos selected Alabama CB Patrick Surtain II, the son of a former All-Pro at the position, and an elite talent.

The problem, of course, is that things ultimately remained as they were. Rodgers struck a deal to stay in Green Bay for another season, while the Broncos, again left without a top-tier QB, sent a fifth-round pick to the Carolina Panthers in exchange for solid, decidedly unspectacular veteran Teddy Bridgewater.

Training camp started with Bridgewater and fourth-year man Drew Lock in a truly open, 50-50 QB competition. Lock has the prototypical size and cannon arm that teams love, and is good at avoiding sacks. However, his accuracy (dead last among qualified QBs), efficiency (his Passer Rating and QBR both ranked in the bottom quartile among qualified QBs) and decision-making (his 15 interceptions tied for the most in the league) are not those of a quality NFL starter.

Bridgewater, meanwhile, is steady. He’ll take a sack or make a frustratingly safe throw before risking a turnover. He won’t meaningfully lift a team’s ceiling, but he raises the floor, to “reasonable competence”. Thus, prior to the final preseason game, head coach Vic Fangio (whose seat is heating up) announced that Bridgwater will start in Week 1. It’s not thrilling, but for a team that’s loaded elsewhere, limiting backbreaking mistakes could be good enough.

Bridgewater is capable of utilizing quality skill talent. After all, his 2020 Carolina offense was the only one in the NFL with three 850-yard WRs (Robby Anderson, D.J. Moore and Curtis Samuel), two of whom (Anderson and Moore) topped 1,000 yards. In Denver, he’ll have a shot to do it again.

If Courtland Sutton is at full strength after an ACL tear, he’s one of the league’s top dozen receivers. Opposite him is 2020 first-round pick Jerry Jeudy, who flashed star potential as a rookie, but must cut down his drops. With Sutton opposite him, he should thrive. There’s also third-year tight end Noah Fant, who’s got the talent and physical tools to be one of the NFL’s best.

There are some questions around health and age on defense, but there’s also lots and lots of talent and, despite his lackluster record as a head coach, Fangio is a well-regarded defensive mind. This unit is potentially excellent.

On the line, fourth-year defensive end Bradley Chubb, who missed nearly all of 2019 with a torn ACL, returned in 2020, and once again looked like a star. His modest sack total (7.5) doesn’t reflect his impact. He was the focal point of opposing blocking schemes, since…

An ankle injury cost franchise icon Von Miller the entire season. How he reintegrates into the defense will be vital. Ankle problems can persist, and Miller is now 32 years old. Father Time eventually comes for us all. HOWEVER, until we see actual evidence that Miller is no longer an excellent player, we should assume that he is. If we’re right, he and Chubb will spearhead a devastating pass rush.

Behind them is a rock-solid linebacker group, and probably the best secondary in the NFL, which boasts both an outstanding quartet of corners (Surtain, Kyle Fuller, Ronald Darby and Bryce Callahan) and maybe the league’s best safety tandem in Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson. 

The Bottom Line: In two seasons under Fangio, the Broncos have won 12 of 32 games. Given how good the rest of the roster is, there’s no more time for slow-building. Fangio must focus on winning games now.

Of the two quarterbacks at his disposal, Teddy Bridgewater is best-suited to doing this. Unfortunately, in a division with the KC juggernaut and a Chargers team with both a strong roster and a young star at QB, it’s tough to envision this season amounting to more than a battle with the Raiders for third place.  

And then, we do the whole Aaron Rodgers thing again.

Las Vegas Raiders

  • 2020 regular-season/playoff finish: 8-8, missed playoffs
  • Head Coach: Jon Gruden
  • Starting Quarterback: Derek Carr
  • Predicted 2021 finish: 5-6 wins, without a playoff spot

It’s not as though Jon Gruden inherited a well-oiled machine. The Raiders have only bettered last season’s 8-8 record once since losing the Super Bowl — to Gruden’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers — in January 2003. In 18 years since, they’ve appeared in a single playoff game.

Even by those standards, the Raiders have little to show for the first three years of their second Gruden era. Sure, they’ve crept up the standings, from fourth (last) place in the division in 2018, to third in 2019, and second last season. And they’ve started decently, 6-4 and 6-3 the past two seasons, but a combined 3-10 record after those strong starts has killed their playoffs hopes.

Given the 10-year contract that he received prior to the 2018 season – and the massive cost to the Raiders of getting out of it – Gruden’s job is safe for the time being. At the same time, if he (and, by extension, GM Mike Mayock) don’t deliver some sort of tangible achievement soon, things could get awkward in Vegas.

There’s little to suggest that they’re geared up to do so this season. There are some bright spots: an elite playmaking tight end in Darren Waller (197 catches, 2,341 yards and 12 TDs over the past two seasons), one of the NFL’s top RB duos (Josh Jacobs and Kenyan Drake), and the most valuable commodity in the NFL: a good starting quarterback.

Derek Carr isn’t perfect. He presents no threat as a runner. He’s not nimble in the pocket. And, worst of all, he has a propensity for putting the ball on the ground (he led the league in fumbles in 2018 and 2020).

Despite all of that, he’s good – often very good. As a pure pocket passer, he’s top-10 in the league. In 2020, Carr posted career-bests in Passer Rating (101.4) and QBR (71). He was accurate (67.3% completions) and aggressive (7.9 yards/attempt; tied for fifth in the league), and avoided interceptions (1.7% INT rate). As he is now, warts and all, Carr would make the Broncos a Super Bowl contender. 

Sadly, the remainder of the roster has more valleys than peaks. The O-line has some talent, but loses three starters and figures to be especially weak at center. The receiving corps potentially has a nice pair of downfield threats – provided Henry Ruggs III hangs on to the ball and John Brown shakes the injury bug. Also, there’s not really a reliable possession option around.

The defense, meanwhile, figures to be one of the league’s 10 worst. Other than a pair of nominally serviceable pass rushers (Clelin Ferrell and Yannick Ngakoue) and a potentially decent free safety, there aren’t any clear strengths. The linebacking corps is middle-of-the-pack, the top four interior linemen are: a pair of underwhelming veterans, a 2017 draft bust and a rapidly declining former All-Pro. In the secondary, two of their top CBs are coming off awful seasons, while they’re ranked as Pro Football Focus’s worst in 2020.

The Bottom Line: After three non-winning seasons and a pair of late collapses, Gruden will be desperate to set aside “by Raiders standards” moral victories and actually make some noise in the AFC. Unfortunately, there’s little to suggest that this team has a breakthrough in store.

The defining characteristic of the Raiders’ roster is first- and second-round disappointments. That’s no way to build a competitive team, let alone a winner. The move to sign Waller following his release from the Ravens was a masterstroke, and drafting Jacobs in the first round in 2019 was a good move. Beyond that, it’s tough to identify any big wins.

Other than an excellent offensive backfield and top-tier tight end, there’s not much to get excited about. Maybe some guys make developmental leaps. Maybe new D-coordinator Gus Bradley pulls brilliance out of a defense that, on paper, looks anything but. Maybe. Based on the past three years, though, you wouldn’t bet on it. 

It’s tough to see this team striving for much more than a third-place finish and falling short.

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