Best-Case/Worst-Case: AFC West Edition
Photo Credit: All-Pro Reels, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Has a division ever gotten more hype than this one? Has there ever been this many good quarterbacks in one division? If you squint your eyes, those are actually the same question.
Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs…Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers…Derek Carr and the Las Vegas Raiders…Russell Wilson and the Denver Broncos…sounds to me more like a Final Four grouping than four teams in the same geographic bucket. The truth is that any one of these teams could win the Super Bowl this year - and it shouldn’t surprise anyone.
The Chiefs have been the standard in the division for seven straight seasons. That’s remarkable consistency, especially when you remember that Mahomes’ first full season as a starter came just four years ago. This year though, will be Mahomes and the Chiefs greatest test, as they saw the departure of superstar wide receiver Tyreek Hill, as well as the departures of several other significant contributors in the offseason. The NFL’s top deep threat made life miserable for defenders, but now he’s soaking up the sunshine in Miami. How the Chiefs manage his absence will be critical to their season.
Elsewhere, the Chargers loaded up for a division-title push. This was already a very talented team, what with the likes of Herbert, do-everything safety Derwin James, rising star left tackle Rashawn Slater and the excellent receiver duo of Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. But in the offseason, the Chargers acted like they were dealt pocket aces and went all in by trading for former Chicago Bears stud Khalil Mack and signing corner J.C. Jackson and his seventeen interceptions over the last two seasons from the New England Patriots. With their exceptional core, and the reinforcements they brought in, this could be the most talented team in the NFL.
The Broncos and the Raiders, meanwhile, haven’t gotten the same attention as the other two teams in the division, but each made huge moves to improve their team. Wilson arrives in Denver following one of the biggest trades in NFL history, and the Broncos are counting on him to have a Peyton Manning-type effect on their team. It’s been a rough few years in the Mile High City. Since Manning retired following the Broncos 2015 Super Bowl victory, these are the passers, in order, that led the team in passing yards since: Trevor Siemian (twice), Case Keenum, Joe Flacco, Drew Lock, Teddy Bridgewater. Wilson should be an upgrade (thanks, Captain Obvious).
As for the Raiders, all they did was trade for Davante Adams, wide receiver extraordinaire and former mind-meld partner of Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay. Adams was Carr’s top target in college when they were both at Fresno State. The Raiders are counting on the two picking up right where they left off, and by all indications, Adams and Carr have been looking forward to this for a long time. Oh, and the Raiders also added sack-artist Chandler Jones to pair with the homegrown Maxx Crosby to give them one of the most fearsome pass rushing tandems in the NFL. This division will be a challenge. If I was a betting man (and I’m not), I would stay far, far away from predicting the winner - leave that for the AFC East or something.
QB Russell Wilson (trade)
RT Billy Turner (free agent)
DE Randy Gregory (free agent)
CB K’Waun Williams
CB Kyle Fuller
DE Shelby Harris
TE Noah Fant
CB Bryce Callahan
Best-Case Scenario: 12 - 5, 1st in the AFC West
“Hustle and Bustle” Russell Wilson is in the house! Finally, after years of QB-ineptitude, the Broncos are back in business with one of the best in the business. Wilson gives the Broncos everything they’ve been missing since Manning was put out to pasture: poise, leadership, smarts, and accuracy.
The Broncos are counting on Wilson to be the rising tide that lifts all boats - namely, their talented, but unproductive receivers. Jerry Jeudy, Cortland Sutton, K.J. Hamler and tight end Albert Okwuegbunam all have the potential to be difference-makers, but they’ve been hamstrung by middling QB-play. Wilson has always advocated for a wide-open, downfield passing attack, and this year he has the plethora of weapons to do it.
The Broncos also moved on from the conservative, defense-first Vic Fangio, who had been head coach since 2019. His replacement Nathaniel Hackett is coming off a three-year run as offensive coordinator of the Green Bay Packers, where his units ranked in the top ten in the league in points scored and yards gained two years straight. If Wilson can be to Hackett in Denver what Rodgers was in Green Bay, this Broncos offense has the potential to be just as efficient and dynamic as the Packers.
The running game should also be a challenge for defenses. The flashy Javonte Williams looked like a future star in his rookie year, while the steady Melvin Gordon remains to grind out the tough yards. Together, their versatility should force defenses to respect the threat of the run and pass, making this offense a major challenge for any team they face.
With Patrick Surtain II looking like the next great cover corner and the addition of edge rusher Randy Gregory in the offseason, the Broncos have plenty of defensive talent to make up for the loss of Fangio. Besides, if the offense performs as expected, the other side of the ball won't need to pitch any shutouts. This is a balanced team that has massive unrealized potential. Wilson could be the guy to maximize all that talent, and a Super Bowl run is not out of the question.
Worst-Case Scenario: 6 - 11, 4th in the AFC West
Frankly, even if the Broncos finished the 2022 season with just six wins doesn’t mean they weren’t a solid team. That’s just the reality of playing in a division with four potential playoff teams. This isn’t the NFC North, you know - there aren’t any Chicagos and Detroits to pummel when you need an easy win or two.
Wilson is being billed as the savior, but is that really warranted? He’s been named to the Pro Bowl five years in a row, but that’s a little misleading. Something feels off with Wilson.
Despite gaudy statistics and impressive win totals over the last few seasons, Wilson just hasn’t been able to get it done when it counts. He has exactly one playoff win in the last five years (an unimpressive 17 - 9 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in a game in which their QB Carson Wentz was injured after just two drives), and last year struggled with injuries of his own in a disappointing campaign. Have we seen the best of Wilson? It’s certainly possible.
If that’s the case, we might also see the sheen of the Hackett-hire lose some luster as well. Wilson isn’t Rodgers, and a diminished Wilson is even more concerning. Plus, it’s not like the weapons Wilson has in Denver are miles above the ones he had in Seattle. D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett are an outstanding receiver-duo. You wouldn’t take Jeudy, Sutton or Hamler over any of those guys.
The biggest concern has to be the defense, where a Fangio-less squad could have a lot of trouble replacing his wealth of knowledge and experience. Fangio was known as one of the pioneers of current NFL defensive strategy and tactics - namely, large helpings of two-high safety looks to counter the explosive offenses of the day. First-time defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero comes over after spending the last five years as an assistant with the Los Angeles Rams, and he’ll be tasked with maintaining a defense that finished 2021 3rd in total points allowed. Regression could be coming, and with all the defensive departures eating away at their depth, it could come in a big way too.
Kansas City Chiefs
S Justin Reid (free agent)
WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (free agent)
WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling (free agent)
CB Trent McDuffie (draft)
DE George Karlaftis (draft)
S Tyrann Mathieu
WR Tyreek Hill
CB Charvarius Ward
DT Jarran Reed
CB Mike Hughes
Best-Case Scenario: 12 - 5, 1st in the AFC West
It’s hard to bet against Andy Reid, Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. I mean, after four straight appearances in the AFC Championship Game, it would be silly to expect this team to fall off a cliff, right?
Tyreek Hill may be gone, but there are still plenty of weapons in this Kansas City offense. Travis Kelce returns as the most dangerous tight end in the game. His smarts and ability to run after the catch has made him an almost impossible task for defenders, and his unique connection with Mahomes means he’s almost always open, even if it looks like he’s surrounded. JuJu Smith-Schuster was brought in from the Pittsburgh Steelers to provide a reliable option in the middle of the field, while field-stretchers Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Mecole Hardman provide a facsimile of the threat Hill provided.
With the additions of Smith-Schuster, Valdes-Scantling and rookie second-round pick Skyy Moore, the Chiefs are betting on quantity over quality. Hill was a special threat, and the Chiefs know they can’t replace him with one player. So, they got three to do it. It’s very unlikely that any one of these new Chiefs receivers makes a Hill-like impact, but together, they can threaten defenses in a variety of ways, and could even make Mahomes’ life easier by forcing defenses to respect each equally, instead of focusing so much attention on one man.
Mahomes will also get to work with a top-tier offensive line, led by 2021 free agent pickup guard Joe Thuney and second-round revelation center Creed Humphrey, who turned into one of the top players at his position in the NFL during his rookie season. The line returns all five starters, and, barring injuries, this should remain one of the best units in the NFL.
The defense, like the offense, also went through a bit of a face-lift in the offseason. Longtime safety and defensive-heartbeat Tyrann Mathieu is gone, along with top corner Charvarius Ward and defensive tackle Jarran Reed. To replace them, the Chiefs signed former Houston Texans safety Justin Reid and drafted cornerback Trent McDuffie and defensive end George Karlaftis in the first-round. The Chiefs will be counting on those three integrating quickly, and if they do, this Kansas City defense could be much stouter than the unit that finished 27th in total yards allowed last year.
But let’s be honest with ourselves here: this all comes down to Mahomes and Coach Reid. With these two around, you can never count the Chiefs out. Have we learned nothing over these last four years? The best-case scenario for the Chiefs in 2022 is a Super Bowl victory, nothing less.
Worst-Case Scenario: 6 - 11, 4th in the AFC West
Hill is going to be hard to replace. It feels like the NFL media doesn’t want to admit how important he was to the Chiefs offense. He’s probably the fastest man in the NFL right now. He might be the fastest player in NFL history. Read what some of the best players in the NFL say about Hill:
“Man, again, one of the fastest guys to play this game, we all know that.” - All Pro safety Derwin James
“Where’s #10, okay there he goes, now you get ready for your defense.” - James, again
“I just don’t think people really realize how fast Tyreek Hill really is, and like, he can jog and…you think he’s running full speed until he actually turns it on.” - Pro Bowl corner Kenny Moore II
All this praise is from a video not even three minutes long. In the NFL’s annual Top 100, as voted on by the players, Hill was ranked #15. He is a freak.
Losing Hill is a massive blow. I’m not buying into the idea that just because the Chiefs receiver corps is versatile makes it “good.” Smith-Schuster has been disappointing since his fabulous rookie season in 2017. Valdes-Scantling and Hardman have deep-threat speed, but each makes exactly one big play per year. Moore, unfortunately for him, has already become one of the most overrated players in the NFL thanks to the media (the poor kid is 5th on the Chiefs’ depth chart yet they act like he’s about to go for 1,000 yards receiving this year).
The losses on defense will also be difficult to replace. Mathieu, who turned 30 in May, isn’t the same player he was when he joined the Chiefs in 2019, but he has a first team All Pro nomination as recently as 2020. Besides, his knowledge of the game and supreme competitiveness will always make him a fine option in the secondary. Newcomer Reid may have more upside, but he was most recently on a defense that finished 30th and 32nd in points allowed and yards allowed, respectively.
Even more difficult to replace might be top cornerback Ward, who left for the San Francisco 49ers in the offseason. Although he struggled to contain some of the best WRs in the NFL, he was a tough competitor and never shied away from the challenge. Fellow corner Mike Hughes also left for Detroit, leaving the secondary dangerously thin. McDuffie had better be ready for a large role, because otherwise teams are going to be throwing the ball all over the place against this Chiefs pass defense.
There’s even cause for concern for the front seven. Jarren Reed, who signed with Green Bay in the offseason, wasn’t a huge-impact player, but he was a reliable run defender and someone who took pressure off star defensive tackle Chris Jones. Pass rusher Melvin Ingram also left, leaving the inconsistent Frank Clark and the rookie Karlaftis as the primary edge defenders. Unless someone takes a massive step forward, like inside linebacker Nick Bolton, the Chiefs defense could also be exposed against the run too.
When you add up the departures and the strength of the Chiefs’ AFC West challengers, this could be a down year for the Chiefs. Reid and Mahomes will always give this team a baseline for success, but the talent in the division could mean that the Chiefs’ record doesn't reflect how competitive the team was. Six wins still feels like the absolute floor for a team with as much top-end talent as Kansas City.
Las Vegas Raiders
WR Davante Adams
DE Chandler Jones
S Duron Harmon
CB Anthony Averett
DT Bilal Nichols
OT Alex Leatherwood
CB Casey Hayward
DE Yannick Ngakoue
WR Bryan Edwards
Best-Case Scenario: 11 - 6, 1st in the AFC West
2022 is all about Derek Carr to Davante Adams. In a blockbuster trade, the Raiders brought in the two-time All Pro receiver to pair with Carr, reuniting the two who played together in college at Fresno State. The pair already look like they’re picking up right where they left off, and their relationship is key for the Raiders’ success in 2022.
Last year, the Raiders were one of the surprise playoff teams, as they managed to overcome the midseason departure of head coach Jon Gruden and rally behind interim coach Rich Bissacia for a Wild Card spot. They would go on to lose a nail-biter to the Cincinnati Bengals, but the grit and resolve of this team was apparent to anyone who watched them in 2021.
Now, with a tremendous talent added to their receiver corps to go along with route-running maestro Hunter Renfroe and tight end Darren Waller, and new head coach Josh McDaniels arriving in Las Vegas following years of success with the New England Patriots as their offensive coordinator, Carr is set up for his best season yet. The offensive line is still a work in progress, particularly with the release of 2021 first-round pick Alex Leatherwood, but the wealth of options in the receiving game should help minimize that issue.
The other big addition the Raiders made was defense end Chandler Jones, who has been one of the premier pass rushers in the NFL for years now. He will pair with 2021 All Pro Maxx Crosby to form an elite edge rushing tandem - potentially the best in the NFL. With these two terrorizing quarterbacks, all the Raiders need to do is get a lead and let them go to work. This is not a team you want to be facing down two scores.
The rest of the defense will need time to gel, particularly with the loss of top corner Casey Hayward, but the additions of Anthony Averett and Duron Harmon should allow for steady, if unspectacular play from the secondary. In the end, this season will come down to the connection between Carr and Adams. If they live up to the billing, this team will be tough to stop on offense, and if your team is down late in the game, there might not be two pass rushers you’d rather face less than Jones and Crosby. That’s a tried-and-true formula for success in the NFL.
Worst-Case Scenario: 5 - 12, 4th in the AFC West
Unfortunately for the Raiders, top to bottom this is probably the weakest roster in the division. Of course, that means they’re probably near the middle of the pack when it comes to the NFL as a whole, but this division isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s going to be a slugfest, and things will have to go almost perfectly for the Raiders if they’re going to steal this division from the Broncos, Chargers or Chiefs.
If Carr and Adams fail to rekindle their stellar collegiate connection, the Raiders offense could struggle to move the ball consistently behind a sub-par offensive line. They still have running back Josh Jacobs, but he’s struggled to be a consistent threat on the ground and offers little in the passing game. Renfroe is a good player, but he is decidedly not a deep threat. Waller has the talent to be that downfield option, but he’s struggled to stay on the field at times. Unless these three play at their peak in 2022, there could be some ugly moments on offense for the Raider, especially if the offensive line cannot protect Carr for a reasonable amount of time.
The defense also looks shaky, outside of the Jones/Crosby combo. Defensive tackle Bilal Nichols was added to be an interior pass rushing complement to Jones and Crosby, but fellow defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins struggled last year. The rest of the front seven is devoid of playmakers. 2021 Pro Bowler Denzel Perryman will be tasked with doing a lot of the dirty work against the run at linebacker, but the rest of the group leaves a lot to be desired.
The secondary, though, could end up being the Achilles heel for this team. Anthony Averett, Rock Ya-Sin, Nate Hobbs and Amik Robertson form one of the weakest cornerback groups in the NFL, and safeties Jonathan Abram and Tre’von Moehrig leave a lot to be desired. In a division with so many talented quarterbacks, having a weak secondary will be difficult to overcome.
Coach McDaniels waited a while for his next head coaching opportunity, but he was unimpressive in his first stint with Denver. If he can’t demonstrate that he’s grown since that forgettable tenure, the Raiders could easily be the worst team in the division. They’re still too talented to end up with fewer than five wins, but all wins will be tough to come by in the brutal AFC.
Los Angeles Chargers
OLB Khalil Mack (trade)
CB J.C. Jackson (free agent)
DT Sebastian Joseph-Day (free agent)
DT Austin Johnson (free agent)
OG Zion Johnson (draft)
OLB Uchenna Nwosu
ILB Kyzir White
DT Justin Jones
Best-Case Scenario: 13 - 4, 1st in the AFC West
We finally get to Los Angeles’ “other” team. Of all 32 NFL franchises, none have been hyped-up like this Chargers team - and for good reason too. With a superstar quarterback on a rookie contract, top-end skill position players, a strong offensive line and a defense that added numerous important pieces, the Chargers may have the very best roster in the NFL.
It all starts with Justin Herbert, who gives Mahomes and the Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen a run for their money as the most physically gifted passers in the NFL. He’s got a cannon for an arm, the athleticism to avoid sacks and gain critical first downs, and the mental acuity and processing speed to be a reliable decision-maker from the pocket. He’s the total package, and he may be scratching the surface of what he can be as a QB.
Of course, Herbert won’t be doing this on his own - not by a long shot. Returning at receiver are the ever-reliable Keenan Allen and deep-threat Mike Williams, who is fresh off signing a three-year, $60 million extension. Running back Austin Ekeler returns as well, giving Herbert an outstanding running and receiving threat out of the backfield. Allen, Williams and Ekeler form one of the best skill-position trios in the NFL, and Herbert will be looking their way often in 2022.
The offensive line, meanwhile, is an ascending unit that features Rashawn Slater, selected #10 overall last year and was named second-team All Pro in his rookie season, along with fellow All Pro second-teamer Corey Linsley. This was one of the best offensive lines in the NFL last year, and there’s little reason to suggest a step back is imminent. Herbert should have plenty of time in 2022 to find his receivers downfield.
The defensive side of the ball saw the largest injection of talent in the offseason. Mack joins from Chicago to give the Chargers a premier pass rushing duo with Joey Bosa, provided the ninth-year pro is fully recovered from the foot injury that sidelined him for most of the 2021 season. Defensive tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day, in particular, was added from the Los Angeles Rams to provide the run stuffing presence the Chargers lacked last year. If Joseph-Day can help turn around one of the league’s worst run defenses, the Chargers will have completely fixed their major weakness from last year.
New corner J.C. Jackson will join 2021 second-round pick Asante Samuel Jr. to give the Chargers a pair of ballhawking cornerbacks. Jackson’s seventeen interceptions in two seasons put him in rare territory for any defender. It’s one of the great two-year stretches in NFL history - even better than any two-year stretch in Deion Sanders’ incomparable career. And with a healthy Derwin James in the picture, arguably the best all-around safety in the NFL, this is a frightening secondary.
Head coach Brandon Staley has a lot to prove after a strange 2021 season in which he self-sabotaged the Chargers on numerous occasions with his aggressive, go-for-it fourth-down strategy. If he can refrain from making too many coaching mistakes and allow Herbert and the rest of his supremely talented roster to shine, there’s no reason the Chargers can’t be the best team in the NFL.
Worst-Case Scenario: 7 - 10, 3rd in the AFC West
With all this talent on the roster, it’s hard to envision a scenario where the Chargers fall too far below .500. That said, this is a snakebitten franchise. The Chargers always find a way to blow it. For 2022, missing the playoffs is a worst-case scenario, but there are more than a few reasons to think that might happen.
For starters, Staley was more of a liability than an asset last year. Whether it was head-scratching fourth down decisions or a paper-thin defense that was supposed to be his specialty, Staley was probably the biggest reason his team missed the postseason last year. If he still isn’t up to the challenge of being an NFL head coach, the Chargers will fall short of expectations once again.
The offense will be hard to stop no matter what, but there’s reason to be skeptical that the defense has been fixed. Sure, the Chargers made several big-name additions, but nagging concerns litter this unit. Mack has been a disrupter in the past, but last year was by far the worst season of his career, and lingering issues with his foot could further diminish his skills. Bosa likewise has struggled with injuries, and if either were to miss time it would expose the depth that was sapped a little when pass rusher Uchenna Nwosu left for Seattle.
Joseph-Day and fellow tackle Austin Johnson are massive additions to the leaky run defense, but Staley’s scheme was always predicated on devoting the maximum number of resources to pass defense. If Joseph-Day and Johnson cannot stuff opposing run games by themselves, their head coach is already doing them no favors. 2022 could be more of the same, especially with Kyzir White’s departure leaving a gaping hole in the middle of the defense.
The secondary should be fine, but again, questions persist. Can Derwin James stay healthy? Will there be any lingering effects from Jackson’s offseason ankle surgery? Can the rest of the cornerback group step up if Jackson misses time? The Chargers may be one of the most talented teams in the NFL, but there’s a path for a serious letdown.