By Philip Dickson
For 214 days, we have waited for the return of the NFL. For 14 of those, Patrick Mahomes dwelt on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers demolition of his Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV. For the next 200, he focused his mind on coming back stronger. As Mahomes underwent surgery to repair the turf toe that hampered him in February, Chiefs' General Manager Brett Veach reconstructed the offensive line that crumbled around him.
Kansas were not alone in their attempts to strengthen their flood gates this offseason as their division rivals sought to close the gap. Can the Broncos, Chargers or Raiders provide an upset and take the AFC West, or can Mahomes bring the Lombardi Trophy back to Arrowhead once more?
Kansas City Chiefs
Last Season: 1st. 14-2 (Defeated in Super Bowl LV).
For many coaches, preseason games equate to the League Cup (or the Carabao/ Carling/ Coca-Cola/ Milk Cup, depending on your age). It is a chance to rest the stars and see what the youngsters can do. Not so, for Chiefs head coach Andy Reid. In all three games, Patrick Mahomes, the recently crowned number one player in the NFL, took to the field, attempting the most passes of any NFL starter out with the rookie class and Tua Tagovailoa. In contrast, the Chargers Justin Herbert and the Raiders Derek Carr watched without fielding a single snap.
The reason? The rebuild. The cadence. Both Reid and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy have spoken at length about the importance of chemistry and clear communication between Mahomes and his new offensive line, a line which they began drawing up on the bus ride home from Super Bowl LV. With the addition of Pro Bowl Left Tackle Orlando Brown, Joe Thuney, Austin Blythe, Kyle Long and rookies Trey Smith and Creed Humphrey alongside the return of Laurent Duvernay-Tardif from the Covid front line to Mahomes last line of defence, the Chiefs have built a formidable front.
Mahomes will hope to wreak havoc on opposing defences through Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill with newfound time in the pocket. With Sammy Watkins heading to the Baltimore Ravens, the Chiefs faithful will be hoping for more from Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Mecole Hardman to balance the offence. A relatively unchanged defence means that a third Super Bowl appearance in a row is hard to bet against.
Prediction: 1st. 13-4. Defeated in the Super Bowl.
Las Vegas Raiders
Last Season: 2nd. 8-8.
This year, the addition of the hotly-debated 17th regular-season game means that Jon Gruden can never beat Jeff Fisher's record of five 8-8 seasons. After three 8-8 seasons with the Raiders across two tenures, this record, unfortunately for Raider Nation, was the only thing Jon Gruden looked like winning with the Silver and Black. With over six years remaining on his ten-year, $100 million contract, owner Mark Davis may face some difficult questions if the Raiders take a backward step this year.
It is not only Gruden in the hot seat. He is joined by quarterback Derek Carr and General Manager Mike Mayock. Carr, who, at one time, was the highest-paid player in the league, has two years left remaining on his contract. When speaking with Vic Tafur of TheAthletic.com, Carr affirmed his desire to finish his career as a Raider, but with Marcus Mariota waiting in the wings, it might not be his decision to make. Mayock has come under fire from Raiders fans for several personnel decisions whilst at the helm, including his decision to move from Trent Brown and Rodney Hudson. If their replacement, offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood follows in the footsteps of previous first-round reaches, Clelin Ferrell and Damon Arnette, Mayock might be shown the door.
One move that has been warmly received in Las Vegas was the arrival of former Pro Bowl defensive end Yannick Ngakoue. Since the departure of Khalil Mack in 2018, the Raiders have struggled to pressurise the passer, and
Ngakoue should go some way to remedying that alongside an improving Maxx Crosby.
However, the reasons for optimism are overshadowed by the scale of the challenge they face. Unfortunately, this year may be the end of the road for the Raiders core as they slump to the last place in the division.
Prediction: 4th. 8-9
Los Angeles Chargers
Last Season: 3rd. 7-9
A new era has dawned in Los Angeles. After a frustrating 2020 season in which six of their nine defeats came by one score or less, head coach Anthony Lynn was shown the door. Replacing him is Brandon Staley, former defensive coordinator of the neighbouring Rams and former understudy of Broncos Head Coach Vic Fangio. The Rams led the league last year in scoring defence (18.5), total defence (281.9) and passing defence (190.7), vital areas in the battle for the AFC West. If Staley can translate this top ten pass defence (223.6) into an impenetrable red zone electric fence (26.6 points per game in 2020, 23rd ranked team), then the Bolts fans will have much reason for optimism.
However, with the larger SoFi Stadium to call home, the offensive side of the ball has helped boost the Chargers season ticket sales. An all-star supporting cast led by the precocious Justin Herbert, 2020's offensive rookie of the year, will hope to challenge the Chiefs at their own game. Herbert will be hoping to avoid a sophomore slump with the rookie touchdown passing record under his belt. With improved protection up front in the shape of former Green Bay Packers All-Pro centre Corey Linsley ($62.5million, five years), rookie tackle Rashawn Slater (drafted 13th overall) and Matt Feiler, a versatile lineman from the Pittsburgh Steelers, Herbert is set up to succeed.
Keenan Allen, the Chargers 29-year-old, four-time pro-bowl wide receiver, agrees. Speaking recently with TheAthletic.com regarding their potential to form the NFL's next great quarterback/wide receiver duo, Allen responded, "absolutely… we can't be stopped." With an entire offseason programme under their belt, the Chargers are confident they can challenge the Chiefs dominance in the AFC West.
Prediction: 2nd. 11-6. Defeated in the Wildcard Round
Last Season: 4th. 5-11
If the Chargers are hopeful that they can match the Chiefs in a wild west shootout, the Broncos have opted to batten down the hatches of their reinforced compound. The only problem with that solution is that you have to have something to defend. On five occasions last season, Denver led at the half, securing victory on four occasions. The only game they failed to hold on to victory was away to Kansas at Arrowhead Stadium. If at first, you don't succeed…
A change at quarterback, out with Kendell Hinton, seemed inevitable to many Denver fans as they hoped for a dependable gunslinger to match their talented receiver core of Jeudy, Sutton and Fant. However, with rumours that MVP Aaron Rodgers heading to the Rockies was "as close to a done deal as it can be", dreams of Super Bowl 50 came flooding back. They may not have attracted Rodgers' signature this year, but they have secured a dependable game manager in Teddy Bridgewater. With a completion percentage of 69.1% last season (good enough for 5th overall), compared to Drew Lock's 57.3% Fangio will hope to replicate the successful blueprint of 2015.
Following the addition of cornerbacks Ronald Darby and Kyle Fuller this offseason, few, if any, predicted that the Broncos would select Patrick Surtain II with the ninth overall pick. Initially a bemusing selection considering the team's talented secondary, Fangio is playing to his strengths in this pass-heavy division. With the return of future hall of fame linebacker Von Miller from injury and Bradley Chubb expected to play after recent traffic offences, Denver's pass rush should return to past glories.
With five of the Broncos last seven games coming against divisional rivals, Vic Fangio will hope to still be in playoff contention. But, if he isn't, he might not last long enough to face the board on Black Monday.
Prediction – 3rd. 8-9