The AFC West could become one of the most competitive divisions in the National Football League over the next few years… so went my pre-draft prediction. Whether we are any closer to that reality is up for debate, but with offseason tales still to be written, it is time to reflect on the top stories from the west thus far. So, in honour of this Netflix Ad starring Juju Smith-Schuster, Justin Tucker and the Kansas City Chiefs very own Travis Kelce, “We’re talking musicals, bro!”
He Will Rock You - He Wants to Break Free
On the eve of the NFL Draft, fresh rumours of Aaron Rodgers discontent in Green Bay were announced by Adam Schefter; but this time, as Rodgers continues to hold out from minicamp, it is different. In 2017, when Rodgers sported his most Freddie Mercury-esque moustache, he simply wanted to break free of former head coach Mike McCarthy (not unlike namesake Mick and Roy Keane in Saipan), but this year the restlessness runs deeper. Speaking with ESPN, he acknowledged that his desire to move on was not centred on personnel but rather the philosophy, character and culture of the current Packers organisation. A scathing indictment of one of the league’s most historic franchises, placing the team president and general manager under pressure.
However, one month on, the future of last season’s MVP still remains in the balance despite claims on the opening night of the draft that a move to the Denver Broncos was “as close to a done deal as it can be.” Only general manager George Paton and president of football operations John Elway, the veteran quarterback whisperer, know whether they can get Rodgers to the Rockies.
With ProFootballTalk claiming that Rodgers wish list comprised the 49ers, the Broncos or the Raiders, fans in the AFC West sat up a little straighter when San Francisco selected quarterback Trey Lance third overall. With further speculation suggesting that Rodgers is “intrigued by the possibility of playing for the Las Vegas Raiders, Denver’s formidable secondary may have the unenviable task of facing the passing prowess of Mahomes, Rodgers and Herbert six times a year.
For the neutral observer, at least, having Rodgers line up in the AFC West would be a whole new kind of magic in which, ultimately, we are the champions.
Wickedly Talented Quarterbacks Sick of Defying Gravity
One of the defining images of Super Bowl LV was Patrick Mahomes’ horizontal, mid-air throw. In it, the narrative of the entire game is told. With a sense of inevitability, the Buccaneers defensive front crashed towards Mahomes time and again, making him the most pressured quarterback in super bowl history as he ran an estimated 468 yards in his attempt to evade the Tampa Bay pass rush. If any further proof was required that a quarterback is only as good as the line protecting him, then this was it.
In response, the Chiefs’ offseason focus has been squarely on keeping Mahomes upright, with the pre-draft additions of Orlando Brown, Joe Thuney, Austin Blythe and Kyle Long, alongside the return of Laurent Duvernay-Tardif from the Covid front line to Mahomes last line of defence. To that group, Kansas City added rookie guard Trey Smith, a talented 6’5”, 330lb interior lineman. A projected third-round pick, Smith fell to the Chiefs in the sixth round due to the uncertainty surrounding his diagnosis of recurrent blood clots in 2018.
Not to be outdone by the Chiefs, the Los Angeles Chargers also spent their offseason securing new talent to surround Justin Herbert, their own hotshot quarterback. Former Green Bay Packers All-Pro centre Corey Linsley became the highest-paid centre in the league when he signed with the Bolts. He was also joined by Matt Feiler, a versatile lineman from the Pittsburgh Steelers who can play at both guard and tackle. Despite this, there was never a doubt in Tom Telesco’s mind when the Chargers were on the clock at thirteen overall. With Rashawn Slater still on the board, the left tackle out of Northwestern became a Charger and a day one starter.
Unfortunately, however, not every offensive line overhaul in the AFC West has been met with such joy and adulation from fans and pundits alike.
Les Miserables Fans - One Day More
Enter the Las Vegas Raiders. As their rivals strengthened their offensive lines across the board, the Raiders brought in the demolition team. With the team trading away solid starters in Trent Brown, Gabe Jackson and Rodney Hudson, Mike Mayock has opted for an, as yet, untried and untested younger offensive line group. He may be “excited and energised” by this approach; however, the Raiders fans were less enthused by the team's trades and their selection of offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood at the seventeenth overall pick.
The Alabama tackle is undoubtedly talented, but with many projecting him to be available in the second round, the Raiders fans had hoped Mayock and Gruden had waited just one day more. However, with the power of hindsight, the Raiders fans were more than likely happy with the teams first two selections in the 2021 draft, namely Leatherwood and safety Trevon Moehrig, albeit in the reverse order.
However, with a recent history of reaching in drafts, Las Vegas quickly returned to type, selecting projected sixth-round defensive end Malcolm Koonce in the third round. With Jon Gruden still waiting for his first winning season with the Raiders, every defeat in the year ahead may come with the fear that for him, "tomorrow is the judgement day."
New Kids on the Pride Rock Block - Thee Circle of Life
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. A bemusing selection when considering the teams talented secondary; however, it may prove an intelligent addition in this pass heavy division with their susceptibility to injuries.
For general manager George Paton however, this selection was a long time in the making. When he joined the Miami Dolphins as the director of pro personnel in 2001, shortly after Surtain II’s first birthday, he witnessed the intensity with which all-pro cornerback Patrick Surtain Sr practised each and every day. During Paton’s time in Miami, Surtain Sr led the team in interceptions and was elected to the Pro Bowl in three successive seasons. If Surtain II can replicate this form in Denver, Paton will be delighted with his first-round selection.
Although the Chargers may not have had the same personal ties when making the pick, they also selected a rookie cornerback with an outstanding pedigree. Asante Samuel Jr, their second-round selection out of Florida State, follows in his father's footsteps, a four-time Pro Bowler and two time Super Bowl Champion with the New England Patriots. A carbon copy of his father, Samuel, will be a day one starter in Los Angeles.
The Finale - My Lovely (Dark) Horse
Perhaps the greatest musical number of all time, despite receiving ‘nul points’, Father Ted and Father Dougal's outstanding effort in Eurosong 96 is the perfect way to finish. If George Paton and John Elway can persuade the Packers front office to part ways with Aaron Rodgers, then the lovely Denver Broncos will be a pony no more. Instead, with Rodgers at the helm, this team automatically become a dark horse to not only win the division but lift the Vince Lombardi Trophy once again next February.