The AFC South’s received some justifiable buzz about being perhaps the conference’s strongest division. However, for sheer intrigue, the AFC West might have that beat.
A credible case can be made for all four teams winning the division. Prior to training camp and preseason injuries, though the Chargers have already suffered a big one, this division can be categorized as wide open.
The Chiefs are coming off the only instance in franchise history of back-to-back division titles. They added Sammy Watkins to an explosive skill-position core, albeit at a lofty price, and return most of their improving offensive line. The obvious question will be the viability of Patrick Mahomes, the franchise’s first Round 1 QB investment since 1983 but a player who is replacing one of the NFL’s most risk-averse passers in Alex Smith. Will Mahomes be able to keep the Chiefs’ loaded offense afloat while he learns on the job?
Defensively, the Chiefs threw big dollars at longtime Cowboys starter Anthony Hitchens, poached RFA Xavier Williams away from the Cardinals and traded for Kendall Fuller to man the slot. However, the since-traded Marcus Peters profiled as one of the best cornerbacks in team history and was responsible for the most forced turnovers among any corner since he entered the league. Can the Chiefs, who have some injury questions affecting edge presences Justin Houston and Dee Ford, be expected to boast a sufficient pass rush?
Las Vegas views the Chargers as the biggest threat to the Chiefs’ crown, despite the franchise having not won the division since 2009. Los Angeles featured the only team in the division to end last season with top-12 DVOA offensive and defensive units. Philip Rivers bounced back from a substandard season and ended the year ranked behind only Tom Brady in DYAR. He now has Mike Pouncey set to block for him.
Derwin James joins a defense that houses the now-extended Casey Hayward and the dynamic Melvin Ingram/Joey Bosa edge tandem. While Hunter Henry‘s ACL tear deprives Rivers of one of his go-to options, an issue the Bolts have dealt with frequently in the recent past and haven’t taken any steps to remedy this year, Keenan Allen and Co. represent a promising pass-catching contingent.
Oakand plummeted from last season’s favorite to a team that purged its coaching staff. And the Raiders, after steady building under Reggie McKenzie since he took over as GM, set off on a different course this offseason under Jon Gruden. Some of McKenzie’s power’s been stripped, and the Raiders signed a slew of free agents. They took more risks in the draft and free agency than in the recent past, Martavis Bryant chief among them.
That said, the Silver and Black still have one of the league’s better offensive lines and a 2016 MVP candidate who suffered an injury last season in Derek Carr. This is likely the division’s most enigmatic team.
What needs to happen for the Broncos to rebound isn’t mysterious. Case Keenum must provide the kind of improvement over Denver’s previous quarterbacks that will justify a franchise-QB (albeit at just $18MM AAV) salary. The Broncos still have plenty of holdovers from their Super Bowl 50 team and managed to add Bradley Chubb and three offensive players — Courtland Sutton, Royce Freeman and DaeSean Hamilton — the team hopes will provide a better supporting cast for Keenum after featuring top-heavy skill batteries the past three years.
All of this said, the Broncos are entrusting the back end of some key players’ primes to Keenum’s out-of-nowhere breakout being legitimate. They passed on Josh Allen and Josh Rosen for a more immediate solution, so plenty rides on the 30-year-old Keenum.
So, who enters training camp with the best roster? Can Mahomes elevate the Chiefs to a higher level from the get-go, or will Smith’s exit be noticeable in 2018? Will the Chargers finally break through after a quiet offseason? Can the Broncos salvage what’s left of their championship core’s windows, or is that contending avenue closed? What do you make of the Raiders’ new-look depth chart?
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