It’s only natural to think that the defending Super Bowl champions should be the odds on favorite to win their division the following year, especially when two of the other four teams in the division had losing records. Yet, the Denver Broncos don’t just start the season as an underdog for the AFC West crown. Rather, they’re actually ranked third in their division, as far as highest odds to win the AFC West in 2016.
Yes, Peyton Manning might’ve had his worst year (statistically) as the starting quarterback of the Broncos last season, but that doesn’t exactly mean that Mark Sanchez, Trevor Simien, or Paxton Lynch — or some combination thereof — is going to be able to guide the Broncos offense the same way that Manning — or even Brock Osweiler — did. Even if the Broncos decide to replicate the formula that helped them win in the postseason — do just enough on offense, and let their defense win football games — it may not be realistic for them to expect the same level of performance. Starting defensive lineman Malik Jackson and inside linebacker Danny Trevathan are both gone, and the guys they got to replace them (defensive lineman Jared Crick and inside linebacker Todd Davis) aren’t nearly the same caliber of players. Star outside linebacker Von Miller missed all the team’s offseason workouts as part of his holdout for a new contract; other players will tell you that this is the fastest way to either lingering or long-term issues during the season. Cornerback Aqib Talib suffered a small gunshot wound as part of an off-the-field incident, and may be in some legal trouble involving Texas gun laws. Add all of that up with the fact that a couple of their division rivals will have improved squads in 2016, and you’ll see why the odds are against the defending champs.
Interestingly enough, it’s the Kansas City Chiefs — one of the two wild cards in the AFC last season — who begin the 2016 season as the favorites to win the AFC West. They did go 11-5 last season, and towards the end of the season, they became a serious threat to leapfrog Denver for the division crown. The biggest challenge facing the Chiefs this year — which, thankfully for them, happens to be right in Andy Reid’s wheelhouse — is how they’ll bring together four out of five new starters (in comparison to this time last year) along their offensive line. Only center Mitch Morse returns from last year’s starting lineup (left tackle Eric Fisher eventually took over the position in 2015, and returns in 2016). To those two, they’ll add rookie Parker Ehinger (the team’s fourth round pick) at left guard, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (a reserve last season) at right guard, and Mitchell Schwartz (signed away from the Cleveland Browns) at left tackle. How that group performs will greatly impact what the Chiefs get out of incumbent quarterback Alex Smith, as well as running back Jamaal Charles, who’s coming off the second season-ending torn ACL injury of his career.
The Chiefs’ seventh-ranked defense from 2015 returns eight of 11 starters from last year as well, and the changes made to the unit could actually result in them improving on that ranking. Defensive end Mike Devito is gone, but rookie defensive end Chris Jones (taken in the second round) has tantalizing upside which a lot of teams coveted. Eric Berry wasn’t officially listed as the starting safety at first, but he not only took over the job, but earned a Pro Bowl selection and the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year award. Berry will start next to Jamell Fleming, whom the Chiefs converted from cornerback to safety. The biggest question mark on this defense is the cornerback spot opposite of defensive rookie of the year Marcus Peters. The team lost Sean Smith to the Oakland Raiders, and will rely on incumbents Phillip Gaines and Steven Nelson (the Chiefs’ third round pick in 2015) as their second and third cornerbacks. If those guys are able to rise to the occasion, this defense could be one of the more formidable groups in the conference.
More often than not, teams that win the offseason championship don’t amount to very much in the regular season. That being said: at least on paper, what Oakland did this offseason was very impressive, if not downright alarming for fans of other teams in the AFC West.
The Raiders made one of the biggest headline moves in free agency, signing prized offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele to a five year, $60 million contract. But in addition to signing the best offensive lineman available on the market, the Raiders actually doubled-down on the move by shrewdly re-signing left tackle Donald Penn, allowing Osemele to play inside at right guard (where he’s an All-Pro caliber player) instead of left tackle (where he filled in for the Ravens last season). Given both of those signings, the Raiders starting offensive line will be (from left to right): Penn, Gabe Jackson, Rodney Hudson, Osemele, and Austin Howard. In other words: that hellacious group now forms the second best offensive line in the NFL, only behind that of the Dallas Cowboys. On defense, the Raiders turned their much-maligned secondary into perhaps the strongest unit on the team.
First, they lured away cornerback Sean Smith from the Kansas City Chiefs, giving them a two-for-one benefit: getting a #1 cornerback to pair with the resurrected David Amerson, and simultaneously hurting a division rival. They needed upgrades at safety, so they went ahead and overhauled both safety spots, signing Reggie Nelson to play free safety (he was one of the very best at that position in 2015) and drafted Karl Joseph out of West Virginia University (who plays like a cross between Earl Thomas and TJ Ward). To upgrade the front seven, the Raiders signed Bruce Irvin — a versatile, pass-rushing linebacker who can play both defensive end or outside linebacker — and reunited him with his former linebackers coach in Seattle, Ken Norton Jr. (who’s now the Raiders defensive coordinator). Norton had a huge influence on Irvin when they were both in Seattle, and the former will pair the latter opposite the emerging force of nature that is Khalil Mack. As fearsome as Mack was last season, he should be even better now, as he’ll face more one-on-one blocking situations as teams try to figure out how to block him, Irvin, and second year defensive end Mario Edwards Jr..
The Raiders could very well be one upgrade at running back (Latavius Murray is passable but not much more), wide receiver (I don’t have a good feeling about Michael Crabtree this season), and inside linebacker (Ben Heeney is probably better suited as a role player versus a full time starter) away from being the second best team in the AFC, right behind New England.
Through the first four weeks of last season, nobody would’ve expected the forthcoming disaster the Chargers season turned out to be in 2015. The team was 2-2, and quarterback Philip Rivers and wide receiver Keenan Allen were playing like MVP candidates. Yet, everything managed to fall apart afterwards, with the team going 2-10 over its last 12 games, nearly costing head coach Mike McCoy his job. Interesting enough, the Chargers didn’t decide to make that many wholesale changes, instead hoping that continuity, better health, and the addition of a few key additions can help turn things around.
San Diego signed wide receiver Travis Benjamin (who played for the Browns last year) to add a vertical threat to the passing game, helping open up things underneath for Allen, tight end Antonio Gates, and rookie Hunter Henry (the team’s second round draft pick). Free agent acquisitions Joe Barksdale (right tackle) and Matt Slauson (center) will help reinforce an offensive line that was a mess last season. On defense, Brandon Mebane (formerly of the Seattle Seahawks) will plug up the middle of the Chargers 3-4 defense, and rookie Joey Bosa — the third overall pick of the 2016 NFL Draft — is currently slated to start at defensive end, but will likely stand up as an outside linebacker in passing situations. The Chargers also essentially swapped starting free safeties with the Ravens, signing Dwight Lowery to replace long time stalwart Eric Weddle (who signed with Baltimore). The question is whether these moves were enough to enable the team to truly compete in a really tough AFC West.