The NFL released the 2018 schedule last Thursday for all 32 teams and over the course of the eight days, MTV’s Hot Takes will be giving predictions for each NFL Division for the 2018 season. Today, we take a look at the AFC West which features the Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Chargers, and Oakland Raiders.
After a close race between the Broncos, Raiders, and Chiefs in 2016, the division thought to be the most competitive for the 2017 season ended up being underwhelming. The Raiders took a step back along with the Broncos while the Chargers stormed out of nowhere from an 0-4 start to finish just outside of the playoffs at 9-7. The Chiefs took the division at 10-6 and lost in a Wild Card Game, so what can we expect from the division this year?
Vance Joesph’s first year as the Bronco’s head coach did not go well as Denver finished 5-11 on the year. This was largely in part due to their lack of offensive production. Their -17 turnover differential was the second worst in the NFL last season as their main quarterbacks Brock Osweiler and Trevor Siemian combined for 22 interceptions. The Broncos were ranked 17th on offense and this year they will have Case Keenum as thier starting quarterback. Their top two receivers are Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, two veteran weapons that he can throw to. As it stands now, running back C.J. Anderson remains unsigned which would leave Devontae Booker as their top back. Booker rushed for 299 yards in 13 games last season with just one touchdown. The Broncos need another running back to help their run game improve with C.J. Anderson not being resigned by Denver since Booker has not proven he can carry the team in the backfield. The one question I have with this offense is Case Keenum. Can he build off of last year’s success or is he a product of Pat Shurmur being his offensive coach?
Von Miller. Brandon Marshall. Chris Harris. Darian Stewart. The list goes on for the great players the Broncos have on the defensive side of the ball. A defense that ranked 3rd overall in the NFL last season was not supported by their offense. They laid down some poor performances in 2017, but they were a solid unit that kept the team in games until they got worn down over the course of the game. If there is one thing they need to improve on it would be forcing turnovers. Denver’s defense forced just 17 turnovers last year which was 26th in the league. While ranking top 10 against the rush and pass, they will need help from the offense this season. One thing is for certain, if the offense can produce and keep the defense off the field for a longer period of time, then the Broncos can be a playoff team. Unfortunately, I do not think that will be the case this year.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs won their second consecutive division title in 2017 with a 10-6 record before collapsing against the Titans in the playoffs. Now Alex Smith is gone and Patrick Mahomes will be the new starting quarterback in Kansas City. However, the Chiefs still have most of their weapons which should help Mahomes ease into the starting role. Kareem Hunt had a strong start to his rookie season, but the Chiefs rushing game was the worst in the NFL with 69.0 yards per game. Hunt will be the lead back and Spencer Ware is expected back from his torn PCL and LCL which will help boost the running game. If Ware and Hunt can generate a strong running game, it should set up Patrick Mahomes to let the ball fly to the speedster wide recievers of Tyreek Hill, Chris Conley, and even Sammy Watkins. While Mahomes has just one game under his belt in the NFL in which he threw for 284 yards and an interception, he is believed to be ahead of schedule according to what a Chiefs coach told MMQB’s Albert Breer. If Mahomes is the real deal, Kansas City could experience little to no drop off on the offensive side of the ball.
But success will be hard either way for the Chiefs if they can not manufacture a solid defense. The departure of players like Marcus Peters, Derrick Johnson, and Tamba Hali will no doubt hurt this team. They will get back their top safety in Eric Berry who suffered a season-ending achilles injury in Week 1 against the Patriots. Kansas City was decimated by injuries on the defensive side and could not plug the holes against the running game. They gave up an average of 202.0 rushing yards per game which was the worst in the NFL, but their secondary was strong allowing 195.0 passing yards per game which was the third lowest in the league. They have questions on both sides of the ball, but they could still be a solid team if everything comes together.
Los Angeles Chargers
Philip Rivers and the San Diego…erm Los Angeles Chargers turned a few heads last season. After an 0-4 start last season which included three losses by three points or less, the Chargers managed to finish 9-7 and missed the playoffs by virtue of tiebreaker. Rivers had another great year throwing for 4,515 passing yards with 28 touchdowns and the Chargers passing game was the best in the NFL with 276.9 passing yards per game. Bringing back the same wide receiving core for 2018, Rivers should have no problem posting strong numbers in the passing game which will help this Chargers offense to score points. Melvin Gordon broke 1,000 yards for the first time in his career in his third season while rushing for eight touchdowns and catching another four. He is a versatile threat for the Los Angeles offense that will be dangerous this season as long as they can stay healthy.
If there was one thing the Chargers defense did well in 2017, it was get after the quarterback. Defensive ends Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram led that rush as Los Angeles finished the year with 43.0 sacks which was tied for 5th best in the league. But the 131.1 rushing yards per game against that defense was 30th in the NFL in 2017. Improvement to the defensive line and linebacker core will help plug up the middle, fixing the run defense of the Chargers. That fix will be key to success on the defensive end considering the passing defense was ranked 4th in the league last year and had 18 interceptions which was tied for 6th in the league to go along with 27 takeaways. Expect the Chargers to improve off of last year’s late success.
After Derek Carr broke his leg against the Colt in 2016, it was all but certain that the Raiders would be back and better once he was healthy in 2017. However, that was not the case and Oakland regressed by missing the playoffs at 6-10. The offensive core did not perform up to par with weapons like Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper leading the receiving group. Marshawn Lynch was decent in the backfield, but nothing like he used to be back in his Seattle days. Oakland was -14 in turnover differential last season and Derek Carr seemingly regressed at the quarterback position. It will be up to Carr to step up his game this season and lead the team on the field. Oakland has Amari Cooper to lead the receivers this season, signed Jordy Nelson in free agency, and as this is being written they have traded for Martavis Bryant. Since this news just broke and all my predictions are based off of pre-draft rosters, I will discard that for now. Jon Gruden will be the head coach for the Raiders as well, he had some success in his first stint with the Raiders and should be helpful to improving Derek Carr’s game.
While they focused mostly on offense last offseason, the defense suffered for that in 2017. The Oakland defense ranked 22nd overall in the league and gave up 241.1 passing yards per game which was 25th best in the league. Help is necessary for linebacker Kalil Mack to help this defensive core stop opponents. They went out and signed safety Marcus Gilchrist in free agency, while safety Reggie Nelson who struggled for the team last year was brought back. They need help at the cornerback position with their top corner being 2017 pick Gareon Conley who played in just two games in his rookie season. Without much help in the secondary, the Raiders will struggle against the passing game again and it could spell trouble for them in 2018. Perhaps the draft will bring them another piece to add in the secondary, but they cannot rely on the offense of Carr to lead the team to victory every week without a decent pass defense.
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