1. Kansas City Chiefs Projected Record: 11-5
Alex Smith played at an MVP level last season, and most around the Kansas City Chiefs organization feel they got better at the quarterback position. I am buying all of the Patrick Mahomes stock available, and believe he can dominate from his first snap under center. The combination of Mahomes natural ability, the weapons surrounding him, and Andy Reid is absolutely deadly, and should obliterate opposing defenses. The pairing of Mahomes and Tyreek Hill is a match made in heaven, and running back Kareem Hunt remains one of the league’s most prolific talents out of the backfield. The Chiefs also boast one of the NFL’s most consistent offensive lines, with right tackle Mitchell Schwartz anchoring the line from the right tackle position. His job just got significantly easier with the stunning trade of Khalil Mack, but facing the duos of Von Miller/Bradley Chubb and Joey Bosa/Melvin Ingram twice a year remains one of the hardest jobs in football. While the offense looks to be one of the league’s most feared units, their defense should be a welcome sight for struggling offenses. Cornerback Kendall Fuller will try and fill the hole left by Marcus Peter’s departure, but the drop off from a Pro Bowl talent like Peters to league average will certainly be felt. The return of Eric Berry will also help stabilize the group, but overall the secondary has more questions than answers. The Chiefs front seven is equally uninspiring, with an assortment of solid rotational pieces but no elite talent. The pass rushing combo of Justin Houston and Dee Ford is solid, but the linebacker corps as a whole needs serious improvements. In total, Kansas City should be one of the league’s most exciting teams and their offense should prove very quickly to be must watch football.
2. Los Angeles Chargers Projected Record: 10-6
The Los Angeles Chargers have compiled one of the leagues deepest and most talented rosters, complete with elite level talents on both sides of the ball. The addition of rookie safety Derwin James, and the first full seasons for both wide receiver Mike Williams and guard Forrest Lamp adds three highly touted “rookies” to a team that won nine games last season. At quarterback, Phillip Rivers remains a steadying presence as he continues to crank out Pro-Bowl caliber seasons. Running back Melvin Gordon finally rushed for over 1,000 yards last season, and looks to set a new career high this season behind a much improved offensive line. For the first time in a very long time, the Chargers can evaluate their offensive line and feel optimistic about their chances. Even if the inevitable injury bug makes an appearance, Los Angeles has about seven or eight league average offensive lineman which is a lot more than many teams can say. On the defensive side of the ball, Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram will continue to wreak havoc this season as one of the league’s top pass rushing duos. The Chargers also possess one of the league’s deepest collection of corners, with All-Pro cornerback Casey Hayward captaining the squad. Trevor Williams and Desmond King III both took huge strides last season as up and coming corners, and each will play a pivotal role as Los Angeles looks to remain one of the best secondaries in the league. Where the Chargers remain weak is up the middle. Defensive tackles Brandon Mebane and Darius Philon remain huge question marks, and middle linebacker Denzel Perryman has yet to prove he can stay healthy and on the field. Los Angeles struggles in special teams can also not be overlooked. After the Younghoe Koo debacle last season, the Chargers failed to shore up the kicker position this offseason. Los Angeles signed both Caleb Sturgis and Roberto Aguayo to compete for starting kicker with Sturgis eventually winning out with Aguayo getting cut. Sturgis looked strong in the preseason, but he should in no way quell the fears of worried Chargers fans everywhere. If everything breaks right, the Chargers could overtake the Chiefs for the AFC West crown, but more than likely they will settle for second place and a wild card berth.
3. Denver Broncos Projected Record: 7-9
The Denver Broncos have enough exciting players to keep a lot of their games competitive, but lack the coaching or the star power to truly compete with the upper echelon of the AFC. Denver’s new starter under center is Case Keenum, who unlike any of the Broncos quarterbacks last season, is actually a competent NFL quarterback. The addition of rookie running back Royce Freeman should provide a spark on an otherwise bleak offense that probably peaked about three years ago. Neither Demariyus Thomas nor Emmanuel Sanders are the players they used to be, but while Sander’s career could be extended by Keenum’s affinity for short and intermediate routes, a deep threat like Thomas could see a dramatic dip in production. Defensively, the Broncos still employ a bevy of playmakers across all levels of defense, but it has yet to translate to a strong, cohesive unit. Rookie pass rusher Bradley Chubb should excel from week one, and lining up opposite Von Miller will only open up opportunities for the top five pick. At middle linebacker Denver has Brandon Marshall, a quick and versatile tackling machine who captains the Bronco defense. Finally in the secondary Denver has retained a few crucial members of their Super Bowl winning defense, most namely cornerbacks Chris Harris Jr. and Bradley Roby. Both Harris Jr. and Roby grade out as above average starters and the two form an experienced and savvy cornerback duo. Overall, the Broncos will remain close in a lot of their games this season, but will ultimately wind up with a losing record and on the outside of the playoffs looking in.
4. Oakland Raiders Projected Record: 3-13
New Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden’s handling of the Khalil Mack situation has only cemented my belief the Raiders will be an absolute dumpster fire this season. It takes a special kind of coach to have already lost the locker room before week one even begins, but then again Gruden is a special kind of guy. The move to trade Mack for two first round picks makes theory in a vaccum (tying up almost half your cap in two players like the Raiders would have with Carr and Mack doesn’t make team building sense) but not for an Oakland team that believes they can compete now. Trading away a player of that caliber sends a clear message to the rest of the team that winning is no longer a priority, and when that player was a team leader like Mack it can be even tougher to see the silver lining. For now, Mack departs a defense that could be one of the worst in the league. Bruce Irvin and draft darling Maurice Hurst are both enticing players in Oakland’s front seven, but overall the unit is lacking in exciting young talent. The secondary has a couple intriguing young players, including second year corner Gareon Conley and third year safety Karl Joseph. On the other side of the ball, the Raiders seem equally inept. Derek Carr has come to be defined by mediocrity, while Marshawn Lynch continues to chug along in his twelfth season in the league. Oakland’s receiving corps is more style than substance, with big names like Amari Cooper and Jordy Nelson masking just how bad this unit could be. Incredibly, this roster is one of the oldest in league history with an average age of 27.4. This is a full six months older than the next closest team, the Atlanta Falcons who clock in at 26.9. All signs point to the Raiders having an absolutely dreadful season, as Gruden’s return to coaching should get off to a less than stellar start.