AFC West Preseason Preview
The AFC West will be one of the 2016 season’s most interesting and most competitive divisions. Here is a look at some of the summer storylines as the preseason approaches for the defending Super Bowl champions and three other West squads aiming for the playoffs.
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Over/Under Win Total: 9 (-125 OVER, -105 UNDER)
Odds to win the AFC West: 2/1
Odds to win the AFC: 8/1
Odds to win Super Bowl: 18/1
STAFF CHANGES: After a Super Bowl championship season the Denver Broncos don’t have any major staff changes to report as Gary Kubiak’s staff will be led by Rick Dennison as the offensive coordinator for the second straight season and his 26th (non-consecutive) season with the team. Veteran coach Wade Phillips is back to lead the defense as well as a coaching staff that won it all in year one will try to do it again.
KEY POSITON BATTLE: Quarterback
The Broncos didn’t need spectacular quarterback play last season but they will be a rare example of a Super Bowl champion not returning with their quarterback, the first since Trent Dilfer wasn’t re-signed by the Ravens for the 2001 season. It is assumed that Mark Sanchez will be leading the Broncos but Trevor Siemian could be a wild card and the Broncos also drafted Paxton Lynch late in the 1st round. Siemian impressed the team last season as a 7th round pick and his arm strength and athleticism could keep him in the mix if Sanchez fails to take a firm hold of the spot.
OTHER POSITIONS TO WATCH: The success of the defense last season led to some departures and while the starting secondary looks locked in there will be some battles for depth, particularly at cornerback with a casualty likely among Keyvon Webster, Tarurean Nixon, and Lorenzo Doss. Keeping Von Miller grabbed the headlines this summer for the Broncos but the team lost Danny Trevathan to the Bears to open up a linebacker spot. Nose tackle also should feature a battle between Sylvester Williams and Darius Kilgo who both contributed last season.
SEASON OUTLOOK: Denver has some risk to be a Super Bowl champion that fails to make the playoffs the next season. Denver was the AFC’s top seed but they weren’t far from missing the playoffs entirely heading into the final weeks last season. Five AFC teams had a superior point differential to the Broncos last season and while Peyton Manning didn’t have a great statistical season his leadership proved pivotal in the many narrow wins the team had. Add that the competition in the West looks steep with the Raiders and Chargers likely to improve and the Chiefs still formidable, a fall for the Broncos looks possible if the defense is unable to carry the team again.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
Over/Under Win Total: 9.5 (-115 OVER, -115 UNDER)
Odds to win the AFC West: 2/1
Odds to win the AFC: 12/1
Odds to win Super Bowl: 28/1
STAFF CHANGES: The Chiefs made 10 coaching changes this off-season although few were headline-grabbing moves. Primary among those moves for Andy Reid’s staff was Britt Reid promoted to defensive line coach and Al Harris taking over coaching the secondary. A handful of college coaches have also been added to the staff including two former UCLA assistants.
KEY POSITON BATTLE: Cornerback
The Chiefs would not pay Sean Smith a big contract and he left for division rival Oakland to open up a starting cornerback spot. It will be a young group led by Marcus Peters who had a great rookie season but the replacement options for Smith include less proven options like Phillip Gaines and Steven Nelson. Marcus Cooper is also an option with some experience and the Chiefs addressed the position heavily in the draft picking three corners, led by KeiVarae Russell in the 3rd round out of Notre Dame.
OTHER POSITIONS TO WATCH: Alex Smith is certainly entrenched as the starter for the Chiefs but they lost back-up Chase Daniel who went to Philadelphia with hopes of competing for a starting role. Daniel impressed in the preseason in three years behind Smith but never got a significant opportunity. Three young quarterbacks are on the roster with no clear leader in the battle between Tyler Bray, Aaron Murray, and rookie Kevin Hogan. Bray has the most experience and the strongest arm but this will be a key battle that will be given time to work out in the preseason. The Chiefs also may have a battle at right guard as well as some competition with wide receiver depth.
SEASON OUTLOOK:The Chiefs went 11-5 last season while posting twice the point differential of the Broncos but the slow start to the season left Denver with the division title and favorable playoff seed. Kansas City won a playoff game last season and the Chiefs have the pieces to be a viable AFC contender, although the AFC West looks like a difficult division. No team did better in the AFC last season with a 10-2 record in conference games and with the years continuing to add up for Alex Smith and Andy Reid this figures to be a critical season in Kansas City to take the next step.
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Over/Under Win Total: 8.5 (-130 OVER, EVEN UNDER)
Odds to win the AFC West: 5/2
Odds to win the AFC: 12/1
Odds to win Super Bowl: 25/1
STAFF CHANGES: It was a competitive first season for Jack Del Rio’s staff with the Raiders going 7-9, the best finish for the franchise since 2011. Oakland has not made the playoffs since losing the Super Bowl after the 2002 season and the staff has mostly been held together for the 2016 season. The offense under Bill Musgrave had a great start to the season before slipping late in the year while Ken Norton’s defense struggled early and came on late. This season the team will look for more complete and consistent performances while also facing elevated expectations.
KEY POSITON BATTLE: Right Tackle
After a great battle last season Austin Howard won the spot last season as Menelik Watson was injured before the season opener. Howard was passable in 13 starts last season but Watson figures to make a push for the starting spot again this season. The Raiders did not address the position in the draft of free agency as they fell they feel they have what they need on the roster.
OTHER POSITIONS TO WATCH: Connor Cook was picked up in the draft and he may push Matt McGloin in a battle for the backup spot at quarterback behind Derek Carr. At safety Karl Joseph will be under a close watch as he is recovering from a knee injury but still was deemed worthy of the team’s first round pick. Running back depth will also be of interest behind Latavius Murray with a complementary back needed to step up. Rookie DeAndre Washington out of Texas Tech will get looks while speedster Taiwan Jones is still on the roster.
SEASON OUTLOOK: The competitive 7-9 season was a step-forward for the Raiders last season but the team was once 4-3 before the offense started to struggle late in the season. Oakland did win at Denver last December but it was an ugly 15-12 win with Brock Osweiler starting for the Broncos and Denver had nearly a 3:1 yardage edge. That was the only win vs. a playoff team for the Raiders last season and the schedule is loaded with long travel miles and few easy games in a very competitive division. The expectations are elevated and handling the added pressure of the first significant meaningful games for the franchise in a long time will be a challenge.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
Over/Under Win Total: 7 (-115 OVER, -115 UNDER)
Odds to win the AFC West: 13/2
Odds to win the AFC: 33/1
Odds to win Super Bowl: 66/1
STAFF CHANGES: Mike McCoy’s spot leading the Chargers was certainly a question mark after a very disappointing 2015 season. McCoy was retained and the big move is bringing back Ken Whisenhunt as the offensive coordinator. Whisenhunt had a great 2013 season with the Chargers in that role before taking the Tennessee head coaching position. John McNulty is following Whisenhunt from Tennessee as the new tight ends coach while former Patriots offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo was also added to the staff although Jeff Davidson will be the new offensive line coach. Craig Aukerman was promoted to special teams coordinator and former All-Pro Chris Harris will be an assistant with the defensive backs. Former Jacksonville defensive coordinator Bob Babich was also added to coach the linebackers as there were many changes to piece together a staff in what will be a critical year for McCoy though his contract does now run through 2017.
KEY POSITON BATTLE: Center
After going through five different starting centers last season this spot is the most important of the summer for San Diego. Trevor Robinson ended the season as the team’s center but they added former Bears center Matt Slauson and drafted Max Tuerk in the 3rd round out of USC. Former starter Chris Watt is also still on the roster and while Slauson is the presumed starter the team added four lineman and two new offensive line coaches since last season as there is a lot to be sorted out.
OTHER POSITIONS TO WATCH: With Joey Bosa still unsigned the defensive line has some question marks. Locked into spots should be Corey Liuget and free agent addition Brandon Mebane but after that there will be battles in August with eight other defensive lineman on the roster, not counting Bosa. Safety is another area on defense with reasonable depth but lacking standout proven starters. Rookie Adrian McDonald has shown a lot of promise in camp and Darrel Stuckey will likely keep a spot for his excellent special teams abilities. Depth at wide receiver and tight end should also feature some competition on offense while backup quarterback could be a true one-on-one battle between Zach Mettenberger and Kellen Clemens.
SEASON OUTLOOK: Last season the Los Angeles cloud hung over the Chargers all season and while that prospect isn’t going away the team should enter 2016 with a bit more stability with McCoy extended and with a team that lost nine games by eight or fewer points. Getting a few of those games to go the other way could dramatically change the season for San Diego with the Chargers featuring a defense that was formidable down the stretch last season. The offensive line should be much more stable this season and that should lead to improvement throughout the offense and a worst-to-first scenario isn’t all that unrealistic even though it is a difficult division with three other teams that expect to be playoff teams. The Chargers still look like the #4 team in the West to most but they are a team that could surprise.