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As the prologue comes to an end with the completion of the preseason, much like The Eye of Sauron, our eyes turn to a new threat. That threat is the AFC West, and the four teams that inhabit it. Anything can happen in the NFL, but as the 2022 regular season kickoff approaches, there’s little doubt that every team in this division is playoff caliber.
Just as there were key newcomers to these teams, there was also tough departures that have leveled the playing field. Are those additions enough to topple the Kansas City Chiefs and their six straight division titles? Could this be the first time since adopting the new playoff format that every team from the same division makes the playoffs?
Record In 2021: 7-10
Key Player: Running Back – Javonte Williams
Player To Watch: Linebacker – Bradley Chubb
Before the league year began on March 16th, there was a massive trade deal that created shockwaves in the AFC West. The Broncos knew in order to make it back to the Super Bowl, they needed a quarterback that knew the road to get there. Just as the they did exactly 10 seasons ago when they went out and signed Peyton Manning, the Broncos pulled the trigger on a blockbuster trade to acquire Russell Wilson from the Seattle Seahawks.
Wilson will be an instant upgrade and kickstarter to this offense, most notably running back Javonte Williams. Last year Williams led the league in broken tackle percentage, and now that he’s locked up the starting job, he’s looking for his first 1000 yard season. Also, Wilson’s ability to hold the backside defender with arguably the best bootleg action in the league will allow Williams some cutback lanes that he never had before.
Up until last season, Wilson was on a nine consecutive season streak where he was above .500 and had started every single game. I don’t see him repeating with a below .500 effort, and I foresee wideouts Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton having stellar seasons with a proven passer under center.
In 2021, the Broncos defense was absolutely stout, landing top 10 in nearly every category. Rush yards allowed was the outlier but they made up for it in rushing TDs allowed by only surrendering nine all year. Even though pass defense was still top ten, the absence of Bradley Chubb was noticeable.
Chubb should be in for a great 2022 as he tries to replicate the 2020 season which landed him in the Pro Bowl. His pressure off the edge will allow ball hungry defenders like Justin Simmons and rising star Patrick Surtain II to intercept rushed and forced throws.
If this all happens according to plan then this defense could be even better than last year. Of course, that is considering the Wilson-led offense won’t continually put the defense in bad spots like last year. His arrival should at least guarantee two more wins, but I’ll be optimistic and say a three win increase from 2021 with his presence. Prediction: 10-7
Kansas City Chiefs
Record In 2021: 12-5
Key Player: Tight End – Travis Kelce
Player To Watch: Cornerback – L’Jarius Sneed
Regardless of the fact that the Chiefs are 2-2 over the last four seasons in the AFC Championship Game, the title game for this conference goes through Kansas City until proven otherwise. Head coach Andy Reid just always seems to find a way to get these guys to gel and overcome any early, mid or even late season blunders. Even last season after starting 1-2, they still pulled it together for the No. 2 seed.
This year will require star quarterback Patrick Mahomes to find a new deep threat to link up with after the departure of Tyreek Hill to the Miami Dolphins. Mahomes is coming off a career low in QBR and career high in interceptions with 13. So far this preseason, Mahomes has had issues connecting on the deep ball with second round draft pick, Skyy Moore. Until Moore is up to speed, the passing game may need to adjust until chemistry exists, and that’s where Travis Kelce comes in.
As one of the best tight ends in the game, Kelce should be leaned on heavily until the deep ball is restored. Even with new wideout additions like Moore, the hyphenated pairing of Marquez Valdes-Scantling and JuJu Smith-Schuster, Kelce needs to be targeted early and often to give the Chiefs’ offense their footing.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Chiefs need to figure out how to move on with life after Tyrann Mathieu. With him gone, the most valuable piece in this secondary and possibly the defense, is L’Jarius Sneed.
After exploding on the scene as a fourth round pick in 2020, he used last year to solidify his spot as the x-factor on defense. Sneed is an incredible defender against the pass who can lineup virtually anywhere in the secondary, mostly at nickel back and uses his physical play lock wideouts down. That physicality transitions into run defense as he ended up with the third most tackles on the team with 76.
We can’t discuss the Chiefs defense without talking about one of the best defensive lines in all of football. Chris Jones has always been the anchor for this unit and is extremely disruptive in all facets of the game. Additions like Carlos Dunlap and first round pick George Karlaftis (my darkhorse for defensive rookie of the year) will help in making this one of the most feared front fours in all of football.
My guess is that we’ll still see a strong Chiefs team, but the Hill departure will cause them to take a slight step back this year. Prediction: 11-6
Las Vegas Raiders
Record In 2021: 10-7
Key Player: Wide Receiver – Hunter Renfrow
Player To Watch: Defensive End – Maxx Crosby
Generally when you acquire a playmaker who is rated 99 in Madden, your team usually is in good hands, usually figuratively but this time literally. That 99 overall is wide receiver Davante Adams, and this fresh start in Las Vegas means a reunion with his Fresno State teammate, quarterback Derek Carr. Someone else actually becomes a huge beneficiary,as well. That person is slot receiver Hunter Renfrow.
Renfrow is coming off a career best season where he snagged 103 passes for 1,038 yards and nine scores. The best statistic with him though comes with his 80% catch rate. With his ability to get open in the slot mixed with Adams, and even tight end Darren Waller getting double covered, Renfrow will have favorable matchups.
Adams isn’t here to be a decoy though, and his presence will give Carr an elite ball winner who can line up in the boundary, without having to move Waller outside of the numbers like in years past. Having this elite trio of pass catchers in turn benefits the running game since a stacked box is living dangerously. Less defenders clogging up the middle of the field is exactly what running back Josh Jacobs needs get back to his rookie year form.
Maxx Crosby has been one of the best draft steals in the last decade. The Eastern Michigan defensive end that fell all the way to the fourth round went bananas his rookie year in 2019, finishing with 10 sacks and second in defensive rookie of the year voting behind Nick Bosa. Last year, Crosby put in a second team All-Pro effort with his relentlessness off the edge.
The addition of veteran Chandler Jones to play opposite of Crosby should elevate him further. These defensive ends will put pressure in the pocket all season which will help the secondary, namely Johnathan Abram, by allowing him to play closer to the line of scrimmage and be the enforcer. Abram’s partner in the secondary, safety Tre’von Moehrig, was fantastic as a rookie last year and should be even better coming into year two.
However, there are many questions in the cornerback department. Can Rock Ya-Sin live up to the hype that made him a draft commodity or can Nate Hobbs build off a solid rookie season at the nickel? Will Trayvon Mullen Jr. come back strong after missing most of 2021 and just coming off the PUP list last week?
My gut feeling is that this team will underperform based on the new additions, putting them right at the same record as last year. Prediction: 10-7
Los Angeles Chargers
Record In 2021: 9-8
Key Player: Offensive Tackle – Rashawn Slater
Player To Watch: Safety – Derwin James Jr.
The Chargers have been one of the rising teams in the league over the last two seasons, tallying two more wins per season since 2019. Though they have a rough schedule with this incredibly strong division and dates with the NFC West, they have youth on their side.
In the final game last year, head coach Brandon Staley’s insistency to prevent the Raiders from simply running the clock out ended up costing the Chargers a playoff spot. Hopefully experience will come to the rescue in year two for the 39 year old. Also in year two is Rashawn Slater, the left tackle who was great at protecting quarterback Justin Herbert’s blindside en route to a second team All-Pro selection.
Slater locking down protection allows this offense to do virtually anything in the passing game, from screens to shot plays. Having wideout Keenan Allen almost always open has helped Herbert mature so much in his first two seasons, allowing him to play free knowing there is a safety valve.
There’s also plenty of youth on the defensive side. Nearly the whole secondary is full of it with Nasir Adderley and Asante Samuel Jr., but the one to point out is Derwin James Jr. He reminds me so much of the Colts’ Bob Sanders, who was one of the best safeties in the game, but was unfortunately hampered by injuries.
Additionally, Joey Bosa being paired up with new addition Khalil Mack is terrifying since both of them are relentless and proven pass rushers that have lived up to their top five draft selections. Mack and Bosa will make the jobs easier for the underrated inside backer pairing of Drue Tranquill and Kenneth Murray Jr.
If this defense can cut their average points allowed by just three or four points this year, it could account for one or two more wins. The Chargers have just seemingly been spinning the tires since the 2010 season where their offense and defense were both ranked #1. That year it was special teams that cost them wins, much like it was coaching blunders last season. If this team can limit the mistakes, then they’re the best candidate to overthrow the Chiefs. Prediction: 11-6