It’s time for Regular Season Predictions! For this article I’ll be predicting the 2018 AFC West teams, predicting the worst record they could have (Floor) and the best (Ceiling). Let’s not waste any time dealing with a division that actually has Jon Gruden coaching in the 2010’s.
1. Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers just might be the worst good team of all time. This is a team full of talent on both sides of the ball that in theory can compete for a Super Bowl, and yet they either lose a bunch of key players to ACL tears or lose games in the most incomprehensible ways possible (general manager Tom Telesco would probably get more credit for some solid drafts if his draft picks could stay healthy).
Still, everyone is drinking the Chargers’ Kool-Aid by putting them as the AFC West favorites, and I won’t stray from that path.
Philip Rivers remains one of the best quarterbacks in the league thanks to his precision under pressure and quick read cycles. Much like the team he quarterbacks, he had a rough start and rebounded nicely, but coming back from an 0-4 start to make the playoffs was a huge task. At the very least, the Chargers showed why people are high on them, but now they must show that more consistently.
A unit that could be a pleasant surprise in 2018 for the Chargers is the offensive line. Russell Okung got an insane amount of money on his contract, but he’s a solid left tackle in his own right. With Dan Feeney at left guard, Mike Pouncey at center, Forrest Lamp returning from a knee injury at right guard, and Joe Barksdale at right tackle, the Chargers don’t seem to have a bad line at all.
Of course, the real meat of the team (outside Rivers) is the receiving corps. Hunter Henry’s injury is a huge dagger to the tight end position, but the wide receivers are very talented. What Keenan Allen lacks in outlandish speed he easily makes up for in refined route running, technique, and ball skills, making him a phenomenal receiver. Mike Williams’ increased role in the offense would make Tyrell Williams a really good third receiver, while Travis Benjamin would be a solid fourth receiver (as long as he doesn’t try to return the ball).
Melvin Gordon is solid, but Austin Ekeler is the more versatile, electrifying back. Ekeler’s brisk movement and ability as a pass catcher make him a nice change of pace from Gordon. This has gone to a point where some have argued that Ekeler is the superior back to Gordon.
On defense, there’s a lot to love. It goes without saying that Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are the most sensational pass rushing duo in the league, and definitely elevate the rest of that defensive line. Denzel Perryman is also a good linebacker in his own right.
Even with Jason Verrett devastatingly losing another season to injury, the Chargers secondary is stacked. Casey Hayward is arguably the best cornerback in the league, with phenomenal field instincts and pass coverage skills. Derwin James was a phenomenal safety in college and should had little problem translating his game to the pros (if he doesn’t suffer a torn ACL, that is). Trevor Williams has become quite the corner himself in Los Angeles, Desmond King gives that group further quality depth, and Jahleel Addae is a decent safety as well.
There really shouldn’t be any excuses for the Chargers to not be a playoff contender this season. They have so many quality pieces on both sides of the ball, yet year in and year out they continue to do Chargers things. Hopefully that changes this year, right?
2. Kansas City Chiefs
The quality of the Chiefs team is on different extremes when it comes to the two sides of the ball, and this is appropriate considering they’re usually a better team in the regular season than in the postseason. With a loaded offense and a bad defense, it’ll be fascinating to see how far Kansas City can go this season.
2017 first round pick Patrick Mahomes is replacing Alex Smith, who was traded to the Redskins earlier this year. Mahomes, along with Deshaun Watson, represent a breed of quarterbacks that have an addiction with the deep ball, and it’s a breath of fresh air to watch. If he can refine his sloppy footwork and consistency, the Chiefs are going to be a lot of fun to watch.
With the Chiefs running the same vertical offense they ran last year, it makes sense to provide a deep passing heavy quarterback with vertical weapons. Tyreek Hill is an outstanding deep threat with the most outrageous receiver speed in the league. Getting Sammy Watkins was huge; He was never used properly with the Rams due to Jared Goff’s inability to hit him downfield, and has excellent route running ability and fluid athleticism. DeMarcus Robinson remains an intriguing third receiver, and Chris Conley has contributed here and there.
Travis Kelce is the best tight end on this side of Rob Gronkowski. His athleticism in space transcends the tight end ability, and he’s as equal a weapon vertical as he is in the underneath and intermediate areas. Kareem Hunt was supposed to develop behind Spencer Ware last year, but he ended up having an immediate impact. He’s a fantastic back with fluid ball skills and a great pad level that allows him to wear down tacklers with ease. The offensive line isn’t outstanding, but it’s not awful, and Andy Reid knows how to enhance the talent he’s given.
The defense is another story. Outside of Justin Houston, who is excellent, there’s very little talent on the defensive front. In the secondary, getting Eric Berry back is huge, and Kendall Fuller is a good slot corner, but that secondary doesn’t look good otherwise.
This team’s playoff hopes boil down to if Mahomes can play to the level of his supporting cast on offense and if the defense can be complimentary enough to get back to the playoffs again.
3. Denver Broncos
If Peyton Manning didn’t go to the Broncos in 2012, John Elway’s reputation as a general manager would be much worse than it is now. When you draft guys like Brock Osweiler, Paxton Lynch and Trevor Siemian, you’re not giving the rest of your offense a chance to be good.
The arrival of Case Keenum could very well continue that trend. Keenum’s 2017 season was mostly an aberration as he was chucking YOLO balls to Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, who were able to bail out his accuracy because they were that good. Still, Keenum at least took a lot of chances in Minnesota, became a nice story, and could continue to give Denver’s receivers more chances this season.
Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas got screwed by awful quarterback play last year, but they still remain a high quality starting duo. The additional arrival of rookies Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton give the Broncos plenty of wide receiver depth. Tight end remains a gap as not much is known about Jeff Heuerman and Jake Butt.
Garrett Bolles had a nice rookie season at left tackle before getting injured, and Ronald Leary makes for a quality left guard. Jared Veldheer should be an upgrade over Menelik Watson at right tackle, so the Broncos’ offensive line will at least provide some solid pockets for Keenum. Devontae Booker and Royce Freeman are still duking it out at running back, and anyone of them stepping up as the starter would be big for Denver.
Much like the Chargers, the Broncos’ front seven will be elevated by a dynamic pass rushing duo in Von Miller and rookie Bradley Chubb. Miller is arguably the best pass rushing linebacker in the league, and Chubb’s agility and bend are tremendous for a rookie. The secondary isn’t awful, but I’m not huge on it either. Chris Harris and Bradley Roby should be fine at corner, though.
Depending on how consistent Case Keenum is and how effective Miller and Chubb are, the Broncos range from a mediocre team to sneaky Wild Card contender in the AFC. The defense isn’t great but it’s at least solid, and I think the receiving corps should have a big year (or at least give Keenum a lot of opportunities)
4. Oakland Raiders
There’s already been so many jokes made about Jon Gruden returning to coach the Raiders, but it’s hard not to.
Gruden hasn’t been without making good moves this offseason, but a lot of his choices have been confusing. He got rid of Michael Crabtree in exchange for 33-year-old Jordy Nelson, who was bad last year, signed Doug Martin (who didn’t look good at all in his last two seasons in Tampa Bay) and potentially has Jalen Richard on the roster bubble, and the signings of a bunch of old dudes who really don’t fit the Raiders’ actual need for younger talent.
Also, consider he received a 10-year, $100 million contract. There’s that.
Quarterback Derek Carr had huge expectations coming off a massive contract extension, but had a really bad season, with a back injury playing a part in that. Carr showed an inability to operate without clean pockets, and even with good protection he got rid of the ball way too early to covered guys short of the sticks on third down situations. He’s very sloppy outside of his comfort zone, and needs a bounce back year to prove his new contract is not a robbery. Still, Gruden’s past with the West Coast Offense could be a good fit with Carr’s short style of passing.
The receiving corps is a mixed bag. Amari Cooper is great, if he catches the ball, but has had too many drops in his three-year career. Jordy Nelson can’t really separate more, and Martavis Bryant is a sensational vertical threat but has reportedly not been doing so hot in practice. Seth Roberts, like Cooper, leaves a lot of plays on the field, and Jared Cook as your tight end offers some consistency, but very little trust against contested catches.
The key for the Raiders lies in the offensive line. Kolton Miller may end up being the replacement for Donald Penn, who’s getting up there in age. The rest of the offensive line is excellent, and should remain one of the better units in the league. Marshawn Lynch still offers value as a pure runner but is 32. DeAndre Washington is solid, while Jalen Richard is a great receiving back who deserves to be on this roster.
Khalil Mack is pretty much the only thing saving this awful defense, and he’s holding out. Mack is a generational talent with violent hands and swift footwork, and should be treated as such whether on Oakland or somewhere else. Bruce Irvin is decent, and Gareon Conley could be good, but this team is still devoid of defensive talent. Perhaps the addition of corner Rashaan Melvin will improve the secondary, but this is still a massively flawed side of the ball as a hole that needs to hope guys like P.J. Hall, Maurice Hurst and Arden Key pan out.
I have low expectations for the Raiders this season. I don’t have much trust in Gruden’s moves working, but I’ve seen crazier stuff in this league (like the 2017 Bills making the playoffs). I doubt this team goes 0-16, but it’s a pretty bad team on paper.