2021 NFL Preview: AFC West

Matthew King

Fans are back and most players are back and ready to roll. We are just days away from what should be one of the most exciting seasons of football in a long time. The countdown is on.  Every day leading up to the NFL season I will post a preview of each division with records and breakdowns of each team. It will all culminate on opening day with my playoff predictions where I will give you my pick to hoist the Lombardi Trophy this season. Think of these as little appetizers to help pass the days.

Now we move out west in the AFC. The Kansas City Chiefs have made it to two straight Super Bowls and have proven to be the kings of this division. They aren’t as far ahead as they were two years ago however. Teams are moving in the right direction and one in their own division is closer than you may realize. Who could push the Chiefs in the division? Let’s take a look.

 

1. Kansas City Chiefs (2021 Prediction, 15-2)

The Chiefs are the new dynasty in the NFL. Back to back Super Bowl appearances solidified that this is the team to beat in the NFL. That starts with the coaching-quarterback combination of Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes. Mahomes is the leader in the next generation of great quarterbacks and the leader of the next great NFL dynasty.

This offense is going to score points. That is a given as long as Mahomes is healthy. Nobody steps up and puts points on the board like the Kansas City quarterback. There has been a little bit of an injury issue the last couple of years though. Mahomes missed a couple of games in 2019 with a knee injury and then suffered a foot injury in the Divisional Round of the playoffs against Cleveland. The Chiefs say he will be 100% healthy coming into the season which should give this team a ton of comfort and confidence. He is the best player in the NFL and he is ready to win another Super Bowl.

When it comes to weapons for Mahomes, Kansas City has plenty of them. The favorite target for Mahomes is the NFL’s top tight end in Travis Kelce. He is not only the top tight end in the league, but one of the best pass catchers regardless of position. Speed is also at the disposal of Mahomes with Tyreek Hill. Hill is the fastest receiver in the NFL and is nearly impossible to cover one on one. “Cheetah” is a home run hitter in the sense that if he gets the ball in his hands, he can score in the blink of an eye. Clyde Edwards-Helaire wasn’t as explosive as many had anticipated in his rookie campaign. He still put up respectable numbers and will see more carries in his sophomore season. Mecole Hardman and Byron Pringle provide some depth that makes this offense nearly impossible to stop.

The reason they were stopped in the Super Bowl was because of the offensive line. They could not slow down the pass rush of Tampa Bay and Mahomes was running for his life all game long. Kansas City completely tore the line apart and rebuilt it. The big pieces coming in are Orlando Brown Jr. and Joe Thuney. On paper this line looks like a top tier o-line. They have added a lot of depth so an injury or two won’t derail their season. They addressed their biggest weakness in the offseason and it looks like they should improve in 2021. Only time will tell though if the new guys mesh well together on the field.

Defensively, Kansas City isn’t anything special. They have an average defense but with an offense as good as they have, the defense looks better. There are enough playmakers on this defense to step up and make the few plays they need in a game to get the win. Chris Jones is a very consistent pass rusher. He is constantly making the opposing quarterback uncomfortable and can be a help in the run game as well. Tyrann Mathieu is one of the best safeties in football, if not the best. He can blitz and is physical in the run game like Jamal Adams. But then he can drop back and shut down the air attack like Minkah Fitzpatrick. He is a game changer that is always looking for the big play. The defense is good enough to get the job done and get back to the Super Bowl for the third straight year.

The last memory we have of the Chiefs is not a good one. They were absolutely bullied by Tampa Bay and couldn’t ever get going on offense. We had never seen that in the Reid-Mahomes era. I believe that will only motivate them more in 2021. This will be a very scary year to take on the Chiefs. They are still only scratching to the success that they can have. A reality check is exactly what this team needed. They will be back better than ever in 2021.

 

2. Los Angeles Chargers (2021 Prediction, 12-5)

One of the most bizarre stories of the 2020 season was the Tyrod Taylor incident. Taylor got a shot from the team doctor prior to the week two matchup with Kansas City. That shot punctured Taylor’s lung and he wasn’t able to play. Enter Justin Herbert. Herbert was incredible as a rookie. His skills showcased last season have put quite a bit of hype on the Chargers for 2021.

Justin Herbert was highly touted coming out of the University of Oregon. He was your prototype quarterback but slid a little bit in the draft. The Chargers capitalized and struck gold. Herbert really ran away with the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. He completed 66% of his passes for 4,336 yards and 31 touchdowns with just 10 interceptions. He looked like a poised veteran all season long but just couldn’t find the wins. The Chargers lost seven games by a single possession. They won four straight to end the season showing plenty of potential to be a playoff team this year. The organization has their next franchise quarterback after Phillip Rivers departure which makes for a quick transition.

The offensive line changed a bit over the offseason as they continued to rake in the talent from Green Bay. The All-Pro center Corey Linsley joins his former Packers teammate Bryan Bulaga in Los Angeles. Matt Feiler and Oday Aboushi also came over in free agency which makes this a very serviceable offensive line. They aren’t going to be a top tier offensive line, but they won’t be a liability. The line will do enough to allow Herbert and company to have success on offense.

Keenan Allen is the star in the skilled players group. Allen is continuously underrated but always puts up good numbers. Injuries have been his biggest issue in his career but the front office showed their appreciation giving him a long term contract. He and Herbert have already built a connection that will cause problems all season long. Jared Cook joins the team for the 2021 season replacing Hunter Henry at tight end. Herbert liked going to Henry in the redzone last year. Cook should be able to take on that workload for the offense and provide similar production. Austin Ekeler leads the backfield but he isn’t alone. Justin Jackson and Joshua Kelley provide a lot of depth and make this one of the deepest backfields in football. All three can run the ball well and catch it well which creates some unpredictability on offense.

I expect the Chargers to improve on defense this year. Defensive coordinator Brandon Staley takes over as head coach but that will put more focus on the defense. Joey Bosa is a top tier pass rusher. He is so fast that he beats guys just by being quicker off the ball. They will also see the return of Derwin James at safety to team up with Chris Harris Jr. Missing the 2020 season made a lot of people forget just how good James is. His health continues to keep him from reaching his full potential. Even without reaching his full potential he is a top 10 safety and borderline top 5. Expect him to make a statement in 2021.

I have high expectations for this team in 2021. Too high? Possibly. But I think that the evolving defense coupled with the emergence of Justin Herbert will get this team back in the playoffs. They aren’t close to dethroning Kansas City out west but they are on the right track. And to think if it wasn’t for a mistake by the team doctor we might have not seen Herbert in 2020.

 

3. Denver Broncos (2021 Prediction, 4-13)

The Broncos officially will have a new quarterback under center at least in week one. Teddy Bridgewater will get a shot with the Broncos offense after spending 2020 in Carolina. They haven’t been to the playoffs since the Super Bowl win to cap off the 2015 season. The offense is the cause for concern in Denver.

Bridgewater actually played alright in 2020. He had career highs in almost every major category including completion percentage and touchdowns. That also includes interceptions. He didn’t have his starting running back for most of the season, so it was on him to get the job done. Drew Lock is breathing down his neck though. If Bridgewater doesn’t find success I think Denver will not hesitate to go back to Lock. Lock had a tough year last season but is still only 24 years old. It will be interesting to see how the QB situation in Denver develops over the course of the season.

I like Jerry Jeudy a lot. He’s got a ways to go but I think he has all the tools to be a great wide receiver. Courtland Sutton is a key piece in that development. Jeudy can relax and be the number two guy which takes a lot of pressure off of him. Sutton will draw the top corners on opposing defenses so Jeudy can work on his craft against non-elite defenders. Noah Fant is another young piece on this offense that is making strides. Fant is a promising tight end who still hasn’t hit his full potential. Fant should be used a bit more in the offense in 2021 which will force him to take another step in his development. If he can’t they will need to make a decision if he is a piece in the Broncos’ long term plans.

One of the top running backs of the last five years, Melvin Gordon III had a rough debut season in the Mile High City. He did not look like the kind of running back that was a menace for defenses when he was with the Chargers. That forced Denver to draft Javonte Williams in the second round of this years’ draft. The pressure is on for Gordon to perform otherwise he could lose his spot to the rookie.

A big reason for Gordon’s struggles was the offensive line.  The line was extremely bad in the running game all season long. That makes it tough to win games when you have a young QB and no rushing attack. Garett Bolles is the best player on the line for Denver and looks to build on a fantastic 2020. I really don’t see this unit being much better in 2021. The return of Ja’Wuan James looked like it would help. James tore his achilles and was released which trashed that idea. It will be another tough season in the trenches for the Denver O-Line.

The defense should see massive improvements from 2020. Von Miller is back and single handedly improves that entire defense. Bradley Chubb is also a very talented linebacker that is still only getting better. He and Miller have not played much together but they have been dominant in the limited time they’ve shared the field. Denver also has one of the top safeties in the league in Justin Simmons. They added some pieces in the secondary to help Simmons as well. Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby vastly improve the corner position for the Broncos. Adding Patrick Surtain II in the draft gives some future help to the franchise as well. The defense has a chance to be special if they can remain healthy.

 

The Broncos are elite on defense but below average on offense. If Bridgewater plays well and the offensive line can make life easier on Melvin Gordon II. If everything comes together, Denver could crash the playoff party. I don’t see it happening. The offensive line just can’t get the job done.

4. Las Vegas Raiders (2021 Prediction, 4-13)

The Raiders were a team that was quite pesky in 2020. They had some weeks where they looked like a Wild Card contender. That would be followed by games where they looked like a bottom five team. Consistency is the issue in Las Vegas. Can Jon Gruden and company change that in 2021?

Derek Carr just can’t seem to put it all together. After breaking his leg in 2016, Carr has looked like a completely different player. He is on the right path to being a top ten quarterback. The last two seasons saw Carr throw for over 4,000 yards and have a passer rating over 100. A lot of people have slept on Carr. He is not the problem in Las Vegas. Carr is the best thing the Raiders have and should be the face of the franchise. Teams should build around guys like Derek Carr and it is about time for the Raiders to do just that. 

When it comes to the top tight ends in the league, Darren Waller has earned his way into that discussion. Waller is coming off a career year with 107 catches for 1,196 yards and nine touchdowns. If he can replicate those numbers this season, this team will be in a position to win games. Henry Ruggs III leads an impressive group of receivers. Bryan Edwards and Hunter Renfrow round out a balanced attack that can work with short passes or the long ball. It’s time for people to start paying attention to how good the aerial attack is in Vegas.

The best offensive weapon for the Raiders is still Josh Jacobs. The young running back really made an impression in his second season showing his rookie year was no fluke. Jacobs is a physical speedy back that plays on all three downs. Or at least he used to. The additions of Kenyan Drake and Peyton Barber give the Raiders the deepest backfield in football. They have three guys that can all do damage in multiple different ways. This three headed monster will be tough to deal with in 2021.

Now for the bad part. And when I say bad, I mean really bad. I think this will be one of the three worst offensive lines in the game. They got rid of most of their line from last year but didn’t seem to improve it at all. They are taking a lot of chances on the offensive line. I guess when in Vegas you gamble but I don’t like the odds of this line working out. Richie Incognito can’t stay healthy. Alex Leatherwood is being thrown right into the fire. Lastly, Andre James is a below average center at best. The offense is good but a bad O-Line can erase a lot of good very quickly.

For how bad the line was last season, the secondary was just as bad. They were constantly picked apart by each quarterback they came up against. The only way they were able to break up passes was by committing penalties. Casey Hayward Jr. should help but they are a long way from being average. The pass rush also needs to see some improvement if they want to be effective against some high level offenses. Yannick Ngakoue is the man they are looking at to help fix that problem. Things didn’t workout for him in Minnesota or Baltimore but he’s looking to get back to being the player he was in Jacksonville. Signing K.J. Wright helps a lot at linebacker. This defense has the pieces to take a step up in their level of play. It all rides on if the secondary can slow down opposing teams aerial attacks.

The Raiders are strong in so many different areas. But where they aren’t strong, they are really bad. In a division as good as the one they are in, you can’t be bad at any areas let alone multiple areas. The Raiders need to figure out a way to protect Derek Carr and stop the opposing passing game. Until they can do that, they are a below .500 team.

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