The AFC West is home of the reigning NFL champions, as Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs rebounded from a 6-4 start to win nine straight games including a Super Bowl victory over the San Francisco 49ers last year. While the Chiefs are a favorite to repeat as Super Bowl champions this upcoming season, there are other teams inside their own division that might give them some trouble. Andy Reid and Co. went undefeated against AFC West opponents in 2019, but don't be so sure they can do that again in 2020.
The Las Vegas Raiders appeared to be a playoff contender at one point in 2019. After reeling off three straight wins, they were sitting at 6-4 and had the NFL world wondering if Josh Jacobs could carry the Raiders to the postseason for the first time since 2016. Unfortunately, Jon Gruden's squad lost five out of their last six games -- including a heartbreaker in their last game in Oakland. Like the Raiders, the Denver Broncos only won seven games in 2019, but rookie quarterback Drew Lock went 4-1 as a starter. He appears to be the future under center in Denver, and the Broncos' front office did a great job working to surround him with talent this offseason. The Los Angeles Chargers are entering a new era with Philip Rivers now gone, but they have plenty of talent on both sides of the ball and are finally back healthy after a miserable 2019 campaign.
Each one of the four AFC West teams possess a player still on his rookie contract that is absolutely vital for their success moving forward. Some may be obvious while some might surprise you in 2020. Let's take a look at a homegrown player on each AFC West team that will help each respective franchise reach their full potential.
Drafted: No. 42 in 2019
After Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch, Brock Osweiler, Case Keenum and Joe Flacco, it appears the Broncos finally have their quarterback of the future in Lock. He played in just five games last season, but still threw for 1,020 yards, seven touchdowns and just three interceptions. Lock's big arm translated easily to the next level, and one has to wonder what he would have been capable of if he had been healthy for the entirety of his rookie season. While he has plenty of power, Lock also impressed with his accuracy on several occasions in 2019.
All of a sudden, you look at Denver's offense entering 2020 and it's on the verge of becoming something very special. They picked up Melvin Gordon to complement Phillip Lindsay, Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler are on the outside and Noah Fant is at tight end. While the weapons look nice, nothing works if Lock doesn't. The quarterback position is the most important in football, and the Broncos are no exception. Lock needs to build on his impressive rookie season and prove that he's an up-and-coming star in this league. He is the future of this franchise.
Kansas City Chiefs
Drafted: No. 56 in 2019
Mecole Hardman had the perfect rookie year, as he made the Pro Bowl and won Super Bowl LIV in his first NFL season. He made his name known as a returner last year, but it's clear he is capable of much more. Hardman didn't record a catch in the season opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars, but he took advantage of his opportunity when Tyreek Hill missed time due to injury. In Week 2, Hardman caught four passes for 61 yards and a touchdown and then caught two passes for 97 yards and a touchdown the following week. It became clear that the Chiefs had discovered another burner who was a threat to score whenever he touched the ball. Hardman finished the 2019 season having caught 26 passes for 538 yards and six touchdowns, and also averaged over 26 yards per kick return. In all, he averaged 18.5 yards per touch and 20.7 yards per reception.
Mahomes has already proven himself, Hill is a star wideout and the Chiefs also have a few capable running backs. If Hardman can maintain his status as a Pro Bowler when it comes to special teams play and eventually become one of the starting receivers, he could help the Chiefs reach dynasty status. Sammy Watkins' future with the team is unknown, but it's possible they have someone much better in waiting.
Las Vegas Raiders
Drafted: No. 24 in 2019
An NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year finalist, Jacobs rushed for 1,150 yards and eight touchdowns on 242 carries -- which ranked No. 8 in the league. In the season opener, he became the first rookie to score two touchdowns and gain 100 yards from scrimmage since Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson did so in 2001, and a few weeks later, he broke Marcus Allen's franchise record for most rushing yards by a rookie after five games. In all, Jacobs broke five Raiders' rookie records in 2019, including most rushing yards and most rushing yards per game. While he was effective on the ground, he also showed promise in the receiving game -- averaging 8.3 yards per reception. He was only targeted 27 times by Derek Carr, however, and it's something Gruden will definitely want to do more of in 2020.
Jacobs is shifty, fast and demonstrated great vision in year one. Derrick Henry of the Tennessee Titans proved last season how far one running back can take a team, and there's no doubt the Raiders have a star in the backfield. There may still be a question at quarterback, but having Jacobs should take the pressure off of the passing game -- which is very improved entering 2020 by the way.
Los Angeles Chargers
Drafted: No. 17 in 2018
Derwin James established himself as a star early on in his rookie season, and he may actually be one of the best defenders in the NFL, period. According to PFF, James racked up the second most pressures among defensive backs with 19 during his rookie season and gave up the seventh lowest yards per reception with 7.1. Safeties are often called upon to cover tight ends -- which is sometimes a tough task. James thrived when covering tight ends, however, as he allowed just a 21.3 passer rating to tight ends in 2018, which ranked first in the NFL. For reference, the NFL average was 104.7! In all, James recorded 105 combined tackles, 13 passes defensed, three interceptions and 3.5 sacks during his rookie season and picked up First-team All-Pro honors as well as a Pro Bowl selection.
Unfortunately, James missed 11 games during his second season due to a foot issue, but he's finally back healthy and ready to prove he's a leader for this franchise. With Tyrod Taylor or Justin Herbert now taking over as the Chargers' new quarterback, they may need to rely on their defense a little more than they have had to in the past. James is once again going to be looked at to save touchdowns.