Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL is a league mostly dominated by veterans who've learned how to consistently dominate and outsmart their often younger, inexperienced opponents. That isn't always the case, however, because there will always inevitably be students of the new school who become teachers right out of the gate, with others needing just a year or two before snatching the pebble from the hand of the more seasoned senseis. The AFC West has its fair share of such talent, and in a division headlined by Patrick Mahomes and his stable of young horses, it's all the other three clubs can do to keep pace with the Kansas City Chiefs.

That said, don't go counting them out, especially if health isn't a major issue in 2021 -- as it was for many in 2020. Pencil in some competition for the division crown this coming season, but only if the four players listed below do what their respective teams expect: take the field and make their opposition beg for mercy. Each of them might still be on a rookie deal, but that doesn't mean they're playing like it or will continue to.

Los Angeles Chargers: QB Justin Herbert

Player experience: Second season
How acquired:
2020 draft (No. 6 overall)

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There are other names you could go with here -- e.g., Derwin James in his return from injury -- but none would equate to the value of Herbert to the win column in Los Angeles. Questions on if he could live up to the hype coming out of Oregon were answered tenfold, with Herbert throwing for 4,336 yards and 31 touchdowns to only 10 interceptions in 15 starts as a rookie. His passer rating of 98.3 was luxurious and he achieved these numbers despite adversity, such as being sacked 32 times (enter rookie first-round pick Rashawn Slater) and not having Keenan Allen around for all of his starts (having missed games due to injury). Herbert is the poster boy for why a quarterback's win-loss record can be mostly a throwaway stat, seeing as it was his defense that tied his phenomenal rookie year to a 7-9 finish. If the defense can even remotely match serve to what Herbert does, the Chargers will be a migraine to their division rivals in 2021.

Kansas City Chiefs: CB L'Jarius Sneed

Player experience: Second season
How acquired:
2020 draft (No. 138 overall)

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With Bashaud Breeland out of Kansas City and into a Minnesota Vikings uniform for 2021, it's time for Sneed to shine. Expect him to see much more than the six starts he logged in 2020, especially considering he's earned it. The former fourth-round pick delivered three interceptions, seven pass breakups and two sacks (plus 42 combined tackles) last season -- besting Breeland in multiple categories with five fewer starts. It's safe to assume the emergence of Sneed was a key factor in not bending over backward to re-sign Breeland, and rightfully so. A season that sees Sneed promoted to full-time starter will presumably see his numbers jump to even more impressive levels, and especially with the likes of Tyrann Mathieu and Juan Thornhill patrolling behind him. That will make for a short field defensively, and plenty of opportunities for good eating by Sneed in 2021. 

Denver Broncos: DL Dre'Mont Jones

Player experience: Third season 
How acquired: 2019 draft (No. 71 overall)

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Everyone knows about the defensive dynamic duo in Denver -- namely Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. There's another very talented defensive lineman lurking in the shadows, though, and it's Jones, a player who stepped up and showed the Broncos something in 2020 that they might be able to hang their hat on this coming season. In the absence of Miller and Chubb (later in the season) due to injury, Jones' second season in the NFL was a career-best. He'd play in 13 games and start in eight of them, nearly doubling the sack tally from his rookie season (3.5) with 6.5 sacks on the year -- good enough for third-most on the team -- and 41 combined tackles. In addition to that, Jones had 11 hits on the opposing quarterback overall, and he's proven he can potentially turn the two-headed monster in Denver into a three-headed hydra, and that's something that has defensive coordinator Ed Donatell drooling noticeably.

Las Vegas Raiders: WR Henry Ruggs III

Player experience: Second season
How acquired: 2020 draft (No. 12 overall)

Las Vegas Raiders v Carolina Panthers
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Ruggs isn't naive to the disappointment that was his rookie year, and if he was, general manager Mike Mayock made sure to remedy that when labeling the receiver play in Las Vegas last season a "disappointment". That's a shot heard around the world at the WR corps, but especially Ruggs, whom the Raiders used their first-round pick on only months prior. Having passed on Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb and Justin Jefferson to select the turbo-boosted Ruggs puts a ton of pressure on him to break out sooner than later, and the good news is quarterback Derek Carr is already offering high praise for him in OTAs and minicamp -- saying "something has clicked" in Ruggs this year. The Raiders hope that holds true, because tight end Darren Waller has been the sole game-breaking threat in the receiving game (kudos to Nelson Agholor for a resurgent season, as well) and Ruggs finished his first year with a pedestrian 452 receiving yards and only two touchdowns, along with having battled availability issues. Mayock expects more from Ruggs, and he expects it yesterday.