AFC West Reset: Raiders go Beast Mode, Broncos need QB, Chargers get offensive
With free agency and the draft in books, it's time for an offseason look at the AFC West
It's probably safe to say that no other division in football has had a weirder offseason than the AFC West.
First, let's start with two division teams ditching cities for new hometowns. For the Chargers, that means a move up I-5 to Los Angeles, where they'll kickoff the 2017 season. For the Raiders, their move isn't as immediate: They'll likely be spending in Oakland before they move to Las Vegas.
That's not where the weirdness ends, though.
Things also got kind of weird for Alex Smith. Had you told Smith before the 2016 season started that he would lead the Chiefs to a 12-4 record and a first-round bye in the playoffs, only to watch his team trade up to the No. 10 spot in the NFL Draft to take his replacement, he probably would've laughed at you. Well, Smith's
As for the Broncos, things didn't exactly get weird for them, but they did get kind of crazy: Their coach retired, their defensive coordinator left and all this happened after they missed the playoffs for the first time in five years.
Also, the Broncos still don't know who their starting quarterback is, which actually sounds like a perfect place to start our AFC West reset.
Broncos still have a QB conundrum
When the Broncosof the 2017 NFL Draft on a quarterback -- and we're being literal, it was the very last pick of the draft -- it wasn't that surprising, because new coach Vance Joseph had promised the team to the roster during the offseason.
The surprising part is that the quarterback selected, Chad Kelly, might actually be the most talented QB on this roster. That doesn't say a lot about your quarterback situation when Mr. Irrelevant might be the best you have. That doesn't mean Kelly will start, it just means that from a talent standpoint, he might have a higher ceiling than Trevor Siemian or Paxton Lynch.
The Broncos may be built on defense, but they're only going as far as their starting quarterback takes them, and right now, it kind of feels like that's straight to third or fourth place in the division.
Although Siemian was serviceable in 2016, there's no guarantee he'll win the job this year, and that's because he's going to have to learn a new offensive system. With Gary Kubiak retired, Siemian will take play calls from new offensive coordinator Mike McCoy. If it doesn't work out, that could be good news for Lynch, who could steal the job. And if Lynch can't win the job, he's getting dangerously close to bust territory because he would have a QB competition two years in a row to a seventh-round pick.
Quarterback isn't the only big question mark on this roster. There also is a hole at left tackle, thanks to the departure of Russell Okung. If we learned one thing about John Elway the past few years, it's that he'd rather have a giant, gaping hole on his roster than overpay for a mediocre player, even if the market demands it. Elway and his Stanford degree laugh at markets, which is why he wasn't willing to pay Okung the market price to stay.
When you start doing it at every important position, your roster starts to fall apart. The Broncos already are going cheap at quarterback, so you'd presume that they'd be willing to pay for a left tackle, but that's not the case. Instead, the Broncos are likely going to rely on first-round draft pick Garett Bolles at left tackle.
The obvious upside with Bolles is that he knows how to carry a baby.
If Bolles can't handle the job, and left tackle isn't an easy spot for a rookie, the Broncos could be in trouble.
One thing Elway did do during free agency is fortify the rest of the offensive line. Former Cowboys guard Ronald Leary will be an instant starter while former Raiders lineman Menelik Watson should see plenty of playing time, even if he doesn't start right away.
For a team built on defense, this feels like a risky year. Not only are they gambling on two important offensive positions (quarterback and left tackle), but there's no guarantee that their defense will be as successful as it was under Wade Phillips, who's now with the Rams. The good news for the Broncos is that if there is a drop-off, it shouldn't be much of one after the team promoted secondary coach Joe Woods to take Phillips' spot.
Déjà vu in Kansas City
If you saw the Chiefs play in 2016, you got a good taste of what we're going to see in 2017, because not much has changed the past few months.
The biggest difference is that we may actually see Alex Smith take a few risks this year for two reasons:
- He has nothing to lose.
- If he doesn't, he may end up on the bench.
With first-round pick Patrick Mahomes on the roster, Smith seems to be very well aware that this will probably be his final season in Kansas City.
"I think [the Chiefs are] committed to me [only] through this year,'' Smith said via ESPN.com. "That's just the nature of it. If you don't go out there and perform, I mean, coach [Andy] Reid and [quarterbacks coach Matt Nagy] are very honest. You've got to go out there and do your deal. We all have to."
Smith seems to understand that he could lose his job.
"If you're not good enough and didn't get it done, you're not going to be around long," Smith said. "That's just our culture. I know it. That's the nature of the position."
At least Smith will go into 2017 with an offense he knows very well. Not only is Smith getting all his key weapons back -- Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Jeremy Maclin, Spencer Ware, Charcandrick West -- but he's also likely going to be throwing behind the same offensive line as 2016. The only question is whether Parker Ehinger will be available to start the season at left guard after suffering a torn ACL in October.
In the draft, the Chiefs also added another weapon for Smith in the form of Toledo running back Kareem Hunt. Basically, if this is Smith's going-away party, Andy Reid has done a good job of gathering up all his old friends to say goodbye. If Smith can't lead the Chiefs past the divisional round of the playoffs next season, you can bet that no one in Kansas City is going to mind if the team moves on to Mahomes in 2018.
Raiders have gone Beast Mode
If you need an example of how a team can lose a bunch of starters yet improve, point to the 2017 Raiders. Despite losing nine players who started at least one game in 2016, you could argue the Raiders had the best offseason of any team in this division.
Yes, the team lost Malcolm Smith (who started 14 games), Latavius Murray (12), Stacy McGee (9), Menelik Watson (5), Nate Allen (4), Andre Holmes (2), D.J. Hayden (2), Mychal Rivera (2) and Matt McGloin (1), but somehow, it feels like they actually got better, and that starts with the addition of Marshawn Lynch.
Even if Beast Mode is a little rusty after taking a season off, it's not crazy to think he'll put up big numbers. For one, he'll be running behind the best offensive line of his career. The Raiders didn't have any extremely talented backs in 2016, but still finished sixth in the NFL in rushing. If the line produces like it did last season, Beast Mode will see holes like he's never seen; this guy basically had to make his own holes in Seattle.
Also, Lynch likely will be playing inspired football after signing with his hometown team. Lynch won't be the only new player contributing right away, either. Marshall Newhouse and Jared Cook likely will start at right tackle and tight end.
The biggest loss was Malcolm Smith, who signed with the 49ers. Oakland tried to replace him by adding Jelani Jenkins, but it would be an absolute stunner if Jenkins is nearly as productive as Smith was last season.
After watching their secondary finish 14th of 16 AFC teams, the Raiders used the draft to beef up their depth in the defensive backfield. The team spent three of their first six picks in the draft on defensive backs, including Gareon Conley in the first round and Obi Melifonwu in the second.
The Raiders are having a solid offseason. Well, as long we're not counting the fact that they've upset 90 percentVegas thing, and as long as we ignore the fact that they
Other than that, things are going well.
Los Angeles (still in San Diego) Chargers get offensive
At 35 years old, it's pretty clear Philip Rivers doesn't have much time left in the NFL, and new coach Anthony Lynn seems to realize that. Instead of starting a complete rebuild for his first year in Los Angeles, Lynn decided to do something else: Add as many players as possible who can immediately help Rivers win.
If you watched the Chargers play last season, you may have noticed that the one group who rarely helped Rivers win was the offensive line. Rivers was sacked 36 times, which was tied for the ninth highest number in the NFL.
Lynn decided to fix that problem by dumping 60 percent of the line. After being hired, the new coach got rid of left tackle King Dunlap and right guard D.J. Fluker, and then said goodbye to left guard Orlando Franklin after the draft.
To make up for their losses, the Chargers added tackle Russell Okung and drafted two guards -- second-rounder Forrest Lamp and third-rounder Dan Feeney -- who could start in Week 1.
If those two picks didn't prove that the Chargers are in win-now-for-Rivers mode, then maybe their first-round pick did. With the seventh overall selection in the 2017 NFL Draft, the Chargers added Clemson receiver Mike Williams, even though Rivers already has an arsenal in Tyrell Williams, Travis Benjamin, Antonio Gates and Hunter Henry. Not to mention, Keenan Allen will return after playing in only one game in 2016 because of an ACL tear.
The Williams pick gives the Chargers a safety net in case Allen can't stay on the field. Although Allen has been borderline unstoppable when he plays, he's had trouble staying healthy: The receiver has played in only nine games the past two seasons combined.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Chargers did lose Manti Te'o to free agency, but that shouldn't be much ofmost of the 2016 season without Te'o, who suffered a torn Achilles in Week 3.
The upside for the Chargers is that they'll actually have Joey Bosa and Jason Verrett for the entire season. Bosa's holdout caused him to miss the first four weeks of 2016, while Verrett missed the final 12 games
If the Chargers can stay healthy in 2017, and that's a big 'if,' they may actually give football fans in Los Angeles reason to cheer, while continuing to make things extremely awkward for everyone in San Diego. Although the Chargers announced they were moving to L.A., they haven't officially moved yet.
In an effort to make things as awkward as possible, the team is still practicing in San Diego, and will continue to do so until their new practice facility in Orange County is ready.
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