Another season, another opportunity for Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs to reload. Having won the AFC West the last five consecutive seasons and having appeared in the last two consecutive Super Bowls, it's no secret who the team to beat in the division is. But having been roundly manhandled by Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in February, they also entered the offseason with several question marks. And while they worked to figure out how to level up for 2021, their division rivals haven't exactly been sitting on their hands.
The Los Angeles Chargers made a change at head coach, the Broncos created a quarterback competition and the Raiders made moves in free agency to try and shore up holes in their roster. All three are gunning for the Chiefs, while the Chiefs try to beat them back, making for an interesting training camp and beyond for one of the most fiery divisions in football. Here's a look at three questions each team in the division must answer.
1. What's the endgame with Frank Clark?
This situation is quite messy, and it leaves the Chiefs defensive line with a glaring question mark for 2021. Clark was recently charged with one felony count of possession of an assault weapon and that could cost him time -- in more ways than one. For even if Clark is exonerated, the NFL could still suspend him if they deem he violated the league's personal conduct policy. And if Clark is not exonerated, he faces up to three years in prison. Clark has delivered 14 sacks for the Chiefs over the last two seasons and replacing his production would not be easy, especially with Melvin Ingram no longer being an option.
2. Can the new-look offensive line be dominant?
When the Chiefs walked into Raymond James Stadium in February, they did so with an injury-ravaged offensive line that led to Patrick Mahomes being bullied to the tune of zero touchdowns scored. They went to work this offseason moving on from veteran talent at the edges -- being railed against initially for having done so -- followed immediately by reloading and then overloading the O-line with new, promising talent. Keeping Mahomes upright will be key to the team making a third consecutive trip to the Super Bowl, but they'll have to find chemistry quickly -- thanks to to a brutal start to their 2021 schedule.
3. Will the WR2 please stand up?
Sammy Watkins is gone and an attempt to woo JuJu Smith-Schuster away from the Pittsburgh Steelers failed, leaving the Chiefs to figure out in camp who'll be the definitive Robin to Tyreek Hill's Batman. That puts pressure on Mecole Hardman to step up and be that guy, but head coach Andy Reid will be fine with anyone stepping up and into the role. It's key to identify WR2 sooner than later, to prevent opposing defenses from shading help over toward Hill and making things more difficult for an otherwise bulletproof passing attack (offensive line issues notwithstanding).
1. Who'll step up to complement Darren Waller?
When your starting tight end delivers nearly 1,200 receiving yards and nine touchdowns, it's time to celebrate, because you clearly have one of the best in football. The dark side of that moon is unpleasant, however, because for as elite as Darren Waller has proven to be -- his supporting cast is mostly nonexistent. The Raiders got a solid season in 2020 out of a rejuvenated Nelson Agholor, but he's now with the New England Patriots. Former first-round pick Henry Ruggs III mostly fell flat in Year 1 and battled injury to boot, and Hunter Renfrow will also need to level up in a big way if Derek Carr is to have more than one dynamic receiving weapon this coming season (along with the rest of the receiving corps).
2. Can the defense be a force?
Another thing that would help Carr succeed is a defense that can protect a lead and take the ball away more often. Having a top-10 offense that averages 27.1 points per game, and despite the aforementioned search for more receiving weapons, it should earn you a spot in the playoffs. Instead, thanks to the being owners of the third-worst defense in the league in points allowed (29.9 per game), the offensive output ultimately became a moot point. With no double-digit sack producers and the highest INT tally from the cornerback position being just two, there's a lot of work to be done on the defensive side of the ball.
3. What's the right formula for using Kenyan Drake?
Be not mistaken, up to now, it's been the Josh Jacobs show at running back; at least since he entered the league in 2019. Jacobs already has two 1,000-yard rushing seasons under his belt along with 19 touchdowns -- 12 last season -- but the Raiders added Drake with the hopes of making a one-two punch in the backfield. Drake immediately provides what could be viewed as a more dangerous threat in the receiving game, not that Jacobs is a slouch in that regard, either. It'll be interesting to see how they divvy up the RB reps in Las Vegas, because while they'd like to help Drake regain form, it can't be at the expense of one of the top-10 halfbacks in the NFL.
1. Can Justin Herbert duplicate/improve in Year 2?
All signs point to the answer here being a definitive "yes," but until it happens, it hasn't yet. Herbert was a dynamo as a rookie, torching offenses en route to Rookie of the Year honors and a record-setting campaign as an individual. What he'll likely discover this year is his talent will catch no one by surprise as it did in Year 1, and teams now have 16 games of NFL film on him to use in preparation to try and stop him. It's not always easy to replicate the kind of success Herbert had in 2020, especially for a young QB, and even more so with a change at head coach -- an added variable to account for -- so the former sixth-overall pick will need to ready himself accordingly.
2. Is Brandon Staley the right man for the job?
Speaking of the newly-installed head coach, there's no shortage of pressure on Brandon Staley to turn the team around quickly after replacing Anthony Lynn. The longer it takes him to do so, the more of Herbert's early years will be wasted, and on an inexpensive rookie deal. Adding to the pressure is just how well Herbert played under Lynn, so any early hiccups will have many questioning a change at head coach when Herbert had instantly found a groove with the predecessor. Can Staley, 38, be the next young coaching phenom in the NFL -- having never held the position before -- or will he buckle under the weight of what comes with the position?
3. Will Derwin James remain healthy?
No one can argue what James brings to the field. He's an alien among men -- able to excel at whatever role he's placed in. The problem is his otherwise promising career has often been paused by injury, holding him to only five games played in 2019 and having now seen him lose the entirety of the 2020 season with a torn meniscus in his knee and then later being placed on the team's COVID/Reserve list. All of this misfortune comes after a breakout rookie season that saw him land honors as both a Pro Bowler and an All-Pro, along with being named to the PFWA All-Rookie Team. In 2021, the Chargers need the 2018 version of James, when he played all 16 games and punished opposing offenses.
1. Who will start at QB in Week 1?
Sure, you'd like to believe the answer to this question is Drew Lock, but you can't be certain. If the Broncos were, they wouldn't have struck a deal to trade with the Carolina Panthers to land Teddy Bridgewater -- who can't be simply viewed as a backup in Denver. The truth of the matter is Bridgewater, while having disappointed in Charlotte, has the chops to make things difficult for Lock in camp and beyond. Rumors this offseason of interest in Aaron Rodgers (although unlikely to gain traction) also hint strongly at the uneven ground beneath Lock's feet. So, as it stands, write the names on the Broncos' quarterback depth chart in lead, not in ink.
2. Can Patrick Surtain II breakout as a rookie?
Making the decision to finally award safety Justin Simmons a massive deal was beyond wise, and the defense will also benefit from seeing the return of Von Miller to the mix to add to a now-healthy Bradley Chubb. It's all coming together for the Broncos defense, but the glaring hole at cornerback needs to be filled, and seemingly has -- with Surtain getting the nod at No. 9 in the 2021 NFL Draft. The Broncos passed on adding a QB at top-10 to grab Surtain (no pressure, right?) and in large part because he was arguably the most refined and NFL ready CB prospect in the draft. If he breaks out in short order, the defense in Denver could be terrifying.
3. Will Von Miller return to dominance and lead an elite defense in Denver?
As noted, the return of Miller looms large in the defensive bounce back for the Broncos. The future Hall of Fame pass rusher notes he's, and Denver exercised his contract option to keep him in uniform for 2021. A healthy Miller is a force of nature, and his presence helps make not only Chubb better, but every single person on the defensive side of the ball. With 106 sacks in his career and 14.5 in 2018 (8 in 2019), it's safe to presume Miller's not lost a step heading into 2021, but it's also fair to wonder if he has after losing the entire 2020 season to dislocated peroneal tendon in his ankle; adding to the fact he's now 32. I wouldn't go betting against Miller, but he's justifiably a question mark until we see him cooking quarterbacks again.