2017 NFL Season Preview: AFC West

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The Open Man is previewing all 32 NFL teams ahead of the 2017 season. Today’s preview focuses on the AFC West, a division with four teams that all have serious hopes of the postseason this year. 

Kansas City Chiefs

If you measure NFL teams based on overall success, the Kansas City Chiefs have been one of the Teams of the Decade since hiring Andy Reid to turn the franchise into an annual contender.

Reid inherited a 2-14 club from Romeo Crennel and instantly transformed it into the AFC’s most consistent franchise. Dating back to 2013, the Chiefs have posted a winning record in all four of Reid’s seasons in Kansas City; a record that includes the franchise’s only playoff wins of the last 20 years.

Unfortunately for the Chiefs, a 43-21 regular season record hasn’t translated to a trip beyond the AFC Divisional Playoff. Losses in the second round ended both of Kansas City’s past two seasons.

Losses in the second round ended both of Kansas City’s past two seasons. Including an embarrassing loss to end 2016 to the Pittsburgh Steelers where the Chiefs’ season ended at home with a defeat to a team that failed to score a single touchdown on the night.

The loss to Pittsburgh and the failure of the Chiefs offense in that game forced an offseason of changes in the organization. General manager John Dorsey was fired and an eventual replacement for Alex Smith was selected in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft.

That replacement is Texas Tech prospect Patrick Mahomes, who thrived in Kliff Kingsbury’s aerial based offense in college and provides the presence of a quarterback controversy for a shaky Smith.

It is a fact that Alex Smith failed to get the Chiefs over the hump over the course of the past four seasons. Those failures from Smith justify the Chiefs’ decision to finally look ahead to a future without their veteran quarterback and take a chance on developing Mahomes into their franchise quarterback.

The presence of Mahomes will add an element of drama and a looming quarterback controversy in what will be a pivotal year for the career of Alex Smith. Any misstep will bring out the calls for the young gun.

With Smith’s underwhelming style of quarterbacking wearing on Chiefs’ fans, this could be the final year of the Alex Smith Era.

That spells trouble for a Chiefs team that already bears the pressure of failing to get over the hump. There is no doubt a team that has ran through the league in the regular season has the talent to be a contender again. However, with a large sample size of postseason failure it is hard to trust the Chiefs to finally surpass the Patriots and Steelers on the road to a Super Bowl appearance.

oakland raiders

2016 was a season of mixed emotions for the Raider Nation.

On one side, last season was the end to a playoff drought dating back to the Raiders’ infamous Super Bowl defeat in 2003 to former head coach Jon Gruden and the Tampa Bay Bucs.

On the other side of the equation for the Raider Nation was the fact their long awaited playoff return was nulified by the Christmas Eve injury to quarterback Derek Carr that ended the franchise quarterback’s season.

Thanks to a hit from Indianapolis Colts’ pass rusher Trent Cole, the Raiders were forced to trot out backup quarterbacks in their AFC Wild Card loss to the Houston Texans.

Now – with Carr healed and motivated to get back to the postseason after the heartbreak of a late season injury – the Raiders will look to avoid second season syndrome and continue to progress.

General manager Reggie McKenzie has fostered a meticulous rebuilding plan in Oakland that finally paid dividends last season. The Raiders have one of the best offensive lines in the league due to McKenzie’s shrewd third round selection of Gabe Jackson in 2014 and the signings of Rodney Hudson, Kelechi Osemele and Donald Penn in free agency.

This offseason, McKenzie focused on loading up the offense with more weapons for Carr. The highlight of the offseason was the signing of beloved hometown hero Marshawn Lynch at running back, but tight end Jared Cook and wideout Coradelle Patterson also add firepower to an already potent Silver and Black offensive attack.

The question mark for the Raiders will be on defense. Head coach Jack Del Rio is noted as a defensive mind, but the Oakland defense is the weak point of this team.

Beyond Khalil Mack, there are holes everywhere on the Raiders defensive roster. The linebackers and secondary are not up to par in terms of talent level and it could cost the Raiders hopes of making the next step from playoff team into a division title.

Because of those weaknesses on defense, expect the Raiders to regress slightly in 2017. A spot in the Wild Card and even an AFC West title are both possible, but the workload on Carr and the offense will be a burden this year as the Raiders figure out how to mask a lack of talent on the other side of the football.

Denver Broncos

After a long run of success on the back of having one of the best defensive units in the history of the league, the Denver Broncos came crashing down to earth in their first season without Peyton Manning.

On defense, the Broncos were still one of the most fearsome teams in the league. But on offense, the quarterbacking situation in Denver was simply too poor for the team to defend their championship and the Broncos missed the playoffs in an embarassingly poor follow up.

Surprisingly, John Elway did not address the quarterback situation in Denver this offseason.

Instead, the Broncos will play out a similar situation to 2016 and place their hopes on the competency of Trevor Siemian to guide them back into the postseason.

Siemian earned the starting job this preseason and will look to build upon his first year as the Broncos starter. If Siemian fails to impress, Elway has a backup plan in Brock Osweiler after he brought back the former Broncos backup and heir apparent to Peyton Manning after Osweiler was cut by the Browns during the preseason.

With an uncertain quarterback situation that is devoid of talent, expect more of the same from the Broncos this season. Sure Von Miller and the defense will win this team plenty of games, but it is hard to view the Broncos as a playoff contender with Trevor Siemian or Brock Osweiler at quarterback. John Elway needs to answer this problem eventually as for now the Broncos are in the bottom tier of Wild Card hopefuls.

Los Angeles Chargers

The football franchise formerly known as the San Diego Chargers will make their Los Angeles debut this season — but, it won’t be in a glitzy brand new stadium. In fact, it will barely be in a stadium at all.

The Chargers will play out 2017 inside the home of Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles Galaxy. The StubHub Center and its 27,000 capacity will be a far cry from even the dated Qualcomm Stadium the Chargers abandoned to push their way into becoming Los Angeles’ second NFL team behind the Rams.

With the relocation move, 2017 feels like a transition year from a Chargers organization still trying to find its identity after the boom period of LaDanian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates.

Philip Rivers is still the face of the franchise, but the Chargers have failed to build a winning team around him in recent years.

Injuries and a lack of free agent spending have been the main factors and once again will be an issue for the Chargers this season.

Seventh-overall pick Mike Williams will be out until at least October with an injury he suffered this summer; a crushing blow for an exciting rookie wideout who will eventually become Rivers’ top target if all goes well in his development process.

Despite the injury the Williams, this Chargers team does have exciting talent. Joey Bosa appears to be a franchise pass rusher, Melvin Gordon is the team’s best running back since LT left town and Keenan Allen is still a dangerous receiver when he is healthy.

Those factors have made the Chargers a sexy pick to win the AFC West this season, despite their last place finish last season and relative continuity within the rest of the division.

On the field, the Chargers have a chance to deliver a first season of success in Los Angeles. As mentioned, there are pieces in place finally for them after a brief down period for a franchise that has been in the playoff picture for nearly the entirety of Philip Rivers’ career.

The biggest question for the Chargers will be if this team can put everything together. A young roster guided by one of the best quarterbacks of his era has a great chance to do just that. But it won’t be easy in perhaps the NFL’s most competitive division to guide a playoff season in the midst of the distraction of relocation and the challenge of playing in a small, 27,000-seat stadium.