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There’s a case to be made that Kansas City trading up to take Patrick Mahomes has them trending toward becoming the reincarnation of the 2006 Broncos, especially when considering incumbent Chiefs QB Alex Smith is just five years removed from watching the 49ers draft his replacement and eventually trading him to K.C. That experience could have Smith looking over his shoulder in 2017.
I don’t buy it. The 33 year-old Smith has posted QB ratings over 90 in each of the last three seasons and has two big-time targets to keep those numbers up: Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. Hill was arguably the most electric player of 2016 and Kelce has developed into one of the game’s best tight ends. The big question is whether the ground game can take the pressure off whomever is under center. Spencer Ware went down with a season-ending knee injury but I believe KC’s running back depth can absorb that blow.
The defense welcomes back Justin Houston after an injury-shortened 2016, and that should be a big boost to a unit that ranked seventh in points allowed without him. I’d be surprised if they’re not in the Top 10 again this year.
Furthermore, the schedule plays right into the Chiefs’ hands. KC will enjoy a league-best 12 net rest days, and Andy Reid is the best in the business with additional rest (as his 16-2 record following a bye week suggests). I see this team playing .500 ball the first half of the season before going on a December hot streak to snatch the AFC West title away from Oakland for the second straight year.
Their new home may be betting big on the Raiders to win it all, but Oakland isn’t quite done with them yet.
The Raiders have Derek Carr back and ready to pick up where he left off before he got hurt late last season. He’s got some new toys — Marshawn Lynch, Jared Cook, and the speedy Cordarrelle Patterson — to add to a unit that was pretty prolific before they arrived. It’ll be interesting to see if Lynch looks more like Beast Mode or a 31 year-old guy that obviously hasn’t played in almost two years.
Khalil Mack is one of the three best defenders in the NFL but he’s only one player. Free agency cost this defense multiple members of their front seven and the unit overall still looks like it’ll be a liability, just like last year. First round pick Gareon Conley should help solidify a shaky secondary but this defense will be too mediocre to ensure Oakland a return to the 12-win mark.
The only thing more stunning than the Chargers quick bolt to Los Angeles is new head coach Anthony Lynn’s meteoric rise. Last year in Buffalo, Lynn went from running backs coach to offensive coordinator to head coach in all in the same season before bolting for the full-time head coaching gig in L.A.
I don’t know if that experience will be valuable, but having two former head coaches on staff (offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley) certainly is, especially for a team that was more talented than their 5-11 record in 2016. Philip Rivers is still one of the best (and most underrated) QBs in the NFL and Melvin Gordon seems to be trending up entering Year 3 (if he stays healthy). The Chargers’ top two 2017 draft picks (Mike Williams and Forrest Lamp) enter the league hurting, but Keenan Allen is a stud and the duo of Hunter Henry and Antonio Gates is as good a 1-2 punch at TE as you’ll find. This should be an outstanding offense.
Joey Bosa should be in the mix for Defensive Player of the Year on a unit that (with a little divine intervention) should improve from last year’s 29th ranking in scoring defense. Even in a new city and playing in the smallest venue to host a full NFL season since the 1956 Packers played their home games in 25,000-seat City Stadium, I see the Chargers contending for a Wild Card berth.
Denver must begin with D, both literally and figuratively.
The Broncos will only go as far as the defense will take them and it’s still a hell of an engine. Domata Peko was signed to try and shore up the run defense but the pass D took a hit when T.J. Ward was unceremoniously released and Shane Ray was placed on injured reserve (though he’s likely to return midseason). That said…Von Miller, Aqib Talib, and Chris Harris Jr. are still in the fold, so it’s still a top flight unit even if it’s maybe not quite “no flight” anymore.
However, Denver’s two biggest questions happen to be at the two most important positions on any team: QB and head coach. Trevor Siemian emerged as the lesser of two evils for the former, and Vance Joseph is a rookie trying his hand at the latter. Siemian will play behind a completely overhauled offensive line, headlined by first-round pick Garett Bolles at left tackle and ex-Cowboy Ronald Leary at guard. Jamaal Charles joins a deep backfield that features C.J. Anderson as the top running back.
However, Denver will have to overcome a brutal schedule with an inexperienced head coach, a decidedly average QB, and no Wade Phillips to coach the defense. That’s a lot to ask in a stacked AFC West.
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