(CBS Denver) — The Kansas City Chiefs have owned the AFC West the last five seasons. And much of that time coincides with Patrick Mahomes occupying the starting quarterback position. With largely the same lineup around the NFL’s best player, Kansas City is favored to win another division title and possibly return to a third straight Super Bowl. The Denver Broncos, Las Vegas Raiders, and Los Angeles Chargers, of course, don’t see it that way. But have any of those teams improved enough to unseat the Chiefs?
“I would love to go contrarian and give you somebody other than the Kansas City Chiefs, but I just can’t do that,” CBS Denver sports anchor Michael Spencer said. “I think that they are clearly the team to beat, not only in the AFC West, but in the AFC. They’ve won the division five straight times. Anytime Patrick Mahomes is your starting quarterback, your team is going to be in a really good spot, not only to win the division, but to compete for Super Bowls. So the Chiefs are the class of this division. They have been ever since Peyton Manning retired, following the 2015 season, and I don’t see that changing heading into 2021.”
And Kansas City may actually be better in 2021, particularly along the offensive line, where they’ve struggled in past years. Orlando Brown Jr. comes over from the Baltimore Ravens to play left tackle. Joe Thuney arrives from the New England Patriots to take over the left guard spot. Third-round pick Lucan Niang out of Texas Christian seems set to start at right tackle. In fact, the current depth chart has new starters at all five positions.
“Can the Chiefs actually get better,” Spencer wonders. “I think they spent a lot of capital this offseason bulking up their offensive line, which is a scary thought, because you’re talking about a Chiefs offense that’s already at the top of the league, maybe even being better heading into 2021, if they can protect Patrick Mahomes.”
The Chargers have a budding star quarterback of their own in Justin Herbert. The Offensive Rookie of the Year threw for 4,336 yards and 31 touchdowns, both among the top 10 in those categories. “With the Chargers, you feel like you know what you have with Justin Herbert,” said Spencer. “The question is can he continue to take steps forward in year two after what we saw in his rookie season last year? And what does their defense do? I think that might be the hang-up for Los Angeles moving forward.”
The Chargers brought in Brandon Staley as the new head coach. Staley was previously the defensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams, who boasted the NFL’s top defense last season. Whether his presence and the team’s added focus on defense provides a boost to the unit remains to be seen. But going from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 scheme, as the Chargers are doing, always leads to some growing pains. They will welcome back Derwin James, who missed the entire 2020 season due to injury.
The Broncos are going all in on defense after a season in which they allowed nearly 28 points per game. They allowed 130 yards per game on the ground, which was among the worst in the league. Their pass defense was a little better. This year finds Pro Bowl veterans like Von Miller and Kyle Fuller in contract years. Coming off one of his better seasons, Bradley Chubb should be in good form, if he can stay healthy. Denver also added cornerback Patrick Surtain II at cornerback in first round.
“Two games, and the Broncos defense has only allowed nine points,” Spencer points out. “The team is hoping that that is a sign of things to come.”
Despite being a defense-first team, a lot of training camp speculation has surrounded the quarterback battle between Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock. According to Spencer, “both guys have played well, so I guess that’s a good thing, heading into the regular season, despite the fact that neither guy — Teddy Bridgewater nor Drew Lock — is really separating himself in that competition just yet.” (Note: after recording the above video, Bridgewater was named the Broncos’ starting quarterback.)
Bridgewater will lead a young, talented offensive unit that returns Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy. Denver could also have a strong running game. “Rookie Javonte Williams could have himself a good season,” Spencer thinks. “I’ll be interested to see what Melvin Gordon does too, because there’s been a lot of hype around Javonte Williams in training camp. I think he is going to be a fantasy darling this year for teams, especially early in the season.”
The Raiders started last season strong and then collapsed in the second half. They still managed an 8-8 record and a second-place finish in the division. Derek Carr has passed for 4,000-plus yards the last three seasons, and Darren Waller has emerged as one of the league’s best playmakers from the tight end position. Henry Ruggs III and Bryan Edwards will be looking to build upon their rookie seasons. The key to everyone’s success on this side of the ball may be how the Raiders’ revamped offensive line comes together.
“It seems like there’s always hype around the Raiders,” Spencer notes. “They never live up to that hype. I have a feeling that might be the case again.”
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