Sep. 06, 2018
2018 Countdown To Kickoff Power Rankings: AFC West
The Zone Press’ fifth annual countdown to kickoff is winding down to its end. Thank you to everyone one who read this year. And we hope you continue to stop by for continued post throughout the football season. Closing out the rankings is the AFC West.
1. Los Angeles Chargers (Overall Power Ranking: 13)
2017 Results: 9-7 (2nd in AFC West)
“No matter where you go, there you are”. That quote perfectly sums up the Chargers 2017 season. They moved to Los Angeles, but the same old habits that dogged them in San Diego followed them up the freeway. Four of their losses were decided by three points or less. They managed rack catch fire towards the back end of the season and looked to storm the playoffs with momentum. All they had to do was beat a Chiefs team that was struggling at the time. In typical fashion, the Chargers failed to show up when it mattered. The Chiefs crushed them. And finally, they missed the season via tiebreaker. The address changed, but they were still those same old San Diego Chargers. And to make matters worse, I’m sure they’re the only team to play all 16 games on the road. This season, the hype around the team is sounding really familiar. ESPN ranked the top 100 players in the league. The Chargers featured the most players on that list. They have a borderline Hall of Fame quarterback with weapons galore and a defense that can be a special unit. Like in years past, the Chargers are considered by some to be the most talented team in the NFL. But will they turn back into those same old Chargers, or will they turn the page and be born anew?
Key Additions: Mike Pouncey, Caleb Sturgis, Geno Smith, and Derwin James.
Key Losses: Matt Slauson, Kenny Wiggins, Jerry Attaochu, and Tre Boston
Kicker: If the Chargers had a reliable kicker on their roster last season, they would’ve won the AFC West and made the playoffs. This year, they held multiple kickers on the roster and held an open competition. In fact, Charger Head Coach Anthony Lynn hasn’t ruled out the possibility of keeping two kickers on the roster. Given how last season turned out, I can understand the caution. But at some point, you have to wonder if this is in their head. The lucky kickers this year are Roberto Aguayo and Caleb Sturgis. Aguayo is infamously known as the kicker who was selected in the second round. He was out of Tampa after one season due to his poor kicking. Sturgis has three career kicks to his name but has hit all of them. This kicking situation looks to be a meme in the making.
The Jack Boys: The Chargers look like a very special team on defense. Their defensive line features two of the best defensive ends in the league. Joey Bosa has been one of the best ever since he stepped into the NFL. Two seasons in and he already has 23 sacks to his name. Melvin Ingram has finished with double-digit sacks in two of the last three seasons. He has greatly benefited from the Chargers switch to a 4-3 scheme. In the middle, they have two run stoppers in Brandon Mebane and Corey Liuget. Liuget in particular also has the ability to get the quarterback and apply pressure. Their secondary is also formidable. Casey Hayward is one of the best cover corners in the league. Jason Verrett is gone for the season, but that’s nothing new for the Chargers. Desmond King and Trevor Williams will easily fill that hole. Jahleel Addae is one of the better safeties in the league. According to PFF, he only allowed one touchdown in coverage. And finally, the Chargers were able to steal Derwin James in the draft. He’s a fast-moving, hard-hitting, playmaker of a safety that has drawn comparisons to guys like Earl Thomas and the late Sean Taylor. This unit is loaded. And they’re so confident that they’ve already come up with a nickname for themselves. Hayward has dubbed the secondary ‘the Jack Boys’. For those that don’t know, Jack Boys are basically a group of individuals known to steal things by force.
Rivers: Philip Rivers is one of those quarterbacks you don’t really hear a lot about. The reason for that is his lackluster playoff résumé doesn’t show his excellence. Rivers has consistently been one of the ten best quarterbacks in the NFL. However, he’ll never get that respect when his draft classmates have two rings each. Rivers now has all the tools to complete his Hall of Fame résumé. He has a defense, a workhorse running back, an offensive line, multiple receiving targets, and a weak conference to go through. Now is as good as time as ever for Rivers to finally break through.
Season Outlook: The talent on this team is not to be questioned. The major question about this team lies on what’s in between their ears. The Chargers have had talent in the past, but mental blunders and late game chokes have constantly kept them away from achieving anything of relevance. If this was a talent competition, the Chargers would be among the NFL elite. But if they’re the same team mentally, they’ll underachieve like they always do. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the boom or bust team of the AFC. They’ll either make it to at least the AFC Championship Game or they’ll be fishing by the New Year.
Fantasy Player to Watch: Mike Williams
2. Kansas City Chiefs (Overall Power Ranking: 14)
2017 Results: 10-6 (Lost in Wildcard Round)
If I had to describe the 2017 Kansas City Chiefs season, it would be bizarre. Kansas City looked like world beaters at the beginning of the season. They smashed the Patriots on opening night, beat the eventual Super Bowl Champion Eagles with Carson Wentz, and then rolled over the Chargers after their fans took over their stadium. I forgot to mention that Alex Smith was an MVP candidate and Kareem Hunt was running wild in his rookie season. Yes, the Chiefs at 5-0 were all of that. Then, the wheels began to fall off. They won one of their next seven games and looked like they were on their way to an early fishing trip. The was before they rallied and won their last four games to secure a playoff spot. Then in typical Chiefs fashion, they blow it in the playoffs and allowed the Titans to come back and stun them at home. This loss at least inspired some change on the roster. The Alex Smith era is now over, and the reigns are being passed to Patrick Mahomes. Other than that, this is pretty much the same Chiefs team that has been making the playoffs consistently. Now Chiefs fans will have to see if the new quarterback can finally get this team over the hump.
Key Additions: Sammy Watkins, Xavier Williams, David Amerson, Kendall Fuller, Robert Golden, and Breeland Speaks.
Key Losses: Alex Smith, Tamba Hali, Dee Ford, Marcus Peters, Derrick Johnson, Phillip Gaines, Derrick Johnson, Ron Parker, and Darrelle Revis.
Mahomes: The new Chiefs quarterback only has one NFL start under his belt, and because of that there are some skeptics when it comes to their chances of winning. But the Chiefs clearly believe in him. Or at least they believe he can do better than Alex Smith. The first thing to note about Mahomes is his arm strength. He doesn’t throw bullets or bombs. The kid throws ICBMs.The Chiefs have the weapons around him to utilize that gift to it’s fullest. And even if he isn’t ready for that level of playmaking, he can still turn around and hand the ball off to Kareem Hunt. I think the transition to Mahomes shows the Chiefs want to be able to get the ball deep downfield on a consistent basis. Smith did that at times, but never really made that backbreaking play fans were looking for. Mahomes will have to be that playmaker if the Chiefs don’t want to suffer a regression.
Offensive Potential: The talk about the Chiefs’ offense doesn’t stop at quarterback. They still have a unit that can potentially be very explosive. Tyreek Hill is the ultimate game breaker in the league. Six of his seven touchdowns from last season were 40 yards or more. In fact, he averaged 58.3 yards per touchdown. Kareem Hunt proved he could be a bell-cow back during his rookie season last year. Hunt was even in the conversation for league MVP for a time before the Chiefs began to struggle. Travis Kelce is still one of the best Tight Ends in the league. Since becoming a starter in 2014, only Rob Gronkowski has outproduced him. This offense is still loaded and still deserves your respect.
Secondary: Kendall Fuller came over in the Alex Smith trade with the Redskins. Fuller had a great season last year and will likely be the Chiefs secret weapon to defend the slot. According to PFF, Fuller only allowed a 55.0 passer rating on throws into slot coverage. Steven Nelson will have to shift to the outside and fill the gap left by Marcus Peters. And it’s always good news when the Chiefs have Eric Berry back on the field. When Berry is on the field, that entire defense is a different animal. Hopefully, the Achilles injury didn’t slow him down.
Season Outlook: The presence of Mahomes makes the Chiefs a sleeper team in the division. Hype has slowly been shifted over to the Chargers. But don’t sleep too much on this team. They’ve made the playoffs in four of the last five seasons for a reason. They will have an active roll in deciding who wins the division. I believe they will compete for a playoff spot. The only time to worry about this team is if/when they actually make the playoffs.
Fantasy Player to Watch: Patrick Mahomes
3. Denver Broncos (Overall Power Ranking: 16)
2017 Results: 5-11 (4th in AFC West)
The 2017 season for the Denver Broncos sort of mirrored their 2016 season. Both seasons, the defense led the team to a fast start. In 2016, the Broncos got off to a 7-3 start. Last season, it was just a 3-1 start to the season. But both seasons ended in the same fashion. The wheels eventually fell off, and the Broncos were left on the outside looking in at the playoff picture. Last season, the Broncos went on a horrific eight-game losing streak. It was clear as day that despite the excellence of their defense, they’re going to need something more from their offense. Enter Case Keenum, the new quarterback for the Broncos. Keenum is coming off of the best season of his career. In Keenum, the Broncos have what they hope to be a competent quarterback that can lead this core of veterans back to the playoffs. If this offense can get on track, the Broncos should be able to make some noise in 2018.
Key Additions: Case Keenum, Jared Veldheer, Clinton McDonald, Su’a Cravens, Tramaine Brock, Marquette King, and Bradley Chubb.
Key Losses: Aqib Talib, Virgil Green, and C.J. Anderson.
Keenum: The new Broncos quarterback is coming off of a career season in which he leads the Vikings to the doorstep of the Super Bowl. Case Keenum threw 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions last season and was excellent when his offensive line kept him clean.
According to PFF, the Broncos quarterbacks had a collective 87.4 passer rating when kept clean in the pocket. Keenum’s passer rating was 109.5. When under pressure, Broncos quarterbacks had a 41.2 passer rating a collective. Keenum, on the other hand, had a passer rating of 78.5. Keenum is clearly an upgrade if he can repeat the success he had last season.
Defense: The Broncos defense remains the tip of the spear for the team. Last season, they ranked in the top five in passing, rushing, and total defense. Von Miller still leads the defense and accounted for most of the QB pressure for the defense. Fifth overall pick Bradly Chubb will help take some attention away from Miller. In fact, Miller, Chubb, Shaquil Barrett and Shane Ray could be as good as any stable of pass rushers in the league. In the secondary, they dealt Aqib Talib away to Los Angeles. But Chris Harris Jr. and Bradley Roby still remain. They also added Su’a Cravens to the secondary as well.
Receivers: There was a time when Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders were considered among the best-receiving duos in the league. Sanders was banged up for most of 2017, while Thomas was dropping passes at an alarming rate. In response to this regression, the Broncos added Cortland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton via the draft. If the Sanders and Thomas continue to struggle. expect to see a lot of the young guys out on the field.
Season Outlook: If Keenum can become the steadying hand that the offense needs, the Broncos could turn some heads in the AFC. An improved offense combined with their defense could yield great returns. The playoffs aren’t out of the realm of possibility.
Fantasy Player to Watch: Royce Freeman
4. Oakland Raiders (Overall Power Ranking: 18)
2017 Results: 6-10 (3rd in AFC West)
Last season was supposed to be the year the Oakland Raiders took that step into becoming real contenders in the AFC. They had the young quarterback on the rise, a stout offensive line, a good young receiver, Beast Mode, and a Khalil Mack led defense. But instead of taking a step forward, the Raiders took a step back. The Raiders suffered injuries and regression all across the roster. Derek Carr was injured and didn’t impact the game much even when he was healthy. Amari Cooper dropped footballs left and right. The offensive line regressed and had a negative impact on the running game. Mack was the only bright spot on one of the league’s worst defenses. The Raiders fell from the ranks of the playoff teams to a six-win squad. This regression had consequences as Jack Del Rio was fired. In his place, the Raiders brought back a familiar face. Jon Gruden has decided to come down from the Monday Night Football booth and take up the coaching duties of the Raiders once again. His moves have been head-scratching, to say the least. His plan: to take the game back to 1998.
Key Additions: Doug Martin, Keith Smith, Jordy Nelson, Derek Carrier, Tank Carradine, Ahtyba Rubin, Derrick Johnson, Marcus Gilchrist, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Shareece Wright, Kolton Miller, and Tahir Whitehead.
Key Losses: Khalil Mack, Michael Crabtree, Marshall Newhouse, NaVorro Bowman, T.J. Carrie, David Emerson, Sean Smith, Sebastian Janikowski, and Marquette King,
Chucky: So let's talk about the return of Jon Gruden to the NFL sidelines. He claims he wants to take the game back to 1998, and his roster moves show that he’s not joking. Instead of 1998 though, let’s look at his best Raiders teams from the early 2000s. At a glance, it looks as if Gruden is indeed trying to recreate those teams. Look at the offense for a second. Carr is supposed to be Rich Gannon. Cooper, Martavis Bryant (before he was cut), and Jordie Nelson are supposed to be Tim Brown, Jerry Rice, and Jerry Porter. Keith Smith is supposed to be Jon Richie. Beast Mode is the power back that Gruden loves to have in the backfield. The roster is loaded up with veterans rather than young players. Now I’m probably looking to far into this, but I couldn’t help but notice the similarities. It’s hard to overlook. Along with this throwback approach, Gruden will have final say on roster moves and will be getting paid $10 million per year moving forward. If he can bring the Raiders back to the relevance they enjoyed nearly 20 years ago, it’s worth it. But his approach so far hasn’t exactly been conventional. We’ll see how it plays out.
Derek Carr: Last year proved that Carr is far and away the most important player on the Raiders roster. When he plays well, the Raiders are a dangerous team that can win some games. When he’s bad, the entire team looks terrible. It will be up to Gruden and Greg Olson to get the young quarterback back on track. It will also be up to the offensive line. According to PFF, Carr had a 40.8 quarterback rating when under pressure last season.
Mack Traded: The last storyline is the most recent. The Raiders have decided to trade Khalil Mack to the Chicago Bears for two first-round picks. On the surface, this is a foolish move. Mack is a once in a generation player and was the only thing keeping the Raiders defense from being the worst in the league a year ago. On the other hand, could the Raiders really afford to tie up about 40% of their payroll into two players? It hardly seems feasible. Either way, Raider fans aren’t taking the news well. Some have even declared an end to their fandom. Whether this is a good move or not, we won’t know for a while. But for now, this doesn’t exactly help the Raiders back into contention.
Season Outlook: The success of the team starts and ends with the play of Derek Carr. If he can regain his MVP level of play from a few years ago, the Raiders could be fun to watch. But a lot of their games will have to be won via shootout since their defense isn’t trustworthy. And that will be their downfall. The Raiders won’t be making the playoffs. In fact, the first year of the Gruden experiment is looking like it will be a rough one.
Fantasy Player to Watch: Derek Carr