By Jared Dubin
(CBS SPORTS) – The AFC West was the strangest division in the NFL last season. The Chiefs raced out to an incredible start, only to falter in the middle of the year. The Chargers did the exact opposite. The Raiders were up-and-down, Jekyll and Hyde, whatever you want to call it, all season. By Week 14, we were writing about just how damn weird the division was.
(The following graphic shows, Chiefs, Chargers, and Raiders’ chances of winning the division week-by-week, with numbers courtesy of Stephen Oh from SportsLine.)
Here’s what we wrote at the time:
Kansas City sat at 75.6 percent after five weeks, then didn’t dip below 92.5 percent from Week 6 through Week 12. During that time, neither the Chargers nor the Raiders’ chances of winning the division ever topped 2.5 percent.
That’s all changed over the last two weeks, as Kansas City’s losses to Buffalo and the Jets, combined with the Chargers’ wins over Dallas and Cleveland, and the Raiders’ victories over the Broncos and Giants, have thrown the entire division into chaos. Incredibly, SportsLine still considers the Chiefs the AFC West favorite despite their 1-6 slide, giving them a 50.4 percent chance of taking the AFC West crown.
In the end, the Chiefs did win the division and make the playoffs, but they bowed out early to the Titans. Then they decided to move on from their starting quarterback. They’re not the only team in the division that will enter next season with a new starter, either.
Two teams moving on to quarterbacks would be enough change in one offseason for most divisions, but the AFC West also saw a coaching change (Jon Gruden, who got an unprecedented $100 million deal), several high-profile cuts for cap or performance, some of the best players in the division shipped out for reasons only maybe related to performance, and much more.
Below, we’re going to grade the offseason of each individual team.
Key additions: QB Case Keenum, DT Clinton McDonald, CB Tramaine Brock, P Marquette King
Key losses: RB C.J. Anderson, LT Donald Stephenson, CB Aqib Talib
Key rookies: EDGE Bradley Chubb, WR Courtland Sutton, RB Royce Freeman, CB Isaac Yiadom, LB Josey Jewell, WR DaeSean Hamilton
The Broncos didn’t end up landing their top free agency target (Kirk Cousins) but they did well in landing Case Keenum as a fall-back plan. He is the very definition of a bridge QB who allows them to compete for the playoffs during the final few years of the run their current core of top players puts together, while allowing the team to plan for the future at some point because it’s unlikely that Keenum provides a true long-term (5-10 years) answer.
The financially-motivated trade of Aqib Talib to the Broncos is one that will hurt on the field and off next season. Talib has obviously been a top player at corner for a long time, and he also gave the back half of the Broncos defense an attitude that helped define it over the last few years. He was no longer the best player in the team’s secondary (that’d be Chris Harris Jr.), but he’s still damn good. Replacing him with Brock and Yiadom will result in a drop-off.
It was somewhat surprising that the Broncos didn’t cut ties with either Demaryius Thomas or Emmanuel Sanders, considering how much smoke was swirling around the rumors that they would, but instead they just added a bunch of talent to that room by drafting Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton. They seem likely to move on from Sanders after this season because of the way the contract stuff shakes out, but for at least this year, they should have a really deep, versatile crop of pass-catchers for Keenum to work with. (It helps that draft pick Royce Freeman is comfortable catching the ball out of the backfield as well.)
This grade would probably be lower if the Broncos didn’t see Bradley Chubb fall into their laps at pick No. 5 in the draft. Arguably the draft’s best player, he gives the team another top pass-rusher to pair with Von Miller, Shane Ray and Shaq Barrett, and should help the Denver defense remain one of the top units in the league even if the secondary takes a step back.
Kansas City Chiefs
Key additions: WR Sammy Watkins, LB Anthony Hitchens, CB David Amerson, CB Kendall Fuller
Key losses: QB Alex Smith, OG Zach Fulton, WR Albert Wilson, DT Bennie Logan, EDGE Tamba Hali, CB Marcus Peters
Key rookies: DE Breeland Speaks, DT Derrick Nnadi, LB Dorian O’Daniel, S Armani Watts
Much of what we think about the Chiefs’ offseason will be determined by the play of second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes. If he excels, it will make the trade of Alex Smith for Kendall Fuller and a third-round pick look brilliant. If he struggles and the Kansas City offense takes a step backward, it will, at least for 2018, look unwise.
But the Chiefs obviously did a whole lot more than that this offseason. They gave Mahomes a new weapon on the perimeter in Watkins, for one thing. He’s struggled staying on the field and didn’t exactly light it up last season despite playing for the league’s highest-scoring offense, but the talent level he has is absolutely off the charts. Playing in the same offense as Tyreek Hill, Kareem Hunt, and Travis Kelce should afford Watkins a lot of space in which to work, and if Mahomes can put the ball in his general vicinity, Watkins will probably come down with it … as long as he can stay on the field.
Devoting their first four draft picks to filling holes on defense made a lot of sense. This is a unit that essentially fell apart after losing Eric Berry for the season in Week 1 last year, and also lost Bennie Logan up the middle, Tamba Hali on the edge, and Marcus Peters on the back end. We don’t know how much Breeland Speaks, Derrick Nnadi, Dorian O’Daniel, and Armani Watts will contribute this season, but they at least bring the needed infusion of talent.
Cornerback David Amerson was a nice pickup as well, and the team clearly hopes he and Fuller will help make up for the absence of Peters. That seems somewhat unlikely, though, given that Peters has been one of the five best cornerbacks in football since entering the league. The decision to give solid-but-unspectacular linebacker Anthony Hitchens a whole bunch of money was a bit strange, meanwhile, and losing Zach Fulton will hurt the interior of the offensive line, which could in turn affect both Mahomes and Hunt.
Los Angeles Chargers
Key additions: C Mike Pouncey, TE Virgil Green, K Caleb Sturgis
Key losses: TE Antonio Gates, TE Hunter Henry (injury), OG Matt Slauson, EDGE Jeremiah Attaochu
Key rookies: S Derwin James, LB Uchenna Nwosu, DT Justin Jones, S Kyzir White
The Chargers were the draft’s luckiest team.
Sitting at No. 17, they saw a perfect fit drop right to them when Derwin James — considered by some the top defensive back in the draft — tumbled not just out of the top-10, but out of the top-15 as well. James can do everything you want a safety to do, from erasing tight ends in one-on-one coverage to sliding into the slot to working in the box and playing in a zone over the top. Along with Kyzir White, he joins what is now one of the league’s top secondaries as he’ll work alongside players like Casey Hayward, Trevor Williams, Jason Verrett, and Desmond King.
The guys up front get most of the pub on defense, and Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram just got some help in the form of Uchenna Nwosu and Justin Jones. Nwosu racked up 19 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks over his two seasons as a starter at USC and Jones is exactly the kind of body the Chargers like to use in the middle of their defense. Those guys should make an impact right away.
Adding Mike Pouncey to the offensive line should provide a huge lift, as should the return from injury of last year’s second-round pick, Forrest Lamp. Add in Virgil Green as a blocking tight end and Mike Williams (last year’s first-rounder) being fully healthy, and this team’s offense should be even better than last year as well, even after losing Hunter Henry for the season with a torn ACL suffered during OTAs.
Perhaps the biggest upgrade will be at kicker, where Caleb Sturgis literally just cannot be worse than whatever has been going on at that position for this team the last few years.
Key additions: RB Doug Martin, WR Jordy Nelson, WR Martavis Bryant, LB Tahir Whitehead, LB Derrick Johnson, CB Rashaan Melvin, CB Daryl Worley, S Marcus Gilchrist
Key losses: WR Michael Crabtree, DE Denico Autry, CB T.J. Carrie, CB David Amderson, K Sebastian Janikowski, P Marquette King
Key rookies: OT Kolton Miller, DT P.J. Hall, OT Brandon Parker, DE Arden Key, DT Maurice Hurst
As he said earlier this offseason, Jon Gruden wants to bring football back to 1998. Mission accomplished.
Gruden signed two blocking tight ends and a fullback, a soon-to-be 33-year-old wide receiver, a 29-year old running back who has had two good seasons in six years, and a linebacker who will turn 36 years old later this year. He traded for a receiver who sulked his way off his last team and another whose last team thought he was a running back. He cut the best punter in the league for character reasons just days before signing a cornerback who had recently been arrested. He drafted an extremely raw defensive tackle prospect who some thought might have to switch to offensive line, a twitchy pass-rusher who had off-field concerns, and a thought-to-be first-round pick whose heart issue was so concerning to other teams that he dropped all the way to the fifth round.
He also committed to building the base of his offense around a 32-year-old running back and a wide receiver who has struggled badly with drops and is coming off the worst season of his career, didn’t get top value to move down from No. 10 to No. 15 in the draft, and has been mocking analytics for half the offseason.
Tahir Whitehead and Rashaan Melvin were nice signings, though.