The AFC West was as competitive as ever in 2016 as the Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders tied atop the division at 12-4. The Chiefs were the two seed for the playoffs thanks to a clean sweep of their division rivals.
Oakland tumbled from legit Super Bowl contender to a one-and-done wild card team after quarterback and MVP candidate Derek Carr broke his leg in Week 16. Denver fought admirably to a 9-7 record with Trevor Siemian at the steering wheel after living legend Peyton Manning retired.
The Chargers suffered through a brutal, injury plagued season that ended with the franchise announcing they would be moving to Los Angeles as the “other” team in the Rams sprawling stadium and athletic complex of the future.
Training camp is here, so lets get to it. Here are some quick hits from around the AFC West.
*Order is predicted standings for 2017
1.) Oakland Raiders
The Raiders certainly have a chip on their shoulder after putting it all together in 2016, only to see it fall apart, because of a broken leg. Carr, took a massive step in Year Three, as he passed for nearly 4,000 yards with 28 touchdowns against just six interceptions. Of course it helps when you have targets like Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree to throw too. The team also added Jared Cook to upgrade the tight end position. The biggest story line for the Raiders entering camp is the freshness of running back Marshawn Lynch, who came out of retirement to join his hometown Oakland Raiders before they move to Las Vegas.
Despite a rapidly developing juggernaut on offense, the Raiders were still lacking on defense. The unit finished the season 26th in total defense. That’s not good enough for a Super Bowl contender. While superstar end Khalil Mack continued to haunt opposing quarterbacks, the rest of the line suffered through injuries and inconsistencies. A lot will be riding on Mario Edwards who needs to stay healthy. The secondary also left a lot to be desired. Newcomer Reggie Nelson led the team with five interceptions, but more needs to be done. Which is why the team spent their first two draft picks on corner Gareon Conley and safety Obi Melifonwu.
Best Camp Battle: Ben Heeney vs Cory James vs Marquel Lee
The starting middle linebacker spot is a major weakness. Heeney, started last season, but went down early with an ankle injury, openung the door for James. James, logged 48 tackles and five starts. Still unimpressed, the team drafted Lee in the fifth-round. Lee, finished his senior year at Wake Forrest with 105 tackles.
2.) Los Angeles Chargers
Injuries and uncertainty killed the Chargers the past two season. Now everything is settled. The team is now in LA and under the direction of first time head coach Anthony Lynn. Luckily for Lynn, he still has Philip Rivers manning the ship. Despite losing top target Keenan Allen for the second consecutive season due to injury, Rivers still led the eighth best passing attack in the league. The Bolts added another weapon in first-round pick Mike Williams, but his season is already in doubt with a back injury. The key for the Bolts will be a resurgent run game, which is why they invested two top draft picks to bolster the guard positions.
New coordinator Gus Bradley will be transitioning the team from a 3-4 to a 4-3 scheme and has the perfect building blocks in pass rushers Joey Bosa, last year’s Defensive Rookie of the Year, and Melvin Ingram. The two combined for 18.5 sacks last season. The linebacking corps is led by youngsters Denzel Perryman and Jatavis Brown. Who mans the third spot will be a toss up between Korey Toomer, second on the team in tackles in 2016, and Jeremiah Attaochu. The corners boast some nice young talent in Casey Hayward and Jason Verrett, although Verrett has struggled to stay healthy over his first three seasons and opened training camp on the PUP list.
Best Camp Battle: Dwight Lowery vs Rayshawn Jenkins vs Desmond King
Lowery is the incumbent and had a solid season in 2016, posting 60 tackles and nine pass breakups. Jenkins and King are rookies. Jenkins, is big, strong, and fast and can really pack a wallop. King, won the Thorpe Award in 2015 and will be moving from corner to safety. He has the skill to develop into a quality starter, but how fast?
3.) Denver Broncos
Injuries and inexperience crushed the Broncos in 2016, particularly in the run game. Starter C.J. Anderson went down after seven games, leaving rookie Devontae Booker to lead the rushing attack. He finished with 612 yards and four touchdowns. Denver signed Jamaal Charles hoping the long time Chief still has a little left in the tank. As underwhelming as the rushing attack was, the offensive line should take some of the blame for vastly underperforming. The team invested heavily in this unit over the offseason, signing Menelik Watson and Ron Leary via free agency and drafting Garett Bolles in the first round. All three should start from Day One.
Denver finished fourth in total defense last season and return mostly intact. The only big change comes with the retirement of future hall-of-famer DeMarcus Ware. With Ware gone, the pass rusher job opposite Von Miller falls to former first-round pick Shane Ray, however he tore ligaments in his wrist on the first day of training camp and will miss six to eight weeks following surgery. The secondary continues to boast, arguably, the best cornerback tandem in the league with Chris Harris and Aqib Talib. Newcomers Domata Peko (free agency) and DeMarcus Walker (draft) should help bolster the run defense, which finished the season 28th in the league.
Best Camp Battle: Trevor Siemian vs Paxton Lynch
Siemian played admirably in 2016. The first time starter posted 3,401 yards with 18 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. However, he’ll have to show even more to stave off Lynch. The team invested a first round pick in the former Memphis quarterback making it difficult for the organization to not hand over the reigns.
4.) Kansas City Chiefs
What a strange offseason for the Chiefs. After a string of head scratching moves by GM John Dorsey, culminating with the mismanaged release of wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, Dorsey was fired, a move that shocked many around the league. So what are the Chiefs left with? Quarterback is set with Alex Smith and first-round pick Patrick Mahomes waiting in the wings. Running back will be led by incumbent Spencer Ware with another rookie, Kareem Hunt, behind him. The biggest question mark comes at wide receiver. With Maclin gone it will be up to Chris Conley, Tyreek Hill, Albert Wilson, Demarcus Robinson, and rookie Jehu Chesson to help the aerial attack.
The Chiefs depth along the defensive line will be tested after the departures of Dontari Poe and Jaye Howard. The team signed Bennie Logan and drafted Tanoh Kpassagnon, to help, particularly with run defense. KC is stacked with linebackers. Justin Houston and Dee Ford can wreak havoc off the edge, but Houston needs to stay healthy. He’s only played in 16 games over the past two seasons. Additionally, veteran Tamba Hali is growing discontent with the team. A valued vet, Hali was irritated with his lack of playing time in the playoffs and recently took to twitter and the podcast world to express his frustrations with multiple issues and even questioned if he was needed by the franchise.
Best Camp Battle: Every Cornerback vs Every Cornerback
Marcus Peters is a shut down corner. His position is unquestioned. As is nickle back Steven Nelson’s. But who will take the starting spot opposite Peters? Veterans Terrance Mitchell, Phillip Gaines, Kenneth Acker, and Eric Murray as a dark horse candidate all will compete. Someone needs to distance themselves from the pack.