AFC West 2021 NFL Preview: Can anyone challenge Chiefs atop division?
The NFL is back, and Sportsnet is breaking down everything you need to know about each of the 32 teams in the lead-up to kickoff on Thursday, Sept. 9.
Today, we look at the AFC West. (Teams are listed in the order in which we believe they’ll finish in the 2021 standings.)
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
2020 record: 14-2, first in AFC West; lost to Buccaneers in Super Bowl.
Roster additions: G Joe Thuney, OT Orlando Brown, DT Jarran Reed, RB Jerrick McKinnon, CB Mike Hughes, C Austin Blythe, LB Nick Bolton (drafted 58th overall), C Creed Humphrey (63rd)
Roster subtractions: LT Eric Fisher, RB Damien Williams, WR Sammy Watkins, DE Tanoh Kpassagnon, CB Bashaud Breeland
The good news: Patrick Mahomes is healthy. Going into Super Bowl 55, everyone knew the Chiefs’ offensive line was looking shaky, but few were worried about it because of how much their starting QB can do even with the smallest of windows. But Mahomes’s nagging toe injury severely limited his effectiveness, and Tampa Bay walked away with the game. Now that he’s fully recovered from off-season toe surgery, his team’s ceiling is sky high again. Other good news? The O-line has been beefed up, too, with the arrivals of Thuney, Brown and Blythe.
The bad news: The stink of that Super Bowl loss to Tampa hasn’t quite washed off yet. Plus, if all it takes to turn this team from title favourite to absolute mincemeat is an injury to literally one toe, it feels a little unwise to keep picking them to return to the Super Bowl year after year. (That said, one more bit of good news: They don’t have much competition for this division outside of the next team on this list.)
2021 prediction: 12-5, lose in the AFC Championship Game.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
2020 record: 7-9, third in AFC West; missed playoffs.
Roster additions: C Corey Linsley, RT Matt Feiler, TE Jared Cook, OT Rashawn Slater (drafted 13th overall), CB Asante Samuel Jr. (47th), head coach Brandon Staley
Roster subtractions: TE Hunter Henry, G Trai Turner, S Rayshawn Jenkins, LB Denzel Perryman, CB Casey Hayward, QB Tyrod Taylor, OLB Melvin Ingram, G Dan Feeney, head coach Anthony Lynn
The good news: Where to begin? For starters, they’re way ahead of schedule. Quarterback Justin Herbert was a project unlikely to play more than a few games when last season began, and when thrust onto the field in Week 2 all he did was win offensive rookie of the year. They won five straight games to finish the season (with an asterisk next to the KC victory in the final week), and seven of their nine losses came by a touchdown or less. What’s more, they tabbed Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley as the new head coach, and he should bring renewed focus to a defence that still boasts Joey Bosa.
The bad news: There’s a lot to prove here. How will Staley handle the reins of the grueling top job? It’s no exaggeration to say we’ve seen loads of highly qualified coordinators wilt in the same situation over the years. What’s more, can Herbert avoid the sophomore slump now that teams have a full season’s worth of film on him? Last year he far exceeded low expectations. But it’s a whole other thing to live up to high ones.
2021 prediction: 11-6, lose in the Wild Card Round.
2020 record: 5-11, third in AFC West; missed playoffs.
Roster additions: QB Teddy Bridgewater, CB Kyle Fuller, CB Ronald Darby, OT Bobby Massie, CB Pat Surtain II (drafted ninth overall), RB Javonte Williams (35th)
Roster subtractions: CB A.J. Bouye, RB Philip Lindsay, TE Nick Vannett, OLB Jeremiah Attaochu, RT Ja’Wuan James
The good news: Well, they’re going to start Week 1 with quarterbacks on the roster, which is more than you could say for them in Week 12 of last year when they started Kendall Hinton under centre. They also added Bridgewater, who will start Week 1 over Drew Lock, to the group. If he can stay healthy, Bridgewater represents a decent short-term solution to the Broncos’ long-running woes at the position.
The bad news: This team still doesn’t have its quarterback of the future, and it’s unclear what they’re waiting for. With Justin Fields and Mac Jones still on the board when their first-round pick came around last spring, they drafted cornerback Pat Surtain II. While Surtain could very well end up being a great player, he doesn’t address the Broncos’ glaring need at the NFL’s most important position.
2021 prediction: 7-10, miss the playoffs.
LAS VEGAS RAIDERS
2020 record: 8-8, second in AFC West; missed playoffs.
Roster additions: DE Yannick Ngakoue, RB Kenyan Drake, DE Solomon Thomas, DT Quinton Jefferson, CB Casey Hayward, WR Tyrell Williams, OT Alex Leatherwood (drafted 17th overall), S Trevon Moehrig (43rd)
Roster subtractions: WR Nelson Agholor, RB Devontae Booker, S LaMarcus Joyner, G Gabe Jackson, C Rodney Hudson, OT Trent Brown, DE Takkarist McKinley
The good news: They finally get to play in front of fans in Las Vegas. After a 2020 season spent settling into their new city in an empty stadium, they will now get to start building a new base of Raiders fans.
The bad news: They didn’t improve on last year’s 8-8 roster — or necessarily take a step backwards to start a rebuild. Their splashiest move in the off-season was trading for Kenyan Drake, a totally unnecessary addition considering they have Josh Jacobs as a potential bellcow in the backfield. At best, they’re treading water. At worst, they’re sinking down the standings without a lot of young talent waiting in the wings.
2021 prediction: 7-10, miss the playoffs.
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