M-FANS 2018 Season Preview: AFC West

The summer is beginning to draw to a close, and soon, temperatures and leaves will begin to fall. The NFL preseason is currently underway, and true NFL football is nearly here. Welcome to M-FANS 2018 Season Preview, where our staff of talented University of Michigan student writers will share their insight into the NFL’s 32 teams and top players as we get ready for the kickoff of the regular season. Today, we take a look at the AFC West. Enjoy!

By Lucas Vargas, Erik McKeen, Zane Harding, and Matthew Jo

Kansas City Chiefs

By Lucas Vargas

2017 Record:

Projected 2018 Roster

Coaching Staff
HC – Andy Reid
OC – Eric Bieniemy
DC – Bob Sutton

Projected Offensive Starters
QB – Patrick Mahomes
RB1 – Kareem Hunt
RB2 – Spencer Ware
WR1 – Tyreek Hill
WR2 – Sammy Watkins
WR3 – Demarcus Robinson
TE – Travis Kelce
LT – Eric Fisher
LG – Cam Ervin/Parker Ehinger
C – Mitch Morse
RG – Laurent Duvernay-Tardif
RT – Mitchell Schwartz

Projected Defensive Starters
DE – Chris Jones
DT – Xavier Williams
DT – Derrick Nnadi
DE – Allen Bailey
ILB – Anthony Hitchens
ILB – Reggie Ragland
OLB – Justin Houston
OLB – Dee Ford
CB – Kendall Fuller
CB – Steven Nelson
CB – David Amerson
FS – Eric Berry
SS – Eric Murray

Projected Special Teams Starters
P – Dustin Colquitt
K – Harrison Butker
LS – James Winchester
PR – Tyreek Hill
KR – De’Anthony Thomas

Other Notable Players
OLB – Frank Zombo
S – Daniel Sorensen

Draft Recap

Round 2, Pick 46: Breeland Speaks, DE, Ole Miss
Round 3, Pick 75: Derrick Nnadi, DT, Florida State
Round 3, Pick 100: Dorian O’Daniel, LB, Clemson
Round 4, Pick 124: Armani Watts, Safety, Texas A&M
Round 6, Pick 196: Tremon Smith, CB, Central Arkansas
Round 6, Pick 198: Kahlil McKenzie, DT, Tennessee

Season Preview

Following the 2017 Wild Card loss to the Tennessee Titans, the Kansas City Chiefs decided it was time to move in a new direction. To begin the offseason, Kansas City dealt five-year starting QB Alex Smith to the Washington Redskins in exchange for cornerback Kendall Fuller and a draft pick that was used to move up in the 2nd round and select Breeland Speaks. Smith wasn’t the only major player shipped out of Kansas City this offseason, either, as two-time Pro Bowler Marcus Peters was sent to the LA Rams. Fuller is set to take over for Peters in the secondary but the Alex Smith departure opens the door for Chiefs 2017 1st round pick, Patrick Mahomes, to become the new franchise QB in Kansas City.

Patrick Mahomes waited patiently behind Alex Smith as a rookie after throwing for 11,252 yards and 93 TDs in 32 games behind center for the Texas Tech Red Raiders. Last season, Mahomes saw the field in Week 17 after Kansas City had secured the AFC West and went 22/35 with 284 yards and an interception. Mahomes is known for his cannon for an arm and brings a gunslinger mentality to the position. Andy Reid and Alex Smith had often been criticized as an overly conservative duo who were unable to finish and win big games, but Patrick Mahomes has the potential to change the expectations for the Kansas City offense right away.

Kansas City has the potential to be one of the most electrifying offenses in the league depending on how poised Mahomes is during his first season as a starting QB. Kareem Hunt led the NFL in rushing during his rookie season and is a capable receiver out of the backfield. Travis Kelce is a three-time Pro Bowler at tight end coming off of an 8 TD season. Tyreek Hill may be the fastest player in the NFL and owns 20 all-purpose TDs through 2 seasons in the league. After factoring in those 4 returning players, consider that Sammy Watkins signed a three-year deal to join the Chiefs adding another deep threat receiver entering the prime of his career.

Defensive improvement was guaranteed in 2018 with the return of Eric Berry who suffered a ruptured Achilles on opening night a season ago. Justin Houston, Dee Ford, former Cowboy Anthony Hitchens, and Reggie Ragland create a formidable linebacker group. A defense that allowed 365 yards per game and ranked 28th in 2017 should improve.

Kansas City will find themselves competing for their 3rd straight AFC West title behind a young QB. The next step is translating regular season success into the postseason.

Predicted Record: 10-6

Players to Watch

Patrick Mahomes

Mahomes will bring his air raid approach to the field and it will be interesting to see how a year of development under seasoned veteran Alex Smith benefits him. The Patrick Mahomes-to-Tyreek Hill deep ball should become a fan favorite combo.

Kendall Fuller

Marcus Peters was one of the top corners in the NFL after only three years in the league. His departure puts a large responsibility on the shoulders of newly acquired Kendall Fuller. As much as the success of Mahomes will determine the eventual worth of the Alex Smith trade, Fuller’s contributions will be extremely important to this team.

Eric Berry

Coming off the ruptured Achilles injury, Eric Berry resumes his role as the face of the Chiefs’ defense just a few years after defeating cancer. He is no stranger to adversity and is worth watching any time he takes the field. His presence instantly upgrades the Kansas City defense.

 

Los Angeles Chargers

By Erik McKeen

2017 Record: 9-7 (2nd in AFC West)

Projected 2018 Roster

Coaching Staff
HC – Anthony Lynn
OC – Ken Whisenhunt
DC – Gus Bradley

Projected Offensive Starters
QB – Philip Rivers
RB – Melvin Gordon
WR1 – Keenan Allen
WR2 – Tyrell Williams
WR3 – Travis Benjamin
TE – Virgil Green
LT – Russell Okung
LG – Dan Feeney
C – Mike Pouncey
RG – Forrest Lamp
RT – Joe Barksdale

Projected Defensive Starters
DE – Joey Bosa
DE – Melvin Ingram
DT – Corey Liuget
DT – Brandon Mebane
MLB – Hayes Pullard
WLB – Denzel Perryman
SLB – Kyle Emanuel
CB1 – Casey Hayward
CB2 – Trevor Williams
CB3 – Desmond King
FS – Derwin James
SS – Jahleel Addae

Projected Special Teams Starters
P – Drew Kaser
K – Caleb Sturgis
KR – Desmond King
PR – Travis Benjamin
LS – Mike Windt

Other Notable Players
WR – Mike Williams
RB – Austin Ekeler
TE – Hunter Henry (torn ACL, out for the season)

Season Preview

After an 0-4 start last year, the Chargers had a strong 9-3 finish to the season, but just missed out on a playoff spot. Only two of their seven losses were lost by more than one possession, with both of those games coming against the Chiefs. If the Chargers can find ways to win more of those close games, they can be a serious threat this year.

The Chargers’ only key loses come at the tight end position in losing Hunter Henry for the season due to a torn ACL, and by not resigning Antonio Gates. The replacement at that position will be long time Broncos tight end Virgil Green. The Chargers get back 2017 second round pick, guard Forrest Lamp, who missed all of 2017 with a torn ACL. They also signed longtime Dolphins center Mike Pouncey to a two year deal. The front office decided to use their first four draft picks to add to their already dominant defense, highlighted by the 17th overall pick, safety Derwin James out of Florida State.

The Chargers defense ranked first in the league in 2017 with 17 points against per game, and second in the league in opponent passing yards with 197.2 per game. They did, however rank second to last in the league last year with 131.1 rushing yards per game. If they can improve up front, the Chargers will have a chance to be the best defense in the NFL. The offense ranked 13th in the NFL with 22.2 points per game in 2017, and will look to improve on that in 2018 with a slightly improved offensive line with the addition of Lamp, and a receiving corps that has a year more NFL experience.

Predicted Record: 11-5

Players to Watch

Keenan Allen

Allen finally was able to put together a 16 game season, and it was a great one. With over 100 catches, almost 1400 yards, and 6 touchdowns, he has established himself as one of the best receivers in the game. With solid receivers around him and Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler making a strong run game, Allen is poised to have another great year.

Forrest Lamp

The 38th overall pick in the 2016 draft will look to lead a below average Chargers offensive line in 2018. The run game was the worst part of the offense last year, so any improvement to the run game will help all parts of the offense.  

Melvin Gordon

Gordon has filled up the box score over the last two years, but he will never truly be a superstar until he improves on his yard per rush average. He had over 1100 rushing yards last season, but he also had a whopping 284 rush attempts, with his yard per rush average being a mere 3.9. Improving on that and continuing to get better in the passing game can take his game to a new level.

 

Oakland Raiders

By Zane Harding

2017 Record: 6-10 (3rd in AFC West)

Projected 2018 Roster

Coaching Staff
HC – JON GRUDEN
OC – Greg Olson
DC – Paul Guenther

Projected Offensive Starters
QB – Derek Carr
RB1 – Marshawn Lynch
RB2 – Doug Martin
WR1 – Amari Cooper
WR2 – Jordy Nelson
WR3 – Martavis Bryant
TE – Jared Cook
LT – Kolton Miller / Donald Penn (?)
LG – Kelechi Osmele
C – Rodney Hudson
RG – Gabe Jackson
RT – Breno Giacomini

Projected Defensive Starters
DE – Khalil Mack
DE – Bruce Irvin
DT – Justin Ellis
DT – Mario Edwards
SLB – Emmanuel Lamur
MLB – Derrick Johnson
WLB – Tahir Whitehead
CB1 – Rashaan Melvin
CB2 – Gareon Conley
CB3 – Daryl Worley
FS – Marcus Gilchrist
SS – Karl Joseph

Projected Special Teams Starters
P – Johnny Townsend
K – Eddy Pineiro
PR/KR – Dwayne Harris
LS – Andrew DePaola

Other Notable Players
DT – Maurice Hurst (5th Round Selection)
DT – P.J. Hall

Season Preview

I tell ya what, man. Jon Gruden is back with the Raiders and Tiger Woods is in the top 10 in both recent golf majors. Somebody pass me a copy of The Marshall Mathers LP over to me because it’s 2000 all over again, man. Wild.

This is going to be a very, very interesting year for the Raiders. For one, this might be the final year that the team plays in Oakland, as their new stadium will open in Las Vegas in 2020 and they could possibly play at UNLV’s Sam Boyd Stadium in 2019. Besides that, Jon Gruden has returned to coach the team after years and years of rumors about Gruden’s return to coaching. (Raiders fans, I hope you’re all in on Gruden because it’s going to be the Gruden Show all year.)

So, how has Coach Gruden’s return impacted the look of this team thus far?

For one, the team has a new-look offense, as the team has loaded up on a few Gruden Grinder-type players. The team released wide receiver Michael Crabtree and picked up former Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson shortly after Nelson’s was released by Green Bay. The team also added former Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant, who often butted heads with head coach Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh. The team also is currently slated to start first-round pick Kolton Miller at left tackle, as incumbent starter Donald Penn is on the physically unable to perform list and NFL Network’s Ian Rapaport has reported that Penn may be released or traded if the team cannot renegotiate his contract. The interior offensive line of Kelechi Osmele, Rodney Hudson, and Gabe Jackson returns, thankfully, so the Raiders should once again have a top 10 offensive line. The team even made a change at punter, as they kicked the talented-yet-carefree Marquette King to the curb in exchange for Johnny Townsend. With a new-look receiver corps, a one-two punch of Marshawn Lynch and Doug Martin in the rushing attack, and the potential of a Jon Gruden/Derek Carr bromance, there’s a lot to like about this Raiders offense.

On the defensive end, the team has added a lot of depth on the defensive line to give Khalil Mack a better chance to dominate (should he report to camp and, you know, speak to his new coach), in the form of Maurice Hurst, P.J. Hall, and Arden Key. Because of these acquisitions, Bruce Irvin will now play at defensive end and enhance the team’s pass rush. The question is not with the defensive line, but with the secondary. The linebacker corps added former Lion Tahir Whitehead, who is known for his skills against the run but not against the pass, while Derrick Johnson is known for the reverse. Meanwhile, Gareon Conley and Rashaan Melvin will be the team’s primary cornerbacks, but Gareon Conley has played in two games in his entire career and is questionable to play week one due to a hip injury. Rashaan Melvin started ten games for Indianapolis last year and graded out as Pro Football Focus’s #24 CB with a 77.9 mark, but he is nothing more than a low-end CB1 at best. The Raiders secondary is suspect, but the defensive line will compensate.

All in all, there’s a lot to like about this Raiders team. The new-look offense should be better than it was in 2017, and while the secondary is a point of concern, the defensive line looks even better entering this season. The Raiders also have one of the easier schedules in the league, as they will play the Dolphins, Browns, Seahawks, and Colts before November rolls around. With this combination of talent, coaching, and schedule, I am picking the Raiders to win the AFC West in 2018. Spider 2 Y Banana all day, baby.

Predicted Record: 11-5

Players to Watch

Derek Carr

The Raiders franchise quarterback regressed in 2017. In 2016, Carr posted a 12-3 record at the helm of the Raiders, with a 63.8% completion rate, seven game-winning drives, and 28 touchdowns to only six interceptions. In 2017, however, Carr posted a 6-9 record with a 62.7% completion rate, one game-winning drive, and 22 touchdowns to 13 interceptions.

Jon Gruden is well-documented for being a quarterback whisperer. He has a very, very good quarterback in Derek Carr. A 2018 rebound would do wonders for this Raiders team.

Bruce Irvin

Bruce Irvin has been a consistently good player ever since his time with the Legion of Boom in Seattle, and entering his age-31 season, Irvin has been as consistent as ever in recent years. Irvin will see plenty of time at defensive end this year, and after tying his career high with eight sacks last year, he should have a chance to hit double digits this year.

Jordy Nelson

In 2013, Jordy Nelson posted an approximate value of 11 on the season, per Pro Football Reference. In 2014, that number rose to an unprecedented 18. After missing all of 2015, he hit 13 in 2016. And then this past season, it plummeted to 5. Yes, Jordy Nelson started 15 games last season, and without Aaron Rodgers around for most of the season, he looked rough. That said, Nelson is replacing Michael Crabtree, who posted an AV of 5 himself last season, and who has never posted an AV higher than 10. This move is all about upside, and if it works, it’s going to be a hard season for AFC West defenses.

 

Denver Broncos

By Matthew Jo

2017 Record: 5-11 (4th in AFC West)

Projected 2018 Roster

Coaching Staff
HC – Vance Joseph
OC – Bill Musgrave
DC – Joe Woods

Projected Offensive Starters
QB – Case Keenum
RB – Devontae Booker
RB – Royce Freeman
FB – Andy Janovich
WR1 – Demaryius Thomas
WR2 – Emmanuel Sanders
WR3 – Courtland Sutton
TE – Jake Butt
LT – Garrett Bolles
LG – Ronald Leary
C – Matt Paradis
RG – Connor McGovern
RT – Jared Veldheer

Projected Defensive Starters
LE – Derek Wolfe
RE – Adam Gotsis
NT – Domata Peko
ILB1 – Brandon Marshall
ILB2 – Todd Davis
OLB1 – Von Miller
OLB2 – Bradley Chubb
CB1 – Chris Harris
CB2 – Bradley Roby
CB3 – Tramaine Brock
FS – Darian Stewart
SS – Justin Simmons

Projected Special Teams Starters
P – Marquette King
K – Brandon McManus
PR – Isaiah McKenzie
KR – Phillip Lindsay
LS – Casey Kreiter

Season Preview

The Broncos bucked the trend of dominating the AFC West last season as they ended last in the division for the first time since 2010.  The mixed bag at quarterback since the departure of Peyton Manning and the uncharacteristic bottom 10 scoring defense last year led GM John Elway to make some interesting moves this offseason.  Star cornerback Aqib Talib moved to LA to join his old defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, offensive tackle Donald Stephenson departed, starting running back C.J. Anderson was cut, and former starting quarterbacks Trevor Siemian and Brock Osweiler got shipped off as well.  However, the team found replacements for all of these positions in Case Keenum, Jared Veldheer, Royce Freeman, and Tramaine Brock.

In addition to these acquisitions, Denver drafted some instant impact players to avoid repeating last season’s disappointment.  In the first round, they found a stud pass rusher out of NC State in Bradley Chubb. SMU’s big wide receiver Courtland Sutton came in the second, and Oregon’s downhill running back Royce Freeman was picked in the third.  All three are going to see a fair share of time on the field this year.

With Bill Musgrave officially promoted to offensive coordinator, this offense looks to recreate the success of the 2016 Raiders.  This offensive line is one to keep an eye on – Leary and Paradis bolster the interior, but the real question will be how Veldheer holds up on the right side.  The arrival of Case Keenum is another uncertainty for the team as he only saw his first season of success last year with the Vikings after five years in the NFL.  Royce Freeman will join Devontae Booker in the backfield as they hope to continue the success of C.J. Anderson. The wide receiving corps seems to be the strength of this mysterious offense with the addition of Courtland Sutton to the Sanders/Thomas duo.  Overall, the offense looks like it will be very average to below-average, but the outcome will be determined by the effectiveness of Keenum.

Defensively, the Broncos took a massive hit by losing Aqib Talib in the offseason.  Adding Tramaine Brock will help ease the pain a little, but the secondary has seen its most productive days pass.  This front seven is still extremely dangerous though with linebackers Von Miller, Brandon Marshall, and Bradley Chubb leading the team.  With Derek Wolfe and Domata Peko helping hold up the line, the defense will still be the strength of this team.

Predicted Record: 5-11

Players to Watch

Ronald Leary

This offensive line has been plagued by poor pass protection and injuries over the past few seasons; even last year, Leary saw his season cut short due to a back injury.  Leary was clearly the most effective offensive lineman for the Broncos – good enough for 9th-best guard in the league according to PFF grades. Now healthy again, Leary will be bashing opposing defensive lineman into the ground.

Bradley Chubb

Von Miller has been feared for years and years as the league’s premier pass rusher, and now there is a clone of him ready to terrorize throwers together.  Chubb is built like a truck and has the ability to chase down quarterbacks and running backs in the backfield. But not only does he have the physical attributes to be a star on this perennial defensive stronghold, Chubb has gifted hands and feet to fight offensive lineman up front.  Watch out for this dynamic duo this year.

Tramaine Brock

With the loss of Aqib Talib, the Broncos brought in Tramaine Brock to fill the hole left in the secondary.  Brock did not contribute much to Minnesota’s magical run last season, but he saw a couple years of upward production with the 49ers prior.  Defending the majority of passes thrown to him and stopping runners from getting by him, Brock seemed poised to make a splash onto the scene with one more year of solid play.  With such a shortage of snaps last season, it seems questionable how much progression there has been since those 49ers days. But if he can repeat his success from San Francisco, this secondary may not end up missing Talib at all.

 

 

Featured Image: By Keith Allison from Hanover, MD, USA – Derek Carr, CC BY-SA 2.0



Categories: 2018 Season Preview

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