NFL Football 2017-18 Season

AFC West Division Preview

With the days and weeks of summer ticking by, the arrival of a new NFL season continues to approach. Fans still have to wait until September 7th for Kansas City and New England to kick off in Gillette Stadium, but they don’t have to wait any longer for pre-season football at FanPicks. NFL pre-season Week 2 is in two days (Enter Now). To get you ready for the new season, here’s an outlook of AFC West teams.

Denver Broncos

The Broncos’ offense was forever developing last year but never emerged. Denver had the fourth-most three-and-out drives and ranked 27th in rushing yards and 26th in red-zone touchdowns.

This season figures to be less futile. The optimism begins at quarterback. Trevor Siemian, 8-6 as a first-year starter with 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, underwent surgery on his non-throwing left shoulder but missed no offseason workouts. He earned teammates’ respect with toughness and for his ability to digest the playbook and apply information quickly. The belief is that the new offense will benefit with 2016 first-round draft pick Paxton Lynch more than Siemian. Lynch impressed teammates with his maturity in the offseason. After what amounted to a near-redshirt season, Lynch believes he can win the starting job in an offense that has deep ball routes and spread formation concepts more similar to what he used in college.

Running back C.J. Anderson is like a bowling ball with legs. He excels in yards after contact. Anderson enters a crossroads season. Can he be a bell cow or just a complementary back along with former Utah star Devontae Booker and newly acquired Jamaal Charles? The addition of Charles, a five-time 1,000-yard rusher in Kansas City, gives the Broncos a veteran who can diversify the offense with his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.

Expect a steady diet of bubble screens to receiver Demaryius Thomas and more motion and varied routes from Emmanuel Sanders. Thomas will need to shrink his number of drops to regain his star status in the NFL. Sanders has been the Broncos’ most reliable weapon. For Sanders and Thomas to realize their potential — say, 1,200-plus yards receiving — they need help in the red zone. That’s where the selection of Michigan tight end Jake Butt comes into play. If he recovers from his second ACL surgery and returns in October, Butt provides size and mismatches inside the 20 that have been lacking since the departures of Julius Thomas and Wes Welker.

Kansas City Chiefs

Quarterback Alex Smith is a polarizing figure in title-starved Kansas City despite a 41-20 record in four seasons. Only New England’s Tom Brady (47) and Seattle’s Russell Wilson (45) have more wins during that span. Still, fans openly wonder if Smith, who is regarded as a risk-averse game-manager, can win a Super Bowl.

Smith threw for a career-high 3,502 yards last season, but his touchdown (3.1) and interception percentages (1.6) were his worst under Andy Reid’s coaching. Nonetheless, Smith’s age and big cap number drove the Chiefs’ decision to draft a quarterback — Texas Tech gunslinger Patrick Mahomes II — in the first round for the first time since 1983. Mahomes isn’t ready to start, but the Chiefs are gambling on him for the future. The idea is that after studying under Smith and learning from Reid for at least one season, Mahomes can become the franchise quarterback. Meanwhile, Smith remains the best hope for a Super Bowl run in the short term.

First-team All-Pro Travis Kelce headlines the pass-catching corps and shows no signs of slowing down. He led all NFL tight ends with 1,125 yards last season, but the Chiefs need more production from their wide receivers. Chris Conley (44 catches for 530 yards) or Albert Wilson (31 catches for 279 yards) will need to take a step forward after the release of Jeremy Maclin.

The wild card is receiver Tyreek Hill, a speedster who racked up 61 catches for 593 yards with six scores and added 267 yards with three touchdowns rushing plus incredible special-teams value. It will be a treat to watch Reid deploy Hill now that the coach has a feel for all that he can do.

Hill will remain a factor in an otherwise pedestrian ground game. Running back Spencer Ware was fine with 214 carries for 921 yards and three touchdowns. Unfortunately,backup Charcandrick West didn’t reach the same expectation. He averaged only 3.3 yards on 88 carries. That’s a big reason why Kansas City invested a third-round pick in Toledo’s Kareem Hunt. Don’t be shocked if Hunt assumes a feature role now that the franchise’s all-time leading rusher, Jamaal Charles, is gone.

Los Angeles Chargers

There’s a lot to like about the Chargers’ offense, if only it could stay healthy. There are plenty of playmakers, but they can’t seem to stay on the field together very long.

The one guy the Chargers can ill afford to lose, for any length of time, is quarterback Philip Rivers. While he doesn’t seem overly excited about the move to L.A., Rivers is willing to give it a go and is trying to win the support of new fans. Despite coming off another 4,000-yard passing season, he led the NFL with 21 interceptions. It’s something Rivers will need to reduce in order to help give the Bolts a chance.

Rivers showed his usual leadership as he tried his best to hold things together as the receiving corps was depleted by a season-ending knee injury to Keenan Allen in Week 1. The Chargers gave Rivers another playmaker when they took Clemson receiver Mike Williams with the seventh overall pick in the draft. Williams is a definite upgrade and will start opposite the oft-injured Allen, who has been limited to nine games and four TDs in the last two seasons (knee injury in 2016, lacerated kidney in 2015).

There should be nothing but positives from running back Melvin Gordon, who bounced back from a woeful rookie season to rush for 997 yards and score 12 touchdowns. But his season was cut short by hip and knee injuries. The Bolts are certainly going to miss backup Danny Woodhead’s change-of-pace play, both rushing and receiving, although he was injury-prone. Star tight end Antonio Gates returns for his 15th season, as motivated as ever to win an elusive championship. His next TD catch will be his 112th, giving him sole possession of the NFL record for tight ends. If this is Gates’ final season, the Chargers are in good shape, because Hunter Henry had a strong rookie season with 36 catches for 478 yards and eight touchdowns.

Oakland Raiders

The Raiders had one of the NFL’s top offenses last season, and it could be even better this year with the addition of former Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch. The powerful Lynch ended his one-year retirement and signed a two-year deal with his hometown team after being traded to Oakland. Lynch has rushed for 9,112 yards and 74 TDs in nine seasons. He retired after an injury-plagued 2015 season, but if he stays healthy and recaptures his Beast Mode form, Lynch will be an upgrade from Latavius Murray, who signed as a free agent with Minnesota. The combination of Lynch and scatbacks DeAndré Washington and Jalen Richard gives Oakland three dangerous weapons in the backfield. Make that four counting Jamize Olawale, a battering-ram fullback with some running skills.

Quarterback Derek Carr was putting up MVP-like numbers before his season-ending injury. He threw for 3,937 yards with 28 touchdowns and six interceptions. Carr’s passer rating has gone from 76.6 as a rookie to 91.1 in 2015 to 96.7 last season, showing his steady improvement. Carr signed a five-year contract extension in June to make him the NFL’s highest-paid quarterback, for now at least. The deal could be worth as much as $125 million in total with Carr guaranteed to receive at least $70 million.

Carr’s top two receivers — Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree — each had over 1,000 receiving yards and combined for 172 catches last year. The trio of Carr, Cooper and Crabtree should only get better in their third straight season together. The Raiders gave Carr another inviting target when they signed free agent Cordarrelle Patterson. The 6’2″, 220-pound Patterson caught 52 passes for 453 yards — both career highs — last season for Minnesota, which drafted him in the first round in 2013. The Raiders’ tight end corps should be better this year with the addition of former Packer Jared Cook. Cook has 303 career catches for 3,880 yards and 17 touchdowns in eight NFL seasons.

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AFC West biggest needs in the 2017 NFL Draft

The right addition by any team could be the difference in the NFL’s most competitive division

The AFC West was a two-team race for the most part in 2016, with the then-defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos ending up in third place. The talented and now newly re-located Chargers pulled up the rear with a 5-11 record that was not necessarily indicative of how talented their roster was.

Heading into 2017, the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs are looking to make a move or two during the NFL draft on April 27th, that would keep them in the fold of AFC front-runners. Denver is trying to keep the championship window open for one of the league’s best defenses and the Chargers are looking to build a corps of player who will lead the franchise into the future in their new city.

 Denver Broncos

The Broncos came into the 2016 season in a weird spot. They were the defending Super Bowl champions, but they also were trying to move on from and replace an NFL legend at quarterback. All in all, their season was not terrible. Unfortunately for Denver, the team was competing in a division with two of the NFL’s hottest up-and-coming teams. Their veteran leadership was not enough to overcome injuries and the distraction — as minor as it ended up being — of the quarterback transition.

If the Broncos truly think they have their quarterback of the future on the roster — and it sounds like that is the case — their biggest need is without a doubt at offensive tackle. They have no true long-term answers on either side of the offensive line, and that’s bad news for a team about to plug in a young quarterback.

First-round pick: No. 20 overall

Potential Picks: It must be an offensive tackle. There are enough talented options in the draft for Denver to land a solid option and a mainstay at the spot for a decade at the No. 20 spot. If the Broncos don’t walk away with Wisconsin’s Ryan Ramczyk, Utah’s Garrett Boles or Alabama’s Cam Robinson, I’ll be stunned and their fans should be irate.

 Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs won the AFC West on the back of great defensive play and an electrifying rookie playmaker in Tyreek Hill. The lack of a true, consistent threat at the receiver position seemed to be the biggest limiting factor for Andy Reid’s club, as they lacked the firepower to get past the Steelers at home in the playoffs. As much as Kansas City could use that wide receiver, the Chiefs need playmakers at all three levels of the defense in order to remain in the conversation of the AFC’s elite teams. Linebacker, cornerback and nose tackle are all positions where Kansas City needs help.

First-round pick: No. 27 overall

Potential picks: You can expect the Chiefs to take a long, hard look at Ohio State linebacker Raekwon McMillan if he’s available. He would be the perfect long-term option to replace Derrick Johnson. If they go corner, I like Colorado’s Chidobe Awuzie as an option.

 Los Angeles Chargers

A tumultuous 2016 preseason — thanks in large part to the Joey Bosa contract fiasco — didn’t get the Chargers off on the right foot. It was another year where Philip Rivers was obviously in need of more consistent targets in the passing game. Bosa ended up being the bright spot on a defense that had a hard time keeping opponents out of the end zone. The Chargers have a talented young running back in Melvin Gordon, they just need a line for him to run behind. Both guard and tackle are positions of need. On defense, a good shutdown corner would make things a whole lot easier for Bosa and the rest of the front seven.

First-round pick: No. 7 overall

Potential picks: All of the top tackles and guards should be available when the Chargers select in the first round. that said, I’m just not sure any of them merit being taken with the seventh overall pick. For that reason, San Diego likely goes corner in the first round and focuses on offensive line after that. The most likely options are Ohio State cornerback Marshon Lattimore or Alabama corner Marlon Humphrey.

 Oakland Raiders

It looked as if the Raiders were on a collision course with the New England Patriots to battle it out for AFC supremacy until Derrick Carr injured a finger on his throwing hand. Oakland was never quite the same team after the fact. Then after Carr broke his leg, they stood almost no chance versus the Houston Texans in the AFC Wild Card game.

Oakland has talent on both sides of the ball, but the Raiders still need more depth on defense. Linebacker and defensive tackle are both on top of the list of necessities that need to be addressed. An injury in any of these position groups could derail another championship-caliber season. The team also needs a legitimate replacement at running back for the recently departed Latavius Murray.

First-round pick: No. 24 overall

Potential picks: Michigan State defensive tackle Malik McDowell would be a nice fit in Oakland’s defensive scheme if he’s available when the Raiders pick. You also could see general manager Reggie McKenzie pull the trigger on Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham or Temple’s Haason Reddick at outside linebacker — either or which would create a dangerous duo with Khalil Mack.

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Denver Broncos vs Oakland Raiders Preview

The reigning Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos are in a tight three-way battle for supremacy in the AFC West and will visit the surprising Oakland Raiders on Sunday (Enter Contest) in a showdown for first place in the division. The Raiders are 5-0 on the road en route to their 6-2 mark and enter a stretch of four consecutive home games.

Derek Carr threw for a staggering 513 yards and four touchdowns in a 30-24 win at Tampa Bay as Oakland kept pace with Denver atop the division. Carr is the third player in history to throw for at least 500 yards with four TDs and zero interceptions in a game.

While the Raiders are off to their best start since 2001 behind a potent offense, the Broncos continue to flex the defensive muscles that paved their path to the Super Bowl last season. Denver is tied with Buffalo for the NFL lead with 26 sacks while linebacker Von Miller is second with 8.5. Gary Kubiak’s team has dominated the series in recent seasons, winning eight consecutive matchups before Oakland ended the streak in the Mile High City last December.

ABOUT THE BRONCOS (6-2)

Star cornerback Aqib Talib is in danger of missing his second straight game, flying to California on Thursday to get a second opinion on his ailing back. Denver has quality depth at the position as Bradley Roby stepped in for Talib and earned AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors after returning an interception for a touchdown in a 27-19 win at San Diego. Rookie running back Devontae Booker hurt his shoulder in his first start in place of an injury C.J. Anderson, but is expected to go against Oakland. Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas are the top two targets for Trevor Siemian with 44 and 42 receptions, respectively. Thomas needs two receptions to become the fourth player in franchise history with 500.

ABOUT THE RAIDERS (6-2)

Carr leads the AFC with 17 touchdown passes versus only three interceptions and is getting a lot of mileage from his wide receiver tandem of Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree. Cooper had 12 catches for 173 yards and a touchdown last week to boost his team-leading total to 52 receptions while Crabtree hauled in his NFL high-tying sixth touchdown catch. Defense has been a nightmare for the Raiders, who are ranked 31st in the league, surrendering a total of 410.4 total yards while being equally generous against the run and pass. Khalil Mack, who has five of Oakland’s 11 sacks, recorded five in the win at Denver last season.

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