The AFC West was a two-team affair last season.
Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes lit the football world on fire and led the Chiefs to the division title on the final week of the regular season. Fellow QB and Chargers veteran Phillip Rivers—despite some historic offensive numbers for KC—had his team tied at 12-4 with them (a tiebreaker gave the Chiefs the division).
In 2019, both teams are set to be Super Bowl contenders once again. But who has the betting advantage in the AFC West?
Kansas City comes in as favorites at -200, according to MyBookie. This is despite the fact star WR Tyreek Hill may end up being released by the team after threatening comments he made to his fiancée. He had already pleaded guilty to domestic abuse of her in 2014.
The Chiefs also moved on without former defensive leaders—OLBs Justin Houston and Dee Ford, along with S Eric Berry—in the off-season.
The Chargers lurk behind at +250 odds. Rivers returns for his 15th season and still has quite a bit of talent around him.
And though the Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders aren’t supposed to contend this year, they made big moves for their future this offseason.
I’ll break each team down and see where they stand the AFC West race. So let me first start off with the defending divisional champs and their odds of repeating.
Kansas City Chiefs -200
Despite the fact they may not have Hill for at least a chunk of 2019 if not longer, the Chiefs still have plenty of skill on offense.
Mecole Hardman may end up being the biggest wide receiver steal in the draft. His 4.33 speed means opponents will have the need for a lot of safety help. Between him and all-league tight end Travis Kelce, Mahomes has two elite talents to the throw too.
But Sammy Watkins’ health on the other side of Hardman will be key to the functioning of the passing game. He has yet to play a full season since he was a rookie in 2014 but is still graded as the league 45th-ranked receiver, according to Pro Football Focus.
The team will also be experiencing its first full season without Kareem Hunt in the backfield.
Damien Williams is the clear starter now after a strong finish to the regular season and a dominating playoff performance against Indianapolis. But he hasn’t necessarily proven himself to be of Hunt’s caliber in terms of versatility or talent outside the tackles.
When they decided to move on from Houston, Kansas City traded their first-round pick away for Seattle’s DE Frank Clark. A 25-year-old coming off a 13-sack season (he has 35 sacks through four seasons), he could continue to blossom into a Pro Bowler.
Pro Football Focus only considers him the 18th best edge rusher. But he only continues to get better and will need to for it to be worth the Chiefs departing from Houston and Ford. Between the two of them and Allen Bailey, that’s a production loss of 28 sacks from last year alone.
At least they still have Chris Jones, a dominating force that tallied 15.5 sacks last season.
The secondary was a bit more of a concern in 2018. That was addressed in a big way with Tyrann Mathieu coming in to play the strong side this year. Drafting another safety in the second round (Juan Thornhill, Virginia) and grabbing AAF breakout Keith Reaser will help the depth of this unit.
But I’m still not totally on-board with the pass defense, especially at corner. With Steven Nelson gone in free agency too, I don’t think the Kendall Fuller-Orlando Scandrick combo is all that imposing.
This is the only glaring weakness I see on this team.
Los Angeles Chargers +250
Unlike the defensive side of the Chiefs, there’s not a whole lot of turnover to talk about on the Chargers offense.
Rivers has become synonymous with the lightning bolt on his sleeves. So has Keenan Allen, a top-tier wideout, and Melvin Gordon III, one of the league’s better pass-catching RBs. If those two stay healthy, this is an AFC juggernaut, plain and simple.
The loss of Tyrell Williams can’t be understated. Besides Golden Tate, he was probably the biggest WR name on the free agent market, above John Brown, Cole Beasley, and others.
Also, this team has high hopes for tight end Hunter Henry to be healthy. He missed all last season due to injury. Despite Antonio Gates being a future Hall-of-Famer, he is no longer much of an athletic force. Henry will hopefully be that extra weapon for Rivers this year.
The veteran QB has running backs he can trust to throw to, a potential stud at tight end, and a Pro Bowler at wide receiver. There’s not a whole lot more he could ask for.
And his offensive line was ranked 5th overall by Football Outsiders, giving up the 10th-fewest sacks along the way. Mike Pouncey isn’t what he once was anchoring a line. But Russell Okung has been worth every penny protecting Rivers’ blindside.
The guard play should be the team’s only real concern offensively.
The defense presents a few more problems.
The secondary isn’t much of a worry. CB Desmond King II has the argument of being the best corner in the game. Veteran Casey Hayward Jr. didn’t have an interception last year, but receivers still had little success against him.
Even fellow CB Michael Davis was dynamic in the red zone.
These pieces are all surrounding the anchor of everything, safety Derwin James. He had a terrific rookie year. All those people saying he was a steal in the middle of the first-round last year are looking smart right now.
It’s hard to believe Adrian Phillips, who made the Pro Bowl as a special teams stud, might not actually start at the other safety spot. Nasir Adderly, the second-rounder out of Delaware, should get the nod.
There are some risk and reward though involving the front-seven.
LB Thomas Davis is a three-time Pro Bowler and all-time leader for this group. He’s also gone through three ACL tears and is 36 years old. LA is throwing caution to the wind with that move. Same goes for DT Brandon Mebane, who is also well past his prime with injury issues but could be a nice depth piece with monitored usage.
LB Denzel Perryman only adds to the list of injury-prone players on the front-seven, as the Chargers re-signed him for two more years. If either he or Thomas gets injured, this becomes a thin group.
Health will be the name of the game on the edge as well. Melvin Ingram III and Joey Bosa have had their issues staying on the field. But they’re one of the better pass-rushing duos when they do. First-round pick Jerry Tillery was a fairly safe pick to plug-in to the interior, but LA desperately needed him.
Denver Broncos +1200
Despite giving up three picks in moving up 10 spots to draft Drew Lock, the Broncos were more patient for him than I thought they’d be. Still, he will likely sit behind Joe Flacco at quarterback for most of 2019.
And though Flacco is a Super Bowl-winning QB, he’s never been a Pro Bowler and has become a check-down artist over his career.
He’ll have a big target to throw to in WR Courtland Sutton and a reliable veteran in WR Emmanuel Sanders. The latter of the two had 868 yards in just 12 games last season.
Denver will hope Sanders stays healthy at 32, but he’s missed nine starts over the last two years, including the end of 2018 with a torn Achilles.
He and Phillip Lindsay out of the backfield are the two major weapons this offense has. The running back had a sensational 5.4 yards-per-carry, tallying up over 1,000 yards.
2019 should be a good year for him. But relying on an RB with one great year to be the star of an offense is dicey. Still, going from undrafted free agent to star in one year is an awesome story.
There are some new faces blocking in front of him. Matt Paradis is now performing snaps for Carolina and guard Billy Turner took big bucks and went to Green Bay.
While it was good they didn’t overspend to bring back Turner and Paradis, they definitely burned too big of a hole in their wallet getting Ja’Wuan James. The right tackle was a big need. But paying $32M guaranteed for PFF’s 34th-ranked tackle was an anxious move to make.
If James is worth the money and Ron Leary comes back from injury to lead a young guard group, they might be alright here. But second-round pick Dalton Risner, whether at guard or center, has to be the guy. He seems to check most boxes, especially in the run game.
Another x-factor for the Broncos will be first-rounder Noah Fant at tight end. I like the idea of him being a security blanket for when Lock takes the reins. This should prove to be a solid pick, if not a great one.
But Denver will still win most of their 2019 games because of their defense.
It hurts to see many of Von Miller’s best years get wasted. He’s 30 now and in the seven full seasons he’s played, he’s compiled 10 or more sacks every time. Once again, he’ll be relied upon to anchor not only the front seven but the team itself.
The combination of him and Bradley Chubb is the best thing this team has going for it. But that’s not a bad thing considering they combined for 26.5 sacks last season.
There wasn’t much of a pass-rush otherwise but taking Dre’Mont Jones out of Ohio State in the 3rd round will hopefully change that.
The linebacking unit in the middle seems to be a little underrated. The safeties behind them should be set with free agent signing Kareem Jackson staying at safety full-time.
There was a good deal of turnover in this secondary. And the CB combo of Chris Harris Jr. and former Bear Bryce Callahan could be the best in the league.
Oakland Raiders +1400
The Raiders made a big wave in the off-season by bringing in disgruntled wideout Antonio Brown. If he can stay happy in the locker room—a big “if”—this was a steal for what they gave up for him.
Pairing Tyrell Williams with him will give QB Derek Carr the weapons he needs. There are no more excuses for him with these guys around him.
At times last year, Carr could really only trust TE Jared Cook in the passing game. He won’t have his prized TE anymore, but he will hopefully have better protection.
I said the James signing for Denver could potentially be a regretful one. But Trent Brown and his near-$37M guaranteed at RT could be worse. Overall, the line is better with him, just not for the money spent.
The key to success on the line depends on if T Kolton Miller—first-rounder 2018—can progress off a miserable rookie season.
They’ll need him to if new RB Josh Jacobs is to have the proper structure in front of him. The former Alabama back was a pick-up that had to be made by Oakland.
There’s still questions about the pass-rush and heckling for getting rid of Khalil Mack. Over-drafting for Clelin Ferrell didn’t quell those remarks. He would’ve been a solid pick in the latter half of the round and the Raiders had picks lined up there.
But he better step up in a big way early, or this team will once again have little to pressure with. Their 13 total sacks last year as a team were laughable, especially considering six players in the NFL had more.
There was very little done to increase that sack number in free agency or later in the draft. So really, it’s just Ferrell with potential here.
Between Vontaze Burfict, Tahir Whitehead, and Brandon Marshall, there is a good deal of experience at linebacker. But that doesn’t mean this unit will hold their own. Burfict, in particular, has had his play fall off in recent injury-riddled seasons. He hasn’t played more than 10 games in a season since 2013.
The secondary was where the Raiders spent most of their time this off-season. Jonathan Abram is a very shifty and intelligent add at safety. CB Trayvon Mullen is a fellow draftee who can press well and use every bit of his frame.
LaMarcus Joyner rounds out the secondary additions, a veteran on the small side, but one with great playmaking abilities.
I would say that I at least like the direction the Raiders are headed in. But it’s hard to get much worse than they were last season.
Brown and Williams are exciting receivers. But they had way bigger holes to fill that they didn’t get enough value on. There’s still a long way to go because of that.
Denver might be bogged down by Flacco. The o-line might not aid him much either. The D-line and corners are some of the best in the business, but that’s not going to be enough for them to compete for the division.
They have a well-established pass-game that’s worked well together, versatile backs, and an offensive line that can usually be trusted. Their ability to keep their offensive stars healthy may concern some folks. But has Kansas City really been able to keep their stars on the field—or roster—either, aside from Mahomes?
Rivers is one of the more consistent QBs in the game. No one is Mahomes, but I like his supporting cast almost equally to the defending MVP’s.
And though they have Clark now, I’m far more impressed with LA’s secondary than I am with the Chiefs’ pass-rush. Once again, health is the name of the game with Bosa and Ingram III on the edges for the Bolts. But if they play the vast majority of the games, this is going to be a much more well-rounded D.
The linebackers are the only weak unit this team has, and that’s only if Thomas Davis no longer defeats father time. But the secondary for the Chiefs still concerns me as much, even with Mathieu on board.
That’s why I’m giving the tie-breaking edge to Los Angeles—and not Kansas City—in 2019.