After spending months evaluating college prospects and talking about what each team did in the draft and their overall roster, it’s time to discuss their potential in the upcoming season. We will look at all eight teams who finished last inside their division in 2021, and rank them based on the likelihood of ascending to the top of those groups.
This exercise was a lot of fun, because it's enjoyable creating excitement for one franchise. It’s also good to think, to poke holes in rosters/coaching staff and lay out a path for why they may underachieve.
People spend so much time hyping up the top teams that they neglect those closer to the bottom of the league. Particularly in terms of the positives they have going for them.
Now let’s talk about the Denver Broncos and the AFC West:
Evaluating the AFC West
No other division has engaged in an arms race this offseason like what we’ve seen from the AFC West. Going through this exercise, at least 20 of the top-100 players in the entire league currently reside in the AFC West. Still, we could easily see the Broncos win the West. It would prove a lot of people right, those who said for a long time that they were a competent quarterback away from glory.
#1- The Kansas City Chiefs
You could argue that the gap between the Kansas City Chiefs, who have won the division in each of the last six years, and the rest of the West has shrunk. They are still betting favorites and have earned the cachet to own that status. They still have Patrick Mahomes, the same excellent coaching staff and arguably just had one of the best drafts of any team in the league.
However, there are areas of the team that are unproven at this point. The big difference we’ll see in 2022 is not having Tyreek Hill. Hill probably scares the defense on every single snap more than any other player. The new trio of receivers they brought in are very good, but unless Marquez Valdes-Scantling becomes a consistent play-maker, they lack that vertical element to their offense. This will change the math for this offense, in terms of the available space because of how opponents have to play them.
Mahomes threw a career-high 13 picks last season. This was due to needing to develop the maturity to patiently take underneath routes, as they faced so many two-high shells. Now, as those safeties creep up a little more and there are smaller voids to attack, the newly found efficiency on offense will be challenged once again.
Switching over to defense, Kansas City did make a remarkable shift over the second half of last season, but they probably won’t force 21 turnovers over the final ten weeks again. Only the Steelers allowed a higher yards per rush (4.8) and the Chiefs were dead-last in yards surrendered per drive defensively. This meant that teams were able to move the ball on them and win field-position more easily than on any other unit.
#2- Las Vegas Raiders
Next has to be the Las Vegas Raiders, since they beat the Los Angeles Chargers in overtime in their final regular-season matchup. Interim head coach Rich Bisaccia was able to steer the ship despite multiple off-field issues.
Still, this group was far from perfect on the field and largely overperformed. They ended the regular season with a negative points differential of -65. They were also 26th in red-zone offense (51.7%) and dead-last in red-zone defense (81.4%), with 6.9 expected wins according to PFR.
They got blown off the field twice by Kansas City and the second matchup against the Broncos was decided by only four points despite a +3 in turnover differential. Just winning inside their own division will be tough for them. Las Vegas did make two big moves for wide receiver Davante Adams and edge rusher Chandler Jones. But even if you look at some of the guys they got in the draft, they only have two proven pieces on the offensive line.
You have to question if new head coach Josh McDaniels will allow Derek Carr to take command of the offense quite like he did over this most recent stretch. Especially having brought along his fullback from New England and the offense having far fewer pre-snap checks built in.
Defensively, they were average or worse across the board last season and while we like Patrick Graham’s defensive principles, it may limit their edge guys to just attack upfield. Plus, they’re losing one of the top special teams coordinators.
#3- The Los Angeles Chargers
Finally, the Chargers. Los Angeles may be the team with the highest ceiling since quarterback Justin Herbert can challenge the talent level of Patrick Mahomes. They bring back almost all prior pieces and a couple of additions on offense, while making major investments into the defense.
However, with OC Mike Lombardi’s philosophy that heavily revolves around the quick game, we saw their offense sputter at times against well-coached opponents. This was because their star quarterback wasn’t allowed to maximize his ability to attack vertically. They laid a couple of stinkers in Baltimore, Denver and versus the Houston Texans. Herbert had to be Superman a lot of times to carry them to victories late.
Defensively, they have a long way to go, as the 29th overall scoring unit and 32nd-ranked third-down group. Often their pre-snap looks got them killed because they left gaps uncovered, and they did add beef to neutralize those issues. The coaching staff under Brandon Staley will have to self-scout in that area as well, plus the second level is still a major question mark with unproven commodities.
You can defend a lot of the fourth-down decisions they make, even though there is room for optimization, but they had some serious errors on special teams (28th in DVOA) and overall game situations.
Can the Denver Broncos win the AFC West in 2022?
Let’s talk about why the Broncos can be the franchise to win the West. First, they finished last season at 7-10. But their expected win total was at 8.9. This was despite having the fifth-most adjusted games lost to injury (118.1).
The Broncos 2020 leaders in receiving yards (Jerry Jeudy), sacks (Bradley Chubb) and tackles (Alexander Johnson) all played between 25 and 38 percent of snaps. Yet, their defense still somehow finished third in points allowed (18.9 per game). The Broncos have added underrated players from San Francisco, in nose-tackle D.J. Jones and slot corner K’Waun Williams. Along with one of the most productive per-rush pass-rushers from last season in Randy Gregory.
The Broncos landed the player with the highest pass-rush win rate in college over the prior two years in Oklahoma’s Nik Bonitto. While Ejiro Evero will have to prove he can recreate what they had there under the wise duo of Vic Fangio and Ed Donatell, he comes from the same background of defensive philosophies.
The Broncos certainly upgraded their offensive coaching staff. Nathaniel Hackett is one of the most well-versed minds in terms of schematic knowledge when you look at his background. He seems incredibly excited to work with Russell Wilson, who presents the biggest upgrade at the most important position for any other team in the league.
Wilson is somebody who can finally take advantage of the talent the Broncos have accumulated in their receiving corp. They also have a rushing attack that averaged 4.5 yards last season and took over a few games despite being so one-sided and not even fully cutting loose Javonte Williams as a rookie. Williams should have a huge encore season. It would be a shock if the Broncos went 1-and-5 inside the AFC West again, and just by that, they can improve rapidly.
Chance of winning the division: 25-30%