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AFC West guide: Expectations, predictions on Chiefs, Chargers, Broncos, Raiders

By Geoff Schwartz 
FOX Sports NFL Analyst

The best division in football is the AFC West, where three of the teams could end up in the AFC playoffs. Let’s dive into my predictions for this stacked division. 

Kansas City Chiefs

Guess what, everyone: The Chiefs are going to be excellent again this season. I understand they do not have Tyreek Hill anymore, but their roster is the deepest it has been in years, and they still have a Hall of Fame head coach and play-caller in Andy Reid. 

Patrick Mahomes had a “down” season in 2021, when the Chiefs’ offense finished third in efficiency. They return all five starting offensive linemen, a top-five unit in the league last season. Tight end Travis Kelce, with his five straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons, will be the favorite target of Mahomes once again. The Chiefs are replacing Hill with a committee of receivers, including JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and rookie Skyy Moore

The Chiefs’ defense was overhauled over the past few seasons, with adjustments to the roster via free agency and most importantly, in the draft. Their defensive line, featuring All-Pro Chris JonesFrank Clark, Carlos Dunlap and first-round draft pick George Karlaftis, is much improved from last season. The biggest improvement I saw in just the small sample size of the preseason was the speed and tackling of the defense — Willie GayNick BoltonJustin Reid and more. The defense is just much faster, quicker and tougher than in previous seasons.

Strength: Andy Reid. Pretty simple. Andy Reid is a winner. His teams have won double-digit games in 17 seasons, including eight of his nine seasons in Kansas City. This Chiefs team has played in four straight AFC Championship Games. In every single game, the Chiefs have the advantage of Big Red guiding them. 

Breakout Player: There are plenty of options to choose from here, with all the new pieces the Chiefs have on offense and defense. But I choose the player the Chiefs need to produce in a manner they signed him for. Clark has started 29 games over the past two seasons with just 11 sacks and a total of 89 pressures (hits and hurries), according to Pro Football Focus. With Jones on the inside and the rookie Karlaftis helping rush passers, Clark will have opportunities.

Win-loss prediction: Yes, the Chiefs have a tough schedule. They always do. And they will once again win 12 games and the division. Prediction: 12-5.

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Los Angeles Chargers

It’s about time the Chargers put it all together, but will they? It feels like an eternal question for this organization. 

The Chargers return a loaded roster in 2022. They are led by Justin Herbert, a 6-foot-6 freak athlete with a cannon for an arm who is able to make throws most quarterbacks only wish they could complete. He’s calm under pressure, routinely being one of the best at his position when facing defenders barreling down on him. The Chargers have two All-Pro offensive linemen and multiple premium skill-position weapons. 

On defense, they added Khalil Mack to their pass rush, pairing him with Joey Bosa. Their run defense, the worst in the NFL last season, was bolstered via free agency. The Chargers get a healthy Derwin James in the secondary and added J.C Jackson in free agency. They have a young progressive coach who is willing to take risks. I’d much rather have Brandon Staley pushing the limits than a coach who doesn’t believe in his players. 

Strength: Herbert’s ability to make things right, overcoming pass-protection issues, his run defense and anything else that goes haywire on his team. It’s special and has been on display his first two seasons. That sort of skillset can reward a team with a Super Bowl if everyone else does their part. 

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Breakout player: The right side of the Chargers’ offensive line has been poor for years, and they are hoping the fix is finally here. They do not need elite players at right guard or right tackle, just serviceable ones. They drafted Zion Johnson No. 17 overall to play right guard, and he will be good in the NFL. That brings us to Trey Pipkins, named the starting right tackle last week. He has started just 10 games in his first three seasons out of Sioux Falls. The Chargers need Pipkins to be an average tackle to feel good about protecting Herbert for the majority of the season. I think he will be.

Win-loss prediction: The Chargers are a playoff team this season, but until I see them not lose to the Texans on the road by 21 in a must-win game, I will not pick them to win the division. Prediction: 11-6.

Denver Broncos

The Broncos have been a quarterback away from sustained success since Peyton Manning retired. One big trade and a bigger extension later, Denver has its new franchise quarterback. The Broncos acquired former Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson in the hopes of recharging his career after an up-and-down 2021 season in which he missed time. 

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The Broncos have good pieces around Wilson, including a much-improved offensive line, multiple receiving options and a defense that’s been building for years, although they need to play better than their 20th ranking last season. Their defense includes a healthy Bradley Chubb paired with newly acquired pass rusher Randy Gregory. Second-year corner Patrick Surtain II is becoming one of the league’s best, and the unit has other ascending players.

Strength: The Broncos hope that 33-year-old Wilson can forge a bright next chapter under new head coach Nathaniel Hackett. We know all about Wilson’s physical tools, including throwing the best deep ball in the NFL. However, his play has declined over the past couple of seasons. He finished the 2020 season ranked 15th in expected points added for quarterbacks. Last season he was ranked 19th after just under 500 pass attempts. Wilson also takes an absurd number of sacks for a mobile quarterback. He has to improve on that in Denver. 

It’s fair to question whether the offensive scheme and desire to run the ball in Seattle did not allow Wilson to “cook” in Seattle. It’s possible he was being held back in Seattle, and in Denver, he will regain his status as a top quarterback. We will find out.

Breakout player: A healthy Jerry Jeudy will be a key to the success of Wilson this season. Wilson loves to throw those deep passes like teardrops to speedy receivers who can win over the top. That is Jeudy. It’s why the Broncos drafted him 15th overall in 2020. And in this offense, one that will rely on a fair amount of play-action and move the pocket, Jeudy should have plenty of opportunities to run free in opposing secondaries. 

Win-loss prediction: I’m just not sold on a Year 1 transformation of this team. Prediction: 9-8.

Las Vegas Raiders

I have not respected Derek Carr enough throughout his career, and that ends now. The Raiders’ quarterback has elevated his game and is good enough to lead a team to the playoffs when everything is crumbling around him, like we saw last season. Now with a new coach in Josh McDaniels, another weapon added in Davante Adams to pair with Hunter Renfrow and Darren Waller, the Raiders’ offense has a chance to score a ton of points. 

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The offensive line, however, could be a problem. It’s mostly unproven or meh everywhere outside of left tackle Kolton Miller. There are concerns that Carr might not have the protection needed to hit these weapons. 

Defensively, the Raiders added Chandler Jones, pairing him with Maxx Crosby to form one of the best pass-rushing duos in the NFL. That pair will need to be elite because the rest of the defense isn’t all that inspiring. There’s hope in Vegas that the Raiders’ young secondary, mostly composed of players drafted in 2019 or later, can improve as they get older. It will be needed to defend the passing offenses in this division.

Strength: The receiving group. Adams is an elite receiver who will be tasked with making the Raiders’ offense more vertical. After Henry Ruggs was removed from the roster, the vertical passing game struggled with no one to scare off safeties. This is where Adams can help open up the aerial attack for Carr and McDaniels. 

Breakout player: Rock Ya Sin was drafted in the second round by the Colts in 2019 to be a lockdown corner. He played well his rookie season, took a step back in year two and finished last season 21st in coverage grade according to Pro Football Focus. The Raiders need Ya Sin to be their rock in the defensive backfield this season with the talent at receiver in the AFC West. Ya Sin can help shift focus and help to other members of the secondary, which should greatly improve the chances this defense can get some stops.

Win-loss prediction: Issues on the offensive line and with pass defense worry me in this division. Carr plays well, but those units cost the Raiders a playoff berth. Prediction: 8-9.

Geoff Schwartz is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. He played eight seasons in the NFL for five different teams. He started at right tackle for the University of Oregon for three seasons and was a second-team All-Pac-12 selection his senior year. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffSchwartz.

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