Which AFC West team is closest to catching the Kansas City Chiefs?
It may not be the easiest question to address when your favorite team has most recently finished in last place, but it is also an important reality to face head on. In The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, author Nathaniel Branden gives a whole pillar to “self-acceptance,” or the act of admitting who you are so that you can begin to grow and change the things you want to make better.
Self-acceptance is important for any franchise and that’s probably also one of the main reasons we see teams often improve immensely from year-to-year. The Chargers themselves went from 5-11 in 2016 to 9-7 in 2017 to 12-4 in 2018. Then back to 5-11, unfortunately. But the competition between them and the first place Chiefs is not daunting.
The Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders both went 7-9 and have some hope — though not supreme confidence — in their quarterbacks. The Broncos have a great defense, the Raiders have a great offensive line. Denver is in Denver. Oakland is in Las Vegas. Self-acceptance.
The three teams aren’t far off from one another and in fact it was Los Angeles (-8) that had a much better point differential than the Broncos (-34) and especially the Raiders (-106), who were the third-worst team in the AFC by that measure. However, any of the three teams could be in the postseason next year with a good offseason and a little bit of luck. Let’s do a quick eval of all three as of early March and see where the confidence levels stand for next season.
The Denver Broncos
Point Differential: -34
DVOA: 22nd overall, 26th on offense, 13th on defense, 24th on special teams
Quarterback: Drew Lock
Cap Space: $70 million
Draft: Picks 15, 46, 75, 81, and 93 on the first two days
The Broncos are set to lose cornerback Chris Harris but they’ve already replaced him by trading for A.J. Bouye on Tuesday. If they release Joe Flacco, Denver is essentially swapping out his savings for the base salary of Bouye, so they’d still even be at $70 million in space. John Elway has been aggressive in free agency before and at this point we can’t rule out him going for a quarterback like he did with Peyton Manning in 2012. That certainly would change perception a lot, depending on the QB, but I think Lock is an interesting prospect to watch for next season.
Their other big free agents are defensive lineman Derek Wolfe, safety Justin Simmons, and center Connor McGovern. They also have d-linemen Adam Gotsis and Shelby Harris hitting the market, but recent draft picks Dre’Mont Jones and DeMarcus Walker are looking to fill the void. With their cap space, Denver should be able to re-sign the players they like so long as the feeling is mutual. They can also play around and add a receiver next to Courtland Sutton — something they could do with pick 15 or pick 46. The Broncos also have three third rounders.
The defense may look a bit different but they’re also looking to bring back Bradley Chubb, the fifth overall pick in 2018 who had a fantastic rookie campaign.
Denver looks to be in a really good position for a 7-9 team and a lot will depend on the balance of the quality of the defense and the quality of the starting quarterback, whoever that ends up being.
The Las Vegas Raiders
Point Differential: -106
DVOA: 24th overall, 9th on offense, 31st on defense, 25th on special teams
Quarterback: Derek Carr?
Cap Space: $50.3 million
Draft: Picks 12, 19, 78, 79, and 89 on the first two days
There are similarities and differences between these two AFC West rivals. The Raiders can at least be more confident that they know who Carr is and he’s coming off of a career season, but is Carr good enough? The answer is clear that with one of the NFL’s worst defenses, he’s not. If Mike Mayock can make the proper moves to get Vegas into the position of at least having a league-average defense, maybe he is.
What the Raiders have to work with is a good amount of cap space, no concerns on the offensive line, and a clear focus on their pass defense. Fourth round pick Maxx Crosby looked to be the top rookie of last year who was drafted on day three (10 sacks, 16 TFL), if not one of the best overall. That was a nice consolation prize for a slow start by fourth overall pick Clelin Ferrell, who they still have plenty of hope for next season.
The same goes for fellow first rounder Johnathan Abram at safety (missed virtually the whole year) and second round corner Trayvon Mullen. Vegas has plenty of hope on defense, but no stars yet, and that’s where 2020 will reveal everything we need to know: are any of these prospects going to elevate the whole unit to at least not be a Ferris Bueller’s Day Off situation for opposing offenses?
Like Denver, there are going to be rumors about a change at QB. Really, the Raiders are seeing way more of those despite the fact that both Mayock and Jon Gruden have insisted that they like Carr and are building the team around him for next season. I expect that to be true, but I have been wrong before.
Look for Vegas to get Carr at least two more weapons at receiver through free agency and the draft, but most of their efforts are going to be on improving the defense. A solid outcome from those signings and picks could definitely get the Raiders into the playoffs for the first time since 2016, and Gruden for the first time since 2007.
The Los Angeles Chargers
Point Differential: -8
DVOA: 21st overall, 12th on offense, 21st on defense, 32nd on special teams
Quarterback: Tyrod Taylor???
Cap Space: $49 million
Draft: Picks 6, 37, and 69 on the first two days
Three AFC West teams, three uncertain situations at quarterback. It can’t be a mystery why the Chiefs have managed to stay on top the last two years — with four straight first place finishes and seven in a row in the top two.
Of course, Philip Rivers had the Chargers in contention plenty of times during his AFC West tenure but now the franchise must find the next “franchise.” That isn’t Taylor, but it could be for one season.
In spite of the fact that LA was better than both Denver and Oakland in DVOA and point differential, they were two games worse in the win-loss column and are probably going to be projected to be in last place in 2020 by many prognosticators. That really doesn’t mean a damn thing though. What’s in the Chargers favor?
They have two receivers better than any receivers in Vegas and there’s only that one guy in Denver who compares to them. They have a running back who moved the chains plenty of times, even if unconventionally. They can franchise tag their franchise tight end. Maybe Tom Telesco does focus on a QB and they don’t have to limit their offensive options as much as they would with Taylor. Maybe they don’t. But an improved offensive line — possible only with renewed health — could keep them as an above-average offense.
I think there’s also so much room for growth on defense because they do have Joey Bosa, Casey Hayward, and Derwin James. They’re not giving up on Jerry Tillery either and they too have cap space to focus on improving at least one or two positions on that side of the ball. I expect an upgrade at defensive tackle to be relatively simple and they could potentially add someone like Isaiah Simmons with the sixth overall pick if they wanted to plug a potential superstar into their linebacker unit in the draft.
I think the Chargers are the hardest team of the three to judge right now because they are the team most likely to make a change at quarterback — and if they don’t, they could have the worst starting QB in the division* — but they were also arguably the best team of the three last season and maybe only a few plays away from having a much different record.
There’s also their consistent poor showing on special teams, an area that could impact them greatly if they managed to improve on that third side of the ball.
*No offense to Taylor, really. We know that Lock is unproven, Carr has maybe hit his ceiling, but Taylor’s fairly proven to be a bottom-tier starter.
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