The AFC West has been the Chiefs' kingdom for the past seven seasons.
Despite the West housing three of the game's premier quarterbacks, this has been Kansas City's division to lose ever since Patrick Mahomes took the reins back in 2018.
Last season, many anticipated that the Denver Broncos, with Russell Wilson's arrival, and the Los Angeles Chargers, with Justin Herbert continuing to become one of the NFL's elite signal-callers, would rise up and challenge the Chiefs. That didn't happen.
However, this might be the year the AFC West lives up to its lofty expectations as one of the sport's most competitive divisions. Denver is making a concerted effort to buttress the offensive line in front of Wilson, and Sean Payton has arrived as head coach in the Mile High City. Plus, the Chargers have imported new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore to shepherd the next stage of Herbert's development.
What League Insiders Are Saying:
"From my perspective, it's still Kansas City and everyone else. Justin Herbert and the Chargers could be one of those breakout teams to watch across the league, but every game is a 'road' game for them. The Broncos are a coin flip, but they should be better this year. The Raiders are in transition, and it doesn't seem like they have much chemistry out there." — AFC personnel director
Offseason Addition That Will Shape the Race: Quentin Johnston Jr., wide receiver, Los Angeles Chargers
Much of the optimism surrounding Herbert in 2023 is the impact that new offensive coordinator Moore will have on the 25-year-old rising star. However, the Chargers needed to add weapons around Herbert to maximize his lofty potential, and Quentin Johnston Jr.'s arrival has the chance to be a significant step in that direction. Johnston's 4.49 speed should give the Chargers the opportunity to push the ball vertically while taking the top off of opposing defenses, as well as create chances for Los Angeles' playmakers to operate in the shorter and intermediate routes. As a junior at TCU in 2022, Johnston caught 60 passes for 1,069 yards with six touchdowns, and he has the potential to be a difference-maker for the Chargers' offense.
AFC West Projected Standings
1. Kansas City Chiefs (13-4)
So long as coach Andy Reid and Mahomes are together, the Kansas City Chiefs will be the team to beat in the AFC. The Chiefs proved that last season when, after some initial early-season growing pains, the offense wound up being just as prolific without Tyreek Hill as it was with the speedy wide receiver in years past. Wide receiver Kadarius Toney, if he can stay healthy, has the potential to be the latest Brett Veach reclamation project and become a major contributor on a roster loaded with talent. Kansas City got younger in the front seven, which should be a net positive long-term as the defense builds toward being a worthy complement to one of the most electrifying offenses in the sport.
2. Los Angeles Chargers (11-6)
Herbert is always going to have the Chargers in position to compete. But whether it does so will come down to the talent around him on offense — and whether a suddenly star-studded defense can make strides to decide just how high the Chargers' ceiling is in 2023. A year of continuity for the likes of Khalil Mack, Morgan Fox and Sebastian Joseph-Day should allow the Chargers to play faster up front, just as Asante Samuel Jr. continues to ascend into becoming one of the game's stingiest cornerbacks. If the defense improves from last year's lackluster performance, the Chargers absolutely have the firepower to make a postseason run.
3. Denver Broncos (9-8)
The Broncos are one year removed from having one of the most dysfunctional and colossally disappointing seasons in recent memory — from Wilson underperforming to a defense that had talent on the perimeter but failed to forge any sort of identity. Enter Payton as the new head coach. Already with a Super Bowl ring on his finger, Payton is a culture-driver that the Broncos desperately need in order to climb the hierarchy in the NFC West crucible. Mike McGlinchey and Ben Powers' arrivals up front should solidify the line in front of Wilson, just as linebacker Alex Singleton and safety Kareem Jackson add a veteran punch to an ascending defense. Talent wasn't the issue for the Broncos in 2022, and it won't be this season. If Wilson can return to form, this is a sneaky postseason candidate.
4. Las Vegas Raiders (6-11)
Las Vegas simply couldn't get out of its own way last season. In addition to losing four games they led by at least a touchdown at halftime, jettisoning quarterback Derek Carr late in the season caused strife among veterans in the locker room such as star receiver Davante Adams. Head coach Josh McDaniels was seemingly on the hot seat for much of last season, and it wouldn't be surprising in the least to see him let go if owner Mark Davis has the working capital to move on in-season and the Raiders are struggling again. Jimmy Garoppolo provides some consistent postseason experience, and Adams is the type of player who can score whenever he has the ball in his hands. But this is the definition of a roster that is a work in progress.
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