Arguments can be made for other corners of the league, but the AFC West is home to arguably the bitterest collection of rivals in the NFL. However, the 2017 season was largely a disappointment for teams in the division.
The Kansas City Chiefs started hot and looked like Super Bowl contenders in the first few weeks, but a midseason swoon and early home playoff loss left a sour taste in fans’ mouths. The Raiders, fresh off the first winning season and playoff appearance for the franchise since 2002, came back to earth by posting double-digit losses for the 10th time over that same period. Oakland then chose to go back to the future by hiring Jon Gruden, who hasn’t coached since 2008, hoping the Super Bowl winner can bring stability the franchise has lacked over the past few decades.
The Chargers also looked to the past as the franchise began a new era, moving back to Los Angeles where it all began in 1960. Anthony Lynn helped orchestrate a turnaround to 9-7, but couldn’t overcome early struggles to sneak into the playoffs. The Broncos also disappointed, snapping a string of five straight winning seasons. Denver failed to score 300 points in a season for the first time since 1992.
However, each new offseason brings renewed optimism, and there’s no better place to point that optimism than the draft. Both Denver and Oakland possess top-10 picks capable of making an immediate, even franchise-altering, impact, while the Chargers should have plenty of options at No. 17. Kansas City, which will sit out the first round after last year’s trade with the Bills for the right to draft Patrick Mahomes II, can be patient knowing its roster is closest to Super Bowl contention. All four rivals have been active in the offseason, though each has needs ahead of the 2018 NFL Draft.
Denver Broncos (5-11, 4th in AFC West)
2017 snapshot: It’s almost hard to believe the Broncos won the Super Bowl just three years ago. Last year, under first-year head coach Vance Joseph, the Broncos suffered their first losing season since 2010. Joseph survived the 5-11 campaign, though Denver suffered a disastrous stretch of 10 losses in 12 games, including an ugly eight-game losing streak through the heart of the schedule. The Denver offense, which ranked 27th in the NFL in scoring (18.1 ppg, averaged even fewer points (13.8) during the losing streak. The Broncos lost 34 turnovers last season — second most behind only the winless Browns. Denver also allowed an 8.4 percent sack rate that ranked fourth worst in the league.
Biggest needs: The Broncos were solid defensively, ranking third in total defense (290 ypg), fourth in pass defense (200.6) and fifth in rush defense (89.4). Nevertheless, the Broncos could use more big plays, making an elite pass rusher or playmaking cornerback an option, and linebacker depth is a concern. However, the biggest need for the Broncos is rejuvenating its offense, and the biggest area of concern is the offensive line — a unit that allowed 52 sacks last season, which tied for third most in the NFL. Denver could use more playmakers in the receiving corps, and despite signing Case Keenum, the long-term outlook at quarterback is a question mark.
First-round pick: No. 5 overall
Potential picks: There are many directions in which the Broncos could go. First of all, Denver appears to be a natural fit as a trade partner for the Buffalo Bills, who could be tempted to trade up in an effort to land one of the top quarterbacks on the board. Of course, if the Broncos stay at No. 5, they could be tempted to take a QB as well, and John Elway has mentioned that possibility — with Baker Mayfield reportedly his favorite. Depending on how the top four selections go, Denver also could have a shot at one of the top overall players available, including defensive end Bradley Chubb, guard Quenton Nelson or cornerback Denzel Ward. Should the Broncos trade down, they would likely target an offensive lineman or defensive back.
Kansas City Chiefs (10-6, 1st in AFC West, lost to Tennessee in wild-card round)
2017 snapshot: The Chiefs were one of the streakiest squads in the NFL a year ago. KC jumped out to a great start with a 42-27 season-opening victory over the Patriots that stretched to a 5-0 record. However, things took a turn in mid-October, and the Chiefs lost six of seven before finishing the regular season with four straight wins. Kansas City’s strong finish didn’t carry over into the playoffs, and the Chiefs fell 22-21 at home to the underdog Titans.
Biggest needs: In a word: defense. Kansas City ranked No. 6 in scoring offense (25.9 ppg), but just 15th in scoring defense (21.2 ppg), and was much worse from a yardage standpoint. The Chiefs ranked 28th in total defense (365.1 ypg), which included a bottom 10 finish in both pass defense (247 ypg, 28th) and rush defense (118.1 ypg, 25th). Basically, the Chiefs could use at upgrade at every level of the defense, though the secondary is the primary need after the team signed linebacker Anthony Hitchens to a $45 million free agent contract. KC made a shrewd trade for great young corner Kendall Fuller, but later dealt Marcus Peters. Defensive line and depth at linebacker are other areas to address. Offensively, tight end is the biggest need.
First-round pick: None; First pick No. 54 overall
Potential picks: Because Kansas City traded its 2018 first-round draft pick, the Chiefs must wait until No. 54 overall this year. Fortunately, it’s still possible to find impact defenders in the second round. If a fringe-first-round edge rusher like Lorenzo Carter (Georgia), Sam Hubbard (Ohio State) or Arden Key (LSU) is available, KC could pounce. A safety, such as Alabama’s Ronnie Harrison, Jessie Bates from Wake Forest or DeShon Elliott from Texas, also could be an option, and we can’t rule out a great all-around athlete like UCF linebacker Shaquem Griffin — one of the fastest players ever at his position in Scouting Combine testing.
Los Angeles Chargers (9-7, 2nd in AFC West)
2017 snapshot: After back-to-back losing seasons, the Chargers finally got back on the right side of .500 in 2017. But the franchise missed the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year in large part because of the 0-4 hole the team dug itself at the start of the season, which included three games decided by three points or less. However, Los Angeles entered with the momentum of nine wins in its final 12 games, and the Chargers boasted one of the top overall defenses in the league, ranking third in both scoring defense (17.0 ppg) and pass defense (197.3 ypg).
Biggest needs: As good as the Chargers were keeping opponents off the scoreboard and keeping opposing quarterbacks in check, the team was susceptible to the run. Los Angeles ranked 31st in run defense (131.1 ypg), which points to the need to improve its defensive line, though linebacker and safety are other areas of some concern. It’s not a specific need yet, but the Chargers also are likely to be in the market to find a successor to Philip Rivers, and the signing of Geno Smith doesn’t really change that. Los Angeles has also made some changes along the offensive line, and adding depth up front would be smart.
First-round pick: No. 17 overall
Potential picks: Depending on how the first half of the first round shakes out, the Chargers could have several solid options. If the team gets lucky and a player like massive, athletic Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea slips (unlikely, but fans can hope), Los Angeles would be ecstatic. If the Chargers have to settle for second best on the interior defensive line, Alabama’s Da’Ron Payne would be a nice consolation prize and Stanford’s Harrison Phillips is potentially underrated having garnered little to no first round buzz. No. 17 might be too early to select one of the second-tier quarterbacks, though Los Angeles has been linked to Lamar Jackson and would be able to groom the 2016 Heisman winner before throwing him into the NFL fire.
Lots of good options should be available at linebacker, including tackling machine Leighton Vander Esch (Boise State) and productive Rashaan Evans (Alabama), as well as offensive linemen, such as Notre Dame tackle Mike McGlinchey or UCLA’s Kolton Miller. The Chargers might be tempted to select the best player available regardless of need, in which Iowa corner Joshua Jackson or UTSA edge rusher Marcus Davenport could be the pick. Trading down wouldn’t be a shock, either.
Oakland Raiders (6-10, 3rd in AFC West)
2017 snapshot: Coming off a very enjoyable 12-4 season in 2016, the Raiders entered 2017 uncomfortably optimistic. Fans grew even more excited after a 2-0 start, but the good feelings didn’t last much longer. Oakland’s offense disappeared as the Raiders scored more than 24 points just once in the final 14 games of the season while opponents topped 30 points five times. Two separate four-game losing streaks, including the final four games of the season, spelled the end of the Jack Del Rio era.
Biggest needs: New/old head coach Jon Gruden has been out of coaching for a decade, but he wasted no time remaking the Raiders roster along with general manager Reggie McKenzie. However, there is concern that Gruden has focused too heavily on aging veterans. Oakland has primarily added offensive skill positions and defensive backs through free agency, leaving linebacker, defensive line and offensive line as the most likely positions the team will target early in the draft.
First-round pick: No. 10 overall
Potential picks: Oakland is likely to have plenty of talent to choose from at No. 10 overall, especially since the team has its franchise quarterback in Derek Carr. As other teams jockey for position to take a QB early, the Raiders can wait for a defensive difference-maker to fall into their laps. Arguably the top two linebackers in the draft, Tremaine Edmunds from Virginia Tech and Georgia’s Roquan Smith, could be available. Versatile playmaker Minkah Fitzpatrick also may still be on the board. Edmunds has the physical tools NFL talent evaluators would choose for a linebacker if building one in a lab, and Smith has the speed, production and football IQ coaches covet despite being smaller than the prototypical linebacker. Fitzpatrick compares similarly to Smith, but at safety. The only other option appears to be the uniquely talented Vita Vea, though it would be difficult to pass up Edmunds or Smith if either is available.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.