PFW roundtable: 5 key offseason questions, AFC West edition

Chubb top rookie? Peters biggest defection? PFW editors debate five burning AFC West questions

Last Updated:

PFW editors Bob LeGere, Eric Edholm, Greg Gabriel, Arthur Arkush and Hub Arkush answer five key offseason questions regarding the AFC West.

 

1) Who will be the biggest impact rookie?

LeGere: It’s not that the defense was the main reason the Broncos plummeted to a 5-11 record in 2017 after averaging 12 wins in the previous five seasons, but the pass rush was mediocre and the team tied for 22nd in points allowed. Edge rusher Bradley Chubb will have a positive effect in both areas, while also making sack specialist Von Miller even more devastating on the other side.

Edholm: The division added a lot of defensive talent through the draft, so it feels like this one could come down to Denver’s Bradley Chubb and the Chargers’ Derwin James. Even with so much talent around James, it’s hard to pick a safety — and the secondary is pretty deep there, too. So we’ll go with Chubb, who instantly steps in as a pass-rush bookend opposite of Von Miller and gives the Broncos the two-headed attack they needed. Miller had 10 sacks in a good, not great 2017 season, but it says here that he’s revived with the addition of Chubb, who might start gradually but by the end of the season will be a force.

Gabriel: In my opinion, Bradley Chubb was the best player in the draft and the Broncos got him at No. 5 because the teams drafting ahead went for need. Lining Chubb up opposite Von Miller will give offensive coordinators fits. Chubb has a combination of size, speed, strength and athleticism, and there really isn’t a weakness in his game.

Arthur Arkush: Though it’s tempting to choose Derwin James — perhaps the best value pick in Round 1 — I’m going with a Bronco — and not the one you think. Royce Freeman is the favorite to be the Broncos’ run-game centerpiece from Jump Street. That’d be a pleasant development for John Elway, whose draft classes have struggled to yield instant contributors, particularly on offense. But Freeman has the rounded skill set and big-play ability, not to mention potentially improved blocking, to build on the progress Denver made on the ground with now-Panthers RB C.J. Anderson.

Hub Arkush: Here's my attempt at nailing a longshot: No way Derwin James should have lasted to No. 17. Maurice Hurst is a disrupter inside, and with Khalil Mack outside, look out. And I expect Armani Watts to be a Day One starter for the Chiefs. But the biggest surprise will be Troy Fumagalli. With Fumagalli and Jake Butt in two-TE sets and teams forced to defend Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, and Case Keenum not exactly a downfield bomber, expect Butt and Fumagalli to have big years.

 

2) Best under-the-radar addition?

BL: Inserting three-time Pro Bowl C Mike Pouncey onto an already-strong offense could be just what the Chargers need to get over the hump before the window closes on 37-year-old QB Philip Rivers’ brilliant career. The 15th overall pick in 2011, Pouncey played just five games in 2016 because of a hip injury, but he started all 16 games last season.

EE: Kendall Fuller was the veteran player the Chiefs got back from Washington in the Alex Smith deal, and it was a sneaky-good addition. Fuller is not Marcus Peters — let’s make that entirely clear. But we’re talking about an ascending corner who can play nickel and has some ball skills. This is a Chiefs secondary that gets Eric Berry back but must prove to be far more reliable at coverage and tackling this season, lest it get into shootouts every week with first-year starting QB Patrick Mahomes.

GG: I don’t know if this is really under the radar, but the Chiefs needed to replace Marcus Peters, and found that person in CB Kendall Fuller, whom they acquired as part of the Alex Smith trade. He isn’t in Peters category, but Fuller still is a quality starting corner in the NFL.

AA: We’ve had some fun with the geriatric vibe of Jon Gruden’s first offseason in his second Raiders stint and maintain that getting older in free agency generally spells trouble. But Jordy Nelson’s arrival is different, and it’s as much about the steadying effect we anticipate the 33-year-old having on Derek Carr and Amari Cooper as anything. Say what you will about Nelson’s drop-off in production, particularly downfield, but he’s a pro’s pro who’ll stabilize Oakland’s two greatest assets on offense and be a refreshing replacement for unreliable Michael Crabtree.

HA: The Chargers have been quietly rebuilding an offensive line that was their biggest liability for a good part of this decade until last year, and though they were much improved last year, the addition of Mike Pouncey at center could very well advance their offensive front from good enough to the division's best. Pouncey has played his NFL career in his brother Maurkice's shadow, but Mike can be the same player, and that is really, really good.

 

3) Biggest offseason defection?

BL: The Chiefs’ defense, especially vs. the pass, was a disaster area last season, even with Marcus Peters, one of the best young corners in the game. By trading him to the Rams, the Chiefs lose one of the league’s biggest difference-makers on defense. Peters has intercepted 19 passes in his three seasons and returned those picks for a whopping 480 yards (25.3-yard average) and two touchdowns.

EE: I'm not quite sure what the impetus was for shuttling out Michael Crabtree, essentially in exchange for Jordy Nelson, but Jon Gruden must have had his reasons. Surely, Crabtree’s down 2017 season had something to do with it, and you can’t overlook Gruden’s desire for some locker-room sprucing. But aside from that, Crabtree is younger and a better red-zone target for a team that might not really have an established one. Amari Cooper caught only 3-of-9 red-zone targets last season for the Raiders; TE Jared Cook caught 1-of-7. Nelson was effective in that part of the field, but that was only with Aaron Rodgers at QB. Can Nelson and Derek Carr build something close to that chemistry on the fly? Martavis Bryant, the other major receiving addition, is a complete wild card. For all of Bryant’s physical gifts, he has 12 career red-zone catches and nine TDs (on 28 targets down there), but those have been spread out among 35 games amid suspensions and myriad career setbacks.

GG: Marcus Peters is easily one of the top five corners in the NFL. He has outstanding ball skills and is equally effective as both a man and zone player. As good as Peters is, the Chiefs could no longer live with his personality and me-first attitude. They had to move on, but it’s a loss that is tough to overcome.

AA: He still might be back, but Antonio Gates’ absence is looming particularly large following the season-ending knee injury to Hunter Henry. Sure, the Bolts — for now anyway — are choosing not to bring back the future Hall of Fame tight end, but that doesn’t mean we have to agree with it. The offense is loaded and perhaps equipped to weather Henry’s loss. Yet, in a season with Super Bowl aspirations, one that follows Philip Rivers’ best season in years, it seems odd not to give Gates the chance to be a part of it.

HA: The Chiefs decided the NFL's best cornerback, Marcus Peters, wasn't worth the aggravation he brought with his remarkable talents and traded him to the Rams. Not only is Peterson a head case who was dismissed from his college team at Washington and occasionally chose not to show up in Kansas City, he also regularly freelanced, deserting his assignments to make plays on the ball and leaving teammates hung out to try. But the reality is he's the best cover corner in the game and more often than not when he freelances he makes plays. So, though I can't fault the Chiefs for deciding they've had enough, a player of his ability has to be missed.

 

4) Heat check (hottest coaching seat)?

BL: There were many Broncos followers surprised that Vance Joseph survived his first season, which ended at 5-11, just two years after Denver won Super Bowl 50. Director of football operations John Elway will not tolerate another double-digit-loss season, and he probably won’t even have much patience for a slow start.

EE: Andy Reid and Gruden are rock solid. Anthony Lynn theoretically could face heat if the Chargers go completely in the tank, but he’s coming off an encouraging 9-7 season following an 0-4 start. Instead, the obvious choice here is Denver’s Vance Joseph. I doubt I’ll add much more wisdom than my colleagues on this matter, but the fact is that he barely survived his maiden coaching voyage in a 5-11 season that featured a franchise-worst eight straight losses. It would not be stunning to see John Elway handpick Joseph's successor if things do not improve after an offseason in which the Broncos added a starting quarterback and appeared to beef up through the draft.

GG: Vance Joseph was a rookie head coach in Denver last year, and the results were less than expected. He was almost let go at the end of the season, but GM John Elway was talked out of that by advisor Gary Kubiak. With Denver having a strong offseason, Joseph has to win this year or his time as a head coach will be short-lived.

AA: It’s not Hue Jackson heat, but his former Bengals colleague, Vance Joseph, is in win-now mode after being granted a last-second reprieve on the heels of a 5-11 Denver debut. John Elway thinks his two biggest issues — quarterback and O-line play — are fixed and secured what looks like one of the league’s better draft hauls. Joseph’s specialty is the secondary, where the No Fly Zone is suddenly vulnerable, and the onus is now on him to do more with less, while the offense’s resources grew.

HA: This is too easy. John Gruden could go 0-16 and get shut out in every game and still be safe with his 10-year, $100 million contract, and Andy Reid is the most respected, successful coach in the game not named Belichick. Because Anthony Lynn is expected to win the division, I suppose less could be a problem, but barring an embarrassing collapse he'll get another year. On the other hand, Vance Joseph was thought by many to be one and done last year and is clearly the AFC West coach most in need of some butt coolant.

 

5) Predicted order of finish?

BL: 1. Chargers 2. Chiefs 3. Broncos 4. Raiders

The Chargers are the only team in the division that can boast of continuity, and if they shore up last year’s horrid run defense, they’re solid across the board. The Chiefs cast their lot with 2017 first-round QB Patrick Mahomes, who is gifted, but there are sure to be growing pains. The Broncos appear to have solidified a brutal QB situation with Case Keenum replacing a cast of misfits. With the security of a 10-year contract, Raiders boss Jon Gruden knows he has time to build sustainable success without the pressure of winning now.

EE: 1. Chargers 2. Chiefs 3. Raiders 4. Broncos

We’ll take the cheese here. The Chargers long have been known as offseason darlings and regular-season duds, but even with the Hunter Henry injury, we like this defense a ton and the offense enough, barring their seemingly annual medical epidemic. Mahomes will make the Chiefs’ offense even more dynamic, but can the defense hold firm? We have some doubts. And we honestly debated flip-flopping the last two teams. Gruden’s arrival is no cureall, and the Broncos figure to be a tad sturdier this season than last.

GG: 1. Chiefs 2. Raiders 3. Chargers 4. Broncos

Picking the order of finish in the AFC West is a difficult task. Every team looks to have improved on paper. Jon Gruden, after years in the broadcast booth, is back coaching and has total control of the Oakland Raiders. He will make that team better prepared. Basically every team in the division is just about equal, so who wins won’t be known until late in the season. My guess in early June is the Chiefs.

AA: 1. Chargers 2. Chiefs 3. Raiders 4. Broncos

The Chargers have to make their own luck eventually, and with one of the league’s more explosive rosters and some nice momentum from last year’s impressive finish, the time is finally here. Kansas City is going to give up a lot of points, but Patrick Mahomes just might be talented enough to cover for a ‘D’ that’s rebuilding on the fly. We’ll believe that Jon Gruden didn’t lose his fastball when we see it, and that would start in the form of reviving Derek Carr. I like Denver’s roster but still have real doubts about Case Keenum.

HA: 1. Chargers 2. Chiefs 3. Raiders 4. Broncos

The Chargers are loaded, and how much they get from Lynn could be their only concern. I think the move from Alex Smith to Pat Mahomes in Kansas City came way too soon and the Chiefs miss the playoffs. The fact is that after winning a Super Bowl with Tony Dungy's team in Tampa, Jon Gruden became quite mediocre and got fired. So, we'll see how his second Oakland stint goes. Denver had an incredible draft on paper, but Case Keenum has to prove last year was the real deal.

Pro Football Weekly