2018 AFC West Preview

Welcome to the 2018 AFC West preview edition of our 2018 NFL previews series.  If you haven’t had a chance to read the earlier installments, be sure to catch up on all the action.  As always, we are going to make predictions on every team’s Vegas win total, take an in depth look at all the rosters, and make some divisional predictions as well.  The order in which the teams appear is the order we are projecting the final standings in the division to be.  Onto the 2018 AFC West Preview.

Los Angeles Chargers – O/U 9.5 – Over

This is my favorite over that I have done so far.  I know the Chargers are incredibly talented at finding ways to lose, and still haven’t solved their kicking woes, but Los Angeles is the second best team in the AFC and it isn’t particularly close.  In fact, they have a legitimate argument as the best team in the Conference.

Similar to the Ravens, the Chargers had the 9th best point differential last season, yet missed the playoffs.  The aforementioned kicking woes lead to a 3-4 record in close games last year.  Having finished 9-7, had Los Angeles just gone 4-3 in close games (which requires a single made field goal), they would have been in the playoffs where they belonged.

That 9-7 record was a 1.5 win underachievement from their 10.5 pythagorean win expectation.  Los Angeles was also one of the most consistent teams last season, as their 8.8% variance, which measures the statistical variance of the team’s weekly DVOA performance, ranked 6th in the NFL.  Suffice it to say, Los Angeles got unlucky last season.  Better yet for Charger fans, the 2018 team should be an improvement.

Philip Rivers is criminally under appreciated and underrated.  I’ve done this before, and so have others, but let’s play a little game.  Here are the career stats for three quarterbacks:

Completion% 59.8 64.2 64.1
Yards/Game 239.3 256.9 255.3
TD% 4.6 5.3 5.1
INT% 3.1 2.6 2.7
Passer Rating 83.5 94.8 94.0
Average QBR * 57.4 62.7 64.7
ANY/A 5.90 6.90 6.70
Approx Value 150 177 171
*Average QBR on Record: QBR data only dates back to 2006 and neither ESPN nor Pro Football Reference provide a career QBR so I just took each players’ single season QBR, added them up, and divided it by the number of seasons spanning from 2006-2017.

Considering we’re talking about Philip Rivers and I just made a three quarterback comparison, there is a decent chance you guessed that Rivers, Eli Manning, and Ben Roethlisberger are represented in the above chart.  Well, you would be correct.  The game is which QB is which QB?

Manning is QB A, Rivers is QB B, and Ben is QB C.  I just did the order in which they were drafted.  As you can see, despite lagging behind both Manning and Roethlisberger in Super Bowl rings, Rivers has clearly been the better quarterback throughout his career, and reasonable people can disagree who has been better between Rivers and Roethlisberger.  But for whatever reason Roethlisberger is viewed as a tier 1 type quarterback among coaches, scouts, and executives, while Rivers is viewed as a tier 2 type guy.

Rivers also has no shortage of weapons at his disposal.  Keenan Allen is an absolute stud – he finished 3rd in DYAR last season – who is wrongly labeled as injury prone.  In 2015 Allen has halfway through a monster season when he suffered a lacerated kidney and missed the final 8 games.  This is the definition of a freak injury where you shouldn’t be concerned of it happening again.  He then missed 15 games in 2016 due to a torn ACL, but he showed last year he has no lingering affects.  A torn ACL is another freak thing.  Allen has never dealt with nagging injuries, especially of the soft tissue variety.

Similar to his other wide receiver friends that were drafting in the top 10 of the 2017 draft, Mike Williams’ rookie season was essentially a wash due to injuries.  He is receiving plenty of preseason hype, however, and it is telling that the team never went out and replaced Hunter Henry.  They see this guy every day in practice and he figures to be a big time red zone threat in 2018.  Travis Benjamin and Tyrell Williams is not such a bad 3rd and 4th wide receiver situation.

Melvin Gordon has never rated well according to advanced metrics, but he just keeps being productive.  He has now posted back to back seasons with at least 1,400 total yards, 12 total TDs, and a 10 AV.

Bolstering all of this is the best offensive line Los Angeles has put out on the field in years.  According to ProFootballFocus the Chargers have the 23rd ranked offensive line headed into 2018.  This obviously isn’t a very high ranking, but when you consider the Chargers trotted out one of the worst lines in all of football for years, going from the bottom of the barrel to kind of below average is a big deal.  Furthermore, there should be an ability for the line to end better than 23rd as Dan Feeney should improve in year two and getting Forrest Lamp back healthy will also help significantly.

On defense this team is loaded.  They enter the season with the 3rd best pass rush in the NFL.  Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are the best pass rushing duo in football and it isn’t even close.  Rookie Uchenna Nwosu gives the team a third viable edge rusher.  Corey Liuget provides decent pressure from the interior.

This secondary is also incredible, as it is ranked 2nd in the league according to PFF.  The ranking was produced before Jason Verrett suffered another season ending injury, but the talent remains.  Casey Hayward was the highest graded corner by PFF last season.  Desmond King was a contender for rookie of the year.  Derwin James will be a contender for rookie of the year this season and the fact he fell to the 17th pick is an absolute joke.  James kept getting Kam Chancellor comparisons in the pre-draft process and now his defensive coordinator is Gus Bradley.

Elite quarterback, plenty of weapons, elite pass rush, elite secondary, and the second easiest schedule in football.  What am I missing?  Pound this over.

Denver Broncos – O/U 7 – Over

I felt more confident in this before I heard the news that Devontae Booker, not Royce Freeman, will be the Broncos’ starting running back for week 1.  I don’t understand what the coaching staff is watching to make them think Booker is better than Freeman.  This gives me such concern about the coaching staff that I’m uneasy picking them to win over 7 games and come in second in a division.  But looking at the roster and then factoring in Denver has the 4th easiest schedule  made me choose the Broncos for this spot.

Whether you think Case Keenum is a one hit wonder or not is almost irrelevant as he is such a massive upgrade over whoever was playing quarterback for Denver in 2017.  Keenum is probably closer to the guy we saw last year than the roster fodder we thought he was while on the Rams.  Between him, Jared Goff, and Nick Foles, we have just seen too many Jeff Fisher quarterbacks thrive without Jeff Fisher to think anything other than the problem was Jeff Fisher.

The three wide sets of Demaryuis Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, and Courtland Sutton are exciting.  Sanders may have had a down year last season, but he was injured.  It’s fair to wonder if he will just continue to decline at his age, but he still was running crisp routes and didn’t look noticeably slower.

Denver’s offensive line isn’t even bad anymore.  The unit ranks 19th headed into 2018.  The left tackle, left guard, and center position appear to all have decent starters, while Veldheer is two years removed from his last good season, but perhaps he can regain his prior level of performance.

The strength of this team will be its defense, a unit that may end up better than last year’s 10th best DVOA mark.  The team added Bradley Chubb in the draft to rush the quarterback opposite Von Miller.  As a result, Denver enters the season with the 7th best pass rush in football.  Denver has a deep edge rotation behind Miller and Chubb with Shane Ray, DeMarcus Walker, and Shaquil Barrett.

Despite losing Aqib Talib, Denver sports the 10th best secondary in football.  Chris Harris Jr. is the best slot corner in the league, and Bradley Roby is a quality outside starter.  Behind them, Justin Simmons and Darian Stewart form one of the better safety duos in the league.

Denver isn’t a very exciting team.  They don’t have a flashy quarterback or big game breakers on offense.  The competency of their coaching staff can rightly be questioned heading into 2018.  However, all of the necessary pieces are there to get this team to 8-8.

Kansas City Chiefs – O/U 8.5 – Under

It isn’t wise to bet against Andy Reid, especially at 8.5, but there are too many red flags regarding the Chiefs.  We have no idea what Patrick Mahomes is, but after the preseason we know he is a contender to lead the NFL in interceptions this year.  He may also set a new record for most passes that travel 75 yards in the air during a single season.

Whether Mahomes is bombing it or throwing it to the other team, he is going to be a downgrade on the 2017 version of Alex Smith.  The 2017 version of Alex Smith was a very real MVP contender that finished in the top 10 in DYAR, DVOA, QBR, and 3rd in ANY/A.  Expecting Mahomes to be as good or better is setting yourself up for disappointment.

But lordy does Mahomes have weapons.  Tyreke Hill is the fastest kid alive (just kidding that’s Leonard Fournette).  But, well, we may see this multiple times in 2018:

I will forever be a Sammy Watkins stan.  Here’s something interesting:

Julio Jones Sammy Watkins
Games Played 37 37
Receptions 197 153
Yards 2,530 2,459
Touchdowns 23 17

That’s Julio Jones and Sammy Watkins through their first 37 career games.  Even the foot injury is the same, they’re that similar.  Watkins is supremely talented but has yet to be properly utilized.  Maybe Reid will use him correctly, but who knows if Mahomes will be able to get him the ball consistently.

Travis Kelce is one of the game’s top three tight ends.  Do I really need to elaborate on this?

I hated seeing Spencer Ware go down last season as he is so under appreciated, but we know now the Chiefs have two quality running backs on their roster with Ware and Kareem Hunt.  There is no shortage of weaponry on this team.

According to PFF, the Chiefs enter the season with the 18th best offensive line.  So in total we have a poor decision making, strong armed quarterback, elite weapons, a pretty alright offensive line, and Andy Reid.  This team will put up some points so get all your fantasy shares while you can, but a decent part of all the points they will rack up is because they will always be playing catch up since..

…the defense is horrendous.  PFF has this pass rush as 26th headed into the season.  Justin Houston isn’t washed up or over the hill like some like to paint him out to be, but there isn’t much help on the edge.  Perhaps Dee Ford will progress in his career.  The Chiefs bet big on Breeland Speaks in the draft.  Chris Jones is one of the better interior rushers in the NFL.

The secondary is equally as bad as they rank 28th.  Eric Berry returns, but at this point we may never see the same Eric Berry ever again.  Corner is a massive issue for Kansas City as Steven Nelson and David Amerson are slated to start in nickel packages.

The Chiefs are built like a team that is going to both score and give up 40 points per game.  This defense was already really bad last year – 30th in DVOA, 32nd in Weighted DVOA – and now Marcus Peters and Tamba Hali are gone.  Kendall Fuller was brought in to replace Peters, and while Fuller was outstanding last season we will see if he can keep up such a high level of play.

I can’t trust a defense this bad to post a winning record, unless they have an elite quarterback.  Brady or Rodgers, with these weapons, could get this team to double digit wins, but not Pat Mahomes.  Kansas City faces the 16th most difficult schedule, so not good or bad, but average, and a good offense and bad defense averages out to average.  Everything screams average here, and 8-8 is average.

Oakland Raiders – O/U 8 – Under

The Chargers are one of my favorite overs, and this is one of my favorite unders.

Derek Carr is overrated, and has been for awhile now.  In four seasons he has posted a terrible PFF grade, a decent PFF grade, a good PFF grade, and a below average PFF grade.  His four QBR ratings have been 40.1, 41.2, 54.6, and 51.0.  Last year he finished 12th in DYAR, 13th in DVOA, and 15th in ANY/A.  He is a solid starter at best, so let’s stop painting him as a franchise savior.

Amari Cooper should have his best season yet under Jon Gruden.  Gruden has never failed to produce a 1,000 yard receiver, and he is already talking about getting Cooper 100 catches.  That means Cooper is probably looking at 130-140 targets.  Cooper is too talented to not post at least above-average efficiency numbers, so this should be his best statistical season.

I’m not going to believe Jordy Nelson will make an impact on this team til I see it.  He has been trending down for a few years and just went from Aaron Rodgers to Derek Carr.  I’m not going to sit here and say that Martavis Bryant is going to change this team’s fortunes.

Oakland has the 7th best offensive line in the league, so Marshawn Lynch should pick up where he left off during the second half of last season.  For all the complaining about Lynch’s performance last year, he finished 9th in both DYAR and DVOA among running backs.  Not that I want to bring fantasy football into this, but Lynch was the 11th best running back in fantasy weeks 9-17.

Oakland had the 29th ranked defense by DVOA last season, and the “yes” side of a Khalil Mack trade is -500 right now.  I’m not saying he is going to get traded, I’m just saying there is something going on between Mack and the team.  This may end up an Aaron Donald situation however, with Mack reporting just prior to the season and dominating while on the field.

Oakland better hope Mack reports because their 13th best pass rush ranking would plummet without the elite edge defender.  Oakland did get the biggest steal of the draft when Maurice Hurst fell to the 5th round due to a heart condition.  All reporting is that he is doing well in offseason programs so I guess he is good to go.

Oakland will be fielding the 24th ranked secondary in 2018.  Perhaps Gareon Conley can improve in his second season, but there isn’t much optimism for this unit to be much better than in the bottom quartile of the league.

A decent quarterback, one good receiver, a good running back, good offensive line, terrible defense, and a coach returning from 10 years out of the game.  Oakland does face the 3rd easiest schedule in all of football, but getting to at least 8 wins seems quite unlikely for this squad.

Quick Hitters

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Royce Freeman, RB, Broncos

My confidence in this pick has plummeted due to the coaching staff thinking Booker is better, but over the course of the season the better talent should win out.  Freeman also basically has no competition for this title, as my next choice would be the Broncos’ Courtland Sutton.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Derwin James, S, Chargers

Bradley Chubb will be everyone else’s favorite and he certainly could win this, especially since sack numbers are flashier.  But on a down to down basis no one will perform better than Derwin James, a top five player in the draft who fell to the perfect situation.  Maurice Hurst is another contender but doesn’t figure to be an every down player.

Breakout Player: Sammy Watkins, WR, Chiefs

I don’t know if this even counts as a breakout, but I don’t care.  I will never quit Sammy Watkins.

“Guess who let Derek Carr get murdered again?”: You will know Kolton Miller’s name for all the wrong reasons, especially on Christmas Eve when the Raiders host the Broncos in primetime on EPSN and Bradley Chubb and Von Miller combine for 7 sacks.

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