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AFC West Preview: Can the Broncos repeat?

The reigning Super Bowl 50 champions and 2015 AFC West division winning Denver Broncos will have a tough road to repeat as division winners, let alone winning Super Bowl 51. Denver’s 2015 seventh round pick, Trevor Siemian out of Northwestern University, has officially been named the starter. The Broncos will count on their defense even more than last year with the limping Peyton Manning. While Denver still is a great team because of their defense and playmakers on offense to help Siemian succeed, the Chargers, Raiders and Chiefs really closed the gap this offseason between them to have a legitimate chance of knocking off the champs as division winners.

The Broncos open their season tonight with a rematch with the Carolina Panthers . They will go into battle with a questionable starter at the most important position in sports, who has never thrown a pass that counts in the NFL.

Denver Broncos:

Conventional wisdom in the NFL is to pay big bucks to the quarterback position, but John Elway went against that when he didn’t succumb to Brock Osweiler’s contact demands. Instead, he decided to pay their best player on the team, Von Miller, who received a six-year, $114 million deal. Miller leads a defense that might have to score, much of how they won many of their games last season when they had Peyton Manning under center.

With Siemian beating out 2016 first round pick Paxton Lynch and veteran Mark Sanchez for the starting quarterback spot week 1, this quarterback competition isn’t done for the whole season just yet. Siemian will have his ups and downs, now as a full time starter, which could open the door up for Lynch to take the job later in the season. Since then, Sanchez was released and picked up by the Dallas Cowboys.

Denver must rely heavily on the run game this year in order to help Siemian not feel the need to force the issue as a first-year starter. CJ Anderson needs to be the running back that he was in the later part of last season where he was finally making strong runs. My fantasy sleeper at running back and the player that will take the spot as the starter at RB is Devontae Booker, Denver’s 2016 fourth round pick out of Utah. The former JUCO product is a strong runner that has great receiving abilities as he already has taken the spot as third down RB.

Record: 8-8

Kansas City Chiefs:

Andy Reid has the most wins in his first three seasons as head coach in Kansas City history with 31. This year will be his toughest season since the Chiefs will start the season without All-Pro pass rusher Justin Houston. The linebacker was placed on the physically unable to perform list, causing Houston to miss at least the first six games of the season. Former 2014 first round pick Dee Ford will need to step up to fill the void left by Houston opposite of veteran rusher Tamba Hali. Even without Houston, the Chiefs still have one of the best defenses in the AFC that can compete with the Broncos defense. From the defensive line to the secondary, the Chiefs have big names that make big plays.

Dontari Poe is one of the best nose tackles in the NFL, as he really uses his big frame to plug up the middle and not allow much running space. He also allows the linebackers behind him, such as Pro-Bowler Derrick Johnson to stay untouched and make plays. Life without Houston will be made easier for Defensive Coordinator, Bob Sutton to adjust because of the stud he has at the cornerback position. Marcus Peters, last year’s first round pick out of Washington is a budding superstar at the cornerback position. He had eight interceptions and two of them returned for touchdowns in his first year, always going head to head with the other team’s best receiver.

Last year the Chiefs ranked 30th in total yards and 26th in touchdowns per game. This year may be the same for a Chiefs offense that doesn’t have any explosion from there playmakers outside of Jamaal Charles. Charles is part of a stacked three heading running back committee that will look to use Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West to spell Charles from doing too much work. Having a talented backfield sure helps the dump off friendly Alex Smith to keep up his unheard of stat of never throwing interceptions. Returning outside threats Jeremy Maclin and Travis Kelce still give Smith great options for whenever he decides to throw the ball more than 10 yards down the field.

Record: 8-8

Oakland Raiders:

The silver and black had arguably the best offseason of any of the AFC West teams. GM Reggie Mckenzie bolstered the roster through free agency and the 2016 NFL draft. The first big acquisition of free agency this offseason for the Raiders was signing Kelechi Osemele away from the Baltimore Ravens. The big man can play either the tackle or guard positions on the offensive line. The great wall of Oakland was one of the strong spots for the Raiders last season. They gave Derek Carr all day to spread the ball around to his playmakers, one being rookie star Amari Cooper out of Alabama and another being the resurrected Michael Crabtree.

The weak spot on this offense is still the Raiders run game, despite one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. Ever since Latavius Murray’s 200-yard explosion a few years ago against the Chiefs on Thursday Night Football, he hasn’t really been the athletic freak at the running back position we expected. It almost seems like he is scared of contact when running through the hole, which could lead to 2016 fifth round pick DeAndre Washington to take the starting running back position at some point this year.

The most impact from the offseason can be seen on the Raiders defense. Bringing in former Seattle Seahawks linebacker coach Ken Norton Jr. to become the defensive coordinator was a big reason why linebacker Bruce Irvin decided to join Oakland as well. Irvin is a pass rush specialist who will look to help Khalil Mack improve on his 15 sack sophomore season. Stealing the lanky cornerback Sean Smith from the AFC West rival Chiefs helps a rebuilding Oakland secondary. They might have found a replacement to the G.O.A.T Charles Woodson at safety, when they selected Karl Joseph, one of my favorite players out of the 2016 NFL draft. Coming out of West Virginia, he was a hard-hitting safety that was undersized that could cover well in space. Remind you of anyone? Sadly, it isn’t going to be the next coming of Woodson, but Raider fans will take as close a  replica of Earl Thomas as possible. The last impact player the Raiders signed was a Pro Bowl safety, who will be paired up with Joseph at safety, is veteran Reggie Nelson who had eight interceptions last season for the Bengals.

Record: 9-7

San Diego Chargers:

The Chargers were 4-12 last season and missed the playoffs for the fifth time in six years. This was Mike McCoy’s second year missing the playoffs since Ken Whisenhunt left after one season as the offensive coordinator to become head coach of Tennessee Titans. Whisenhunt was fired half way through the year, which helped reunite him back in San Diego. Bringing back Whisenhunt as the offensive coordinator might be the best pickup of the offseason for the Chargers, because of what it does for Philip Rivers and the running game. Melvin Gordon can only go up after the zero rushing touchdown season he had last year. Current Philadelphia Eagle and former Charger Ryan Mathews had his best season as a pro under Whisenhunt, rushing for 1,200 yards and six touchdowns.

A putrid defense played a large role in San Diego earning the third overall pick in this year’s draft. There’s plenty of blame to go around for why that pick isn’t ready to start the season. Joey Bosa and the Chargers didn’t speak for weeks during training camp, because the Chargers were too worried about saving themselves a few hundred thousand dollars. This move makes the chargers look bad to the city and fans who would vote to keep Chargers in San Diego.

However, on the football side of the Chargers, the defense might not be on the same level as Kansas City and Denver, but formidable to be top-15 defense. Shut down corner Jason Verrett and free agent signee nickel cornerback Casey Hayward formerly of the Packers, will make it difficult for receivers to get open. Safety is weak after the understandable departure in All-Pro safety Eric Weddle to the Ravens. Defensive Coordinator John Pagano doesn’t ask his safeties to do more than they can, always putting them in situations that they can make plays in.  Pass rushing is also a question mark for the Chargers, as they don’t have many playmakers outside of injury prone Melvin Ingram.

Record: 8-8

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