AFC West Divisional Preview

by Eric Eager|August 21, 2023

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The NFL offseason is a long and arduous one. While hope is on the horizon with the first game of the season coming soon in early September, there is still plenty of time to prepare for your fantasy team and your futures betting. Enter SumerSports.

In this series we will do a weekly preview of each division using our simulation, which iterates through the 272-game NFL schedule 10,000 times to produce each team’s estimated number of wins, likelihood of winning the division, conference, Super Bowl, and earn the number one overall pick. The team ratings that power the simulation are derived from a combination of market odds, previous results, roster changes, and other factors. Such power ratings will be available through SumerSports.com over the next few months.

Individual games are also handicapped using rest differential, travel, and familiarity. Team strengths are updated sequentially based on simulated game outcomes. That way, in simulations where a weaker team exceeds expectations or a solid one fails to meet theirs, they carry a commensurate form with them to their late-season games.

The AFC West enters the 2023 season with the second-most projected wins of any division in the entire NFL with a projected average of 9.1 wins per team. The Kansas City Chiefs have controlled this division not only for the duration of the Patrick Mahomes era, but for a few years before that as well as they have won each AFC West since 2016. The Chiefs have lost to the Chargers, Raiders, and Broncos three, two, and zero times during that stretch while hosting the last five AFC Championship Games and playing in three Super Bowls.

The Chiefs’ supremacy in the division has not come about through a lack of effort on behalf of the other teams, though. In the last 18 months, the Broncos traded for perennial Pro Bowl quarterback Russell Wilson and Super Bowl winning head coach Sean Payton, while the Raiders acquired one of the league’s best wide receivers in a trade with Green Bay last offseason. The Chargers, having acquired a bevy of talented players themselves over the past half of a decade, are attempting to right the ship this offseason through acquiring former Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore.

After a 2022 season that saw Kansas City trade away its best wide receiver and close as much shorter favorites than they had been in the past (roughly +160), they are back to being clear favorites against the field in the West with a market price near -200. The Chargers and Broncos, after fielding plenty of hype during the 2022 offseason, are not getting nearly as much respect in the marketplace this offseason, while Las Vegas is predicted to fight for the first pick in their first post Derek Carr season. In an AFC where there will be multiple good to very good teams that miss the playoffs, how many successful chapters will be written by this division in 2023?

All odds are sourced from FanDuel and are subject to change, as are the results of our simulation.

Kansas City Chiefs

2022 Record: 14-3

The Chiefs are the league’s model franchise with two Super Bowl championships in four years and five straight home conference title games. For much of that time there was an argument that they were benefitting, albeit most heavily, from one of the structural advantages of the current CBA – a quarterback on a rookie deal.

The Chiefs’ first two appearances in the Super Bowl during this era included a roster built around Patrick Mahomes’ modest cap numbers of $4.5 million and $5.3 million. Signings like Sammy Watkins or Frank Clark did not take a huge toll on the roster. They were even able to deal constructively with devastating injuries to starting tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz.

In 2022 the Chiefs overcame the structural difficulties that have put a clamp on many an elite quarterback. Mahomes’ 17% of the Chiefs’ salary cap was the largest proportion for a Super Bowl winning quarterback as Veach supplemented the signal caller’s second MVP season with a draft class that played in more games than any other in the NFL last year. They have combined good fortune in the draft with effective forays into free agency for the likes of Joe Thuney, Jerick McKinnon, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, while allowing players like Tyrann Mathieu, Orlando Brown, and others to walk.

So, what does this mean for 2023?

The markets, as well as our simulation, have the Chiefs in a class of their own as favorites to take down their fourth Super Bowl title. Despite this, there are several questions that Andy Reid and Mahomes must answer in 2022.

The first is how they are going to deal with a wide receiving group that lost another starter this offseason with JuJu Smith-Schuster leaving for New England. Valdes-Scantling’s 690 receiving yards in 2020 for the Green Bay Packers is the highest mark any wide receiver on Kansas City’s roster has been able to achieve in an NFL season, and they will be depending on guys like Skyy Moore (250 career receiving yards), Kadarius Toney (591), and Rashee Rice (rookie) to compliment Valdes-Scantling alongside Travis Kelce and the tight ends.

Jerick McKinnon’s nine touchdown catches a season ago helped them in the red zone, but there are questions about how much of the load he can handle season after season. These questions will be a lot easier to answer on offense due to their continued investment in the offensive line, which this offseason welcomed Donovan Smith and Jawaan Taylor at tackle to work with what is considered by many to be the league’s best interior offensive line in Thuney, Creed Humphrey, and Trey Smith. Isiah Pacheco, the late round pick out of Rutgers, is also poised to have an increased workload this year.

The second big question takes on two parts. First, when will Chris Jones report to Chiefs camp? The former second-round pick out of Mississippi State has racked up over a million dollars in fines so far with no return in site. The second part of the question will be how good Jones plays, assuming he returns from the holdout and plays.

In 2022, Jones played roughly 250 snaps more and generated about twice as much value – per metrics like PFF WAR – than he ever had in a season. The 2022 Chiefs defense was 15th in EPA per play allowed in 2022 (including playoffs). This was the best finish for Kansas City in the Patrick Mahomes era. Jones was a big part of this, generating 97 pressures. The rest of the Chiefs defensive line generated 219 pressures during the season, with 115 leaving this offseason via Frank Clark, Carlos Dunlap, and Khalen Saunders. Jones appears to have some leverage, especially with pass rusher Charles Omenihu facing a six-game suspension.

In summary, this is the Chiefs’ division, but as with all fledgling dynasties, not everyone can share in the spoils of a limited salary cap. Unlike in 2020 when the Chiefs brought back basically everyone from their 2019 Super Bowl team, the 2023 Chiefs will have new faces, including at offensive coordinator – where Matt Nagy is elevated from the QB coach role to replace Eric Bieniemy. Kansas City hopes that this sense of urgency will help them be the first team since SumerSports CEO Thomas Dimitroff’s 2004 New England Patriots to repeat as Super Bowl champions.

Los Angeles Chargers

2022 Record: 10-7

Despite having two franchise quarterbacks and assembling some of the best talent in the NFL, the Chargers are still searching for their first AFC West title since they were the San Diego Chargers in 2009. They are currently at 3/1 to win the West this year, coming off a 10-win season that saw them reach the playoffs for just the second time since 2013.

After some high-profile, but mathematically sound, decisions that did not work in 2021, Chargers head coach Brandon Staley backslid some in 2022, only gaining a modest amount of win probability added on fourth down decisions after leading the league in that category two years ago. He still made good decisions as far as timeouts, delay of game penalties, and the like, but an interesting counterfactual would be to see how well the Chargers would have done last year had Staley been as aggressive as he was during the first season of his career.

Staley’s aptitude for in-game decision making has masked some the difficulties the Chargers have had on his side of the ball where his defense was 21st in EPA per play allowed (including playoffs) the last two years. The good news is that the passing defense was not nearly this bad, as they are 15th in EPA per play allowed in the passing game.

The bad news is that this appears to have come at the expense of the run defense, which is the second worst in football during that same stretch, allowing 0.019 EPA per run play. They also tied with Green Bay for worst in the NFL in success rate allowed in the running game (46.2%), showing that they are not only allowing explosive run plays but consistently effective ones as well.

Sebastian Joseph-Day was supposed to come over a season ago from the Rams and provide relief there, but his performance – as measured by PFF – was at a career low, producing just 33 stops. Former Vikings stalwart Eric Kendricks returns to Los Angeles to help compliment 2020 first rounder Kenneth Murray at linebacker, but Kendricks is an aging player who has always been better in the passing game. It is very possible that the Chargers are taking a calculated risk defensively, opting to put more resources into stopping the pass than the run. We will see if it meets a breaking point in 2023 the same way it did in 2021 and 2022.

On offense, the whole story is how Kellen Moore can unlock Justin Herbert in ways that Joe Lombardi could not. In fairness to Lombardi, Herbert badly injured his ribs in Week 2 of 2022 and was clearly limited at times with a net adjusted yards per pass attempt of 6.22, which was a career low by more than half of a yard. Rashawn Slater returns from injury, and Quentin Johnston was selected out of TCU to help the offense.

Johnston may have inconsistent hands, having dropped 11.8% of his catchable targets last year, but he is dynamic after the catch, averaging almost nine yards per catch after the catch last year and 8.3 such yards during his college career. No side of the football in the NFL has a wider possible distribution in 2022 than Los Angeles’ offense, as they could finish first in EPA if everything clicks but could also repeat as a middle-of-the-pack group if the problems were more inherent to Herbert than most people want to acknowledge.

Denver Broncos

2022 Record: 5-12

Since the Broncos won the Super Bowl following the 2015 season, they have yet to return to the playoffs with just the 2016 Trevor Siemian-led team even boasting a winning record during that time. They have not beaten the perennial division champion Chiefs since Week 2 of 2015, a streak that now spans 15 games. The Broncos thought that Russell Wilson would change all of that, having won 104 of his 158 regular season starts, with a 7.0 adjusted net yards per pass attempt during his time with the Seahawks.

It was a disaster from the first game, with Wilson posting a career-low 5.54 adjusted net yards per pass attempt, which was worse than his previous career low by more than a full yard. The Broncos failed to score 20 points in 11 games including all but four of the season’s first 15 games.

Running back Javonte Williams averaged just 51.0 yards per game before he went down with a knee injury, while Melvin Gordon fumbled five times on his way out of town. Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton, who were supposed to be Denver’s version of DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, both failed to reach 1,000 yards and combined for just eight receiving touchdowns. Wilson was poor even when the Denver offense tried to make things easy, as he posted just 7.5 yards per pass attempt, five touchdowns, and four interceptions while using play action, and just 7.6 yards per pass attempt, 13 touchdowns, and eight interceptions when left clean from pressure. He was roughly league average where many NFL players clean up.

This leaves us with one of the bigger mysteries heading into the 2023 season. The Broncos were able to acquire Sean Payton from the Saints in exchange for draft capital, and for obvious reasons. Payton’s last season as an NFL coach, a season that saw Payton’s Saints finish 9-8 and one game out of the NFC playoffs, included games started by Jameis Winston, Siemian, Taysom Hill, and Ian Book.

The part Payton played in Drew Brees’ Hall of Fame career is well-documented, and he often did so without much in the way of big-name wide receivers, winning a Super Bowl while starting Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Lance Moore, and Robert Meachem. The issue in Denver is that, in many ways, the talent surrounding Wilson is not an issue – even with the injury to Tim Patrick.

Wilson was under pressure on 35.9% of his drop backs, which, while not a great number, was not among the worst marks in the league. Quarterbacks like Daniel Jones and Kirk Cousins faced higher rates of pressure and were much more effective. PFF charted Wilson as being responsible for 31 pressures himself, which was the sixth-highest mark in football. Thus, the big question is whether Payton has the easy buttons to push – and whether Wilson can take advantage of them and produce league-average, or better, offense.

A league-average offense would have been enough to put Denver in the playoffs in 2022, as their defense surrendered over 20 points in just three of their first 12 games before fading some down the stretch. For the second straight year, they traded a starting edge player during the season, sending Bradley Chubb to Miami for a draft pick they would later use to acquire Payton. They hope former Cowboy Randy Gregory, who missed much of 2022 with an injury, and former Chief and Seahawk Frank Clark can pressure quarterbacks enough that their secondary, headed by third-year star Patrick Surtain, can shine under Vance Joseph.

Quarterbacks against Surtain have put up passing numbers that would make the 1970s NFL blush, having completed just 58.4 percent of passes, throwing seven touchdowns against six interceptions, which is good for just a 76.1 NFL passer rating. Surtain has broken up 15 of the 154 passes into his coverage through two years.

In a different year in a different conference, the Broncos would be a dark horse to not only make the playoffs but thrive in them. Given how stacked the AFC is in terms of great quarterbacks and great head coaches, the hike will be steep in 2023.

Las Vegas Raiders

2022 Record: 6-11

The last two years of Las Vegas Raiders football were a microcosm of how noisy the game of football is. The 2021 Raiders finished the season 10-7 and took the eventual AFC Champion Bengals down to the wire on Wild Card Weekend. Derek Carr had finally ceased on the promise of Jon Gruden’s offense, even in his eventual absence, and it was only going to get better after they acquired his college teammate in Davante Adams.

The issue, though, was that the 2021 Raiders were not fundamentally a 10-7 team. They were more like, depending on how you measure it, a 7-10 team that ran well on variance. In fact, that had been the name of the game for much of Gruden’s tenure in Oakland and Vegas, with the Raiders’ records exceeding their fundamentals.

That changed in 2022, where the Raiders lost three of their first four games, all by one score, and seven of their first nine games with only a 24-0 loss to the Saints by more than one score. They ended up getting to 5-7 by the middle of the season only to lose one-score games to the Rams, Steelers, and 49ers. They played like an 8-9 team while having a 6-11 record. Such is life in the NFL.

While the Raiders technically improved in 2022, it was despite their quarterback as Derek Carr regressed to the lowest efficiency numbers since his rookie season, with a 6.01 adjusted net yards per pass attempt. The Raiders moved on from Carr one year into his remade deal, opting to give former Patriots and 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo a rare middle-class quarterback contract in hopes that he will be able to bring success as a game manager over from San Fran. Including postseason games, only five quarterbacks generated more EPA per play than Garoppolo did while with the 49ers from 2017 to 2022. Josh McDaniels is not of the caliber of Kyle Shanahan as a play caller but could be good enough to get above-average production from Garoppolo in Vegas.

Defensively, the Raiders have some high-end talent at premium positions, namely Maxx Crobsy, who was arguably the league’s most valuable edge defender in 2022. Over the last two seasons, the MAC product has generated 189 total pressures, 100 stops, and has been involved in 26 sacks. Chandler Jones is on the other side of the front after having produced 47 pressures for the second-straight season.

The difference for Jones in 2022 was that he was involved in half as many sacks as he was in Arizona in 2021, and hence the Raiders as a group produced just 27 quarterback takedowns all year, one of the worst marks in football. Vegas is hoping that their first-round pick, edge player Tyree Wilson, can bring some inside-outside athleticism to compliment Crosby and Jones and cover up deficiencies in the secondary. The Raiders recently brought in Marcus Peters to help them at cornerback, hoping that he and Nate Hobbs can rebound from subpar 2022 seasons to help them have a passable secondary in a conference full of great quarterbacks.

Josh McDaniels and Dave Ziegler enter year two of their regime with lower expectations than year one without having completely commenced a rebuild. Jimmy Garoppolo is a good enough quarterback to win with if everything else goes right. The problem is, as far as 2023 goes, that they are limited when it comes to ways to win. With the 2024 quarterback class looking strong, this will be an intriguing few months for Raider Nation.

Last up, AFC North.

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