For the past few years, fans and analysts have thought of the AFC West as the strongest and most competitive division in the NFL. In recent years, that notion has not changed as all of the teams in the division have been competitive, including sending two representatives from the West to the playoffs last season. We saw the Kansas City Chiefs edge out the Oakland Raiders for the AFC West Crown after Derek Carr broke his leg late in the season. Meanwhile, the Denver Broncos failed to make the playoffs and defend their Super Bowl tittle finishing 9-7. Finally, the newly relocated Los Angeles Chargers continued to show signs of promise but struggled down the stretch late in games. But 2016 is now in the books and all these teams have made big changes. Here at VAVEL USA, some of our NFL writers got together and shared our opinions for the upcoming 2017 season.
Which rookie in the AFC West will have the biggest impact?
Richard Sena: Given the strength of the AFC West rosters, the rookies entering this season will likely have an uphill battle to climb up the ranks of the depth chart. Still, injuries to both Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett in Denver have cleared a path for Broncos second round pick, DeMarcus Walker. Walker proved to be a pass rushing maestro in college - amassing 16 sacks in his final year at Florida State - and he could very easily make a name for himself opposite perennial defensive player of the year candidate, Von Miller.
Norman Tall: I think the rookie that will have the biggest impact will be Obi Melifonwu from Connecticut. As a senior for the Huskies, Melifonwu had a combined 118 tackles and 4 interceptions. Melifonwu joins a weak Raiders defense and will be a nice addition in the secondary alongside Reggie Nelson. The Raiders have an extremely impressive offense but will need their defense to get some big stops in order to win close games, and Melifonwu will do just that. If he can jump in and start from day one, he has a chance to be really impressive as a rookie.
Aidan Thomas: Up until recently, the answer to this question was a two-horse battle between Chargers' teammates Forrest Lamp and Dan Feeney. But, with Lamp injured, then Feeney takes the cake for this one. The Chargers are an underrated team in the stacked AFC West, but with Feeney doing his part to protect signal-caller Philip Rivers, they could sneak up on the leaders in the division. Other rookies that could have big impacts on their team are Jake Butt of the Broncos and Kareem Hunt for the Chiefs.
Which free agent signing or player acquired via trade will have the biggest impact in this division?
Richard Sena: Given the action this year’s free agency period brought, the AFC West was relatively quiet when it came to roster movement. Perhaps the biggest domino to fall likely came as a result from the Packers signing Super Bowl hero Martellus Bennett. Jared Cook will add a dynamic element over the middle to the Raiders passing game not seen since Carr’s ascension.
Norman Tall: Without a doubt the biggest free agent signing in the AFC West will be Marshawn Lynch. After spending a year out of football Lynch will return to his hometown team and play for the Raiders. Despite being 31-years old, Lynch still has a lot left in the tank and can make a big impact on a Super Bowl contender like Oakland. Now, joining the Raiders offensive weapons in Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, Lynch will take a lot of pressure in the air attack and will have teams stack the box to defend his bruising style of running. If Lynch can be half the player he once was, he will still be a big upgrade in the Oakland running game.
Aidan Thomas: Jared Cook made a name for himself by making one of the most stunning catches in recent memory in the Green Bay Packers' divisional round playoff win over the Dallas Cowboys with three seconds left in the game. This year, now with the Oakland Raiders, Cook will build upon his moment of fame and become the best newcomer in this division. Cook will provide a reliable target for quarterback Derek Carr, who has the Raiders in the Super Bowl conversation. Cook could be the boost the Raiders need to emerge on top of the AFC West and challenge the Patriots for AFC supremacy.
Who will be the MVP of this division?
Richard Sena: Youth, talent, and cachet are on Derek Carr’s side when it comes to his prospects being not only the MVP of the west but also the NFL. If Carr doesn’t live up to the hype, I’d expect one of a number of elite pass rushers present in the AFC West to take the reigns.
Norman Tall: This is a tough question with talented players such as Phillip Rivers, Von Miller, and Khalil Mack, but the most valuable player has to be Derek Carr. This was proved to me last season after Carr was lost for the end of the season with a broken leg. Once Carr got injured the Raiders lost control of the AFC West and were ousted in the first round of the playoffs by the Houston Texans. If Carr was healthy it is unknown how far they could have gone. With Carr back, he is most definitely the key to how far Oakland will go this season.
Aidan Thomas: Every single team in this division has playoff aspirations, and the Denver Broncos' hopes ride on the shoulders of Von Miller. Miller is the most talented player in this division; he wreaks havoc on defense, and he is a quarterback's worst nightmare. With a young quarterback and young offense in general, the Broncos will rely on Miller and his experience to lead the Broncos, who missed the playoffs last season after their Super Bowl title the previous year.
Which coach or player is most on the hot seat in the AFC West?
Richard Sena: Considering the Kansas City Chiefs traded up in the first round of the 2017 NFL draft to draft a replacement to their competent but embattled starter in Alex Smith, there are few players in the league who face more scrutiny. Smith will be at the mercy of not only his but the team’s performance this upcoming season. If wins don’t come early, the Patrick Mahomes project could.
Norman Tall: I have to agree with my fellow writers and go with Alex Smith. In four years in Kansas City Alex Smith has made the playoffs three out of the four seasons. But for Smith making the playoffs isn't the problem, it's how far they go once they make it. They have failed to advance past the divisional round each time. If Smith can't improve in the playoffs his time could very well be coming to an end in favor of the younger Patrick Mahomes. But for now it is still Alex Smith's show and he will have to take full advantage of that.
Aidan Thomas: Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith has to be considered in a shaky and undesirable position. Having procured just a pair of playoff victories over a dozen seasons, the veteran quarterback watched as his squad traded up to take quarterback Patrick Mahomes tenth overall in the draft. He has to feel the pressure. After winning the division but failing to defeat the Steelers, who didn't score a touchdown, in their playoff game, Smith knows the expectations are not just a division title, but a deep playoff run. If he doesn't produce, it might already be time to usher in the Patrick Mahomes era in Kansas City.
Who will win the division and how many teams from the AFC West will make the playoffs this season?
Richard Sena: As I’ve stated in previous divisional roundtables, the AFC West is by far the strongest candidate to send multiple representatives to the playoffs. Among the teams with the best shot are the same two who represented the west from last year: the Chiefs and Raiders. The Chiefs have the most well-rounded roster while the Raiders have a better quarterback and more prolific offense. I expect both teams to make the playoffs with the Chargers having an outside chance to displace a team from the AFC North.
Norman Tall: The Raiders will win the AFC West in 2017. They should have won it last season and 2017 will finally be their year. With stars such as Derek Carr, Marshawn Lynch, and Khalil Mack, there is no reason why Oakland can't be the favorites of the AFC West and a true contender in the AFC. While the Raiders will win the West, I think the Chiefs will have a shot at the playoffs. I think that a lot of that will be decided by the play of Alex Smith, and the Chiefs will only go as far as Smith can take them. While I suspect only two teams from the AFC West make the playoffs, I do believe that the Broncos and Chargers will also be highly competitive and I would not be surprised if all four teams in the division finish with records above .500.
Aidan Thomas: I would be surprised if anyone picks against the Oakland Raiders. The Raiders should have won the division last year and made a deep playoff run, but a late injury to Derek Carr sent their chances down the drain. They ended up losing the division to the Chiefs and their ugly wild-card matchup to the Texans. So, assuming Carr stays healthy, the Raiders should take the crown this year, especially with newcomer Jared Cook in the receiving corps. I could see them winning 13 games. If you've been paying attention to these roundtables so far, you will have noticed I have not picked any playoff teams from other divisions beyond their division winner. This is because I foresee three squads from the AFC West pushing into the playoffs. I think the Broncos and Chiefs take the fifth or sixth seeds in the conference respectively, while the Chargers just miss, despite posting a winning record. This is the best division in the NFL, and all four teams should remain in the playoff conversation until the last few weeks.