Floors and Ceilings for the AFC West

By Lee Wakefield

The final stop on my floors and ceilings tour before the big kick-off tomorrow evening is in the AFC West. A division that, a year ago, could lay claim to the best in football tag that I seem to be so readily handing out throughout this series, but no more.

Last year, the AFC West showed how quickly football can change and how wrong our preseason takes can be.

However, it is still home to a team with the best player in football, a team with the best uniforms in football, and the Broncos and Raiders. Anyway… Let’s dive in.

Kansas City Chiefs

Even as a Chargers fan, I have to admit I have a lot of respect for Kansas City, Andy Reid, Patrick Mahomes, and all the rest of them for what they’ve managed to achieve over the past few years. Obviously hitting on the Mahomes pick was a huge help and would have been to any team that selected him. But the marriage between Mahomes and Andy Reid has led to a perfect storm of NFL dominance. As much as I hate that they’re in the Chargers’ division on a personal level, I have to admire how they look like they’re having fun, like, the whole time whilst doing it.

Obviously winning regularly is fun. Especially when it is leading to Superbowls! But for years, the Patriots and Bill Belichick won, consistently but made it seem so transactional.

As we’ll come on to when I talk about their ceiling; the Chiefs are still the kings of the AFC West until they’re not. Mahomes is still the best player until someone de-thrones him. And all of my takes will follow accordingly, even when it comes to the Chargers until it is proven otherwise.

The Floor

Considering all of the factors above this team has a ridiculously high floor.

What makes them so good, aside from the QB is how they evolve as a team with it. Andy Reid, despite being one of the older coaches in the league, is seemingly at the forefront of innovation. Patrick Mahomes is someone who I’ve called a force multiplier in the past – What I meant by that is that he just makes everyone around him better. Average receivers? Well, they’re now good. Offensive tackles who aren’t the best in pass protection? No problem, he can run around to avoid sacks and consistently make plays, and big ones too!

Reid knows that Mahomes gives him a ridiculous advantageous situation, so he rolls out 13 personnel at a much higher rate than ever before last year, still gets shown light boxes by defensive coordinators around the league because they’re all still accounting for Mahomes and scared to get torched downfield, so what does he do? Has his team run all over teams as well because he’s taking what they’re giving him on the ground.

How on Earth do you stop that? And I’ve not talked about how the Chiefs’ defense is still great, despite being one of the youngest units in the league! The Chiefs are good, and they will be for a long time.

The absolute floor feels like 12-5. Even then, does 12 wins still win them the AFC West?

Image Credit: KSHB

The Ceiling

I’ll make this easy. The Chiefs’ ceiling is 17-0. It is. I can’t say with absolute certainty that they will lose one game in the regular season.

Is 17-0 likely? No. They lost to the Colts last year and when they’re guaranteed a place in the playoffs they tend to rest guys in week 18 as well. But still, this is their ceiling.

Los Angeles Chargers

2023 feels like an enormous year for the Chargers. They just paid Justin Herbert and by doing so they ramped up expectations on both him and the team to deliver something.

Head Coach, Brandon Staley needs at least a playoff win this year. Otherwise, he could find himself out of a job. The same could be said for General Manager, Tom Telesco.

Herbert is safe, he’s going to be there no matter what. He is the superstar and face of the franchise, and everyone else needs to get on his level.

Herbert has progressed each year, answering questions along the way, although not to everyone’s satisfaction. And I guess that’s natural after a team collapses in the way the Chargers did in the Wildcard round last year – Although, I maintain that Justin Herbert is not the problem on this team. 

As discussed on the Across the Pod Chargers Season Preview with our very own, Andy Davies recently, it’s time for the defense to pull their weight.

Image Credit: KIDO Talk Radio

The Floor

The hiring of Kellen Moore to run the offense feels like a huge positive for the team. Chargers fans had grown tired of seeing super-talented wide receivers run stick routes and being asked to use a host of condensed formations over, and over in the Joe Lombardi offense. The stats for the offense’s Average Depth of Target (ADOT) are forever etched into the collective brain of the fanbase. Lombardi’s offense was actually statistically not bad, it just didn’t accentuate the talents of the players, including the cyborg-with-a-supercomputer-brain that they have at QB.

The Moore hiring definitely raises the floor. The passing game aside, the focus has been on creating a somewhat competent run game too – One of the big reasons they couldn’t see off the Jags in January is because they couldn’t run the ball. Again this bumps the floor up if successful.

However, the elephant in the room is the defense. And the intangible factor – This team’s ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory a.k.a Chargering

With Chargering taken into account, I’ll set the floor at 9-8.

The Ceiling

Despite Chargering this team is quite clearly the second team in the AFC West. They also play the Chiefs about as close as anybody in the league bar the Bengals in their head-to-head games.

The roster is talented, even on the defense. They have just lacked depth when injuries hit, which in Charger land, they invariably do.

However, with a clean season in terms of injuries and an uptick in production from the 2022 draft class, this team can be really good.

13-4 could be on the cards if things fall the Bolts’ way. They could challenge the Chiefs for the AFC West crown and they can move into the playoffs with big hopes of making some serious noise.

Las Vegas Raiders

The 2023 Raiders are going to look a little different to the 2022 iteration. For a start, Jimmy Garoppolo is now the starting QB in Sin City. The former 49ers and Patriots passer signed a 3-year, $72.75m to reunite with his former Offensive Coordinator, Josh McDaniels.

The other big change is that Vegas lost one of the best tight ends in the league in Darren Waller.

And replaced him with Austin Hooper.

Whether you would say going from Derek Carr to Garoppolo is a downgrade is questionable, but going from Waller to Hooper certainly is. The Raiders also made a mess of the Josh Jacobs contract situation, although he has been retained. For now, at least.

My colleague Andy once asked, Is Josh McDaniels a Problem in Las Vegas? It is starting to look like there’s some legitimacy in that question. Here’s why…

Image Credit: Marca.com

The Floor

Even after the absolute disasterclass that was Russell Wilson and the Denver Broncos offense last year, it feels like the Raiders have slumped back into fourth spot in the AFC West preseason rankings.

The floor feels low. The floor will sink even lower if Jimmy G succumbs to another foot injury. Given his history with that particular injury and that it took him until late July to pass his pre-training camp physical, it feels like a risky bet to wager on the Raiders’ new QB staying healthy for 17 games.

That said, some are betting on back up quarterback, Aiden McConnell having what it takes to deputise for some portion of the season.

It isn’t just the change at QB, the loss of star power, or how they seem to have ostracised one of their most important players either. The offensive line is precisely that, offensive. And without his best buddy in town, is the Davante Adams trade looking like a busted flush after one year?

When flipping over to defense, the defensive back room also looks like a mess. Outside of their pass rushers, which admittedly look great, what does this unit have going for it?

In a division like the AFC West, this team could sink fast. The floor is 4-13.

The Ceiling

The glass-half-full perspective is that Josh McDaniels has his guy in Garoppolo. He has had a year to bed in his ideas, this offense, and his leadership style, and the good times are on the horizon.

However, even if that is true. How far does it get them, because the defensive side of the ball is still probably going to let them down.

The Raiders finished 31st in overall defensive DVOA (per football outsiders). To make things worse, in five of the last six seasons, the team wearing silver and black has finished 28th or lower in that metric.

In a division with Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, and Sean Payton, that number probably isn’t going to improve. Is Jimmy Garoppolo the man to win his team a bunch of shootouts? Absolutely not.

If this team gets to 7 wins, it’ll be a miracle.

Denver Broncos

The biggest question surrounding the Broncos is, can Sean Payton fix Russell Wilson?

In comes Sean Payton, Superbowl winner and craftsman of what seemed to be a perpetually good offense throughout his time in New Orleans.

Payton also did it with a shorter QB, like Russell Wilson. But is that where the comparison ends?

Brees was an ultra-fast processor whose arm drained as time went on but he was always able to deliver the ball on time and to the right spot. Which is essentially what Payton’s offense demands.

Wilson has always been at his best in the chaos. In creation mode, running around and making jaw-dropping plays in scramble drills. Can Wilson contain himself, and probably change his play style a little to conform to what Payton wants from his QB?

If he can the ceiling can be pushed… somewhat. If he can’t, Payton probably holds more than enough power to pull the plug on Wilson and forge on with his next guy.

The Floor

Had it not been for Ejero Evero’s defense the Broncos would have been even worse off, as Wilson spent the whole season looking pretty uncomfortable behind an offensive line which allowed him to be sacked 55 times. The highest number of his career to date, and it’s not like we remember his Seahawks lines behind impenetrable.

Wilson also threw for just 16 touchdowns, the fewest of his career in Nathaniel Hackett’s offense.

Payton will probably get some improvement out of the offense, if not his QB. He’s just got such a proven track record at this point that it’s pretty much a given.

Vance Joseph returns to Denver as Defensive Coordinator, after his previous spell as Head Coach in the Mile High City. So would it be fair to say that the defensive, while still talented, regresses a little? I’d say so.

In year one of Payton, perhaps his addition is cancelled out by the regression on defense, and the floor is only slightly raised to 6-11.

Image Credit: Mile High Report

The Ceiling

I am finding it tough to get excited by the Broncos. I can’t escape the thought that Payton doesn’t really care about Wilson. He probably feels like he will be fine in his job either way as he’s pretty much the most powerful football person in the building and Wilson simply isn’t his guy.

If it works, he’s an even bigger genius than he was before, especially since he’s been out of football for a number of years. If it doesn’t Wilson was broken before and Pete Carroll knew it all along anyway and managed to hoodwink Denver into trading for faulty goods.

As I said, Payton is going to be given time either way. 

That said, if Ben Powers and Mike McGlinchey come in and fortify the offensive line, that’ll be a good start. Similarly Zach Allen and Frank Clark for the defensive line. Pat Surtain and Justin Simmons are still two of the best at what they do in the league and Javonte Williams is back and healthy.

If things fall their way maybe this team ekes out 9 wins? This would give Payton a platform to build from and Wilson some credibility back. Which would be a win for everyone.

Feature Image Credit: ESPN

Lee Wakefield

NFL, CFB & NFL Draft

Lee Wakefield IS A defensive line enthusiast, Chargers Sufferer, and LONG-TIME writer and podcaster with a number of publications. Find his Chargers content over at Bolt Beat. @Wakefield90 on twitter