By Nick Shook
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As we hurtle toward the regular season, check out our division-by-division primers highlighting players and storylines to watch in 2017. Nick Shook tackles the AFC West below.
Most significant changes from 2016
DENVER BRONCOS: Trevor Siemian was often left running for his life in Denver last season, cutting down the Broncos‘ title defense at the knees. Denver has since attempted to upgrade the offensive line, adding former Cowboys guard Ronald Leary and Raiders tackle Menelik Watson (who was atrocious in Oakland in place of Donald Penn late last season), and drafting left tackle Garett Bolles, who won the starting job in camp. Denver’s season will ride on how well this rebuilt unit performs, in both giving Siemian time to work and the running backs — including newcomer Jamaal Charles — room to run.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Kansas City bid adieu to Jeremy Maclin, opening up a bigger role for second-year dynamo Tyreek Hill, who returns with plenty of hype in his saddlebags. We can’t talk about the Chiefs without mentioning Patrick Mahomes — though if things go smoothly, he’ll spend 2017 wearing an earpiece and a ball cap. The Chiefs lost Spencer Ware to a significant knee injury, thinning out their backfield while also creating an opportunity for preseason sensation Kareem Hunt. A bigger role should also be expected for wideout Chris Conley. Bennie Logan will attempt to replace the departed Dontari Poe at nose tackle, and Chris Jones is ticketed for enhanced responsibilities with Jaye Howard now in Chicago.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS: The Chargers will need their new-look offensive line to jell as quickly as possible. Los Angeles said goodbye to left tackle King Dunlap and right guard D.J. Fluker, with newcomer Russell Okung and Kenny Wiggins taking over as their respective replacements. Matt Slauson slides over from center to left guard, with former undrafted free-agent signing Spencer Pulleymanning the pivot.
OAKLAND RAIDERS: Oakland returns Derek Carr off a broken leg and adds Marshawn Lynch, but attention should be paid to how well its front seven performs defensively. The Raiders had to outscore many of their opponents to go 12-4 last season, and while it worked, it isn’t exactly a feasible long-term plan, especially for a team that finished 23rd in points per game allowed in 2016. Oakland is looking at starting two rookies: third-round pick Eddie Vanderdoes at defensive tackle and fifth-round selection Marquel Lee, who’s been embroiled in a camp battle for playing time, at middle linebacker. Second-year defender Cory James is slated to start at Will linebacker, leaving Oakland somewhat green in the group. The Raiders‘ ability to contend for the AFC crown will depend on more than just Carr lobbing touchdowns to Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree.
One player to watch on each team
DENVER BRONCOS: Jamaal Charles, running back. This one feels like a layup, but Charles could be the biggest boom-or-bust player in the division. If healthy and near his previous form, his addition is a massive coup. But health worries always loom over the running back who has gone through his share of medical hurdles in recent years. Should he play even 75 percent of games, he’s more than worth his cheap contract, offering a weapon in the run and pass games, as well as an underrated asset in the pass-blocking department. The way Charles goes will have a massive impact on how the Broncos fare in 2017.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Alex Smith, quarterback. Smith is more than serviceable, but his ceiling is clearly visible. Behind him is first-round selection Patrick Mahomes, who hasn’t needed to do much to earn the affection of faithful Chiefs fans. Smith might not acknowledge it openly, but the pressure is on. Fortunately for the veteran QB, Kansas City’s a talented team that won the division last season and has just as good a chance to do it again. Whether that means a more vertical offense is yet to be seen (probably not), but the Chiefs will go as Smith goes.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS: Keenan Allen, wide receiver. The Chargers lost Allen to a torn ACL in the second quarter of last year’s season opener, and as their best receiving weapon, they could have used him. The 25-year-old hasn’t played a full season in his career, which Los Angeles (still feels weird to type) attempted to address by drafting Clemson wideout Mike Williams in the first round. Bad news there, too: Williams has a back issue that is expected to keep him out into October (at least). As a result, the Chargers need Allen more than ever. He pairs very nicely with 2016 breakout target Tyrell Williams.
OAKLAND RAIDERS: Marshawn Lynch, running back. As soon as Lynch returned, toured the Raiders‘ facility and left wearing his helmet, he became the focal point of Oakland’s season. Forget Derek Carr‘s healed leg, we’re turning our eyes to Beast Mode. He won’t see as heavy a workload as he did in Seattle — second-year backs DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard offer fresh, young, capable legs — but Lynch knows the score as much as he knows #TownBizness. He’s in Oakland to chase a ring for his hometown.
What we’ll be talking about at season’s end
If it wasn’t for the go-for-broke Patriots, we’d be welcoming the Raiders back to football’s biggest stage as the AFC champions for the first time since January of 2003. Alas, if only Derek Carr could have capped that final drive in snowy Foxborough … Alex Smith was good, but not good enough — now he’s heading toward a quarterback controversy in 2018, with Patrick Mahomes reprising the role of Colin Kaepernick. Who’d have guessed Denver would be home to one of the best 1-2 punches at tight end with Jake Butt and Virgil Green? That wild-card loss in Kansas City sure was a heartbreaker, though. Someone, console Menelik Watson and get him out of the clown suit he wore against Justin Houston. Congratulations to Comeback Player of the Year, Keenan Allen!
Follow Nick Shook on Twitter @TheNickShook.