2015 AFC West Preview: Can The Broncos Make it Five Straight?
Breathe in and breathe out. It's officially football season.
Yes, training camps are starting -- slowly but surely -- which means we're inching closer to Thursday, September 10th -- the 2015 regular season opener.
With a new season comes new-found hope for 31 NFL fanbases searching for Super Bowl glory. This fact is exponentially true in the AFC West, because this most westerly division owns the longest Super Bowl victory drought in all of the NFL, as the Broncos were the last AFC West team to hoist the Lombardi Trophy back in 1998.
Can this streak be reversed in 2015?
4. Oakland Raiders
Grading rookie quarterback Derek Carr's 2014 season was a matter of context. On a positive hand, he boasted a 21-to-12 touchdown-to-interception ratio, which is as solid as it gets for a rookie signal-caller. But once you start looking beyond the surface, cracks begin to form. For instance, Carr's 5.46 yards per attempt last year ranked 268th out of the 270 passers to attempt 500-plus passes in a single season since 1970.
numberFire's Editor-in-Chief, JJ Zachariason, wrote an extensive breakdown of Carr's rookie season and looked into why narratives and box scores simply don't equate to a great deal of confidence for Carr's future. Luckily for the sophomore quarterback, he has a lot more help in 2015.
Oakland invested the fifth pick overall into the most NFL-ready wide receiver in the 2015 NFL Draft class, Amari Cooper. And they also added veteran Michael Crabtree to a team-friendly one-year deal. With a revamped wide receiving core, Carr is given a chance of success beyond marginal receivers like James Jones, who led the Raiders in targets (112) last year and finished 36th out of the 40 receivers with 100 or more targets in Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) per target.
Continuing the improvement theme, the Raiders added Roy Helu, who will likely be featured on passing downs to go along with spelling Latavius Murray. To further protect Carr, the Raiders added center Rodney Hudson -- previously of the Chiefs -- to bolster their offensive line that only allowed 28 sacks and ranked third in the league last year in pass protection according to Football Outsiders.
Oakland's offense ranked 30th in schedule-adjusted NEP last year -- hopefully Derek Carr can take the next step forward with these offensive improvements. A lot is resting on his shoulders, and he'll certainly have more weapons at his disposal this year.
Oakland's defense wasn't abysmal last year, but they weren't a particularly good unit last year either. They were the 20th-best group according to our Adjusted Defensive NEP metric, ranking 25th and 14th in defending the pass and run, respectively.
Raiders' general manager Reggie McKenzie was cognizant of this fact, so he added nose tackle Dan Williams and linebackers Curtis Lofton and Malcom Smith for depth to a front-seven that is looking much more formidable alongside budding stud Khalil Mack.
Facing two top quarterbacks and their offenses a combined four times a year in Peyton Manning and Phillip Rivers is no easy task, and if Oakland is going to have a shot in the AFC West this year, they must be a better group defensively -- which is easier said than done.
Projected Record: 6.2-9.8
Division Probability: 4.4%
Playoff Probability: 7.8%
3. San Diego Chargers
Last year, the Chargers finished 28th in Adjusted Rushing NEP with a backfield that was all over the place. This year, that might all change.
Moving up two slots in the 2015 draft, San Diego chose Melvin Gordon to star in a position the Bolts have longed for consistency since the days of LaDainian Tomlinson. Gordon had a prolific career at Wisconsin, averaging 7.5 yards per carry while accounting for 47.7% of his team's yardage and touchdowns in college. We'll see if Gordon can master pass-blocking early and improve his receiving ability, but he assumes to be an upgrade over Ryan Mathews and Branden Oliver.
San Diego loves to throw when they get in close. In fact, over the past two years, no team has thrown more (63.9% of the time) inside of the 5-yard line than the Chargers. Now that Philip Rivers is without his go-to redzone man, Antonio Gates, for the first four games thanks to a suspension, the Chargers will lean on a stable of pass-catchers headlined by third-year receiver Keenan Allen, veterans Steve Johnson and Malcom Floyd, and tight end Ladarius Green.
While the Chargers offense carried the team in 2014, their defense lagged behind finishing 22nd just above Dallas in schedule-adjusted Defensive NEP.
San Diego generated just 26 sacks last year, finishing 29th in the entire league, which certainly must improve in 2015. The Bolts desperately need Melvin Ingram to string together some healthy games and be more consistent this year if their pass rush is going to improve, even incrementally.
The most solid point of the Chargers defense is their secondary. Safety Eric Weddle and cornerbacks Brandon Flowers and Jason Verrett are returning, and they've added former-Saint, Patrick Robinson. Still, if the Chargers are going to threaten the Broncos, they have got to manage to muster a much better defensive product in 2015.
Projected Record: 8.0-8.0
Division Probability: 20.0%
Playoff Probability: 32.5%
2. Kansas City Chiefs
Alex Smith is not a high variance thrower, as evidenced by his 5.5-yard average depth of target last year. We get it. So what did the Chiefs do this offseason to counteract Smith's unwillingness to take risks? They added a piece that perfectly accentuates what Smith does best.
With Dwayne Bowe out and 27-year-old Jeremy Maclin in, Kansas City's offense immediately improved on the perimeter, adding the most versatile wideout Alex Smith has ever had in his prior two years with the Chiefs.
Among the 55 receivers that saw 90 or more targets last year, Maclin's Reception NEP per target (0.78) ranked 16th while Bowe's (0.72) was good enough for a respectable 25th place finish. The big difference comes in touchdown scoring: Maclin has 36 touchdowns to his name on 343 receptions (10.5%), while Bowe has scored 44 times in his career on 532 receptions (8.3%).
I would also be remiss without mentioning that Zeus is in our presence. Yes, Travis Kelce broke out in his second career season (all coming off of microfracture surgery in his knee), posting a 67-reception, 862-yard and 5-touchdown season while only playing on two-thirds of the Chiefs snaps.
With the addition of Maclin, Kelce entering his third year, Jamaal Charles still averaging an insane 5.5 yards per carry on his career, athletic freak rookie wideout Chris Conley, and Albert Wilson with more experience, the Chiefs already look more potent on offense this year.
Right now, the biggest news Kansas City is waiting for is when nose tackle Dontari Poe will be able to return to the field after undergoing surgery for a herniated disk in his back.
In the meantime, Chiefs fans can rejoice because the team locked up star outside line backer Justin Houston to a six-year deal that includes $52.5 million in guarantees. Houston's a vital part of the Chiefs pass rush, as he amassed 48.5 sacks before he turned 26 in just four seasons in Kansas City.
The defense of Arrowhead was just an above average unit last year, ranking 14th in schedule-adjusted Defensive NEP. But they did have one of the league's top-10 secondaries, finishing ninth in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP.
The main hole Kansas City has is their run defense. They were gashed for 127.3 rush yards per game (fifth worst) in 2014, leaving the unit ranked 24th in Adjusted Defensive Rush NEP. With both Derrick Johnson and Mike Devito coming off of Achilles' injuries and Dontari Poe missing an unknown amount of time, Kansas City may be scrambling early to stop the run.
Projected Record: 8.4-7.6
Division Probability: 23.5%
Playoff Probability: 38.4%
1. Denver Broncos
All eyes will be on Peyton Manning as he enters his age-39 season. He's coming off of a stretch during the last eight regular season games in which he had a 15-to-10 touchdown-to-interception ratio and averaged 7.5 yards per attempt (his three-year average while in Denver is 8.6 yards per attempt).
Now, to be clear, Peyton Manning still has gas left in the tank and was playing with a torn right quadricep that he injured in mid-December. Still, Manning is going to have to reinvent himself one last time.
Luckily, he'll have a litany of toys at his disposal.
Both Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders posted 100-plus receptions and 1,400-plus yards all of the while topping it off with top-six numbers in terms of Reception NEP (Thomas was third and Sanders was sixth) last year. Despite Julius Thomas' free agency departure, the Broncos still have a great pass-catching core and should find tight end production via veteran Owen Daniels and Virgil Green.
Also helping the Broncos cause will be running back C.J. Anderson, who broke out onto the scene last year after injuries from both Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman. Among the 43 backs with 100 or more carries on the season, Anderson boasted the sixth best Success Rate (46.93%), the second-best Rushing NEP per attempt (0.10) and averaged a studly 4.7 yards per carry on his 179 attempts. His presence will be a major boon to Manning and Denver's offense as they have been searching for foundational running back play since 2013.
On paper, Denver's defense looks like one of the best three units in the entire league.
Last year, the Broncos finished 7th and 10th, respectively, in schedule-adjusted pass and rush Defensive NEP, and finished ninth in sacks (41) and fourth in passes deflected (90). Loaded with talent like Von Miller and Chris Harris, the Broncos defense looks like a stout group and will get one of the league's best defensive minds in Wade Phillips to coordinate the unit.
Projected Record: 9.7-6.3
Division Probability: 52.2%
Playoff Probability: 65.7%
West Coast Bias
The AFC West tilts heavily towards the Denver Broncos, who have won the division four years in a row. Denver has no shortage of offensive and defensive talent, but it could take the players some time to adapt to the new coaching staff.
However, the division is more loaded top-to-bottom than ever. Oakland has, what appears on paper, to be a much improved offense with the additions of Crabtree and Cooper, and has added useful defensive pieces to plug the leaky run stopping. San Diego drafted an explosive running back in Melvin Gordon that should take some of the pressure off Philip Rivers. Furthermore, a healthy Brandon Flowers and Jason Verett should help improve a mediocre defense.
The biggest threat will continue to be from Kansas City, who bring back all the important pieces of their top defensive unit and have a not-spectacular, but steady quarterback in Alex Smith, a superstar running back in Jamaal Charles and a upgraded receiving core with Jeremy Maclin entering the fray.
Yet, when a team is led by Peyton Manning, you expect them to win the division every year. We expect this year will be no different.