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Here at CaptainPicks, we’re getting prepared for the 2022 NFL season by bringing you a full series of NFL team previews. We’ll go division-by-division with breakdowns and roster analysis for every team in the NFL. Today, we’re breaking down the stacked AFC Westt! Who’s ready to bet on football and win in 2022?
Kansas City Chiefs
Last season, we saw defenses employ a new strategy for stopping Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs – play two-deep safeties and stop blitzing. The Chiefs’ offense was still good in 2021 but compared to their previous heights, it was fairly pedestrian.
Patrick Mahomes saw more two-deep safety coverage than any QB in the league in 2021. League-wide, defenses played with five or more defensive backs on the field about 75% of the time. The Chiefs’ offensive saw five or more d-backs 90% of the time in 2021. Patrick Mahomes was also blitzed only 12% compared to 20% or more for every other quarterback in the league.
As teams rushed four, dropped seven (or eight) into coverage, took away the explosive plays, and invited Kansas City to run the ball, and make them move the ball down the field methodically. Often, KC would stubbornly throw into run looks.
The Chiefs eventually adjusted to the defenses they were facing however, it all came crashing down against the Bengals in the AFC Championship. In the second half, Cincinnati dropped eight into coverage, flooded the passing lanes, and short-circuited Kansas City.
Based on their offseason moves, Kansas City looks prepared to fundamentally adjust to how defenses are playing them.
After Tyreek Hill was stunningly traded to the Dolphins, the Chiefs signed Juju Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdez-Scantling. Valdez-Scantling and Smith-Schuster are also bigger-bodied receivers with blocking capabilities. If healthy, JuJu is a great fit and should catch a lot of passes in the short and intermediary. MVS and Mecole Hardiman will be asked to fill in the deep threat role vacated by Hill.
The Chiefs also added receiver Skyy Moore in the draft, and the second-round rookie is drawing early training camp buzz – Moore’s quickness and route-running ability should allow him to contribute immediately.
And oh yeah, they still have Travis Kelce.
Kansas City used their surplus of draft capital from the Hill trade to draft heavily on the defensive side of the ball. With two-first rounders, they took Washington cornerback Trent McDuffie and Purdue edge George Karlaftis, and they added Cincinnati safety Byan Cook in round two. They’ll need McDuffie to play a big role immediately with top-corner Charvarius Ward off to San Francisco.
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s defenses notoriously start each year poorly before he makes adjustments and gets things humming in the second half of the year; the KC defense was epically awful in the first half of 2021. Spagnuolo is well-known for his blitz-happy, risk-taking approach.
Safety Justin Reid comes over from the Houston Texans to replace Tyrann Mathieu; the smart, sound tackling safety is probably an upgrade over the honey badger at this stage of his career. Second-year linebacker Nick Bolton is a breakout candidate to watch.
Defensive line depth is a major weakness for Kansas City; behind All-Pro Chris Jones, Frank Clark, and Derrick Nnadi are a handful of inexperienced players.
Kansas City got younger on defense, which is a positive, but they’ll also need to rely on a few young players to contribute immediately.
With Patrick Mahomes, Andy Reid, and one of the best offensive lines in the league, we are confident the Chiefs will have another top offense this season.
The AFC West will play an out-of-conference schedule against the NFC West.
The Chiefs schedule is one of the five hardest in the entire NFL, which is in part attributed to the strength of the division. Outside of the division, they will play @Colts, @Bucs, Bills, @Niners, Rams, and @Bengals.
After making a blockbuster deal to acquire Russell Wilson, the energy and enthusiasm in Denver have completely changed. The force of Wilson’s personality and work ethic is a culture changer for the Broncos – a franchise quarterback will do that.
And while there’s no doubt Wilson upgrades the position immeasurably, there are signs of decline to be concerned about. Wilson is not as mobile as he was a few years ago, and while he moves around to extend plays, he doesn’t really scramble anymore.
Wilson’s always been a playmaker who works out of structure and pushes the ball downfield; with elite deep accuracy and touch, no one has done it better. He hasn’t, however, been good at throwing over the middle of the field or in the quick passing game. We’ve seen Wilson vexed by two-high defenses on numerous occasions over the past few seasons.
While Pete Carroll’s run-heavy philosophy was at times too run-heavy, Wilson still needs a strong running game in Denver to draw defenses up and set up his deep play-action game. Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon are a stellar backfield tandem, and we would expect to see plenty of work from those two.
At receiver, the loss of Tim Patrick for the season to a torn ACL is a major blow for this team, as the big-bodied receiver would have been a great target for Wilson. For similar reasons, Courtland Sutton’s ball-winning abilities make him a good fit for Russ. Much will fall on Jerry Jeudy to be a guy who can reliably separate. Slot-receiver KJ Hamler is also coming off a season-ending injury of his own.
Tight end Albert Okwuegbunam is a breakout candidate, and Denver also drafted UCLA tight end Greg Dulcich in the third round this year. Early in camp, they were working in both players in two-tight sets and moving those two around the formation — that likely will become a staple with Patrick sidelined.
Projected right tackle Billy Taylor is dealing with a knee injury and has been absent early in camp, so that bears watching as well.
Denver’s new young staff features a first-time head coach in Nathaniel Hackett and two first-time coordinators in Justin Outten (OC) and Ejiro Evero (DC). Evero has a background in the Fangio-styled scheme, so the expectation is the defense will be similar to those employed by Fangio the previous few seasons. However, the offense is undergoing a schematic change to more outside-zone-based blocking.
With that in mind, expect the defense to be ahead of the offense early in the season.
Edge Randy Gregory comes over from Dallas to replace the void left by Von Miller. Gregory and Bradley Chubb have missed time consistently in their careers, and their availability is paramount to Denver’s success in 2022. DJ Jones comes over from San Francisco after a breakout 2021 season; paired with Dre’mont Jones, the two form a nice duo of interior disruptors. Physical slot corner K’Waun Williams also comes over from the Niners on a value deal.
The Broncos have two standout players in the secondary with big, do-it-all safety Justin Simmons, and budding second-year corner Patrick Surtain. With his size and athleticism, Surtain already has all the makings of a lockdown all-pro corner.
Health concerns with the two edge rushers (Chubb and Gregory), an aging Kareem Jackson at safety, and a thin group of linebackers would be the points of fragility to look out for, but the defense has top-ten potential.
The Broncos benefit from playing a last place schedule; we rate their schedule as around league average in difficulty. Their hardest non-divisional games are the Niners, Colts, @Titans, @Ravens, and @Rams.
More than a decade after his disastrous tenure with the Broncos, Josh McDaniels returns to the AFC West for his second stint as a head coach. McDaniels, now in his mid-forties, by all appearances is more humble and mature this time around (as he should be).
Evaluating a coordinator who had Tom Brady at the helm of his offense for most of his career isn’t easy, but McDaniels proved his ability to adapt to his offensive personnel in recent years.
With all-pro wide receiver Davante Adams joining Hunter Renfrow and Darren Waller, McDaniels can put damn near anything on the menu. What McDaniels offense will look like is an open question, but Vegas has the makings of one of the most potent aerial attacks in the league.
The biggest question mark for this offense is the offensive line.
2021 first-round pick, tackle Alex Leatherwood played so poorly he was kicked inside to guard, and it remains unclear whether he’s ready to reclaim the right tackle spot from his replacement Brandon Parker. No matter the configuration, those two gave up a ton of pressures in 2021 and weren’t any better in the run game. Solid left guard Denzelle Good retired after missing most of last season, and his replacement is still up in the air. Other then drafting rookie third-round guard Dylan Parham, Vegas didn’t do much to address the unit.
The Raiders offensive line projects as one of the five worst in the league, and will be what makes or breaks the offense. A quote about Carr from Mike Sando’s QB Tiers article encapsulates why:
“I’ve coached against him quite a bit, and he sees it, he makes checks, he can operate the offense, he has all the physical skills,” a defensive coordinator said. “His issue is, he just doesn’t like to be hit. You hit him a lot, then you can get him. But if he is on time, on rhythm and protected, he can do it all.”
As adaptable as Josh McDaniels is on offense, his defensive coordinator Patrick Graham has proven himself equally adept at shape-shifting his defense. His predecessor, Gus Bradley, essentially plays the same defense cover-3 zone every play, blitzing less than any team in the league and ranking third to last in man coverage %.
Graham’s highly multiple defenses will be a stark change and an upgrade for Vegas. Though his Giants defenses have struggled early in the season and it wouldn’t surprise us if Vegas did too.
The Raiders made a free agent splash, signing edge rusher Chandler Jones from the Cardinals. At 32, Jones’ best days are behind him. After recording five sacks in Week 1 against the Titans, he had just 5.5 sacks the rest of 2021. Still, in 2022 at least, he’s probably a better player than Yannick Ngakoue, who the Raiders traded to Indianapolis for cornerback Rock Ya-Sin. One thing that likely won’t change is Graham’s defense will rely heavily on Maxx Crosby and Jones to create pressure with just four down linemen.
Ya-Sin will need to play a big role in the Raiders’ otherwise thin secondary. Safety Tre’von Moehrig is a good piece, but the other safety spot is a question mark. Nate Hobbs was one of the better draft finds of the previous regime, but their other corner Trayvon Mullen is still rehabbing a foot injury.
In the secondary, on the interior defensive line, and across the board on the Raiders’ defense, depth is a major concern. On both sides of the ball, Vegas is not a team built to withstand their key players missing time.
The Raiders will face one of the most difficult schedules in the league. Outside the division, Vegas’ schedule includes games @Titans, @Saints, Colts, @Rams, Niners.
Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers entered the offseason with ample cap space and used it to significantly upgrade their defense.
LA traded a second-round pick to the Bears for Khalil Mack, who gives them another elite pass rusher to pair with Joey Bosa. Even if he’s lost a step, Mack is still very productive, and coming off an injury-plagued year, with a chance to make a playoff run, Mack will be motivated to play at a high level.
The Achilles heel of this defense in 2021 was the run defense, which ranked third worst in DVOA in the entire league. To address the problem, the Chargers made two key free agent signings, interior lineman Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson. Brandon Staley wants to play with light boxes, and those two give him the gap-eaters he needs to gum up the middle and force runs outside. Mack also provides a big lift in the run game.
LA’s most significant free agent pick-up was JC Jackson from New England. Jackson was the top corner available, and he gives them the elite, playmaking cover guy they were lacking last year while freeing up star, do-everything safety Derwin James to play more in the box. Alongside James, they have up-and-coming safety Nassir Adderley and also added Baylor’s JT Woods in the third round. The safety position has become increasingly important as teams operate almost entirely in subpackages, and the Chargers now have real depth and versatility on the back end.
The Chargers didn’t have the personnel to run Brandon Staley’s defense last year – now they do.
On the offensive side of the ball, Justin Herbert enters just his third season already among the best quarterbacks in the league. Beyond his obvious physical gifts, Herbert is already an elite processor and decision maker.
Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi was part of the offensive staff of the Brees-era Saints and is willing to slice and dice you all the way down the field. And while most onlookers would like to see Herbert use his cannon of an arm to attack downfield more, Herbert is exceptional at methodically picking defenses apart.
They didn’t add any extra speed to the offense this offseason, though they did add tight end Gerald Everett who is a speed upgrade over Jared Cook.
The right side of the offensive line was problematic a year ago, and first-round pick Zion Johnson immediately plugs a big hole at right guard. Johnson is considered one of the safest bets in the draft.
The Chargers elected not to pursue a veteran right tackle in free agency, projecting confidence that third-year tackle Trey Pipkins can take over the position. Pipkins played well in a few starts late in the season. On the left side, second-year left tackle Rashawn Slater has all-pro capability.
On paper, the Chargers have as few weaknesses as any team in the league. Pipkins has to prove he’s a viable starter, but the rest of the offensive line is rock solid. They still need to prove they can stop the run; pass rush depth behind Bosa and Mack and linebacker would be two areas of potential concern.
Herbert, Slater, Allen, Bosa, Mack, James, Jackson — there’s so much star power on this team. The Chargers have all the makings of a legitimate super bowl contender.
The Chargers schedule is not as difficult as the Chiefs. Their toughest non-divisional games are @Niners, @Colts, and a visit from the Rams. They’ll see the Dolphins and Titans at home in Week 14 and 15, two teams they could be competing with for a playoff spot.