With the dawn of a new NFL season almost upon us, we're going division by division to highlight the players and storylines to watch in 2018. Nick Shook tackles the AFC West below.
Most significant changes from 2017
For half of this division, the answer is the same: quarterback.
While the Chiefs bid Alex Smith adieu and replaced him with anointed successor Patrick Mahomes (more on him later), Broncos GM John Elway went the free agency route, luring Case Keenum to Denver after missing out on Kirk Cousins. The results were mixed in the preseason, but Keenum still provides more optimism than any of the previous quarterbacks who have stepped into the role after the retirement of Peyton Manning. Denver also attempted to address its offensive line (again), though the jury remains out on how well the revamped group will perform.
Kansas City is also dealing with the aftermath of trading away Marcus Peters and watching Terrance Mitchell leave via free agency. Chiefs GM Brett Veach replaced the two by acquiring Kendall Fuller in the Alex Smith trade and allowing Steven Nelson to elevate into the starting gig, but the secondary as a whole has struggled in the preseason. On the positive side, Kansas City also brought in inside linebacker Anthony Hitchens, who was one of my favorite NFC linebackers in recent years when he was with Dallas. He's only played one preseason game, but he should help a defense that might be worse than expected in 2018.
Beyond the Most Important Position in Football, an equally momentous change arrived in the form of a scowl and a headset. Jon Gruden is again in charge of the Oakland Raiders and hasn't taken long to leave his impression on the squad, jettisoning punter Marquette King, acquiring (and later releasing) Martavis Bryant, trading for AJ McCarron after deeming his backups inadequate and most importantly, shipping out Khalil Mack to Chicago for two first-round picks. Reggie McKenzie is still the GM, but the Raiders are acting unlike they did in previous years. It's a new world with Gruden in the building.
As for the Chargers, minimal change was the best kind during the offseason -- except for kicker. The position that burned the Bolts in 2017 has been addressed, and the defense received an unexpected reinforcement with the selection of Derwin James, who is closing in on a starting spot. Another sneaky player to watch is rookie linebacker Uchenna Nwosu, who was a wrecking ball off the edge while at USC and has provided tape that suggests his skills will translate rather quickly to the NFL game.
Health will again be key for the Chargers, though. They've already lost budding star tight end Hunter Henry to a torn ACL and snake-bitten CB Jason Verrett to a torn Achilles. But L.A. is welcoming back 2017 second-round pick Forrest Lamp, who hasn't played an NFL game due to his own knee injury suffered last year. Lamp should challenge for a starting job when fully healthy, per coach Anthony Lynn, and it's getting to be about that time. When Lamp's inserted into the lineup as a right guard (he played left tackle in college), Los Angeles suddenly will have one of the better lines in the league to go along with an offense that is loaded with talent at the skill positions. It's time for folks in L.A. to get excited about the other new team in town.
One player to watch on each team
DENVER BRONCOS: Case Keenum, quarterback. The case (lazy pun unintended) can also be made for Courtland Sutton here, but let's try to temper our expectations with rookies for a moment. As we all know, the Broncos' fate rests on the shoulders of their quarterback -- and offensive line, if we're being completely honest. The jury is out on the latter, but Keenum set a rather high bar for himself with his stellar 2017 campaign in Minnesota. There's no guarantee he does the same in Denver with a lesser receiving corps that features two 30-or-older targets in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. But an offense with a healthy Sanders is much better than it was without him last season. Add in Sutton, and the Broncos could have a solid trio of targets for Keenum. The question remains: Can the 30-year-old QB keep up his surprising play, or will he regress back to what we've expected from him? The cynic (and realist) chooses the latter, while the optimist (dressed in orange) selects the former. This is why they play the games.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Patrick Mahomes, quarterback. The future in Kansas City still needs to work on his pocket presence -- namely, when to stay in it and when to escape (he leans toward the latter as of now, a lingering effect from his time at Texas Tech) -- but the tantalizing arm is undoubtedly there. He showed off that cannon in Week 2 of the preseason on a rainbow strike to Tyreek Hill for a 69-yard touchdown, but the throw that impressed me even more was one he made off balance a week later while being pressured. Mahomes has also largely done what a team wants from a young quarterback from a statistical perspective in the preseason: 31 of 43 passing, 367 yards, two touchdowns and just one interception. If he keeps making those plays and posting similar stat lines, Kansas City will forget about Alex Smith real quick.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS: Derwin James, safety. This marriage was so perfect on paper (and has been in the preseason), I picked James as the favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year. He steps into a unit that finished third in the league in points allowed per game (17.0) last season and is arguably better, thanks to its offseason additions. The problem on the back end could be depth at cornerback after Verrett's latest injury, but Casey Hayward (No. 59 in "The Top 100 Players of 2018") remains to hold down the other half of the field. This adds a little pressure to James, but as he's proven in the preseason, he possesses both the talent and athleticism to make an impact from opening kickoff. His interception of Drew Brees might have been precipitated by a questionable read on the part of the quarterback, but it also required high-level closing speed and hand-eye coordination to sprint, leap and intercept the pass. Plays like that will take this defense to another level.
OAKLAND RAIDERS: Kolton Miller, offensive tackle. In a draft that wasn't the strongest at tackle, the Raiders ignored that and addressed what they see as a need in the near future. Donald Penn's subsequent pay cut confirmed that thought, as has his shift to right tackle. Instead of easing the rookie into the fold at RT (which is a bit of an overblown thought when it comes to the position, considering division foe Von Miller primarily rushes from that side), the Raiders have Miller playing left tackle. Baptism by fire for the former UCLA Bruin. He's one to watch, because A) protecting Derek Carr is paramount, especially after what happened last season, and B) his play will affect how Oakland approaches the future at the position. It's an early, high-pressure test, arriving at Miller's doorstep just as he becomes comfortable with being one-fifth of one of the league's top five offensive lines.
If we can have a bonus choice, it goes to defensive end Arden Key, who was bashed for his work ethic at LSU but has received glowing reviews during camp. His continued improvement (and potential immediate contribution) could make the Khalil Mack trade a little easier to bear for the Silver and Black.
What we'll be talking about at season's end
Gruden's return wasn't sunshine and roses, but the Raiders were more exciting than most expected. It's too bad they couldn't get that elusive road win in Kansas City when they needed it most. Denver is back to the drawing board and might finally invest in a young right tackle they've so desperately needed. Consider John Elway's seat warm. Chiefs fans miss Alex Smith a little, but they miss a lockdown defense and the postseason more. The Chargers are in the Super Bowl?! Yes, the Chargers are in the Super Bowl.