Denver Broncos – 9 2015: 12-4
The Peyton Manning era is over in Denver. After watching Peyton struggle through last season it was great to see him hold up the Lombardi trophy one last time before he sets off into the sunset. But then the real work started for the Broncos. They had a slew of free agents and didn’t have the cap space to keep them all. It was pretty clear that they couldn’t resign Von Miller after his Super Bowl MVP performance and still pay Brock Osweiler top QB money (whether he deserved it or not is another story.) The Broncos decided to let Osweiler walk in free agency and focus on keeping their defense in tact. They franchise tagged Von Miller and were able to get a record setting deal done before the July 15 deadline. Malik Jackson (DE) and Danny Trevathan (ILB) left from the defensive side of the ball in free agency but were the only two. While the Broncos will miss Trevathan at times, they still have one of the best, if not the best, secondary in the league. Headlined by Aqib Talib (CB) and Chris Harris (CB), the Broncos secondary will still be one of the top units in the NFL. On the offensive side of the ball things will look a lot different. The Broncos will be starting 5 new offensive lineman compared to week 1 of 2015. The most notable newcomer along the line is Russell Okung (LT) from Seattle. The Broncos traded up in the first round to get Paxton Lynch (QB) out of Memphis but don’t expect him to start week 1. If the Broncos’ hand isn’t forced by injury or underperforming by Mark Sanchez (QB), the Broncos likely won’t play Lynch at all this year. While there are a lot of new faces on offense, the style of play will be the same. Sanchez is a perfect fit for a run heavy, bootleg offense that only requires short to intermediate passes. This team could look very similar to the 2009-2010 Jets teams that Mark Sanchez led to the AFC Conference Championship game. I expect Denver to lean on its defense and win 10 games.
Kansas City Chiefs – 9.5 2015: 11-5
The Kansas City Chiefs are going into their fourth season under Andy Reid and are once again expected to be a playoff team. Kansas City has gone 11-5, 9-7, and 11-5 under Reid, making the playoffs both seasons they won 11 games. In the 2015 NFL draft the Chiefs selected Marcus Peters (CB), the troubled cornerback who was kicked off the team at Washington but is ultra-talented. The Chiefs took a bit of a chance drafting Peters 22nd overall but they haven’t regretted it for one second. Peters won Rookie of the Year last season and is already one of the top 20 corners in the league while also managing to stay out of trouble. Peters helped the Chiefs to the 7th best defense in 2015, allowing only 17.4 points per game. Eric Berry (S) came back from battling Hodgkins disease to make the Pro Bowl in 2015 and was one of the truly heartwarming stories. Berry failed to reach a long term agreement with the Chiefs and will go into 2016 playing on the franchise tag. I look for Berry to have a little extra motivation this year to prove he deserves to be the highest paid safety in the league. The only downside to this team is the offense. Alex Smith is an above average NFL quarterback who will not make the flashy plays that win the game for his team but he certainly won’t be the reason they lose the game. The Chiefs offense played the majority of the year without Pro Bowl running back Jamaal Charles, who went down in week 5 with a torn ACL. Even though the Chiefs still finished sixth in rushing with 127 yards per game using a combination of Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware, the addition of Jamaal Charles to the offense should provide a huge boost for the offense. The Chiefs will win at least 9 games regardless of who goes down with injury, short of Alex Smith. I expect this team to win 11 games again this year.
Oakland Raiders – 8.5 2015: 7-9
The Oakland Raiders are a very popular pick to sneak into the playoffs this year, with some analysts predicting Oakland to win the division. They have certainly improved this offseason and the continued development of Derek Carr (QB) and Amari Cooper (WR) should help open up the running game which was only 28th last year in yards per game. The addition of Kelechi Osemele (RG) in free agency will also be a huge boost to the running game, as well as protecting Carr. The biggest addition to this team this year was Bruce Irvin (OLB). Irvin will play opposite Kahlil Mack (OLB) and accompany Mario Edwards (DE) and Dan Williams (DT) to make one of the better defensive lines in the league. The Raiders also added Sean Smith (CB) from the division rivals Chiefs and Karl Joseph (S) in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft out of West Virginia. The Raiders finished 2015 ranked 26th against the pass and the addition of Smith and Joseph should help, but David Amerson is still the team’s second cornerback which shows a huge lack of depth in the secondary. The Raiders also have work to do on upgrading their middle linebackers. As vicious as the combo of Irvin and Mack is on the outside, the combo of Malcolm Smith and Ben Heeney in the middle is the exact opposite and will cause issues for the defense stopping the run. This team has a lot of talent and tons of potential but I wouldn’t expect them to take the next step this season. This team still has large holes on the defense which will cost them games. I look for them to go .500 this season.
San Diego Chargers – 7 2015: 4-12
Poor Philip Rivers. Rivers is one of the more talented quarterbacks in the league but the team hasn’t provided him with a decent supporting cast, outside of Antonio Gates (TE), since 2011. Rivers continues to put up elite level stats, throwing for over 4,000 yards 7 of the past 8 seasons. The Chargers continue to make poor choices in the draft, their most recent example selecting Melvin Gordon (RB) in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Gordon managed just 641 yards and 3.5 yards per carry. He lacked the vision to find the open lane and read the defense and adjust accordingly. Gordon is still very young and can absolutely turn it around with the talent he showed at Wisconsin. The Chargers didn’t do anything to improve their offensive line this offseason despite there being an abundance of talent on the market. One thing they did do though was bring in speedy playmaking wide receiver Travis Benjamin. Benjamin caught 68 balls for 966 yards and 5 touchdowns last season, showing the ability to stretch the field with electrifying speed. If Benjamin can put up those numbers with the Browns last season, imagine what he will be able to do this year with Rivers as his QB and Keenan Allen (WR) opposite of him. Look for Benjamin to go over 1,100 yards and 75 catches. The biggest addition this offseason has been Joey Bosa (DE). The Chargers drafted Bosa third overall and he is expected to make an immediate impact. There have been reports of Bosa getting off to a slow start this offseason but I wouldn’t let that deter you too much. Bosa is a freakish talent that will be able to pressure the opposing quarterback starting week 1. On the opposite side of things, the biggest loss for the Chargers this year was Eric Weddle (S) leaving in free agency. Weddle has been one of the top safetys in the league for some time now and it will not be easy to replace his production. For a team that was tied for 14th with 293 passing yards allowed per game last season, they will need big time seasons from Jason Verrett (CB) and Brandon Flowers (CB). Verrett is one of the lesser known talents in the league – mainly because he plays for the Chargers – but don’t be mistaken, this guy is elite. But unless Verrett goes out and has 10-15 interceptions, this defense is going to struggle mightily in the passing game. I expect Allen to come back healthy and build on his momentum last year and at least make this an interesting team to watch, but they won’t get over 7 wins.