AFC West Preview: Futures for Chiefs, Chargers in 2023-24
Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images. Pictured: Jerick McKinnon (Chiefs)
Reasons for Optimism: Patrick Mahomes won his second Super Bowl and second MVP last season. In five seasons with Mahomes as the starting quarterback, the Chiefs have never failed to make the AFC Championship game. Despite losing Tyreek Hill, Mahomes led the NFL in passing yards (5,250) and touchdowns (41).
Despite entering his age-34 season, Travis Kelce has shown no signs of decline. He set career-highs in receptions (110) and touchdown catches (12) last season at age 33.
Harrison Butker enters 2023 healthy after playing most of last season with high-ankle sprain in his left leg, which likely played a part in him posting his worst field goal percentage (75.0%) and second-worst extra-point percentage (92.7%) of his career.
In 10 seasons under Andy Reid, the Chiefs have never had a losing season or finished below 10th in point differential.
Causes for Concern: Fresh off tying for fourth in the NFL in sacks (15.5) and earning First-Team All-Pro honors, Chris Jones is staging a holdout that will likely extend into the regular season. Jones is prepared to hold out until Week 8.
With Frank Clark (5.0 sacks) and Carlos Dunlap (4.0) not coming back and free agent signing Charles Omenihu (4.0) suspended the first six games, the pass rush was already going to be overreliant on Jones and will be a weakness for as long as he's out.
Outlook: The Chiefs are 9-1 towards the over under Reid, though they're 1-1 over the past two seasons. I'm not betting the under on a guy whose gone 9-1, but I do expect this season to be more of a struggle than most for the Chiefs.
The Chargers and Broncos will likely be improved from last season, and in addition to facing those teams twice each, Kansas City will also go up against a who's who of the AFC's top teams: at Jacksonville (Week 2), at Jets (Week 4), Miami (Week 9), Buffalo (Week 14) and Cincinnati (Week 17).
I expect the Chiefs to win 10-13 games while continuing to struggle to cover large spreads. Per our Action Labs data, Kansas City is just 9-23 (28.1%) against the spread when favored by more than a field goal dating back to November of 2020.
Future: Jerick McKinnon Under 700.5 Rushing + Receiving Yards -120 at DraftKings
McKinnon finished with 803 scrimmage yards last season, but is in for regression from both a volume and efficiency standpoint.
Volume-wise, his 128 touches were his most since his age-25 season in 2017. He's now entering his age-31 season and has missed 36 games over the past five years, so he's unlikely to play 17 games — as he did last season.
A healthy Clyde Edwards-Helaire will also be a factor. While Edwards-Helaire is now third on the depth chart behind Isiah Pacheco and McKinnon, he's still likely to have a larger role than most No. 3 running backs.
McKinnon averaged 9.0 touches for 63.2 yards in the seven games Edwards-Helaire missed. In the 10 games Edwards-Helaire played, McKinnon averaged just 6.5 touches for 36.1 yards — a 17-game pace of only 613.7 yards.
Efficiency-wise, McKinnon’s career-high 9.1 yards per reception from last year is likely to regress closer to his career average of 7.6, which would've knocked 84 yards off of his total last season.
Bet to: 600.5
Reasons for Optimism: Replacing Joe Lombardi with Kellen Moore at offensive coordinator should unlock the downfield passing game for Justin Herbert. Last season, Hebert’s 7.0 average depth of target ranked 36th of 40 qualified passers, per PFF, and it led to career lows in yards per attempt (6.8) and yards per completion (9.9).
Herbert should also have a better supporting cast. At wide receiver, Keenan Allen and Mike Williams project for better injury luck after combining to miss 11 games last season, and the team spent the 21st overall pick on TCU’s Quentin Johnston.
On the offensive line, Rashawn Slater enters the season healthy after missing all but three games last season. Slater graded out eighth of 83 qualified tackles at PFF in his 2021 rookie campaign and was just as good last season before going down.
The pass defense ranked 10th in DVOA in spite of edge rusher Joey Bosa and cornerback J.C. Jackson each appearing in just five games. Three players in the secondary earned top-20 percentile grades from PFF: safety Derwin James (86th percentile) and cornerbacks Michael Davis (84th) and Asante Samuel Jr. (81st).
At linebacker, they signed Eric Kendricks, who graded out top-15 against the run at PFF among 85 qualifiers, and moved on from Drue Tranquill, who was bottom-15.
Causes for Concern: The addition of Kendricks and a healthy Bosa may not be enough to turn around a run defense that was 29th in DVOA last season. Some of that is schematic — the Chargers prefer to concede runs if it means limiting explosive passes — but it has contributed to the Chargers' failure to finish better than 22nd in yards per play allowed in Brandon Staley's two seasons as head coach.
Jackson was a disaster in his first season in L.A., allowing 13.7 yards per target and four touchdowns on 27 targets in five games before suffering a ruptured patellar tendon.
Outlook: The Chargers have the quarterback and the talent on both sides of the ball to join the Chiefs, Bills and Bengals among the AFC's elite. The schedule is tough so they may only win 9-10 games, but they'll be dangerous in the playoffs with Herbert and a better offensive coordinator.
Future: Justin Herbert to Lead NFL in Passing Yards +600 at DraftKings/FanDuel
No quarterback with at least 40 starts in their first three seasons has averaged more passing yards per game than Justin Herbert’s 287.5.
Even in a down year last season that saw him average career-lows in aDOT (7.0), yards per attempt (6.8) and yards per completion (9.9), Herbert still finished second in passing yards (4,739) and third in passing yards per game (278.7).
With Moore calling the shots, Herbert’s aDOT should shoot up. Dak Prescott’s aDOT in four years under Moore was 8.9 — 1.9 yards higher than Herbert’s 7.0 mark last season and 1.4 yards higher than Herbert’s career average of 7.5.
In Prescott’s first year under Moore in 2019, he averaged 306.4 passing yards per game — an increase of 63.6 yards per game from the year prior. Overall, Prescott averaged 226.6 passing yards per game before Moore and 287.1 passing yards per game with Moore, an increase of 60.5 yards per game.
Mahomes led the NFL with 308.8 passing yards per game last season, so as little as one-third of the increase Prescott saw could bring home the yardage title for Herbert in 2023.
Bet to: +400
Future: Chargers to Win Super Bowl +2500 at DraftKings/bet365
The Chargers are stacked at the premium positions: Herbert at quarterback, Slater at left tackle, Allen/Williams/Johnston/Joshua Palmer at wide receiver, Bosa/Khalil Mack at edge rusher and Davis/Samuel/(maybe) Jackson at cornerback.
They also have blue-chip players at running back (Austin Ekeler), center (Corey Linsley) and safety (James). They have an aggressive, analytics-driven head coach in Staley and turned the staff's biggest weakness into a strength by replacing Lombardi with Moore.
Reaching the Super Bowl in the AFC likely means beating two of Mahomes, Joe Burrow and Josh Allen, and if I had to pick one quarterback to out-duel those guys, I'd take Herbert over 40-year-old Aaron Rodgers, Lamar Jackson, Trevor Lawrence, Tua Tagovailoa, Deshaun Watson and every other quarterback in the AFC (and NFC, for that matter).
Bet to: +1800
Reasons for Optimism: Nathaniel Hackett has been replaced by Sean Payton, who owns a .631 career winning percentage.
The Broncos figure to have better injury luck after finishing with the most Adjusted Games Lost in 2022. Other signs point to positive reversion to the mean, as well; the Broncos were 4-9 in one-score games and their point differential implied 6.3 Pythagorean wins, 1.3 more than their actual total.
Patrick Surtain made a Year 2 leap, grading out as PFF’s No. 2 cornerback among 118 qualifiers. The defense was seventh in DVOA against the pass and 10th overall and has the talent to perform at that level or better again.
A pass rush that finished 26th in sack rate (5.6%) should be improved this season with Randy Gregory healthy and the additions of Zach Allen and Frank Clark.
Causes for Concern: Russell Wilson might just be cooked. Here is his QBR over the past three seasons:
- 2020: 67.1 (8th of 35)
- 2021: 54.7 (10th of 31)
- 2022: 36.7 (28th of 33)
The annual wide receiver injury bloodbath is already underway. Tim Patrick was lost for the year with a torn Achilles, and Jerry Jeudy is dealing with a hamstring injury that could cause him to miss regular-season games.
Outlook: Payton has a track record of exceeding expectations. He's 9-4-2 (69.2%) towards the over on win totals and has won nearly half of his games as an underdog (36-41; .468).
With that said, nearly his entire tenure was spent with Drew Brees at quarterback and his offenses played the majority of their games indoors.
Ultimately, this comes down to Wilson. If he's right, I could see this team winning 11 games. If he's not, I see this team winning no more than six games.
Reasons for Optimism: Maxx Crosby is one of the best pass rushers in the game and is coming off a career-high 12.5 sacks.
The Raiders were unlucky last season; they went 4-9 in one-score games and their Pythagorean win total was 7.9, 1.9 wins higher than their actual total.
Left tackle Kolton Miller and right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor earned PFF grades that ranked sixth and 21st, respectively, of 81 qualified tackles last season.
With strong bookends, a strong running game led by last year's rushing leader Josh Jacobs and a good group of pass catchers featuring Davante Adams, Jakobi Meyers, Hunter Renfrow, Michael Mayer, and Austin Hooper, Jimmy Garoppolo is set up for success.
Causes for Concern: Crosby and newly-signed cornerback Marcus Peters are the only two projected defensive starters to earn above-average PFF grades last season. Still, Peters’ 65.9 grade was one of the lowest of his career, and he's now on the wrong side of 30.
The defense was 26th in points allowed last season and hasn't finished better than 20th in that category since 2006.
Garoppolo missed 31 games over the past five seasons and has played a full season only once. And although he has more familiarity with Josh McDaniels' system than Derek Carr did entering last season, he also hasn't played for McDaniels since 2017.
Shanahan's system is arguably superior to McDaniels', so there could be growing pains and/or a regression from the quarterback we've seen in San Francisco for the past half-decade.
Adams admitted that he and the front office “don’t see eye-to-eye” on what they think is best for the offense. The acquisition of Garoppolo likely means fewer passes thrown downfield and outside the numbers, so it's understandable to see why Adams isn't thrilled.
That should lead to a decrease from their 17 interceptions — which were tied for fourth-most — but it's fair to wonder if the efficiency will also take a step back after the Raiders were 11th in net yards per attempt (6.3).
Outlook: The Raiders figure to have an above-average offense (when healthy) and a bad defense. Their best-case scenario is probably no better than 8-9 wins.
That would likely require netting 4-5 wins from a non-divisional home slate that — save for the Jets — is mostly littered with mediocre teams (Steelers. Packers, Patriots, Giants, Vikings), winning at Chicago in Week 7 and at Indianapolis in Week 17, and winning at least two division games (they went 3-3 in the division last season).
However, it also wouldn't be a shock to see the Raiders lose to most of the aforementioned opponents, so the floor is as low as 2-3 wins.
Garoppolo's injury history and McDaniels' .378 career winning percentage don't inspire much confidence that the Raiders can hit the high end of their range of outcomes.