Skip to main content

AFC West projected starters: Chiefs remain in driver's seat, but is gap narrowing?

With the 2021 NFL Draft and most of free agency in the rearview, Gregg Rosenthal will project starting lineups for all 32 teams because that's his idea of fun. Check out the AFC West breakdowns below.

Table inside Article
QB Teddy Bridgewater DL Shelby Harris
RB Melvin Gordon DL Dre'Mont Jones
WR Courtland Sutton OLB Von Miller
WR Jerry Jeudy ILB A.J. Johnson
WR Tim Patrick ILB Josey Jewell
TE Noah Fant OLB Bradley Chubb
LT Garett Bolles CB Patrick Surtain II
LG Dalton Risner CB Kyle Fuller
C Lloyd Cushenberry CB Ronald Darby
RG Graham Glasgow S Justin Simmons
RT Bobby Massie S Kareem Jackson
  • NFL Network's Michael Silver spent the entire draft weekend embedded with the Broncos' front office, then wrote that Teddy Bridgewater is the team’s presumptive starter. I'll presume that's a highly informed presumption. Bridgewater over Drew Lock makes sense. Vic Fangio is a defensive coach with a prospective top-five defense who wants his quarterback to limit turnovers. Bridgewater may not be exciting, but he makes fewer mistakes than Lock and has performed at a far higher level as a pro. In some ways, Teddy has lived a charmed life over the last three years. He played with excellent coaching and talent in New Orleans and Carolina, but this Broncos group of weapons could be the best he's played with yet.
  • Javonte Williams was my favorite runner in this draft, and he'll only be asked to share the work with Melvin Gordon. Albert Okwuegbunam looked like one of the most explosive tight ends in the league as a rookie before tearing his ACL, yet he's backing up an even more explosive player in Noah Fant.
  • The depth is similar at wide receiver. It's outrageous that I had to consider not listing a player as skilled as Tim Patrick as a starter. Patrick had 742 yards last season, proving he can be a quality outside starter. Ultimately, he and second-year slot receiver KJ Hamler should play supporting roles behind Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy.
  • Jeudy's rookie season was a lot better than people realize. His drops were a problem, but his ability to get open came as advertised. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur has a surplus of players who can win matchups.
  • The offensive line and quarterback are the question marks, same as ever in Post-Peyton Denver. Guard Graham Glasgow didn't deliver as an expensive free agent. Ja'Wuan James' season-ending injury left the Broncos short at right tackle again. It's a below-average group overall.
  • It's hard to find much to improve upon with this Broncos defense. Perhaps at inside linebacker, where Fangio is the rare defensive coach still asking for his starters to stay on the field for 1,000 snaps. Fangio has a history of coaching up surprising players to strong production, which has been the case with A.J. Johnson and Josey Jewell.
  • Dre'Mont Jones and Shelby Harris were a quietly terrific duo last year up front. Von Miller only needs to be somewhat close to his previous form to make this front highly dangerous.
  • The secondary could be the best in football. No other team has an argument to have the best cornerback group and best safety tandem in the league.
  • Taking Patrick Surtain II over Justin Fields could define this organization for years, but it gives Denver an outrageous collection of cornerbacks, with excellent slot corner Bryce Callahan not even listed above. The variety of styles at cornerback gives Fangio so many options to match up with opponents in his third year running the Denver defense.
  • A boffo offense and an average defense can win Super Bowls in today's NFL. The Broncos are trying the reverse approach. While there is far less margin for error going this route, Denver's version of an "everything breaks right" season has a high ceiling that could even include a division title.
Table inside Article
QB Patrick Mahomes DE Frank Clark
RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire DT Chris Jones
WR Tyreek Hill DT Jarran Reed
WR Mecole Hardman DE Taco Charlton
WR Demarcus Robinson LB Anthony Hitchens
TE Travis Kelce LB Nick Bolton
LT Orlando Brown Jr. CB Charvarius Ward
LG Joe Thuney CB L'Jarius Sneed
C Creed Humphrey CB Rashad Fenton
RG Laurent Duvernay-Tardif S Tyrann Mathieu
RT Mike Remmers S Juan Thornhill
  • The team's maniacal determination to fix the offensive line came at some cost, with the Chiefs looking thinner than usual at the skill positions. They are an injury to Tyreek Hill or Travis Kelce away from not having enough friends for Patrick Mahomes to throw to. The Chiefs made it clear they believed they needed another weapon when they went after JuJu Smith-Schuster in free agency. This offense would look a lot better with JuJu in place.
  • Yes, when you have to break into injury contingencies as the only negatives to an offense, it's probably the best offense in the league.
  • Mecole Hardman didn't develop in Year 2 the way many expected. Kansas City needs him even more this year.
  • I love the investment the Chiefs made in their offensive line, but that doesn't guarantee this is a top-10 group. At least three positions will have training camp battles, with Kyle Long coming out of retirement to compete with Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, who opted out of the 2020 season. Center Creed Humphrey is a rookie, and right tackle remains a weakness, with Lucas Niang, another 2020 opt-out, competing with Mike Remmers. As Mahomes and coach Andy Reid have proven, the Chiefs' offensive line generally just has to be fine, not dominant. That should happen here and the depth gives the Chiefs options in case of injury.
  • The top-heavy nature to Kansas City's roster doesn't only exist on offense. Just look at defensive end, where the Chiefs have one of the highest-paid players at his position (Frank Clark) complemented by Taco Charlton, who's on his third team. This may be the thinnest position group on the team and is begging for a veteran addition.
  • The Chiefs need to start developing their own defensive talent. Off-ball linebacker Willie Gay Jr. improving in his second year or Nick Bolton earning a big role as a rookie would be a start.
  • In an era when most teams are spending big dollars and draft capital on cornerbacks, general manager Brett Veach and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo deserve praise for finding and developing young, unheralded talent. L'Jarius Sneed played better than some first-rounders last season, and the Chiefs have managed to produce good-to-average pass defenses despite the low wattage.
  • Tyrann Mathieu, of course, is a human mistake eraser.
  • I'm not sure this is a top-10 roster if you replace Mahomes with Kirk Cousins, and I'm not sure it matters. The Chiefs have the best chance to win the AFC of any team, but the gap appears narrower with the rest of the AFC in Mahomes' fourth season as a starter.
Table inside Article
QB Derek Carr DE Yannick Ngakoue
RB Josh Jacobs DT Quinton Jefferson
WR Henry Ruggs III DT Johnathan Hankins
WR John Brown DE Clelin Ferrell
WR Hunter Renfrow LB Cory Littleton
TE Darren Waller LB Nick Kwiatkoski
LT Kolton Miller CB Trayvon Mullen
LG Richie Incognito CB Damon Arnette
C Andre James CB Amik Robertson
RG Denzelle Good S Johnathan Abram
RT Alex Leatherwood S Trevon Moehrig
  • All the attention on the offensive line this offseason makes sense because it's been the bedrock of the team throughout the Derek Carr era. It has made the underrated, if slow, Jon Gruden offense go over the last two years.
  • It's worth noting that the Raiders knew what interior linemen Andre James and Denzelle Good could do before they made big changes. If James and Good struggle, it's because of poor self-scouting.
  • The best chance for Las Vegas' offense to stave off decline or even improve would be if second-year wideouts Henry Ruggs III and Bryan Edwards take big steps forward. For now, I've listed John Brown as a starter because a healthy John Brown may still be better than any other wideout on this roster.
  • The Raiders will use three receivers less than most teams anyhow because backup tight ends Fabian Moreau and Derek Carrier will have significant roles, as will fullback Alec Ingold. I'd argue that Gruden's approach of zigging while the rest of the league zags has mostly worked the last two years on offense, constructing above-average units with average talent. It's just that the defense has not allowed the team to win.
  • With that said, the Raiders' decision to spend big money on backup running back Kenyan Drake was curious after investing a first-round pick in Josh Jacobs. Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock are doubling down on their strategy to condense their offense.
  • If Carr plays as well in 2021 as he did a year ago, he could and should probably start stumping for a new contract.
  • At least the Raiders have continued to try to fix this defense, even if all the draft picks and money haven't helped so far. Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley is familiar with Yannick Ngakoue from their days in Jacksonville and should focus on what Ngakoue does well with his speed rushes.
  • Maxx Crosby was not quite as good in his second season. Crosby, Clelin Ferrell and Ngakoue figure to rotate snaps at defensive end. Defensive tackle remains uninspiring, if deeper.
  • Can Bradley save the signing of Cory Littleton? Linebacker was supposed to be a strength for the Raiders last season, and it turned into a disaster. If Littleton can't turn it around, rookie Divine Deablo is waiting in the wings.
  • At least the Raiders' defense has more backup plans throughout the roster. The starting 11 doesn't include a lot of difference-makers, but the depth is better at defensive tackle and in the secondary, where cornerback Rasul Douglas and safety Karl Joseph aren't listed above.
  • This take could get me in trouble, but Trayvon Mullen and Damon Arnette showed up more in a good way on film than you'd think considering their early reputations. I wouldn't give up on their potential just yet.
  • Johnathan Abram is a bigger concern at safety. The Raiders can't keep playing him if he continues to make big mistakes, and they need rookie safety Trevon Moehrig to come out of the gates faster than the team's recent picks in the secondary.
  • This is a middle-of-the-pack roster with middle-of-the-pack results over the last two years. I don't think the sky is falling, but another 7-to-8-win season would be unsatisfying in Gruden's fourth year back in charge.
Table inside Article
QB Justin Herbert DT Linval Joseph
RB Austin Ekeler DT Justin Jones
WR Keenan Allen OLB Joey Bosa
WR Mike Williams OLB Uchenna Nwosu
WR Josh Palmer ILB Kenneth Murray
TE Jared Cook LB Drue Tranquill
LT Rashawn Slater CB Chris Harris Jr.
LG Matt Feiler CB Michael Davis
C Corey Linsley CB Asante Samuel Jr.
RG Oday Aboushi S Derwin James
RT Bryan Bulaga S Nasir Adderley
  • It's a shame that Justin Herbert has to change offenses after one of the best rookie quarterback seasons of all time, especially under an unproven coordinator like Joe Lombardi. It's not a shame that Herbert should get better pass protection and more help from his defense this season.
  • Offensive lines can't fully be trusted until they play together, especially if they wear Charger Blue. But the Bolts have clearly upgraded at left tackle, left guard and center. I've been wrong about general manager Tom Telesco's attempts to improve this unit before, but if healthy, this group really does look average at worst. Average is all Philip Rivers ever wanted!
  • The Chargers' pass-catching group doesn't look as imposing with Hunter Henry gone. Jared Cook will catch passes but has a tendency to make big mistakes, too.
  • I also would have loved Los Angeles to add another veteran receiver to this mix. Josh Palmer profiles as a possible replacement for Mike Williams in 2022, but the team could use another chain mover.
  • Add the Chargers to the list of teams that would look a whole lot better with Julio Jones on the roster. They could fit him under the salary cap, it makes football sense and it wouldn't hurt their efforts to get Bolts fans to their new stadium.
  • First-year head coach Brandon Staley is expected to bring more of a 3-4 approach to the Chargers. The weakness to this unit is on the defensive line, where Justin Jones, Jerry Tillery and Linval Joseph aren't an imposing trio. There isn't much depth behind them, either.
  • To put it another way: Offenses will be able to give Joey Bosa as much attention as possible without worrying about many other front-seven players winning one-on-one matchups.
  • Kenneth Murray, like a lot of recent rookie linebackers, was overwhelmed at times by the responsibilities of the pro game. He's a heady player who should improve in Year 2, and Drue Tranquill was in line for a strong season in 2020 before he got hurt.
  • This is a boom-or-bust secondary. Staley should help schematically, so it's on Chris Harris Jr. to keep beating Father Time, Asante Samuel Jr. to live up to his lineage and Derwin James to stay on the field. That's a lot of ifs, but the upside is tremendous.
  • Every year, the Chargers' roster looks great in this exercise. Most years, they disappoint amidst an avalanche of injuries. Herbert is why I think this year could be different because any rookie who plays like a top-10 quarterback has a chance -- a chance! -- to play near an MVP level in Year 2.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter.

Related Content