With free agency and the draft firmly behind us, it's time to get a lay of the land in each and every division as we march towards training camp. We started off with the NFC West, and now it's the home of the Super Bowl champions, the AFC West.
Quarterback: San Diego, Oakland, Kansas City, Denver
Phillip Rivers has quietly been one of the NFL's most consistent passers over the past decade, throwing for over 4000 yards in every season but three in the past decade. Last year he threw for a career high 4792 yards with 29 touchdowns and 13 interceptions behind a makeshift offensive line, a disappointing rookie running back and an underwhelming receiving core. One of the game's iron-men, there's no reason to think 2016 will be different for Rivers. Both Derek Carr and Alex Smith achieved career highs in passing yards in 2015; Carr threw for 3987 yards in his age 24 season while Smith threw for 3486 yards at age 31. Carr improved mightily from an impressive rookie campaign, while Smith enjoyed the luxury of a true number-one wide receiver for the first time in perhaps his career. Paxton Lynch is as impressive a player as he is a person, but anytime Trevor Siemian is reportedly ‘In the quarterback mix,' it's never a good sign.
Running Back: Kansas City, Denver, Oakland, San Diego
The Kansas City Chiefs were once again a run-first team in 2015. The team placed sixth in total rushing in the league, with over 80% of their total rushing yards coming after Jamaal Charles was lost for the season partway through week five. Despite suffering the second torn ACL of his career, Charles, combined with his understudies Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware, should combine to make a sturdy running attack again in 2016. While the Broncos made a bit of a blunder of his contract situation, CJ Anderson will be back in Denver in 2016. He, combined with fellow returnee Ronnie Hillman and rookie Devontae Booker, should be able to carry the load for the Broncos and help keep the ball out of the hands of Mark Sanchez. An outstanding offensive line helped Raiders running back Latavius Murray hit the 1000-yard mark in 2015. Unfortunately for the Raiders, the rest of the team managed just 391 yards on the ground. Oakland needs more help at the position and it's not on the roster. One of the four teams to rush for less yards in 2015 than the Raiders was the Chargers! Forgettable play in his rookie season by Melvin Gordon was overshadowed by Ronnie Brown and Danny Woodhead, saying it all for me.
Wide Receiver: Denver, Oakland, San Diego, Kansas City
Some of the league's worst quarterback play in 2015 didn't stop both Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas from breaking 1000 yards for the second straight season since they joined forces in Denver. While both the group behind them and the quarterback position looks shady, the value of two legitimate starting receivers can't be overstated. After being persona non grata in his first foray into free agency in 2015, Michael Crabtree salvaged a career and a payday playing a big part in Carr's growth this past season. Tying career highs in both catches and touchdowns, Crabtree resigned in Oakland and looks to have nailed down a role opposite the super-rookie that was Amari Cooper. Keenan Allen is healthy, happy and paid; Travis Benjamin was a nice pickup in free agency coming off a career year; Stevie Johnson started brightly back in the slot before injuries hit. The Chargers could enjoy a strong passing attack if all goes well in 2016. Jeremy Maclin gave Alex Smith a true number-one receiver in 2015 and they flourished together. Behind that, however, is bleak. Albert Wilson and Rod Streater makeup options B and C barring a big step from sophomore Chris Conley.
Tight End: Kansas City, San Diego, Oakland, Denver
Travis Kelce looks to be every part of the next great complete NFL tight end, catching 72 passes in 2015 while starting all 16 games for the first time. Despite starting just four games last season, Antonio Gates continues to be ageless. Losing Ladarius Green hurts but the selection of Hunter Henry in this year's draft will help San Diego keep Gates productive and healthy. What is supposed to be a breakout 2016 got off to a bad start when a freak accident left Clive Walford needing surgery, but all signs point to the sophomore tight end being ready to go when training camp rolls around. Owen Daniels and Vernon Davis are gone in Denver, replaced by former reserves Virgil Green and Jeff Heuerman; an unknown and unproven duo who combine for 35 career catches, all of which belong to the former.
Offensive Line: Oakland, San Diego, Denver, Kansas City
The Raiders have built one of the NFL's best offensive line units, highlighted by the interior wrecking crew of Gabe Jackson, Rodney Hudson and Kelechi Osemele. They had to overpay to bring back left tackle Donald Penn, but the money is worth the continuity. A revolving door of who's who in 2015, the Chargers offensive line (similar to the rest of the team) could be in line for a big improvement in 2016 if healthy. They're returning four starters with just veteran center Matt Slauson a newcomer. The Broncos redid their line in the offseason, bringing in Russell Okung and Donald Stephenson in free agency to join Matt Paradis and Max Garcia along with rookie Connor McGovern on the refurbished line. Okung could bring consistency to the left tackle spot but, as Seahawks fans know, health is the $48 million dollar
option question. The Chiefs upgraded the right tackle spot in free agency, replacing Stephenson with Mitch Schwartz. Beyond that it's a worry, highlighted by Eric Fisher again being trotted out at left tackle.
Defensive Line: Oakland, Denver, Kansas City, San Diego
After suffering a scary season-ending neck injury last season, Raiders defensive end Mario Edwards was cleared to play in 2016 earlier this offseason. He'll again be joined by Justin Ellis, who enjoyed one of the better seasons for run-stuffers in 2015, and Dan Williams. With one of the game's premier pass rushers in Khalil Mack on the other side, the Raiders are building a fearsome defensive line. Despite losing Maliek Jackson in free agency, the Broncos look to be in good shape at that spot heading into 2016. Derek Wolfe resigned for a fraction of what he could've gotten on the open market, Sylvester Williams is a force in the middle, and Jared Crick was brought in from Houston to replace Jackson at a fraction of the price. Both Dontari Poe and Jaye Howard played the best football of their career's last year, with the latter turning it into a payday and the former to follow. With veteran Allen Bailey occupying the other side, and rookie Chris Jones waiting in the wings, the Chiefs should be as formidable as ever in run defense this year. Corey Liuget has been one of the best defenders on a bad Chargers defense for several years, and San Diego has rewarded him by getting him some help. Brandon Mebane was signed in free agency and the team used the third overall selection on Joey Bosa in this year's draft.
Linebacker: Denver, Kansas City, Oakland, San Diego
While the team still tries to work out a long-term extension with Von Miller, the Broncos have been singing the praises of Todd Davis. Davis, a former rookie free agent, is expected to fill the spot vacated by Danny Trevethan's departure. Assuming Miller is back in the building for September, the duo along with Demarcus Ware and the recently extended Brandon Marshall are more than enough to keep the Broncos linebackers a strong group. Justin Houston's status for 2016 is unclear following news of a knee injury late this offseason; that aside, however, the Chiefs will be trotting out one of the league's most consistent linebacker groups once more. Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson will be starting their tenth straight season together, with Josh Mauga joining Johnson inside after a productive 2015. Bruce Irvin has joined Malcolm Smith in Oakland playing for ex-Seahawks linebackers coach Ken Norton, who got 100 tackles out of Smith in his first full season as a starter. The duo is expected to be joined by Ben Heeney in the middle after the second year player started a few times down the stretch last season. Melvin Ingram started all sixteen games last year for the first time in his career, achieving double digits in sacks along the way. He, along with Denzel Perryman and Jeremiah Attaochu, have finally given San Diego speed and talent at the linebacker spot after years of average play from Donald Butler and Manti Te'o.
Cornerback: Denver, San Diego, Kansas City, Oakland
It remains to be seen if Aqib Talib will miss any games after a shooting incident last week; regardless, the Broncos are deep at the position with Chris Harris Jr manning the other side of the field, where he went over twenty weeks without allowing a touchdown. Both Harris and Bradley Roby's ability to play inside or outside gives the Broncos strong depth in sub packages as well. Jason Verrett took another step towards being one of the game's premier cornerbacks in his second year, increasing his interception total from one to three and breaking up twelve passes while matching up with number-one receivers every week. Verrett, combined with the strong play from Brandon Flowers during his time in San Diego along with newcomer Casey Heyward, makes the uncertainty behind them easier to swallow. Marcus Peters was terrific in his rookie season, earning 2nd team All-Pro and Defensive Rookie of the Year honors while leading the NFL with eight interceptions. While he lost his running mate in Sean Smith, Phillip Gaines is expected to step in with promising rookies KeiVarae Russell and Eric Murray waiting in the wings. I don't want to go up against the type of corner they're collecting in Kansas City. For all the good the Raiders did addressing their defense this offseason, the cornerback spot remains a huge need. Sean Smith was brought over from the Chiefs, but is it enough to slow down the receivers in the division?
Safety: Kansas City, Oakland, Denver, San Diego
Eric Berry rebounded wonderfully from Hodgkin's lymphoma to win the Comeback Player of the Year award as well as being named first team All-Pro for the second time. Healthy and soon to be paid, Berry has regained his rightful place among the elites at his position. Some of Oakland's issues on the back end may be disguised by the terrific work done at the safety spot by Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie this offseason. Co-interceptions leader Reggie Nelson was signed to a modest deal, while the team drafted former West Virginia safety Karl Joseph in the first round. TJ Ward enjoyed a much better season in Denver in his second season and he's joined by Darian Stewart, one of the Broncos most impactful players during their Super Bowl run. Similiar to the safety spot potentially saving the cornerback uncertainty in Oakland, the safety position in San Diego could be to Verrett and co.'s detriment. Jahleel Addae and Dwight Lowery combine to form an awfully uninspiring duo.
There you have the AFC West! Let me know in the comments if there's any you disagree with, or anything you think I missed.