AJ Mast / AP
Tuesday, May 19, 2020 | 2 a.m.
Life in the NFL gets a little more difficult when the Super Bowl champion resides in your division. It’s even more of an uphill battle when, like the Kansas City Chiefs, that champ is poised for a lengthy reign atop the standings.
Having to deal with the Chiefs and their turbo offense twice a year is no joke. Denver Broncos’ All-Pro linebacker Von Miller said it best in an interview last week, when he set aside his pride and reasoned that a defense-first approach would not be a wise counter to Kansas City.
“Can’t,” Miller said when asked how an opponent might stop the KC attack. “We’ve just got to score points … We’ve got to score on offense because you cannot — it’s not smart to go into the game and say we’re going to hold Patrick Mahomes to no points.”
The Raiders seem to agree with Miller’s sentiment, as Las Vegas has spent the offseason adding offensive weapons in order to keep pace with Kansas City — and the rest of the division.
The AFC West has been stockpiling talent at the skill positions, with each of the four teams rostering multiple stars at the running back, tight end and wide receiver positions. It’s one of the most offensive-minded divisions in the league, which is undoubtedly a response to KC’s ability to score at will.
So which AFC West team is best equipped to win a shootout? For the purposes of this ranking of the division’s skill positions, we’re focusing on the top five contributors for each team (not including quarterback). Depth is important, but the starters are the main consideration here. And we’re also only looking ahead to the 2020 season because while building for the future is smart, youth does not always equal present production.
Let’s rank the division’s best weapons:
1. Kansas City Chiefs
Running back: Clyde Edwards-Helaire
Tight end: Travis Kelce
Wide receivers: Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Mecole Hardman
The Chiefs are the envy of every team in the NFL when it comes to weapons. Travis Kelce can make a claim as the league’s best receiving tight end, as he’s a lock for 1,100 yards every season. Kelce also never misses a game and he’s heading into his age-31 season, so he figures to have at least one more prime campaign left. Tyreek Hill is the most feared big-play receiver in the league, and Sammy Watkins and Mecole Hardman have the speed to thrive when secondaries are forced to focus on Kelce and Hill.
Running back was the one weak spot, as Damian Williams was just OK, but the Chiefs thought enough of Clyde Edwards-Helaire as a runner and receiver to use a first-round pick on him. That’s scary to think about. With a generic RB, the Chiefs were the best offense in the league and now they’ve got another dual-threat weapon with which to shred defenses.
Barring injury or suspension (always a possibility with Hill), this is the best set of skill players in the AFC West — and probably the NFL.
2. Las Vegas Raiders
Running back: Josh Jacobs
Tight end: Darren Waller
Wide receivers: Tyrell Williams, Henry Ruggs, Hunter Renfrow
The Raiders can claim the best all-around back in the division, as Jacobs rushed for 1,150 yards and seven touchdowns in 13 games last year, and Darren Waller is right up there with Kelce as the top tight end after posting 1,145 yards and three TDs. Those positions are loaded.
Where Las Vegas lags behind is at receiver. Veteran Tyrell Williams is as regular as they come, as he’s good for 600-700 yards and five touchdowns on a yearly basis. And while the team invested heavily in No. 12 overall pick Henry Ruggs, he has to prove he’s more of a receiver and not just a speed/gadget option on the outside. Hunter Renfrow is the best No. 3 receiver in the division.
The Raiders know they need to upgrade their receiving options, as Mike Mayock and Jon Gruden used consecutive third-round picks on Lynn Bowden and Bryan Edwards. But until one of them can overtake Williams on the depth chart, they are speculative (if intriguing) pieces.
Top-end talent at tight end and running back is buoying the Las Vegas offense. If you want to look at it in a positive light, it means the team has a lot of room to improve if they hit on their young receivers.
3. Los Angeles Chargers
Running back: Austin Ekeler
Tight end: Hunter Henry
Wide receivers: Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, K.J. Hill
The Chargers let Melvin Gordon walk this offseason but will be fine without him, thanks to an exceedingly talented group of skill players, starting with running back Austin Ekeler. Last year, Ekeler took on a bigger role in the offense and delivered 557 rushing yards, 993 receiving yards and 11 total touchdowns. Heading into his age-25 season, Ekeler is primed for a career year.
Keenan Allen is a reliable, high-volume target as the No. 1 receiver (1,199 yards, six touchdowns), and Mike Williams broke out last year with 1,001 yards on 49 catches. There is no obvious third option, leaving some to pencil in seventh-round pick K.J. Hill as an early contributor.
Hunter Henry bounced back from injury nicely last year (652 yards, five touchdowns), but the lack of a proven No. 3 receiver keeps the Chargers from fielding a truly terrifying set of skill players.
4. Denver Broncos
Running back: Phillip Lindsay
Tight end: Noah Fant
Wide receivers: Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, K.J. Hamler
The Broncos have a solid collection of weapons for now, but they could leapfrog the Chargers and the Raiders by the end of the season — depending on how quickly Jerry Jeudy becomes an impact player.
The No. 15 overall pick in the draft, Jeudy is an All-Pro talent and most draft prognosticators think he will acclimate to the NFL immediately. If he’s a 1,000-yard type receiver right out of the gate, he’ll team with Courtland Sutton (72 catches, 1,112 yards) to give Denver a serious wideout duo.
The Broncos’ biggest issue is the lack of a No. 3 receiver, which puts a lot of pressure on second-round pick K.J. Hamler to fill the void right away.
Phillip Lindsay and Noah Fant have pro-bowl potential at RB and TE, respectively, but they don’t quite match up to the Raiders or Chargers at those positions. The Broncos did sign Melvin Gordon in the offseason, but Ekeler outplayed him in Los Angeles last year and Lindsay will likely do the same this season.