The time for talking is nearly over, with the 2021 NFL season right around the corner. And as kickoff edges ever closer, Sky Sports NFL writers are breaking down all eight divisions, from the key men to the marquee acquisitions.
Thursday, September 10 is the date to mark in your diaries as the reigning Super Bowl champions Tampa Bay Buccaneers host the Dallas Cowboys, which you can see live on Sky Sports NFL from 1.20am in the early hours of Friday morning.
For now, let’s take a look at the contenders – continuing with the AFC West.
Head Coach: Vic Fangio
Key Man: Teddy Bridgewater may have beaten out Drew Lock as the Week One starter under center, but such has been the tight battle between the pair throughout camp and preseason that you wouldn’t rule out both seeing time on the field this year, putting an added emphasis on offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur to make use of the talented receiver corps available to them. But let’s go with Bradley Chubb here. Nobody quite knows what to expect from Von Miller upon his return from a year out, and while he is still capable of being one of the most explosive edge players in the league, Chubb will be the tone-setter for a defense that puts its offense in a position to win.
Major Additions: The Broncos triggered an open competition at quarterback when they acquired Bridgewater via a trade with the Carolina Panthers a day before the NFL Draft. That would ultimately rule them out of contention to take Ohio State’s Justin Fields – a divisive decision among some fans – as they instead snapped up pro-ready cornerback Patrick Surtain at No. 9 overall to add to the free agency signing of veteran cornerbacks Ronald Darby and Kyle Fuller. General manager George Paton continued a fine haul in Canton by selecting a lead running back in-waiting in second-rounder Javonte Williams following Phillip Lindsay’s departure, before bolstering the offensive line with the third-round selection popular draft story Quinn Meinerz.
Last Season: Denver slumped to 5-11, fourth in the AFC West and a fifth straight playoff-less season after giving up a league-high 32 turnovers, with Lock struggling to assert himself as a long-term solution at quarterback as the Broncos ranked 26th in passing offense and 29th in scoring. Injuries proved a major hindrance: wide receiver Courtland Sutton featuring in one game, Miller sitting out the entire year, Lindsay and Shelby Harris missing five games apiece and A.J. Bouye managing just seven appearances, among others.
Denver Broncos: 2020 Tale of the Tape
Prospects: Offseason additions allows for the six-DB sets Fangio desired, while Miller’s presence restores some balance opposite Chubb. Melvin Gordon and Williams makes for a powerful backfield tandem, and Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton can be among the most dynamic receiver duos in the league. Some steady quarterback play and the Broncos own the roster capable of sealing a Wild Card berth.
Prediction: 3rd (9-8)
Kansas City Chiefs
Head Coach: Andy Reid
Key Man: Patrick Mahomes. Of course it’s Patrick Mahomes. The off-platform, side-arm, no-look throwing sorcerer who glitters his own gold dust onto the genius of Andy Reid and Eric Bieniemy. But Super Bowl LV was a reminder that he and the Chiefs are human after all as Todd Bowles’ Bucs defense demolished an injury-hit offensive line, the offseason overhaul of which has heightened the importance of the unit’s coach Andy Heck when it comes to ensuring a smooth transition. Elsewhere, the Chiefs will be counting on Mecole Hardman and Clyde Edwards-Helaire to ensure this offense poses a consistent threat beyond Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill in light of losing Sammy Watkins and Damien Williams.
Major Additions: After moving on from starting tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz, the Chiefs traded for former Ravens left tackle Orlando Brown Jr, forked out big money for veteran guard Joe Thuney in free agency, tempted veteran interior lineman Kyle Long out of retirement, and drafted second-round center Creed Humphrey and sixth-round guard Trey Smith. Offensive line: refurbished. They also acquired running back Jerick McKinnon following the departure of Le’Veon Bell while adding the high football IQ of second-round Missouri linebacker Nick Bolton along with veteran defensive tackle Jarran Reed which should ease the pressure on Chris Jones and Frank Clark.
Last Season: 14-2, a fifth successive AFC West title, and second straight Super Bowl trip. All in all, largely blemish-free as Mahomes spearheaded the league’s No. 1 offense, despite the running game never quite hitting full stride, and Steve Spagnuolo’s defensive unit hold up their end of the deal.
Chad Henne’s famous cameo iced a thrilling win over the Cleveland Browns in their Divisional playoff matchup after Mahomes had exited with a concussion in the third quarter, before the Chiefs fended off Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills in the AFC Championship game. Upon arriving in Tampa for their second straight Super Bowl appearance they were ousted by a rampant Bucs team, Mahomes’ valiant effort behind limited protection going unrewarded.
Kansas City Chiefs: 2020 Tale of the Tape
Prospects: The competition around them in the West looks as strong as it has been in some time, but Reid’s Chiefs are still the top dogs. A third consecutive Super Bowl appearance is by no means beyond them, and you would imagine a Divisional Round berth equates to a minimum for a team of this talent. 2020 opt-out Laurent Duvernay-Tardif is back to reinforce a strengthened offensive line, Edwards-Helaire is primed for an expanded role in an already-firing offense and the development of defensive backs L’Jarius Sneed and Juan Thornhill should offer necessary assistance to Tyrann Mathieu. They’ll take some stopping.
Prediction: 1st (14-3)
Las Vegas Raiders
Head Coach: Jon Gruden
Key Man: The spotlight will never not be on Derek Carr for as long as he remains with the Raiders, but it’s on defense where the team arguably faces the most scrutiny heading into 2021. The bulk of the responsibility will rest on Maxx Crosby to spearhead Gus Bradley’s pass rush in both production and hustle, hopefully inspiring Clelin Ferrell to begin justifying his selection as the fourth overall pick in 2019 at the same time. As for the offense, the departure of Nelson Agholor leaves Henry Ruggs III as the deep-threat pivotal to Carr retaining the not-so-conservative approach displayed last season.
Major Additions: In light of their defensive failings, the Raiders signed Yannick Ngakoue with the hope of finally unlocking the pass rusher’s full potential, as well as signing former San Francisco 49ers first-round defensive tackle Solomon Thomas on the back of his season-ending ACL injury in 2020. Mike Mayock addressed the team’s offensive line rebuild with first-round tackle Alex Leatherwood out of Alabama, before drafting safeties Tre’von Moehrig, Divine Deablo and Tyree Gillespie to add to the signing of former Chargers vet Casey Hayward in strengthening their secondary. Kenyan Drake was acquired to support Josh Jacobs in the backfield, and wide receiver John Brown will help fill the Agholor void.
Last Season: The Raiders went 8-8 to finish second in the division having looked like playoff contenders while sitting 6-3 midway through the campaign, a highlight coming in the form of their impressive Week Five win over the Chiefs. Carr enjoyed his most productive season since 2016 as he let loose feeding the deep-threat of Ruggs and Agholor, while Josh Jacobs logged his second-straight 1,000-yard rushing campaign. Gruden’s side hindered themselves with a tied-fifth-most 26 turnovers, including a league-high 16 fumbles, while their flagging defense was among the worst in scoring.
Las Vegas Raiders: 2020 Tale of the Tape
Prospects: A lot relies on how this reshaped offensive line gels on the back of losing center Rodney Hudson and tackle Trent Brown in the offseason, while the addition of young pieces to the secondary makes for an adjustment period that might not garner immediate results. Eyes will be on the likes of Crosby, Ngakoue, Ferrell and Cory Littleton to turn things around on defense, but with fans packed inside Allegiant Stadium and Darren Waller orchestrating the offensive fireworks, there is reason for quiet optimism. Right now though, the teams around them look better equipped to compete.
Prediction: 4th (7-10)
Los Angeles Chargers
Head Coach: Brandon Staley
Key Man: Newly-appointed Chargers offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi finds himself going from four years of working with Hall of Fame-bound Drew Brees as New Orleans Saints quarterbacks coach to overseeing the next step in Justin Herbert’s development. Herbert was deservedly named Offensive Rookie of the Year following an outstanding rookie season with now-Philadelphia Eagles OC Shane Steichen. How Lombardi builds on that will be key.
Major Additions: The Chargers went out and sought protection for their franchise quarterback, using the 13th overall pick to draft Northwestern offensive tackle Rashawn Slater, as well as making Corey Linsley the highest-paid center in the league in free agency. Veteran tight end Jared Cook was signed as a reliable red zone target following the loss of Hunter Henry, and second-round cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. was drafted in view of becoming a long-term replacement for Casey Hayward, who was released in March.
Last Season: Head coach Anthony Lynn was fired as the Chargers finished 7-9 having lost 10 of the opening 13 before closing out the season on a four-game winning streak. Of their nine defeats, seven were by one score including five by five points or fewer. The emergence of Justin Herbert in a record-breaking rookie season was an unrivalled positive as the Chargers’ faith in him as the No. 6 overall pick was fully justified, while Gus Bradley’s defense, hit by injuries throughout the year, struggled to live up to expectations.
Los Angeles Chargers: 2020 Tale of the Tape
Prospects: Given the job he did with the Los Angeles Rams defense in 2020, you would imagine Brandon Staley’s arrival means a significant jump for a Chargers unit that will be boosted by the return of Derwin James. The departure of Melvin Ingram puts added pressure on Kenneth Murray to support Joey Bosa in that regard. Austin Ekeler will envision a full season after missing the first six games through injury last year, and Herbert has enjoyed an undisrupted offseason programme to strengthen his relationship with Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. With the playmakers at the Chargers’ disposal, the playoffs should be in sight.
Prediction: 2nd (10-7)