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AFC West projected starters: Broncos, Raiders trending up

With the 2020 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 Drew Lock DE Shelby Harris
RB Melvin Gordon DT Jurrell Casey
WR Courtland Sutton DE Dre'Mont Jones
WR Jerry Jeudy OLB Von Miller
WR KJ Hamler ILB Alexander Johnson
TE Noah Fant ILB Todd Davis
LT Garett Bolles OLB Bradley Chubb
LG Dalton Risner CB A.J. Bouye
C Lloyd Cushenberry CB Bryce Callahan
RG Graham Glasgow S Justin Simmons
RT Ja'Wuan James S Kareem Jackson
  • Believing in Drew Lock is great. Broncos executive John Elway saying that he was committed to Jeff Driskel as the team's backup when players like Jameis Winston, Andy Dalton and Cam Newton were still available feels like malpractice. At what other position or in what other sports do executives go out of their way to avoid improving their roster out of some misguided sensitivities to unearned "The Man" status? If Lock gets hurt in August again, perhaps Newton will still be a phone call away. If Lock gets hurt during the regular season, the Broncos' season is over.
  • At least Elway did his best to set Lock up for success. Jerry Jeudy appears as pro-ready as any rookie receiver, but the Broncos only have to look at Courtland Sutton's rookie season to remember even game-breaking talents can take a minute to develop. That same caution should exist when penciling in mighty mite KJ Hamler into the slot receiver role.
  • I listed Melvin Gordon as the starter at running back because Elway's actions, including Gordon's salary, have shown repeatedly that the Broncos don't want Phillip Lindsay to carry the load. That's a shame because Lindsay has done nothing but overachieve by piling up nearly 2,500 yards from scrimmage in two years. Lindsay is a better pure runner than Gordon, but the Broncos may see Gordon as a superior option on key downs as a blocker, pass catcher and in short-yardage situations.
  • Noah Fant leads a deeper tight end group than a year ago. If Fant's improvement down the stretch sticks, the offense is littered with players who can go the distance.
  • The biggest concern, besides Lock's development, is whether the Broncos' offensive line has improved enough. It looks better than it has in years outside of left tackle Garett Bolles, who didn't get his fifth-year option picked up. Right tackle Ju'Wuan James didn't even play 100 snaps after signing a huge deal last offseason.
  • Von Miller returned from a torn ACL early in his career to resume his status as one of the league's best pass rushers. If Bradley Chubb can do the same, the Broncos have one of the best edge tandems in football.
  • Linebacker Alexander Johnson, a favorite of colleague Chris Wesseling, was a revelation in Vic Fangio's defense a year ago. He makes the entire defense look faster.
  • The Broncos are one of the only teams I listed only two cornerbacks for because I have no clue who their third cornerback will be. Fangio has a history of scheming up the position well, but he has his work cut out for him. A.J. Bouye is coming off a few poor years in Jacksonville and Bryce Callahan last played in Week 14 of 2018. Those are your starters and no one else is proven. This is a team whose safeties could be better than the cornerbacks in coverage.


Table inside Article
QB Patrick Mahomes DE Frank Clark
RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire DT Chris Jones
WR Tyreek Hill DT Derrick Nnadi
WR Sammy Watkins DE Alex Okafor
WR Mecole Hardman LB Anthony Hitchens
TE Travis Kelce LB Willie Gay
LT Eric Fisher CB Bashaud Breeland
LG Andrew Wylie CB Charvarius Ward
C Austin Reiter CB Rashad Fenton
RG Laurent Duvernay-Tardif S Tyrann Mathieu
RT Mitchell Schwartz S Juan Thornhill
  • Patrick Mahomes' backup, Chad Henne, has thrown five regular-season passes in the last five years. Here's hoping that number stays the same in 2020.
  • The Chiefs' offense broke even the best defenses it played. Why fix it? The offense returns all 11 starters, only adding a few rookies along the way. The only competition will take place at the guard spots, where Martinas Rankin and rookie Lucas Niang are in the mix.
  • Bringing back the same personnel is sometimes dangerous for a defending champ, but coach Andy Reid brings different offensive wrinkles every season, which his colleagues try to copy. Reid will help keep this offense fresh.
  • Damien Williams got the nod initially as my starting running back. He may be out there for the first snap in Week 1 out of respect for his Super Bowl heroics, and he won't be relegated to a bit player. But it's hard to imagine him out-snapping Clyde Edwards-Helaire over the course of the season. CEH (just roll with it) is too good on passing downs to stay off the field, and every down on an Andy Reid team is a passing down.
  • Only championship-caliber teams can pull off a move like bringing Sammy Watkins back at a reduced salary. Watkins doesn't need to be an every-week performer to be very valuable to the offense.
  • Demarcus Robinson, whom the Chiefs re-signed in the offseason, played nearly 300 more snaps than Mecole Hardman last year. Hardman has a chance to flip that stat this year, the final piece in taking the Chiefs' offense to ludicrous speed.
  • The Chiefs' inside-outside defensive line leaders (Chris Jones and Frank Clark) rank with any duo in the league. After that, the Chiefs have some solid interior bulk and a ton of question marks at defensive end. They could use a breakout by second-round picks Tanoh Kpassagnon or Breeland Speaks or this group could decay.
  • Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo would love to see rookie Willie Gay's speed displace Anthony Hitchens or Damien Wilson in the starting lineup. Based on Spags' post-draft comments, Gay will get every chance to make an early impact.
  • Spagnuolo did a terrific job with this group overall. The safety tandem of Tyrann Mathieu and Juan Thornhill will have to hold it down for a bend-but-don't-break defense without great cover corners. Bashaud Breeland, a quiet key to the Super Bowl win, could be suspended to start the year after an offseason arrest.
  • The Chiefs are built to play complementary football, with their defense just good enough. There's little reason to think this group will rise above the middle of the pack, but they probably don't need to.


Table inside Article
QB Derek Carr DE Maxx Crosby
RB Josh Jacobs DT Maurice Hurst
WR Tyrell Williams DT Maliek Collins
WR Henry Ruggs III DE Clelin Ferrell
WR Hunter Renfrow OLB Cory Littleton
TE Darren Waller ILB Nick Kwiatkoski
LT Kolton Miller CB Damon Arnette
LG Richie Incognito CB Trayvon Mullen
C Rodney Hudson CB/S Lamarcus Joyner
RG Gabe Jackson S Damarious Randall
RT Trent Brown S Johnathan Abram
  • Drafting Henry Ruggs III, Alabama's third receiver, as the first receiver in the 2020 NFL Draft class was bold. Still, I don't buy the criticism that he's a poor fit with Derek Carr. Ruggs did not catch many vertical passes at Alabama. He caught short and intermediate passes in stride -- Carr's strength -- and turned them into big plays.
  • Third-round picks Bryan Edwards, a wideout, and Lynn Bowden, who is converting to running back, are also both strong run-after-catch guys. General manager Mike Mayock brought in players who can add explosiveness to a quick-strike offense.
  • The Raiders traded for Zay Jones in the middle of last season and gave him starter snaps immediately. Now Jones may not even make the team, a sign of a much deeper position group. Edwards is going to make the team, along with the starters above. That leaves one or two spots for Nelson Agholor, Jones, Keelan Doss and Marcell Ateman.
  • The draft was sneaky bad for Josh Jacobs' fantasy prospects. There are more mouths to feed and the drafting of Bowden only furthers the idea Jacobs will be limited on passing downs. Plus, Mayock didn't give Jalen Richard a $7 million contract to sit on the bench.
  • Another negative for Jacobs: The offensive line is a top group protecting the passer and less effective in the running game. That goes against offensive line coach Tom Cable's track record. If Trent Brown can stay healthy, this group can be nasty on balance.
  • The Raiders' secondary remains the most vulnerable area, but you can't fault Mayock for lack of effort. Drafting Damon Arnette in the first round was a bigger gamble than taking Clelin Ferrell fourth overall in 2019. Signing Prince Amukamara this week made a lot of sense as a backup plan if Arnette struggles.
  • Johnathan Abram showed plenty in the brief time he was healthy last season. This is a strong safety group trying to cover up some questions at cornerback, not unlike the Chiefs.
  • A big Year 2 leap from Ferrell would take Mayock's first draft class from good to great. Continued development from Ferrell, Maxx Crosby, Maurice Hurst and P.J. Hall matters more than the veteran additions like Maliek Collins and Carl Nassib.
  • At a time when most of the league is de-emphasizing off-ball linebackers, Mayock paid Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski big money. I love the gamble. Littleton is one of the best coverage linebackers in football and Kwiatkoski upgrades a trouble spot. Improving to average at linebacker would be massive, and this group could be better than that.
  • I liked the Raiders more after doing this exercise. Their roster may not have a title-contending ceiling, but it makes a lot of sense. 
  • The Raiders are obviously in the NFL's middle, which is a long way from when Jon Gruden took over. For once, playoff hopes aren't just for the most strident, overly optimistic badass fans in football. Those hopes are realistic with this roster.


Table inside Article
QB Tyrod Taylor DE Joey Bosa
RB Austin Ekeler DT Linval Joseph
WR Keenan Allen DT Justin Jones
WR Mike Williams DE Melvin Ingram
WR Andre Patton OLB Kenneth Murray
TE Hunter Henry ILB Drue Tranquill
LT Sam Tevi CB Casey Hayward
LG Dan Feeney CB Chris Harris Jr.
C Mike Pouncey CB Desmond King
RG Trai Turner S Derwin James
RT Bryan Bulaga S Rayshawn Jenkins
  • There's a perception that the Chargers are a loaded offense, one that Tyrod Taylor just has to avoid crashing. I'm not so sure. The left side of the offensive line ranks among the worst, on paper, in the league. Center Mike Pouncey is coming off neck surgery. Keenan Allen and Mike Williams are a great starting duo, but the No. 3 receiver spot and wideout depth is as shaky as any in football. The Chargers are an injury or two away from being talent-poor, and the Chargers usually get more than an injury or two.
  • The perception about the Chargers' loaded defense, however, is right on. Outside of defensive tackle, coordinator Gus Bradley has incredible options and flexibility throughout the roster.
  • For example, the team's linebacker group includes an assortment of players (Kenneth Murray, Drue Tranquill, Denzel Perryman, Kyzir White and Nick Vigil) who can all handle different assignments depending on the down. Tranquill is an underrated option on passing downs. White and Murray can both play multiple positions.
  • The team's defense flows from marrying the pass rush provided by Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram and Uchenna Nwosu with a ballhawking secondary. Ingram, entering his ninth season, wasn't his usual dominant self as a pass rusher last year, but Bosa is ripe for a Defensive Player of the Year season.
  • When Derwin James was out last year, safety Rashawn Jenkins emerged as a building block. It looks unlikely that last year's second-round pick, Nasir Adderley, will beat him out anytime soon. With James and Jenkins patrolling the field and a cornerback group bolstered by Chris Harris, this team should produce turnovers.
  • Coach Anthony Lynn often sounds like he just wants to prevent turnovers on offense. Tyrod Taylor has always been elite at that, even if that means a lot of punts and throws short of the sticks. Taylor could start longer than expected, especially if rookie Justin Herbert can't practice much in an abbreviated offseason.
  • The departure of Melvin Gordon could lead to more snaps for Austin Ekeler, but I don't think he'll top his 224 touches from last year by that much. Justin Jackson and rookie Josh Kelley are very capable of complementing Ekeler.
  • The trade for guard Trai Turner shores up the Chargers' interior line and is another sign this team wants to run more. Both he and free agent right tackle pickup Bryan Bulaga graded out better as run blockers than pass protectors, according to PFF.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal

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