NFL 2018: Turn-back-the-clock time in AFC West
DENVER (AP) — It’s like old times in the AFC West.
Jon Gruden glowering on the sideline. Philip Rivers surrounded by co-stars. An air-it-out quarterback in Kansas City. Von Miller sauntering around Denver again thanks to the arrival of a new pass rush partner in Bradley Chubb.
Widely regarded as the best defender in the draft, Chubb, the No. 5 pick overall, teams with Miller, Shane Ray and Shaq Barrett to form a fearsome front ready to rankle the likes of Rivers, Patrick Mahomes II and Derek Carr, and reclaim the division crown they used to own when Peyton Manning was around.
The Broncos have a bona fide QB again themselves with the free agent signing of Case Keenum, who’s out to prove his breakout 2017 season in Minnesota was no fluke.
He’ll have to navigate a new division that features some of the league’s best pass-rushing duos ready to wreck game plans and quarterbacks alike.
The Chargers feature Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram as bookends to an ever-improving defense. The Chiefs have Dee Ford and Justin Houston to cover warts on their defense. Oakland has Bruce Irvin and — maybe — Khalil Mack, who wants a long-term contract.
Here’s a quick tour around the AFC West:
RECHARGED CHARGERS : The Chargers ranked third in the league last year in yielding 17 points a game, but their run defense was their soft underbelly and kept them from an even bigger bounce-back season (9-7) in coach Anthony Lynn’s first year.
Enter versatile rookie safety Derwin James, who was selected at No. 17 overall in the first round of the NFL draft out of Florida State. James played in the box effectively as a strong safety for the Seminoles, and he’s learning to play deep as a free safety. He’s also getting chances to rush the passer from multiple spots in the formation, adding more experiences to his skill set.
The addition of James and a year of familiarity in defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s system have the Chargers expecting big things in 2018.
“It’s looking like we are going to have a great defense,” Bosa said.
And that would take pressure off Rivers in the Chargers’ quest for their first division title since 2009.
RESUSCITATED SANDERS : Emmanuel Sanders proclaimed Denver as “wide receiver heaven” upon his arrival in 2014, and with Manning, Sanders indeed found paradise, setting career highs with 101 catches for 1,404 yards and nine touchdowns his first season in the Rocky Mountains.
Nirvana gave way to wide receiver purgatory after Manning’s retirement, however.
Sanders caught just 47 passes for 555 yards and two touchdowns last year when he was stifled by a nagging ankle injury and the Broncos’ QB turnstile that churned through Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler and Paxton Lynch.
Energized by a return to health and Keenum’s arrival, Sanders is ready for a comeback, sporting a rookie’s enthusiasm to go with his veteran moxie while building chemistry with his new quarterback.
“I’m just loving football these days,” Sanders said.
MAHOMES’ MOMENT: After trading away ball-protecting Alex Smith to Washington, Andy Reid is turning over the reins to Mahomes, the athletic Texas Tech QB who’s a perfect fit for the Chiefs’ steady diet of misdirection and multi-option reads.
Eric Bieniemy takes over as offensive coordinator following Matt Nagy’s hiring as Bears head coach, and he’ll have plenty of firepower at his disposal with reigning rushing champ Kareem Hunt, speedy Tyreek Hill, star tight end Travis Kelce and new wide receiver Sammy Watkins.
Mahomes gave the NFL a tantalizing glimpse of what he could do in the preseason when he ducked through a collapsing pocket and threw a 69-yard touchdown pass to Hill, who burned three Falcons D-backs to catch the pass in stride.
“I underthrew it, to be honest,” Mahomes said with a wry smile.
The Chiefs might need to pile up the points to compensate for a depleted defense that was atrocious in the preseason after cutting loose veterans Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali and trading Marcus Peters to the Rams.
LACK OF MACK: When Gruden gave up his TV gig to return to the sideline for the first time in a decade, he quickly jettisoned punter Marquette King in a surprising move. King wasted no time in signing with Denver, fueled in part by the revenge factor.
King said he never had a chance to speak with Gruden before getting jettisoned in Oakland.
“I just saw him on car commercials and stuff,” King said. “I get to see him two times a year.”
Gruden didn’t just give the silent treatment to King but also to his star pass rusher as Mack held out for a long-term contract.
Mack skipped the Raiders’ offseason program, all of training camp and the entire exhibition season. Whether he reports before the start of the regular season remains to be seen.
“I don’t want to put any timetable on it,” Gruden said. “This has obviously been a long a process that has been grueling for both parties and fans and me personally. We’re just hoping we can get him in here.”
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: Chargers, Broncos, Chiefs, Raiders.
AP Pro Football Writer Josh Dubow and Sports Writers Dave Skretta and Greg Beacham contributed.
Follow Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton