This week, the Last Word On Sports NFL department will be selecting starting lineups consisting of the best players from each division. In this article, the AFC West offense is the focus.
2016 AFC West All-Division Team: The Offense
Quarterback: Philip Rivers
One of the most under-appreciated players right now is Philip Rivers. He is one of the best quarterbacks in the league and his talent is being wasted. Earlier in his career, the San Diego Chargers signal caller had some very good teams, but he was not ready to lead his team to glory. Now that he has improved, the Chargers overall team has gotten worse and worse.
After making the playoffs in five of his first six seasons, the Chargers have only given Rivers enough help to weasel into the playoffs once in the last six seasons with a 9-7 record. This last season, they finished with a 4-12 record that gave them the third pick of the NFL Draft. That’s the the highest they’ve picked since 2004, when they took quarterback Eli Manning and flipped him to the New York Giants for Rivers. Since then, Rivers has attained franchise records in passing touchdowns and completions, and will likely pass all-time great Dan Fouts in the passing yards category sometime during the season.
Rivers has still been at the top of his game and was relied on heavily all year, setting personal bests in attempts, completions and passing yards. He will continue to play great, but he might not want to stick around much longer if the Chargers don’t start showing signs of improvement, especially if he starts getting pummeled by the elite pass rushers in the division.
Running Back: Jamaal Charles
When healthy, Jamaal Charles of the Kansas City Chiefs is without question one of the best, if not the best, running backs in the NFL. In any season, full or not full, he has never dipped below an average of five yards per carry. Charles has no weaknesses on the field. He’s an elite runner, seeing holes before anyone else and having an uncanny ability to read defenses to find the gaps. He has tremendous speed that is put on display while running and catching the ball. He’s a great receiver, with reliable hands and great instincts. And he’s more than capable of holding his own as a blocker.
The only problem Charles has had is staying on the field. He tore his ACL for the second time in his career last season, and has dealt with many other injuries. It looks like he should be ready to return before training camp starts, but what will stop this from happening again? With a lot of running back depth that was on full display last year, the Chiefs can utilize Charles in smarter ways. They can use him less, put him in a better position to succeed, and lower the expectations that have been on his shoulders.
He’s been expected to carry the team all the time, but with three talented running backs behind him, two great receiving threats in Travis Kelce and Jeremy Maclin, and a smart, careful quarterback in Alex Smith, things are looking better for the Chiefs offense and Charles’s health.
Wide Receiver: Demaryius Thomas
There are a lot of good receivers in this division. Only three could make the cut. Demaryius Thomas of the Denver Broncos has been consistently great the past four years. He’s not a perfect wide receiver but he is great. His size (6’3” 230 lbs) and athleticism are his best attributes. He has caught at least 92 passes the past four seasons along with at least 1,300 yards receiving.
Thomas comes with some baggage however. He disappears many times during the season, especially when his matchup locks him up tight. The biggest issue with Thomas though, is the dropped passes. He is consistently high in the rankings of dropped passes, last year ranking fifth worst with nine drops. The good thing about him is that everyone knows exactly what he will produce. He will disappear sometimes, that can be worked on. The dropped passes, that just seems to be what Thomas is all about, it doesn’t look like that will ever change.
But the good? The fact that he’s an athletic freak that has made some spectacular plays and consistently a top number one wide receiver threat? That’s all staying too. Even though the quarterback situation doesn’t look great for the Broncos as the season creeps ahead, Thomas will still put up numbers. Last year, the Broncos had quarterback issues and Thomas still ended up with 105 catches and 1,304 yards. Despite his struggles, Thomas is one of the best wideouts in the game and will continue to produce.
Wide Receiver: Amari Cooper
On the surface, Amari Cooper put up some great numbers for the Oakland Raiders in his first season as a player. He ended the year with 72 catches, 1,070 receiving yards and six touchdowns, becoming the first Raider wide receiver to end the season with 1,000 yards since Randy Moss in 2005.
However, Cooper had his fair share of struggles. First off, he disappeared in entirely too many games. All of his great performances came against mediocre and bad teams. The only great game he had against a great team was his six catch, 120 yard and two touchdown performance against the Green Bay Packers. Other than that, Cooper struggled against better teams.
Also, Cooper had a problem with drops, ending up second in the league for the most dropped passes with ten. Most of these struggles came towards the second half of the season after he tweaked his ankle. His problems probably came as a result of that injury, but he has to play better. It was a learning experience and the talented wideout will very likely improve a lot next season. Cooper is one of the rising stars in the league and will be a household name in the near future.
Slot Receiver: Emmanuel Sanders
Emmanuel Sanders used to be a decent option at wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Now, he’s a top option for the Denver Broncos and one of the best receivers in the game. He’s very fast, has great hands, and runs his routes almost perfectly. With bad quarterback play last year, Sanders’s numbers dropped a bit, but he still ended the year with 76 catches, 1,135 yards receiving and six touchdowns. The quarterback situation looks a little better for next season, so expect Sanders to put up great numbers again in his third season in Denver.
Tight End: Travis Kelce
If this was after the 2014 season, Chargers great Antonio Gates would be listed. Instead, he’s gotten older and has slowed down at the age of 35, leaving Travis Kelce as the best tight end in the AFC West. Kelce’s last two seasons have seen him put up almost identical numbers, both with around 70 catches, 860 yards receiving or more and five touchdowns each season. As he continues to learn the game and grow as a player, Kelce will become more consistent and a more reliable target for quarterback Alex Smith. Look out for Kelce this year because he’s due for an even better season than the last two.
Left Tackle: Donald Penn
One of the best left tackles in the game in the last two years has been Donald Penn of the Oakland Raiders. He has surrendered only 11 sacks in his two seasons with the team so far. Now that he has gotten paid, it remains to be seen if he’ll continue to play as hard as he has been. He was ranked by Pro Football Focus (PFF) as the 11th best tackle in the NFL last year. He will need to continue protecting Derek Carr’s blind side if the Raiders are to make a significant jump from the their 7-9 finish last year.
Left Guard: Kelechi Osemele
During the off-season, Kelechi Osemele was the best offensive lineman available and was paid like it. He received a five-year, $58.5 million contract from the Oakland Raiders which is a bit pricey for a guard. However, Osemele has the versatility to play any position on the offensive line at a high level except center. He’s a powerful run blocker and very good in pass protection. He will definitely improve the Raiders running attack and the offensive line overall.
Center: Rodney Hudson
The third Oakland Raider on this list is 2014 free agent acquisition Rodney Hudson. He was acquired from the Kansas City Chiefs who ended up drafting a great replacement in Mitch Morse. Morse still isn’t as good as Hudson, though, who is an elite pass blocker at the center position and ranked by PFF as the sixth best center in the league. He was a better run blocker for the Chiefs than he was with the Raiders last year, so expect him to regain that run blocking ability now that he is fully healthy and has help on both sides of the line.
Right Guard: Gabe Jackson
The fourth and final Oakland Raider on the AFC West All-Division offensive line is Gabe Jackson. He played left guard in his first two seasons after being drafted by the Raiders, and was one of the best in the league. An elite pass blocker and very good run blocker, he has already shown signs at the OTAs that he will be perfectly fine moving to the right side of the line since the Raiders signed Osemele. The Raiders have built one of the best offensive lines on paper heading into the 2016 season, and they will likely prove the experts right when they play next year.
Right Tackle: Mitchell Schwartz
The only non-Oakland Raider on the offensive line is newcomer Mitchell Schwartz. The elite right tackle signed with the Kansas City Chiefs after leaving the Cleveland Browns. One of the most incredible statistics that Schwartz boasts is that he has not missed a single snap in all four seasons he has played. He is one of the most durable players in the league and that is something that any team values a lot, especially for a such a talented player like Schwartz. Learning from Joe Thomas helped Schwartz a lot in Cleveland and he finished last year tied for the 6th best tackle grade by PFF, and second best right tackle grade, only behind Atlanta Falcons tackle Ryan Schraeder. Schwartz is a great addition for the Chiefs and one of the most underrated moves of the 2015 offseason.
Now that the offense has been discussed, check out the AFC West All-Division defense.