Top to bottom, the AFC West looks loaded this season. It’s also up for grabs.
All four teams have sky high expectations of handling a difficult schedule that includes the Eagles, Cowboys, Giants, Patriots and Dolphins when they’re not beating up on each other.
The Oakland Raiders are no longer mired in mediocrity thanks to 2016 Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack and quarterback Derek Carr , who has newfound security in both a shiny $125 million contract and in unretired running back Marshawn Lynch with him in the backfield.
The Kansas City Chiefs have one of the league’s nastiest, youngest defenses, but also the specter of instability with first-round pick Patrick Mahomes waiting to succeed QB Alex Smith .
Philip Rivers is commuting from San Diego to L.A. as the Chargers , under new coach Anthony Lynn, try to reverse their fortunes following eight close losses last year that led to the exit of Mike McCoy. He landed in Denver for his second stint as offensive coordinator.
McCoy drew up the blueprints for a Broncos offense once again led by Trevor Siemian , who has a better supporting cast as he seeks to lead the rebound from a 9-7 season that ended Denver’s five-year reign as division champs.
Some things to watch in the AFC West this season:
HARRASSING QBS: The AFC West features a fantastic foursome of pass rushing duos.
Even with DeMarcus Ware retiring, Denver has Von Miller and Shane Ray. Oakland has Mack and Bruce Irvin. Mack edged Miller for Defensive Player of the Year last year, which some of Miller’s teammates say drove Miller to train like never before, showing up at camp with thighs the size of watermelons.
The Chargers feature Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, the Chiefs have Dee Ford and Justin Houston.
Mack was among the high-wattage attendees at Miller’s first-ever pass rushing summit he put on at Stanford over summer break.
“It was a unique experience to really sit down and share thoughts and compare pass rushes and take away what you can,” Miller said. “For the most part, it was guys really showing you what made them great.”
CHARLES IN CHARGE: The Chiefs cut running back Jamaal Charles, their all-time leading rusher, this spring to save $6 million in salary cap space. The Broncos signed him to a one-year deal worth up to $4 million.
The Broncos, who bolstered their backfield and O-line in trying to bridge the gap between their substandard offense and spectacular defense, are counting on Charles being the player who once seemed headed to the Hall of Fame — not the one who’s been slowed by bad knees the last two seasons.
Charles, who insists on calling his cut from the Chiefs a “firing,” is itching to show his former team it shouldn’t have let him go.
“I’m just happy I get to face them twice a year,” said Charles, who also provoked Chiefs fans by declaring he’s long admired John Elway and had always wanted to play for the Broncos anyway.
The Chiefs wanted Spencer Ware to take the bulk of their carries, but he blew out his right knee in the preseason, leaving third-round pick Kareem Hunt atop the depth chart.
K.C. KINGS: Running woes or not, the Chiefs have won 11 consecutive games within the division dating to Sept. 17, 2015.
That’s when they held a 24-17 lead in the final minute over Denver at home, only to watch Peyton Manning throw a touchdown pass to tie it. Then Charles fumbled the handoff with 27 seconds remaining when Brandon Marshall poked the football away. Cornerback Bradley Roby’s scoop-and-score sent the Broncos to a stunning 31-24 win that propelled them to a Super Bowl season.
The Chiefs went on a five-week freefall before winning their final 10 games, half of them against the AFC West.
LONG DRIVE: The Chargers have made the move north to Los Angeles, where the franchise played its first game in 1960. Back then, traffic wasn’t the issue in Southern California that it is now.
Rivers didn’t want to uproot his wife and eight children, so he’s making the commute from his home in Rancho Santa Fe to the team’s new headquarters in Costa Mesa, which is about 75 miles and can take 90 minutes or more.
Rivers isn’t doing the driving. He’ll have someone do that for him so he can use the time wisely, like studying his iPad playbook.
VEGAS, BABY: The Raiders’ relocation to Las Vegas won’t happen for two more years, so Oakland has a chance to return to its previous glory before fans would have to trek nine hours to attend their games.
The move doesn’t appear a big issue yet as Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum is sold out for the season, and the Raiders look primed to give their fans a lot more to cheer about before they leave town.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: Raiders, Broncos, Chiefs, Chargers.
AP Pro Football Writer Josh Dubow and AP Sports Writers Greg Beacham and Dave Skretta contributed.