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The Journal Gazette

Friday, September 07, 2018 1:00 am

AFC West Preview

Rivers, defense sets Chargers as class of AFC West

ARNIE STAPLETON | Associated Press

Predicted finish

1. Chargers

2. Broncos

3. Chiefs

4. Raiders

DENVER – 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.

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.

The addition of James and a year of familiarity in defensive coordinator Gus Bradley's system have the Chargers expecting big things in 2018.

Resuscitated Sanders

Emmanuel Sanders proclaimed Denver as “wide receiver heaven” on 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.

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.

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.

Mahomes' moment

After trading away Alex Smith to Washington, Andy Reid is turning over the reins to Mahomes, the athletic QB who's a perfect fit for the Chiefs' steady diet of misdirection and multi-option reads.

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 Tyreek Hill, who burned three Falcons D-backs to catch the pass in stride.

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.

Then just last weekend, the Raiders traded their top pass rusher Khalil Mack to Chicago. Mack had been holding out for a new deal.