NFL Players With the Most To Prove in 2021: AFC West Edition
In this series of articles, I’m going to be making my way through the eternity of the NFL, division-by-division, and picking out some players and coaches for whom I feel like the upcoming 2021 season is of utmost importance.
By Nick Deal.
Whether it's ensuring themselves a bumper payday next Spring, proving to themselves and the doubters that they can remain injury free or simply needing to improve their output to stay on their current team, this series of articles will look at those who have the most to lose (and in some cases gain) in 2021.
We’ll start in the West...
Kansas City Chiefs – The Kansas City Chiefs offense has been notoriously explosive since Patrick Mahomes took centre stage in his historic 2018 season and there’s an expectation that it will be more of the same for the foreseeable future.
There’s no doubt as to who the stars are either – Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce have combined for 52.7% of Mahomes’ career throwing touchdowns to date. In 2021 however, the depth at the catching positions suddenly looks a bit thin. An injury to either Hill or Kelce could have catastrophic implications for the Chiefs’ attempts to return to the Super Bowl for the third straight season.
The Chiefs lost Sammy Watkins this off-season and despite their best efforts to tempt Juju Smith-Schuster to swap Pennsylvania for Missouri they didn’t add any experience to the position. Hopes are high for Clemson’s Cornell Powell who they drafted this year, but an Andy Reid offensive scheme is notoriously difficult for rookies to come in and make a significant impact upon straight away.
The responsibility therefore falls to Mecole Hardman to fill the void left by Watkins. Drafted in the second round of the NFL Draft in 2019 when there was a great deal of uncertainty over Tyreek Hill’s future in the league, Hardman has so far fallen short of expectations in Kansas City and the mere fact that they were trying to add Smith-Schuster to the team says a lot in itself.
His highlight reel is impressive – two season-best longest touchdowns against the Baltimore Ravens for 83 yards and 49 yards in 2019 and 2020 respectively stand out – but the week-to-week production has left a lot to be desired. Dropped catches and ball security issues are a frequent occurrence and Hardman found himself targeted two times or less on five occasions last season.
Hardman’s explosive speed means that he will always find himself on an active roster in the NFL, either in Kansas City or elsewhere, but this season will go a long way to determining whether that will be as a serious receiver and being paid as such. The Chiefs’ priority for the next 10 years will be to give Patrick Mahomes the best chance of winning that they can. If Hardman doesn’t step up to the plate this year, he won’t be part of that plan going forward.
Others to watch: The Chiefs will want to see a lot more production from Frank Clark this season. He has the fifth highest average annual salary amongst edge rushers and whilst he has shown up in the postseason runs and currently holds the franchise record for postseason sacks, his regular season output has been underwhelming. KC will want a bit more bang for their buck and will be relying on Clark to post a much better stat line this season given the lack of depth in the edge position opposite him on the defensive line.
Khalen Saunders has drastically fallen down the depth chart at defensive tackle and he was surpassed by UDFA Tershawn Wharton last season. This year he’ll find himself even further down the pecking order with the acquisition of Jarran Reed from Seattle. Saunders’ place on the active roster feels more precarious by the day.
Drafted in the same year, Darwin Thompson’s time in Kansas City seems to be taking a similar trajectory with the team consistently adding RBs to the room in Le’Veon Bell last season and Jerick McKinnon this.
The Chiefs have decided (at the time of writing) not to bring back the experienced Bashaud Breeland. Charvarius Ward will therefore seemingly be given a chance to be a key part of the team’s secondary. Going into the last year of his deal, it’s an opportunity for Ward to prove himself to be a starting calibre cornerback and reap the rewards next offseason.
Former first round picks Deandre Baker and Mike Hughes may well get the same opportunity to make that position their own and live up to that “first round pick” tag opposite the impressive L’Jarius Sneed.
Los Angeles Chargers – Derwin James was touted as one of the most exciting prospects coming out of college in 2018. He was seen as the calibre of player that could come into any team and start on day one of his rookie season. Despite an injury-hit college career, James was indeed named the starting strong safety for the 2018 opener against Kansas City. His debut season was a huge success, and he went on to get three interceptions, was named in the Pro Bowl and was later named as the 31st best player in the league by his fellow players.
Since his fantastic first season though, James has played just five games out of a possible 32 with his history of serious injury having unfortunately followed him to the NFL. Whilst watching HBO’s annual Hard Knocks show last summer, you could feel the bubble of preseason optimism immediately burst when James tore his meniscus just off camera. You could sense the devastation around the camp not just for him but from his teammates and coaching staff.
Nobody is doubting James’ footballing ability, but 2021 is a huge season for him in terms of proving to the decision makers in Los Angeles that he can stay healthy. If fit for a season, with the level of production we’d expect from him, James could well play himself into contention of making himself the best paid player at his position in the entire league.
Another injury plagued season however might have those making the decisions getting spooked into committing big money his way. Whilst James will still only be 25 when the 2021 season kicks off, another serious injury will mean questions will have to be asked whether James’ name will be consigned to one of the league’s many “what if” stories.
Others to watch: Mike Williams is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in 2022 and the upcoming season will put the mythology surrounding contract season production to the test. He will play on the fifth-year option of his rookie contract in 2021 but it still seems far from a sure-fire thing that he’ll be back at SoFi stadium beyond this year.
He’s seen a significant drop in his touchdown numbers since his breakout season in 2018 where he also led the league in yards per catch. He’s posted less touchdowns combined in the last two years than in 2018 and he’s never chalked up more than 50 receptions in a single season.
The Chargers WR room is not exactly stacked - Keenan Allen is the clear cut WR1 and there’s nobody obviously breathing down Williams’ neck and vying for that WR2 spot, unless you’re ready to consider Jalen Guyton or rookie Josh Palmer as a contender for that spot in which case we do have a problem. Hunter Henry is also out of the picture after his off-season move to New England so there will be plenty of targets up for grabs in Herbert’s second season at quarterback.
Williams will get paid next offseason but if he wants to create a bidding war for his services, or similarly force the Chargers into making him an offer he can’t refuse, then he’ll need to post numbers resembling a career year as well as answer some questions surrounding his durability along the way.
Kenneth Murray had a solid, if not groundbreaking, rookie season and will probably be being lined up to be a focal point of whatever new Head Coach Brandon Staley cooks up on the defensive side of the ball in 2021. Drue Tranquill had an arguably even more impressive rookie season in 2019 but his 2020 season was over before it had even begun when he suffered an injury in the opening week against the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Chargers will need Tranquill to have a great comeback year and create a formidable duo with Murray if they’re going to stand a chance of stopping a Mahomes-led offense and win the division. If he can, Tranquill and the team will both be huge beneficiaries.
Las Vegas Raiders – John Gruden’s ten year/$100m contract signed in January 2018 signalling his return to the Raiders turned plenty of heads at the time. Three years later and two losing seasons preceding an underwhelming .500 season in 2020 (which saw them lose five of their last seven games) and it feels as if another underwhelming season would lead to heads rolling instead of turning.
Right now, it feels as if the Raiders and the Denver Broncos will be battling it out for third place in the division which is not what was envisioned at this point of the Gruden project. Combine three underwhelming seasons with what many perceive to be a “unique” strategy when it comes to the drafts and multiple free agents coming in for big money and not working out to a greater or lesser extent (Trent Brown and Corey Littleton spring to mind) the 2021 season feels like a real melting pot with the potential for absolute disaster.
2021 will also see the team’s new 65,000-seater Allegiant Stadium full of fans for the first time after the pandemic-hit season from last year. Whilst this will be the second year of the Raiders calling Las Vegas home, last year felt like a bit of a free hit given the extenuating circumstances. This year, good things need to happen in earnest.
If Gruden’s plan is to pour some water to douse the flames emanating from his hot seat, he’s going to need his team to come out swinging in the early weeks of the season. Home games against Baltimore Ravens and the Miami Dolphins and away fixtures at Pittsburgh Steelers and the Los Angeles Chargers present a difficult start on paper. The Raiders will be paying Gruden for the next few years regardless of whether he’s still the head coach or not. If there’s no sign of significant progress this year, then it may be time for Las Vegas to hedge their bets elsewhere.
Others to watch: General Manager Mike Mayock will surely face the same fate as Gruden should things go South. If things were to reach breaking point in Las Vegas, don’t be surprised if Derek Carr is offered up as the proverbial sacrificial lamb to save the jobs of those above him.
Gruden’s relationship with his quarterback has seemed a little perturbed, at least from the outside, for a while now and another middling season from Carr might spell trouble for his future in Las Vegas. Carr’s stats and general play have been trending upwards over the last couple of seasons but in 2021 he won’t be being protected by an elite offensive line group.
It’s a big year for Carr to prove to himself, the Raiders fanbase, his coach and the rest of the league (essentially anyone who isn’t David Carr) that he’s a certified franchise quarterback.
A lot of draft analysts had first-round grades on Clelin Ferrell but not many predicted him to be taken fourth overall in 2019. Ferrell’s output since joining the league has been horribly underwhelming, to the extent where he’s approaching serious bust territory.
He’s been massively outperformed by those drafted after him (Brian Burns, Montez Sweat and Josh Allen). The Raiders took Maxx Crosby in the fourth round of the same draft and Crosby has played well enough to relegate Ferrell to an afterthought when it comes to a starting lineup charged with taking down Justin Herbert, Patrick Mahomes and whoever the Broncos end up trotting out at quarterback, especially after the Raiders added Yannick Ngakoue.
The Raiders will have to decide whether to pick up Ferrell’s fifth year option next Spring and all signs are trending towards that being vehemently declined unless there’s a serious upturn in his form. Whilst he’s only been in the league for one year, a lot of eyes will be on Henry Ruggs III for the 2021 season.
A lot was made of his explosive speed during the draft process and yet it was still a surprise when he was drafted before his Alabama college teammate Jerry Jeudy and Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb, who were both seen as better overall prospects by most. Jeudy and Lamb both put up vastly superior numbers than Ruggs, which is expected when they both received at least double the number of receptions but that in itself is indicative of a wider problem for Ruggs.
He was targeted an average of just 3.3 times per game last season. Ruggs will have to take a significant step up this season and cement himself as WR1 in a receiver room that doesn’t have a standout star.
Yannick Ngakoue has found himself bouncing around four different teams in 12 months. Whilst his sack production didn’t really dip in his messy 2020 season, he’ll want to continue bringing solid production and to try and make Las Vegas his new long-term home.
Denver Broncos – When you look at the Denver Broncos’ roster, it screams “serious contenders”. The secondary is loaded with talent and the Broncos will be hoping that Bradley Chubb and Von Miller will both be back with a vengeance this season up front.
Offensively, the skill positions look equally as stacked with a nice blend of exciting promise and established talent. The QB situation is far less rosy. The Broncos trading for Teddy Bridgewater suggests that the organisation may be ready to call time on the Drew Lock Experience and with good reason.
Lock threw a league-leading 15 interceptions last year. He was ranked 35th for completion %, t-20th for touchdowns and 32nd in passer rating, behind Nick Mullens. That’s simply not good enough for a team that looks ready to compete from a personnel perspective.
Whether Lock will even see the field this year remains to be seen and Teddy may well unseat him during training camp. There was a significant portion of the Denver fanbase that were upset that the team passed on Justin Fields during this years’ draft which, combined with the flurry of rumours surrounding a certain new arrival from the Green Bay area over the same weekend, left a lot of frustration being pointed towards the position.
Should Lock be given the nod for the season opener @ the New York Giants he will have to play lights out from the very first drive, otherwise the rumblings of discontent will soon become deafening.
Others to watch: Teddy Bridgewater’s fate is intrinsically tied to that of Drew Lock. It feels like both men will be playing for their futures as NFL starters this year. Bridgewater flattered to deceive last season in Carolina despite a solid start and will want to stop the emerging trend of bouncing around from team to team as a bridge option (pun intended).
Von Miller has been a great player for a while but there had been rumours in recent times as to whether he has a long-term future in Denver before the team picked up the option on his contract recently. He’s coming back from a season-long ankle injury which, at the age of 32, there’s no guarantee that he’ll be able to fully recover from no matter how good a player he is or has been.
He’s in the last year of his six-year/$114m deal in Denver and whether he can come back and play to pre-injury levels will go a long way to determining whether he’s had his last mega payday in the league.