Overall, the Kansas City Chiefs still have more talent than the Raiders, but moves made by the two-time defending AFC West champions so far this offseason provide reason to think that the Raiders are the odds-on favorite to win the division.
The Raiders last won the AFC West in 2002, the same season they advanced to the Super Bowl. In the past 15 seasons, the Raiders came close to winning the division only twice — in 2011, when a final-game loss to the San Diego Chargers gave the Denver Broncos the title and in 2016, when a final-game loss gave the Chiefs the division.
Things change fast in the NFL, though. Last season, the Chiefs went 10-6 and finished four games ahead of the Raiders. However, in hopes of finding a way to do more than just win the division, the Chiefs already have traded starting quarterback Alex Smith and notified standout linebacker Derrick Johnson that he will become a free agent when his contract voids next month.
Today, the Chiefs reportedly are hammering out a trade with the Los Angeles Rams that will send star cornerback Marcus Peters to the Rams in exchange for draft picks when the new league year starts, March 14..
Make no mistake, the Chiefs still are loaded on both sides of the ball, with the likes of wide receivers Tyreek Hill, running back Kareem Hunt, tight end Travis Kelce and linebacker Justin Houston.
The big difference, though, is the Raiders have an established quarterback in Derek Carr. Whenever evaluating teams, the one with the best quarterback gets a decisive edge. Based upon what we know right now, there’s no comparison between Carr and Patrick Mahomes, Smith’s replacement in Kansas City.
Carr is a three-time Pro Bowler who was a legitimate league MVP candidate in 2016 and Mahomes has attempted 35 passes and played in one game. Huge edge for the Raiders here.
This isn’t to say that Mahomes won’t be the next Carson Wentz and shine as an NFL quarterback from the start, but the opposite is more likely. Therefore, the Raiders have to feel confident that this is the year that they supplant the Chiefs as the AFC West’s top team.
A lot can change, of course. There’s still free agency and the NFL draft, and the Chiefs acquired a third-round pick in the trade with Washington for Smith, along with talented cornerback Kendall Fuller, and reportedly two or more draft picks from the Rams today.
As for the Broncos, it’s tough to take them seriously as long as their quarterback is Trevor Siemian or Paxton Lynch. Now, if they trade or sign Kirk Cousins in free agency, they enter the conversation right away.
The Chargers are a team on the rise overall, but quarterback Philip Rivers is 36 and showing signs of losing arm strength and mobility. Consider this: Smith arguably had a better year than Rivers last season, and the Chiefs traded him despite the fact he’s 2 1/2 years younger than Rivers.
The Raiders aren’t the clear-cut favorites, to be sure, but they are trending upward in a big way. They have bettered themselves at head coach with Jon Gruden replacing the fired Jack Del Rio, with experienced offensive coordinator Greg Olson taking over for the inexperienced and one-year flop Todd Downing and Paul Guenther being a huge upgrade at defensive coordinator over Ken Norton Jr. and John Pagano.
On the field, the Raiders haven’t done much yet, except for cutting cornerback David Amerson and informing kicker Sebastian Janikowski that he won’t be back next season. But they have a top-10 draft pick to work with, as well as $30 million in cap room as of now and the potential to free up $30 million or so more by cutting players such as cornerback Sean Smith, wide receiver Michael Crabtree, running back Marshawn Lynch, to name a few.
Then comes the hard part; backing up the favorite label with play that validates such talk. That remains to be seen. But, hey, who would have guessed that the Raiders could close this much ground on the Chiefs this early into the offseason?
It’s a nice, promising start, if nothing else.