By Matt Citak
The time has come. With NFL training camps underway, there will officially be football on every weekend from now until February. With the most glorious time of the year finally here, we are going to take a look at each division around the NFL and break down the best player at each position. Now it is time to check out the AFC West’s top players on offense.
QB: Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders
Carr took a big step in the right direction in his third NFL season. The quarterback out of Fresno State threw for 3,937 yards on a career-best 63.8 completion percentage to go with his 28 touchdowns and career-low six interceptions. He played well enough to garner a five-year, $125 million contract extension from the Raiders, and if you look into his numbers, you’ll see he deserves it. Carr finished as Pro Football Focus’ sixth-highest-graded quarterback last season. The 26-year-old was one of the league’s most accurate quarterbacks when throwing passes 20 or more yards down the field. His completion percentage of 51.8 percent on these types of throws ranked fifth-best among 34 qualified quarterbacks. The Raiders have lofty goals in 2017, and the team’s success rides on the play of their young quarterback.
RB: Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers
After struggling mightily in his rookie season, Gordon had a very solid sophomore campaign. The running back carried the ball 254 times for 997 yards (3.9 yards per carry) and 10 touchdowns. Gordon also added 41 receptions for 419 yards and two receiving touchdowns, and finished the season as PFF’s ninth-highest-graded running back. The 24-year-old took much better care of the ball last season, fumbling only twice on 70 more carries than his rookie season (when he fumbled six times). Gordon is a feature back, and the arrival of Anthony Lynn as the Chargers’ head coach should do wonders for the third-year running back. Lynn played a significant role in the much-improved Bills running game over the last two years, and should do the same for Gordon and the Chargers.
WR: Amari Cooper, Oakland Raiders
Cooper is another player who’s development took a leap forward last season. After a strong rookie year, Cooper followed it up with 83 receptions for 1,153 yards and five touchdowns in 2016. The Raiders No. 1 receiver posted an 82.2 overall grade, which ranked 23rd out of 115 qualifying receivers. An important reason for his improvement was his ability to significantly cut his drop rate down. In 2015, he dropped 18 passes on 90 catchable targets for a 20.0 drop rate. But last year, Cooper dropped only four passes on 87 catchable targets for a 4.60 drop rate. The stud receiver made life easier for his quarterbacks, as they had a 133.8 passer rating when targeting Cooper at least 20 yards downfield. Even with Michael Crabtree stealing some targets, Cooper could emerge as one of the league’s top receivers in 2017.
WR: Demaryius Thomas, Denver Broncos
Despite the quarterback situation in Denver being quite unstable over the past few seasons, Thomas has still been able to put together strong performances each season. Appearing in all 16 games for the fifth straight year, Thomas was able to post his fifth consecutive 1,000+ yard season, catching 90 passes for 1,083 yards and five touchdowns. The seven-year veteran has proven he can produce regardless of who’s throwing him the football, whether it’s Tim Tebow, Peyton Manning, Brock Osweiler, or Trevor Siemian. But with Siemian looking improved during the Broncos’ first two preseason games, Thomas could re-establish himself as one of the league’s top receivers this season. As the past few seasons have taught us, it would be foolish to bet against Thomas.
WR: Keenan Allen, Los Angeles Chargers
Injuries have derailed the last two seasons for the Chargers No. 1 receiver. Allen has only been on the field for nine games since 2015, and played in only one last season. But the receiver seems to have put the injuries behind him, as he has been participating in full throughout training camp and the preseason. Allen burst onto the scene during his rookie campaign back in 2013, when he caught 71 receptions for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns. Even in 2015 when he missed half the season with a kidney injury, Allen still led the Chargers in receiver rating (the passer rating of the QB when targeting a single receiver). As long as he can remain healthy, there is no reason to believe Allen won’t be able to return to the dominant receiver we saw during his rookie year.
TE: Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs
It did not take long for Kelce to join the ranks of the league’s elite tight ends. Kelce caught 85 passes for 1,125 yards and four touchdowns in 2016, earning his second trip to the Pro Bowl and his first nomination as a first-team All-Pro. The former Cincinnati Bearcat ended the season as the third-best tight end with an overall PFF grade of 88.2, the best grade of his three-year career. Kelce has been very difficult to tackle, evidenced by his average of 7.7 yards per reception after the catch, which was the most among tight ends with at least 30 receptions. He was also one of the most efficient tight ends running routes in 2016, with his 2.22 yards per route run finishing third among the league’s tight ends with a minimum of 101 snaps in route. Kelce was the Chiefs’ No. 1 option in the passing game last year, and will likely lead the team in targets again in 2017.
OT: Donald Penn, Oakland Raiders
With reports coming out this week that Penn will finally report to the team, the veteran offensive lineman gets the nod here. Penn signed with Oakland in 2014, and since then, his overall PFF grade has finished in the top 12 among offensive tackles in each year. His 2016 grade of 86.3 was 12th out of 76 qualifying offensive tackles. Starting in all 16 games last season, Penn surrendered just one sack and 28 total pressures in 621 pass-blocking snaps. Although he is now 34-years-old, the 6-foot-4 lineman has shown no signs of slowing down. Penn had a 96.6 pass-blocking efficiency in 2016, which ranked sixth among all tackles and fifth at left tackle. His last three seasons in Oakland have been better than all but one of his seven seasons in Tampa Bay. Playing in the second year of his two-year, $11.9 million contract, Penn is an absolute steal for the Raiders at that price.
OG: Kelechi Osemele, Oakland Raiders
Osemele was the Raiders big free agent acquisition last offseason, and boy did it pay off for Oakland. Osemele served as an absolute force in 2016, dominating defensive linemen in the run game in what turned out to be one of the NFL’s best left-sided combinations with Penn. The 28-year-old finished as PFF’s fifth-highest-ranked guard, and looking at his numbers, you can see why. Osemele did not allow a sack throughout the entire season, and surrendered a total of 11 QB pressures across more than 1,000 snaps of action. In fact, the veteran lineman has not allowed a QB hit or sack since Week 5 of the 2015 season. PFF wound up ranking Osemele No. 46 on the analytic site’s list of the top 101 players from the 2016 season. With a full year in Oakland’s offense now under his belt, there is no reason to think Osemele can’t finish even higher on that list this season.
C: Matt Paradis, Denver Broncos
After being drafted by the Broncos in the sixth round of the 2014 draft, Paradis has been one of the most durable players on the team, playing in 2,392 of 2,402 possible snaps, more than any other player on the team over the last two years. The young lineman was solid in his first season, but took a significant jump forward in 2016. Not only did he become a dominant run-blocker, but he also vastly improved his pass-blocking. Paradis allowed just three sacks or hits and 17 total pressures, and ended the year with a 97.9 pass-blocking efficiency, the 13th-best of players at his position . He earned the second-highest overall grade among the league’s centers, just barely grading below Travis Frederick, and was listed as one of the top breakout players of the 2016 season. Paradis recently received medical clearance after undergoing surgery on both hips at the beginning of the offseason, and should be good-to-go for the regular season.
OG: Gabe Jackson, Oakland Raiders
As you can see, the offensive line is a strength for the Oakland Raiders. Jackson has graded in the top-30 among guards in each of his first three professional seasons, and finished with the 22nd-highest grade out of 72 eligible guards in 2016. But it’s Jackson’s pass-protection that lands him on this list. In 2016, the offensive lineman had a pass-blocking efficiency of 97.0, which ranked 14th. Since he entered the league in 2014, Jackson has allowed the second-fewest sacks among guards with at least 750 snaps in pass protection (he has only allowed two sacks on 1,806 pass-block snaps). The 6-foot-3 lineman did not allow a sack in 2016, and of all the guards to accomplish that feat, Jackson played the most pass-blocking snaps (628). The Raiders signed the fourth-year guard to a much-deserved contract extension earlier this summer, making Jackson the third-highest-paid guard in the NFL.
OT: Mitchell Schwartz, Kansas City Chiefs
Schwartz played most of his first year in Kansas City with a hurt ankle last season. Despite the injury, the 28-year-old offensive tackle managed to finish the season as PFF’s 24th-highest-graded tackle with an overall mark of 80.9, all while starting in all 16 games for the Chiefs. Schwartz has proven to be one of the most durable lineman in the league over the last five years. Since he entered the league in 2012, the 28-year-old has yet to miss a single game. Despite 2016 not being his strongest season, Schwartz was still rewarded for his play by a selection to the All-Pro second-team, representing the first time the veteran has been an All-Pro. Schwartz was Kansas City’s best offensive lineman last season, and if he can continue to stay healthy, he will likely repeat that accomplishment this season.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.