The AFC West: Which new draftees must the Chiefs look out for next season?

After an exciting NFL Draft weekend that went off without a hitch, there are plenty of new faces around the AFC West, some scarier than others. But which ones might keep KC from repeating as AFC West champs for the sixth straight year?

The 2021 NFL Draft has finally concluded after months of speculation, pro days, and mock drafts galore from both amateurs and expert analysts. And it did so without being suppressed by the coronavirus by returning fans and Commissioner Goodell to their rightful places.

With the AFC West division under the strict reign of Andy Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs since 2016, there had to be some drastic decisions made across the Chargers’, Raiders’, and Broncos’ respective front offices this past weekend. While KC’s rivals were able to hit on some keyholes in their roster there were also some confusing selections made (like Vegas’ 1st-round pick) as well as some choices that could easily be boom or bust situations in the near future.

At the end of the weekend the Chiefs’ three AFC West contenders combined for 26 total picks, 16 on defense and 10 on offense, all of them being hopeful pieces toward an overthrow of Kansas City. The Chiefs, after all, have a 31-5 record against the AFC West since 2015.

But just how many of those picks are certified busts? How many might play this upcoming season? How many are instant starters? Which ones will put the biggest thorn in Kansas City’s side?

Those are the questions this article aims to answer, they are also the questions that the Chiefs’ front office and coaching staff are hoping to answer and correctly prepare for.

First up, the first of the division rivals to have a pick in the 2021 NFL Draft: the Denver Broncos

In an article last week I predicted that the Broncos would draft a QB at their #9 pick, or possibly through a trade up to #4, but the day after publication they traded for former Carolina starter Teddy Bridgewater. With that in mind the early drafting of a QB was not as much of a necessity as it once was, and with a QB competition ultimately underway they could now focus their attention on a defensive stud to stifle Patrick Mahomes and company.

That’s exactly what Denver did with the #9 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft by selecting CB Patrick Surtain II, son of former Chief Patrick Surtain (’05-’08), out of Alabama. This pick by John Elway and the Broncos makes perfect sense considering they ranked 29th in turnovers forced, 25th in points allowed, and 31st in completion percentage allowed outside the numbers.

The Broncos selected four secondary players in their first eight picks: Surtain II, Texas S Caden Sterns, Indiana S Jamar Johnson, and LSU CB Kary Vincent Jr., this shows that the Broncos are tired of Mahomes airing it out against them two times a year and, in the end, the only real dangerous selection out of them is Surtain.

With Surtain II’s capability to quickly diagnose plays from the CB position and his above-average ability to read the QBs’ eyes, combined with his speed and strong hands, it will most likely be him that starts at the coveted CB position once the season begins for Denver and he could end up having a year much like Chiefs’ L’Jarius Sneed did last season.

Also, after watching his 3x pro-bowler father play the CB position for 11 years, on top of playing for Nick Saban and his NFL-style playbook, it’s very likely that Surtain II will be able to ease into the NFL easier than most rookies which is dangerous for QBs and coaches who like to pick on new, young players.

Surtain II will be someone to watch for–and avoid–for the foreseeable future, especially considering how much Mahomes and Reid love to throw the ball (5th-highest passing play % in 2020).

Notable mention: 2nd-round pick (#35 overall)–UNC RB Javonte Williams
(2020 All-ACC First Team, AP All-ACC First Team, PFF’s ACC Player of the Year)

Williams was a TD machine this past season scoring 19 times on the ground for the Tarheels, he’s the obvious heir-apparent to their former RB Phillip Lindsey, and can be lethal against Kansas City and the rest of the division if Denver’s O-Line improves from the past few sub-par seasons.

Not to mention the Broncos traded up five spots for him at the beginning of Day two, which means they were not going to wait around for someone else (most likely Miami) to grab him. They liked him from the jump and obviously envisioned him taking the RB1 position, or at least a heavy workload at RB2, sooner rather than later.

The Las Vegas Raiders had one of the biggest reaches in the draft, according to almost every NFL and College Football analyst in the country, with their selection of OT Alex Leatherwood out of Alabama at #17. Even though he was not even listed in the top-50 players or even the top-5 offensive tackles in the draft, Vegas felt comfortable making the pick.

Coach Gruden and GM Mike Mayock chose Leatherwood with their only 1st-round pick even though highly-coveted OT Christian Darrisaw was still on the board before eventually being snagged by Minnesota six picks later.

Their first pick was a bit of a head-scratcher but their second pick looks to be a home run in the form of TCU Safety Trevon Moehrig, who was Mel Kiper’s highest-rated player at the position and somehow slid to the second round (#43 overall).

Las Vegas traded up five spots to obtain Moehrig, swapping 2nd-round picks with San Francisco and sending a 4th-round pick (#121) in exchange for a 7th-rounder (#230), which shows they were serious about solidifying the safety position for the immediate future.

This pick, much like the Broncos’ selection of Surtain II, is in response to how much and how easily Mahomes and Reid have picked apart their secondary over the past three seasons.

Moehrig won the Jim Thorpe Award (Most Outstanding Defensive Back) last season–an award that current KC Chief Deandre Baker won in 2018–and for good reason too; with the keys in Moehrig’s hands, he will have to drive the Raiders’ secondary up out of the ground and revitalize their defense which allowed the 3rd-most points (490) and 7th-highest passing yards (4,212 yds) last season.

Don’t think that Moehrig will take this chance lightly, he was a beast in single-coverage at TCU and can make any open field tackle with his strength and speed. Also, his ability to cover slot receivers will come in handy for Gruden and Las Vegas against the quickness of Mecole Hardman and Tyreek Hill but his awareness and recovery speed are what Mahomes should be wary of when tracking players downfield.

Moehrig is especially dangerous because of how easy it seems to be for him to break up passes, his 20 PD in two seasons was the most by any player at his position, and end up with interceptions (7 total in three seasons). This skillset that Moehrig brings should create fun, new plays by Bieniemy and Reid that will (hopefully) keep him from getting his hands on the ball.

Notable mention: 3rd-rd pick (#79 overall)–Buffalo DE/OLB Malcom Koonce
(2x All-MAC selection (’19, ’20), 2019 Bahama Bowl Defensive MVP)

Koonce was also listed as a bit of a reach, many analysts had him as a late 4th-round to early 5th-round pick, but his intangibles are there and they could provide some problems for the Chiefs’ newly revamped O-Line if he is able to bring the same level of vigilance to the Raiders’ defense as he did to Buffalo.

His quick feet and long arms make him a player to watch for when drawing up plays, especially running attacks to his side of the line, but he still has much to learn about the ins and outs of the EDGE position as it pertains to the NFL.

What do I mean? Well, Koonce was ranked very highly when it came to his speed and agility off the line but his overall strength and ability to spin in and around offensive tackles is what lowered his draft value after a great career in Buffalo.

This does not mean that KC should underestimate him, if they do they could just be the spark during the season which brings out the animal that dominated the MAC division with 16 sacks, 21.5 tackles for loss, and 93 total tackles over the past three seasons.

The Los Angeles Chargers were extremely smart with their choices, especially their 1st-round pick when they grabbed the second-best offensive lineman in the draft, OT Rashawn Slater, with the 13th overall pick along with a slew of offensive weapons like Tennessee WR Josh Palmer (#77) and Georgia TE Tre’ Mckitty (#97) who fills Hunter Henry’s absence.

Slater opted out of playing last season due to COVID-19 but was still one of the top-10 best players in the draft according to Mel Kiper Jr., and many other experts, just behind Oregon OT Penei Sewell in most cases.

The Chargers’ franchise QB, Justin Herbert, is entering his second year in the NFL but only his first as a starter from Week 1. This means that the expectations for him automatically skyrocket and LA’s front office obviously knew that in order for him to fulfill those expectations, he would need the best possible protection.

Slater will be a difficult player for the Chiefs to work around for the next half-decade (or more) because he has done nothing but great things at Northwestern: Slater allowed ZERO sacks in 355 pass-protections (according to PFF), the 2nd-lowest pressure percentage by an LT in his last season (0.6%) and can seamlessly transition from LT to RT (26 starts at RT & 11 at LT) which means that ‘Sack Nation’ will have to plan accordingly when blitzing Herbert.

Notable mention: 2nd-round pick (#47 overall)–FSU CB Asante Samuel Jr.
(2019 Third-Team All-ACC, 2020 First-Team All-ACC)

The addition of Samuel Jr., son of former 2x Super Bowl champ CB Asante Samuel (’03-’13), drastically increases the talent level and football knowledge on their middle-of-the-road defense from last year. His height (5’10”) and penalty problems seem to be his major weak points, one of which can be coached while the other is helped by his 35″ vertical and speed (4.41 40-yd dash).

Samuel Jr. was a top-25 recruit coming out of high school and proved why throughout his three-season career at Florida State; he recorded more pass breakups (9) as a true freshman than any other Seminole did that season–and with only three starts(!)–and ended his time at FSU with a career forced incompletion rate over 20% according to PFF.

He’s the type of player to treat every contested catch like an all-out fistfight and, according to FSU coach Mike Norvell, he’s an “absolute competitor” that shows his consistency day in and day out.

So be on the lookout for Samuel Jr. to follow in his father’s footsteps and have the type of career that may not start off as dominant but will thrive with consistency and improvements around every aspect of his game, which should be scarier to Chiefs fans than someone who might explode onto the scene and fizzle out early in their career.

The Chiefs are going to have just as large–if not, larger–of a target on their back as they did last season, and because of that it was quite clear that the AFC West was doing their best to deter Kansas City from finishing ahead of them for the sixth straight season.

Whether the picks “hit” or not will be up to the coaching staffs, the talent around them, and the way they handle the transition from NCAA to NFL–sometimes the latter is easier said than done–but if the Chiefs’ division rivals are doing anything right it’s choosing defense over offense (for the most part) and trying to stop the powerful magician known as Patrick Mahomes.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below or through my Twitter @SportsGuyShawnO and be sure to check out Shawn’s Staturdays and future articles on Arrowhead Live!