List AFC Teams
BOCA RATON, Fla. - As Oakland Raiders coach Jack Del Rio walked through a hallway here at the NFL league meetings Monday, I told him his team just might be the favorite in the AFC West.
Del Rio, like any coach trying to temper expectations, chuckled and kind of shook his head at the idea.
"I don't really worry about the hype involved, " Del Rio said during Tuesday's breakfast with the AFC coaches. "We're on a mission with what we're doing. There are certain things we're going to do. Part of it is building the culture based on the talent on our football team. And becoming a football team that can win consistently. We learned how to compete and changed the culture last year for sure. That was a good start. This year is the natural progression of continuing to do the work that is necessary. We accomplished some things, but we have a lot of work to do."
While the Broncos have suffered hits to their dynamic defense in free agency, and have major questions at quarterback with the retirement of Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler leaving to sign with the Texans, all the Raiders have done is improve this March.
"You can't make too many assumptions, " Del Rio said. "We're all chasing them (Broncos)."
Yes, but the Raiders moves are why I list them as the top team of the three in the AFC that I think have a chance to go from out of the playoffs last season to into the postseason party in 2016. The other two teams are the Jacksonville Jaguars and Indianapolis Colts .
Oakland, which finished 7-9 last season with a core of good, young players, led by quarterback Derek Carr and pass-rusher Khalil Mack , signed three key free agents to help improve a roster that is gradually getting better by the year.
Are Derek Carr's Raiders ready to win the West? (USATSI)
The Raiders signed guard Kelechi Osemele away from the Ravens, adding to an already talented offensive line. They also signed linebacker Bruce Irvin away from Seattle and cornerback Sean Smith away from Kansas City.
"It's the beginning to a nice offseason, " Del Rio said.
Osemele joins a talented line that includes center Rodney Hudson , guard Gabe Jackson and left tackle Donald Penn . The right tackle spot will be a competition between Menelik Watson and Austin Howard . But even with that as the uncertain position, Penn came out and said the Raiders had the best line in the league. That's a stretch, but it will help open up the run game and protect Carr in a division that features Denver's dynamic pass rushers.
I asked Del Rio about Penn's claim.
"I prefer to not have a bunch of comments and talk about it, " Del Rio said. "I prefer to go out and do it and show it and play. I am sure we'll talk about it when we get together."
In Carr, the Raiders' third-year quarterback, Del Rio has no quarterback concerns, which the Broncos can't say. That matters. Adding Irvin should give them a pair of edge rushers that can impact the game. Smith helps in a secondary that needed the help.
It's all on Carr, though. He made strides last season, but now even more is expected.
"I am very happy to have Derek as our guy, " Del Rio said. "He's a leader. He's smart. He's tough. He's accurate. He has really good arm talent. And the best thing about him, he's a worker. He's bright. It comes natural for him. The work ethic comes naturally. The leadership comes naturally. He's got a really bright future."
And the Raiders do too, which is why, no matter how Del Rio might want to temper expectations, his team might be ready to win the AFC West - even with the Super Bowl Champs at the top.