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31 Mar 2010

Four Downs: AFC West

by Bill Barnwell

Denver Broncos

Biggest Hole: Inside Linebacker

While Denver added much needed talent on the defensive line with the signings of Justin Bannan, Jarvis Green, and Jamal Williams, they've got a problem directly behind that bulk. The Broncos released starting inside linebacker Andra Davis in early March and haven't signed a replacement. Davis started 13 games for the Broncos alongside D.J. Williams in the middle of Denver's 3-4 alignment, but with his departure to Buffalo, he'll be playing for his third team in three years.

Davis represents one of the difficulties in using statistics to measure player performance on the defensive side of the ball. He made a remarkable number of plays last year for an inside linebacker, and when he made a tackle, he allowed an average of only two yards, the fifth-best figure in the league. He also ranked in the top 10 in 2007, but he ranked 49th in 2008 and 56th in 2006, and he's clearly not regarded as an elite linebacker. In this case, it's better to ignore the numbers and trust the opinions of scouts and coaches.

One possible replacement is third-year linebacker Spencer Larsen, but Larsen is inexperienced and has injury issues. If Denver chooses to add a veteran to challenge Larsen, the obvious candidate is former Dolphins starter Akin Ayodele, who has experience in the 3-4. However, Ayodele struggled with his tackling last year, and conventional wisdom doesn't consider him any better than Davis.

Free Agency Recap

As part of their move from a zone-blocking scheme to a more traditional blocking approach, they released starting center Casey Wiegmann, who caught on with the Chiefs. Rumors have linked the Broncos to future Hall of Famer Kevin Mawae, but Mawae's play slipped last year in Tennessee, and he just turned 39. Since the merger, only three 39-year-old offensive linemen have managed to make it through 10 or more starts.

Denver's big offseason project, though, was to improve its situation up front on the defensive side of the ball, and the Broncos succeeded. Adding Justin Bannan and Jarvis Green provides valuable depth at defensive end, but the key move was signing Jamal Williams away from the Chargers. Williams should instantly take over for Ronald Fields at nose tackle, but while he's an obvious upgrade in talent, Williams is 34 and coming off of a torn triceps muscle.

Should he be able to come back at 100 percent? It's hard to say. There are some worrying signs in his injury comparables -- Pio Sagapolutele tore his triceps before the 1998 season, and while Sagapolutele never played again, he was a more marginal player than Williams. A more comparable player would be Rod Coleman, who suffered a triceps injury (along with hand and knee injuries) in 2007 at 31. He also never made it back onto an NFL field. Anthony McFarland was able to come back from a triceps tear in 2004, but he was 27.

Coincidentally, a data point on Williams's side would be Mawae. He suffered a triceps injury in 2005 with the Jets, and came back to play at a high level with the Titans during most of the past four seasons.

Kansas City Chiefs

Biggest Hole: Nose Tackle

The key to success for any 3-4 defense is an excellent nose tackle. The Chargers' run defense fell apart last year without Jamal Williams. Elsewhere in California, the 49ers were emerging with the league's fourth-best run defense, thanks to a breakout season from their nose tackle, Aubrayo Franklin.

In Kansas City, there is no such hope for a breakout year. The current nose tackle is veteran Ron Edwards. At 315 pounds, Edwards is undersized for the position (marking the first time anyone weighing 315 pounds has been undersized for anything), preventing him from effectively occupying offensive linemen, let alone penetrating into the backfield to make plays.

After missing out on the Williamses and Vince Wilforks of free agency, the Chiefs made a quiet addition who could potentially play the position, former Browns defensive tackle Shaun Smith. At 325 pounds, Smith has the size to man the position, but it's hard to think of a player with more downside. Smith is known league-wide as a locker room cancer who has an inflated opinion of his self-worth. While he's a talented athlete, he barely suited up in 2009 because teams simply didn't want him around.

Even if Smith stays in line for a little while, depending on him as a long-term solution would be foolish. He's a short-term patch at best, and the nose remains a hole unfilled.

Free Agency Recap

Kansas City focused on adding talent to their offensive line, adding potential starters in the aforementioned Wiegmann and former Colts guard Ryan Lilja. Wiegmann can play either guard or center, and his landing point may depend on the status of left tackle Branden Albert. Albert was moved from guard to left tackle after being drafted, but his play since then has led the Chiefs to consider moving him back. If the team opts for a left tackle with its first-round pick, Wiegmann would play center and Albert would play guard or right tackle.

The team re-upped veteran free agent wideout Chris Chambers, giving him a three-year, $15-million deal. You can imagine my thoughts on giving a long-term deal to a 31-year-old wideout who relies on his physical ability and has had injury issues during the past few years. Running back Thomas Jones was added to compete with Jamaal Charles for time in the backfield, which makes the Chambers move look logical and coherent.

Oakland Raiders

Biggest Hole: Quarterback

We covered the futility of the Raiders' passing situation in the previous Four Downs series, along with the unlikelihood that any option worth pursuing would become available to the team. While Seattle went for a deep cut in Chargers backup Charlie Whitehurst, there's no one available as an unrestricted free agent who would stand out ahead of Oakland's incumbents.

Of course, there's the nuclear option. If the Eagles really are willing to downgrade their expectations for a Donovan McNabb deal, the Raiders could be a landing point that fits both parties.

A first-round pick for McNabb would be a disaster for Oakland, who would then be missing first-round picks in 2010 and 2011 (thanks to the Richard Seymour deal). A second-round pick this year, though, would be a reasonable price for a team that could immediately win another game or two by swapping out their replacement-level quarterbacks with the above-average McNabb.

If Philadelphia would accept a package of the 39th pick and a promising young player like end Matt Shaughnessy, the Raiders would almost have to say yes, even without getting McNabb to sign a contract extension. If they really want to dream of a pre-lockout playoff berth, it's their only move.

Free Agency Recap

Oakland kicked the restricted free agency period off with a bang, tendering middling nickel corner Stanford Routt at the first- and third-round level, while only tendering starting middle linebacker Kirk Morrison at a third-round level. The Raiders also franchised Richard Seymour, which makes sense, but they haven't signed a single free agent from outside the organization this offseason. Then again, considering how well they've identified successful veteran free agents during the past couple of years, that's probably for the best.

The team declined to tender a deal to outside linebacker Jon Alston, who then signed with the Buccaneers. They also waived several veterans, including defensive end Greg Ellis, halfback Justin Fargas, wideout Javon Walker, and defensive tackle Gerard Warren.

San Diego Chargers

Biggest Hole: Cornerback

General Manager A.J. Smith created this hole at the beginning of March, dealing former Pro Bowler Antonio Cromartie to the Jets for a third-round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. The move came out of necessity: The team had soured on Cromartie's off-the-field indiscretion, and while the Florida State product had 10 picks in 2007, he's only produced five since. It was time for a change.

The problem is that San Diego now has a group of question marks at corner. The first guy in line to win the job will be former first-round pick Antoine Cason, but Cason's been a disaster as a pro. He was so poor in the slot that he was taken out of the nickel defense during the 2009 season. Although he had 12 tackles in the season-ending win over the Redskins, that's not a good thing. It was because Washington was targeting him in coverage repeatedly. The hope is that Cason will play better outside, but it's just that: hope.

Next in line is journeyman cornerback Donald Strickland, whom the Chargers signed as a free agent. Strickland was effective at times in the slot for the Jets last year, but he was also playing behind the league's best pass rush. At 29, Strickland is playing for his fifth team in the league. If you made a list of the cornerbacks that developed into effective starters at 29 after four teams passed on them, well, you wouldn't need to worry about harming many trees.

The final option is utility defensive back Steve Gregory, who is similar to Strickland and probably better suited for the slot. While San Diego got a third-round pick for Cromartie, they might need to use a first-round pick to replace him.

Free Agency Recap

The quandary at running back was solved with the release of LaDainian Tomlinson, who signed with the Jets, followed by tendering a contract to Darren Sproles. Sproles appears to be the starting back heading into 2010, although it seems inevitable that he'll split the load with a back to be named later. So far, the only arrival at running back is Washington's Marcus Mason, who was the fifth-string back in D.C. last year.

Although Tomlinson's departure took the headlines, the Chargers lost several role players that might actually be more valuable to the team than Tomlinson was a year ago. Tight end Brandon Manumaleuna was the backup in name only, as he started five games and saw plenty of snaps in two-tight end sets. San Diego will look for a replacement in the draft. Meanwhile, wide receiver/special teams demon Kassim Osgood headed to Jacksonville as a free agent, where he hopes to make an impact as a receiver. It'll be interesting to see how his departure affects the Chargers' coverage units.

Finally, the team dealt third-string quarterback Charlie Whitehurst to Seattle for a 2011 third-round pick and a swap of 20 draft positions in the second round of this year's draft. Mike Tanier will be discussing this move in more detail in Walkthrough later this week.

(Portions of this article originally appeared on ESPN.com Insider.)

Posted by: Bill Barnwell on 31 Mar 2010

29 comments, Last at 05 Apr 2010, 10:25am by Kevin from Philly

Comments

1
by Drakos (not verified) :: Wed, 03/31/2010 - 1:53pm

No comments on Chargers signing Nathan Vasher? I'm sure he'll fix all their CB woes. ugh. Maybe they will find their pass rush again and at least take some pressure off the CBs.

2
by Sean D (not verified) :: Wed, 03/31/2010 - 2:20pm

Cason "a disaster as a pro" that seems a bit harsh. Gregory won that nickel job more than Cason lost it moreso because the Chargers like to use their slot guy in run support and Cason is more of a cover guy.

3
by BusMan (not verified) :: Wed, 03/31/2010 - 2:33pm

McDaniels has mentioned moving LB Mario Haggans inside to bulk up the ILB position next to D.J. Williams and allowing last year's second first-round pick, Robert Ayers, to move into Haggan's vacated OLB spot. At this point, interior offensive line is arguably a bigger hole than ILB, although I would have no qualms with the Broncos taking Rolando McClain at 11. Trading down to a more appropriate slot with which to select C Maurkice Pouncey would be even savvier.

4
by bingo762 :: Wed, 03/31/2010 - 2:43pm

Is Lito Sheppard still out there?

5
by Karl Mal0wned! (not verified) :: Wed, 03/31/2010 - 3:10pm

Bolts GM A.J Smith has recently made surprise picks in the first round, often picking a different position from what most expected. This year, many see the Chargers picking either a RB or NT in the first, could CB be his surprise first round pick this year? This article seems to suggest just that.

6
by Gubdude :: Wed, 03/31/2010 - 3:18pm

"At 315 pounds, Edwards is undersized for the position"

I know he is an outlier, but Jay Ratliff is listed at around 310 pounds. I know his rise to stardom was unexpected, I'm just suggesting someone weighing 315 pounds could be productive, but probably a long shot.

On that note, is Ratliff just absurdly quick for someone his size and therefore he compensates for his lack of weight?

12
by bravehoptoad :: Wed, 03/31/2010 - 6:36pm

Aubrayo Franklin only comes in at 317, and he's mentioned in the article as a standout.

Not all nose tackles are 2-gap space eaters. Franklin had his breakout partly this year because they've asked him to play more 1-gap.

16
by tuluse :: Thu, 04/01/2010 - 2:28am

The Cowboys run a 1-gap 3-4, which is unusual. I thought the Chargers did the same thing because that's what Wade Phillips was doing, but Cotrell or Rivera could have changed things up.

7
by big_jgke :: Wed, 03/31/2010 - 3:27pm

I think you're harshing on the Chiefs moves a little too much. I'm no fan of theirs, but it seems to me that a team with little talent would do well to bring and keep what talent they do have. Chambers doesn't block any WR talent on their roster, Jones has put up amazing numbers while Charles is probably too small to handle the full load anyways. Both these moves cost nothing but money, and potentially help their team with very little downside.

8
by Big Johnson (not verified) :: Wed, 03/31/2010 - 5:37pm

was emmitt smith, or sanders, or CJ, or ray rice, or MJD too small to handle the full load? Jones to me seems like a guy who will keep charles fresh. Jamaal charles might be the third elite fantasy draft as a KC running back in about 10 years. Handling the full load seems like too much of a task for anyone regardless of size. Just ask brandon jacobs.

9
by commissionerleaf :: Wed, 03/31/2010 - 5:47pm

Total agreement. Good summary. I think the Chambers and Jones moves are good deals for the Chiefs, who get reasonably priced performers. If the defense can recover (which would probably happen quickly if the idiots would stop trying to be a 3-4 team with 4-3 personnel), the Chiefs could be a good unit. Charles isn't a typical "Chiefs" runner, as he's smaller and quicker than Johnson and Holmes, but he played well last year. I like him to play MJD to Jones' Fred Taylor this year, with probably pretty good results.

10
by packfan_dave (not verified) :: Wed, 03/31/2010 - 6:02pm

Is there any realistic chance this season won't be just like the last two in the AFC West? Denver starts strong, crashes and burns; Chargers limp out the gate, finish on fire, Raiders and Chiefs are pretty much irrelevant? Didn't think so.

11
by Formersd (not verified) :: Wed, 03/31/2010 - 6:31pm

One thing I'll be interested in following as a Chargers fan is if Ron Rivera's cover-2 background will enable to Chargers to go cheap on CB like the Colts and arguably Bears did. Of course, they'll need to shore up the pass rush to pull that off, but given the collection of 2nd tier corners they've been signing in free agency, I'm curious to see if that is the plan.

15
by Big Johnson (not verified) :: Thu, 04/01/2010 - 1:03am

yeah this interests me too. One thing that could add to the excitement is that Vashar played at a high level while working for rivera. Did his play have to do with scheme or is he merely not that good anymore? I personally think he will do about the same job that cromartie did last year if given the opportunity. The chargers arent as talented as most people think. Their team success is just masked by an awesome passing game. Vashar will probably keep the mediocre pass defense mediocre but i hope that out of the plethora of cb's, they can have one guy step up out of the bunch.

20
by Jimmy :: Thu, 04/01/2010 - 11:26am

Vasher used to be an ultra agressive RCB who was great at reading routes and had fantastic ball skills. The Bears used to use him oover Tillman when they went to their single CB at the goaline because QBs just didn't want to throw the ball his way. Then he got injured and now just waits for the play to come to him and it pretty much sucks.

22
by Big Johnson (not verified) :: Thu, 04/01/2010 - 3:18pm

your analysis on vashar sounds exactly like mine on cromartie. cromartie wasnt physically aggressive but in his defense he way overplayed and dared the qb to make a play at him. After the injury he looks like he plays the same way but is just a lot worse at it. Its weird to think that someone can potentially be washed up at such a young age but i think cromartie is. Thats why i dont think the chargers will lose or gain ground this year with the cb moves. All of those players probably are no good, but the guy they are replacing was no good as well.

13
by Karl Cuba :: Wed, 03/31/2010 - 7:15pm

As everyone seems to be suggesting that the McNabb trade is a certain thing, am II the only person who thinks it's a bad move for the eagles? Kolb has one and a half poor games then lights up the Chiefs and he's now preferred over a ten year starter. Madness.

17
by bubqr :: Thu, 04/01/2010 - 4:49am

He was as bad as McNabb in the 08 Ravens game and even better if you ask me. He led an impressive drive (that did end in an INT from a HoF) while not having a week to prepare for the game like #5.
He was not as bad as his stats did indicate against the Saints (you have to remember that OL was a mess then and that Maclin had not emerged at the time) and looked good against the Chiefs.
The most important part of this equation is what we don't see : practices. Harbaugh said that Kolb was amazing leading the scout team in practice, A.Caplan who watches a lot of Eagles practices is equally impressed, young Eagles players seem to really like him... I'm quite confident, yeah.

21
by Karl Cuba :: Thu, 04/01/2010 - 12:37pm

Obviously I don't have the day to day access that the Eagles have but how often do you see a young quarterback have three dececent games followed by a collapse as defenses adjust to his tendencies. To trade away a very good player with a few years left for a guy who has never put a string of starts together is a major risk IMHO. Plus, practices are not a true simulation of the game situation with pass rushers baying for blood.

Basically, I rate Andy Reid's judgement but as a fan of a team that has to play the Eagles this year, I'll be happy to see McNabb go. I KNOW he can kill us.

14
by Shawn B. (not verified) :: Wed, 03/31/2010 - 8:54pm

Cason a disaster? You've got to be kidding me. He played fine his rookie season. What could have changed between the two season?

1) A new secondary coach - Ron Rivera's boy but I question if he has what it takes to develop our young DBs. His success at CHI may have had more to do with Lovie Smith than anything he did. Time will tell. Last season, San Diego's secondary spent most of the time playing a soft cover 3 zone. Shows a lack of agressiveness and creativity.
2) Passed over for the starting CB position even though he deserved a shot - I went to a few of the practices in training camp and the kid was playing to the level of Cromartie, while Cromartie was bad mouthing the team and posting pictures of the play book on twitter.
3) Lack of a pass rush and run defense - The nickel was used heavily in run support. I like the fact that Gregory was used in that capacity over Cason. Why risk injury?

18
by ch (not verified) :: Thu, 04/01/2010 - 9:48am

"Wiegmann can play either guard or center"

That's a strange comment, Wiegmann's never played the guard position in the NFL. He's actually got a pretty remarkable streak going: he's never missed a snap in his career, now at 143 consecutive games. He played center in college too.

To think he's going to play anywhere other then center is silly.

19
by Led :: Thu, 04/01/2010 - 10:08am

Donald Strickland is a very effective nickel back when he's healthy. He can cover most slot receivers and is strong in run support. His problem recently, and particularly last year, was staying healthy. I don't think you can expect him to have FEWER injuries as he nears 30, especially if he's getting more snaps as a starter.

23
by vic :: Fri, 04/02/2010 - 12:20am

I'd love some discussion of why CB is a bigger hole than NT or RB for the Chargers
I've heard the argument that their run D fell apart without Jamal, but then they figured things out and the line improved enough that they don't even need to draft an NT. Do the numbers support this?
As for RB, they were something like 30 in run offense last year according to the metrics. Is the argument that the passing is good enough that run offense is superfluous?
Just curious

24
by jimbohead :: Fri, 04/02/2010 - 12:39am

I think the argument about RB, and I'm saying this without watching a lot of chargers games, is that the offensive line fell off a cliff last year, and until they get that fixed, a new RB won't make a big difference. As is, RB is a hole that can be filled later on, and Sproles can do a decent job for now, even if they are dramatically overpaying him.

26
by maestro876 :: Fri, 04/02/2010 - 12:10pm

The Chargers' offensive line isn't great at run-blocking, but it wasn't that bad. The biggest problem with the Chargers' running offense in 2009 was Ladanian Tomlinson. As a Chargers fan it saddens me to say that, but there were holes there, and he either was too slow to get to them or fell over before he could get there.

The stuff that made him great is gone--he wasn't quick enough to get to those holes like he was in the past, he couldn't break tackles anymore, and he's lost a large part of his balance to the point where he goes down easily at first contact.

If the Chargers draft a first round back like CJ Spiller or Ryan Matthews, their running game will get a HUGE boost, even with the same blockers on the line.

As to overpaying Sproles, you're absolutely right. I think they're OK with it though, because as it stands he's the only veteran running back on the team, and they don't want to go into 2010 with only a rookie(s), guys like Tolbert and Hester, or guys off the scrap heap.

25
by Big Johnson (not verified) :: Fri, 04/02/2010 - 3:43am

agreed, i think the corners they signed give them a great chance of being a better unit than last year and it was already stronger than rb and NT. With the runningbacks they have, there is no chance of any type of revival in the running game. Not that they need it with how well their pass attack is working. IMO nose tackle is the biggest hole for them, and it needs to get fixed or they wont make any thunder in next years playoffs.

27
by Rick B. (not verified) :: Fri, 04/02/2010 - 11:36pm

"A first-round pick for McNabb would be a disaster for Oakland, who would then be missing first-round picks in 2010 and 2011 (thanks to the Richard Seymour deal). A second-round pick this year, though, would be a reasonable price for a team that could immediately win another game or two by swapping out their replacement-level quarterbacks with the above-average McNabb."

Win another game or two with McNabb?

After watching what that team can do with a merely competent quarterback like Bruce Gradkowski, I think that with McNabb they are contenders for the division and a playoff lock.

28
by Raiderjoe :: Sun, 04/04/2010 - 10:29pm

pretty sure I made poist in this thewf.

why did it get rmeoved? it had no cuss words or peroisnal attacks in it

29
by Kevin from Philly :: Mon, 04/05/2010 - 10:25am

Probably because you were typing on the microwave keyboard. On the plus side, Orville Reddenbacher completely agreed with you.