Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
12 Jun 2014
by Tom Gower
Without Von Miller last year, the Broncos had the worst pass defense in football. The Broncos had -10.0% pass defense DVOA with Miller, which would have ranked sixth over the entire year. 29.4% pass defense DVOA without Miller would have ranked dead last. (DVOA is Football Outsiders' Defense-adjusted Value Over Average metric, explained further here.)
John Elway attacked the problem aggressively in free agency, signing DeMarcus Ware to provide more pass rush along with cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward to help in coverage. The Broncos also drafted cornerback Bradley Roby in the first round. Corner Chris Harris (torn ACL) and free safety Rahim Moore (leg compartment syndrome), both of whom missed the Super Bowl, should be ready for the start of the regular season. With Miller also in line to be back for Week 1, what was a weakness should instead be a strength.
With the secondary solved, the big question for the Broncos instead is at middle linebacker. Veteran stalwart Wesley Woodyard departed for the Titans in free agency. Paris Lenon, who started for Woodyard late in the season, is a free agent and at 36 does not have the agility to replace Woodyard in nickel sets. The favorite to start in the middle is Nate Irving, who played capably in filling in for Miller at strongside linebacker last season. He left the field in nickel situations, though. Will he be able to handle the expanded responsibility? If he cannot, the other options include special teamer Spencer Johnson and fifth-round rookie Lamin Barrow.
The Broncos have kept a rookie undrafted free agent on their opening-day roster for the past nine seasons, so chances are good at least one of the 15 they signed this year will make it. Fresno State receiver Isaiah Burse could figure into the open picture on kick and punt returns while also honing his slot game. A pair of Colorado State Rams are also in contention for a spot. Shaquil Barrett was a collegiate defensive end who could be the strongside linebacker backup, while Kapri Bibbs could earn a backup running back job if he shows enough in the passing game.
In our previous installment in this series, we highlighted the Chiefs’ problems on the offensive line. They proceeded to lose left tackle Branden Albert and both right guards, Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asamoah. They did sign Jeff Linkenbach and J’Marcus Webb, but anyone who watched the Colts or Bears of recent vintage is aware those players are downgrades from what the Chiefs had in 2013.
On the other hand, the Chiefs’ offensive line was good enough last year that, even with the losses, it could easily be a league-average or better unit. The mystifying part of the Chiefs’ offseason was their complete inactivity when it came to upgrading their receiving corps. Slot receiver Dexter McCluster left for Tennessee. The Chiefs did not sign a single veteran wide receiver or tight end, and did not draft a player at either position despite it being a particularly deep receiver draft.
Assuming that Kansas City wants an upgraded passing game, their options are to rely on a couple of players who are returning from injury -- Kyle Williams (ACL) and last year’s second-round pick at tight end Travis Kelce (microfracture) -- or to hope young players like Junior Hemingway and A.J. Jenkins improve very quickly. It could work. It probably will not.
The Chiefs announced about the smallest class of undrafted free agents in the league, only six, though they have since added some others to get up to a more normal total of ten. Given the lack of additions at the position, the highlights may go to wideouts Albert Wilson, who averaged 18.2 yards per catch at Georgia State, and Darryl Surgent, who averaged 16.4 yards per catch for Louisiana-Lafayette and returned two punts and two kicks for touchdowns.
Yet again, the Oakland Raiders will look vastly different at the start of the next season than they did at the end of the previous season. With ten or more likely new starters, the changeover is wholesale and at virtually every position. That includes the offensive line, which is likely to feature four new primary starters.
The only sure bet to be a solid or better starter is center Stefen Wisniewski. With Jared Veldheer off to Arizona, free-agent addition Donald Penn is the left tackle. A disappointing season where he played too heavy led to his release by the Buccaneers this offseason. He should be better than Khalif Barnes, who filled in when Veldheer was injured. The team wants 2013 second-round pick Menelik Watson to be the right tackle, but he must show improvement and health after a lost rookie campaign.
The biggest free-agent acquisition on the line was Austin Howard. If Watson is not good enough, Howard will be forced to play the same right tackle position he did for the Jets. If Watson can handle the outside, Howard will play at right guard, a position he has not played in the NFL. Howard fits the profile of a player who might be well-served kicking inside, as he has excellent power but was vulnerable in pass protection. Howard at right guard would leave veteran Kevin Boothe to compete with third-round pick Gabe Jackson at left guard. Howard at right tackle probably forces both Boothe and Jackson into the lineup. Either way, the Raiders will have none of the continuity so important to top-level offensive line play.
There’s nothing like adding the son of a memorable player to spice up an undrafted free agent class. George Atkinson III, son of longtime Raider safety (and NFL Network documentary staple) George Atkinson Jr., is a running back whom our own Matt Waldman compared stylistically to a raw Darren McFadden. Also in the "famous sons" category is Utah tight end Jake Murphy, son of baseball player Dale. One of the quartet of receivers the Raiders signed may be a better bet to make the team, though. The biggest names are probably Mike Davis of Texas, a good downfield receiver with inconsistent hands who needs to expand his route tree, and D.J. Coles, a talented and big-bodied WR/TE tweener who battled injuries at Virginia Tech. Linebacker Carlos Fields was also a two-time conference player of the year at Winston-Salem State.
The Chargers needed multiple contributors at this position, but most of their small amount of available cap space had to go to retaining impending free agents whose departures would have created other holes on the roster. There was only so much they could do otherwise. We identified cornerback as the Chargers' biggest need when the offseason began, and after the main part of free agency and the draft, it still is.
General manager Tom Telesco did the best he could, using the 25th pick on TCU's Jason Verrett. It was a good pick at a position of need, even if Verrett is still recovering from a torn labrum. First-round corners who become very good players tend to take a year to adjust to the NFL, though, so the Chargers may not see any immediate benefit. Verrett should be a good NFL player, but he probably will not be one in 2014.
Unfortunately, the Chargers need him to be if the secondary is to be anything other than awful once again. The other starter may be Shareece Wright, who finished in the bottom ten in success rate and adjusted yards per pass according to our game charting. That was worse than last year's big free agent flop, Derek Cox, who was released for his troubles. Telesco did re-sign Richard Marshall, who was only below average by our game charting, so the Chargers at least have three corners who can reasonably be expected to line up at the right spots.
Family time continues, as the Chargers signed tight end Michael Flacco, Joe's younger brother. If he makes the team, he would be the first New Haven player since offensive lineman Phil Bogle started six games for the 2003 Chargers as a rookie undrafted free agent. Safety Alden Darby led Arizona State in tackles the past two seasons. Given the lack of quality depth at cornerback, Iron Bowl hero Chris Davis could have a shot as well.
Portions of this article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.
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