Four Downs: AFC West

by Mike Tanier

Denver Broncos

Free Agent Overview

The Broncos' immediate free agent game plan is clear. The team is shopping DE Trevor Pryce in the hope of getting cap relief while stockpiling draft picks. Fellow DE Reggie Hayward, the team's sack leader, is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent; Hayward will probably be offered a long-term deal that includes some of the money freed up by a Pryce trade. The team also hopes to take care of DT Ellis Johnson, guard Ben Hamilton, and restricted free agent TE Jeb Putzier.

Cornerback Lenny Walls, another RFA, will likely receive a first-round tender offer. CB Kelly Herndon, who started after Walls separated his shoulder in November, will be allowed to move on. Other free agents, including DT Monsanto Pope, DT Dorsett Davis, and DE Anton Palepoi are expected to receive minimal tender offers, meaning all of them could wind up elsewhere at the start of next season.

Expect most of the team's free agent action to consist of housecleaning. Dubious cap dealings in 2004 cost them their third round pick this year. When they aren't re-signing their own free agents, the Broncos will be trying to collect draft picks in exchange for Pryce and any departing restricted free agents. There's some concern in the organization that Hayward will receive an extremely rich deal from another club; if he bolts, the team will have lost its sack leader in each of the last two seasons (Bertrand Berry left in 2004). If the Broncos can retain Hayward, Hamilton, Putzier and Walls, they'll be happy with their free agent dealings.

And Then There Were 3-4

The 3-4 defense is all the rage in the NFL. And the Broncos appear to be jumping on the bandwagon.

Officially, the team isn't switching to the 3-4; coaches are exploring the possibility of using "multiple fronts" (gotta love hot buzzwords) and making the 3-4 a major part of the defensive package. Unofficially, most of the team's moves on the D-line spell a switch. Johnson has experience as a 3-4 nose tackle. Hayward has the size to play end but may also see action at linebacker. Davis and Pope could fit as 3-4 tackles but haven't proven that they can handle the gap containment responsibilities, so they are expendable. The team used Patrick Chukwarah as a third down defensive end, but he's a natural outside linebacker in a 3-4 system.

That leaves Pryce, who has played both tackle and end in his career and would make a great 3-4 end on paper. There are nine million reasons to let him go, but assuming that Pryce, Davis, Pope, and Palepoi skip town and Hayward and Chukwarah play linebacker, the Broncos would almost have to draft a defensive lineman in the first round. Otherwise, they'll be forced to start Mario Fatafehi and would depend on an aging vet like Raylee Johnson to see significant playing time on the other side.

Kansas City Chiefs

Free Agent Overview

The Chiefs have some cost trimming to do to get under the cap but don't have to worry about signing large numbers of incumbents. Derrick Blaylock is the top unrestricted free agent; the team probably cannot afford to keep him for his special teams contributions while Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson get all the carries. Backup QBs Todd Collins and Damon Huard are also UFAs but won't cause a blip on the radar screen except in very deep fantasy leagues where every team carries 15 quarterbacks. Restricted free agent Scott Fujita will get a tender offer, but the team won't sell the farm to keep him.

Two names that are sure to come up in the weeks to come in connection with the Chiefs: Patrick Surtain and Charles Woodson. Woodson will be hard to shake loose from Oakland, and the Raiders may want too much in a sign-and-trade deal. Miami is allowing Surtain to look for his own trade out of town. He's a very good man defender and isn't that old (29 in June). The Dolphins will be looking for draft picks, and the Chiefs should be able to accommodate them. Samari Rolle is also probably in the mix after being cut in a salary cap move by Tennessee.

Be on notice: If you are a quality defensive player in the NFL, and you are at all available, your name will be mentioned in conjunction with the Kansas City Chiefs in the next two months.

Expensive Proposition

Despite being roughly $7 million over the salary cap, the Chiefs should be able to clear enough space to make some moves on the free agent market. But will they be able to attract the free agent defensive talent that they desperately need?

Here's a quote from an unnamed agent in the Kansas City Star: "There would have to be a significant difference in the offers for my client to go to Kansas City. All things being equal financially, Kansas City has got a problem. The Chiefs have to be more aggressive financially to overcome things that are so obvious. But if they pay, the free agents will come. That's how you overcome any situation that's less than desirable. You overpay, and you go from there."

What has potential free agents worried? Dick Vermeil's status is part of the problem. With Vermeil vowing to retire after the season, the Chiefs may find themselves in rebuilding mode in 2006: not a selling point for a high-profile free agent. The rumblings in Kansas City suggest that Al Saunders will replace Vermeil, but that won't encourage defensive free agents, who could face an upheaval of personnel and schemes if the offense-minded Saunders taps his own defensive coordinator.

The absurdly poor play of the Chiefs defense over the past few seasons also has to weigh heavily on the mind of any potential signee. The Chiefs' awful defense basically swallowed the careers of Vonnie Holliday, Dexter McCleon, and Shawn Barber two seasons ago. Any player considering the Chiefs as an option will have to be convinced that he can make a difference on defense, and that he won't wind up plugging leaks like the Little Dutch Boy. It will be the job of Vermeil, Gunther Cunningham, and Carl Peterson to prove to free agents that the defense is ready to turn the corner and that Kansas City hasn't become the NFL version of Colorado: a team that will destroy your reputation if your job is to stop the scoring.

Shea it Again

Give Terry Shea a mulligan for his stint as the Bears offensive coordinator. There wasn't much that he could do in the face of multiple injuries that knocked out half the team. Yes, Jonathan Quinn, who came with Shea from Kansas City to provide stability, laid a big egg when called upon to start. But the offense did have some life for that brief time when Rex Grossman was healthy, while Craig Krenzel and Chad Hutchinson did about as well as could be expected under the circumstances.

Now, Shea is back in a familiar situation, coaching Trent Green and the Chiefs quarterbacks. He also faces new challenges: the Chiefs are likely to start grooming Green's successor, and, should Saunders replace Vermeil, Shea is a favorite to become the next offensive coordinator.

Who will be Green's successor? Collins and Huard probably won't be back and aren't prospects, anyway. Casey Claussen was sent to NFL Europe and could work his way into the mix with an impressive overseas effort. Eric Crouch is also headed to Europe, but of course he has been moved to the secondary. Look for the Chiefs to spend a draft pick on a developmental QB sometime between rounds three and five.

Oakland Raiders

The Blockbuster

The first draft of this article featured an outline on the Raiders receivers. In that segment, I speculated that it would take weeks or months for a Randy Moss deal to get done, that Jerry Porter would be signed elsewhere, and that Ronald Curry was a star on the rise who could hold the key to the Raiders passing game in 2005.

Well, thank goodness for the "delete" key. Porter is signed, Moss is coming to Oakland, and the Raiders now have the most formidable receiving corps in the AFC West, if not the whole league.

Porter initially rejected the team's five-year deal, allegedly because he was angry about incidents that occurred back in the Bill Callahan era; namely, suspensions of cornerback Charles Woodson and Charlie Garner after missing a late-season team meeting. Porter also made no secret of wanting to test his market value, but the organization was able to smooth over some of his concerns.

Now, Porter will have to live with playing second fiddle to Moss, and the Raiders' entire offseason game plan has shifted. Gone are Napoleon Harris and the #7 pick in the draft. The Raiders now have a pressing need at linebacker, and they still don't have a true top running back. Of course, with Porter and Moss stretching defenses, whoever they get to run the ball won't face any eight-man fronts.

Was it a good trade? It certainly fits the Raiders' philosophy. With Moss and Porter, Norv Turner should be able to install the deep passing attack that Al Davis craves. And if Curry recovers from his Achilles injury, he'll be one of the most dangerous slot receivers in the NFL.

How will Oakland fill its defensive holes, having dealt a linebacker and their top pick? The team hopes the answer will be a trade that sends away the disgruntled Woodson, who was declared the team's franchise player but is on the trading block. Other teams can sign Woodson away from the Raiders by giving up two #1 picks, but that won't happen. The Raiders will seek a first round pick and either a player or another top pick in exchange for Woodson. A deal might not get done until closer to the draft, when teams get a better handle on where players like Antrell Rolle and Pac-Man Jones will be selected. A team sitting in the teens with a need at cornerback (Chiefs, Saints) will be willing to deal for Woodson if they don't think the top rookie corners will fall to them.

Free Agent Overview (Non-Woodson Division)

The team is about $3 million over the salary cap, but they can free a bunch of money by restructuring the contracts of veterans like Rich Gannon and Ron Stone (or releasing them outright). The Raiders figure to be active in free agency and are already rumored to have a keen interest in Jets RB LaMont Jordan.

Most of the team's other UFAs -- Amos Zereoue, Ron Stone, J.R. Redmond -- will be allowed to test the market. Offensive lineman Langston Walker is a restricted free agent; look for the team to match any reasonable offer for the former second round pick.

A Tough Job

Pity Keith Millard, the new Raiders defensive line coach. Warren Sapp cannot be easy to deal with in the heat of two-a-days. Ted Washington and John Parrella probably aren't very amenable to new coaching ideas at this point in their careers. Millard walks into a situation where the veterans on the line probably have a "been there, done that attitude".

It is difficult to tell what kind of return the Raiders got on their investments in Sapp and Washington. On one hand, playing a 3-4 scheme, it should be no surprise that the no Oakland defensive lineman registered more than four sacks. According to our adjusted line yards statistic (explained here), Oakland's front seven improved against the run, going from 25th in 2003 to 10th in 2004.

On the other hand, Rob Ryan's 3-4 scheme was more of a hybrid system where Sam Williams, Akbar Gbaja-Biamila, and other linebackers often lined up in a three-point stance as a fourth lineman. So the Oakland linemen did have more opportunities to make plays than linemen in a normal 3-4, and they didn't exactly impress. That was especially true in the pass rush, where Oakland's 26 sacks were worse than every other team except Houston.

So Millard must improve the pass rush while motivating some aging linemen in the process. Or maybe not. Washington and/or Parrella could be cap cuts. Veteran Bobby Hamilton, the team's most consistent lineman last season, is a restricted free agent. By the end of last season, several younger linemen were outplaying the veterans. Undrafted rookie Tommy Kelly, a 300-pounder with the speed to play defensive end, picked up four sacks. Terdell Sands, an absolute load at 340+ pounds, had stepped into Washington's space-eater role in the middle by season's end. Grant Irons, a quick tackle/end tweener who fits the bill as a 3-4 end, had three tackles for a loss in his final four games of the season.

Millard's best bet may be to line up Sapp, Sands, and Kelly, with Irons and DeLawrence Grant subbing in. Of course, there's no real guarantee that Sapp belongs in that "optimal" lineup.

San Diego Chargers

Brees-y like Sunday Morning

You know that the Chargers have named QB Drew Brees their franchise player. You know he wants a long-term deal. You know the team is in no hurry to offer him one. You know that Philip Rivers is waiting in the wings, that the Chargers have a lot invested in Rivers, and that it would take a mammoth trade offer to shake loose either player.

You now know as much as everyone else does, outside of the Chargers' team offices. This is one of those stories that will slide into Tony Kornheiser-Skip Bayless territory over the weeks to come. When ESPN talking heads need to fill two minutes, they'll rehash the Brees-Rivers situation and give tired old opinions, even though there's no new news to offer.

Clark Judge stirred the pot a bit on CBS, suggesting that the Chargers were willing to franchise Brees in both 2005 and 2006, then let him go after Rivers has had three full years of clipboard duty. That presumably wouldn't sit well with Brees.

Aren't we jumping the gun just a little by talking about franchise players for 2006? What if Brees takes the Chargers to the Super Bowl? What if he throws 40 touchdown passes? What if some team makes a Herschel Walker-sized offer for either quarterback (or sacrifices two first round picks to sign Brees over the franchise tag)? What if Brees goes from Tommy Maddox 2002 to Tommy Maddox 2003? Judge and his "NFL sources" can speculate all they want, but there's no way that a serious decision about the futures of Brees or Rivers has been made beyond the 2005 season.

Free Agent Overview

The Chargers are able to keep both Brees and Rivers because they managed the salary cap extremely well. Assuming that Brees now takes up about $8 million in cap space, the Chargers still have about $8 million to spend.

Some of that cap money will go to the team's two #1 draft picks. Some may also go toward re-signing in-house free agents like DeQuincy Scott, Jerry Wilson, and Jesse Chatman. But there still be plenty of money left over for the Chargers to pursue a wide receiver in free agency.

The one receiver whose name has come up in San Diego isn't a free agent at all: Freddie Mitchell. Yep, The Sporting News reported in mid-February that the Chargers want The People's Champion. How a trade with the Eagles for the former first round pick would shake out is anyone's guess. Sammy Davis, who lost his starting cornerback job during the season, could be moved for Mitchell. The Eagles could also offer Mitchell as part of a deal to move up in the draft. But the fact that the Chargers are talking Mitchell, and not Houshmanzadeh or Burress, indicates that they have some faith in the Antonio Gates-Keenan McCardell-Eric Parker combination and don't plan to make wholesale changes.

Mauck for Houck

Hudson Houck is out as offensive line coach, but a familiar face has replaced him: Carl Mauck, who coached the Chargers line during the team's mid-1990's Super Bowl run.

With 20 years as an offensive line coach, Mauck has experience that (almost) rivals Houck's. And, as the team's website is quick to point out, Mauck coached the Lions lines that allowed the fewest sacks in the NFL in 2002 and 2003.

But how good were those lines? The FO Line Yards statistic ranks the Lions 30th in the NFL in Line Yards in 2002 and 32nd in 2003. Last season, the Lions moved up to 20th in the league in Line Yards.

But the statistical splits for the Lions lines in those seasons are truly unique: they rank among the best pass blocking lines in the NFL and among the worst run blocking lines. According to our adjusted line yards statistic, Detroit's offensive line ranked 30th in 2002 and 32nd in 2003 before moving up to 20th last season.

The team had some pretty terrible running backs in those seasons, which had some impact on their run blocking figures. At the same time, Joey Harrington isn't like other young QBs: he gets rid of the ball when he's in trouble and isn't shy about bailing out on a play. (Michael David Smith would probably note that Harrington also gets rid of the ball when he's not in trouble.) That keeps the sack statistics low.

The Chargers have a guy named Tomlinson at running back, not to mention surprise 2004 super-backup Chatman (6.0 yards per carry), so there's no reason to believe that the running game will fall apart. Mauck's primary duty will be to continue the development of young players like Nick Hardwick, Shane Olivea, and Toniu Fonoti. And those young linemen will have to adjust as well: Houck was soft-spoken and paternal, while Mauck has a reputation as a holler guy.

Next week: AFC South by Ned Macey and NFC East by Al Bogdan.


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