by Ed Macey
When In Doubt, Blame the Coordinator
The Broncos have missed the playoffs for two straight seasons, and one major reason is incompetence from their defensive coordinators. Bill Parcells famously complained about cooking without shopping for the groceries. Mike Shanahan has added a third step: If you buy the groceries, but the meal still tastes bad, the problem is clearly your sous-chef.
The Broncos featured a consistently successful defense from 2003 to 2007, but after last season's team fell short of the playoffs, Shanahan axed defensive coordinator Larry Coyer. He hired as a replacement the well-respected Jim Bates, who had been a very successful defensive coordinator in Green Bay and Miami. (Coyer, meanwhile, became a defensive assistant for the Buccaneers, who had a defensive renaissance this season.)
The Broncos' defense continued its decline, and the team had its worst defensive DVOA since our stats begin in 1996. The defense featured a weak tackle rotation that completely compromised their ability to stop the run, and an injury to the aging John Lynch further hampered the team.
The weakness of the individual players was certainly not the problem, so Bates "resigned" after only one season. Perhaps Bates and Shanahan had a personality conflict or philosophical problem, but that, of course, would make the firing of Coyer even more irresponsible. Two playoff misses and two defensive coordinators let go in two years is sort of an ugly pattern.
The new defensive coordinator, for at least one season, is Bob Slowik -- who, ironically, preceded Bates as defensive coordinator in Green Bay. Slowik, technically, was Denver's defensive coordinator last season, but he clearly answered to Bates, the "assistant head coach, defense." Slowik oversaw abysmal defenses in Green Bay in 2004 and in Cleveland in 1999, while overseeing consistently below-average defenses in Chicago throughout the 1990s. For an organization that seems to take the opinion that the coordinator is more important than the talent, the decision to stick with Slowik is exceedingly bizarre.
Who Could Leave?
Long-time left tackle Matt Lepsis has decided to retire, which leaves a huge hole on the left side of the line. Lepsis was no longer the player he once was, but he was certainly still a capable tackle. His retirement may not be the last. Lynch is said to be strongly considering retirement, and like Lepsis, he is a former Pro Bowl talent who still is an asset, although no longer in his prime. Center Tom Nalen is another past-his-prime Pro Bowler who has to decide if he wants to come back from a torn biceps.
The Broncos have very few notable unrestricted free agents. Fullback Cecil Sapp is a good player, but the Broncos do not play a ton of I-Formation. Safety Nick Ferguson is adequate, but his loss would not be the end of the world.
Whom Should They Sign?
(Current Cap Room: $16.77 million)
The Broncos have serious issues on both their offensive and defensive lines. The defensive line has recently been addressed in the draft, so while a player like Chuck Darby would help at defensive tackle, do not expect a major move there. On the offensive line, the Broncos could consider going after Jordan Gross. A variety of big names are available at center if Nalen retires, but most are on the downside of their career. The Broncos would be better off building their interior line through the draft. If Lynch leaves, they could go after Ken Hamlin to provide a better run defense presence. One move the Broncos should consider is getting a true middle linebacker and allowing D.J. Williams to shift back to the outside. Unfortunately, the options are thin there, and the Broncos again may have to wait for the draft.
Kansas City Chiefs
Keep the Checkbook in the Pocket
The Chiefs have been desperately trying to stay competitive with veteran additions, even though they only made the playoffs twice this decade. Now is the time to rebuild, and rebuilding does not generally include expensive forays into the free agent market.
This team, particularly on defense, is filled with veterans who were acquired through free agency. Ty Law, Patrick Surtain, Donnie Edwards, Napoleon Harris, Alfonso Boone, Ron Edwards, and Kendrell Bell have all been acquired in recent years to fortify the defense. Now, the team is coming off a 4-12 season and needs to start developing its own players.
To compete next season, the Chiefs have to upgrade their biggest weakness: the offensive line. The group is old, a shell of the dominant unit that made Derrick Blaylock look like a great back, and could potentially lose two starters to free agency. Continuing to find stopgap solutions like John Welbourn and Damion McIntosh means ignoring the reality that this team is at the bottom of the team development curve. Both players are adequate solutions, but not building blocks.
The Chiefs should ignore the free agent offensive linemen and instead mimic the Packers of recent years: Draft a gaggle of offensive linemen and work on developing them for the future. Brodie Croyle and Dwayne Bowe are the the future, and the Chiefs should let an offensive line grow with them.
The tenor of this section obviously indicates my sense that the Chiefs are a few years away from returning to the playoffs. The life of an NFL running back is exceedingly short, and backs generally begin to decline after age 28. Larry Johnson will be 29 next year, and he's coming off a fractured foot. His injury and enormous contract make him untradeable at this point. There are two options here: either their star running back will sacrifice his prime to rebuilding, or the Chiefs' ascension will be delayed in repeated attempts to go 9-7 while they still have a weapon like Johnson.
Who Could Leave?
The Chiefs are coming off their worst season since 1979, and to add insult to injury, their best defensive player is an unrestricted free agent. Jared Allen emerged as an All-Pro defensive end and will almost certainly be franchised if a long-term deal is not reached. Cap room is not a problem, so the Chiefs should be able to work out a long-term deal.
The damage does not end with Allen. Center Casey Wiegmann, tackle Chris Terry, wide receiver Sammie Parker, and H-back Kris Wilson are all free agents. Wiegmann is one of the last links from the great Chiefs' lines of earlier this decade. He poses the most interesting question about the direction of the Chiefs. He remains a solid center but will be 35 before next season. He likely will not be productive the next time the Chiefs are an effective team.
Terry, meanwhile, is an example of how the Chiefs have been running the team in recent seasons. The Chiefs signed the journeyman during the 2006 season. The team has been constantly looking for quick fixes. He competed for playing time last year with Kyle Turley, another veteran on the downside of his career.
Wilson is the one player, besides Allen, who the Chiefs should definitely bring back. He is a young player who is effective both as a fullback and a tight end. He clears holes well for Larry Johnson and can also set up a balanced two-tight end formation with Tony Gonzalez.
Whom Should They Sign?
(Current Cap Room: $20.27 million)
Kansas City should avoid free agency at most positions, but not at wide receiver. Parker's potential departure leaves the Chiefs exceedingly thin at wideout. Eddie Kennison is likely retiring, leaving only Bowe and Jeff Webb. Signing a veteran wide receiver like Ernest Wilford will cost minimal amounts of money and help with this team's most important task: developing Brodie Croyle into a winning NFL quarterback.
Remember When the Raiders Were Not Embarrassing?
Since reaching the Super Bowl after the 2002 season, the Raiders have become a laughingstock. They have gone a league-worst 19-61 in the past five seasons. The woeful crosstown 49ers have managed to win 24 games in that same period.
The Raiders are now on their fourth coach since 2003, and apparently owner Al Davis wanted to move onto his fifth. Boy Wonder Lane Kiffin showed some promising signs in his first season as a head coach. The offense improved markedly, particularly the running game. The oft-criticized offensive line suddenly appeared competent. Still, Davis reportedly wrote a resignation letter for Kiffin and asked him to sign it in an effort to save a few million dollars. Kiffin understandably refused. Davis may keep his millions, but he has completely undermined his coach.
To add to the confusion, well-respected defensive coordinator and part-time Wookie Rob Ryan was rumored to be fired and headed to the Jets. Gossip was that Kiffin wanted him out, to be replaced with Kiffin's father Monte. Davis kept Ryan and also was rumored to hire receivers' coach James Lofton without Kiffin's knowledge. The story was vehemently denied by everybody in Oakland, but the mere fact that it was deemed plausible shows how dysfunctional this once-proud organization has become.
Who Could Leave?
As if this circus was not enough, how often does a 4-12 team have many its best players reach free agency at the same time? The Raiders need to worry about two veteran quarterbacks, their starting running back, their top wide receiver, their center, a starting defensive end, and most importantly, their single best defender.
The good news is that since the Raiders have very little talent on their team, they have plenty of cap space. They started using this money Wednesday by re-signing running back Justin Fargas. Fargas emerged as a quality back and was light years better than LaMont Jordan running behind the same line.
Top wide receiver Jerry Porter is not nearly as good as his reputation. Porter emerged in 2002 when he was a slot receiver covered by nickelbacks while playing with Jerry Rice and Tim Brown. Since he has emerged as a starter, he has caught a low percentage of passes, only topping 50 percent in one single year. Porter would be a great third receiver, but he likely will command way too much money and should be sent packing.
The quarterback situation is not particularly worrisome because the Raiders are planning to go with last year's first overall pick, JaMarcus Russell. Keeping Josh McCown as a backup is a reasonable option. Daunte Culpepper will likely be on his way to some other quarterback controversy after not exactly recapturing his early-decade form.
The one must-keep for the Raiders is Nnamdi Asomugha, one of the five best cornerbacks in all of football. He is the best cornerback on the market, Asante Samuel included, and the Raiders are correctly planning to franchise him. Of course, the franchise tag could create one more combustible situation in a team that's already smoldering.
Also gone is Warren Sapp, who retired after the season. The future Hall of Famer was useless last season, among the worst defensive tackles in football. Whether it was Father Time or disinterested play or a bad fit for scheme, Sapp was a disaster. The Raiders will be better off for his decision to retire. Sapp's retirement makes re-signing Tommy Kelly imperative, but the talented defensive lineman is coming off a torn ACL.
Whom Should They Sign?
(Current Cap Room: $25.98 million)
The Raiders' primary need is in the middle of their defensive line. Albert Haynesworth will likely be franchised. The Raiders could make a run at Chuck Darby but may end up with a mediocre solution like Randy Starks from Tennessee.
With the likely departure of Porter, the other area the Raiders should explore is receiving help. Ronald Curry is an underrated player, but he is not exactly elite. The Raiders should pursue D.J. Hackett or Bernard Berrian with the hopes of landing a solid starter in free agency.
If Center Jeremy Newberry bolts in free agency, the Raiders will need help in the middle of the offensive line. They could make a run at one of the Colts' two offensive guards, Jake Scott or Ryan Lilja, although few Colts linemen who have left that system have been successful elsewhere. Still, the Raiders should emphasize young players with upside over proven players on the downside of their career. They are assuredly at least a couple years away from being competitive.
San Diego Chargers
Much virtual ink was spilled on the merits of replacing Marty Schottenheimer with Norv Turner. I'll spare you a rehashing of those arguments here, but one thing is entirely clear: If A.J. Smith and Schottenheimer were not capable of working together, the Chargers are lucky to still have Smith on board.
As general manager, Smith has done a remarkable job amassing talent without sacrificing San Diego's financial situation. The Chargers are fresh off a trip to the AFC Championship game, have almost no free agents of note, and feature gobs of cap space.
In addition, this is a relatively young football team. Most of their best and most important players are still comfortably in their prime. The one notable exception is Jamal Williams, the venerable nose tackle who started to show a little bit of age this year. Williams is not even very old, only 32 next season. A research project FO did for ESPN Magazine last year suggested that defensive tackles decline at a later age than any position except for quarterback, punter, and kicker.
The Chargers are actually at a point where free agency is somewhat anticlimactic. They have better players at most positions than many of the available free agents. This off-season should be spent converting the cap space into front-loaded contracts for those players who will be approaching free agency in the coming seasons. Smith needs to identify which of his core players are truly irreplaceable and start locking them up to long-term deals. A good place to start would be star outside linebacker Shawne Merriman or left tackle Marcus McNeill.
Who Could Leave?
The Chargers could afford to keep everyone, but that does not mean that they will. The Chargers are likely to let Michael Turner leave in free agency. The talented backup to LaDainian Tomlinson will command starter's money in the free agent market.
More interesting is the question about whether or not they will part ways with fullback Lorenzo Neal. The Chargers de-emphasized the fullback position in their first year under Norv. Tomlinson was slightly less effective last season, but that may not be solely the result of Neal's decreased role. Neal is definitely old; he blocked for somebody named Mario Bates in his first full season as a fullback all the way back in 1994. Neal is no longer the player he was, but if the Chargers do let him go, he will likely find a seventh home with a contending team that will be happy to watch him lead a high-profile running back through the hole.
(Ed. note: Mario Bates is also known as "The guy in the early years of our PBP database who is not Michael Bates.")
The only other free agent of note is cornerback Drayton Florence. The Chargers defense improved dramatically when Florence was moved out of the starting lineup for Antonio Cromartie. Florence is a decent nickelback, but he likely will command too big a salary on the free market to be retained for that role.
Whom Should They Sign?
(Current Cap Room $40.9 million)
The Chargers are really a team without any major needs. Their safeties are not the best tandem in the NFL, but they are serviceable. Every other position on defense is at least above-average. The trade for Chris Chambers and the potential return from injury of Eric Parker means they have no holes on offense either. Any improvement would therefore require a massive investment for some of the very best players in free agency. That simply seems unlikely. If they do add a free agent, it will be for depth, perhaps a middle-tier cornerback such as Jacques "The Human Target" Reeves or Terry Cousin.
One question is what the Chargers will do about their backup quarterback situation. Philip Rivers' knee injury makes a backup an important part of next year's team. They may hold on to Billy Volek, or they could let Charlie Whitehurst assume the second-string duties. They could get involved in grabbing someone at the Daunte Culpepper/Cleo Lemon/Josh McCown level if they are too concerned about Rivers' prognosis.
*All projected cap numbers courtesy of www.askthecommish.com. These numbers are "ballpark" and are subject to change. The intention is to give an approximate idea of each team's available resources before free agency and the draft begin.