Four Downs
Offseason analysis of the NFL, division by division

Four Downs: AFC West

Four Downs: AFC West
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Vince Verhei

Denver Broncos

Biggest Hole: Defensive Line

Assuming Josh McDaniels and Jay Cutler can work together like, I don't know, grown men or something, there will be nothing wrong with the Denver offense in 2009. Broncos show up all over the leaderboard of almost all our offensive statistics, include the league's best run-blocking offensive line. As universally effective as they were when attacking, they were just as universally useless on the other side of the ball, ranking 31st overall (ahead of only the lowly Lions), 31st against the pass and 27th against the run. They've already tweaked the back end of their defense, bringing in safety Brian Dawkins from Philadelphia. That should help them in coverage, and also help fix the biggest weakness in their run defense: the damage done by big plays. According to our numbers, no other defense gave up a higher percentage of rushing yards on big plays (10 or more yards) last season.

With Dawkins on board, it's time to address the front end of the defense. The starters on the Broncos' depth chart on the defensive line currently include Tim Crowder (who has played in only 15 games in his first two seasons in the league) and Carlton Powell (a fifth-round pick in 2008 who missed his entire rookie season with a torn Achilles tendon). Unfortunately for Denver, the top three front-seven guys -- Aaron Curry, Brian Orakpo, and B.J. Raji -- all figure to be gone when the Broncos pick at number 12. They could take end/linebacker Everette Brown, but they already have an all-pass-rush/no-run-defense end in Elvis Dumervil. A better option would be to go with LSU's Tyson Jackson or Tennessee's Robert Ayers. Alternatively, they could take a linebacker like Brian Cushing or Rey Maualuga in Round One, then address the line in Round Two with someone like Michael Johnson out of Georgia Tech.

And if Cutler gets traded, this whole story will be null and void.

Free Agency Recap

The Broncos released four defensive starters: safety Marquand Manuel, end John Engelberger, cornerback Dre' Bly, and linebacker Jamie Winborn. Brought in to replace them were Dawkins, linebacker Andra Davis from the Browns, and cornerback Andre' Goodman from Miami. (Apparently, Denver must have at least one defensive back whose first name ends with a superfluous apostrophe.) The Broncos weren't satisfied on offense either, signing Jabar Gaffney away from New England to be the third wide receiver. They also signed J.J. Arrington from the Cardinals and Correll Buckhalter from the Eagles to play Denver's running back, the NFL equivalent to Spinal Tap's drummer.

Kansas City Chiefs

Biggest Hole: Pass Rush

Some times our advanced stats pick out strengths and weaknesses in teams that basic stats miss. Other times, basic stats tell the whole story. To wit: The Chiefs had ten sacks last year, as a team. Twelve individual players had ten or more sacks last season; DeMarcus Ware, by himself, doubled the Chiefs' total. And six of Kansas City's sacks came in Weeks 16 and 17 last year, when their season was already lost. Tamba Hali led the team with three sacks, a total that ranked 106th in the league. Well, actually, it tied him for 106th in the league with several other players, including five defensive backs.

The good news is that the Chiefs finished with the third overall pick in the draft, and there are is an elite pass rusher available: end/linebacker Brian Orakpo out of Texas, who had 10 1/2 sacks (yes, more than the Chiefs) last season. On the other hand, Kansas City could go with linebacker Aaron Curry out of Wake Forest, likely a better overall player, but not a pure pass rusher. If that's the case, they'll need to address this hole in the top of the second round. (And even if they do take Orakpo in the first, doubling up on pass rushers would not be a horrible plan.) Top candidates at that point will be end/backer Larry English from Northern Illinois, end Lawrence Sidbury from Richmond, or end/backer Cody Brown from Connecticut.

Free Agency Recap

When you only win two games, teams will not line up to raid your roster. The Chiefs lost only two players of note: backup quarterback Damon Huard (made expendable when the Matt Cassel trade demoted Tyler Thigpen to top clipboard holder) moved on to San Francisco, while linebacker Pat Thomas (who was collecting a ton of tackles last year before an injury ruined the second half of his season) has joined the Bills. Coming onto the team are Cassell his partner-in-trade, Mike Vrabel, plus wide receiver Bobby Engram and guard Mike Goff. Engram might contend with Mark Bradley for the number-two receiver position, though his end is near; he just turned 36, and his 10.4 yards per reception last year were his lowest over a full season since 1997. Goff should step right into a starting position. Between himself, Brian Waters, and Branden Albert, it could be the best line in Kansas City since the heydays of Willie Roaf and Will Shields.

Oakland Raiders

Biggest Hole: Wide Receiver

Javon Walker missed eight games for the Broncos in 2007. Everyone knew he had bad knees, and after his acrimonious departure from Green Bay in 2005, they knew he was a bit of a headcase as well. So of course, Oakland swooped in and handed Walker $27 million. He promptly missed eight games again, and saw his reception total drop by nearly half, from 26 to 15. You know who Oakland's top two wideouts were in 2008? Johnnie Lee Higgins and Chaz Schilens. Seriously. When you invest $61 million in a quarterback, as the Raiders did with JaMarcus Russell, you'd better give him somebody to catch the ball.

There's an obvious answer for the Raiders at number seven in the draft, and he's used to wearing black: Texas Tech's Michael Crabtree. Disappointing Combine aside, his numbers last season -- 134 catches, 1,962 yards, 22 touchdowns -- are impossible to ignore.

Crabtree should fall to the Raiders, but if Seattle or Cleveland think he's too irresistible to let go, there are plenty of other options. Top alternatives in this receiver-rich draft include Jeremy Maclin of Missouri or Darrius Heyward-Bey of Maryland. There's also Percy Harvin from Florida, a raw talent with blazing speed, the kind of player who pierces Al Davis' dreams.

Free Agency Recap

The Raiders made one of the biggest signings in free agency without adding anyone to their roster: Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha's $15 million per year deal made him the NFL's highest-paid defender. If you've been reading Football Outsiders for any length of time, you know we're big, big fans of the guy. And the rest of the league knows how good he is too. Asomugha was targeted just 1.7 times per game last season, and that was covering guys like Steve Smith and Randy Moss. The Raiders also made punter Shane Lechler the highest-paid player at his position. The Raiders released four starters: alleged tackle Kwame Harris, safety Gibril Wilson, fullback Justin Griffith, and defensive end Kalimba Edwards. Center Jake Grove signed with Miami as a free agent, so Oakland traded a draft pick to Miami for their center, Samson Satele. They also signed Khalif Barnes from Jacksonville and Erik Pears to contend for Harris' spot at tackle; either should be a significant upgrade. Yes, things have been busy in Oakland.

San Diego Chargers

Biggest Hole: Defensive End

It's hard to find a weakness on this team, one of the better 8-8 teams you'll ever find. Their biggest problems last year came in defending outside runs and rushing the passer, which might make outside linebacker seem like a need -- until you remember that Shawne Merriman is coming back from injury. After that, you look at losses in free agency, and the Chargers lost only one defensive starter: defensive end Igor Olshansky, who signed with the Cowboys.

The Chargers' use of a 3-4 defense makes this somewhat of a tricky spot to fill, however; they need a player with bulk, not an undersized pass rusher like Brian Orakpo (who won't be available when they pick 16th anyway). A perfect fit could fall to them in LSU's Tyson Jackson, all 6-foot-5, 291 pounds of him. If not, they could go with Robert Ayers out of Tennessee, though he may be on the small side at just 273 pounds. Another option may be to take Peria Jerry out of Ole Miss, and try to convert the 290-pound tackle into a 3-4 end.

Free Agency Recap

As busy as things have been in Oakland, they've been wabbit-season qwiet in San Diego. Besides Olshansky,the Chargers lost just one other starter: Mike Goff, who signed with Kansas City. Meanwhile, the Chargers added just one player: Former Cowboys linebacker Kevin Burnett. The Chargers know they had a good team that suffered from some bad luck last season, and they did little to mess it up.


43 comments, Last at 15 Apr 2009, 7:51pm

1 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

How are the Chiefs going to address pass rush in the top of the second round? Trade next year's pick for it?

24 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

I don't know about English, but the other two might very well be available in round 3. Maybe that's what Vince meant? Or maybe he brain-cramped.

2 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

This is not complete without a link to the Kwame Harris lowlight video.
I'm sorry I can't provide one, but I'm sure someone else can.

28 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Wow. That was simply incredible. I have a new level of respect for Alex Smith.

...And a new level of hatred for idiot commentators (regarding the defensive video that's bundled with the Kwame video).

39 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Increcible. Between Nolan and Harris it is no wonder Alex Smith has been reduced to a shell-schocked bust - so obviously the Raiders grab him to protect THEIR number one pick...

42 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

That Derek Smith video is uncannily like the experience of watching CC Brown play, except that he's in shot slightly more often. If, as I have heard, Brown really is likely to be the starting SS for the Giants next season, then Giants fans, all I can say is I'm so, so sorry. Everyone else, don't bother drafting a TE for your fantasy team - just pick up someone who's playing the Giants off the waiver wire every week.

3 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Nice job, Vince. Thorough, well thought out, and entertaining.

OK, one nit to pick, but I'll do it below so as not to dilute the compliment.

5 Grammar

Between himself, Brian Waters, and Branden Albert, it could be the best line in Kansas City since the heydays of Willie Roaf and Will Shields.

That's two blunders in one sentence. Maybe the coffee wore off right about there?

Goff can never be between himself, or at least not live to tell about. So, ordinarily, I'd say you meant "between him", but of course you didn't mean that at all. There are connections "between" two people, but "among" more than two.

Then, if we can get sportswriters to write "fewer yards" and avoid "mano a mano" and "struggled mightily" altogether, the world will be a better place.

(And you thought nobody relates to the copy editor!)

18 Re: Grammar

In reply to by BroncosGuy (not verified)

As a technical and legal writer, I was curious if your nitpick of the between and himself were accurate.

Webster indicates between is just fine for more than 2
usage: There is a persistent but unfounded notion that between can be used only of two items and that among must be used for more than two.

The Random House Dictionary lists "between ourselves" as an idiom under between, but nothing constructed exactly as above.

FWIW. Don't particularly care myself. His message was clear to me. I was just curious because I deal with this kind of thing at work and don't have any real training for it.

22 Re: Grammar

In reply to by drobviousso

I agree with the Webster citation that there are times when "between" is OK for more than two entities. There are also times, though, when "among" is absolutely required. I'd give a bunch of examples, but it would bore most people to tears. I agree that it was the lesser sin versus misusing a reflexive pronoun; the latter is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me. Although I took the time to post it, I don't want to make a big deal of it. It was a very well done article.

29 Re: Grammar

In reply to by BroncosGuy (not verified)

No worries. If we keep using it incorrectly long enough, it will become accepted and therefore acceptable.

6 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

(Apparently, Denver must have at least one defensive back whose first name ends with a superfluous apostrophe.)

Laughed out loud.

14 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

In reply to by BroncosGuy (not verified)

Yeah, those apostrophes always make me do a double take, too (do their names end with a glottal stop?) but I think they're just supposed to represent an accent mark on the e, like they want the name to be André but the birth certificate form doesn't acknowledge that letter or something.

7 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

I guess Dawk will help Denver's defense in that he's probably better, or at least less terrible, than whoever he's replacing, but the man is just not good in coverage any more. What's worse, he's started taking bad angles and missing tackles. I love the guy, but if Dawkins draws a single Bronco paycheck in 2010, I'll eat my hat.

Hail Hydra!

9 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Are you crazy? This is the same team that paid John Lynch for multiple years of taking bad angles and missing tackles. They only let him go when he lost a footrace to Mike Shanahan. You'd better get some BBQ sauce for that hat.

37 Sprint?

Seriously? He lost a footrace to Shanahan?

15 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Dawkins didn't look good in coverage on one of the best defenses in the league. He's now going to one of the worst defenses in the league. He's going to look like Superman.

20 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

The old regime kept Lynch around long after he needed a Rascal scooter to make plays. McDaniels has already tried to jettison the team's best player so I doubt he'll be nearly so patient.

Dawkins struggled playing on a defense that was among the league leaders in sacks, had two great corners, a second team All-Pro SS and one of the better young MLBs in the league. Why would you think he'd be better on a lesser team?

Hail Hydra!

31 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Why would you think he'd be better on a lesser team?

I don't think he'll be better. I think, in comparison to the person he's replacing, he'll look like Superman.

Seriously, think about it. Even if he's five yards behind a TE when the TE catches the ball, that's probably 10 yards closer than any defender for the Broncos was last year.

11 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

RE: Javon Walker

"after his acrimonious departure from Green Bay in 2005, they knew he was a bit of a headcase as well."
I don't think it's fair to label him a headcase because he wanted to be paid as an elite WR (rightly so given his 2004 353DYAR and especially understandable since he had that devastating injury). It was Favre who really escalated the situation by calling him out in the press. I'm annoyed with how the media always sides with the teams. Just because a player disagrees with management he automatically gets labeled a headcase or TO light.

Oh and not to be too glib but SD's biggest hole is at head coach. (sorry Norv)

40 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Or you could list their biggest hole as "Calvin Johnson", since he clearly doesn't fit with what Detroit is trying to accomplish.

27 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Riiiiiiiiiiiight, he's just misunderstood, thrown under the bus. That whole thing in Denver (essentially the same thing as what happened in GB) was just a misunderstanding. That thing in Vegas, a misunderstanding.

Sometimes, people are exactly what they appear to be.

34 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

That whole thing in Denver and Las Vegas? See this is what I mean. In context his actions make sense. But most people just lump him in with all the other offenders of the league. He was released upon his request that's correct. But remember not even a year earlier he was there when Darrent Williams murdered. I can understand why someone would want a change of scenery. And Vegas? Well he was robbed and beaten.

So yeah, what he appears to be is someone with bad luck.

38 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Careful. I remember reading years ago that Javon Walker had a serious learning disability when he got to Green Bay. They diagnosed his learning disorder. Corrected it. Taught to understand an NFL playbook. And made him marketable.

He repaid them by holding out for more money.

How has he done since his demand for a trade anyway? Looks to me like Green Bay made the right decision in not paying him.

16 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

I asked this in the mock draft comments thread, but didn't get a response, and I decided to ask again here, since you mentioned Robert Ayers as a possibility for both Denver and San Diego.

I still don't get what people see in Robert Ayers that makes them think he's worth a first round pick. He wasn't a particularly productive college player, has average size for a 4-3 DE (and well below average size for a 3-4 DE), doesn't rush the passer well, doesn't have noteworthy athletic ability, and has some character concerns after an aggravated assault charge in 2005 (I'm willing to believe he's matured since then, but it's still hardly a point in his favor). What am I not seeing here?

17 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Can't answer that question, but along those lines, Denver's ALY along the defensive line are actually good around the left and right ends (both below 4), but weak in the middle 3 zones (4.5+). I realize Peria Jerry would be a bit of a reach, being projected to be chosen around 20 or so, but maybe he would be a better fit?

23 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Agreed on all counts, although a lot of people like his athleticism more than you seem to. So what are you not seeing? The Senior Bowl, apparently. He turned a lot of heads there. Should that trump 4 years of non-exhibition football? I guess time will tell.

19 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Nothing at all about LaDainian Tomlinson in the Chargers blurb. OOPS! There are multiple angles here, and I know the FO staff loves to talk about declining running backs. But nothing? hmmm...

25 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Question for KC fans: Sometimes a team with pass rush troubles has them because their front 7 sucks. But you can also have pass rush troubles if your DB's aren't very good (or, rather, the DB's and the LB's)...especially if they tend to play soft coverage or have out of position LB's, and other teams exploit that by quick hitches, slants, outs, and screens. I don't watch enough KC to know, but is the problem with producing sacks that their front 4 aren't good, that their LB's are giving up too many slants, or that the DB's can't cover the WR's off the line?

30 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Damn, damn, damn. Not unexpected, but here's Pat Bowlen's statement from Tuesday:
"Numerous attempts to contact Jay Cutler in the last 10 days, both by Head Coach Josh McDaniels and myself, have been unsuccessful.

A conversation with his agent earlier today clearly communicated and confirmed to us that Jay no longer has any desire to play for the Denver Broncos.

We will begin discussions with other teams in an effort to accommodate his request to be traded.”

33 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

I love the write up Vince, but I think the Chargers part is kind of phoned in. Watching these guys last season, they didn't strike me as only needing Merriman to return to become Super Bowl shoe-ins. The offense was great, but I think there is a lot to say about the defense.

The run defense was not good last year, and runners kept getting into the secondary, which was a result of weakness at the line. Second, the safety play was weak in run support so a lot of runs that should have gone for 1 went for 10. The fact that Olshansky was already replaced only means the position won't be worse, but it won't be better.

Also VInce, I'm curious about your suggested draft targets. I agree that Jackson would be a good option, but I totally disagree on Jerry and Ayers. While Jerry might have the right body type, and Ayers doesn't even have that, neither has experience playing two gap. A first seems awful high for those guys given that their experience is rushing, but the Chargers use their OLBs for rushing and their ends to cover two gaps.

A safety would be a nice pickup, but I'm not sure which one would be a good option. It seems that the ones that people feel good about Chung, et al. will go in the second, and the Chargers don't have a 2, just a tone of threes.

OL-wise, I seem to remember that there was a big difference in the success of runs left versus right. Not that Goff was the best guard in the world, but he was super familiar with the system, and so I think you need someone better than he was to get at least as much production.

Thanks for the write-ups and the props to the Chargers, but lets not pat them on the back too much :)

41 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

"And if Cutler gets traded, this whole story will be null and void."

Well, crap.