Four Downs
Offseason analysis of the NFL, division by division

Four Downs: AFC West

by Rivers McCown

Denver Broncos: Can this aging secondary hold together?

Last season, the Broncos finished 30th in the NFL in our defensive DVOA rankings, including 31st against the pass. Champ Bailey is still a solid stater at cornerback, even despite being 33. Beyond that, the back four is a muddled mess.

Brian Dawkins will be moving to strong safety, as he's clearly lost a step at 36 and needs a less demanding role on the team despite his leadership skills. Replacing him at free safety will be rookie second-rounder Rahim Moore, a good safety prospect who saw his stock come down a bit last year after a tremendous sophomore year at UCLA. Andre' Goodman, also 33, is the ostensible starter opposite of Bailey. He was torched last year in his eight starts to the tune of 9.2 yards per pass play.

The primary reserves aren't any better. Nate Jones, who was re-signed to a cheap long-term contract, allowed 10.9 yards per pass play last season and has never been a regular NFL starter. Perrish Cox played a supporting role last year and was supposed to be an answer for Denver at cornerback, but after allegedly raping and impregnating a woman at a party, he could be facing jail time or a suspension. Either outcome should make it clear to the Broncos that counting on him long-term is a mistake. 2010 second-rounder Darcel McBath could potentially take over for Dawkins, but he spent most of last year receiving treatment from the trainers for a bad quadriceps muscle, a bum ankle, and the burn marks he incurred when he actually set foot on the field. Even with the return of Elvis Dumervil, the Broncos shaky secondary could keep them from getting much better against the pass.

Kansas City Chiefs: Which linebackers will start?

The Chiefs addressed a few of their biggest issues in free agency, signing Kelly Gregg to play nose tackle and Steve Breaston as their second receiver. While they're set at a lot of positions, they do still have some question marks at linebacker.

Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson are a great start at the position, at least provided that Johnson doesn't do whatever it was that put him in Todd Haley's doghouse again. The spot opposite Johnson in the middle is a total coinflip at this point. The Chiefs must not have been impressed by incumbent Jovan Belcher's performance, because they brought back Kansas City stalwart Demorrio Williams and signed San Diego's Brandon Siler just for good measure. None of these players have good advanced statistics against the pass by our numbers, but Siler is probably the best run stuffer of the bunch. It could be a platoon situation for the Chiefs.

Opposite Hali at the other 3-4 outside linebacker spot, Andy Studebaker looks like he'll get the first crack at the job. Third-rounder Justin Houston is waiting in the wings, and our SACKSEER projection system sees him as a player with a chance to be a true stud, which would be great if he had actually bothered to show up to training camp on time. With his chance to make a positive impression perhaps already gone, the Chiefs may have no choice but to turn to Studebaker.

Studebaker had 2.5 sacks last year in passing down relief of Mike Vrabel, but according to our game charting project, he also produced just four hurries over the past two years. To put that into context, Hali had 37 hurries by himself last year. Studebaker doesn't need to be Hali-quality, but the Chiefs probably need him to notch at least 20 hurries this season for their opponents to take their pass rush seriously.

Oakland Raiders: Is the youth on the offensive line ready to play now?

After losing Nnamdi Asomugha to free agency, a reasonable guess might be that Oakland's biggest problem is the hole that he left. Close, but that would ignore a position that they've needed to turn over for years: offensive line. 2010 third-rounder Jared Veldheer will start at left tackle, and they re-signed center Samson Satele last week, but other than that they lost every starting offensive lineman they had to free agency. You could argue that this group wasn't good in the first place (after all, they finished seventh-to-last in Adjusted Sack Rate last year, and haven't finished above the bottom seven since 2005), and you'd be right -- but they haven't brought in any outside help and have turned the team over almost entirely to their young pups.

2010 fourth-rounder Bruce Campbell will probably find himself in the starting lineup, and rookie second-rounder Stefen Wisniewski may also have a chance to crack it as well. Khalif Barnes was talked up as a potential right tackle solution after being adequate as a swing tackle last year, but the Raiders would probably prefer third-round pick Joseph Barksdale to start there. After failing to sign ex-Ravens tackle Jared Gaither over physical issues, they instead inked retreads like Stephon Heyer and Seth Wand to try to solidify the line. Those aren't competitors for a starting job on a real NFL team: They're a cry for help.

Oakland is finally on the correct course to develop a good offensive line with all the draft picks they've spent at the position recently, but youngsters don't fix things overnight. With a potentially shaky line in front of him, and primary underneath receiver Zach Miller now residing in Seattle, it looks like yet another bad year for Jason Campbell to prove he's a starting NFL quarterback.

San Diego Chargers: Can they fix their special teams?

With the re-signing of Malcolm Floyd, the Chargers seem to have addressed most of their team's needs on offense and defense. Ex-49er Takeo Spikes probably isn't a long-term solution at inside linebacker, but the Chargers have spent a couple of high-round picks on players they'll be breaking in next to him this season in Donald Butler and Jonas Mouton, so a stop-gap signing while they figure it out probably isn't so bad for them.

The Chargers biggest weakness last year wasn't their offense or defense, but their special teams. They finished dead last in the NFL in special teams DVOA, with their kickoff and punt return coverage being an absolute travesty. Most memorably, they lost to the Seahawks in Week 3 almost solely because Leon Washington returned four kickoffs for 253 yards and two touchdowns. Losing a talented gunner like Kassim Osgood (as the Chargers did last offseason) doesn't seem like a big deal on paper, but after watching San Diego's special teams performance last year, re-signing him could have been enough to keep the division crown in Southern California.

Some of this will be fixed with simple regression -- no team can be THAT bad on special teams coverage again -- and some of it will fall to the hands of Kelley Washington, a highly-regarded special teamer who helped shore things up a bit for the Chargers after he signed with the team late in the season. General manager A.J. Smith also spent a seventh-round pick on Missouri linebacker Andrew Gachkar, who he believes will be an exceptional special teams player. San Diego is clearly taking the issue pretty seriously, and as long as they can just be mediocre on kick and punt returns, that should put them in the driver's seat in the AFC West.

(This article previously appeared at ESPN Insider.)

Comments

65 comments, Last at 15 Feb 2013, 6:08am

1 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

I'd love to see Andy Studebaker hold onto the job in KC, as he's a D-III alumus of my alma mater, Wheaton College.

2 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Raiders excepted, I like what every team in this division did in the off-season. If the Broncos do the right thing and go with Orton, I don't know who to put my money on...

4 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Looks like a two-horse race between the Chargers and the Chiefs to me. Raiders losing Cable and all those starters locks them in last place, < 4 wins I bet. Broncos will probably show improvement by mid-season, but their defense is SO old, and they've got a trumped-up QB controversy to deal with as well. I can't see them competing for a division title this year.

Chiefs benefited from a really easy schedule and the Chargers' bad luck last year. KC is a pretty good squad but I'd be really surprised if they matched or exceeded last year's win total. That is, unless, Cassel steps his game up considerably; if he can take advantage of all the weapons they have on offense they could be in the driver's seat.

5 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

The only reason that I'm not sold on the Chargers is that they have year in, year out found ways to lose. The Broncos improved their front 7 so much (especially with Dumervil coming back) that I just can't write them off. Also, I'm firmly in the "McDaniels deserves worst coach of the decade consideration" camp - and I think Fox provides real value as well. I think the Chiefs probably got lucky with an easy schedule last year, but they improved significantly in all their weak spots. The Chargers improved their special teams and tread water otherwise - lord knows, that could be enough to get them to 12 wins, but with a Norv squad, you can't bet on anything. All 3 teams did the right things to get better, it remains to see how much better each team will be.

6 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

The Chargers need only stay healthy. The last three years, they've lost the man in the middle of one of their teams in the first week. What are the odds of that? If the centerpieces all or mostly get a good run, and Rivers plays like Rivers for 16 games, that offense is going to be terrifying. The defense will be solid too: they have a bunch of young guys waiting in the wings on the DL behind proven veterans, and they'll be carrying 6 guys with starting experience. Add to that a scary secondary, a hot-and-cold LB corp, and even ordinary-bad special teams, they'll be tough to beat.

The Chiefs will be a threat, though. And the AFCE+NFCN will probably hold the division winner to 10 games so wildcards or bye rounds are unlikely.

7 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Yeah, but everyone thought the exact same thing last year and they somehow managed to avoid the playoffs at any cost, despite a weak division and a not particularly tough schedule. They're playing probably the best NFC division this year (especially if the Vikings rebound at all and the lions are anywhere near what the chorus says they are) plus games against the Pats and Jets. And a Chiefs team that looks just as good, young and improving on paper. A Chiefs team that's also really looking to prove they weren't a fluke. It looks like a recipe to get Norv'd again...

23 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

I agree with chemical burn, the Chargers don't have the right stuff. Never underestimate the powers of Norv to wreck a team. Remember when the Chargers played the Chiefs and recovered an onside kick with 1:19 in the 4th quarter to beat them 22-21? That was against Tyler Thigpen. Thigpen! The Chargers needed that win to squeak into the playoffs with an 8-8 record.

I expect the Chargers to start slow and have to fight for every game just to make it to a Wildcard berth.

27 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

The Chargers have Norv coaching ... The guy is a superb offensive co-ordinator but a mediocre headcoach. You've got to wonder what a better headcoach would be doing with the Chargers team in the weakness of the AFC West given the chance.

34 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

And... they won. And they won the next week. And the next. Then they knocked the league MVP out of the playoffs before losing to the eventual champs. Not terrible I'd say.

28 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Like I said, the last three years, they lost the man in the middle on one of their teams in the first week. Jamal Williams in 2008, Nick Hardwick in 2009, and David Binn in 2010. Those players were quite literally the hearts of their lines. It's hard to recover from that, but they still went to the playoffs twice and had no losing seasons. As long as Philip Rivers stays healthy, the Chargers have a chance. Their injury luck has been just awful, though; that will have to right itself before they'll be true SB contenders.

As far as the Norv thing goes, meh. Norv's 3-3 in the playoffs with this team, over 4 years. That's hardly a scathing indictment.

30 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Um...yeah.

For the injury thing, it's a factor, but it was also a factor for Green Bay, the Steelers, the Saints, etc. They adjusted. I think when Williams was out they stuck in Garay or Ngwanbuo and (I think) went to a 2-4-5 or hybrid fronts. But, as a head coach, Norv comes up short.

I'd take Rex Ryan, Steve Spagnuolo, or even Pete Carroll over Norv Turner. Case in point, last season in the Raiders-Chargers game, the Bolts were back on their own 20 yard line, 3rd and 1, special teams already gave up 9 points to botched kicking, with Rivers under center in a tight formation. Rivers throws deep left to Nnamdi Asomugha (covering someone else besides Antonio Gates or Darren Sproles) for an incomplete pass. Why?

Why tempt fate again? As a head coach, why not go for the high percentage short pass for 1-2 yards to get a 1st down instead of the low percentage deep pass? The only reason it didn't end in disaster was a Raider's penalty. That's a lot to leave to luck, but that seems to be Norv's philosophy.

35 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

For the injury thing, it's a factor, but it was also a factor for Green Bay, the Steelers, the Saints, etc

Yes. And in recent years all of those teams have missed the playoffs or limped in and come up short of the Super Bowl due to injuries. Just like the Chargers last year.

I think when Williams was out they stuck in Garay or Ngwanbuo and (I think) went to a 2-4-5 or hybrid fronts.

Yes, it was the ultimate bend but don't break defense, which was still below average in DVOA, had almost no pass rush, and was horrid against the run. They did it with smoke, mirrors and luck against a week schedule. The one thing that 2009 team had going for it was the passing game, and the credit for that belongs to... NORV!

I'd take Rex Ryan, Steve Spagnuolo, or even Pete Carroll over Norv Turner

Really? Cause Norv has more playoff appearances than all those guys combined.

Why tempt fate again? As a head coach, why not go for the high percentage short pass for 1-2 yards to get a 1st down instead of the low percentage deep pass?

Indeed, what does Norv know about calling plays? He's only got 2 Super Bowl rings and was credited personally by Aikman for making him a Hall of Famer. He only helped Rivers blossom into an elite QB who has the second highest passer rating of all time. The chargers are only averaging about 430 points a season during his tenure.

Completely worthless as an OC.

40 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Cause Norv has more playoff appearances than [Rex Ryan, Steve Spagnuolo, or even Pete Carroll] combined.

Norv's teams have made the playoffs 4 times in 13 seasons as head coach. Carroll's made the playoffs 3 times in 5 seasons (people seem to forget that the 1997-98 Patriots were decent) and Rex 2 in 2.

45 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

You're kidding, right? Spags beat the Chargers, credit his defense or Sam Bradford's ability, but a first year head coach beat an incumbent offensive "genius". And don't forget Spags has a ring as defensive coordinator for the Giants when they stopped Tom Brady and the undefeated Patriots. The same Patriots that pummeled the Chargers twice that year.

48 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

True. It seemed more like Carroll's defense figured out Bradford's tendencies to limit him and Whitehurst was just playing caretaker to the run game. Hard to remember since that game was painful to watch, but I remember that Bradford had a hard time with blitzes near the end of the season.

50 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

In reply to by Moderate Mouse (not verified)

Uh, that was a weird game.

1) It was a 1pm EST road game for the Chargers. Yeah, they beat the Bucs in such a game back in 2008, but generally as a Chargers fan, you mark 1pm EST road games up as losses as soon as the schedule comes out. You don't even look at the opponent. It's MUCH harder traveling west-east than east-west, and it's hard playing football at 10am your time.

2) It was Marcus McNeill's first game back, and he was just terrible that day. When your LT dumps on you, you're gonna have a hard time.

53 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

In reply to by Neoplatonist B… (not verified)

OMG! I wanted to throw the remote at my tv! it wasn't as bad as the night game against the Patriots in the beginning of the season, but the Chargers just looked off. I want to chalk it up to weather (San Diego to New England is tough), but Norv's teams (Wash, Oakland, SD) have a habit of sputtering out. I'm so conflicted about Norv.

56 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

It seems to me that Norv is a great guy if you want a yes-man ... OC for Jimmy Johnson (himself under Jerry Jones) ... working for Snyder ... then Al Davis ... and now AJ Smith ... all the supreme ego's ...

33 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

The Chargers used an all time NFL record number of players last year, because they were absolutely crushed by injuries. Those injuries mostly affected the special teams, which is why they sucked so bad for the first half of the season.

They had similar issues in 2009, especially on defense, but were able to rally thanks to a weaker schedule and the passing attack.

BTW, Norv has won 3 of 4 division titles with this team and never had a losing record. In the playoffs they lost on the road to at team which was 2 minutes from going 19-0. They lost on the road to the eventual world champions. Then they lost a close game because they had a lousy defense, no running game, and the most accurate kicker in NFL history missed 3 Fgs in a single contest. Is that what you mean by "Getting Norved", because it doesn't seem like he's done too bad all things considered.

37 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

If Schottenheimer had kept the job and done exactly what Norv has, I don't think "it doesn't seem like he's done too bad all things considered" would be Charger fans' reaction.

60 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

In reply to by sjt (not verified)

David Binn vs. Ethan Albright. That's the difference between 9-7 and out of the playoffs and 12-4 and the #2 seed.

Madden was right. Totally right. Ethan Albright is the worst player ever to don a helmet.

15 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

I agree with much of what you are saying, but I don't think it adds up to any real expectations for the year.

Cutting bait with McDaniels was imperative before he inflicted any more damage, and I have much more (though neither blind nor unlimited) faith in the new regime. Still, take an objective look at the roster. It is a mess.

Yes, the front seven is improved, but this is akin to noting how much your three-year-old had grown the past year; he's still rather short. There is not a true impact player on the front four (Elvis is, by far, the closest, but has never been close to being a dominant end), and the LBs consist of a high-upside question mark (Miller), a solid veteran (Williams), and an established mediocrity (Mays).

The issues in the secondary are addressed fairly above, and the second tier of the three-deep is mostly unsettling.

(For the sake of brevity, I will not address the offensive woes)

Yes, there is reason for optimism, but let's not mistake this for a one-year turn-around. The Josh McDaniels Experience set the franchise back at least five years, and I am not exaggerating for effect. Let's not expect XandElFox to turn water into wine in one lockout-shortened off-season.

8 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

It took an absolutely insane level of injuries and special teams epic failures for the Chargers not to win the division last year. I don't think anyone else has improved anywhere near enough to prevent the Chargers from winning the division if they stay reasonably healthy and special teams are merely bad instead of contending for the worst of all time.

9 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

"If the Broncos do the right thing and go with Orton..."

It seems like they will at least to begin with, but unless Tebow is a total disaster in preseason and practice, he's going to get a long look just so they can decide whether to fish or cut bait.

Living in Denver, the whole Tebow thing has been fascinating. I've never seen a more polarizing force before. On the boards you've got people who think Orton is the worst QB in the league and that Tebow is getting shafted by not being name starter already. And the groundwork is being laid to explain why Tebow isn't going to start without having to admit he might not be good enough. I just read a guy explaining that Bowlen had secretly told Elway that Orton had to start because they weren't paying him a starter's salary to ride the pine. And a self-professed Christian who's blaming it on anti-Christian bias...in the same post where the totally defames Brady Quinn, who also happens be a Christian. Lots of whackos out there.

11 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

In reply to by sundown (not verified)

Yep, I live in Denver, too, and this whole trumped-up 'controversy' is already making me nauseous. No matter what some people may think of Orton, he is so clearly the best option for the Broncos, and yet there are people who are adamant that Tebow is...say it with me...'a proven winner', that of course he must be given the job even though there is literally no evidence that he should be given the job beyond the fact that he sells a lot of jerseys. I, particularly, find this all quite grotesque because Tebow's staunchest supporters are the sort of people who claim any criticism of Him is because they 'hate christians', even though the vast majority of Tebow's supporters have probably never seen him play football but are either Focus on the Family members, or 15-year old girls who wish he was their boyfriend. I've got no beef with Tebow the person, as he seems like a decent guy, but, as a Broncos fan and Denver native, I really wish that they had never drafted the guy. I'm guessing that Elway and Fox, although they'd never say it, are thinking the same thing.

16 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

In reply to by Fielding Melish (not verified)

I'm also getting tired of hearing how Orton lost them all those games last year with his terrible play. (Hmm, I seem to recall their defense being absolutely horrible and thinking that was why they were losing lots of games.) I'm no Orton apologist--he's not as good as his stats, imo--but he's a legitimate NFL QB and will probably be an even better QB with a running game to help him out.

Over the past few years Favre played a lot of so-so games yet got all the credit for wins and somehow dodged all blame for losses. Well, that's how the Tebow maniacs are shaping up. I think he's a great kid and I hope he makes it...but I see an incredibly steep learning curve ahead of him. But that's not what some people are seeing-- he could throw 4 INTs and the first comment from these folks would be complaining how the receivers let him down or how Fox undercut him with a poor game plan.

43 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Re: Elway and Fox.

Taken the pick after Tebow, by the way, was the clear favorite 3-4 NT in the 2010 draft, Dan Williams, who played 15 games for Arizona in 2010. Just sayin'.

3 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

I thought Gachkar was drafted because he's a linebacker with 4.5 speed?

10 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

"...they brought back Kansas City stalwart Demorrio Williams"
They - being those same Kansas City Chiefs.

12 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

I can offer one good reason why the Chiefs will not complete for the division this year:

They signed Sabby Piscitelli. That's right - they gave money to Piscitelli, presumably with the notion that he should spend time on the field during games. And here we all thought that Scott Pioli was a talent guru...

20 signed Sabbi Piscatelli

In reply to by Tundrapaddy (not verified)

Per Don Banks: "...and safety Sabby Piscitelli are solid role players who improve Kansas City's depth and add some needed toughness in key spots." Ummm...Don Banks!?!...Ooookay, I'll just leave it there.

21 Re: signed Sabbi Piscatelli

In reply to by BigWoody (not verified)

Yes, yes I admit it. The last 5 months of courtroom football have made me so starved for football like stuff that I've even taken to reading a Don Banks article.

Sob!!!

13 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Can anybody explain the Tebow thing to me? I mean I know he was a first round pick and there's hope he develops into a solid player, but he was also considered a reach, and rookies don't usually get his kind of nationwide attention and fandom. Is it some sort of Elway transference or something?

17 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

He has everything you want in a quarterback.*

He is big (and I mean huge; possibly the most muscle mass of any NFL QB. Tall, lean, packed.). He is athletic. He is good looking. He has an inspiring back story. He has all of the "intangible" qualities you want. He is an unquestioned leader. He has an incredible college resume of winning, performing, and leading. He is dedicated, team-oriented, an incredibly hard worker, and, despite his college heroics and ensuing hype, humble enough to carry himself the right way as an NFL rookie last year. He is the solid, upright, all-American boy that many fathers hope their daughters meet. He is your dream quarterback.

*Except for the ability to throw accurately and consistently, which, it turns out, is important.

19 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

You know, one thing I find really funny is that the Tebow fanatics are so quick to dismiss Brady Quinn, who has everything you listed--he's even a Christian like Tebow. (Okay, not as outspoken as Tebow, but serious enough he's been associated with numerous Christian causes. And he played his college ball in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus.) But I've heard numerous Tebow fans badmouth Quinn in the same breath where they blame all criticism of Tebow on people being anti-Christian. If Tebow wasn't such a nice guy, he could without question lead a cult.

18 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Like...wow. But, okay, I'll take the bait: No Elway transference. Just a lot of hero worship for one of the most loved and hyped college quarterbacks of recent memory. He was considered a reach because Florida ran the spread, he ran every play in college from the shotgun, he's got a hitch in his throwing motion that seems to hurt his accuracy, and a huge chunk of his success was on designed runs or plays where he didn't have to read the defense. None of that really screams "Lock to make it in the NFL." There's hope he develops because he's apparently a great kid, a hard worker, and everybody who's ever met him says he's a great leader. Those can be very important in the NFL. Unfortunately, if he can't get his completion percentage over the 50% he had playing at the end of last season, none of the intangibles will matter.

24 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Denver fan here. The Tebow/Orton thing is just a symptom. The fan base has gone insane due to the horrible run over the past few years, and sanity will not be restored until the Broncos return to the playoffs. You can only watch a historically bad defense go unaddressed for so many years until you snap. We're all quite batty now, even though things seem to be improving.

29 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

It's interesting to me that in a quick preview of the Chiefs, the offense isn't addressed at all. That was the team's most obvious shortcoming last year. The defense played well throughout the year and hasn't had any significant losses in the offseason.

The offense was inconsistent in 2010 and had the biggest changes in the offseason with Muir taking over for Weis at OC and the signing of Breaston. The biggest question for KC has to be its offense and its ability to consistently put up points.