Four Downs: AFC West

Four Downs: AFC West
Four Downs: AFC West
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Tom Gower

Denver Broncos

Biggest Post-Draft Need: Linebacker

Since the pre-free agency installment of this series, the Broncos signed Peyton Manning, drastically resetting their short-term expectations. In that installment, we highlighted the need for youth and quality at cornerback and safety. Since then, they’ve added Tracy Porter to play cornerback opposite Champ Bailey, as well as Mike Adams, a competent starting safety. Porter and Adams should be upgrades on the unsigned Andre' Goodman and the now-retired Brian Dawkins, respectively.

Our 24th-ranked pass defense’s biggest problem, though, was against running backs – they allowed a 26.4% DVOA on passes to running backs, which placed them 30th in the NFL. It wasn’t just against the pass where the linebackers seemed to struggle though, as the Broncos were twenty-fifth in the league in our Second Level Yards statistic, which measures how many opponent runs gain five to ten yards. The Broncos chose to re-sign Joe Mays, who started at middle linebacker, and Wesley Woodyard, who played more on passing downs. But since D.J. Williams is aging and Von Miller is a pass rush specialist, the Broncos’ linebacking corps is likely to be about as good as it was in 2011. That may not be good enough.

Important Undrafted Free Agents

Cornerback Coryell Judie out of Texas A&M was an intriguing prospect who had a strong 2010 before a hamstring injury cost him much of 2011. If he can regain his 2010 form, he could make the team. Safety Duke Ihenacho from San Jose State excels in coverage, and could vie to replace Adams in a couple years. The Broncos also signed Arizona State wideout Gerell Robinson, giving second-round quarterback Brock Osweiler a collegiate teammate to throw to in rookie minicamp.

Kansas City Chiefs

Biggest Post-Draft Need: ‘Good’ Matt Cassel

Since our prior column, the Chiefs chose to keep Dwayne Bowe, while letting cornerback Brandon Carr depart in free agency. The Chiefs did sign Stanford Routt, formerly of Oakland, to take Carr’s place. Routt led the league in defensive pass interference penalties in 2011, but had good numbers according to our game charting project and was clearly the Raiders’ best cornerback. Meanwhile, the recoveries from injury of Jamaal Charles, Tony Moeaki, and Eric Berry all appear to be on schedule.

With Bowe still in the fold and Charles and Moeaki returning, plus the addition of Eric Winston at right tackle and guard Jeff Allen in the second round, the Chiefs should be poised to be much better on offense when they were in 2011, when they ranked 25th in passing and 30th in rushing by DVOA. The magnitude of that improvement will depend on quarterback Matt Cassel playing better than he did in 2011. Cassel has been a well below-average quarterback in two of his three seasons with the Chiefs, ranking 39th in 2011 and 37th in 2009 by DVOA. He’s performed better when the offensive personnel around him has been better, but if the Chiefs struggle offensively again in 2012, an upgrade at quarterback should become a high priority.

Important Undrafted Free Agents

Few, if any, Chiefs made it to the various lists of top undrafted free agents. Kansas tight end Tim Biere has strong local support, and the Chiefs’ interest in Dallas Clark suggests there might be room on the roster for another tight end. Defensive backs Neiko Thorpe from Auburn and Tysyn Hartman from Kansas State may have the opportunity to make the roster if they excel on special teams.

Oakland Raiders

Biggest Post-Draft Need: Overall Depth

While we highlighted linebacker as the Raiders’ biggest need a couple moths ago, every position save perhaps quarterback and wide receiver could use better depth. Injury attrition was a big problem in 2011, and the Raiders’ lack of depth was only exacerbated this offseason by the salary cap problems that led to the release of tight end Kevin Boss, cornerback Stanford Routt, and linebacker/defensive end Kamerion Wimbley. To top it off, their first pick in April’s NFL draft was a third-round compensatory selection, thanks to the Carson Palmer trade, a 2011 draft-day trade, and selecting quarterback Terrelle Pryor in last year’s supplemental draft.

The problem exists throughout the roster. With Michael Bush gone, injury-prone Darren McFadden’s top backup is Mike Goodson, a forgotten man in Carolina in 2011. Brandon Myers is the starting tight end almost by default, and there is no other tight end on the roster with more than one year of NFL experience. Stefen Wisniewski was moved from guard to center, and there is no obvious backup if he goes down. With Wimbley gone, the Raiders are relying on a full recovery from the shoulder injury that cost defensive end Matt Shaughnessy most of last season. If he returns but takes a step back from his previous level of performance, last year’s 21st-ranked pass rush by Adjusted Sack Rate may take that step back with him. Ron Bartell and Shawntae Spencer were signed to start at cornerback, but behind them are inexperienced and unproven players like DeMarcus Van Dyke, Chimdi Chekwa, and Brandon Underwood. Any long-term injuries could prove disastrous for the Raiders this season.

Important Undrafted Free Agents

Offensive guard Lucas Nix from Pittsburgh could be a valuable reserve. The Raiders have bodies at safety, but none good enough that Aaron Henry from Wisconsin couldn’t make the roster. While he wasn’t eligible for the 2012 NFL draft, former Cal State-Fullerton basketball player Andre Hardy has a chance to stick at tight end given the lack of depth and experience at the position.

San Diego Chargers

Biggest Post-Draft Need: Defensive Line

The San Diego Chargers’ defensive line simply wasn’t good enough in 2011. The Chargers ranked 25th in our Adjusted Line Yards number, which measures how stout the front of a run defense is. The Chargers were fifth-worst when it came to stopping opposing running backs for a loss or no gain, and ranked dead last against the run in short-yardage situations, defined as third down, fourth down, or goal line with 1-2 yards to go.

Nose tackle is relatively set with the re-signing of Antonio Garay. Garay is not the difference-maker in the middle of the line that Jamal Williams was, but he is much improved from the player he was when an injury to Williams first forced him into the lineup a couple of years ago. He and Cam Thomas form a decent pair at nose tackle, and should be fine if the play at defensive end is better.

The Chargers will be hoping for more from last year’s first-round pick, Corey Liuget, who rarely made his impact felt as a rookie. Luis Castillo was cut and then re-signed to a one-year deal. He returns from a broken leg suffered in the opening game of last season, and if healthy, he should start over Vaughn Martin, who played in his stead. Second-round pick Kendall Reyes figures into the mix somewhere. If Liuget shows off the skills that made him a first-rounder, Castillo plays to his pre-injury form, and Reyes has a better rookie year than Liuget did, this could be a much-improved group. That is an awful lot of ifs.

Important Undrafted Free Agents

The Chargers are only carrying three quarterbacks right now, so there’s an obvious job opportunity for LSU signal-caller Jarrett Lee. Justin Blackmon’s collegiate teammate Hubert Anyiam, UNLV’s Phillip Payne, and Arizona State’s Mike Willie could make things complicated at the bottom of the wide receiver depth chart. Montana offensive tackle Charles Burton has a chance to stick with Brandyn Dombrowski’s move inside to guard.


36 comments, Last at 18 May 2012, 10:59pm

1 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Does anyone else feel like the broncos current roster and style is an almost exact replica of the 2010 colts to a degree? Essentially, this team feels like its again going to be peyton manning and a collection of deep but not overly talented receivers coupled with an otherwise mediocre to poor defense that features two specialist pass rushers. Sure, the o line should be an improvement over indy's and the corners are clearly better, but one still has to wonder why peyton preferred denver to sf

4 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Interesting points. I think conventional wisdom was that Peyton wanted to stay in the AFC so he'd be guaranteed not to play Eli in the playoffs short of the Super Bowl. I tend to doubt those pat explanations, but it seemed like there was something to that one.

7 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

No, not to me. The Broncos don't have anyone like Reggie Wayne at WR, nor do they have anyone like Dallas Clark at TE. McGahee could be considered an upgrade over Addai, but that's not as important for a pass-heavy offense. The real question is how well the offense can adjust to the kind of chicken-scratch-dance no-huddle offense that Manning had run for so many years in Indy.

As to why P Manning might prefer Denver to SF, it might come down to control issues -- Harbaugh is a 2nd year NFL coach working on establishing his authority, while Fox is a veteran coach who's been through it all and might be comfortable with letting Peyton run the offense more or less independently while he deals with other issues.

12 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

DeMaryius Thomas is probably an upgrade on Reggie Wayne in the 2010 version, at least on downfield routes. Certainly he's probably an upgrade on the 2012 version. And the Broncos signed Jacob Tamme, who effectively took over the Dallas Clark role in the offense in 2010. (Someone else, too, who is probably better - was it Dreesen?). I think the Broncos are probably a sight better than the 2010 Colts, except that Manning is two years older. And was the only good thing about the 2010 colts.

Harbaugh is also an offensive minded coach, while Fox is a defensive minded coach. That might be involved too. Also, Manning may prefer the middle of the country to the San Francisco area, partially for his children.

9 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Its been like this from Day 1. Remember the Colts lost Faulk to St Louis and he was legendary there. They even got a backup who is horrible. No one must transcened the "Chosen One." He gets paid too much to have his ego bruised.

10 Re: Four Downs: AFC West


Come on, LL, get real. What good offensive players have the Broncos got rid of? Tebow??? Also, it's not like the Colts didn't try to acquire good offensive players during PM's tenure--it's exactly the opposite. Wayne, Clark, Addai, Brown, Gonzalez--ALL 1st round draft picks.
You can argue with the way the Colts built their team, but it's really hard to argue with their success of doing it that way. I think the only franchise that can legitimately claim to have been more successful from 2000 to 2010 (since PM was injured last year) would be the Pats--and they have their own HOF QB. (If you want to say PIT, or NYG, or BAL has been more successful--I would say no way. They may have been AS successful, but not more. [Remember that NYG's 2nd title was this year, which I am not including because of PM's injury.])

2 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

I didn't see him play much last year, but was Dawkins so bad or are Porter and Adams such good safeties?

8 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Suggested that Dawkins had at least an ok year. He had some injuries though.

11 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

He was ok, but a shell of his former self, especially coupled with the injuries. He's too excellent & smart a player to ever really be bad, but his physical tools were just failing him. He compensated for his short-comings pretty well, but it's not crazy that he decided to hang 'em up... I personally am more shocked that Joe Mays is a starter somewhere in the league. That guy wasn't even good enough to play LB for the Eagles.

3 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Sorry for nitpicking, but there are a couple of sentences in this article that are broken enough that I really can't understand them:

"In Tracy Porter to play cornerback opposite Champ Bailey, as well as Mike Adams, a competent starting safety."

"If he returns but takes a step back from his previous level of performance, last year’s Shawntae Spencer were signed to start at cornerback, but behind them are inexperienced and unproven players like DeMarcus Van Dyke, Chimdi Chekwa, and Brandon Underwood."

The first one looks like it's maybe just missing a word, like 'comes', or maybe there was supposed to be another clause after 'safety'. The second one I don't know what's going on.

5 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Chargers only have two Quarterbacks on the roster right now, Rivers and Whitehurst. They released Volek to gain som more cap space.

Interesting stats for the defensive line (in SD). I didn't know they were the absolute worst when it came to short yardage runs. That's probably why their 3rd down percentage as a defense was so bad.

Also, I would argue that SD's secondary needs to step up again. Either Jammer needs to stop declining, or he needs to be replaced.

16 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Keep in mind that if Whitehurst doesn't beat the Rams in week 17, Marshawn Lynch doesn't hilariously immortalize the Saints as the first team in NFL history to lose a playoff game to a team with a losing record. As someone who got to experience that moment in person, let me state with absolute certainty that was worth any price. For the rest of my life I'll be greatful for the role Whitehurst played in making that happen.

32 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

It is true that anyone involved in defeating, embarrassing, or ending the season of the Saints should be lauded.

Downside: That run is going to be a good exhibit for the players in the bounty case. "We're obviously not strong enough to hurt anyone. Look at this!"

6 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

To me, san diego should again bounce back to form next year and make the playoffs, either as a wildcard or division winner. But i have to say, there are some serious questions that are going to affect this team going forward and really is because of some big busts that have happened from their first rounders. Cromartie was a first rounder and hes no longer on the roster, craig davis was a flameout, english has struggled, cason might be good but we don't know, and this team used a slew of draft picks to trade up in most of these cases. Even ryan mathews is good but can't seem to stay healthy. Meanwhile, there seems to be no up and comers on the rest of their team. Their o line is patched with veterans that, their defense really feels like its got weddle and a bunch of role players and we don't know what to make of their receivers with the loss of vjax and the possible permanent decline in gates.

Finally, theres rivers himself who mike tanier mentioned is about to get to that pt where qbs start to feel declines in their arm strength and mobility. Rivers has always been an exceptional player but one has to wonder if he has built up enough of the other non throwing attributes an elite qb needs to compete to compensate for physical declines.

I just feel like unless some of their picks really work out, this could be the last hurray for this version of the chargers.

28 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

In reply to by AJ (not verified)

They didn't trade up for any of those guys. They traded up for Mathews, Hester, and Weddle. In terms of positional value, I think they overpaid for good players in Mathews and Hester. LT was worth a top pick because he scribbled "Chargerz Wuz Here" all over the record book; by contrast, Mathews is merely a good player, and the step down to a third-round type guy wouldn't have hurt too much. Still, you can't call them busts by any stretch. Weddle is more than worth what they paid for him. Davis was a scouting failure, English a combination of mis-evaluation and bad luck, and Cromartie a gamble who turned out to be as good as his downside, a highly-talented bum who took over a couple games and took off a couple games, then got traded for Jonas Mouton, still an unknown. The book on that pick is not yet written, but if it embarrasses Peyton Manning and helped us have a great year in 2007 (by our standards), it wasn't a total waste.

I don't think we rightly know where Rivers is or how long he'll be productive. My main concern for him is keeping him from having to scramble too much. I think that this OL should be good at pass protection so long as Gaither and Hardwick remain upright, but both of those guys are injury concerns. It's hard to get a backup left tackle. Mario Henderson, like Gaither, is very boom-and-bust, which is not what you want. At least we know those guys can bring the boom, though, so it's hard to call the OL a weakness. Next year, they will have to draft an OT in the first two days, whether they want to or not. I can't blame them for not doing it this year.

The defensive line should be improved by default this year. Martin and Liuget were both inexperienced last year, and the NFL is not kind to inexperienced DLs. Remember, Martin is about 2 years behind in his development because he didn't play American football in college. It generally takes D-linemen a year or two to get to their feet. This is Martin's Year 4, and he's had enough starting experience to get good mileage from an offseason. Liuget, in year 2 with no such drawback from his school days. They both have a chance to emerge, though we shouldn't forget that Castillo is on the roster just because he lost last year to an acute injury. Reyes may get some action on the field, but as a rookie, he'll only improve the line by providing depth. Note also that rookie ROLBs have a shallower learning curve, and Melvin Ingram may see more success than Liuget did last year, just by default. There is a very real chance that the D-line will pull a 180 and become one of the best in the NFL, and the best bet is that it will be noticeably improved with basically the same Day 1 starting cast.

17 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

The AFC West is a division with more questions than most.

The Broncos are a completely new team. Last year they were a solid team with a game-manager quarterback who seemed to be blossoming into a solid starter. They benched him for the singer from Creed, who posted historically bad statistics but benefited from an improvement in the defense. Now, they are Peyton Manning's team; probably passing the ball efficiently as well as effectively (Orton was effective in 2010; Manning was efficient every time he woke up in the morning). This would make them the favorite except that...

The Raiders get the most explosive running back in football not recovering from an ACL back at full strength, and for the first time since the 1970's have a legitimate starting quarterback who doesn't have obvious and major drawbacks. They have a young and improving set of receivers. They also have a defense decimated by Al Davis' cap management. Asomugha, Wimbley, Routt, etc. all gone. We shall see.

Kansas City gets what was the most explosive running back in football back from an ACL, but history tells us that he won't be as explosive after an ACL. They have a competent but limited quarterback, one receiver, and traded down at the second cornerback spot this offseason. And yet, people say they're very talented.

San Diego looks like a team holding on for one more win before rebuilding, but unfortunately, they never won anything during the Marcus McNeill/Tomlinson/Gates heyday, so it isn't as much fun. They're split between injury prone oldsters (Gates, Castillo) and disappointing youngsters (Everyone under thirty not named Antwan Barnes). And yet, I can't say definitively that they won't finish two games clear of this division...

19 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Don't really disagree with your assessments, but I'm not sure that saying Carson Palmer has no obvious or major drawbacks isn't being a tad optimistic. He may turn out to be fine, after a full offseason, but it's been awhile since I thought he was much of anything beyond replaceable.

20 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

I'm a Carson booster at this point. I was a detractor originally, because I thought his 30-TD season was a bit flukey, but he has held up under some startling adversity and was just night and day better than the Raiders' other options last year - even with the interceptions - and posted a really impressive Y/a for a guy who was playing with a copy of the playbook he had barely had a chance to read.

If you throw out his first two games as a Raider, his 8-game line projects to this over 16:

344/544 (63.2%) for 4610-20-20 8.5 Y/a, which is very decent apart from the INT's. And that's mostly playing without Darren McFadden, who would presumably perform the Darren Sproles role of padding his statistics were he present.

21 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

commisionerleaf's assessment if very fair. This is a division where all four teams could go 8-8 if things go normally. Not one of them stands out as a clear favorite (for different reasons). I think the division winner will be decided by a combination of good and bad breaks -- injuries to key personnel or injuries sustained by an opponent at an opportune time.

22 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

I think Kansas City is clearly the best team in the division -except at quarterback- and I was amazed that Peyton wouldn't even listen to an offer.

23 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

I agree, but that's a big except. Take away the except, and I think the Broncos are the clear class of the division if Peyton's back to something recognizable as Peyton. If not, it's wide open.

24 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

I disagree - if Rivers is back to being the old Rivers and Manning is back to being the old Manning, then the division is still a total toss-up. And the Raiders and the Chiefs could still compete. (However, I think the idea that Carson Palmer is anything other than mediocre for several years running is pretty dubious. They were foolish to let Campbell go, who was clearly the better QB - 26.2% DVOA vs. 8.9% DVOA. Just another example of what a name buys you in this league and from the Raiders in particular...)

25 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Only if you think the supporting casts in San Diego and Denver are comparable. I think the non-qb players in Denver are much better than the ones in San Diego, and that if the Chargers had an average or below-average starter they'd be in the running for the first overall pick.

26 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

According to DVOA, even with reduced-effectiveness Rivers, SD was decisively the better team last year. Denver had a sub-mediocre defense and that was the strength of their team. Even with the off-season taken into account, SD is still likely the better team (albeit one that constantly finds amazing new ways to under-perform), putting QB's aside. If Peyton Manning is the "old Peyton Manning" he's not in another league from "fully healthy Rivers." Thus, it's toss-up. It's hard to see how Denver's non-Manning roster improved from the 24th best team in the league and how SD's dropped so far from the 16th best. I guess getting rid of Tebow alone could be worth that much, even with just a league-average QB...

27 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Of course San Diego was by far the better team last year. They had Rivers; Denver had Orton and Tebow. San Diego has probably got a little weaker since them - I don't think Meachem is a fully sufficient replacement for Jackson, and their OL looks like a mess. Denver has added Peyton Manning.

Simply: I think that the difference in DVOA between Denver and San Diego in 2011 was smaller (even significantly smaller) than the difference between Rivers and Orton/Tebow.

31 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

The SD defense should be radically better, the offense marginally worse. The whole DL is going into its second season starting, Castillo (now a backup) and Phillips are back, and Phillips/Ingram and Johnson are a huge upgrade over nobody and LaBoy. The OL isn't a disaster: Gaither is a beast while healthy, Hardwick and Vasquez are studs, and Green and Clary are adequate. The backup situation looks solid on the interior (Schilling, Dombrowski, Molk/Baxter), and a little scary on the outside (Henderson, Green). The offensive weapons are a step down, but they have the QB and the RB, and the other offensive skill players are less important.

29 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

theres no sense in trying to speculate what denver will be because a healthy manning fundamentally changes every aspect of your team; which incidentally is probably the first line on the 2011 colts epitaph.

Talent wise, i don't think denver is that great, but a healthy manning makes average receivers look good, below avg o linemen look competent, and an other wise horrendous defense look just plain bad. I think sd has better overall talent than denver and should progress in many of the areas that held them back this year, but trying to speculate on denver's dvoa next year based off this year is really impossible. I expect denver to win the division, but sd should be pretty good too.

30 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

I'm not completely convinced. Going from a Tebow-based offense to a Peyton Manning offense is a 180-degree shift in offensive philosophy. This isn't like replacing Tavaris Jackson with Brett Favre in an offensive scheme that isn't all that different. There's going to be a long learning and adjusting process.

Beyond that... Manning made the Colts OL look good because he gets rid of the ball quickly and runs audibles to perfection (which takes a lot of practice to perfect). Tebow made the Denver OL look good because he ran around so much out there. Even with Jeff Saturday in there at center, I think there's going to be some failures out there in the early stages.

While I think a healthy Manning will make the Broncos better eventually, I don't expect him to make them the automatic favorites in the division. First, because he doesn't have offensive weapons that he's worked with for years; and second, because the Broncos have other issues (such as the secondary) that could hurt them.

On the other side, Rivers has offensive weapons that he's familiar with. A healthy Antonio Gates would be a major plus on the Chargers side, for example. They also have issues with their secondary. The Raiders have issues in their secondary also, and at QB. The Chiefs don't have a great passing game and a few issues on D, particularly at S, and they lost Brandon Carr. This is why I see the division as wide open, neglecting injuries.

33 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

I agree with the assessments but have nits to pick:

Favre was very good his first year in Minnesota;
Saturday signed with Green Bay, not Denver;
Apart from Wayne, Manning hasn't have consistent offensive weapons for a full year since... 2006?;

Question for the more-Chargers-knowledgable among you: Was Rivers hurt this past year, or was it just a general "down year"? My impression is that he should bounce back either way, but I'm curious.

34 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

You're right, I made the big goof regarding Jeff Saturday.

My point about Favre wasn't that he was bad, but that he went into a situation in Minnesota that was basically arranged for him -- especially considering that Brad Childress was drooling over the possibility of obtaining Favre even before Favre 'retired' in 2009.

As for the consistency of Mannings weapons, you have to acknowledge that he had weapons he was familiar with for years -- Wayne, Clark, Addai, and Saturday, for instance. It's possible to live with a bunch of somewhat inconsistent weapons as long as you have some great guys you're comfortable with. Manning has no one on the Denver offense he's even casually comfortable with yet -- unless you want to count Brandon Stokeley. I don't know if Manning has even worked with any of the Denver coaching staff before.

35 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

A general down year. He has said himself that he was trying to force plays open more than he has in the past. It also didn't help that the entire offensive line was decimated from injury. There was a point where Clary was the only healthy O-Lineman and he was arguably the worst on that line to start the season. This prompted them to sign Free Agents off the street (like Gaither who did great), and forced the offense into much more conservative max-protect schemes making their passing offense less viable.

There were also injuries to his weapons: Antonio Gates was hobbled for most of the year due to plantar faciitis so he couldn't perform well at all until the end of the year, Malcom Floyd was amazing when he was healthy and on the field (2nd best DVOA for a receiver of all time!) unfortunately it seemed like he would be good for one spectacular catch and then would be out for the rest of the game. That left Vincent Jackson (who was wildly inconsistent), Vincent Brown (a rookie who actually played pretty well when asked to step in), Michael Crayton (who seemed lost at his position, not making an impact at all hardly), Randy McMichael (who was ok), Ryan Mathews (who played great, and did everything asked of him), and Mike Tolbert (who played well, if not as good a Mathews).

Between the OL and the WR injuries, it's no wonder that Mathews and Tolbert had some of the highest catch rates for the Chargers.