Four Downs: AFC West

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

by Tom Gower

Denver Broncos

Biggest Hole: Secondary

As we chronicled before the AFC Championship game, the Broncos had the worst pass defense in the league in the games Von Miller missed. Miller should be healthy by the start of the 2014 season, and the pass defense was better with him in the lineup. Still, the secondary that struggled badly without him could be facing significant personnel turnover, as four players who started at least ten games are free agents.

The situation is not quite so dire as that makes it sound. Strong safety Duke Ihenacho is an exclusive rights free agent who will return. He mostly displaced free agent Mike Adams, though Adams did start ten games total and could play both safety positions. That versatility was needed because of the injury that caused free safety Rahim Moore to miss the entire postseason. Cornerback Chris Harris is a restricted free agent who will likely require compensation from another team if they wanted to sign him away. Considering the ACL injury he suffered in the postseason could have teams guessing how durable he is, that seems unlikely. He should return.

The starting cornerback opposite Harris is more important. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie ranked among the top cornerbacks in the league according to the Football Outsiders game charting project -- his Success Rate of 65 percent (defined here) was fifth among the top 85 cornerbacks -- but is a free agent. Champ Bailey is under contract for 2014, but has a large salary for a player of his age (36 in June) and injury history (11 missed games in 2013). Tony Carter, another restricted free agent, and Kayvon Webster are probably not enough to hold the fort. All that means the Broncos need Rodgers-Cromartie -- or a corner of similar skill -- in place in the starting lineup.

Kansas City Chiefs

Biggest Hole: Offensive Line

The Chiefs had a highly effective offensive line in 2013. They ranked second in the league in rushing DVOA. (DVOA is Football Outsiders' defense-adjusted value over average metric, explained here.) Some of that success, no doubt, was due to the presence of Jamaal Charles, one of the best backs in the league. However, the Chiefs also ranked second in the league in Adjusted Line Yards, our metric which cuts runs by distance to get a better look at how much of the running game comes from initial blocking.

This would not seem to indicate a hole until we consider that three of the seven Chiefs offensive linemen to play significant snaps in 2013 are set to be free agents. Of those free agents, left tackle Branden Albert is the most valuable and also the likeliest to depart. He had a solid season until a knee injury cost him the last four games. He is likely looking for a long-term deal after playing under the franchise tag and seems unlikely to get it in Kansas City after last offseason’s talks failed to result in an extension. That likely means last year’s first overall pick Eric Fisher shifts back to his more natural left tackle spot. The Chiefs are hoping Fisher’s struggles on the right side were the product of playing an unfamiliar position. That is possible, but right tackle is normally a spot for failed left tackles, not vice versa.

The other free agents on the line are Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asamoah, who mostly split time at right guard. Asamoah was a fine player until 2013, but never seemed to cotton on to Andy Reid’s system. Schwartz seems more likely to return, as he was the starter at the end of the season. Ideally, he is more of a backup, but his resigning would provide greater continuity for a line already likely to undergo a shakeup.

Oakland Raiders

Biggest Hole: Defensive Line

The good news for the Raiders is that general manager Reggie McKenzie will have oodles of cap room to spend on adding players to perhaps the league’s worst roster. The bad news is there may not be a single position outside of perhaps linebacker and wide receiver where the Raiders could be reasonably content with the players they currently have under contract for 2014.

[ad placeholder 3]

The defensive line was a relative strength for the Raiders in 2013. They finished a respectable 18th in run defense by both DVOA and Adjusted Line Yards. The Raiders also ranked tenth by Adjusted Sack Rate, which adjusts for the opponents and opportunities a defense has to get sacks. Naturally, the four men who played the most snaps in 2013 at defensive line are scheduled to become free agents.

McKenzie may have considered defensive tackles Pat Sims and Vance Walker and defensive end Jason Hunter stop-gaps signed out of necessity when he inked them to one-year deals last season. Still, each played at least respectably in 2013. The state of the Raiders roster is such they would be hard-pressed to replace one of them from players currently under contract for 2014, never mind all three of them. Even more importantly, end Lamarr Houston is a free agent. Clearly the best player on the line, Houston led the team in sacks each of the past two seasons and provides important versatility for defensive coordinator Jason Tarver’s multiple defense. If the Raiders do not re-sign him, they must replace him with another quality player in free agency or the draft.

San Diego Chargers

Biggest Hole: Cornerback

For much of the season, the Chargers flirted with the worst defenses in the history of DVOA, which goes back to 1989. A stretch of improved play at the end of the regular season, which coincided with and may have been the result of the return of pass rusher Melvin Ingram from injury, meant they merely finished last by DVOA. They ranked 31st against both the run and the pass, but at least they were not historically awful!

[ad placeholder 4]

As those numbers indicate, the Chargers have multiple needs on the defense. Their most important free agent on defense is almost certainly inside linebacker Donald Butler. Their most important position of need on defense, though, is probably the same one we highlighted last year: cornerback. Give general manager Tom Telesco credit, as he at least tried to upgrade the position. Unfortunately, big free agent acquisition Derek Cox was not the answer he was paid to be. He flopped, getting benched and returning to the lineup only to be benched again. He may be cut after not seeing significant playing time in any of the final seven games. His primary replacement, Richard Marshall, is a free agent.

Even worse, Cox posted better numbers according to the Football Outsiders game charting project than his starting counterpart, Shareece Wright. Cox ranked eleventh-worst, allowing 9.4 yards per pass in coverage; Wright was seventh-worst, allowing 9.7 yards. Cox ranked 78th with a 45 percent success rate, Wright 83rd with 39 percent. Nickelback Johnny Patrick did not have enough targets to make the rankings, but he had an even worse success rate than Wright did. Telesco must try to rebuild the defense if the Chargers hope to return to the postseason.

This article previously appeared on ESPN Insider.


32 comments, Last at 03 Mar 2014, 2:22pm

1 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

I agree Denver needs help in the secondary. Besides re-signing DRC, I think Denver should prioritize upgrading at Safety... Denver's biggest defensive weakness IMO, was that they forced very few turnovers. Getting Miller back will certainly help, as pass rush is the number one factor in creating turnovers. IMO, excellent play from the safety position is the second most important one and Denver has been average to below average at Safety in recent years. I can see them making a move for either Byrd or Ward if they aren't tagged.

KC has a great front seven and very good Safeties, but weak CBs. The Chiefs are a few CBs away from being the most dominant defense in the AFC. Considering what Seattle did to Denver, I could see them trying to replicate Seattle, as they already have many if the pieces in place.

Oakland needs everything...

San Diego is awful at CB...

3 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

I honestly wonder if Denver needs an offensive line overhaul. I believe Manning made every player on that line look 1-2 notches better than they really were, when they weren't playing teams with strong pass rushes.

Look at it this very simplistic way. Say a good offensive line can guarantee four seconds before pressure/sack, against an average pass rushing defense. And say Denver can only guarantee three seconds. No problem for Manning - he is the fastest thinking quarterback in the league and gets rid of the ball in two seconds, faces almost no pressure or sacks in the season, and the offensive line is seen as extremely good because of it, even though it isn't. But then you face a very good pass rushing defense. A good offensive line can guarantee three seconds, and Denver can only guarantee two. And the problem is there's a limit to how fast Manning can get rid of the ball - if that pass rush is faster than almost all of even your quick-developing plays, then your offense becomes incompetent almost immediately. Manning's quick thinking can't help; you still need those minimum two seconds for the play to develop so he can throw it.

I've read articles about Denver's injury history this season, but the problem is when they rattle off the names, almost all of them were on the defense. And Denver's defense did *well* (edit: ok, passably) in the Super Bowl up until 29-0. The only big offensive name in the injury report was Clady. (The offense was probably *less* injured than average.) Clady over Clark would be a great upgrade, but that's not the only direction Manning was getting massive pressure from. Before this season, Beadles was seen as a poor pass blocker, only above average in the pulling run-block game. Ramirez was seen as a third-string guard with some upside in run blocking. Franklin was seen as a good run blocker with weakness in pass blocking. And Vasquez, while very good in pass-blocking, was not seen as an All-Pro. Meanwhile, the line was seen as some sort of elite pass-blocking unit for keeping Manning clean, and then ended up being the chief reason Denver got destroyed in the first half of the Super Bowl.

Anyway, I wonder if it's likely they'll need to focus on upgrading center and left guard at the least. Plus who knows if Clady comes back full power from the lisfranc injury. If they continue to think their line is borderline elite, then they'll risk being exposed again right when the stakes are highest.

(Same goes for running back - I like Moreno and Ball, but those were misdirection seven in the box runs.)

4 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

I'd agree, but watching that Super Bowl game made me wonder. Granted, not all teams have Seattle's DL, but I constantly though that they were blitzing when, in fact, they were just rushing 4.

It probably wouldn't hurt to upgrade if possible...

8 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Seattle was occasionally even getting through with three when one of their DTs dropped back into coverage and left the middle linemen blocking air. Given how well Avril and Bennett did rushing from the right side, I wonder why more teams don't try putting their two best rushers on one side on passing downs. Maybe their effectiveness is boosted by their low snap count.

9 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Most teams don't have Earl Thomas allowing them to play a genuine 6-2 or Red Bryant on the other end evening up the run defense. Is not dissimilar to the real bear front the 46 Bears used to use with Wilson and Marshall lined up outside the tackle.

15 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

After watching Seattle's last two playoff games, I think opposing QBs are going a bit overboard in avoiding Thomas. Denver showed that even he can be beaten, and would've been had Manning made a better throw. And Kaepernick showed that no matter how fast Thomas is, he's still 5'10", and can be beat over the top. And that was by a shorter receiver in Boldin, so presumably a taller receiver would win a jump ball even easier.

16 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Also, watching the Super Bowl, I get the feeling that Seattle's defense is indirectly holding back their offense. Thomas makes it near impossible for Wilson to throw deep down the middle in practice, and Chancellor is bringing the pain on shallower middle routes. If you don't practice those routes because your defense isn't having any of it, you won't be using them much in the actual games either. It could very well be that when Wilson hesitates in throwing to an open receiver in the middle of the field, he's checking to make sure that receiver isn't going to get walloped if he does catch it; it's much harder to put a licking on receivers running routes on or to the outside, where there's less congestion.

Of course, this doesn't apply if their offense is playing against a scout team defense that's supposed to be a facsimile of their next opponent. Would their defensive players tone down their hits to simulate the lesser boom-levels of their opponents?

5 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

I disagree completely. Even after accounting for Manning, they had 5 very good pass protectors (6 including Clady). Perhaps you're judging too much from the one awful outing at the super bowl?

6 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Seattle was the first team to expose the loss of Clady. In the Super Bowl, Denver had two OTs that needed help instead of just one. Franklin is a good run blocker, but he frequently gets destroyed by speed rushers. This is not uncommon for a RT, but in a game where Denver played poorly, Franklin played the poorest. Ramirez turned out to be a nice surprise and I think you are underestimating Vasquez, as he also rated well in both the run and pass when he was with the Chargers.

I can't see Denver bringing back Beadles and could see Franklin moved to LG and Chris Clark moved to RT. They might have envisioned this because they extended Clark (who was a backup lineman and blocking TE) before the season.

11 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

I agree. IMO, the Super Bowl was where Clady's abscense really showed up. At times, Peyton looked like he was playing in a phone booth or the NYC subway.

13 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Seattle wasn't the first, Robert Mathis was a one man wrecking crew against our O-Line when they played Indy.

I think the combination of Manning's quick release and our O-Line is fine against an average or below average defense, but against elite pass rushers it can get it exposed. Even with Clady returning, is anyone thrilled about the prospect of facing the NFC West year?

That said, the priority needs to be on the pass rush and cornerbacks. Elway and company have made some real finds in free agency, but the drafting has been a mixed bad. I'm really hoping Sylvester Williams and Derrick Wolfe take a big step forward next year or it could be more of the same pass rush problems. As for the CB positions, I hate to say it but, Bailey needs to be released, and they need hope they can re-sign Cromartie and/or find someone solid in the draft.

7 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Considering that the other top pass protecting teams in New England, New Orleans and Cincinnati all faced struggles in the playoffs, building a fortress around your QB simply isn't feasible anymore. There will be games where the line doesn't hold up, and the QB simply has to find ways with coping against that. Take more sacks if need be, instead of chucking it wildly down-field.

10 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Or perhaps you can get lucky and draft one of those newfangled quarterbacks who can run, like Kaepernick or Wilson. Whose lines weren't that great last year either.

14 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Both of those teams had a fair number of injuries on their o-lines as well. And of course, both of those guys also have elite defenses who mitigate the impact of more punting, field position issues, and turnovers.

It's a little early in this pass friendly era of the NFL to suggest a mobile quarterback is the only way to win a Superbowl.

22 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Given that we're one year removed from Joe Flacco's Ravens defeating the Kaepernick 49ers, I'd have to agree that the death knell of the pocket passer is upon us.

If there's anything to take from this year's SB, it's that a superb team with very few weaknesses, in excellent health, has the ability to beat the stuffing out of a merely very good team, with more weaknesses, hampered by a number of injuries to some of its best players (for example, take the best OL (Okung), best DT (Bennett), best LB (Wagner, or maybe Jones), and second-best DB (Sherman) off the Seahawks to match up with the losses of Clady, Vickerson, Miller, and Harris, and maybe it's a closer game). The Seahawks were simply the better team, and on top of that the lucky bounces also generally went their way, so a win expanded into a thorough butt-kicking. Other than "build a team full of good, young talent and coach them well," there's not a lot of lessons to be learned.

23 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

The Seahawks were missing their #1 WR, 2012s 2nd most efficient TE, and a number of roleplayers. They're also the ones that started the Broncos injury train in that preseason game. And the Seahawks #2 corner from the start of the season didn't play in the Super Bowl. Browner is suspended. His backup, Byron Maxwell, came in and played better than he did. The depth the Seahawks have in their secondary is completely absurd. I think the only guy they could lose back there and really worry me would be Earl Thomas.

24 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Seattle was better physically and much better prepared/coached, period. Injuries aren't an excuse for a loss, as every team has them, but to suggest that Seattle's injury situation was in any way comparable to Denver's is ignorant.

The only playoff team that had an injury situation comparable or worse to Denver was New England with no one else even close. Are Browner and Rice the second and third best players on the SeaHawks, or are they in the top three at their position in the NFL? Obviously not, but Miller and Clady are the second and third best players on Denver's roster and among the best in the NFL at their positions and they didn't play, along with four other defensive starters.

Denver's Elite Players: Manning, Miller, Clady, D. Thomas, Vasquez... (2 of 5, or 40% missing)
Seattle's Elite Players: Thomas, Sherman, Lynch, Chancelor, Harvin, Bennett (6 of 6, or 100% playing)

25 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Please, you're advancing a cause of selection bias and confirmation bias, burning the ridiculous at both ends.

These injuries count, these injuries don't. The fact is those guys weren't there, and those that were there for the preseason contest didn't look any better. The similarity of those two games is pretty remarkable. Manning would move the ball until the defense eventually forced an often score saving turnover. Denver is the classic embodiment of the 'finesse team' cliché.

26 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Please tell me this is sarcasm or otherwise go and look up the definitions of selection bias and confirmation bias (because you don't understand them at all). The comment above was lucid and made well-considered points, presenting well-tailored evidence in a mostly bias-free manner.

You are seriously bringing up a *preseason* game played *months* earlier and then discussing selection bias and confirmation bias of *someone else*?

This has to be a joke. This *has* to be a joke. Please tell me this is a joke.

27 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

The whole thread is a joke. The Broncos didn't lose because of injuries. They lost because the Seahawks defense was more talented than the Broncos offense, plain and simple. Clady would not have made a difference. Miller would have helped, but not enough to win the game.

31 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Denver still would have lost, but make no mistake about it, Denver missed Ryan Clady much more than they missed Von Miller. Instead of one OT needing help, they had two that needed help against what was predominantly a four man rush. The most significant factor in the game was Seattle's defensive line DOMINANCE. Denver had guys open, even with seven in coverage, but Manning had no time at all to throw and after the second quarter it looked like he quit looking down field because he just assumed he would have no time.

29 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Denver did have more injuries, but you can't simply remove the same people from Seattle's side. They had injuries on their non-historic side of the ball, whereas you're taking away members from Seattle's historic defense. A better comparison would be removing players from Seattle's offense, such as Harvin and Okung.

30 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Partially Agree

Take away Seattle's 2nd or 3rd best defensive player (Sherman or Chancellor) to account for Clady. Take away Seattle's best offensive player (Lynch) to account for Von Miller and then pick four other offensive starters... That would be a better comparison.

17 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Well, I'm just prescribing solutions for teams with untouchable immobile QBs. Once they move on from them, pretty much all the college QBs nowadays are mobile to one extent or another.

20 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

"That is possible, but right tackle is normally a spot for failed left tackles, not vice versa"

Matt Light was tried at RT and failed. But he was just fine at LT. No, I don't really understand why that is. But it does happen.

32 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

"Matt Light was tried at RT and failed. But he was just fine at LT. No, I don't really understand why that is. But it does happen."

Yes, but that is the exception not the rule. I think though when you think about a rookie changing sides, most of the analysis goes out the windows. In all probability, Fisher will be fine on either side in the future.