Four Downs
Offseason analysis of the NFL, division by division

Four Downs: AFC West

by Derrik Klassen

Denver Broncos

Biggest Hole: Quarterback

Trevor Siemian has proven to be fantastic value over the past two seasons as a seventh-round pick. Very few late-round quarterbacks are able to prove themselves as decent quarterbacks, much less earn a starting job for two seasons. However, Siemian is more fit to be a backup or spot starter rather than the player on whom Denver mortgages its future.

The quarterback on whom Denver did try to mortgage its future, Paxton Lynch, appears to have been a poor investment. Lynch has started just five games in two years since being a first-round selection in 2016. Heading into both seasons, Lynch was given every opportunity to supplant Siemian as the starting quarterback, but hardly came close either time. Lynch is a longshot to develop into what Denver hoped he could be when they drafted him.

Brock Osweiler and Chad Kelly round out Denver's quarterback depth chart from last season. Osweiler started four games for the Broncos in 2017, but only signed a one-year deal and does not need to be brought back. Kelly was the last pick in the 2017 NFL draft, and likely will not remain on the active roster if Denver brings in a quarterback via free agency.


Major Free Agents: Virgil Green, TE; Todd Davis, ILB; Donald Stephenson, OT; Jared Crick, DE; Jamaal Charles, RB.

Todd Davis is the player Denver needs to retain most. Though not a household name, Davis has been an important cog in Denver's defensive dominance over the past few seasons. The prospect of keeping Davis and Brandon Marshall together at the heart of the defense should be of utmost importance.

Denver's other two priority free agents are not necessarily key players, but provide value in their roles. Virgil Green is a top-notch blocking tight end with adequate value as a receiving threat. Green's skill set may not be a big pull on the open market, so he should be had at a fair price for Denver. Likewise, Jared Crick provides solid depth at defensive line and is a good fit for their defensive scheme. Crick missed time due to injury last season, but that may help Denver retain him and maintain depth in the trenches.

Kansas City Chiefs

Biggest Hole: Inside Linebacker

Time is undefeated. After 12 fantastic seasons, Derrick Johnson finally hit a wall in 2017. Johnson lost the speed and suddenness that made his strength so imposing. Tracking sideline to sideline became difficult for Johnson, and he lost his steam as a downhill force in the run game. When Johnson became an unrestricted free agent this offseason, Kansas City made the easy decision to move on .

Assuming none of the team's free agents are re-signed, Reggie Ragland would start alongside Terrance Smith or Ukeme Eligwe in 2018. A late addition last offseason, Ragland proved to be a decent fit in Kansas City, but he is not an impact player. Ragland provides a baseline level of play in the run game, while falling flat as a three-down player. Worse yet, Smith and Eligwe are unproven players who could not find snaps in an already bad linebacker group in 2017.

Kevin Pierre-Louis is the team's only pending free-agent linebacker. Pierre-Louis began his career as a strongside linebacker with Seattle, playing more of an edge-setting role rather than a true off-ball linebacker position. In his transition to Kansas City's defense, Pierre-Louis did not show signs of being anything more than a functional depth player. Kansas City may benefit from keeping Pierre-Louis, but he is not the answer at inside linebacker either.


Major Free Agents: Bennie Logan, DL; Albert Wilson, WR; Ron Parker, S; Kevin Pierre-Louis, ILB; Zach Fulton, OG.

Bennie Logan is likely to be priority No. 1. Logan, though inconsistent from snap-to-snap, was highly productive last season and was one of the Chiefs' few valuable defensive linemen. Logan's 17.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage ranked among the league's best. However, with a young quarterback stepping in, the Chiefs may favor offensive potential and prioritize Albert Wilson. Wilson had the best year of his career in 2017, posting 554 receiving yards and three touchdowns on 42 receptions. Wilson is a perfect fit for Andy Reid's offense and may be a player they do not want to part from.

Los Angeles Chargers

Biggest Hole: Off-ball linebacker

The Los Angeles Chargers rostered one definitively good off-ball linebacker last season: Denzel Perryman. Unfortunately, an ankle injury kept Perryman off the field for the first half of the season, leaving the team to lean on a slew of Band-Aids to stay afloat until his return. Jatavis Brown and Hayes Pullard ended the year with the most linebacker snaps on the team, yet neither was on the field even half the time, and neither proved to be particularly valuable when on the field.

By season's end, the Chargers even began opting for dime personnel over nickel, subbing out one of their linebackers for a sixth defensive back. Outside of Perryman, the unit could not be trusted in any capacity.

Since 2014, Perryman is the only off-ball linebacker the team has selected within the first three rounds of the draft. The Chargers have not signed a major free agent at the position in that time either. If the Chargers want to fix their mess, they need to throw legitimate resources at the position.

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Major Free Agents: Antonio Gates, TE; Korey Toomer, ILB; Tre Boston, S; Nick Novak, K; Chris Hairston, OT.

Bringing back Antonio Gates would be little more than a sentimental move. Gates is a future Hall of Famer, but has been declining over the past few years and will be 38 years old next season. The time to move on from Gates has arrived, unless he can be retained for peanuts.

The remainder of Los Angeles' free-agent crop does not move the needle, either. Korey Toomer took a step back last season, while Tre Boston was too inconsistent to feel confident about bringing him back. Chris Hairston was out for the entire season for a non-football related illness and his status remains unclear. Lastly, Nick Novak was a last-ditch signing last season and should not be back in 2018. There will be plenty of fresh faces in Los Angeles next season.

Oakland Raiders

Biggest Hole: Cornerback

Poor pass defense has plagued the Oakland Raiders for the past couple of years. The Raiders ranked 25th in pass defense DVOA in 2016, only to get progressively worse by finishing 30th in 2017. Relying on gambles in free agency has not worked out quite the way they had envisioned. Likewise, drafting a first-round cornerback in 2017 did not immediately fix anything. Oakland's cornerback unit needs to be stripped down and rebuilt.

David Amerson has already been cut, and signed with the Kansas City Chiefs. If Oakland is sensible, they will allow T.J. Carrie to walk as an unrestricted free agent. Finally, Sean Smith, who flopped as a major free-agency signing in 2016, has an option in his contract that allows Oakland to cut him without penalty. That option ought to be exercised.

With Paul Guenther now in the fold as defensive coordinator, it would be wise to stock the cupboard with cornerbacks via free agency and the draft. Guenther came over from Cincinnati, where cornerback talent and depth was never an issue. Investing in cornerback will also allow Khalil Mack to wreak more havoc and help Oakland reestablish a defensive identity.

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Major Free Agents: Aldon Smith, EDGE; Lee Smith, TE; Denico Autry, DL; Justin Ellis, DL; Reggie Nelson, S.

Most of Oakland's free agents should be allowed to walk. Mentioning Aldon Smith is a formality at this point, and Justin Ellis and Reggie Nelson are not valuable enough to bring back even at market value. Lee Smith and Denico Autry should be at the top of Oakland's priority list. Smith may be a backup tight end, but the Raiders would be hard-pressed to find a better blocking tight end in free agency or the draft. Smith should not cost much to retain. Autry, on the other hand, was one of Oakland's few defensive bright spots last season and may be a tough loss in the short term. A mid-round prospect could be a better and cheaper solution, but if Oakland feels ready to compete right now, losing out on a defensive starter may not be the best route to go.


10 comments, Last at 14 Mar 2018, 5:59pm

2 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

The richest one bought a huge SUV & outfitted it with tons of video equipment for game film study and uses it to commute. I think Rivers also talked one of the players into commuting with him to keep him company.

4 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

An off-ball linebacker would be any linebacker who does not play on the line of scrimmage. In short, typical 4-3 LBs and 3-4 ILBs fit the bill. However, the Chargers play with an LB/edge hybrid in their 4-3 (Kyle Emmanuel), so it felt more fitting to add "off-ball" rather than just linebacker.

7 Re: Raiders Re-Sign Justin Ellis

ESPN reported that Justin Ellis has a 3-year contract. $15 million, $6 million guaranteed.

8 Re: Raiders Re-Sign Justin Ellis

I'm okay with re-signing Ellis. When a defense has performed so poorly as last season, there's always a temptation to want everybody out, but that's just not feasible over one offseason, and Ellis - limited as he is in the pass-rush game - has shown flashes in the run game. Also, a competent defensive coaching team might be able to get more out of some players. There's "only" $6m guaranteed, so fine. I still think DT/LB are the more pressing concern than DB however. Its amazing how much better the CBs get when the QB has no time to throw. Obviously the Raiders need the recent draft picks to step-up (indeed - actually take the field!) but you have to give them a chance before writing them off. DBs are always available in free agency/trades (as this offseason proves).

10 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Wilson may have been a perfect fit for the KC offense, but the contract he received coming off a 543 yard season is gag inducing. Making $8M per year means Albert Wilson is costing the Dolphins more than any RB in the league not named Bell.

The imbalance between WR and RB salaries is staggering and seems unsustainable.