Four Downs: AFC West
by Bryan Knowles
Welcome back to our offseason series of Four Downs. Today, we're wrapping up our review of each division with the AFC West, looking at each team's biggest hole going into free agency as well as the most important players who may be on the market.
Biggest Hole: Right tackle
Before the Broncos went out and got Joe Flacco, we would have listed quarterback as their biggest need. Frankly, quarterback may still be their biggest need, but let's temporarily give Denver the benefit of the doubt that Flacco's 5.5% DVOA from 2018 is representative of his skill level, as opposed to the double-digit negative DVOAs he put up from 2015 to 2017. If that is the case, the biggest problem Denver has is keeping their new starting quarterback upright.
The Broncos have plenty of pending free agents on their offensive line, including starters Jared Veldheer and Matt Paradis, former starter Max Garcia, and regular sixth man Billy Turner, who will be looking for a full-time starting role himself. The Broncos are going to make significant moves just to have a starting five in front of Flacco, who is not exactly known for his mobility in the pocket. Right tackle is the most pressing need; if the Broncos do not re-sign Veldheer, they will need to find their sixth Week 1 starter in six years at the position. Drafting a tackle with the tenth pick would make a lot of sense. Veldheer is serviceable but nothing special, and will be turning 32 in June. In addition, a young tackle could possibly replace Garett Bolles on the left end eventually. Bolles has been solid in his young career, but still commits far too many penalties for a top-flight left tackle -- 26 in his first two seasons. Either way, adding more talent to the line has to be a pressing need for the franchise.
Major Free Agents: Jeff Heuerman, TE; Jared Veldheer, RT; Matt Paradis, C; Shelby Harris, DT; Domata Peko, DT; Zach Kerr, NT; Shaquil Barrett, OLB; Shane Ray, OLB; Bradley Roby, CB; Tramaine Brock, CB
When healthy, Matt Paradis is one of the best centers in football. He's recovering from foot surgery in November, so his price tag might be relatively depressed, but from all reports, his rehab is going fine. If any team is sure that Paradis is healthy, he's sure to become the highest-paid center in football, likely pricing him out of Denver's plans. Connor McGovern isn't the world's worst option as a replacement, but the Broncos would surely love to re-sign Paradis and stick McGovern at right guard.
Bradley Roby finished 67th out of 85 qualified cornerbacks in success rate, 81st in YAC allowed and 82nd yards per pass allowed (subscription required). He also had 12 broken tackles and just 43 successful tackles (subscription required), for a far too high 21.8 percent broken tackle rate; that explains some of the YAC. The Broncos are going to let him test the free agent market, though they'll need someone to line up next to Chris Harris in the secondary.
Kansas City Chiefs
Biggest Hole: Cornerback
Can we just highlight the entire defense and leave it at that? While they improved a bit towards the end of the year, the Chiefs ended up 26th in defensive DVOA and dead last in rush defense. They could stand to have seven or eight new starters on defense, with improvements needed at every level. They need a run-stuffing defensive tackle, a pass-rushing threat on the defensive line, a pair of interior linebackers who can tackle, and an Earl Thomas-like safety, perhaps even Thomas himself. Even with all that, though, I'd start remaking the defense with help at corner.
Kendall Fuller is a fine player, but Steven Nelson and Orlando Scandrick are free agents. Fuller had a 47 percent success rate, ranking 32nd out of 85 qualified corners, but you run out of talent quickly after him. Charvarius Ward, who would presumably start if the Chiefs didn't add any bodies, had a terrible 35 percent success rate -- he would have finished second to last in success rate, had he played enough snaps to qualify. Perhaps Tremon Smith can make the jump from return specialist to effective cornerback, but I wouldn't pin my hopes on it. They need a starter across from Fuller if Nelson leaves; even if they somehow scrape out the cap room to re-sign him, they still need additional depth.
The Chiefs have just over $10 million in cap space as of this writing, which ranks 29th in the league. That means they're not going to be able to re-sign their entire free agent class. Nelson alone is likely to get $9 million or $10 million a year on the free market; that would be very difficult for Kansas City to absorb without some cap manipulation.
Fortunately, the Chiefs don't have a lot of must-sign free agents, now that they've used the franchise tag on Dee Ford. With the shift to a 4-3 defense, the Chiefs are reportedly still listening to trade offers for Ford or Justin Houston, which would free up an additional $14 million to $15 million against the cap. That would, in turn, give them room to try to re-sign Nelson, as well as the useful (if oft-injured) Mitch Morse.
Ed. Note: Between this article being written and going live, the Chiefs elected to release Justin Houston outright. They are still reportedly looking to trade Ford as of time of writing.
Los Angeles Chargers
Biggest Hole: Offensive line
Right tackle Sam Tevi had 28 blown blocks in 2018. Right guard Michael Schofield had 25, as did left guard Dan Feeney. All three of them finished in the top 15 in total blown blocks, and helped push the Chargers' pressure rate allowed to 32.4 percent, 22nd in the league (subscription required). Tevi is a very solid run-blocker, but quite possibly the worst pass-blocking starting tackle in the league. Schofield is a steady pass-blocker, but fails to really get a push when asked to run-block. Feeney didn't do anything well in 2018, though he was more solid as a rookie. Upgrading any or all of them would be a major boon to the Chargers offense.
If we had to pick one to replace, we'd pick Tevi. Despite Schofield's lack of success in run defense, the Chargers' offensive line finished fifth in adjusted line yards, so his lack of performance didn't hurt much on the field. Feeney, while struggling mightily this year, made our all-rookie team in 2017, albeit more or less by default. Tevi has shown an inability to match up with speed rushers that seems insurmountable; it's not a technique issue so much as it is a lack of athleticism issue. He'd be our top priority replacement.
The interior defensive line could become Los Angeles' most pressing need if they can't re-sign some of these free agents. Darius Philon, a talented young run defender, should be the Chargers' top priority on the defensive line, but they'd love to keep the other two as well. Brandon Mebane is old but still a very effective run-stuffer, while Corey Liuget is effective when healthy, but has missed 14 games the past two seasons due to injury. If L.A. doesn't keep at least two of the three, this becomes a much more pressing need.
Biggest Hole: Pass-rushers
Like the Chiefs, we could probably just write "defense" here and call it a day. Oakland ranked 30th in defensive DVOA last season, and dead-last when asked to stop the pass. They need help at every level, and if they chose to use each of their three first-round picks on the defensive side of the ball, we couldn't blame them. It's a matter of triage when trying to figure out how to best fix the Raiders' defense, as it's almost assuredly going to be a multi-year project. The best thing they can do to start is to find an actual replacement for Khalil Mack.
The Raiders were dead-last in pressure rate in 2018, at just 22 percent (subscription required). Rookie Arden Key led the team with 27.5 pressures (subscription required), which is a good number. No one else on the team cracked 12.5, however. Mack had 38 pass pressures in Chicago; that's more than Oakland's second-, third-, fourth-, and fifth-place pass-rushers had combined. A 35-year-old Frostee Rucker, who has never had more than five sacks in a season, should not be your second-best pass rusher. Even as the bright spot, Key wasn't overly effective, managing just one sack on those team-leading pressures. The Raiders' staff seem to believe that's a result of Key's lack of strength, and they're hoping he'll spend this offseason locked in the weight room. Even if Key can start converting pressure into sacks, however, the Raiders still need multiple new bodies at defensive end just to make opposing quarterbacks work a little.
Paying for a career year is always a tough proposition, and extending a deal to a 32-year-old is a tough sell, as well. This is what the Raiders face with Jared Cook, who had the best year of his career in 2018. Cook set career highs in receptions, yards, touchdowns and catch rate, and finished fifth in both DYAR and DVOA among tight ends. He has also been Oakland's leading receiver for the last two years, and has been one of the few bright spots on offense. Cook picked a great time to put up those numbers, as the Raiders are almost forced to offer him a new deal at the very peak of his value.
The fact that the Raiders brokered a deal to play one more season in the Colosseum could help them re-sign Oakland native Marshawn Lynch, though it's unclear whether there is mutual interest. Lynch did not have enough carries in 2018 to qualify for our running back tables in 2018, as he was limited by a groin/core muscle injury. He has averaged 4.3 yards per carry since returning from his retirement, but at age 33, Oakland could probably find a cheaper, younger back somewhere else.