Four Downs
Offseason analysis of the NFL, division by division

Four Downs: AFC West

Four Downs: AFC West
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Bryan Knowles

Denver Broncos

Biggest Need: Inside linebacker

New head coach Vic Fangio's successful defenses have nearly always relied on a pair of quality inside linebackers -- think Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith in Chicago, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman in San Francisco, Ray Lewis and Bart Scott in Baltimore, or even the vaunted Dome Patrol of the Saints in the '80s and '90s. Premium talent in the center of the defense is what makes Fangio's style work; it's the foundation around which everything else is built. With that in mind, Denver was often linked to Devin White and Devin Bush in the pre-draft process, as Fangio places his stamp on Denver's D.

Instead, Denver handled other needs -- a pass-catching tight end in Noah Fant, vital interior offensive line help in Dalton Risner, a potential quarterback of the future in Drew Lock. These are all fine, justifiable picks, but they leave the Broncos likely starting veteran Todd Davis and 2018 fourth-round pick Josey Jewell at inside linebacker. Davis and Jewell don't exactly fit in with the quality of player Fangio has usually employed to run his defenses, and there's little depth behind them.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: John Elway's quest to find a long-term quarterback continues, but Lock won't be the only rookie passer rolling into Englewood this summer. Denver picked up Boise State's Brett Rypien, nephew of former Pro Bowler Mark Rypien, as Elway continues to just add passers related to his former rivals. Rypien's scouting report is full of praise for his leadership, intelligence, and other intangibles, and less so about little things like arm strength, mobility, or ability to stand up to even the lightest pass rush. He'll push Kevin Hogan and Garrett Grayson for the third quarterback slot. Also joining Denver is Stanford defensive back Alijah Holder, who has very good size and athletic metrics but lacks in instincts and awareness in coverage, as well as Kansas' Joe Dineen, who could fill a depth role in Denver's very thin linebacking corps.

Kansas City Chiefs

Biggest Need: Cornerback

Kansas City's new defensive coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo, loves to bring pressure; he runs an aggressive defense that prioritizes getting to the quarterback at the expense of providing help in coverage. This is a dramatic change from Bob Sutton's style, and it may not be one the Chiefs' cornerbacks can handle. Of the Chiefs' projected starters, only Kendall Fuller qualified for our cornerback charting stats a year ago; he finished 63rd out of 83 in success rate. Next to him are the up-and-down Bashaud Breeland and last year's UDFA find, Charvarius Ward. Not one is the sort of player you'd necessarily trust on an island against some of the top receivers in the game.

Kansas City did add South Carolina's Rashad Fenton late in the sixth round; he'll compete in training camp and might be a good candidate for the practice squad. He's not exactly a replacement for the departed Steven Nelson, so the Chiefs will have to count on development from Ward to try to shore up their secondary in 2019.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: A torn Achilles may have been the difference between Michigan State's Felton Davis III being drafted or not. In his 17 games as a junior and senior, Davis caught 86 receptions, using his big frame, strong hands, and quality ball skills to fight for contested catches. If healthy, he could be a big red zone target. Washington State's James Williams finished near the bottom of the Speed Score table at the combine (a 4.58 40 at just 197 pounds), but Kansas City finds itself in need of a shifty, slippery back with good hands, so there's a fit there. Cornerback Mark Fields had just six career starts at Clemson, but surprised scouts at the Senior Bowl with a solid combination of strength, speed, and explosiveness. And, proving it's sometimes who you know, Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur, son of the Giants head coach, got a call as well. He won't be pushing Patrick Mahomes for playing time anytime soon, but he plays above his talent level, recognizing and hitting high-percentage throws.

Los Angeles Chargers

Biggest Need: Guard

Two years ago, the Chargers thought they had solved their guard issues, taking Forrest Lamp and Dan Feeney in the second and third rounds in 2017. Neither has worked out; Lamp missed all of 2017 with a torn ACL, played just two games last year, and may be moved to tackle this season. After a promising rookie season, Feeney suffered through a terrible sophomore slump in 2018. Veteran guard Michael Schofield has never lived up to his potential either. Philip Rivers isn't getting any younger and running away from interior pressure isn't great for his longevity.

The Chargers did add some talent to their line, taking Trey Pipkins of Sioux Falls in the third round, but he's a tackle -- a potential replacement for Sam Tevi, not Lamp, Schofield, or Feeney. Perhaps Lamp will finally see the field in 2019, or Feeney's pass protection woes will work themselves out as he continues to develop. Either way, the Chargers won't be getting any outside help to shore up their interior line this year.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: The Chargers hold the current record for most consecutive years with a UDFA making the roster -- 22 straight seasons with someone making the initial 53-man list. This year, it's most likely to be a tight end extending that streak. The biggest name they added was Duke's Daniel Helm, who never saw his pass-catching production live up to his hype when Tennessee recruited him. Still, he's a fluid athlete as both a pass-catcher and move blocker and has special teams experience, so a betting man would probably tab him as the guy for season 23. They also picked up center Tanner Volson from North Dakota State, so fifth-round quarterback Easton Stick will have someone familiar to work with. Notre Dame punter Tyler Newsome is another interesting signing, considering the difficulties the Chargers have had on special teams in recent years.

Oakland Raiders

Biggest Need: Quarterback

The Raiders used five of their first six picks to bolster their pass defense, which ranked dead last in DVOA a year ago, and used the rest of their selection on skill position players to try to breathe some life into the 25th-ranked offense. We can quibble with the individual selections -- Clelin Ferrell before Josh Allen? A first-round running back? -- but credit where credit is due. Mike Mayock and Jon Gruden at least added someone to nearly every spot on the roster that desperately needed a talent infusion.

They didn't add a quarterback, however, which is a major vote of confidence to Derek Carr -- and perhaps an undeserved one. While we're not saying they should have used the fourth overall pick on a Carr replacement, Carr has never finished in the top 15 in QBR and only once cracked the top 10 in DVOA. He has consistently been one of the most conservative passers in the league, finishing near the bottom in ALEX and air yards. The Raiders are hoping that adding Antonio Brown and bringing in a bunch of young skill position players will give Carr a shot in the arm, but if it does not, they're stuck with Mike Glennon and Nathan Peterman behind him. Using an early Day 3 pick on a developmental passer such as Jarrett Stidham or Easton Stick would not have been the worst idea in the world.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: As a proud Aggie, I was inordinately annoyed that UC Davis receiver Keelan Doss was not selected during the draft. He's an excellent route-runner with top-notch ball skills, crisp breaks, and a 40 time you have to measure with an hourglass. He's not going to set the world on fire, but should have been the first Davis player since the immortal J.T. O'Sullivan to be drafted. On a less biased note, the Raiders added Notre Dame linebacker Te'Von Conley, who many thought would be a fourth- or fifth-round pick. Conley had 123 tackles and four sacks last season on his way to a third-team All-American selection; he could be a significant factor in run defense at the pro level. They also added Andre James from UCLA; he played both left and right tackle in college but will probably have to move inside in the NFL, where his power can outshine his stiffness.

Portions of this article originally appeared at ESPN+.


13 comments, Last at 18 Jun 2019, 11:21am

1 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

If QB is currently their biggest need—after the disaster of last season—then Oakland nailed the draft...which I find a thrilling prospect, as well as astonishing, given Gruden was involved.

2 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

I'm not particularly familiar with the Raiders, but I'd be shocked if QB was their biggest need. Not that I disagree about Carr, but he seems like the kind of player many NFL teams have to get by with at the position. Not everyone can have a star QB.

4 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

I think the general premise with four downs version two every season is that day 1 & 2 draft picks will reasonably produce, and free agent signings will give appropriate value.

This is obviously untrue, but there are loads of articles all over the web evaluating free agent signings and draft choices.

Four downs (and AFC West does a great job of showing this) tends to be a look at places where the quotation is "What exactly is/was the off season plan?" The broncos cut an ilb starter, and neither signed nor drafted a replacement. So what's exactly the plan there? Something interesting to watch in training camp (where as the Denver rb depth chart is incredibly uninteresting to watch).

So for Oakland, they made a lot of moves to address obvious weaknesses. Assuming all of those moves are right, what's the current Oakland ceiling. Given that Carr is capping out at above average starter with lower than average heroics, and the importance of qb play, that's a pretty important question. Basically I'd interpret the four downs argument as " if everything Oakland did this off-season works, they seem to be a 10-6 team needing either luck or a QB overhaul to make the next step". Which is pretty bad (though nyg managed to ride that profile to two Superbowl wins)

7 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

This hits the nail on the head.

The post-draft Four Downs usually gives front offices the benefit of the doubt -- Clelin Ferrell will replace Khalil Mack, Josh Jacobs will replace Marshawn Lynch, etc. If there's a particularly terrible decision, we'll call 'em out on it, but for the most part, we say "OK, you've attempted to fix your edge rushers and your linebackers and your secondary...what have you NOT looked into yet?"

3 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Using an early Day 3 pick on a developmental passer such as Jarrett Stidham or Easton Stick would not have been the worst idea in the world

How often has this actually worked, other than the one celebrated time in NE?

5 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

The odds aren't good generally, but these guys were all available on day 3 in their respective drafts, and posted a ANY/A better than Derek Carr in 2018:

Ryan Fitzpatrick
Tom Brady
Nick Mullens
Kirk Cousins
Dak Prescott

I'll bet Gruden/Mayock would trade Derek Carr straight up for 3, maybe even 4, of those players.

8 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

In addition, you don't have to go too far back to find pro bowlers Marc Bulger, David Garrard and Matt Cassel and solid Kyle Orton as day three picks. None of them are great or anything; none are guys you want to have your franchise depend on, but all provided value and were probably better-per-dollar than Carr at the moment.

Day three picks are lottery tickets for the most part anyway; might as well play the one that has the biggest grand prize.

9 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Both these previous comments are utterly ridiculous. The only QB better than Carr on that list is the obvious one. Once again, an article clearly written by people who don't watch the guy play. You did see his OL last year? Meanwhile Raiders fans were mourning Brandon LaFell going on IR because he was the best receiver left (having been signed off the street a few weeks earlier). Below-average heroics? Name a contemporary QB with a better Game Winning Drive record? Prescott maybe.

Raiders biggest need remains DE (opposite Ferrell) or LB (given ongoing strategy of 1-yr-friendly contracts to aging vets), maybe LG. The idea that replacing Carr is a need is clickbait.

6 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

Tracy addressed your question, but as to the point in the article I would swear I saw somewhere that Gruden wasn't keen on Carr, but would give him one last chance this year due to not being high on this year's QB prospects. He's supposed to like next year's crop, though.

11 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

baaed on what am sseeing and roosters and stuff oreictions as of right now for 2019 season -

1. Raiders 11-5
2. chargaers 9-7
3. cheigs 8-8
5. Brocnos 6-10

13 Re: Four Downs: AFC West

not seeeing scheudle as impsing. shoudl go 4-2 in divison ga,mes. 7-3 in non-division seems right. team upgraded across the board. d. carr another yr in gruden's system. still up and coming, should really take flight in 2019. antonio brown brought aboard. Possibly top recever in league. Draft pcisk very nice.