Four Downs
Offseason analysis of the NFL, division by division

Four Downs: AFC West

Los Angeles Chargers QB Philip Rivers and Denver Broncos QB Drew Lock
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

Welcome back to the final edition of our offseason series of Four Downs. We wrap up our look at the biggest pre-free agency holes with the defending Super Bowl champions, the newest relocated franchise, and the rest of the AFC West.

Denver Broncos

Biggest Need: Right guard

A pair of Broncos offensive needs should be priorities 1 and 1A this offseason: a secondary wideout to go alongside Courtland Sutton, and some offensive line help to give Drew Lock some time in the backfield. Either could be justified as being listed as the biggest hole, but we'll stick with the big men up front.

Ronald Leary has not managed a full season since 2013; each of his three seasons in Denver has ended with him on injured reserve. It's not surprising, then, that the Broncos opted to not pick up his 2020 option; $9.3 million is a lot of money for a player who has been mediocre when healthy, and far too often on the trainers' table. Last year's second-round pick, Dalton Risner, did a very solid job in his transition to the inside as a rookie, but without Leary, the second guard spot would go to either Austin Schlottmann or Elijah Wilkinson. While both players got significant starting action last season due to Leary's injuries, they really don't look like long-term options at the position. Talent will have to be brought in here, if only to give Lock some time in the pocket to develop.

Major Free Agents: Ron Leary, G; Connor McGovern, C; Derek Wolfe, DE; Shelby Harris, DT; Chris Harris, CB; Justin Simmons, S

Technically, as of time of writing, the Broncos have not picked up Von Miller's 2020 option; they have until March 17 to do so. That's just a formality, so we're not listing him here; John Elway announced that they'd pick up Miller's option at the end of 2019. So don't freak out when you see Miller listed atop, say, Spotrac's list of free agents. Barring something truly shocking over the next week and a half, Miller will return in orange and navy.

The Broncos have also announced that they'll use their franchise tag on Justin Simmons if they can't get a deal done before free agency starts in earnest. This is also fairly standard procedure for Elway's Broncos. It's how they got Von Miller's deal done back in 2016 -- tag the player to give both sides more time to work out a long-term deal. It's hard to argue Simmons hasn't earned a big contract; he had a massive breakout season last year and was solid before that.

That leaves the Harrises (Harrisii?) as the biggest questions remaining. Shelby Harris and Derek Wolfe might well be competing for one contract. Sources are currently guessing that Wolfe, who has having a career year in Vic Fangio's defense, will be the one coming back, with Harris then hitting the open market -- which should be quite active if he does end up available. As for Chris Harris, his numbers did take a bit of a dive last season. His 48% success rate in coverage was 65th in the league, and he was third from the bottom with 10.7 yards allowed per pass -- he averaged closer to 7.0 working out of the slot under Vance Joseph. He was better than those numbers suggest, and has every chance to bounce back in 2020. At age 31, however, the Broncos might be hesitant about paying him $10 million to $15 million a year, and he might find a better home as a dedicated slot corner somewhere else.

Kansas City Chiefs

Biggest Need: Linebacker

The Chiefs' defense improved in 2019, finishing with a -3.4% DVOA, their best result since 2015. Of course, that doesn't hold a candle to what the offense was doing, so their biggest needs still remain on the defensive side of the ball. And, while their overall defensive performance was above average, their run defense was still very bad; a 4.1% DVOA does represent an improvement from 2018's terrible, worst-in-the-league unit, but it's not exactly something that's going to generate too many highlights on the Chiefs' Super Bowl championship documentary. In addition, the Chiefs struggled to cover opposing running backs in the passing game, allowing a -0.6% DVOA and a league-worst 57.9 yards per game. The Chargers burned them multiple times, and they gave up 159 yards receiving to Aaron Jones. You can put a significant chunk of the blame for both these stats on the linebacking corps.

Both Reggie Ragland and Darron Lee are free agents, and any of the trio of Damien Wilson, Anthony Hitchens, and Ben Niemann could be significantly improved upon. Hitchens may well be the worst of the three, with a 19% broken-tackle rate, but the Chiefs can't really financially move on from him for another season at least. Finding an every-down linebacker who can do a better job reading the backfield, matching up with the Austin Ekelers of the world, and finishing his tackles in run support would be a significant boon for the defense.

Major Free Agents: Anthony Sherman, FB; Demarcus Robinson, WR; Emmanuel Ogbah, DE; Terrell Suggs, DE; Chris Jones, DT; Xavier Williams, DT; Kendall Fuller, CB

Similar to the Broncos, the Chiefs need to officially confirm their team option on Cameron Erving before the March 17 deadline. Unlike the Broncos, this is far from a lock. Erving would have a $4.7-million cap hit if the Chiefs kept him around, which is a ton of money for a backup tackle. The Chiefs are going to have to give Patrick Mahomes his long-awaited massive extension sooner or later; the days of being able to afford $5-million backups are in the past.

That upcoming Mahomes deal also means the Chiefs have a tough decision to make with Chris Jones. Jones is arguably the best pass-rushing interior lineman in the league not named Aaron Donald, and he is going to get paid as such. Jones had 33 pass pressures last season -- fourth among linemen behind Donald, Leonard Williams, and Maliek Collins -- and he has been playing at this level for years now. He won't reach Donald's $22.5-million-a-year deal, but he'll probably beat out everyone else, and that's a problem for the Chiefs, who only have $16.5 million in cap space at the moment. The Chiefs have other moves they can make to free up space (so long, Sammy Watkins!), but a tag-and-trade for draft capital might be their best move with Jones.

The other notable name here is Kendall Fuller. Injuries limited Fuller to 11 games in 2019, and his results on the field were not encouraging. He had just a 35% success rate, which would have been second worst to only Xavier Rhodes last season had he had enough targets to qualify. The Chiefs tried moving Fuller back to safety, but that didn't work either. It wasn't that long ago that Fuller was one of the best slot corners in the league, with a 68% success rate back in 2017, and he is only 25 years old. Someone will give him a one-year prove-it deal to see if he can find hints of that old form somewhere.

Las Vegas Raiders

Biggest Need: Linebackers

The Raiders put up a 14.6% defensive DVOA last season. That's the worst in franchise history. Their pass defense DVOA was 30.3%. That is also the worst in franchise history. Paul Guenther did not successfully turn the Raiders' defense around in Year 1, and the additions of Vontaze Burfict and Brandon Marshall didn't exactly pan out, either. The Raiders did successfully fix some of their pass rush woes from two years ago by adding Clelin Ferrell and Maxx Williams in the 2019 draft; it may be time to duplicate that in the 2020 draft.

Mike Mayock admitted that the Raiders "weren't particularly good at linebacker" during the combine, and took the blame for doing a poor job of managing the roster during the season. But really, the Raiders haven't put emphasis on the linebacker position in years at this point. They haven't used a Day 1 or 2 draft pick on any linebacker since Khalil Mack in 2014; you have to go back to Sio Moore the year before that to find an off-ball linebacker in the first three rounds. They haven't made a big splash signing at the position in over a decade. This is the year to break those streaks, with Kenneth Murray and Patrick Queen looking like solid options with one of Las Vegas' two first-round picks.

Major Free Agents: Vontaze Burfict, LB; Daryl Worley, CB; Karl Joseph, S

We had to dig deep to even find three notable free agents for the Raiders. Joseph and Worley are the only Raiders with at least 500 snaps last season without a contract for 2020; Burfict the only other one even penciled in as a starter. And with Burfict and Worley not exactly high-priority free agents, pretty much any move the Raiders make this offseason will be adding to their talent rather than just replacing someone.

Karl Joseph is … solid. Consistent. Reliable. And that's about it. The Raiders declined Joseph's fifth-year option a year ago, and brought in both Lamarcus Joyner and Johnathan Abram to man the safety positions, so that kind of tells you the level of esteem in which they held Joseph. But Joseph once again had a solid season before blowing out his hamstring. I doubt the Raiders will break the bank for him, but someone in need of a starter could do worse than giving Joseph a one-year deal.

Los Angeles Chargers

Biggest Need: Quarterback

Philip Rivers leaves the Chargers as their all-time leader in completions, passing yards, and passing touchdowns. He has started every game for the Chargers since 2006. And now he's gone -- after he finished 2019 with a 6.8% passing DVOA and 20 interceptions, the Chargers have opted to let Rivers leave in free agency and start anew at the position.

They do have two options on the roster, though neither looks like more than a bridge. Tyrod Taylor got something of a rough deal in Buffalo -- he had a top-10 DVOA in 2015, and his worst passing DVOA as a starter is still 4.6% better than Josh Allen's best season to date. Still, you don't move on from Rivers to go with Tyrod Taylor; he's just an acceptable bridge option if a draft pick needs time to work his way into the lineup. The other passer under contract at the moment is Easton Stick, a fifth-round draft pick a year ago from North Dakota State. Stick's an athletic, duel-threat quarterback who thrived in an RPO-style system in college, with questionable arm strength and accuracy; he's not the guy of the future, either. The Chargers pick sixth overall in the draft at the moment, which will likely be too late to select either Joe Burrow or Tua Tagovailoa, so they'll likely have to either proactively move up in the draft, settle for Justin Herbert, or swing for the fences with a free agent. Tom Brady did meet with the Chargers during the combine, and any time you can upgrade from a 38-year-old quarterback with a 6.8% DVOA to a 43-year-old quarterback with a 2.6% DVOA, you've got to do it.

Major Free Agents: Philip Rivers, QB; Melvin Gordon, RB; Travis Benjamin, WR; Hunter Henry, TE; Adrian Phillips, S

Both Chargers running backs are without contracts, but Austin Ekeler is a restricted free agent. The Chargers will be able to tender or match any offer teams make for him -- and he'll likely come much cheaper than Melvin Gordon will. Gordon held out through September and wasn't particularly special when he came back, finishing with a -7.6% rushing DVOA. Ekeler's rushing DVOA was actually worse at -10.1%, but he had a 39.1% receiving DVOA, compared to Gordon's -6.7%. Anthony Lynn has said he wants Gordon back, but the Chargers might be better off with Ekeler, Justin Jackson, and Random Day 3 Running Back du jour.

The Chargers would be better suited ensuring they can keep Hunter Henry, who is as talented as he is oft-injured. Henry missed four games last season and still finished fifth in receiving DYAR among tight ends. He was third in DYAR in 2017, when he only missed two games. Of course, in between those two years he missed a full season with a torn ACL, and has yet to play a full season, dealing with fractures and tears and sprains and pretty much any other type of ailment you can think of. Henry's a good candidate for the franchise tag, giving the Chargers one more year to see if he will be healthy or if he'll end up bruising his spleen falling down some stairs or something.

Comments

25 comments, Last at 12 Mar 2020, 10:54pm

1 QB Upgrade

"any time you can upgrade from a 38-year-old quarterback with a 6.8% DVOA to a 43-year-old quarterback with a 2.6% DVOA, you've got to do it.."

And in other news, the chocolate ration has been increased from 30 grams to 25 grams.

2 I got a kick out of that…

In reply to by serutan

I got a kick out of that line, too.

Seriously, though, we all know that DVOA measures how a QB and his supporting cast did together. It's possibly, even likely, that Brady with his 2.6% DVOA demonstrated better play than Rivers did with his 6.8% DVOA. How much better (if at all) and how long that would last are interesting questions. Good scouts could answer the first question. The second? That would take a fortune teller.

3 Yeah, you can make a number…

Yeah, you can make a number of arguments in Brady's favor -- quality of receivers, playing in the cold rather than in Los Angeles, etcetera etcetera.  I think you can make a number of arguments in Rivers' favor, too, but it's not a cut-and-dried line at the very least, even before the difficulties that come with predicting the future.

 

It's certainly a more complicated issue than some of the blagopshere would have you believe, at least, so I couldn't resist the slight jab.

5 Agreed about it not being…

Agreed about it not being cut and dried. And I enjoyed the jab. It was clever, and not too nutty. Thought-provoking, even.

I suspect that if teams were given a choice of one year of Brady and one year of Rivers at the same price, few would take Rivers. But that's just a feeling. Maybe their scouts would find enough reasons to go with Rivers.

Same probably goes for two years of each at the same price.

But your mileage may vary.

6 Rivers at the end of the…

Rivers at the end of the year looked like a shelf of himself. Maybe I'm overreacting to one game, but he looked so physically worn out that even routine throws looked labored and anything slightly daring was an interception waiting to happen. 

I fully believe an offseason of rest will make Rivers reverse age a bit. But come mid season, I don't think his arm is going to hold up. Anyone talking themselves into Rivers for a year is facing huge downside risk. 

Brady on the other hand, to my eyes, did not look like a shell of himself physically at the end. But, I worry he might at the end of the next year so you are taking major downside risk either way. 

Frankly, the only team's that these qbs make sense on are talented teams with coaches facing hot seat seasons + NE for Brady. So which teams are those....I got Chicago, Denver, and Tampa maybe? 

9 I don't agree with the …

I don't agree with the "coaches facing hot seat seasons" idea. It's more about the rosters.

Brady is good for maybe two seasons (could be three or four, could be one, could be a half). So he's not a good fit for a team that needs to get a great QB and THEN build the rest of the roster. He needs to go to a team that is pretty well situated at every position except QB.

Consider what Peyton Manning did after he busted his way out of Indianapolis. He went to a team that got deep in the playoffs with Tim Tebow at QB. They were perfect for him: they desperately needed a QB, and were already a good team even with a bad QB.

What is the equivalent team this year? What team is a Super Bowl contender "if only they had a decent QB"?

11 Peyton Manning was much…

Peyton Manning was much younger than Tom Brady, who will be 43. Giving him 2 years of high level play feels charitable. I think its foolish to sign Brady and assume you are good for 2+ years.

 

Also not sure I buy that Denver was a good team. That comes with the benefit of hindsight. FO projections were tepid about the Broncos. Even before Tebow started, they were 1-4 and were miserable, finishing 8-8 thanks to a terrible division, close wins, and an easy schedule. At the time, it looked like a foolish decision considering SF had gone 13-3 and to NFC championship and had one of the best rosters in football. 

12 Well said. Denver had two…

Well said.
Denver had two great pluses compared to SF: better young receivers, and a better lt (and I like staley, but clady in his prime was amazing). SF had a great line, and a ferocious defense.

17 My point was that Manning…

My point was that Manning would have been nuts to go to a team that had to rebuild the rest of their roster. By the time they got a solid roster, there was a good chance Manning would be too washed up to take advantage. Such a rebuilding team would have been nuts to take Manning for the same reason. (It works both for the team and the aging QB.) Even with a team that was pretty well set up as the Broncos were, Manning almost faded too soon to get them a Super Bowl.

Brady's in a similar position, perhaps even more so. He thinks he's got two to four good years left in him. Others might put that at one to three or even one half to two years. Regardless, neither he nor the team that takes him has time to rebuild a roster around him before he starts to fade.

Hence, he needs to go to a team that is missing a QB, but otherwise reasonably strong. And only such teams should be interested in him.

That roster condition matters much more than the coach's contract situation. Or at least it should.

 

18 Sure, and I probably should…

Sure, and I probably should have added that proviso, but it was implied when i said talented teams.  No one is suggesting he go to Redskins. 

Teams like Denver, Chicago, and Tampa Bay make a lot of sense because they are veteran teams with playoff caliber rosters in need of competent qb play to put them in the contending category. You could also throw in the Browns, Bills and Steelers, but those are not realistic given the qbs they are attached to. 

The 49ers make a lot of sense for Brady, but I'm not sure the move is good for the 49ers. 

7 Good point

It's still amazing to me that the Chargers thought it was a good idea to move to LA, where there's less interest in pro football than there is in San Diego. And the Rams were moving back too, and they knew it. Oh wait, there was money involved. Carry on... 

10 The thing is,  if the move…

In reply to by barf

The thing is,  if the move is a financial gain for the Chargers, it will be because of "16 road games" syndrome.  If the Spanos family were familiar with the concept of "market research" they would have known this in advance.

  I've also wondered what ol' Kroenke is going to do to recoup that $3,200,000,000 overrun on his shiny new stadium...

13 Charegers= creepsters

Okaym, so maybe financial sense to mvoe to losa nageles for Charegrs but tema is going to be liek weird, single middle-aged creepster guy who rents room in basement of someone else's hosue. Maybe there are funny sounds at night, weird smells durign day. masybe he has a dog, maybe he doesn't. He is awkward to tlak to but seems nice enoguh and pays the rent, so he stays. 

19 I don't understand your…

In reply to by serutan

I don't understand your chocolate ration reference, but that quote from Knowles is one of the funniest things I've read on FO in a while.

20 Reggie Ragland

Every time I read the name Reggie Ragland, I can't help but say it in a Scooby Doo voice.

21 Brady > Chargers

If the Chargers sign Brady and spend their first round pick on a OT (and, maybe a second or third as well), I could see it being a decently successful move on the football field. It would probably be an incredibly successful move off the field with marketing, ticket sales, etc. in their new city.