Russell Wilson Makes Broncos Runners-Up
NFL Offseason - In these editions of Four Downs, we'll review the biggest hole on each team in the division and then give a short look at each team's major free agents for 2022.
The Denver Broncos finally have the franchise quarterback they have sought for years in
Aaron Rodgers Russell Wilson. Now what? What does Josh McDaniels' arrival mean for the Las Vegas Raiders? Can the Kansas City Chiefs keep Tyrann Matthieu? Why was Georgia defensive tackle Jordan Davis' superheroic combine performance bad news for the Los Angeles Chargers? Is this Walkthrough or Four Downs? It's BOTH!
Biggest Need: A post-Russell Wilson Trade action plan
Russell Wilson does not make the Broncos AFC Super Bowl favorites, but it does make them AFC Super Bowl contenders.
Don't believe Football Outsiders? Ask the house. DraftKings listed the Broncos at +1200 to win the Super Bowl on Wednesday. Here's the top of their board:
Buffalo Bills: +650
Kansas City Chiefs: +700
Green Bay Packers: +800
Los Angeles Rams: +1000
Denver Broncos: +1200
San Francisco 49ers: +1300
Dallas Cowboys: +1400
Every other team is +2000 or greater. There's probably some breaking-news helium in Denver's odds, but when the dust settles, the Broncos are likely to reside in broadly the same tier—at the sportsbooks, in DVOA projections, and in our minds and our hearts—as the Cincinnati Bengals, Tennessee Titans, Baltimore Ravens, Los Angeles Chargers, and New England Patriots among the AFC chase group.
The Broncos gave up an awful lot to be projected as AFC bronze medalists: the ninth and 40th picks in the 2022 draft, first- and second-rounders next year, Noah Fant, Shelby Harris, a set of steak knives, some CVS receipt coupons, the lint in Fant's pockets, Drew Lock. But they had little choice, especially once they realized that all Aaron Rodgers wanted (momentarily) was a financial apology from the Packers. Piling all their chips on 12-to-1 odds was their only real play after six years of pouring money/resources/time down the Trevor Siemian/Paxton Lynch/Brock Osweiler/Case Keenum/Joe Flacco/Drew Lock/Teddy Bridgewater slot machine. Wilson rescues the Broncos from another year of dreary semi-contending and keeps them out of the Mitchell Trubisky "Play Stupid Games, Win Stupid Prizes" Sweepstakes.
The Broncos now need to figure out how to parlay Wilson, Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, Javonte Williams, and a sturdy offensive line into more than a second-place finish in the AFC West and a 42-31 playoff loss to the Bills. Which leads us smoothly into our next segment.
Major Free Agents: QB Teddy Bridgewater, CB Kyle Fuller, CB Bryce Callahan, S Kareem Jackson, RB Melvin Gordon, LB Alexander Johnson, LB Josey Jewell, ER Stephen Weatherly, LB Kenny Young
After the Wilson trade, the Broncos have over $26 million in paper cap space, per Over The Cap. Now the bad news: Callahan, Fuller, and Jackson combined for 2,118 snaps in the secondary. Johnson, Jewell, and Harris were opening-day starters who suffered season-ending injuries, while Young was a midseason replacement who also got hurt. The Broncos must spend nearly all of their remaining cap space either retaining or replacing starters and key substitutes for a defense which finished 20th in DVOA last year.
Did we mention that they no longer possess the ninth or 40th picks in a defender-rich draft?
The Broncos will likely let the thirtysomethings in their secondary walk. Fuller is coming off a poor season in which he allowed a 103.8 quarterback rating when targeted, per Sports Info Solutions. That was the 10th-worst figure in the NFL among defensive backs with 50-plus targets. Jackson is 33, Callahan a 30-year-old slot specialist coming off an injury-marred season. The Broncos still have Patrick Surtain II, Ronald Darby, and Justin Simmons in the secondary, so they will be just fine unless they are forced to face any ultra-high-octane passing teams in the playoffs (wink).
The Broncos may opt to retain Johnson and/or Jewell instead of splurging in their secondary. Both were playing well before getting hurt. Johnson provides some pass-rush juice. Jewell is a capable home-grown run-thumper who's a non-disaster in coverage. Both could get lost in the free-agent shuffle or low-balled by other teams. And frankly, the Broncos simply don't have the resources to replace all of their defensive veterans, nor do they have the luxury of gutting the depth chart now that they are on the fringe of the Super Bowl conversation.
Such is the give-and-take of a blockbuster quarterback trade. It's better to worry about nickel defenders and Mike linebackers than to wonder who the quarterback is going to be. But the nickel defenders, Mike linebackers, edge rushers and others remain a legitimate worry.
Kansas City Chiefs
Biggest Need: Edge Rusher
Frank Clark is a $26.3-million cap hit waiting to be hauled out to the curb. Clark recorded just 4.5 sacks last season and only seemed to play well when he started getting national criticism for playing poorly. Per Sports Info Solutions, Clark recorded zero sacks, two quarterback knockdowns, and eight pressures in 97 pass rushes in the playoffs. That pressure total isn't terrible, but it's not what the Chiefs needed, either, and jettisoning Clark can free up over $19 million in cap space. Melvin Ingram, meanwhile, is a 33-year-old luxury the Chiefs can no longer afford to keep.
The 2022 draft class is hip-deep in edge rushers, so premium talent should be on the board when the Chiefs pick 30th overall. There's a chance, however, that the first round of the draft will turn into a feeding frenzy: the quarterbacks stink, some injury-case wide receivers (the Alabama guys, Georgia's George Pickens) could fall, no one's gonna reach for a running back, and so forth. Under the circumstances, the Chiefs may be forced to trade up if they are hoping to pick from among second-tier edge rush prospects such as Michigan's David Ojabo or Penn State's Arnold Ebiketie, two defenders who impressed at the scouting combine. The third tier of edge rushers is still fine, but it may not be enough for the Chiefs to keep pace with the Bills, Bengals, and a growing list of challengers.
The Chiefs could also address their always-needy secondary or add yet another playmaker on offense in the draft, then try to land a veteran edge or two on a ring-seeker discount. The problem with that strategy is that many of the ring-seekers (Von Miller, Jason Pierre-Paul) already got 'em, and many of the alternatives (Jerry Hughes, Ryan Kerrigan) are more washed than Clark.
Major Free Agents: DB Tyrann Mathieu, CB Charvarius Ward, CB Mike Hughes, ER Melvin Ingram, DT Jarran Reed, DT Derrick Nnandi, WR Demarcus Robinson, WR Byron Pringle, OL Andrew Wylie
Fans see Mathieu as a dynamic superstar. Colleagues and media outlets see Mathieu as a clickable name. From what I heard at the combine, teams see him as an aging, expensive, possibly irascible square peg who doesn't fit every system/budget/culture.
The Chiefs are hoping for a lukewarm Honey Badger market, and they might get one. The Bengals and Chargers, two potential contenders with lots of dough to spend, are mostly set at safety. Mathieu probably isn't interested in latching onto a rebuilding program like the Jets or Jaguars. If his list of suitors is small, Mathieu could be coaxed back to Kansas City with a back-loaded, incentive-heavy contract.
The Chiefs would also love to have Ward back. Unfortunately, the market for a solid cornerback who doesn't turn 26 until May is likely to be stratospheric, and the Chiefs don't have much financial flexibility.
Everyone else on the free-agent list above is likely to erode away. The Chiefs can absorb many of the losses (it's time to find better ideas than Pringle, Robinson, and Blake Bell as tertiary passing-game weapons), but some slippage back toward the pack is all but inevitable over the next few weeks.
Las Vegas Raiders
Biggest Need: Talent infusion, organizational vision
New Raiders head coach Josh McDaniels was boring, even by the standards of a Belichick Buddy, at his scouting combine press conference. He didn't try to come off as a charming intellectual like Matt Patricia did (that persona lasted through about 30 seconds of training camp) or give off the weird Joe Judge/Bill O'Brien "I'm already losing my sh*t" vibe. (Judge, you may recall, refused to refer to ANY Giants players by name at his combine presser). McDaniels droned along, aided by the fact that half of the press pool consisted of Patriots reporters with Mac Jones questions.
McDaniels insisted that Derek Carr will be his opening day starter, which is just fine: Carr has finished eighth, ninth, and 11th in DVOA in the past three years, so he won't cause any harm as a starter. And if McDaniels is just shining Carr's apple as an Aaron Rodgers/Russell Wilson consolation prize for some needy team, that's also fine. What the Raiders need right now is a plan for doing more than just competing for the third AFC wild-card berth, especially since the Broncos just upped the ante.
A Raiders return to relevance begins with a coherent draft strategy. One of the punchlines making the rounds among insiders at Indy was the fact that the Jon Gruden/Mike Mayock regime flew completely by the seats of their pants in every draft: internal scouting information and other data was simply ignored while GrudOck went on their weird jags. The Raiders have little to show for their last four drafts (dating back to the Jack Del Rio-Reggie McKenzie era) but Maxx Crosby, Kolton Miller, and some spare parts/injury cases.
The last time McDaniels was a team's showrunner, the Broncos drafted Tim Tebow and made other, less memorably dubious choices (tight end Richard Quinn, a second-round pick who caught just 12 passes in college and zero in the NFL, leaps to mind). But those Broncos also selected Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, and others, and McDaniels is over a decade older and wiser now. He muttered about selecting the "best available athlete" last week, and while that's standard boilerplate, it was much more encouraging than hearing one decision-maker yammer about "my guy" or watching the other speed-dial Dabo Sweeney for suggestions.
Major Free Agents: CB Casey Hayward, G Richie Incognito, QB Marcus Mariota, WR DeSean Jackson, DT Jonathan Hankins, CB Brandon Facyson, CB Desmond Trufant, CB Gerald McCoy
Did you have any idea that Gerald McCoy and Desmond Trufant were still in the NFL? The lower half of the Raiders payroll has been a pension program for the semi-retired since the day Gruden showed up and began signing players based on his Monday Night Football production notes, and McDaniels' arrival is a great opportunity for a mass purge of guys who were toast years ago (McCoy), guys who can still play but don't really fit a rebuild (Hayward, Hankins, Jackson), and guys who are about one high ankle sprain away from becoming popular-but-unlistenable shock podcasters (Incognito).
Mariota is likely to get swept up in the league's dragnet of reclamation-project quarterbacks. He'll look great starting for the Commanders until he gets injured on Day 3 of training camp.
Maxx Crosby is due for an extension. The Raiders would be better off saving their $17 million in cap space to help broker that deal than to spend it on any of these dudes.
Los Angeles Chargers
Biggest Need: Run defense
The Chargers got some indirect bad news when Georgia defensive tackle Jordan Davis performed like he was wearing the Infinity Gauntlet at the combine. Davis was getting less pre-combine buzz than Georgia teammates Travon Walker and Devonte Wyatt; as an "ordinary" 341-pound 1-technique tackle, he could easily have still been on the board when the Chargers picked 17th overall. Now that he's Thanos, some team that subscribes to the Bill Parcells Planet Theory may gobble Davis up before the Chargers get a chance to select the one player most likely to upgrade their run defense, and by extension their entire team.
There will still be plenty of run-stopping talent in the draft pool after Davis is gone, of course. Houston's Logan Hall would make a fine 5-technique in Brandon Staley's scheme, as would Davis' teammate Walker if Davis leapfrogs him on draft boards. Phidarian Mathis of Alabama headlines the hog mollies (let's take that term back) who will be available on Day 2. There's also depth at linebacker and plenty of veteran run-pluggers in the free-agent pool. But Davis looks like Vita Vea, so he's the guy the Chargers really want to fall.
Major Free Agents: CB Chris Harris, DT Linval Joseph, TE Jared Cook, ER Kyler Fackrell, ER Uchenna Nwosu
Mike Williams, who finished 12th in receiving DYAR last year, signed a three-year, $60 million contract while we were all ogling at the Russell Wilson trade on Tuesday.
Harris, Joseph, Cook, and Fackrell are all thirtysomethings in varying states of decline. Cook's unreliability returned last season—six drops, four interceptions when he was targeted (he has a habit of giving up on plays), several blown blocks—so he has probably either reached the end of his career or the start of his Houston Texans career. Harris is still a quality slot corner, but only at the right salary. Joseph is 33 years old and may not fit the system. Fackrell is just a guy who had a fluky 10.5-sack season once. Both Fackrell and Nwosu are rendered a lot less important by the Khalil Mack trade. The Chargers would be better off saving their cap bucks for one young premium cornerback than making offers to these holdovers. Rumor has it that they covet Charvarius Ward, and a double-indemnity move that helps the Chargers while hurting the Chiefs would maximize the bang for their buck. Best of all, the Chiefs may be financially powerless to stop them.
The AFC West is now a division of very-good-to-historic quarterbacks leading loaded offenses against defenses which are getting pulled apart by age, the salary cap, injuries, and some substandard drafts. The Chargers have two affordable Justin Herbert years left to make a run. They can do it, but they need to be aggressive: with Russell Wilson in Denver and the Raiders coming off a playoff berth and rediscovering quasi-professionalism, the Chargers are as close to last place in the division as they are to first.