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16 May 2011

Four Downs: AFC West

by Doug Farrar

Denver Broncos

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Defensive Tackle

The Broncos will have two more elite edge rushers than they did last year. As new head coach John Fox moves the team back to a 4-3 base defense, Elvis Dumervil will return to his rush end position after losing the 2010 season to a torn pectoral muscle, and second overall draft pick Von Miller will bring an explosiveness off the snap that is reminiscent of Clay Matthews and DeMarcus Ware. That's great news for a Denver defense that was a threat to no quarterback last season, but there are still issues when evaluating the interior line.

Jamal Williams and Justin Bannan didn't survive the transition and were cut. Kevin Vickerson projects more as a traditional five-technique end at 6-foot-5 and 320 pounds. Fox may have to compromise with his early personnel and run some hybrid fronts.

What was perhaps most interesting is that with the nine picks they had in the 2011
Draft, the Broncos didn't address the tackle position at all, despite this being one of the deepest tackle classes ever. The closest they came was with their last pick, Oklahoma defensive end Jeremy Beal, the 44th pick in the seventh round. Beal is known to use his 6-foot-2 height to get underneath the pads of blockers and win leverage battles, but he doesn't have the weight to play inside in the NFL. It's possible that Beal, or a similar player, might play a more traditional end role, leaving Miller or Dumervil to rush the passer from a linebacker role.

Kansas City Chiefs

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Nose Tackle

You don't always need game tape, or those pesky analysts, to tell you what your biggest needs are -- there are times when your opponents will expose your greatest weaknesses by going right for it as often as possible. That's what happened to the 2010 Chiefs, who won the AFC West as the conference's surprise team, despite an interior defensive line that not only gave up 4.42 Adjusted Line Yards per carry up the middle, but also saw a league-leading 63 percent of all runs to the mid-guard area.

The Chiefs play a 3-4 defense under coordinator Romeo Crennel, but that's a bit of a misnomer because Crennel will put his defenders in frequent four-man fronts as he did when he helped Bill Belichick in New England. No matter whether it's three or four down linemen, the Chiefs will need better effort than what was seen from starter Ron Edwards and reserve Shaun Smith.

And that's where Kansas City's draft was curious. Taking Pitt receiver Jon Baldwin in the late first round may have been a reach, but the real problem was leaving two possible fringe first-rounders -- North Carolina's Marvin Austin and Oregon State's Stephen Paea -- on the board when they took Baldwin. There may be options in free agency, or sixth-round pick Jerrell Powe might surprise, but if the Chiefs want to climb to that proverbial next level, they'll have to find a way to stop the run inside.

Oakland Raiders

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Veteran Cornerback

Through the dog days of the mid-2000s, the Oakland Raiders roster had become a Black Hole in all the wrong ways. Only one player could rise above the mess created by Al Davis: cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. Asomugha was unquestionably the best in the league at his position, at least until Darrelle Revis challenged him for the title in 2009. Opposing quarterbacks threw in his area so infrequently, we had to change our baselines for targets at Football Outsiders so that we could include Asomugha in the stat tables of our annual Almanacs.

But a kink in Asomugha's contract made him a free agent in time for the 2011 season (and, of course, the 2011 lockout), and Davis went another way, signing Stanford Routt to a $31.5 million extension. Routt overcame early career difficulties to look surprisingly good in coverage in 2010 -- both on the field and in the stat columns. But losing Asomugha, as the Raiders almost certainly will, is a major hit in the wrong direction.

Of course, the Raiders went with speed, speed, and more speed in their draft. Among the burners they picked up were Miami cornerback DeMarcus Van Dyke in the third round, and Ohio State's Chimdi Chekwa in the fourth. This may remind some of Oakland's 2005 draft, when Davis took Routt and Fabian Washington in the first two rounds because of their speed, and watched them struggle. The Raiders would be wise to pick up some veteran help at the position when they are able, so that they can avoid repeating that mistake.

San Diego Chargers

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: A Better Eye for a Bargain

Chargers general manager A.J. Smith sees things with a very unconventional (and confrontational) eye. His record of success with personnel is clear, but over the last few seasons, it's always possible to out-think yourself. Trading up for safety Eric Weddle and running back Ryan Mathews in recent years meant trading away picks, which has left the Chargers' depth thinner. Because of the depth problems, San Diego put up some of the worst special teams metrics we've ever seen in 2010 -- especially on punt and kick coverage, where athletic depth comes into play.

In addition, while Smith used to have a rare eye for mid-round bargains like Michael Turner, Darren Sproles, Legedu Naanee, and Jacob Hester, pickings have been thinner of late -- partially because of those trades. And in the 2011 Draft, Smith took still more risks after the first round. Nobody would question the wisdom behind taking Illinois defensive lineman Corey Liuget with the 18th overall pick, especially given San Diego's struggles with their front three of late. With his two second-round picks, Smith went with Clemson cornerback Marcus Gilchrist, whose primary initial value projection is as a return man, and Michigan's Jonas Mouton, who many experts pegged with a fifth-round grade or lower due to his relative lack of agility and change-of-direction skills.

Predictably, Smith was unmoved by contrary value assessments, insisting to the media after the fact that Mouton was a second-round pick in his room, if nowhere else. That kind of out-of-the-box thinking is great if it's backed up by an unusual acumen regarding value picks, but given his recent track record, Smith might want to take a more conciliatory tone -- at least until he proves the wisdom of his recent transactions.

Posted by: Doug Farrar on 16 May 2011

30 comments, Last at 21 May 2011, 5:33pm by Bright Blue Shorts


by QQ (not verified) :: Mon, 05/16/2011 - 2:04pm

"Because of the depth problems, San Diego put up some of the worst special teams metrics we've ever seen in 2010 -- especially on punt and kick coverage, where athletic depth comes into play."

I am not sure there is such a clear relationship. Green Bay is regarded as having close to the Best Depth and Talent in the league and they were horrible on Special Teams too.

by Neoplatonist Bolthead (not verified) :: Mon, 05/16/2011 - 3:00pm

I think it had more to do with going through five Long Snappers in five weeks. Finishing the season with a winning record after that run of bad luck is actually quite an accomplishment.

by Theo :: Mon, 05/16/2011 - 8:54pm

I don't think long snappers where the special teams's issue here, injured linebackers and defensive players oh so much.

by tuluse :: Mon, 05/16/2011 - 5:09pm

Green Bay was also one of the most injured teams in the league, forcing them to start said depth instead of employ it on special teams.

by CheeseHead :: Wed, 05/18/2011 - 1:41pm

The Packer's depth looks good now, but last year with 15 guys on IR, and a revolving door on special teams, not so much...

by QuickClarification (not verified) :: Mon, 05/16/2011 - 2:37pm

Regarding the Broncos Section-

John Fox has in fact stated that Miller will be starting at the SAM position and that Dumervil and Ayers will be playing the DE postpositions.

by Shattenjager :: Mon, 05/16/2011 - 2:46pm

Brian Xanders has said the same.

I honestly don't understand this idea. I'm hoping they'll trade Dumervil for help in the middle and move Miller to DE immediately.

by sundown (not verified) :: Mon, 05/16/2011 - 3:22pm

Trade him? He signed a 6-year, $60+ million contract last year right before he got hurt. Coming off the pec injury that cost him the entire season, I doubt many teams would want to assume that contract. And even if they did, Denver would be out $40+ million in guaranteed money. He's not going anywhere.

by Shattenjager :: Mon, 05/16/2011 - 5:40pm

"I'm hoping they'll trade" does not equal "I expect them to trade."

by JW (not verified) :: Mon, 05/16/2011 - 7:09pm

Miller would be horrible at DE; he's going to struggle to stop the run as a 4-3 OLB much less a 4-3 DE.

by Shattenjager :: Mon, 05/16/2011 - 7:14pm

As opposed to the incredible run-stopping force that is Elvis Dumervil?

by Independent George :: Tue, 05/17/2011 - 1:34pm

Who runs anymore?

by justanothersteve :: Wed, 05/18/2011 - 6:42pm

Kansas City

by Kyle D. (not verified) :: Tue, 05/17/2011 - 2:56pm

His saying he "hopes" for him to play DE doesn't mean he expects him to be any good at DE.

by Kyle D. (not verified) :: Tue, 05/17/2011 - 2:59pm

And since you're on record as "hoping" they eat $40 million in guaranteed money I take it you're really a Raiders/Chiefs/Chargers fan.

by Shattenjager :: Tue, 05/17/2011 - 4:32pm

And if they keep him on the team, they don't have to pay that?

An odd guarantee, that.

by speedegg :: Wed, 05/18/2011 - 10:52am

oops, posted in the wrong place.

by speedegg :: Wed, 05/18/2011 - 10:52am

Hell, no. Shattenjager is our arch-nemesis.

And for the record, Darren Sproles thinks Dumervil is an incredible run-stopping force. Him and the rest of the pathetic Chargers O-line. God this year was painful.

by BroncosGuyAgain (not verified) :: Thu, 05/19/2011 - 6:41pm

When I saw "draft hole" and "Denver Broncos" in one headline, I briefly thought Josh McDaniels was back at Dove Valley.

First, let's dispense with one bit of absurdity: Von Miller will not play DE. Ever. Not for any team, coach, or scheme.

Second, none of us know how well Miller will defend the run. Not you, me, or the best college scout in the land. He hasn't had so much as a shorts-and-t-shirts practice as a pro. The tape says he's has great pursuit and tackling skills, but we won't know his NFL worth for at least two years.

Third, Elvis is a guy I openly root for, but acknowledge he is undersized and overpaid. He is actually a good player, but over-rated because of certain elements (sportswriters and, apparently, Josh McDaniels) aggrandizing the quarterback sack. I would love to see him traded, along with anybody over 25 or named Tebow for draft picks.

Fourth, if KC passing up Paea in the first is a sin, what is Denver passing him twice in the second?

by Raiderjoe :: Mon, 05/16/2011 - 2:40pm

Raiders going to be fine fokt you worry about that. Tema has fine unserstudies at the cb spots.

by dmstorm22 :: Mon, 05/16/2011 - 3:20pm

The Raiders have other things to worry about. Sure, the pass defense is going to be negatively affected by losing Asomugha, but they still have a top level pass rush. Their run defense is more important to shore up (that said, DVOA has the Raiders with a better rush than pass defense). The Raiders have enough able bodies in that secondary to cover up a bit of losing Asomugha.

by JW (not verified) :: Mon, 05/16/2011 - 7:12pm

Depending on how the rules workout, Michael Huff may also leave, right when he was finally playing well, meaning they would have to replace two starters in the secondary.

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Sat, 05/21/2011 - 5:33pm

I'm not sure Shane Lechler's agent would agree with that opening sentence about the Raiders ... "Through the dog days of the mid-2000s, the Oakland Raiders roster had become a Black Hole in all the wrong ways. Only one player could rise above the mess created by Al Davis"

by merlinofchaos :: Mon, 05/16/2011 - 3:18pm

According to the Denver Post, Vickerson recently joined player-led conditioning at 285 pounds, making him better suited to playing the interior. If he really can be starter quality there, then they need a) one more starter or b) Marcus Thomas to improve and c) depth.

by QQ (not verified) :: Mon, 05/16/2011 - 5:34pm

"Green Bay was also one of the most injured teams in the league, forcing them to start said depth instead of employ it on special teams."

Injuries seemingly had little to do with GB's poor Special Teams. Their ST's were poor throughout the year and in 2009 they finished 32nd in ST's

by justanothersteve :: Tue, 05/17/2011 - 12:19pm

The Packers ST continue to suck because Shawn Slocum is still the ST coach. I can only conclude Slocum has photos of McCarthy and Thompson in bed together or something like that because he hasn't shown squat as a legit ST coach. He's the anti-April.

by Ed Schoenfeld (not verified) :: Sat, 05/21/2011 - 2:46am

Green Bay also had 10 players on IR in 2009. Turning over 90% of your unit during the season (either as injuries or replacements for injuries) would seem to make it hard to maintain cohesion as a team.

But part of the problem in 2008 and 2009 was training a rookie punter. They also did that again in 2010, but Masthay turned out to learn faster than Ryan or Kapinos.

by speedegg :: Mon, 05/16/2011 - 8:15pm

Seriously, I don't know what Smith is thinking now. It's like he thinks the team is one or two players away from the Superbowl when it probably needs three or five and a new head coach.

Can't really fault him for not picking up an O-Lineman or OLB since the draft was thin at those positions, but besides his first round pick, the others are questionable. Looks like another 8-8 season.

by alljack (not verified) :: Tue, 05/17/2011 - 12:40am

In the last three seasons, GB special teams have moved from Disastrous to Poor to Good Enough. Cumulative improvements on the margins matter.

by commissionerleaf :: Wed, 05/18/2011 - 6:46pm

The Chargers are a team on the decline, their defense and offensive line being works in progress at this point. Rivers is as good as he's going to get, and Mathews and Tolbert are not a young Tomlinson. A few receivers would be nice, too; Naanee and Floyd are big (as is Jackson when he plays) but injuries have slowed these guys in the past. (Ocho might like being near L.A.?)

The Raiders could be very good this year if the pass defense survives the loss of Asomugha. McFadden is finally healthy enough to play well, and Jacoby Ford and Zach Miller have shown some talent. Donovan McNabb would have made last year's team a contender, and might be good enough to keep an Asomugha-less Raiders out of the basement.

Kansas City is a strong fundamental team; they may be a playoff contender for years to come. On the other hand, they are competing with Philip Rivers, and can only whip out Matt Cassel in response. So for "contender," read "valiantly failed".

Denver is a victim of poor front office decisions; running Cutler out of town was insane, and Brandon Marshall even worse (Cutler at least netted them a decent replacement in Kyle Orton). Elway seems to be actually interested in the Tim Tebow experiment, which was what got Josh McDaniels fired (right? and if it wasn't, why not? And if you're going to start Tebow, is there any better offense for him than the McDaniels screenfest of doom?) If Denver had kept their good talent and added a few defenders in the draft instead of Tebow and DeMeritus Thomas, they'd be a contender. As it is, they're a contender for the first overall pick.