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12 Feb 2013

Four Downs: AFC West

by Andy Benoit

Denver Broncos

Biggest Hole: Interior run defenders

After Keith Brooking replaced Joe Mays at middle linebacker in Week 6, the Broncos went from allowing 120.2 rushing yards per game to allowing 77.9 per game the rest of the way. Mays had been a solid downhill player, but in new coordinator Jack Del Rio’s scheme he struggled to make pre-snap calls. Brooking stabilized Denver’s base 3-4 as a stack ‘backer and, surprisingly, held up well enough on the few occasions when he was asked to play in nickel.

That’s the good news with Brooking. The bad news is he’s a free agent who turns 38 in October. Prior to signing with Denver last August, he’d been showing noticeable decline since his mid-thirties. History says that re-signing Brooking would be a roll of the dice on John Elway’s part.

Elway may find the veteran expendable considering that Denver has plenty of linebacker depth and more important decisions to make at defensive tackle. The interior rotation of Justin Bannan, Kevin Vickerson, Mitch Unrein, and Derek Wolfe was sensational at holding ground and drawing double-teams in 2012. But the 34-year-old Bannan is set to become a free agent. So is the more explosive (and wildly underrated) 30-year-old Vickerson. The losses of those players would impact whoever is at middle linebacker.

In short, expiring contracts have left holes in the interior of a front seven that led the Broncos to a No. 4 ranking in run defense DVOA last season. After they re-sign or franchise-tag star left tackle Ryan Clady, the Broncos are expected to have $12-15 million available in cap space. Elway could re-sign all three interior defensive starters and still have a little money left over. Or, he could trust his existing linebacker depth to fill Brooking’s void, lowball Vickerson, say goodbye to Bannan, and try to upgrade by luring a second-tier free agent defensive tackle -– say a Randy Starks, Terrance Knighton, or Alan Branch-type –- to Mile High.

Kansas City Chiefs

Biggest Hole: Quarterback

We choose the obvious hole here for two reasons: it’s too obvious to pass up, and it highlights the less obvious point that the Chiefs, if you look closely, have a really good roster for a team drafting first overall. Jamaal Charles and a meaty, fairly mobile zone-blocking front five make for a viable run game. Defensively, Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson highlight a front seven that’s sturdier and more athletic than people think. On the back end, Eric Berry continues to blossom at safety while Brandon Flowers is one of the league's top cornerbacks. Take away some of Kansas City’s league-high 37 turnovers (which, history shows, is a stat that tends to regress towards the mean the following season) and you have a similar Chiefs club to the ones that went a respectable 7-9 in 2011 and an admirable 10-6 in 2010.

Solid as most of Kansas City’s roster might be, achieving meaningful success in today’s NFL is impossible if your offense is aerially inept. The current outlook of Kansas City’s passing game is iffy at best. The only consistently viable receiver, Dwayne Bowe, is scheduled for free agency. 2011 first-round pick Jonathan Baldwin has shown scintillating flashes but no constant illumination. Veteran Steve Breaston couldn’t even stay on the active roster last year. 2010 second-round pick Dexter McCluster has been nothing close to the Percy Harvin-type weapon many expected. Tight ends Tony Moeaki and Kevin Boss have been negatively impacted by serious injuries over the past two seasons.

That said, it’s unknown how much of Kansas City’s receiving issues are a product of a precarious quarterback situation. Matt Cassel hasn't panned out; at best, he is football’s version of a streaky jump shooter. Brady Quinn doesn’t read defenses astutely enough to regularly throw more than checkdowns, and third-stringer Ricky Stanzi has shown enough limitations to remain on the bench while both veterans have floundered.

So how does Andy Reid fix this mess? As usual, the free-agent quarterback market is bleak. But even bleaker is this year’s crop of rookie prospects. Reid’s West Coast system is fairly demanding of a quarterback mentally. Unless he thinks there’s a Tom Brady or a Russell Wilson hiding somewhere in this draft, it’d make sense to overspend just a little for a stabilizing one-year bridge guy like Alex Smith or Ryan Fitzpatrick. Stable quarterbacking could at least bump the Chiefs back up to the middle of the NFL pack and allow Reid to use his first season for evaluating the rest of his personnel. If that seems like a recipe for mediocrity, compare it to the alternative: risking an erroneous long-term investment.

Oakland Raiders

Biggest Hole: Defensive back

Half of Oakland’s defensive linemen are on the wrong side of 30, hitting free agency, or both. Carson Palmer is as up-and-down as a dot-com stock. Darren McFadden’s body falls somewhere between "fine china" and "Susan Boyle’s psyche" on the fragility meter. Having these three issues on the table means one can literally characterize the entire Raiders team as a "hole," because the rest of the roster is in even worse shape.

One of these holes is more gaping than the others, though: defensive back. Aside from the continuously underwhelming output of middle linebacker Rolando McClain, poor secondary play was Oakland’s biggest problem in 2012. Thanks in large part to surrendering 12 plays of 40 yards or more (third most in football), this defense finished 30th in pass defense DVOA. Blown coverages and missed tackles were issues all season.

The only cornerback who filled his role serviceably was veteran slot defender Joselio Hanson. He’s now a free agent. So is Shawntae Spencer (though he's just a guy). Fringe backup Phillip Adams showed enough intrigue as an underneath man-defender and ball-jumper to be re-signed as a restricted free agent, but with or without him, the Raiders still need to bring in at least three new corners. Restocking the position would allow Michael Huff to return to a more-fitting sub-package safety role and allow Dennis Allen to install some of the 60 percent of his scheme that he’s still waiting to roll out.

Corner isn’t the only issue, though. The safety situation is nearly as shaky. Tyvon Branch, a flexible box player, hasn’t appeared comfortable with the downfield responsibilities that come in Allen’s multidimensional system. Last year’s other starting safety, Matt Giordano, is an unrestricted free agent who lacks athleticism and instincts. It’s doubtful that general manager Reggie McKenzie will re-sign him. Same goes for free agent Mike Mitchell, an Al Davis second-round pick who took a few snaps from Giordano but never really pushed for a starting job.

What the Raiders discovered last December when they finally replaced McClain with Omar Gaither was that a lot of their front-seven schematic wrinkles can work with just average middle linebacking. Where "average" can’t fly is on the back end. Allen’s scheme requires upper-tier cover corners and versatile safeties.

San Diego Chargers

Biggest Hole: Cornerback

Let's look at stats from the Football Outsiders game charting project for a moment. Last season, Quentin Jammer allowed 8.6 yards per pass attempt, which ranked 75th in the NFL. He also had a 39 percent Success Rate (defined here), second-worst in the league behind Minnesota’s A.J. Jefferson. On the other side, Antoine Cason allowed 7.4 yards per pass (48th) and had a 42 percent Success Rate. Because of their struggles, defensive coordinator John Pagano -– who, like his brother Chuck, strives for a multidimensional and aggressive scheme, especially on third down -– rarely flipped past the basic zone coverage chapters of his playbook.

Now, Jammer is a free agent who will likely find himself forced into retirement after a respectable 11-year career. Cason is a free agent who will be the subject of several long meetings between Pagano and new general manager Tom Telesco. Do they offer the 2008 first-round pick a contract? If so, for how long and how much? Cason wasn’t nearly as bad as his 2012 numbers suggest. But he also wasn’t nearly as good as he was in 2010 when, as an agile, long-armed, firm-tackling off-coverage corner, he seemed on track for true stardom. Since then, for whatever reason the reportedly neurotic perfectionist has shown diminished confidence in all phases.

Still, you can’t censure Pagano and Telesco if they offer Cason a long-term deal. Overall, there’s a lot to like about him. But even if he is brought back, the Chargers still need a replacement for Jammer. It remains undetermined whether slot man Marcus Gilchrist, a 2011 second-round pick, can slide outside and be an every-down player. Same goes for Shareece Wright, who was taken just a round behind Gilchrist. But the fact that both players remain somewhat mysterious after two years likely means that, in the back of Telesco’s mind, every cornerback spot on the roster is in contention for new blood.

(This article previously appeared on ESPN Insider.)

Posted by: Andy Benoit on 12 Feb 2013

20 comments, Last at 25 Feb 2013, 1:28pm by cjfarls


by Jesse Kemp (not verified) :: Tue, 02/12/2013 - 3:12pm

I think the Chargers would be foolish to extend Cason. Andy alluded to his neurotic perfectionism, but I would term his biggest issue more simply: he's mentally weak. He has no resilience and when things go bad for him, he folds quickly (case in point: Plaxico Burress' redzone clinic in 2011). Most telling to me is how poorly he's done in 2011 and 2012 when the Chargers were actually in contention. The first halves of both seasons were fairly dreadful. It wasn't until the back halves that he actually looked like a viable NFL starter... when it was past the point of mattering (or nearly so) and the team could play like it had nothing to lose. This may be reaching, but my guess is that he presses too hard to perform when there are playoff implications on the line. The Chargers ought not to be investing money in players who only excel when it doesn't matter any more.

by Sifter :: Tue, 02/12/2013 - 4:52pm

I don't think Cason is a good investement either. But it may be one that is made out of necessity. I can't see too many good FA CBs out there (Chris Houston? Derek Cox? Pacman Jones??). And with their 2 young drafted CBs only coming through slowly, it doesn't make much sense to me for the Chargers to draft ANOTHER CB and gamble that he'll develop any quicker.

by Podge (not verified) :: Wed, 02/13/2013 - 8:18am

I think they would be foolish not to resign him. Yeah, he's not the best corner in the league, but he's certainly closer to being part of the solution for the Chargers than part of the problem. He's probably a little overmatched as a number 1 guy, but he'd be a good number 2.

The Chargers entire CB corps would probably go from bad to good if you just kept it the same but whacked a proper #1 corner in there. That'd push everyone on the depth chart down to about the level they belong.

by big_jgke :: Tue, 02/12/2013 - 3:43pm

Woooo new four downs!!!!

by OP Bolt (not verified) :: Tue, 02/12/2013 - 4:08pm

Notwithstanding the poor performance of the cornerbacks, I wouldn't be able to rank this any higher than "Biggest Hole 1B".

"Biggest Hole 1A" has to be the disaster which was the offensive line. This completely derailed the point scoring engine (running and passing), and the ancillary offensive metrics which define offensive domination (and support defensive domination) - control of the line of scrimmage, time of possession, field position, and protecting the QB.

With respect to the discussion regarding Cason and Jammer, I pretty much agree. I love Jammer, and would like to see him stay (at much lower pay)in a sort of 3rd Safety/4th CB/Special Teams/Coach in training role. But his days as a starting CB are done. Maybe Cason's contract can be reworked for a lower salary, but with performance clauses, so if his performance improves, so does his take home. In any case, there likely will be a new partner for Weddle at safety, and perhaps the team is leery of too much churn in the defensive backfield. I can see a scenario where the team drafts a CB (best player available) in the first round, if none of the three projected first round OTs are available, or if the got an OT free agent.

by Other Dean (not verified) :: Wed, 02/13/2013 - 12:16pm

I agree with this 100%. If there isn't a big improvement in the offensive line play this offense will be terrible.

by eddy (not verified) :: Wed, 02/13/2013 - 12:11am

I think Dexter Mccluster has preformed, by the measures I am familiar with, quite admirably. He was Jamaal Charles yardage replacement when he was injured. Not as dynamic, but hardly a garrett wolfe type of bust.

by LA Charger (not verified) :: Wed, 02/13/2013 - 12:44am

There's no way around it. Their cornerbacks were sub-par and have been terrible at times, but even with league average cornerback play last year's team wasn't going anywhere. With league average offensive line play, one can easily see the 2012 Chargers taking advantage of an easy schedule and ending up one of those 10-6 wild card teams.

If you're not a Chargers fan or otherwise subject yourself to every Chargers game, it's hard to truly comprehend how awful the offensive line was. It would take hours to describe how awful it was, so I'll just give one example. The starting LT was a rookie free agent RT called Mike Harris. Who played like you'd expect a rookie free agent RT starting in his rookie year at LT. He was the starter for most of the year until Jared Gaither "came back" from his "injury" and took a concussion very near the end of a game which no one seemed to notice* and he was useless on the next, decisive, play of the game when his man just waltzed right through him into Rivers. Then we had more Mike Harris until he got injured, and then we got Some Guy Who Was The Backup For A Rookie Free Agent RT Starting For The First Time At LT And Playing Like It. I don't even remember his name but he played just like you'd expect a guy who couldn't win the starting job in that situation to play. So, that's the LT situation. Well, it's worse, because now there's all this dead cap money when they release Gaither. I don't have enough time or self-loathing to go through the rest of the O Line or its effect on every phase of the Chargers game.

* Yes, more or less the exact same thing happened the year before too, ending the career of Pro Bowl Guard Kris Dielman. Yes, it was completely obvious to anyone watching the game on television both times. Yes, the Chargers team doctor has been repeatedly disciplined for malpractice and is the subject of a formal NFLPA complaint and yes the Chargers have had a very high injury rate the past couple years, and yes, the guy somehow still has a job.

by Dave0 :: Wed, 02/13/2013 - 3:24am

chargers should immediately fire team doctor and that idiot pr director.

by rfh1001 :: Wed, 02/13/2013 - 4:29am

This is a really good post. Thank you.

by Podge (not verified) :: Wed, 02/13/2013 - 8:20am

You forgot the part where the rest of the OL seemed to consistently forget that they were actually supposed to try to block the blokes opposite them.

by Independent George :: Wed, 02/13/2013 - 5:19pm

If you're not a Chargers fan or otherwise subject yourself to every Chargers game, it's hard to truly comprehend how awful the offensive line was.

Dude, I live in Chicago. I don't need help comprehending anything related to bad offensive lines.

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Wed, 02/13/2013 - 9:00am

Should the Raiders risk overpaying for Shane Lechler to retain him rather than walk as a free agent?

I'm tempted to say that the extra $1.5million per year he is making is currently easily offset in the value his punting brings to the team. For example, could you spend that money elsewhere on defense and get the extra 5 yards per possession saving - I don't think so.

by LionInAZ :: Thu, 02/14/2013 - 9:18pm

Lechler ranked 10th in avg punt length, 21st in net yards, and 27th in number of punts dropped inside the 20 yd line. FO has Oakland as the 3rd worst team on punts. I think the evidence is there showing that Lechler is past his prime and little better than average as a punter now.

by ChicagoRaider :: Fri, 02/15/2013 - 8:53am

Apart from having declined some, Lechler is going to be at least 40 before the Raiders are good again. The way to find the future is try new people who have a chance of being good for a while instead of continuing to invest in declining older players.

The only reason to keep the older player is to put fans in the seats. Money does mean something to the success of an NFL franchise. Nobody shows up to see the punter, apart from the punter's family that is.

by Rick S (not verified) :: Thu, 02/14/2013 - 11:10am

In free agency, Denver needs to keep their free agent defensive lineman (Vickerson, Bannan), get Clady to a long term contract and keep Koppen if the price is right. Most of their free agent signings from other teams should be Complimentary pieces. If they go for a big time free agent, it should only be Melton from Chicago. In the draft they need to find a MLB, a RB and depth for both lines.

If KC had a QB that didn't turn the ball over so much and could convert a first down occasionally, they could be a solid team that could contend for a WC spot.

The Chargers had the most talented team in the NFL, but squandered their championsip window with Norv Turner. Now they are subpar on the OL, offensive skill positions and defensive backfield.

Al Davis with an assist from Hue Jackson set this this team back years with poor drafts, trades and free agency signings.

by The Hypno-Toad :: Thu, 02/14/2013 - 9:24pm

I certainly hope the price is right for Koppen, because the alternative would probably be more JD Walton.

by cjfarls :: Mon, 02/25/2013 - 1:23pm

Walton didn't play poorly last year before his injury. I defintiely thought he played better than Koppen, who was consistently below average.

In 2010-2011, Beadles was far worse than Walton, and look how he developed in 2012 once he had a QB behind him that was both where he was supposed to be, and got the ball out in under 5 seconds.

Basically, Walton is unlikely to be a world beater... but if he plays as he did early season in 2012 that's good enough. Blake will also have a year of development to push him.

More critical than Koppen is a replacement at LG for Kuper... and I would not be surprised to see us add a high-pick or FA-signing at LG. That also frees up Ramirez as veteran insurance against Walton injury/complete suckitude, if Blake doesn't step up.

by DragonPie (not verified) :: Mon, 02/18/2013 - 11:46am

I'd be happy if the Broncos resigned both Bannon and Vickerson. As far as MLB goes, I actually think that strategically, the position is less important than it used to be. As teams play in nickle more and more, a third linebacker is on the field less often. This doesn't mean that a terrible MLB won't hurt you as it allows teams to run (or pass) all over you, but you don't need an all pro to have a good run defense. I'd much rather upgrade safety (Despite the Baltimore game, Moore is much better than Adams at safety in my opinion) than to worry excessively about a player whose role is diminished.

My one other comment is that this assessment seems to forget the the Chiefs didn't simply have one of the worst offenses in the league, but one of the worst defenses as well. They weren't the Cardinals.

by cjfarls :: Mon, 02/25/2013 - 1:28pm

I think another LB (ideally a 3-down MLB) is still a big need for Denver, because DJ Williams is likely gone (unless he takes a big paycut), and I'm not completely convinced that Trevethan is the final solution as the 2nd coverage LB, even though I like him as a cheap backup to Woodyard.

Obviously if DJ stays, I completely agree with you... MLB is then a minor issue in such a case, and a combo of a restructured Mays, DJ, Irving and S. Johnson may be sufficient.... I'm just not sure that will be the case, and without DJ as a backstop, thats putting a lot of faith in Irving/Johnson/Trevathan to show more than they have previously.