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13 May 2013

Four Downs: AFC West

by Mike Ridley

Denver Broncos

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Middle Linebacker

In our last installment of this series, we chronicled the Broncos’ need for interior run defenders. Since that time, the Broncos have been able to re-sign Kevin Vickerson, add Terrance Knighton, and draft Sylvester Williams, three essential cogs to stopping the run near the line of scrimmage. On the linebacker front, however, Denver hasn’t been nearly as proactive.

In 2012, Football Outsiders ranked Denver’s rush defense among the league’s best. They were fourth overall in run defense DVOA, third in Second Level Yards, and first in Open Field Yards. (DVOA is Football Outsiders' defense-adjusted value over average metric, explained here.) The last two metrics show how productive linebackers and the secondary are at stopping the run once it breaks into the second level. To add further evidence, Denver’s defensive Adjusted Line Yards for runs directed between the guards was sixth-best in the league.

A big reason for these high rankings was Keith Brooking. After Week 6, when the Broncos chose to start Brooking over Joe Mays, Denver went from allowing 120.2 rushing yards per game to just 77.9 yards per game. Denver’s average DVOA against the rush also saw improvement, moving from -17.62% to -22.21% during the eleven games Brooking started. Brooking’s ability to lead and organize the defense on the field with his pre-snap reads paid huge dividends. With Brooking currently unsigned and turning 38 in October, Denver would be wise to pursue a veteran free agent to supplement Mays. Given how poorly Mays has adapted to defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio’s system, this could be a problem for the Broncos.

Notable Undrafted Free Agent Additions

The Broncos signed receiver Quincy McDuffie, who could make the team as a return specialist. He was named a Sports Illustrated All-American as a kick returner. Gary Mason was a three-year starter at defensive end for Baylor and has a ton of strength. Cornerback Aaron Hester was a four-year starter at UCLA, including starting all 14 games in 2012.

Kansas City Chiefs

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Wide Receiver

When Kansas City’s new regime of Andy Reid and John Dorsey took over this winter, they immediately addressed the team’s biggest weakness by trading a second-round pick and a contingent 2014 pick for Alex Smith. By no means does this solidify the Chiefs’ quarterback situation for the next decade, but it provides a nice stop-gap option, allowing the focus to shift to other areas of weakness, most notably wide receiver.

The Chiefs have a competent receiver in Dwayne Bowe, who broke out in 2010 but has regressed in each of the following years. In 2012, he had his lowest total receiving value since his rookie season. Beyond him is Dexter McCluster, who was unimpressive by both conventional and advanced statistics in 2012. McCluster’s 8.7 yards per reception ranked 85th out of 86 receivers with at least 50 pass targets, and his total receiving value by Football Outsiders metrics ranked 78th. Former first-round pick Jonathan Baldwin was even worse, catching just 20 of the 47 passes and earned the 15th lowest total receiving value out of all receivers with ten or more targets.

Kansas City has attempted to address this issue by signing Donnie Avery from the Colts, although he’s nothing to get the Chiefs’ fans overly excited. He was one of only a few players that rated worse in total receiving value than McCluster, finishing with the fifth-lowest DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) among receivers. In fact, in the three seasons that he played at least eight games, Avery has failed to finish with a positive DYAR or DVOA. Bowe has the ability to be an upper-tier receiver, but he needs to lower his drops and refine his route-running. Picking athletic tight end Travis Kelce in the third round should also allow for more two-tight end packages, causing more mismatches. With all that said, the addition of the much more consistent Smith could be the biggest factor in fixing the Chiefs’ receiving woes.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

Tyler Bray is the obvious standout in this class. He’s got a live arm and loads of talent. If he can start making better reads, he’ll be in discussion for the Chiefs long-term answer at quarterback. Defensive end Rob Lohr was a productive player at Vanderbilt. Finally, the Chiefs will hope Demetrius Harris is the next basketballer-turned-tight end to find success in the NFL. Harris comes from UW-Milwaukee, a school that doesn't even have a football program.

Oakland Raiders

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Interior Offensive Linemen

Luckily for Raider nation, general manager Reggie McKenzie clearly has a plan in place and has addressed many areas of need through smart free agency signings and a decent draft. He’s gotten rid of most of their egregious contracts and has started to build a base for the future. Considering Oakland is dealing with about $40 million in dead salary cap money from the last few years of the Al Davis era, that is no small accomplishment.

One situation that McKenzie has neglected so far is that of the interior offensive linemen. While the group was solid in pass protection, having the fourth-best Adjusted Sack Rate in 2012, they were among the league’s worst in opening holes for the running game. The Raiders’ offensive Adjusted Line Yards (ALY) ranked 29th, their Power Rank was 28th and their Stuffed Rank was 25th. The futility is truly shown when looking at directional ALY. When running in between the left and right guards, the Raiders ranked 28th in ALY, compared to 10th and 19th when running at the left and right tackle, respectively.

The Raiders have seemed to acknowledge this weakness by not offering 16-game starter Cooper Carlisle a contract. They’re optimistic for increased productivity from new offensive coordinator Greg Olson’s man-blocking scheme. The zone-blocking scheme under prior coordinator Greg Knapp was a poor fit for the current personnel. If the plan comes to fruition and the interior of the line is able to open more holes for an electrifying-when-healthy Darren McFadden and allow him to get into the second level more often, the Raiders offense should see a significant improvement.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

Bobby Cowan (Idaho) was second-team All-WAC in 2012 and could challenge Marquette King for punting duties. Receiver Conner Vernon (Duke) is the only player in ACC history to register two seasons with 70 or more receptions and left as the conference’s all-time reception leader. Deveric Gallington made 38 starts for Texas Tech and could help the interior of the Raiders’ offensive line.

San Diego Chargers

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Offensive line

As bad as Oakland’s interior line is, San Diego’s entire front five is even worse. The Chargers had the worst Adjusted Sack Rate in the NFL with Philip Rivers being pulled down on a whopping 8.9 percent of his dropbacks after adjusting for schedule strength (league average was 6.5 percent). The 47 sacks allowed were fourth-worst in the league and the offensive line’s continuity was non-existent, having nine different starters and nine game-to-game changes in personnel. If the Chargers want to compete in the AFC West (and keep Rivers healthy), they desperately need to fix their offensive line.

The Chargers solutions so far are about on par with putting new paint on a rusty car. They signed King Dunlap away from Philadelphia to man the left side. Although he did account for 6.3 sacks allowed in 2012, it would still represent a 66.7 percent decrease compared to the Chargers’ left tackles last season. Left guard will be filled by Chad Rinehart, even though he is better suited as a backup. Johnnie Troutman, a 2012 fifth-round pick with zero NFL experience, is slated to replace the departed Louis Vasquez at right guard. The cream of the crop is former Alabama right tackle D.J. Fluker, whom San Diego chose with the twelve overall pick. He’s a mauler in the run game, but will need to hone his technique in pass protection to keep Rivers upright.

San Diego is a team that is desperate for quality line play. Over the last few seasons, Rivers’ performance has fallen as the quality upfront has deteriorated. The pass rush bothered Rivers so badly in 2012 that he saw his Total QBR sink to a career-worst 40.6, which is Blaine Gabbert territory. If San Diego isn’t able to improve along the front five (or somehow trade for Branden Albert), Rivers could find himself vying for the league lead in giveaways for the second consecutive season.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

Kwame Geathers (Georgia) and Brandon Moore (Texas) are sure to help a defensive line that lost two of its three starters during the offseason. The former is a massive man who can handle the nose in the Chargers 3-4, while the latter could be a player at the five-technique. Jamarkus McFarland from Oklahoma also has the raw skills to also contribute along the front three.

(Parts of this article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.)

Posted by: Mike Ridley on 13 May 2013

33 comments, Last at 01 Oct 2014, 8:21am by kudojiraiya


by justanothersteve :: Mon, 05/13/2013 - 1:26pm

Considering about $10 million of the $40 million in dead cap money is related to Carson Palmer, can we attribute the dead cap money to both Al Davis's ownership and the Hue Jackson interregnum?

by Karl Cuba :: Mon, 05/13/2013 - 1:44pm

Philip Rivers must have watched the run on tackles at the top of the first round in a state of shock with tears running down his face, mumbling "Dunlap, blindside, Aarrrgh!" over and over.

by speedegg :: Mon, 05/13/2013 - 3:33pm

I bet Tom Telesco and Mike McCoy said the same thing in the draft room. Despite what the KC Joyner (aka Football Scientist) said about overrated Left Tackles, Rivers is about as mobile as a tree trunk and needs a good Left Tackle.

by theslothook :: Mon, 05/13/2013 - 3:39pm

I think people might be confusing symptoms with causes. Ok, so the o line sucks and rivers is immobile, but the o line was mediocre to poor in 2010 - when dombrowski or clary was manning the left tackle spot. That year, the run game was poor and yet the passing game was still stellar. I have to ask, what exactly changed from 2010 to 2011&2012. Do we just automatically assume its entirely an offensive line issue? Sure, it contributed, but I suspect a big portion is also the result of a declining antonio gates and the loss of Vjax. Both of those I really think cannot be understated.

by Karl Cuba :: Mon, 05/13/2013 - 3:50pm

What you say about Gates and Jackson is probably true but I don't see how the issue is helped by getting a pure run blocking right tackle like Fluker instead of a potential left tackle like Lane Johnson, who they might have hoped to have a shot at.

by Drakos (not verified) :: Mon, 05/13/2013 - 8:19pm

I'm sure the Chargers would have loved to have a shot at Johnson but with him going at 4 the they didn't really.

It will be interesting to see where this whole Clary at right guard thing goes.

by Karl Cuba :: Mon, 05/13/2013 - 8:53pm

Hoped! They might have hoped that he wouldn't have gone in the top four, or maybe that Cooper or Warmack would be there. Getting a right tackle that needs work on his pass blocking would be a poor consolation prize.

If they could have taken one of the top two guards then they might have been able to go after Menelik Watson or Terron Armstead in the second.

I think the SD war room would have been a rather dismal place on draft day, with the gloom only punctuated by the head of college scouting getting up to wipe the names off the top of their draft board.

by Scott C :: Mon, 05/13/2013 - 9:47pm

Ignore his post. 2010 is the year that Gates played injured then was out for the second half, and Jackson held out until the last few games (only 14 receptions).

Rivers had two pro-bowl O-linemen on his left side for most of the year. The main skill positions were injured most of the year except for one high quality skill position player: Darren Sproles. Rivers threw to 17 different recievers (that year everyone was on Manning's jock for throwing to 16 guys).


by Scott C :: Mon, 05/13/2013 - 9:37pm

Um, VJ and Gates were injured or holding out for most of 2010. Rivers threw to 17 different guys.

The O-line was MUCH better in 2010. They had a pro-bowl left guard all season and a pro-bowl left tackle for 11 games.

Get your facts straight.


by theslothook :: Mon, 05/13/2013 - 11:11pm

Ok I stand corrected - maybe it is the o line.

by speedegg :: Mon, 05/13/2013 - 11:33pm

oookay. If you watch Rivers there's a couple things that stand out. Besides awesome throws, there are head-scratching interceptions and/or bad decisions. One of the strangest (and funniest) was when he slid to the ground rather than run for 4 yards and a first down. The funny thing? There were no defenders around him. He just thought a linebacker or defensive linemen was close. Rivers is imagining pressure.

That could be the effects of repeated pounding he takes game after game, season after season. That could explain why he was good in 2010, then regressed in 2011 and 2012.

Two other quarterbacks that also imagine pressure? Sam Bradford and Tony Romo. Bradford might be a better comparison because he doesn't have a number #1 WR, a foundation running back, or a good O-line. He makes awesome throws, but also makes bad decisions. As for Romo, you see him flinch with defenders around him and he makes bad throws.

by Ferguson1015 :: Tue, 05/14/2013 - 5:32am

Keep in mind that Rivers returned to his 2010 form at the end of 2011, once he had some competent blocking on the left side. I think you are partially right, but I think it has more to do with how comfortable Rivers is with who is playing LT.

I'm not sure how comfortable he will be with Dunlap on the left side, but I do know that Whiz won't dial up nearly as many 5-7 step drops and will allow for more quick and intermediate throws. I think that, and the fact that they are trying to always have a check-down option (something Norv actually did alright with) will allow Rivers to achieved the 70% completion percentage goal that McCoy declared he was going to do in yesterday's MMQB.

by Scott C :: Tue, 05/14/2013 - 12:32pm

The correlation between Rivers' play and the O-line pass protection is very high, as well as good options for check-down (Sproles). I don't see anything else correlating, not the health of Gates, availability of VJ, or quality of RB. When the O-line is bad for many games in a row and he loses comfort in the pocket, his play drops from top 5 in the league to middle of the pack.

This is the guy that before 2011 held the record (and still does!) for most consecutive games without more than two INTs, and at that time (end of 2010) had the highest lifetime QB rating of all time.

by justanothersteve :: Tue, 05/14/2013 - 12:46pm

At the end of the 2010 season, Aaron Rodgers was the all-time QB rating leader. (98.4 vs 97.2 for Rivers) Rodgers is now at 104.9 while Rivers has dropped to seventh with 94.3.

by cjfarls- (not verified) :: Mon, 05/13/2013 - 3:02pm

Gary Mason failed his medical and is no longer under contract in Denver.

Lerentee McCray (DE/LB from Florida) is one UDFA for Denver that should not be ignored... they actually gave him a sizeable signing bonus (in a bidding war with MIA I believe, and highest of all DEN USDFAs), so I anticipate he makes a strong play at a roster spot, or at least PS.

Stewart Bradley (former PHI/AZ), Nate Irving (former 3rd round draft pick) and Steven Johnson (2nd-year UDFA) are expected to compete for the starting MLB spot, with Mays as the last resort fallback (and likely cap casualty if anyone else shows any competance). Also expect to see a lot of time with both Wesley Woodyard and Danny Trevethan (technically both WLBs, but served as 2 main nickel LBs end of last year) playing in absence of a "true" MLB.... the extra bulk up front should help keep those smaller guys clean.

But yeah, I wouldn't be surprised to see a vet MLB signed.

by Nbot (not verified) :: Mon, 05/20/2013 - 11:50am

Exactly, people keep forgetting we played nickel (no MLB) 65% of the time last year.

Also, that Trevathan & Woodyard (the Kentucky Wildcat-Wildcat) 4-2-5 formation was used predominately, with Trevathan on the TE, and Woodyard the "Mike."

See here for a nice write up by Bronco Mike highlighting Trevathan in coveage: http://www.milehighreport.com/2013/5/8/4310972/denver-d-broncos-big-men-...

by Illuminatus! (not verified) :: Mon, 05/13/2013 - 8:20pm

Of all teams, do the Broncos really need another return specialist?

by cjfarls- (not verified) :: Tue, 05/14/2013 - 9:45am

Only if they decide they don't want to worry about Trindon Holliday's fumble issues. With J.Leonhard no longer there as the "sure-handed" returner, they may want to be hedging their bets.

I love Holliday... every return is exciting... we just don't know if it will be a TD or a turnover.

by Scott C :: Mon, 05/13/2013 - 10:00pm

"Left guard will be filled by Chad Rinehart, even though he is better suited as a backup. Johnnie Troutman, a 2012 fifth-round pick with zero NFL experience, is slated to replace the departed Louis Vasquez at right guard."

The plan seems to be to move Clary from RT to guard. Now the guards are Troutman, Clary, and Rinehart. Troutman is working on the left side as competition for Rinehart but could play either side.

Clary at guard, Gilchrist at SS:

Chargers talking to Starks

Chargers talking to Justice

by Ferguson1015 :: Mon, 05/13/2013 - 10:05pm

"The Chargers had the worst Adjusted Sack Rate in the NFL with Philip Rivers being pulled down on a whopping 8.9 percent of his dropbacks after adjusting for schedule strength (league average was 6.5 percent). The 47 sacks allowed were fourth-worst in the league and the offensive line’s continuity was non-existent, having nine different starters and nine game-to-game changes in personnel. If the Chargers want to compete in the AFC West (and keep Rivers healthy), they desperately need to fix their offensive line."

That isn't even mentioning that Rivers led the league in throwaway passes, which is as much of an indictment on the quality of the OL as it is the quality of the WRs.

Though in the end, I think this is far more negative about the OL than the situation warrants. Yes, Dunlap is not a quality LT, he is still light years better than Harris, and Fluker looks to be a large improvement over Clary at RT. This may not be the best OL in the league, but it is an improved unit from a year ago. Also, Center Hardwick is much better than he gets credit for. I know Center play isn't the end all-be all of the OL, but they didn't need 5 new starters, they needed 3 (Vasquez was good last season too, sadly 2 players do not make an OL).

Also, to those talking about how awful it is that SD missed on OL in the first round, first, they had too many holes to trade up, and second, even if by some miracle one of the top tackles in the draft fell to them, it still fills one position. And with what you think of the rest of the line, how would this have fixed the OL?

by 40oz to Freedom (not verified) :: Mon, 05/13/2013 - 11:59pm

Still scratching my head on why San Diego traded up for Manti Te'o when Arthur Brown was available.

by Karl Cuba :: Tue, 05/14/2013 - 12:52am

They play a 3-4 so Teo's lack of speed can be camouflaged in the scheme. It suggests he's a TED, a bit like Brandon Spikes but more likely to get out of position chasing after invisible women.

(I'd have taken Brown and put him on a steak and eggs diet. Maybe their scouting report said he wanted to go vegan.)

by Ferguson1015 :: Tue, 05/14/2013 - 7:06am

Except that his short area quickness has never been in question, and even his 40 time was greatly improved in his pro day (about equal to what Ogletree ran in the combine).

What confuses me is that they have him in the Mike position which historically has to take on more blocks to free up the Mo linebacker. One of Te'o's weaknesses is his inability to get off blocks, and that is essentially what he is going to have to do on just about every running play. I suppose it is good news for Donald Butler who has been great at the Mo position the past two years, I'm not really expecting much in the way of stats coming from Te'o this season.

by 40oz to Freedom (not verified) :: Tue, 05/14/2013 - 10:56am

Yeah, but I've heard because of Teo's lack of speed he's only a two down linebacker. You don't have to trade up for that kind of linebacker, there are several players like that. Guessing Chargers wanted a big guy as a replacement for Spikes at ILB.

The other thing is the Ravens took Brown so he can play ILB in their multiple 3-4/4-3 under scheme. Seeing how Ray Lewis was exploited in coverage, Ozzie Newsome probably decided even 3-4 ILBs need to be fast enough to play coverage.

by Scott C :: Tue, 05/14/2013 - 1:13pm

He should be very good in zone and will play 3 downs (nickel but not dime). Very few LBs are good in man coverage versus the top TEs or RBs and the charger's 3-4 calls for the inside LBs to be in zone coverage. Te'o had a lot of INTs at ND while playing zone.

He had problems getting off blocks by guys like Fluker and Warmack in the title game, but that will be a problem for all but the very best NFL LBs. Those guys aren't just NFL size, they are large for the NFL. Fluker will have the longest arms in the league for a tackle (36 3/4, tied with Clady, 2" more than the average left tackle). Te'o won't be the only guy who can't shed a block by Fluker in the run game.

We'll have to wait and see how he does versus average NFL offenses. Until then, the concerns seem overblown for a guy who was taken in the second round. If he was a top 10 pick, I'd be all over the 3rd down and block shedding concerns, but as a second round pick? Every second round LB pick has concerns of some sort. He's a second round pick getting high first-round scrutiny.

The Mike/Mo in the Charger's scheme is not very differentiated, similar to the FS/SS -- the scheme calls for them to be nearly interchangeable to help disguise coverages. If the DL is doing their job, and the Chargers do have some great young players there, they can occupy the OL and free up Te'o (and Butler) to read and react -- which everyone seems to agree is a very strong part of his game.

Another perspective I've heard is that Takeo Spikes was slow last year and at his age, and Te'o represents a likely upgrade for the defense and even if he doesn't turn into a pro-bowler, filling that spot and complementing Butler (who is a pro-bowl candidate) allows the team to focus on improvements elsewhere.

by 40oz to Freedom (not verified) :: Tue, 05/14/2013 - 1:47pm

You know, I thought that until I saw this clip with Greg Cosell, senior producer at NFL Films, and Adam Caplan, senior NFL reporter, on Eagles Filmroom as they break down Linebacker prospects. Te'o is reviewed at the end of the video and Cosell's assessment of Te'o is average.

So, my question for that front office is how they evaluate players and team needs.

Link: http://www.philadelphiaeagles.com/multimedia/videos/Film-Room-LB-Prospec...

by Ferguson1015 :: Wed, 05/15/2013 - 6:53am

The worry I have for Te'o isn't just derived from the title game, he exibited trouble getting off blocks in other games too. Not to mention that Te'o himself pointed it out as something he needed to work on.

Also, while I agree that FS/SS are pretty interchangable in Pagano's scheme, I have to disagree with you when you say that the Mike/Mo are interchangable. Spikes took on far more blocks to free up Butler to make more plays, now part of that might have been because Butler is a much faster LB, but I have yet to see them change that up on 1st and 2nd down.

Also, something else that Spikes brought (other than intangables of course) was just how consistent he was when he got his hands on someone. They guy has barely any missed tackles. So although he might be slow, and could have trouble getting to the play, when he does, he is bringing his guy down.

I do agree with you concerning Te'o in the zone however, and Pagano does use a lot of zone coverage. He could potentially help the 3rd down defense, though probably not enough to overcome how terrible SD has been at 3rd down defense the past couple of years.

by Ferguson1015 :: Wed, 05/15/2013 - 6:55am

Double post. Sorry

by RacerX1225 (not verified) :: Mon, 05/13/2013 - 11:06pm

Gallington released today by Oakland in favor of Robiskie. Surprising, he'll probably get a chance right up the block in San Diego and make us regret it dammit! lol..

by Eggwasp (not verified) :: Tue, 05/14/2013 - 3:25am

I disagree about the Raiders biggest hole - that scheme was so out of place in Oakland last year that its hard to say it was the talent. Virtually the same personnel were able to open up enough holes in 2011 under the old scheme! For me, the biggest hole is clearly D-line - they've got a lot cheaper by losing Kelly and Seymour but whilst they appear to have signed some players more appropriately-valued, its a stretch to say that the front-4 is NFL starting quality, with only Houston returning. And its not as if the D-line had been playing well anyway. The revamped LB corps better be fast at attacking the line of scrimmage.

by Anonymouss (not verified) :: Thu, 05/16/2013 - 2:18am
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by kudojiraiya :: Wed, 10/01/2014 - 8:21am

The Aldon Smith situation last year was really weird in any case, because they lost the guy he was supposedly going to share snaps with in training camp (Harylson), and then lost the backup for the OLB that they drafted in the same camp. It's hard to have good depth at a position when both depth players get injured, and I challenge you to find any team that has more than two quality backups at OLB.

The niners are pretty deep at a number of positions. DB seems like one, though it's hard to really know, and RB seems like another one. The niners seem to have been planning Gore's retirement for 3 years now.

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