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02 Mar 2017

Four Downs: AFC West

by Scott Kacsmar

Oakland Raiders

Biggest Hole: Cornerback

The Raiders have put together a fine offense with the young passing combination of Derek Carr and Amari Cooper, combined with one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. While tight end Clive Walford did not make huge strides in his second season, that is another position in which the Raiders have a reasonable solution with which to work.

Defense is where the team struggled more last year, as some of last year's free-agent signings did not gel into a competent unit for Jack Del Rio. Led by All-Pro Khalil Mack, the defensive line has largely been a collection of recently drafted talent, and the linebackers saw a boost from the addition of Seattle's Bruce Irvin last year. His 7.0 sacks were second on the team to Mack's 11.0. While the Raiders brought in safety Reggie Nelson and drafted Karl Joseph in the first round, though, the cornerbacks remain an issue in a secondary that finished 25th against the pass.

Sean Smith was one of the big free-agent prizes last year, but after coming over from rival Kansas City, Smith struggled in his first run with Oakland. According to SIS charting (subscription required), Smith finished 80th in yards per pass (10.0) and 46th in success rate (52.0 percent) among qualified cornerbacks. David Amerson had his own share of problems, finishing 60th in yards per pass (8.0) and 56th in success rate (51.0 percent). Former first-round pick D.J. Hayden led the team with 12 penalties in 2016 and is unlikely to return this season. Oakland could always give a veteran like Darrelle Revis a chance, or just stick to the draft to bolster the position. Prior to Hayden in 2013, the Raiders had not used a first-round pick on a cornerback since Fabian Washington in 2005. He went 23rd overall, or also known as "One Pick Before Aaron Rodgers." Oakland will pick 24th in the first round this year.

Major Free Agents: Latavius Murray, RB; Malcolm Smith, LB; Nate Allen, SAF; D.J. Hayden, CB; Matt McGloin, QB.

Oakland may lose leading rusher Latavius Murray, but DeAndre Washington (a fifth-round pick in 2015) and Jalen Richard both look very capable of picking up the slack behind a strong offensive line. Otherwise, the offense should remain pretty intact, unless the Raiders would like to bring back Matt McGloin as Derek Carr's backup. The moment looked too big for third-string rookie Connor Cook in January's wild-card playoff loss.

The defense could lose a few contributors, but none that come with a high priority to re-sign. Former Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith led the team in tackles in 2016. Nate Allen is expendable at safety thanks to the emergence of rookie Karl Joseph. D.J. Hayden, the No. 12 pick in a 2013 draft that is becoming infamous for a lousy top 12, will likely move on after just 25 starts in four seasons. His tenure was riddled by injuries, penalties and general disappointment.

Kansas City Chiefs

Biggest Hole: Inside linebacker

Derrick Johnson has been a rock at inside linebacker for the Chiefs since he was a first-round pick in 2005, but he is going on 35 and ruptured his Achilles last season. Now is the time to look for a replacement in a 3-4 defense that could really use a smart, consistent playmaker in the middle. The Chiefs have some pretty marginal players in that position now with Ramik Wilson, D.J. Alexander, Justin March-Lillard, and impending free agent Josh Mauga.

This is not a position where the Chiefs should have to use a very high draft pick, but that is certainly on the table as the team does not have a glaring need in the first round this year. Strengthening the middle of the defense, adding depth at running back or wide receiver, or acquiring a quarterback to push Alex Smith are all possibilities when the Chiefs pick at No. 27 in the first round.

Major Free Agents: Dontari Poe, DT; Jamaal Charles, RB; Josh Mauga, LB.

After giving Eric Berry a huge deal, the Chiefs have clearly prioritized their biggest free agent. Dontari Poe is rightfully second on that list, but the Chiefs declined to use their franchise tag on him. Poe would have made more than $13 million in 2017 had he been tagged, but his impact as a nose tackle is just not worth that type of deal. Poe's 2.5 sacks since 2015 are a far cry from the 6.0 sacks he had in 2014, his last Pro Bowl season. Kansas City's defense fell to 26th in run defense DVOA and 30th in adjusted line yards last year. The running offense also declined in 2016 due in part to Jamaal Charles' absence, but that could also say a lot about the strength of the offensive line at this point for the team.

Denver Broncos

Biggest Hole: Offensive Line

You can argue that Denver's biggest weaknesses are in the trenches on both sides of the ball, but we'll focus on the all-important offensive line. The Broncos managed to win Super Bowl 50 with a pretty bad line, but after some offseason tweaks by John Elway, the 2016 line was still a big problem. Denver's offensive line ranked 18th in adjusted line yards, and only 29th in power runs. This was never the running game we expected to see under head coach Gary Kubiak while he was in Denver.

Under new head coach Vance Joseph, the Broncos will still want to keep a running identity, but changes are going to have to come again to the line. Left tackle Russell Okung was given a five-year deal worth up to $53 million last year, but the Broncos declined to pick up his option for 2017. He will be a free agent, but could still return to Denver. If not, then Ty Sambrailo will be in the mix to take over at left tackle again. He leads a pretty uninspiring group of starters in left guard Max Garcia, center Matt Paradis, right guard Michael Schofield, and right tackle Donald Stephenson. Denver could really use some draft capital to rebuild this line, especially if a veteran quarterback in need of some protection like Tony Romo is going to end up taking over in 2017.

Major Free Agents: DeMarcus Ware, LB; Russell Okung, OT; Sylvester Williams, DT.

DeMarcus Ware was never meant to be a long-term solution for the Broncos. He was Von Miller's partner in crime for the last three seasons, and he helped the Broncos win a Super Bowl in 2015. This is also why a player like Shane Ray was drafted in the first round that year so that he could eventually replace Ware. This already was underway in 2016 with Ray picking up 8.0 sacks in eight starts while Ware was injured. Where Denver has not planned very well is at defensive tackle. A year after losing Malik Jackson, the Broncos are likely to lose 2013 first-round pick Sylvester Williams, who was not given a fifth-year option on his rookie deal. This leaves Kyle Peko as the top defensive tackle on the roster, so expect some quality draft picks to be spent by Elway here.

Los Angeles Chargers

Biggest Hole: Offensive Line

It is quite impressive that Philip Rivers has managed to start 185 consecutive games (including playoffs) despite some questionable protection in recent years. He has also watched a lot of his offensive teammates fall to injury the last few years, but the Chargers do at least appear to have long-term answers at running back (Melvin Gordon) and tight end (Hunter Henry). The wide receiver corps has a good range of talent, but Keenan Allen needs to stay healthy for everything to work out there.

The biggest problems remain along the offensive line, which has been an issue for the Chargers for several seasons now. Left tackle King Dunlap is an unreliable starter who has missed 13 games in the last two seasons, and right tackle Joe Barksdale was merely a stop-gap solution. Left guard Orlando Franklin has not been the free-agent hit the team hoped for when signing him from Denver in 2015. Center Matt Slauson is not quite Nick Hardwick, but he is serviceable enough. The only starter that this team has actually drafted is D.J. Fluker, but the 2013 first-round pick has been demoted to right guard and has continued to disappoint. It was surprising to see the team pick up his fifth-year option, paying him $8.8 million this season.

Between Fluker's salary and Franklin's cap hit of $7.8 million this season, it seems very unlikely that the Chargers will opt for a higher-priced free agent like Green Bay guard T.J. Lang. However, the draft will certainly be an option for the Chargers to start retooling this unit with youth that can develop under new head coach Anthony Lynn's staff.

Major Free Agents: Manti Te'o, LB; Danny Woodhead, RB; Jahleel Addae, SAF; Sean Lissemore, DT; Kellen Clemens, QB.

The Chargers could use a backup quarterback with experience behind an older Rivers should Kellen Clemens not be retained. Arizona State's Mike Bercovici is the only other quarterback on the roster. Danny Woodhead still looks like he is 12, but he is now 32 years old and has missed 27 games due to injury since 2014. Rivers usually does a very good job of finding receiving backs in this offense, so that is not a priority re-signing. Manti Te'o was limited to three games last season before he tore his Achilles. All girlfriend jokes aside, his career has been solid, but unspectacular. Denzel Perryman is the budding standout in this linebacker corps. Finally, the Chargers will have to make a decision on Jahleel Addae, who has started 20 games at safety in the last two seasons. He would be a cheap solution, or the team could just draft a safety, which it has not done since Brandon Taylor in 2012. Ohio State's Malik Hooker has often been linked to the Chargers, who will pick seventh in April's draft.

Posted by: Scott Kacsmar on 02 Mar 2017

13 comments, Last at 07 Mar 2017, 11:40am by Noah Arkadia


by Raiderjoe :: Thu, 03/02/2017 - 4:19pm

good chance Raiders will drfat cornerback in first rouydn. if not, best availabekl plauyer. never really bad thing to do thnat. but besrt case scenario, ghet corbernack in first round.

by billprudden :: Thu, 03/02/2017 - 5:20pm

I'd feel better with an heir-apparent LT prospect with our first round pick. CB is, of course, vital, but LT is more so, especially with Carr's strengths and weaknesses.

by jtr :: Thu, 03/02/2017 - 4:33pm

>Sean Smith was one of the big free-agent prizes last year, but after coming over from rival Kansas City, Smith struggled in his first run with Oakland

Kind of reminds me of Brandon Browner and Byron Maxwell. Both were reasonably successful in Seattle (as well as NE for Browner), then fell off a cliff when they went to NO and PHI respectively. Big physical corners seem to be more dependent on scheme and the quality of their safety help; I guess would guess they're more vulnerable to getting beat deep unless the defense is built to recover after that. Smith's numbers last year would seem to indicate that, with a decent success rate but terrible yards per pass. I would say that teams looking for a quick fix at corner should think very carefully before picking off one of these big-body guys just because they had some success on an overall good defense.

by Sixknots :: Thu, 03/02/2017 - 10:51pm

So, we've gone through 16 teams in Four Downs so far and I count 5 teams with "biggest hole" = offensive line. (or OT and also counting the 49ers whose biggest hole is the whole offense with special mention for OL) Also mentioned was OL issues in Detroit.

So that's 6 teams (so far) looking to draft offensive line in a reportedly crappy OL draft year. Yikes!

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Sat, 03/04/2017 - 3:30pm

There were articles in the past year about how the quality of OL play is down. Due to things like free agency destroying the teamwork required, CBA limiting contact time between coaches and players, basics not being learned in college.

by CaffeineMan :: Sun, 03/05/2017 - 4:32pm

RE: college offensive linemen

You hear a lot about how an o-lineman's pass blocking is difficult to project because of the proliferation of the spread offense in college. I had wondered about specifics, but don't have time to wade through scouting websites (like Matt Waldman's) no matter how good their reputation. I caught a bit on SiriusXM that was interesting to me: that in the spread, there are a fairly large number of passing plays that are actually blocked like running plays, because college rules allow blocking farther beyond the line of scrimmage on pass plays than NFL rules do without getting called for a penalty (OPI? Ineligible downfield?). Thus, the number of drop-back pass blocking plays that would translate directly to the NFL are fewer than the number of total passing plays and o-lineman are harder to project. I had not heard of the rules difference. Can anybody confirm or correct me on this?

by Bright Blue Shorts :: Sun, 03/05/2017 - 5:41pm

This article doesn't answer your question about the rules ...


but it does explain why spread OL's aren't desirable. They're just not used to holding blocks for any longer than 2-3 seconds and may not even have used snap counts.

There's a link to a podcast (that I've not listened to) that may explain more. Please do share more if you listen to it.

by 2paul :: Fri, 03/03/2017 - 12:49am

"It was surprising to see the team pick up his fifth-year option, paying him $8.8 million this season."

I'm not sure this is the case. They exercised Fluker's fifth-year option last off-season. He was still under his rookie contract last season (four years, ~ $11 million) and the $8.8 million is for next season, if they don't cut him by the start of free agency next week. They had to exercise it last year so that it was fully guaranteed in the case of an injury this year, but since he wasn't injured, they can (and, dear god almost certainly will) cut him before next week and not pay $8.8 million to the very definition of a replacement-level player.

by MaineRaider :: Sat, 03/04/2017 - 11:03am

After McGloin's performance late last season, Oakland should let him go. Unlike Connor Cook, he had plenty of time to learn the playbook. I would hope for Tyrod Taylor or Brian Hoyer, if they have reasonable salary expectations, as his replacement. Hayden was a disappointing pick and player. Latavius Murray will probably get more free-agent money than he's really worth--good for him, but his replacement can be drafted. This appears to be a good draft class for many defensive positions and running back.

by Alaska Jack :: Sat, 03/04/2017 - 4:19pm

I was surprised and disappointed in McGloin's play -- he just didn't look that poised. But the coaches know what he can do; whether or not he is kept probably depends more on how he looked *in practice* than in his very limited playing time.

Just a guess.

by BJR :: Sun, 03/05/2017 - 7:59am

There's zero chance Taylor will be available as a backup QB. He's easily among the top 30 QBs in the league right now and will be starting for somebody next year. Even Hoyer is ambitious - he's in the conversation for best backup in the league and may well be given the chance to compete for a starting role somewhere. And Carr is going to be paid a lot of money some time soon, so dedicating a lot of resources to a back up does not seem sensible or feasible.

by MaineRaider :: Sun, 03/05/2017 - 9:58am

My bad. Looking at Taylor's stats for the season, it's clear he's better than I thought. Top 10 in ALEX and QBR, top 20 in DVOA. I'm baffled that Buffalo would let him go in an apparently weak draft year for QBs.

by Noah Arkadia :: Tue, 03/07/2017 - 11:40am

They have to let him go or else risk having a successful season. Can't have that.