Hindsight: AFC West Offseason Grades

I hope all our followers had a nice Memorial day weekend. We’ve been enduring the post-draft hangover, where the most interesting news is typically that a draft pick has signed. However, OTA’s have just begun for most teams, so we will start to see those rumors about how much teams love their draft picks. At this point, many guys will get talked up, but coaches will sound optimistic if they see any potential at all. Generally the rumors that are most accurate will come around training camp, so take what you hear now with a grain of salt.

We are now halfway through this “Hindisght” series, and next up is the AFC West. What was once one of the least competitive divisions in the league now has three teams legitimately contending for playoff spots. After the jump, let’s see how their offseasons tilted the balance.

Denver Broncos:

An exceptional season was given a very bitter ending for this team, as all the broken records were quickly forgotten in the first half of Super Bowl XLVIII. While Peyton Manning hasn’t shown any signs of mental regression, one has to expect that his diminishing arm strength will eventually limit his productivity, so the Broncos’ best chance of winning it all is right now.

Owner Jon Elway clearly agreed with this sentiment, with an extremely aggressive approach in free agency. CB Aqib Talib was signed to a monster 6 year deal for $57M (although its more realistically a 3 year $27M deal) which was the largest contract awarded to a CB this year. It was said that a very similar offer was made to Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, but he attempted to hold out for a better deal. It’s questionable as to which player is the better cornerback, but one has to be slightly concerned with the character of Aqib Talib. Regardless, the Broncos are set at #1 corner. They next moved onto signing safety TJ Ward; a hard hitter with pretty good range. 4 years $22.5M seems solid, but only the first two years contain guarantees making this more of a 2 year $13.5M deal, which seems just about right for his talent level.

The real gem of this offseason was signing DE DeMarcus Ware to 3 year $30M deal with a whopping $20M guaranteed. The defense sorely missed Elvis Dumervil last year, especially with Von Miller missing time due to suspension and injury. Ware is a clear upgrade over Dumervil, and this will mark the first time in his career that he is playing opposite a pass rusher who is markedly more talented than he is. Considering what an athletic freak Ware is, the potential here boggles my mind; opposing OT’s and QB’s will not be happy to face the Bronco’s this season. The only other transactions of note were allowing WR Eric Decker to walk, and signing WR Emmanuel Sanders. While it would have been nice to keep Decker, these previous signings would not have been possible had they chosen to pay him.

These additions left the Broncos with very few needs, and they immediately addressed their lack of a 2nd corner with 1st round pick Bradley Roby. He had a very impressive combine, and while he is slightly raw, he displayed more than enough ability on film to warrant his draft slot. He can play both man and zone coverage effectively, and with two effective safeties behind him he shouldn’t be asked to do too much this year. I say two  because reports on S Rahim Moore are that he is recovering well from Lateral Compartment Syndrome, which could have required the the amputation of his leg. The 2nd round saw them take WR Cody Latimer, a big body receiver who has impressive ability to stop on a dime. This makes him extremely effective running hitch routes, but analysis of film seemed to reveal that this was the route he ran 80% of the time. He needs to develop more routes in order to be more than a 3rd option at the next level, but I still like the pick because he doesn’t need to be more than a 3rd option right now. Combine him with the addition of Sanders, and I think the Broncos have adequately adjusted for the loss of Decker.

There are a ton of short sighted investments in this offseason attack, but thats exactly what the Broncos approach needed to be, and I’m pretty happy with the level of talent they brought in at the appropriate positions. They are still the clear AFC favorite, and the roster looks better than it did last year, despite letting the likes of RB Moreno and OG Beadles to walk. Grade: A

Kansas City Chiefs:

The Chiefs started this offseason in cap hell, which left them completely unable to sign any free agents of significance. As a result, many of their own players were allowed to walk; LT Branden Albert, OG’s Jon Asamoah and Geoff Schwartz, DL Tyson Jackson, FS Kendrick Lewis, and WR Dexter McCluster. Throw in depth losses of LB Akeem Jordan and SS Quinten Demps, and thats well over 5000 snaps that will be missed from the Chiefs brilliant 2013 turnaround season. While most of these guys are just fill in players, the losses on the OL really concern me. Albert is one of the better OT’s in the league, and will be missed even if top 2013 pick Eric Fisher is able to replace him well. Asamoah and Schwartz were solid interior lineman whose replacements are projected to be a pair of 6th round picks; Zach Fulton and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif.

The draft was a bit of a head scratcher for the Chiefs, as they ignored their needs at WR, OL, and S, seemingly focusing on their evaluation of best players available. I usually have no problem with this, but I don’t really love DE Dee Ford as their first round pick. He has an incredible speed rush, but not much else, and the Chiefs are already more than set at edge rusher with Tamba Hali and Justin Houston. I do however love their 2nd pick, 3rd round CB Phillip Gaines. Every one of us here at Zone Reads loved Gaines’ abilities in man coverage, as he may have the most fluid hips of any corner in this draft class. He has exceptional on field awareness, turning back to look for the ball at the right times, and occasionally finding a way to get to the ball even when it’s not being thrown at his responsibility in coverage.

4th round RB De’Anthony Thomas is the perfect replacement for McCluster; a small shifty 3rd down back with great hands, a must for the Andy Reid offense that functions so much around screen passes. I also like QB Aaron Murray in the 5th, as I feel he could eventually be a decent starter in this league. The Chiefs financial situation made this offseason a very tough starting point, and there is no doubt that this team will be worse in 2014. That said, I like the Chiefs draft and the growth potential of their young players. Grade: B

Oakland Raiders:

The Raiders had a ton of cap room to start free agency, and as a result were fairly active. While I expected them to throw some money at quite a few players, the type of players they targeted surprised me; a lot of very experienced veterans. DE’s Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley, DL Antonio Smith, CB’s Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown, LT Donald Penn, RB Maurice Jones-Drew, and WR James Jones have a combined average of  8 seasons under their belts, all with no less than 7. The only type of signing that made sense to me was RT Austin Howard, who only has 4 seasons in the league so far.

None of these signings broke the bank, but they all have guaranteed money through 2015. If any of these players regress, the Raiders will have a decent amount of sunken cost on their hands. Some of them such as Woodley, Penn, Jones-Drew, and Antonio Smith have already shown signs of decline, so I’m very skeptical about this approach by the Raiders. Furthermore, I don’t understand why they chose these veterans over resigning younger, better players in LT Jared Veldheer and DE Lamarr Houston, but perhaps these guys wanted a change in scenery. They also traded a 6th round pick for QB Matt Schaub. While he is an upgrade at QB, they seemed to have an ok starter in Matt McGloin. Did they really need to give up a 6th round pick and $8M for Schaub?

As much as I disliked their free agency, I loved the Raiders’ first two draft picks; LB Khalil Mack, and QB Derek Carr. Mack is going to be one of the best edge rushers in the league, with extremely sound technique and a whole host of pass rushing moves. Carr is a very raw prospect who needs to spend a season on the bench, but his arm strength is simply incredible and he’s also a pretty good athlete to boot. He’s a boom/bust prospect, but getting him in the early 2nd round is pretty solid value. 3rd round OG Gabe Jackson also looks to be a strong pick, with one of the highest floors in this draft. He may not improve too much beyond his current skill level, but Jackson is ready to step in right away and contribute both in the running game and pass protection. 4th round CB Keith McGill seems like a solid prospect, with extremely good size and a solid combine. On film he looks good in man coverage turning his hips fluidly, but can easily lose contain on a play when playing off coverage. He supposedly has off field concerns but looks like a solid gamble in the 4th round.

A good draft for the Raiders bumps their grade up quite a bit, as I strongly disapprove of their approach in free agency. The team will be better in 2014, but I still don’t see them finishing better than 4th place in the AFC West, which is why all the veteran additions don’t really make much sense. Grade: C-

San Diego Chargers:

This was one of the quietest teams in free agency, as the Chargers had very few free agent starters, and apparently not much desire to chase foreign players. CB Derek Cox and NT Cam Thomas were the only starters allowed to walk, while the few others such as LB Donald Butler, CB Richard Marshall, and OG Chad Rinehart were resigned. The only free agent signing of note was RB Donald Brown, who further crowds a talented backfield containing Ryan Matthews and Danny Woodhead.

With how well the offense played last year, the only real holes on this team were on defense, at corner and edge rusher. Not surprisingly, these needs were immediately addressed in the draft with their first 2 picks; CB Jason Verrett, and OLB Jeremiah Attaochu. Verrett was loved by all of us here at Zone Reads, despite his diminutive stature at 5’9” 190. His film displays a very balanced all around game, with ability in man coverage, zone, and run support. He can occasionally get victimized on downfield routes, but with the best safety in the league Eric Weddle behind him, he looks to be a great fit for the Chargers defense. Attaochu has incredible speed off the edge, and will definitely scare QB’s into getting rid of the ball more quickly. He is weak in run support, but with how desperate the Chargers were for an edge rush, this is another great pick. The 5th round saw them pick up NT Ryan Carrethers, a pretty good run stuffing prospect considering his draft slot.

Overall it was a very risk-averse offseason for the Chargers, choosing to build through the draft rather than gamble on free agents. This is almost always the best long term strategy for any team, and the only way I would have been worried about their future was if they failed to land a good CB in the draft. With the pick of Verrett, I’m quite pleased with the way their offseason turned out. Grade: B+

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