Early AFC West Preview

Dec 6, 2012; Oakland, CA, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) calls a cadence at the line of scrimmage during the third quarter against the Oakland Raiders at O.co Coliseum. The Broncos defeated the Raiders 26-13. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

It’s never too early to drink alcohol or anticipate the next NFL season.  The division dubbed as the AFC “Worst” in 2012 has substantial maneuvering to do if it hopes to improve their collective record:

Kansas City Chiefs (2 W, 14 L)

Key Free Agents: OT Branden Albert, WR Dwayne Bowe, P Dustin Colquitt, DE Glenn Dorsey, RB Peyton Hillis, G Russ Hochstein, G Ryan Lilja, LB Brandon Siler, DE Shaun Smith, QB Brady Quinn

Current Cap Space: $16.1 million*

Total Draft Picks: 7 (beginning with 1st overall)

Biggest Needs: Quarterback, Defensive Line, Wide Receiver

Whether the Chiefs’ tragic season drove Javon Belcher to commit suicide is anyone’s guess, but for those still breathing, there are a few signs for optimism.

Prized hire Andy Reid brings his winning experience to Kansas City as the new head coach and GM, which is a great foundation.

However, the atomic disaster at quarterback remains unsettled, as the reported Alex Smith trade still has two weeks to potentially collapse.  A backup thrower will also be required, since Quinn and the overpaid Cassel appear to be history.

Another area that must be addressed is the defensive line, which has plagued the organization with its inconsistency for years.   The mediocre Dorsey, the former third overall selection, will be unlikely re-signed, so hiring a steady veteran should be a priority to push underachievers Tyson Jackson and Dontari Poe.

Regardless of the situation on defense, whoever is the savior at quarterback can expect to find Bowe, who is predicted to be slapped with the franchise tag.  The Chiefs released receiver Steve Breaston and tight end Kevin Boss, so more aerial targets may need to be recruited.

Kansas City has shown interest in drafting left tackle Luke Joeckel with the first overall pick, so Albert could be skipping town.  Lilja will not be brought back following retirement, so Reid should look to add reliable depth for the front five or risk disabling his newest signal caller.

Oakland Raiders (4 W, 12 L)

Key Free Agents: CB Phillip Adams, OT Khalif Barnes, DT Desmond Bryant, G Cooper Carslisle, RB Mike Goodson, FS Matt Giordano, P Shane Lechler, TE Brandon Myers, DE Matt Shaughnessy, DT Richard Seymour, LB Philip Wheeler

Current Cap Space: -$4.5 million*

Total Draft Picks: 6 (beginning with 3rd overall)

Biggest Needs: Cornerback, Offensive Line, Defensive Line

GM Reggie McKenzie will have to preach the addition-by-subtraction strategy for a second straight offseason, as back-loaded contracts written by Al Davis have continued to haunt the franchise from the grave.

Carson Palmer, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Tommy Kelly and Michael Huff will all need to restructure their deals to stick around, which is no guarantee (Rolando McClain will presumably be released).  The Raiders can expect to struggle to re-sign their own valuable free agents and be limited to bargain options/damaged goods.

Oakland should do everything in its power (offer shares in the team, Federal bonds, perhaps a personal masseuse) to lure back Adams and Bryant, who both emerged late-season as players worthy of a bigger workload.  Wheeler also holds precedence, although his services will be considerably more expensive.

Digging through the league scrap heap, recently-cut right tackle Jason Smith could temporarily patch the offensive line.  Jaguars castoff Eben Britton is also a young, troubled blocker who could pave running lanes for cheap.  Leodis McKelvin, Drayton Florence and Pacman Jones are (pathetic) options at cornerback.

While it’s an unpopular idea, McKenzie should consider trading the third overall selection to move down and collect picks in a draft lacking standout talent.  There are too many holes on the roster to assume a top rookie could make a justifiable difference.

The Raiders face no simple solution, besides gutting the fat contracts.  That’s the cost of dancing with the Devil.

San Diego Chargers (7 W, 9 L)

Key Free Agents: WR Danario Alexander, LB Antwan Barnes, RB Ronnie Brown, CB Antoine Cason, DT Aubrayo Franklin, G Tyrone Green, CB Quentin Jammer, K Nick Novak, LB Shaun Phillips, KR/PR Michael Spurlock, G Louis Vasquez

Current Cap Space: $8.7 million*

Total Draft Picks: 7 (beginning with 11th overall)

Biggest Needs: Offensive Line, Wide Receiver, Cornerback

Oct 31, 2011; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Tamba Hali (91) forces a fumble by San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (17) in overtime at Arrowhead Stadium. Kansas City won the game 23-20. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

It’s impossible to judge who was happier, Ravens fans after winning the Super Bowl, or Chargers fans after Norv Turner and A.J. Smith were fired (a victory in its own right).  In is Mike McCoy and Tom Telesco as head coach and GM respectively, as they attempt to reboot a perennial playoff contender.

Smith’s (or owner Alex Spanos’) unwillingness to pay market value for pending free agents has stripped the squad of unique talent in recent years (see: Vincent Jackson, Michael Turner, Jamal Williams) which has unsurprisingly contributed to their current decline.

If San Diego restructures Robert Meacham’s deal (4 years for $25.5 million signed last season), the team will have modest cap room to reverse this trend.

Telesco should hurry, because no one has felt the loss of his star teammates more than Philip Rivers.  Rivers’ efficiency has deteriorated since 2010, when he completed 66% of his passes for 30 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, in part to the lack of help on offense.

Career-ending injuries to Marcus McNeill and Kris Dielman in recent campaigns have left the offensive line in shambles, evidenced by surrendering 49 sacks this year (second-most in the NFL).  While injuries are no fault of the management, the inability to acquire replacements to aid center Nick Hardwick is.  So is allowing the receiving corps to be depleted.

But it is never too late for redemption.  In addition to re-upping Alexander and Vasquez, San Diego could make a run at Greg Jennings or the Chiefs’ Albert.

They will also need to retool the secondary, where starting corners Cason and Jammer are up for grabs with their expired contracts.  Whether the Chargers re-sign either, Xavier Rhodes is an intriguing edge defender in the draft.

Denver Broncos (13 W, 3 L)

Key Free Agents: DT Justin Bannon, LB Keith Brooking, OT Ryan Clady, P Britton Colquitt, FB Chris Gronkowski, C Dan Koppen, CB Tracy Porter, WR Brandon Stokley, DT Ty Warren, DT Kevin Vickerson

Current Cap Space: $18.5 million*

Total Draft Picks: 7 (beginning with 28th overall)

Biggest Needs: Safety, Running Back, Cornerback

Here was Peyton Manning’s glorious NFL return, and legalized marijuana.  Are there ever bad days in Colorado?  I suppose that AFC Divisional Playoff (and The Dark Knight Rises premiere).

But realize things could be a lot worse.  Look around the AFC West.

Yes, the future is bright.

With a Hall-of-Fame quarterback under center and another as VP of Football Operations, the Broncos successfully steered away from the silliness of “Tebow” and have created a Rocky Mountain powerhouse. The window for this team will remain wide open for however long Manning’s neck stays intact.

Manning’s longevity significantly hinges on the status of former Pro Bowler Ryan Clady, who is out for big bucks entering the first free agency period of his career.  If Denver can’t sign the left tackle to a long-term extension, expect the team to use the franchise tag without hesitation.  Retaining center Dan Koppen will also be a priority.

Where the Broncos seek improvement is at skill positions, where age and inconsistency are factors.

Running back Willis McGahee is on the wrong side of 30 and recovering from a torn MCL, while Knowshon Moreno sustained his own knee injury and has been hit-and-miss in Sunday production his entire career.  To upgrade beyond Ronnie Hillman, Denver could add an explosive scat back to change the game tempo on a grueling drive.

Then there’s the secondary.  Champ Bailey could only gasp for air as Torrey Smith streaked by him in the Divisional Playoffs, so it’s apparent more than ever a successor must be found in the draft.

As for the safeties, the retirement of Brian Dawkins evidently came a year too soon.  Rahim Moore, who has been moved to and from the starting lineup since being selected 45th overall in 2011, was in over his head (literally) by the end of the season.  The same went for the unspectacular Mike Adams.

With Ed Reed, William Moore, Charles Woodson and Ronde Barber open to highest bidders, Denver may be bold enough to bait a savvy ball hawk to lead their defense.  It will depend on how badly the Ravens scarred the Broncos’ front office.

*Figures calculated by Bleacher Report.

Topics: Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, NFL, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers

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