Today, in Four Downs, I am going to be examining some of the off-season events in the AFC West, and how they may impact each team.
First Down–Denver Broncos
The Mile High City had a fair amount of turnover this off-season. This shuffling of the deck was highlighted by red-zone aficionado Eric Decker moving on to the Big Apple and possibly the best defensive player in Dallas Cowboys history, DeMarcus Ware, setting up shop in Denver. They also replaced an aging Champ Bailey and a talented, albeit inconsistent, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie with rising star Cornerback Aqib Talib. Perhaps They are hoping that Talib’s off the field issues and his penchant to be hampered by nagging injuries are concerns of the past. John Elway also decided to roll the dice on last year’s 2nd round draft pick Montee Ball choosing to let Knowshon Moreno test the free agent market, and ultimately seeing him sign with the Miami Dolphins. Denver has clearly decided to push all the chips to the center of the table after signing Cornerback Aqib Talib, Defensive Lineman DeMarcus Ware and Safety T.J. Ward for a combined $109.5 million ($59.5 guaranteed) to help shore up a defense that was thoroughly embarrassed in last years Super Bowl. They also added veteran speedster Emmanuel Sanders to help strengthen an offensive that shattered multiple NFL records last yea,r and whose only noticeable loss was Decker moving to the New York Jets. Bronco nation looks poised to make another run at the AFC Championship, if they truly did solve some of the defensive issues from last year they will be a very difficult team to beat.
Second Down–Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs were absolutely gutted on the offensive line during free agency, losing Offensive Tackle Brandon Albert and Offensive Guards Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asamoah to other teams. That means, conceivably, that a team that saw themselves finish the season in the top third of the league in both yards per attempt (YPA), and rushing yards per game (Yds/G), will head into week one starting 3 new offensive lineman. This could potentially spell disaster for those who watched Jamal Charles rip off a borderline MVP caliber season, and were hoping for a repeat performance this year. After whiffing on free agent Wide Receiver Emmanuel Sanders (who allegedly verbally committed to the Chiefs before deciding to join the Denver Broncos) the Chiefs really made no noticeable additions to the offense outside of drafting Oregon Scat-Back De’Anthony Thomas. The end of the 2013 season saw a Chiefs defense that had feasted on backup Quarterbacks suffer some regression to the mean, and if Kansas City hopes to continue its upward trending it will need sizable contributions from the newly drafted Thomas, as well as last years picks Tight End Travis Kelce and Running Back Knile Davis. And although Alex Smith has yet to ink an extension, the Chiefs will have to see him running an up tempo offense like he did the last quarter of the season. Even if Charles duplicates his monster season from a year ago, Kansas City certainly has an uphill climb to even compete with last years results. That said, Coach Andy Reid has certainly done more with far less several times before in his coaching career.
Third Down–San Diego Chargers
San Diego came into last season hoping that new Head Coach Mike McCoy, formerly the Broncos Offensive Coordinator, could install a system that would help Phillip Rivers vault back into the elite Quarterback conversation. The addition of Tackle D.J. Fluker and Wide Receiver Keenan Allen from the 2013 NFL Draft proved to be pivotal in Coach McCoy‘s offensive system that saw the Chargers finish in the top eight of the overall NFL standings. Though they were beaten in the AFC Divisional Round by the Denver Broncos they managed to knock off the favored Cincinnati Bengals 27-10 in an away game route that left many wondering if this was the beginning of a Super Bowl run. The rookie Wide Receiver Allen slipped to the 3rd round of the draft after many questioned his speed, and his ability to recover from an off-season knee procedure. After cutting his teeth on the bench the first few weeks adjusting to the game he burst on to the scene in a week four match up with the Raiders that saw him reel in six of his nine targets for 115 yards and a score. Though the often hyped sleeper Ladarius Green never found consistent production, he did show flashes of elite talent that will leave Chargers fans dreaming of what he may accomplish in 2014. With an injection of youth into the offensive skills positions, and a re-energized Phillip Rivers at the helm, the Chargers will go as far this year as 1st round Cornerback Jason Verrett and the Defensive unit take them.
Fourth Down–Oakland Raiders
Oakland went into this off-season with over $66 million in cap room. The question everyone asked, inevitably, was would that bank vault load of cap room be enough to fix what was, debatably, one of the most talent deficient rosters in the entire NFL. The off-season was littered with high profile (in name) signings. They brought in Matt Schaub from the Houston Texans via trade, Wide Receiver James Jones and Running Back Maurice Jones-Drew via Free Agency and even added some defensive impact players in Defensive Ends Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley. My biggest issue with the moves Oakland made was that it seemed to be a very “one step forward, two steps back” approach. They added offensive line depth only to see a quality Left Tackle in Jared Veldheer leave and sign with Arizona. They added Tuck and Houston only to watch Lamarr Houston bolt for the Chicago Bears. Adding depth is a wonderful idea, but doing so while ignoring your own younger, superior talent makes little sense to me. It has been reported that both Veldheer and Houston categorically wanted out of Oakland; if that is indeed that case then I suppose I cannot fault Reggie McKenzie for exploring other options. When I look at this roster as a whole it is difficult to say with any conviction that they are better now than they were a year ago at this time. Matt Schaub has seen a steep decline in his accuracy and pocket decision making. Tuck, apart from a string of great games last year, has really not been much of a factor in the last two seasons. And Woodley, at this point in his career, is an older less effective defensive option than Houston. Raiders fans will hope that Matt Schaub is able to recapture some of his form from four years ago, but if he continues to look like a deer in the headlights you may see rookie Quarterback Derek Carr sooner rather than later. Unless MJD and Schaub are able to turn back the clock it is highly likely that the black and grey are headed for the bottom of the division, again.