AFC West: Preseason Grades and Analysis
Key Acquisitions: QB Case Keenum, OLB Bradley Chubb, OT Jared Veldheer, S Su’a Cravens, RB Royce Freeman, CB Tramaine Brock, P Marquette King, DT Clinton McDonald, WR Courtland Sutton, WR Dae’Sean Hamilton
Key Losses: CB Aqib Talib, RB C.J. Anderson, QB Trevor Siemian, TE Virgil Green, OG Allen Barbre, RB Jamaal Charles, WR Cody Latimer, WR Bennie Fowler, OT Donald Stephenson
You can argue the Broncos should have reset and drafted a top quarterback prospect, but if you think the team’s Super Bowl window remains open, GM John Elway did an excellent job trying to maximize it.
Rather than breaking the bank for Kirk Cousins ($84 million guaranteed), the Broncos bet far less on Case Keenum ($25 million), who proved last season he can steer a team that relies on its running game and defense. Keenum’s short-term deal also buys more development time for Paxton Lynch, although the 2016 first-rounder has shown no indication of being a long-term answer.
C.J. Anderson was released and Virgil Green left in free agency, but the offense should be better at several spots. Helping protect Keenum will be Jared Veldheer, who arrived via trade to plug Denver’s gaping hole at right tackle. The draft brought three weapons who could contribute early, with Royce Freeman looking like the starting running back and Courtland Sutton and Dae’Sean Hamilton impressing during spring practices.
The defense has a void to fill after the release of cornerback Aqib Talib, which put pressure on Bradley Roby and Tramaine Brock, but the pass rush might be good enough to compensate after Bradley Chubb fell in Denver’s lap at No. 5 overall in the draft. The rest of the unit remains intact, keeping hopes of a 2015 repeat alive.
FLM Take: Denver might have regrets if Josh Rosen becomes a star in Arizona, but it’s hard to quibble with much else. -- B+
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
Key Acquisitions: WR Sammy Watkins, CB Kendall Fuller, LB Anthony Hitchens, CB David Amerson, DT Xavier Williams, DE/LB Breeland Speaks, RB Damien Williams, DT Derrick Nnadi
Key Losses: QB Alex Smith, CB Marcus Peters, LB Derrick Johnson, OG Zach Fulton, WR Albert Wilson, OLB Tamba Hali, CB Darrelle Revis, DT Bennie Logan, S Ron Parker, CB Phillip Gaines
The Chiefs made no bones about it this offseason: They are all in on 2017 first-round pick Patrick Mahomes. The team’s faith is a promising sign for the youngster, but betting so heavily on a signal-caller with one career start is risky.
Not only did Kansas City ship off Alex Smith, but it gave a monster contract (three years, $48 million) to Sammy Watkins, who has the talent to thrive in an aggressive, downfield attack but has struggled with durability and consistency throughout his career. The rest of the offense returns intact, but it’s fair to expect growing pains as Mahomes settles in as the starter.
On defense, the Chiefs turned their cornerback depth chart upside down, most prominently with the trade of Marcus Peters due to personality concerns. Kendall Fuller (part of the return for Smith) and David Amerson (signed after he was released by the Raiders) have flashed ability, but they’ll have a hard time replacing Peters, who might have been the team’s best player. The position then went unaddressed until Round 6 in the draft, although GM Brett Veach did find help for a shaky run defense in Breeland Speaks and Derrick Nnadi. That duo, along with pricey signee Anthony Hitchens (five years, $45 million), will be counted on early with Derrick Johnson, Tamba Hali and Bennie Logan gone.
FLM Take: The Chiefs traded two of their best players, gave out a pair eyebrow-raising contracts and still have major holes on defense. Some decline should be expected, even if Mahomes impresses. -- D+
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
Key Acquisitions: C Mike Pouncey, S Derwin James, TE Virgil Green, K Caleb Sturgis, OLB/DE Uchenna Nwosu, DT Justin Jones, QB Geno Smith
Key Losses: S Tre Boston, TE Antonio Gates, OG Matt Slauson, OG Kenny Wiggins, DE Jeremiah Attaochu K Nick Novak, DE Chris McCain
Considering upheaval elsewhere in the division, the Chargers might have claimed AFC West pole position despite doing little this offseason. After missing the playoffs with a plus-83 point differential (ninth in NFL), the Bolts again tried to solve the kicking woes that have haunted them for years, signing Caleb Sturgis and taking a flier on 2016 second-rounder Roberto Aguayo. If one can be merely average, Los Angeles will be in much better shape.
The Chargers let a few offensive linemen walk in favor of 2017 draftees Forrest Lamp -- returning from an ACL tear after missing his rookie campaign -- and Dan Feeney. Centering those two will be three-time Pro Bowler Mike Pouncey, who joined on a reasonable deal (two years, $15 million). Toss in the signing of Virgil Green, and the team’s blocking could be excellent. Unfortunately for L.A., the injury bug already bit Hunter Henry (torn ACL), perhaps paving the way for Antonio Gates’ return.
The defense didn’t need much work, but the few moves GM Tom Telesco made were excellent, starting with a very reasonable extension (three years, $33.3 million) for stalwart corner Casey Hayward. He pounced when Derwin James slid to No. 17 in the draft, giving defensive coordinator Gus Bradley an ideal roving safety. The biggest remaining concern is a leaky run defense, putting pressure on third-rounder Justin Jones after the team failed to upgrade at linebacker this spring.
FLM Take: The Chargers’ deep and talented roster didn’t need much, but the group clearly got better. -- B+
Key Acquisitions: WR Jordy Nelson, WR Martavis Bryant, LB Tahir Whitehead, CB Rashaan Melvin, S Marcus Gilchrist, RB Doug Martin, OT Breno Giacomini, OT Kolton Miller, LB Derrick Johnson, DT Maurice Hurst, CB Shareece Wright, WR Ryan Switzer, DT P.J. Hall, DE Arden Key, DE Tank Carradine; DT Ahtyba Rubin, DT Frostee Rucker
Key Losses: WR Michael Crabtree, DT Denico Autry, WR Cordarrelle Patterson, LB NaVorro Bowman, CB Sean Smith, CB David Amerson, P Marquette King, K Sebastian Janikowski, OT Marshall Newhouse, CB T.J. Carrie, DT Jihad Ward
Oakland’s offseason was an absolute blur. It started with Jon Gruden’s (re)hiring -- just 11 months after Jack Del Rio signed an extension -- on a decade-long, $100 million deal, which led to a remarkable roster churn. With several players walking out the door, the Raiders added about two dozen from other teams, the vast majority being veterans on one-year deals worth $4 million or less.
The effects were relatively muted on offense. Jordy Nelson and Martavis Bryant -- if he can stay on the field -- might provide an upgrade over released wideout Michael Crabtree, but both had down 2017 seasons. Doug Martin is a complete wild card, and Breno Giacomini doesn’t move the needle much at right tackle.
More change came on defense, where Tahir Whitehead and Derrick Johnson were tabbed to steady a shaky linebacker group, but plenty of questions remain at cornerback. Rashaan Melvin (one year, $5.5 million) was a nice bargain, but the rest of the group is filled with questions, even if 2017 first-rounder Gareon Conley steps up. A Khalil Mack sized cloud still hangs over the defense as the star defensive end still doesn't have a contract on the table.
The Raiders’ draft was one of the league’s strangest, as they repeatedly took boom-or-bust prospects, including athletic-but-raw types (Kolton Miller, P.J. Hill, Brandon Parker) and players with character (Arden Key, Azeem Victor) and health (Nick Nelson, Maurice Hurst) concerns. When the dust settled, the linebacker and cornerback depth charts still looked shaky.
FLM Take: Few tried harder to upgrade than Oakland, but is this team much better? Remember: Those who play with fire eventually get burned. -- D