- Bill Williamson, ESPN Staff Writer
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With the offseason in full swing, let’s take a look at one major question facing each AFC West team as preparations begin for the 2012 season:
How will the Broncos build around Tim Tebow?
As a team, the Broncos -- surprise AFC West winners in 2011 -- don’t have a lot of questions, problems or issues. They are in great salary-cap shape and don’t have an overly daunting personnel situation.
The upstart Broncos just have to get better.
Of course, that starts with their biggest question mark -- quarterback Tim Tebow. The Broncos have committed to him as their starter going into training camp and want him to succeed. The likely scenario is that the final decision on Tebow will be made after the 2012 season. So the Broncos will need to build their roster around Tebow.
While the Broncos will be remembered for Tebow-led comebacks on their way to an 8-8 record and a trip to the divisional round in the playoffs, they made strides in 2011 because they ran the ball well and played improved defense. That formula has to continue.
The Broncos still need to get better on defense. They need to re-sign defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley and probably add another defensive lineman. They could also use help at linebacker and in the secondary. If Denver can get two more impact players on defense, it could be a top unit.
The Broncos need to find a running back to pair with Willis McGahee, who ran for 1,199 yards in his first season in Denver. But McGahee is 30 and was dinged up a lot. Denver will likely add a running back in the early rounds of the draft unless it addresses that need in free agency. The Tebow-run offense was as its best when Denver ran the ball well, so help in that area is paramount.
Will the Chiefs keep their top free agents?
The Kansas City Chiefs have a terrific salary-cap situation, with more than $62 million in cap room -- meaning they can do virtually whatever they wish. The Chiefs, entering their fourth year under general manager Scott Pioli, have not spent wildly during his tenure despite being in solid cap shape. He has maintained that he will not spend just to spend, and thus far he has opted for mostly role players in free agency.
Still, Pioli has been extremely aggressive in signing the Chiefs’ best players before they get to free agency. Yet two young standouts -- receiver Dwayne Bowe and cornerback Brandon Carr -- are weeks from hitting the market. The fact that the team hasn't gotten a deal done with either may be an indication that both players want to see what is on the open market even though the Chiefs can match virtually any offer.
The truth is that Kansas City has too much cap room to just let the players walk unless it thinks it can get upgrades at those players' positions. Kansas City visited this week with cornerback Stanford Routt -- cut by Oakland last week -- and perhaps is deciding between him and Carr. I wouldn’t be surprised if either Bowe or Carr is franchised.
Either way, Pioli is going to have to get aggressive and perhaps land a big fish or two from the outside. This is a young, intriguing roster that could make a big playoff push in a hurry with the right additions.
How will the Raiders improve?
It is an exciting time in Oakland as the franchise makes a dramatic move in leadership. Oakland owner Al Davis died at the age of 82 in October. Since then, it has been a whirlwind of change for the Raiders, including the most prominent new faces -- general manager Reggie McKenzie and head coach Dennis Allen. Both are promising young professionals and are primed to put their stamp on this franchise, which hasn’t been to the playoffs in nine years but finished 8-8 the past two seasons.
However, the Raiders will have to get creative in making major improvements, particularly as they pursue some new pieces on defense. As of earlier this week, the Raiders were $11 million over the salary cap and have only fifth- and sixth-round draft picks. Oakland will get under the cap and will likely get a couple of midround compensatory picks, but will face a challenge finding impact players this offseason.
The Raiders’ best bet is create enough cap room to find a starter or two on defense in free agency, keep running back Michael Bush and safety Tyvon Branch (one will likely be franchised) and hope their young talent develops on both sides of the ball.
Will the Chargers be aggressive in free agency?
This is a crucial offseason in San Diego -- and one that will definitely be the most closely scrutinized in the franchise's recent history. Chargers owner Dean Spanos put pressure on himself with his surprising decision to keep both general manager A.J Smith and coach Norv Turner after a second consecutive playoff-less season. Spanos kept both men because he thinks they are best able to lead the Chargers to a Super Bowl. However, if San Diego doesn’t make the playoffs in 2012, Spanos -- who is trying to secure the team a new stadium -- will have to jettison the pair and make the wholesale changes next January that he was expected to make this year.
Spanos doesn’t want to put himself in that position, so he must instruct Smith to do what the GM hasn’t done in free agency -- spend big. The Chargers have a good roster, but it can get better, especially on defense. The Chargers' defense needs some impact players, and they must try to get at least one in free agency.
Smith has done a solid job of keeping his own free-agent talent. San Diego has several quality players who are free agents this year, starting with receiver Vincent Jackson. The Chargers could franchise Jackson a second consecutive year, but would likely rather give him a long-term deal. There will be competition for Jackson on the open market, but Jackson would like to stay. Allowing Jackson to walk in this crucial time in San Diego would create more questions and pressure for the Chargers' brass.
5dEric D. Williams