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Friday, February 20, 2009
AFC West combine concerns

By Bill Williamson
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

With the NFL combine going on for the next several days in Indianapolis, here is a look at the key goals of each team in the AFC West. Free agency (which begins Feb. 27) and the draft (April 25-26) are looming.

Denver

The Broncos cut five defensive starters earlier this week and carved several million dollars in salary-cap room, so the team is at the combine in full reload mode.

The combine is supposed to be about the draft, but it is just as much about free agency. With free agency a week away, many teams spend the time in Indianapolis finalizing their game plans for free agency. That's what Denver surely is doing.

The Broncos need five or six defensive starters and they need help at every layer of their defense. The list could include nose tackle Grady Jackson and cornerback Ronald Bartell. The draft is also of major importance to Denver, so its scouting department will be keeping a keen eye on what's happening on the field in Indianapolis.

The Broncos have the No. 12 overall pick and nine draft picks total. Like in free agency, expect defense to be the focus. Players Denver will study the most are Boston College defensive tackle B.J. Raji and USC middle linebacker Rey Maualuga. Denver would likely be thrilled to draft either player.

Kansas City

The future of tight end Tony Gonzalez and running back Larry Johnson are huge issues, but the new regime will be heavily focused on the draft this weekend.

Kansas City has the No. 3 pick and what it does with it will help define the early portion of the Scott Pioli and Todd Haley era.

Expect the Chiefs to seriously eye quarterbacks. The Chiefs may not take one because of the presence of Tyler Thigpen, who's a capable player, and their huge need for impact players on defense. But the Chiefs may be romanced by the memory of what last year's No. 3 pick, quarterback Matt Ryan, did for Atlanta.

The Chiefs will no doubt spend a lot of time with Georgia's Matt Stafford and USC's Mark Sanchez, the top quarterback prospects. There is also the idea of trading for New England's Matt Cassel, who obviously has a history with Pioli.

Also expect the Chiefs to spend a lot of time with Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry this week. He could be the best defensive player available.

Other burning issues for Kansas City in Indianapolis include the likelihood of the Chiefs talking to teams about trading for Johnson. Because of his price tag and off-field baggage, Johnson may difficult to move. He may end up getting cut.

Oakland

The Raiders' job is fairly simple. They must pick up an impact offensive player with the No. 7 pick. Because there are about eight can't-miss offensive players, Oakland, which has failed often this decade with its first choices, has a chance to get a quality player who can make an instant impact on offense.

The Raiders will likely choose between a receiver and an offensive tackle with the No. 7 pick. The top choices at receiver are Texas Tech's Michael Crabtree and Missouri's Jeremy Maclin. Seattle may take Crabtree at No. 4; otherwise, Oakland might be able to choose between the two receivers.

Still, Oakland needs a dominant left tackle nearly as much as it needs a game-breaking receiver. The top tackles available are Alabama's Andre Smith, Baylor's Jason Smith and Virginia's Eugene Monroe. One of these three tackles, at least, should be available. So, the Raiders should be able to pick between at least two of five players who could instantly help them. This week's work will help Oakland decipher what it wants to do in the draft.

San Diego

The Chargers are going to have an interesting weekend as they try to resolve the LaDainian Tomlinson situation and prepare for the future.

The team is expected to have serious talks with Tomlinson's agent. The two sides are expected to try to hash out a restructured contract that will keep Tomlinson in San Diego. If a new deal can't be reworked by Thursday night, Tomlinson will be released. But both sides want to avoid that sad scenario.

A new deal may be tricky but not impossible. The in-person talks in Indianapolis could have the team and Tomlinson come to a resolution. Also, it wouldn't be a shock if the Chargers continue talks about a long-term deal with quarterback Philip Rivers while at the combine.

As far as draft business this weekend, the Chargers, who have the No. 16 overall pick, have plenty of options. If Tomlinson returns, the team will likely not pursue a running back such as Georgia's Knowshon Moreno or Ohio State's Chris Wells.

The Chargers will likely focus on linebackers this weekend, including Maualuga and his USC teammate, Brian Cushing, and Ohio State's James Laurinaitis.