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Friday, March 13, 2009
Who is making the grade in the AFC West?

By Bill Williamson
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

Yes, there is still nearly six months to go before the NFL regular season starts. But with the first phase of free agency in the books and several big moves made by AFC West teams, we are getting a good feel for what the rosters of each team will look like.

Every team in the division has made major moves of some kind. The following is an offseason grading of each team in the AFC West thus far. Things will change as teams make more moves and go through next month's draft. So the grading period is incomplete as a whole, but here is a check-point look:

Denver Broncos

Summary: The Broncos have been the busiest team in the NFL in free agency, signing a dozen players on both sides of the ball and on special teams. Denver's free-agency cache will help the team in many areas, but the news of the offseason thus far has been dominated by the Jay Cutler rift. The Broncos' biggest move of the offseason was a deal that didn't happen. Denver talked about trading Cutler Feb. 28 in a deal that would have brought Matt Cassel to Denver. The talks created a hole in the new relationship between Cutler and coach Josh McDaniels. No matter how many new players Denver has brought in, the story of the offseason is how a perfectly fine quarterback situation has become a clouded one.

Current Grade: D-

How it can get higher: Repair the rift with Cutler or trade him for a starting quality quarterback (Probably the only way that could happen is if the Broncos get a very high draft pick). Denver also needs a couple more impact defensive players, at linebacker and on the defensive line, which it could get in the draft.

How it could get lower: If the Cutler situation deteriorates even more and Denver ends up dumping him in a trade without a legitimate option at quarterback.


Kansas City Chiefs

Summary: The Chiefs have been quieter in free agency than expected given their massive salary-cap room. The Chiefs have made the biggest noise in the form of a trade with new general manager Scott Pioli's former team, New England. The trade netted Cassel and linebacker Mike Vrabel for a second-round pick. Cassel is the answer at quarterback and Vrabel will help on field and in the locker room. Still, Kansas City has several needs on defense that have to be addressed. Also, the Chiefs will receive a bump in their grade if they can keep tight end Tony Gonzalez and guard Brian Waters.

Current Grade: B-

How it can get higher: If the Chiefs have a great draft and help themselves at linebacker (most notably Wake Forest's Aaron Curry with the No. 3 draft pick), defensive end, safety and on the offensive line. The Chiefs need to get some veterans in the second phase of free agency to fill some defensive needs.

How it could get lower: If the Chiefs fail to get at least two impact defensive players. The Chiefs, who set an NFL record with only 10 sacks last season, need to find a legitimate pass-rusher. This team should consider making a run at free agent Jason Taylor to provide a short-term answer.


Oakland Raiders

Summary: The Raiders haven't done much in free agency and that has been a positive in Oakland. The Raiders followed up their disastrous 2008 free-agency foray (in which the team went on a wild spending spree on several players who were failures) by going in the opposite direction. Oakland deserves kudos for keeping in-house prospective free agents Nnamdi Asomugha and Shane Lechler. Yes, the team probably overpaid for both players but at least the Raiders know both Asomugha and Lechler will play well. The Raiders haven't done much else in free agency, and Oakland didn't get better because no one was added and it lost a player like Gibril Wilson. But it didn't make any mistakes and that's important.

Current Grade: B-

How it can get higher: If Oakland can find two new staring tackles (it wants one in free agency and one in the draft) and an impact wide receiver, perhaps Michael Crabtree at No. 7, it will have had a very nice offseason.

How it could get lower: If the Raiders don't significantly improve the offense at its problem areas (receiver and tackle), the offense will have the same problems it had last season.


San Diego Chargers

Summary: The Chargers have been quiet in free agency but that was to be expected. San Diego is always quiet in free agency. The focus was keeping running back LaDainian Tomlinson on the team and the Chargers accomplished that goal. The move keeps the legend in town while saving the Chargers cap room and not taking salary away from Tomlinson this season. Now, watch for the Chargers to try to extend the contracts of quarterback Philip Rivers and tight end Antonio Gates.

Current Grade: B-

How it can get higher: The Chargers need at least one impact player on defense. They need to score big with the No. 16 pick in the draft. Another linebacker, safety or defensive lineman who can step in right away also is needed.

How it could get lower: If the Chargers don't get much out of their draft class or don't re-sign some veterans to extensions.