AFC West: Baltimore Ravens

Earlier Wednesday, we reacted to the Oakland Raiders' announcement that standout left tackle Jared Veldheer would be out for at least half the season with a torn triceps. The team said he could miss the entire season.

Ayodele
Veldheer
Our reaction was that this wasn’t pretty. Veldheer is a potential star, and his current replacement, Alex Barron, didn’t play in the NFL last year. It would be devastating blow.

However, ESPN’s Adam Schefter provides hope. He reported Wednesday evening that Veldheer has only a partially torn triceps and that physicians believe he will be available for most of the season.

While recovery times vary, this could be a one-to-three-month injury. Former Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis and San Francisco defensive end Justin Smith both came back from similar injuries last season.

If Veldheer, a free agent after this season, misses only a few games it would be a huge relief for Oakland. I talked to ESPN analyst Matt Williamson after the initial news broke, and he painted an ugly picture.

“It is a total mess,” Williamson said at the time. “I really liked Veldheer and felt like he was on the cusp of becoming one of the better left tackles in football and clearly one of the Raiders’ few building blocks for the future.”

Suddenly, though, the immediate future looks brighter for Veldheer and the Raiders.
NAPA, Calif. -- The Oakland Raiders have reached out to Omar Gaither once again.

With Miles Burris and Kaluka Maiava injured, the Raiders have re-signed Gaither. He finished last season at middle linebacker after the team suspended Rolando McClain, who has since been cut. Gaither is a solid veteran backup who gives good depth. Both Burris and Maiava will be out for an undisclosed amount of time.

Oakland receiver Jacoby Ford remains out. He was injured Sunday. He hasn’t played since midway through the 2011 season because of foot injuries.

In other AFC West notes:
  • Fullback Vonta Leach re-signed with Baltimore. He was previously linked to Kansas City. But the Chiefs never made a big push for him.
  • Houston signed linebacker Joe Mays. He was recently cut by Denver.
  • Max Starks was working at left tackle Monday in San Diego. King Dunlap was working there for the first four days of camp. Starks is expected to have a strong chance to win the job.
Peyton ManningDustin Bradford/Getty ImagesPeyton Manning and the Broncos have a lot to prove following last season's disappointing playoff exit.

Last time we saw the Denver Broncos, they were stunned at home in double overtime in the playoffs by the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens.

Denver headed into the postseason riding quarterback Peyton Manning and the No. 2-ranked defense in the NFL. It won 11 games in a row to close the season. After the disappointing defeat to Baltimore, Denver felt like it blew a golden opportunity to win its third Super Bowl.

Undeterred, Denver went out and made several key additions to an already strong roster. Some think this is a Super Bowl-or-bust team.

Let’s look at the top 10 reasons why this is a team we can’t wait to see in 2013:

1. An uncomfortable setting: Denver executive vice president of football operations John Elway said early in the offseason that he wanted it to be an “uncomfortable” atmosphere in the Broncos’ building in 2013. Basically, Elway wants to see his team have a sense of urgency after the Baltimore fiasco.

Elway lived it as a player. Like the 2012 Broncos, the 1996 Broncos were the No. 1-seeded team in the playoffs and lost at home in their first playoff game. Elway said that loss led to the next year’s team being uncomfortable and angry. It worked. Denver won the next two Super Bowls. Elway knows it can happen again, so it will be interesting to see if a similar theme develops this season as the Broncos react to the playoff loss.

“Expectations are high,” defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson said. “We know what we’ve got to do. We had a bad taste to our season ending last year. We’re trying to get that out and go forward and go further than we did last year.”

2. What is the Super Bowl window? The Broncos have been asked this often already, and training camp is still a few weeks away. How long is the window to winning a championship going to be open? Some folks think it’s this year. I do not agree. I think it will be open as long as Manning is healthy. He is 37. Manning can play at a high level for at least another two years. The way this roster is built, there is no doubt the team is thinking Super Bowl in the immediate future. This is a team poised to win now, not in 2016.

The Broncos get it.

“In the end, we want to be holding up that trophy,” 35-year-old cornerback Champ Bailey recently said.

3. Manning’s health: Manning was brilliant last year, recording one of the best seasons in his decorated career. But he was not at full strength. He had four surgeries to repair a neck injury that kept him out of the entire 2011 season in Indianapolis. Manning was healthy last year, but there was some rust. By all accounts, he has made major strides this offseason. Manning should be even more entertaining to watch in his second season in Denver than he was in his first season.

4. Manning’s tempo: A healthier Manning might mean a more active Manning. Manning said very early in the offseason that he wanted the offense to move at a faster pace. New offensive coordinator Adam Gase has been working the unit to move at a quick pace all offseason, and it seems to be taking. This doesn’t mean the Broncos are going to use a pistol offense or Manning is going to look more like Robert Griffin III than himself. It just means Denver is going to utilize its talents and work to be more crisp and keep opposing defenses on their heels.

5. Welker in the slot: In an offseason in which Denver reloaded, no addition made bigger headlines than the free-agency signing of slot receiver Wes Welker. He was a huge part of New England’s success and seems like a perfect fit in Denver. Manning loves to get the ball to his slot receiver, and Welker has led the NFL in catches over the past six seasons. Combine Welker with young receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, and it’s difficult to imagine Denver’s passing game will be stopped much.

[+] EnlargeWes Welker
John Leyba/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesThe addition of Wes Welker as well as incoming rookie Montee Ball gives the Broncos a lot to like on offense.
6. Miller and company: Third-year linebacker Von Miller is developing into one of the best defensive players in the NFL. He is dominant and was a big reason why the unit was ranked second in the NFL last year. The unit has gotten better, as whole, around Miller. Yes, Elvis Dumervil is gone, but Denver is confident Shaun Phillips, Quanterus Smith and Robert Ayers will give Miller enough help. And if they don’t, there’s no reason to believe Miller will not continue to raise the level of his game.

7. The rookie running back: Denver took Wisconsin workhorse Montee Ball in the second round. Denver has immediate plans for Ball. Unless he completely falls on his face in camp and in the preseason, Ball will have a major role in the offense from the start of the season. Denver thinks Ball can have a major impact. If he is successful, there will be little not to like about this offense.

8. The damaged offensive line: One of Denver’s major concerns is the offensive line. It is banged up. Center J.D. Walton, who was lost for the season last September, will be out for at least half the season. The team has brought back Dan Koppen to take over for Walton again. Star left tackle Ryan Clady is coming back from a rotator cuff injury, and Orlando Franklin was out with a toe injury. The long-term prognosis is fine for this line, but it is banged up right now. If injuries continue into the season, it will be an issue.

9. The defensive front: Two years ago, this unit was a mess. Now it’s strength of the team. Denver added Terrance Knighton in free agency and grabbed a falling Sylvester Williams with the No. 28 overall pick in the draft. This unit is versatile and talented. It has a chance to be dominant.

10. The Del Rio factor: The Denver defense has rare continuity. Coordinator Jack Del Rio is back for his second season. Last year, Del Rio was Denver’s seventh defensive coordinator in seven seasons. He had great success with the unit and the players loved him. Defensive players have been raving all offseason about the importance of having Del Rio back.

The Kansas City Chiefs have been connected to free-agent fullback Vonta Leach for as long as he’s been on the market. New Kansas City general manager John Dorsey was the scout who helped bring Leach to Green Bay as an undrafted free agent nine years ago. Yet, Kansas City is still an unlikely destination for the fullback.

Leach’s agent, Ralph Vitolo, told a Houston television station that five teams are in on Leach. He said Miami, Houston and the New York Giants are the leaders, while the Chiefs and Ravens are also in the mix.

I spoke with Vitolo to gauge the talks with the Chiefs. He said there haven’t been any recent talks, but there has been mutual interest. Still, the Chiefs are tight against the salary cap and they must sign No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher. Leach would be a luxury signing, so I think the odds are against the Chiefs signing him.

Vitolo said he hopes to find a new team for his client next week.

In other AFC West notes:

Oakland first-round pick D.J. Hayden wrote a blog for the team’s website on his impressions of this week’s rookie symposium in Ohio.

Meanwhile, a Kansas City personnel man gave the harsh truth to the rookies at the symposium. Considering the events in New England this week, hearing reality is exactly what the incoming players need.

The Chargers and the Broncos had success completing touchdown passes in the red zone in 2012.
In many respects the fullback position has been a dying breed in the NFL.

However, for those who still use the position, there are fewer better fullbacks to pursue than Vonta Leach. He is considered on of the best fullbacks in the NFL.

There may be some interest in the AFC West in adding the fullback. USA Today reported that the Denver Broncos and the Kansas City Chiefs may show interest in Leach. He was cut by Baltimore on Monday. His first visit in to Miami.

If he gets out of Miami, we may see Leach’s AFC West interest heat up.

AFC West notes

June, 10, 2013
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Denver star left tackle Ryan Clady told a Denver radio station he will not be at minicamp this week. He did say he will likely attend training camp. That plan is consistent with what Clady has been saying. He has yet to sign his franchise tag.

The Broncos have expressed several times they want to give him a long-term deal. Clady is still recovering from a rotator cuff injury.

UPDATE: The NFL Network reported the Broncos have had their first contract talks of the year with Clady on Monday. I’d expect talks to continue through the summer.

The Los Angeles Times reported former San Diego linebacker Shawne Merirman was hospitalized Sunday night. Merirman tweeted Monday morning that he was dehydrated.

ESPN’s Ed Werder is reporting former Oakland quarterback JaMarcus Russell will get a workout with Baltimore. He worked out for the Bears on Friday. Russell has been out of the NFL since Oakland cut him in May 2010.
Here are some highlights from our AFC West chat, which was held earlier Thursday:

Denver

Marty from San Diego: Alex Gibbs is back in Denver, Montee Ball is a great one cut runner, Denver looking to improve run game- does this all add up to more zone blocking? Hasn't really been Fox or Manning's MO.

Bill Williamson: Gibbs is there mostly to work with the young linemen who don't get many reps. The plan is not to change schemes. There will be some ZBS but not a ton. At least, that is the current plan.

Kansas City

Josh from Texas: How is Tony Moeaki doing?

BW: The key with him is health. It seems the new regime is really high on rookie Travis Kelce. Moeaki has skills, but if he is not careful he will be passed by Kelce.

Oakland

Dan Martin from Florence, Colo.: With Rod Streater's performance last year as a rookie Raider, do you think he will be Oakland’s top receiver this year? All I've heard about is Moore and Criner.

BW: I wouldn't be shocked if Streator becomes an upper-level player. Like him a lot. He'll be a big part of it.

San Diego

Derek from Bristol, Va.: Do you see Malcom Floyd being a Charger next year after his contract expires? And do you also see Royal and or Meachem having a bounce back year?

BW: Maybe on Floyd is if he has a really nice season. But the Chargers are moving forward with the idea of having Brown, Allen and Alexander as their top guys. As for Royal and Meachem, anything they can offer this year will be a bonus.
One of the most talked about Denver Broncos in the offseason workout sessions has been second-year defensive lineman Derek Wolfe.

The second-round pick became an instant impact player last season and he was a big part of the No. 2 overall defense in the NFL. Now in his second season, the team is pumping up Wolfe as a player who will take on a more vital role and become a leader to help replace Elvis Dumervil, who is now in Baltimore after the infamous fax machine fiasco.

[+] EnlargeDerek Wolfe
Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY SportsThe Broncos are looking for Derek Wolfe to fill some of the leadership void created by Elvis Dumervil's departure.
Even though it is not common for second-year players to take on a huge leadership position, star linebacker Von Miller said Wolfe has taken to the role naturally.

“There really is not too much that I have to say to him,” Miller said. “Coming out here when we started OTAs [organized team activities], he was already first and the leader in the group out of Year 2. I talked to him about (Houston’s) J.J. Watt and the jump that he had from Year 1 to Year 2. I think he can do the same type of stuff. I think you just keep working hard; I think he’ll have the same type of effect for our defense.”

Wolfe is a different player than Dumervil and Watt. While he does have solid pass-rush skills, he is more of an all-around player who can be moved around the defensive line. Wolfe said his role as a contributor and as a leader will be based on the same thing -- work ethic.

“If you can look past the experience levels -- I think that anybody that plays this game respects hard work,” Wolfe said. “So I just try to lead with my effort and I’m not a big vocal guy either. I just try to lead by example and do the right things and usually people will follow.”

Count Denver first-round pick Sylvester Williams among those people. Wolfe has quickly become a mentor to his fellow young defensive lineman.

“The thing I take from him is play hard all the time,” Williams said. “He’s a hard-nosed type of guy and he gives 100 percent to everything he does. In the weight room, this is the kind of guy that’s doing extra reps and some guys are struggling to get all the reps they’re supposed to do. When I first came in he was one of the guys that I kind of keyed in on as a guy that I was going to stick behind him because I knew he was going to do the right thing.”
Dick Vermeil and Andy Reid share a bond.

Both men sat in the head-coaching chair in Philadelphia for years. Both led the Eagles to Super Bowl berths and have long been friends. Now they have another bond -- being head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. Vermeil held the position from 2001-05; Reid is just starting his Kansas City tenure. Reid consulted with Vermeil before accepting the Chiefs job just days after being fired in Philadelphia.

“He called me and asked me about Kansas City,” Vermeil told reporters Tuesday after watching the first day of the Chiefs’ mandatory minicamp. “I just said ‘Go. Just go.’”

Vermeil said he thinks Kansas City is the perfect fit for Reid.

“I admire the guy, I respect him, he’s a great football coach,” Vermeil said. “Andy’s having a lot of fun. He’s rejuvenated. You can tell. I’ve been with him through all different moods over the last few years. You’re very, very fortunate to have Andy Reid.”

In other AFC West notes:

The three other teams in the AFC West will have their mandatory minicamps next week.

Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles was back at practice Tuesday. He suffered a minor toe injury Friday.

Quarterback JaMarcus Russell, a draft bust with Oakland, will work out for Chicago on Friday, according to ESPNChicago.com. The 27-year-old Russell, the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft, has been out of the league for three years. Baltimore also has some interest, USA Today reports.

The Lions signed former Denver receiver Matthew Willis. Earlier Tuesday, they signed former San Diego receiver Micheal Spurlock.
Give the San Diego Chargers credit. They were forced into a bad situation, and they answered it by securing arguably the best player remaining on the free-agent market.

Pushed into a corner, rookie San Diego general manager Tom Telesco responded with his highest-profile acquisition of the offseason by signing pass-rusher Dwight Freeney on Saturday. Freeney agreed to a two-year contract, according to ESPN’s Ed Werder. Telesco was in Indianapolis' front office when Freeney played for the Colts from 2002 to 2012.

Their reunion had little chance of occurring until 2012 San Diego first-round draft pick Melvin Ingram tore his ACL in noncontact OTAs on Tuesday. It was a crushing blow. Not only did the Chargers think Ingram was ready to dominate but he was their top pass-rushing option after the free-agent departures of Shaun Phillips and Antwan Barnes.

[+] EnlargeDwight Freeney
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports At 33 years old, can Dwight Freeney give San Diego's pass rush steady production?
San Diego has a young, exciting defense, but the Ingram injury left a glaring hole. No NFL defense can truly succeed without a legitimate pass rush. There were no better pass-rushing options available than Freeney.

Yes, he is aging at 33 and he has just 13 of his 107.5 career sacks in the past two years. There is no doubt that Freeney, who is known for having one of the best spin moves in the history of the game, is near the end. But this pairing makes sense simply out of desperation. The Chargers weren’t going to find a better replacement for Ingram than Freeney, and Freeney was not going to get a better situation than San Diego. There were few places Freeney would have had a bigger role.

There are questions of whether Freeney is an ideal fit for the Chargers’ 3-4 defense. He played in it last season in Indianapolis and wasn’t as strong of a fit as he was in the 4-3.

I don’t think it is going to be an issue, however. San Diego coach Mike McCoy told Werder that the team would adjust to Freeney. That doesn’t mean the Chargers (whose defensive coordinator is John Pagano -- the brother of Chuck Pagano, who was Freeney’s coach in Indianapolis last year) are going to totally scrap the 3-4 for a 33-year-old player. It means that the Chargers are multiple in their pass-defense looks and that Freeney could line up often in his customary 4-3 defensive end position.

In short, the Chargers will put Freeney in his comfort level. Many think he will succeed in San Diego.

“I like it, and I do think he has something left,” ESPN NFL Insider Matt Williamson said. “The Chargers are not a super strict 3-4, and Freeney did show that he can still be disruptive last year. … I wouldn’t give him all the snaps, but he certainly should be useful.”

ESPN analyst and former Indianapolis general manager Bill Polian told ESPN’s Chris Mortensen this: "There's no question he can fit with that scheme. There are no strict 3-4 defenses, or not many. … You take Dwight, you get his hand on the ground and play him for 30 to 40 snaps, let him get after the quarterback."

One of the quarterbacks Freeney will be going after twice a season is close friend Peyton Manning. The two were longtime teammates with the Colts. Manning tried to recruit Freeney to Denver this offseason after Elvis Dumervil departed to Baltimore. Denver was considered the front-runner for Freeney, but the two sides couldn’t come to a financial accord. Somewhat ironically, Denver signed Phillips from San Diego instead. Had Freeney ended up in Denver, it likely would have been Phillips who would have replaced Ingram. USA Today reported that Denver had late talks with Freeney, but I suspect those were more cursory just to gauge whether it could steal him at the last moment.

In the end, I’m not sure whether the Chargers are better than they were before Ingram’s injury. They spent more money than expected, especially with a hole remaining at left tackle. The team is still talking to Max Starks, and the Chargers will get some cap relief June 1 as part of the Jared Gaither cut.

But the Ingram injury and Freeney signing are prime examples of the always-changing NFL world. The Chargers were put in an emergency situation. I don’t think they could have responded better than securing a potential Hall of Famer as a solution.
A day after New York Jets general manager John Idzik said he didn’t think Josh Cribbs was healthy, the aging but dynamic return man has signed with the Oakland Raiders.

Cribbs
The longtime Cleveland receiver/returner nearly signed with Arizona earlier in free agency, but he was recovering from a knee injury. He started visiting teams last week with the Raiders being the first team he visited. He visited three other teams, including the Jets. The fact that Cribbs may not be completely healthy right now is not a huge deal. He will get there.

Oakland will look at Cribbs primarily as a return man. He is tied for the most career kick returns for a touchdown in NFL history with eight. Cribbs, who will turn 30 next month, is primarily a returner. He has had more than 23 catches in a season just once when he had 41 in 2011.

I don’t see this as being a bad signing for Oakland. It’s a low-risk move. If Cribbs still has something in the tank, he can help the team.

It is also insurance in case Jacoby Ford can’t return from a foot injury that kept him out for the 2012 season and for six games in the previous season. Ford and Cribbs are similar players, with Ford giving more in the passing game. But it could come down to keeping either player, especially if some rookie receiver like Brice Butler or Conner Vernon makes a huge push to make the 53-man roster. The team can only keep so many receivers.

So, it could come down to health between Ford and Cribbs.

In other AFC West notes:

Former Kansas quarterback Dayne Crist signed with Baltimore. He tried out for the Chiefs last week.

Wednesday was the last day for Amy Trask in Oakland. She resigned as Raiders CEO four days ago. The team took out a full-page ad in a local paper to thank Trask for her quarter century of service.
Rolando McClain just closed the book on one of the most disappointing, bizarre NFL careers in recent memory.

The linebacker -- who was the No. 8 overall pick of the Oakland Raiders in 2010 -- has retired from the NFL. He is 23.

McClain was recently signed by Baltimore after he was cut by the Raiders. He was arrested in his hometown of Decauter, Alabama for the third time in a year-and-a-half shortly after joining the Ravens. Seemingly out the blue McClain told the team this week that he is leaving the game.

Of course, this cements McClain’s status as a tremendous draft bust. But it all raises more questions of what he is thinking about?

Why would he quit? What is he going to do with his life at 23 instead of playing football? Is he going to stay in his hometown, a place where he clearly has proven he cannot stay out of trouble?

I hope for McClain’s future and for his family that he can find some type of happiness and peace away from the NFL that he couldn’t achieve while playing.

Maybe McClain will get his head together and attempt a comeback at some point. But that will not be easy. Teams are simply not going to welcome McClain with open arms.

In addition to his legal issues, McClain struggled on the field, he was a locker-room issue and he was known for not being coachable.

This is probably the end for McClain in the NFL. Hopefully, moving on from the game will help McClain as he moves forward in life.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a key player from each AFC West team who needs to show something in offseason sessions:

Denver Broncos: Rahim Moore, safety: Moore will be closely watched to see if he can bury the memory of his colossal gaffe against Baltimore in double overtime in the 2013 AFC playoffs. Moore inexplicably allowed Baltimore receiver Jacoby Jones get behind him as the Ravens tied the game on a 70-yard desperation bomb in the final seconds of regulation. The Broncos thought Moore, a second-round pick in 2011, made great strides in his second season. They still believe in him. The team has been supportive of him this offseason, and Moore is saying all the right things. Still, he has to show his teammates and coaches in practices that the mistake is truly behind him.

Kansas City Chiefs: Jon Baldwin, receiver: Baldwin simply needs to get better. He was a first-round pick in 2011. Baldwin is superbly athletic and he has big-play ability. Yet he has made little impact in the regular season. He was terrific in training camp last season. This year, he needs to show new coach Andy Reid that he can perform in his system and that he is ready to become a consistent player. If Baldwin can make an impact, it will give a huge boost to the Chiefs’ offense.

Oakland Raiders: Matt Flynn, quarterback: Flynn has a chance to make the Raiders his team. Flynn has started two games in the NFL, and he will be 28 next month. He was expected to be the starter in Seattle last year, but he lost the starting job to Russell Wilson in training camp. The Raiders have Terrelle Pryor and drafted Tyler Wilson in the fourth round. Flynn will be given every opportunity to keep the starting job, but he must gain the trust of his coaching staff and teammates. That means Flynn must practice well and take command of the offense as soon as possible.

San Diego Chiefs: Ryan Mathews, running back: Mathews is the starting tailback. But he has to gain the trust of the new coaching staff and the belief of his teammates, who have seen him deal with injuries since he was the No. 12 overall pick in the 2010 draft. Mathews is a talented player and he has had success, but injuries have slowed him. He needs to show this offseason that he is strong, confident and ready to stay healthy. If Mathews has another season filled with injuries, the Chargers will probably look for a new lead back next year.
This was inevitable.

The NFL Network is reporting the San Diego Chargers visited with Pittsburgh free-agent left tackle Max Starks. He is the best option at the position in a weak market. Left tackle is the Chargers’ biggest need. After not addressing the area in the draft the Chargers talked to Bryant McKinnie last week. But he re-signed with Baltimore.

Starks was Pittsburgh’s starter last year. He also has a history with new San Diego offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, who was the Steelers’ offensive coordinator early in Starks’ career.

As of now, King Dunlap is set to start. He is best suited as a backup. Starks would very likely be the favorite to start if he signs with the Chargers.
Now what?

The San Diego Chargers were hoping to fill their left tackle spot with Bryant McKinnie.

He was far from a great option, and he would be an option just for a year. But a day after visiting the Chargers, McKinnie re-signed with Baltimore.

That leaves the Chargers scrambling to protect Philip Rivers’ blind side. The only real option in free agency is former Steelers’ left tackle Max Starks. Like McKinnie, Starks is not a great option, and he’d only be a solution for a year. But the Chargers don’t have a ton of other options.

If they stand pat, they could go with free agent pickup King Dunlap. But he is not widely considered as a top option. The Chargers are improving, but their most glaring hole remains a trouble spot.

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