AFC West: Jared Gaither

Reggie McKenzie’s first draft pick in Oakland is facing some spring competition.

The Bay Area News Group reported that Lucas Nix was working ahead of Tony Bergstrom at left guard Tuesday at the Raiders’ organized team activities (OTAs). Of course, it is early, and I’d expect both to compete through the summer at the spot previously occupied by Cooper Carlisle, who has since been released.

That said, it has to be a bit disappointing that Bergstrom, a third-round pick in 2012, is not taking the early lead. Nix was an undrafted free agent signing last year out of Pittsburgh.

The Raiders drafted Bergstrom as a fit for the zone-blocking scheme Oakland used on offense last season -- an unsuccessful approach the team has since scrapped in favor of a more traditional power-blocking scheme. In February, I asked McKenzie, who took over as general manager in 2012, if he was confident Bergstrom could be part of the future. He was firm in his belief that Bergstrom could indeed fit in the new scheme.

Bergstrom failed to make to a push for major playing time as a rookie. Now it appears he will have to fight Nix moving forward.

In another interesting Oakland OTA note, second-year player Christo Bilukidi and free-agent pickup Vance Walker were working with the first unit at defensive tackle. Bilukidi showed flashes as a rookie late in the season. Walker was a productive situational player in Atlanta.

As at many positions in Oakland, the Raiders want to see some players take the next step and grab a lead role at defensive tackle. While it is early, Bilukidi and Walker are getting the chance to show they deserve to start.

In other AFC West notes:

Peyton Manning is enjoying this offseason much more than last, when he was recovering from four neck surgeries and adjusting to life in Denver.

Former No. 3 overall pick Tyson Jackson is impressing the new Kansas City brass at defensive end.

Some bookkeeping reminders: Oakland gets $8 million in salary-cap relief for the Michael Huff cut and San Diego gets $4.5 million relief after cutting Jared Gaither on Saturday. Both teams will primarily use the money to sign draft picks.
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.
The San Diego Chargers are still interested in signing pass-rusher Dwight Freeney even though his visit has ended.

It could come down to finances. Freeney, who would be the Chargers’ best rusher, has been looking for a good contract since leaving the Colts. Freeney is considered the best pass-rusher on the market.

I doubt he’d bring down his price, knowing he’d have a big role in San Diego. The Chargers have limited cap room and needs along the offensive line. So, there may be some haggling to do.

Perhaps the Chargers, who are around $5 million under the salary cap, may wait until after June 1 to try to get the Freeney deal done. They will get an additional $4 million in cap room then from cutting Jared Gaither. Freeney has been on the market for months and has not been in a hurry to get a deal done, so perhaps an agreement can be made in a few weeks if it can’t get done now in San Diego.

Whether San Diego signs Freeney or not, it must get more pass-rush help after 2012 first-round pick Melvin Ingram tore his ACL this week in a non-contact OTA drill.

In other AFC West notes:

Former Oakland running Mike Goodson was arrested in New Jersey on drug and gun charges. He left the Raiders for the Jets in free agency this offseason.

The Broncos made some minor language changes in the contract of quarterback Peyton Manning. Nothing changes for him financially or for the team’s salary cap. The change is procedural and involves Denver getting insurance money in case Manning, 37, doesn’t play in 2014.

New Oakland returner Josh Cribbs is not worried about his progress from a knee injury. He should be ready to go when the season starts.

AFC West links: Freeney wants more

March, 29, 2013
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Denver Broncos

Dwight Freeney wants more than the $8.5 million in base earnings that Osi Umenyiora just got from Atlanta, NFL.com's Ian Rapoport reports.

In the aftermath of Elvis Dumervil's exit, the Broncos might have to tend to the mood inside their locker room, reckons Jeff Legwold of the Denver Post. Legwold also sees the team making moves both to win now with Peyton Manning and also down the road.

Kansas City Chiefs

In a break from the past, the Chiefs appear to be spenders this offseason, says Joel Thorman at Arrowhead Pride.

Newly hired assistant Brad Childress will be the Chiefs' spread game analyst and work on special projects, the AP reports.

Oakland Raiders

Steve Corkran at the Oakland Tribune wonders if, by balking at demands he take a pay cut, Carson Palmer is forcing the Raiders' hand.

Rob Rang of CBSSports.com analyzes five prospects the Raiders should consider in the draft.

San Diego Chargers

Free-agent wide receiver Micheal Spurlock could end up in Dallas, says Michael Gehlken of the San Diego Union-Tribune.

They team exercised an option that spreads the salary-cap impact of Jared Gaither's release over two years, writes Gehlken. After June 1, Gaither will cost $2 million against the 2013 salary cap. In 2014, the remaining $4 million of Gaither's prorated bonus will count as dead money.
It’s unfinished business day in the AFC West.

Hours after the San Diego Chargers finally booted left tackle Jared Gaither, the Oakland Raiders said so long to defensive tackle Tommy Kelly. Both were long expected to be cut.

Kelly, 32, saw his play decline last season. He had been on the team since 2003 when he was signed as an undrafted free agent. His release reportedly saves $4.775 million under the salary cap this year. Yet, he will still account for more than $6.3 million against the cap in dead money. Kelly signed a seven-year, $50.5 million deal in 2008.

He was a solid player during his best days. He was massive and tough. But he was never a unit-changing player.

There was little chance Kelly fit with the new approach of the team. The Raiders are getting younger and cheaper throughout the roster. Several veterans are not being brought back. As the Contra Costa Times pointed out, Oakland has just seven players on the roster -- including quarterback Carson Palmer, who could be released -- who have been in the league six years or more.

The team signed defensive tackles Pat Sims and Vance Walker. They could also draft Florida’s Sharrif Floyd with the No. 3 pick.

Some folks expect Kelly to get receive interest around the league. While anything can happen, I don’t see any fits in the AFC West that immediately jump out.
Jared Gaither's long-expected release from the Chargers has finally come.

Gaither
The new regime promised to consider keeping Gaither, but it was highly doubtful the massive and talented Gaither was going to be kept in San Diego. Gaither reportedly was a target of disdain in the locker room after a back injury lingered for months last season. He signed a four-year, $26 million deal last year, but he ended up playing in just four games. Injuries have kept Gaither off the field his entire career.

He made $9 million last season and he counts more than $6 million against the salary cap this year. It’s far from ideal. But Gaither cannot be counted on and the San Diego locker room doesn’t trust he will be on the field. So, as expected, the Chargers moved on.

Left tackle is the team’s biggest need. Expect the Chargers to target one, likely Oklahoma’s Lane Johnson, with their first-round pick in next month's draft.

Raiders keep Khalif Barnes

March, 20, 2013
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After seeing several younger players leave through free agency, the Oakland Raiders kept their first in-house free agent.

The Raiders have signed journeyman right tackle Khalif Barnes. He has been with the Raiders for four seasons. He was a starter when healthy last season. He should be in the mix again, and he can play guard as well.

In other AFC West news:

ESPN’s Adam Schefter is reporting right tackle Eric Winston, cut recently by the Kansas City Chiefs, is visiting Miami. He has visited the San Diego Chargers, and they remain interested. Winston played collegiately at Miami, so the Dolphins could have an edge.

Former Oakland safety Michael Huff is expected to meet with the Baltimore Ravens.

U-T San Diego expects the Chargers to release left tackle Jared Gaither in the next couple of weeks. It’s not a surprise. He has been expected to be cut at some point.
Yahoo reports the Titans, Colts and Bills are all chasing top guards, Louis Vasquez of the San Diego Chargers and Buffalo’s Andy Levitre.

The Chargers also have interest in Levitre. The report states Vasquez’s chances of returning to the Chargers are slim. The Chargers have massive issues on the offensive line, so they better figure something out.

Regarding the Chargers’ most pressing need on the offensive line, San Diego general manager Tom Telesco told U-T San Diego there is nothing imminent going on with the status of left tackle Jared Gaither. I expect the Chargers to address their needs and then make a decision on Gaither.

Meanwhile, Early Doucet could potentially be a name the receiver-needy Chargers look at as a No. 3 receiver. He played for new San Diego offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt in Arizona, Doucet was a favorite of the coach there.

In another AFC West-related note: The Chicago Tribune is reporting that Georgia pass-rusher Jarvis Jones received good medical news. There has been concern because he has a narrowing of the spine. If healthy, Jones could be an option for Oakland with the No. 3 pick.
The San Diego Chargers continue to make cuts, as they have jettisoned safety Atari Bigby.

This move is not a big surprise. Bigby, who had 79 tackles last season, was not considered a top starter. The Chargers probably will be able to easily find a replacement. In-house candidates Darrell Stuckey and Brandon Taylor are possibilities. One potential replacement could be former Arizona safety Adrian Wilson, who was cut Friday. Former Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt is now on San Diego’s staff.

On Thursday, San Diego cut linebacker Takeo Spikes. The Chargers also will likely cut defensive tackle Antonio Garay and left tackle Jared Gaither.

As for free agency, don’t be surprised if the team shows interest in Colts cornerback Jerraud Powers. He was in Indianapolis with new San Diego general manager Tom Telesco. The team will let starting cornerbacks Antoine Cason and Quentin Jammer test the market.

Franchise tag deadline looms

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Monday is the deadline for teams to place the franchise tag on players.

The focus in the AFC West will be on Kansas City. The Chiefs have key free agents: receiver Dwayne Bowe, left tackle Branden Albert and punter Dustin Colquitt. One of the players will likely be given the franchise tag. The speculation has been that Bowe will likely get tagged, but all three players are options. If I had to guess, I’d think Bowe -- who was franchised last year -- will be tagged. The Chiefs are talking to all three players.

Denver tagged left tackle Ryan Clady on Friday. It would be a surprise if Oakland tagged anyone Monday. San Diego is not expected to place the franchise tag on any player.

Meanwhile, several AFC West players remain in danger being cut or are subject to major pay cuts before the league year begins March 12. Among the top candidates to be cut are Oakland’s Tommy Kelly and Darrius Heyward-Bey, Kansas City’s Tyson Jackson and Matt Cassel and San Diego’s Jared Gaither. Oakland quarterback Carson Palmer will probably have to accept a big pay reduction.
Giving some life to a dead story, San Francisco Jim Harbaugh coach slammed former Oakland Raiders receiver Tim Brown for his January comments when he accused former Oakland coach Bill Callahan of “sabotaging” the team’s Super Bowl loss to Tampa Bay 10 years ago.

Harbaugh was then on Oakland’s staff and he said Friday Brown should be “ashamed” of the comments. Brown repeated the claims last month, but when Callahan harshly rebutted and demanded a retraction, Brown backed off.

In other AFC West news:
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Welcome to Eight in the Box, an NFL Nation feature that will appear each Friday during the offseason. This week’s topic: Who will be each team’s biggest salary-cap casualty this offseason?

Denver Broncos: There aren’t many players in Denver who are in danger of being cut. One player to keep an eye on is linebacker D.J. Williams. He served a two-tiered nine-game suspension last season and finished the season as a rotational player. Williams has been good in Denver, but his off-field headaches coupled with the emergence of Wesley Woodyard have made him expendable.

Kansas City Chiefs: It’s going to be quarterback Matt Cassel. His release will reportedly save the Chiefs more than $5.8 million and his time in Kansas City is simply up. He was benched last year and the regime that brought him to Kansas City with the hopes of him becoming a franchise quarterback has been fired. This is a new era in Kansas City and there is no room for Cassel.

Oakland Raiders: The Raiders are the team in the division that potentially cuts the most players as they try to create some salary-cap space. I’m going with defensive tackle Tommy Kelly as being the most significant cut. Oakland could reportedly save up to $7 million by cutting him. He has been a solid player, but he has seen his better days. At this point, he will be best used as a rotational player, but his price tag is way too high for that.

San Diego Chargers: While the Chargers probably won’t cut too many veterans, one who appears assured to be shown the door is left tackle Jared Gaither. He signed a hefty contract last year and was a disaster. Gaither played only four games last season and there were heavy rumblings that many teammates and coaches thoughts Gaither wasn’t as injured as he claimed to be. There is little chance he will be brought back.

Fixing Chargers starts on O-line

February, 7, 2013
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The San Diego Chargers have started 2013 on the right foot by hiring general manager Tom Telesco and head coach Mike McCoy. Both men are considered among the best young, promising people in their position.

The fresh philosophy is a good start, but the Chargers need to replenish their talent. It starts on the offensive line. The Chargers have been ravaged by injuries and bad luck on the offensive line. Fixing the unit is the top priority of the offseason.

There has been speculation that the team may move to a zone-blocking scheme because new offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris has a background in it. If that is the case, expect the Chargers to seek smaller, more athletic offensive lineman.

Let’s take a look at who the San Diego offensive line shakes out:

Tackles: The left tackle position is the Chargers’ greatest need. Jared Gaither was signed to a big contract last season, but he can’t be counted on because of injury concerns. The Chargers will almost certainly move away from him. Finding a left tackle will be a top priority either in free agency or with the No. 11 pick in the draft. Right tackle Jeromey Clary isn’t a top level right tackle, but the Chargers can get by with him. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if the team tries to find a better option.

Guards: Starters Louis Vasquez and Tyronne Green are both free agents. Vasquez is a priority. Green is an average starter. Keeping Vasquez is needed, and then the Chargers can make a decision on Green. But upgrading there would be beneficial. A possible target could be Buffalo’s Andy Levitre. He will be sought after, but he could want to reunite with his former position coach. It could affect Vasquez if the zone-blocking scheme is the direction the Chargers are taking. He doesn’t fit the mold of an ideal player for that scheme.

Center: Nick Hardwick is still a plus player. He is 31, but he is a solid starter along with Vasquez.

The team has a chance to improve, but getting better protection for quarterback Philip Rivers is paramount, starting at left tackle and perhaps, at least, one more starting spot on the line.

AFC West notes

January, 6, 2013
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ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports Buffalo has agreed to hire Syracuse coach Doug Marrone as its head coach. He was on the Chargers’ interview list. I never got the sense Marrone was a top choice of the Chargers’ though.

Schefter reports the Browns will interview Kansas City personnel man Ray Farmer for their general manger job. It is unclear if the Chiefs’ new regime wants to keep Farmer, but CBS Sports reported he interviewed for the open general manager job in Kansas City. Still, it is very much expected to go to Green Bay personnel man John Dorsey.

Former Denver backup quarterback Jeff Lewis died at the age of 39.

U-T San Diego reports that left tackle Jared Gaither is not a popular figure in the Chargers’ locker-room, and if for some reason the team wants to bring him back (they very likely won’t), his teammates will not be happy. Don’t expect it to be an issue. The Chargers are moving on at left tackle. Gaither is enormously gifted, but he hasn’t shown he wants to play enough.
Nothing personal against Charlie Whitehurst, but the San Diego Chargers might want to think about sending him out at quarterback Sunday at Pittsburgh.

Why subject starter Philip Rivers to such potential punishment given the team's 4-8 record?

The plan is to finish the season with Rivers, but he won’t have much protection Sunday. According to U-T San Diego, the Chargers are likely to be without three starting offensive linemen: Tackles Mike Harris (ankle) and Jeromey Clary (knee) and guard Tyronne Green (hamstring) are not expected to play.

Kevin Haslam replaced Clary and Rex Hadnot replaced Green, but there is no clear replacement for Harris’ spot. The team will work out some linemen this week. Not knowing Rivers’ blind-side protector six days before the game is unsettling to say the least.

Harris replaced Jared Gaither, who is on injured reserve. The Chargers had immense injury issues on the offensive line last season, too. They hoped this year would be different, but this situation is a mess.

Meanwhile, linebacker Donald Butler is expected to miss his second consecutive game with a groin injury.

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