AFC West: Mike Wallace

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Welcome to Eight in the Box, an NFL Nation feature that will appear each Friday during the offseason. This week's topic: Who should be the primary target (including trades) for each team when free agency begins?

Denver Broncos: Glover Quin, S, Texans: Sure, I could see the Broncos making a big splash at a high-profile position like receiver in the form of someone like Mike Wallace or Wes Welker. I wanted to focus on a position that may not get as much thought in Denver, but where the team is interested in getting better. The Broncos are interested in adding to the secondary. A player like Quin would be a great fit. The team likes Rahim Moore (despite his playoff gaffe against the Ravens) and they have high hopes for Quinton Carter. But Quin can come in and help these guys and provide an upgrade from Mike Adams. Getting a tough player in the back of a strong defense would only help Denver.

Kansas City Chiefs: Sean Smith, CB, Dolphins: The Chiefs are an interesting team. Despite being 2-14 in 2012, they don’t have a ton of screaming needs. Getting a quality cornerback to team with Brandon Flowers may be just the thing this defense needs. The Chiefs tried it with Stanford Routt last season (to replace top dollar Dallas free-agent signee Brandon Carr), but it didn’t work. Yes, the Chiefs could use the No. 1 pick on Alabama's Dee Milliner and I still think a trade for Darrelle Revis would be worth exploring. But adding a tall, athletic corner like Smith could be the ticket as well. He won’t be cheap, but he has skills and a Smith-Flowers pairing would be interesting.

Oakland Raiders: Cary Williams, CB, Ravens: The Raiders won't have a ton to spend and they have a lot of positions that need help. But I’m going with a cornerback, because I think it is the team’s greatest need. Really, name a legitimate starting in-house candidate in Oakland that is not an emergency option. Williams may be too sought-after for Oakland to afford. But he is a solid starter who has been through the wars. If the price is right, he’d fill a big need for Oakland. A more affordable option will be former Denver cornerback Tracy Porter. I think Oakland -- coach Dennis Allen was Porter’s position coach in New Orleans -- will be interested, but if Williams fell to Oakland, I think it would be worth considering.

San Diego Chargers: Andy Levitre, G, Bills: Levitre is one of the best guards in the league. He will be sought after in free agency. But if the price is not through the roof, I think the Chargers will be a player for his services. The Chargers’ primary task this offseason is to improve the offensive line. Levitre would be a great start. Levitre, who is from California, likely would be interested in signing and reuniting with former Buffalo offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris, who was just hired by the Chargers. He has a zone-blocking scheme. San Diego coach Mike McCoy said the Chargers will run the scheme that best fits the players, and I'm sure D’Alessandris would like to reunite with Levitre to help introduce his system. The Chargers’ best offensive lineman, guard Louis Vasquez, is also free. In the best-case scenario, San Diego would be able to keep both players, but it’s difficult to put top resources into two guards, especially with the team needing a left tackle. But because Levitre has experience in D’Alessandris’ system, I could see him being a more valued target than Vasquez.
The details of Dwayne Bowe’s new deal in Kansas City are out, and I know they look eye popping.

Because they are.

CBS Sports reports Bowe’s five-year deal is worth $56 million with $26 million guaranteed. That currently makes him the third highest-paid receiver behind superstars Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson. But I wouldn’t get too caught up in that fact.

In a year, Bowe’s contract will probably be surpassed several times. Free agents Mike Wallace and Greg Jennings could rival the deal in a matter of a week.

New Kansas City coach Andy Reid believes Bowe will be a centerpiece of his offense and he will help new quarterback Alex Smith. The Chiefs paid Bowe what it took from keeping him off the market.

Yes, it’s steep, but that’s the way it goes in the NFL today. Teams must pay to keep their best players .

How Denver can improve in 2013

February, 16, 2013
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The winter doldrums of a football-less mid-February are taking over in the Rocky Mountains. The days are a little colder and a little darker as the Denver Broncos come to grips with what could have been.

Watching confetti fall on the jubilant Baltimore Ravens after their Super Bowl victory Feb. 3 had to further damage the Broncos’ collective psyche -- part of a haunting winter theme of “it could have been us.”

The Broncos saw their Super Bowl push end in a 38-35 double-overtime defeat to the visiting Ravens in the AFC divisional round. Denver was 13-3 in the regular season, had the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs and entered the playoffs on an 11-game winning streak in which it won every game by at least a touchdown. Its early exit from the postseason was stunning -- and particularly painful for the Broncos because they know it was so avoidable.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Dustin Bradford/Getty ImagesFilling a few holes, including at receiver, could give Peyton Manning and Denver a better end in 2014.
Baltimore sent the game to overtime on a 70-yard bomb from Joe Flacco to Jacoby Jones on a play in which Denver safety Rahim Moore inexplicably allowed Jones to get behind him in the final seconds of regulation. Countless former players said they had never seen an NFL defensive back make that type of play. Had Moore simply done his job, Denver would have advanced.

Instead, the Broncos will try to regroup and move forward. Despite the sobering end of the season and its painful aftereffects, the Broncos should feel good about themselves heading into the 2013 season as NFL Comeback Player of the Year winner and MVP runner-up Peyton Manning prepares for his second season in Denver at age 37.

“There’s a lot of young players in this locker room that need to use this as motivation, as a spark to have that fire burning inside of them this offseason and come back stronger,” veteran middle linebacker Keith Brooking said shortly after the season. “This is a great locker room. The Denver Broncos are really close.”

The Broncos are not alone in building high expectations for the immediate future. The Las Vegas oddsmakers have made the Broncos the early favorite to win next year’s Super Bowl. In an Insider piece, ESPN.com pegged them as a strong early contender for next season Insider.

Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. had this to say about the Broncos heading into next season: “I think their roster is exceptional.”

Still, it would be inaccurate to say this is the perfect roster. The Broncos, two years removed from a 4-12 season, need to upgrade at certain spots. With the No. 28 pick in the draft and expected room under the salary cap, Denver should be able to improve. Let’s take a look at some areas the Broncos should look at as they aim for a long Super Bowl run next season:

Running back: The Broncos have the making of a decent stable of running backs but could use another pair of legs. I think Denver needs to find a bigger back to help in short-yardage situations. Jacob Hester did a nice job at the end of the season, but Denver might want to find a better back. Again, with Willis McGahee, a revived Knowshon Moreno and young Ronnie Hillman, there is a lot to like in the immediate future. But another talented runner wouldn’t hurt.

Receiver: Brandon Stokley did a nice job at age 36 as the slot receiver, but I could see Denver looking for a younger, more special option. There will be some interesting options available, including Wes Welker in free agency and perhaps Percy Harvin in a trade. Denver could even try to go big and add a player such as Mike Wallace. If Denver’s brass decides it can afford to make a big splash, this could be an area where Manning can take advantage. The truth is that the future is now in Denver. Manning has only so many years left, so Denver could be intrigued by striking big at this spot.

Defensive tackle: Denver’s defense made huge strides in 2012 under first-year defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. Veteran defensive tackles Kevin Vickerson and Justin Bannan were good in their roles. But both are free agents, and Denver might want to get younger. There could be some solid options in the first round at this position, such as Purdue’s Kawann Short and Georgia’s Johnathan Jenkins. Denver should find a good, young run-stuffer to plug in the middle of an explosive defense.

Middle linebacker: Brooking played well last season, but he was 37 and Denver needs to find a better starting option, whether via free agency in the form of someone like Baltimore’s Dannell Ellerbe or in the draft if Notre Dame’s Manti Te'o, Georgia’s Alec Ogletree or LSU’s Kevin Minter is available. Denver has a lot of young pieces on defense. Adding another one at this position wouldn’t be a terrible idea.

Secondary: The last time we saw the Broncos, it wasn’t a great day for Denver’s secondary. In addition to Moore’s last-second gaffe, surefire Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey was torched. But Bailey, who will turn 35 in June, had a good season and the Broncos will keep him for another year with young, promising Chris Harris and Tony Carter. As at receiver, though, Denver could be tempted to go big and try to get into the Darrelle Revis trade talks if the Jets make a move. I also could see Denver looking to upgrade at safety. Moore, a second-round pick in 2011, made strides in 2012, and the team likely will not give up on him because of the one bad play. But adding another safety might be smart.

Dream free-agent pairings

February, 11, 2013
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Free agency begins March 12. A lot will happen between now and then.

Pending free agents will be franchised and re-signed. But for now, let’s connect each AFC West with a dream free agent for them.

Denver: Mike Wallace, WR, Pittsburgh: Wallace may make it to the open market, so Denver can get him. A receiving crew of Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wallace would make Peyton Manning a very happy dude.

Kansas City: Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore: The Ravens are not going to let him go, but if something stunning happened, the Chiefs would jump on Flacco. He is an upper-level quarterback. The addition of Flacco would make the talented, but quarterback-less Chiefs a top level team.

Oakland: Aqib Talib, CB, New England: He is troubled, but he is talented. We saw the impact Talib had in New England. He is a talented player. Cornerback is Oakland’s greatest need. Getting Talib in the free agency (Oakland will be hard pressed to afford him) and a pass-rusher with the No. 3 overall pick would go a long way to fix this defense.

San Diego: Ryan Clady, LT, Denver: New San Diego coach Mike McCoy will love to bring Clady with him from Denver. Left tackle is the Chargers' greatest need. Clady would be a huge help to this offense. But the Broncos have no plans of letting Clady walk.
Potentially, one of the most stacked positions in upcoming free agency is wide receiver.

That is of interest in the AFC West, because each team in the division could use a receiver

Here are some of the top receivers who can become free agents on March 12: Kansas City’s Dwayne Bowe, Pittsburgh’s Mike Wallace, Green Bay’s Greg Jennings, New England’s Wes Welker and St. Louis’ Danny Amendola. Some of the these players could be franchised or re-signed

But I think a couple of them could hit the open market. The interest in the AFC West starts with Bowe. The new Kansas City brass must decide if it wants to re-sign or give the franchise tag to Bowe. If the previous brass was kept, I’d think Bowe would be gone. I can see Andy Reid trying to keep Bowe.

If not, the Chiefs could be looking at the other receivers on this list

Denver could be intrigued by adding Wallace or Welker, although it wouldn’t be cheap.

San Diego could use an impact receiver to help Philip Rivers. But the Chargers don’t have a ton of salary-cap room and they must fix their offensive line first.

Oakland is probably the least likely of the AFC West teams to pursue a top receiver. It has major defensive needs, salary-cap limitations and some intriguing young receivers.

But there are enough needs and enough quality options that we can see a big-name receiver or two sign in this division this year.
ESPN.com’s Stephania Bell reports Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark will miss his third game in Denver in the past few years on Sunday night because of health risks spurred by Denver’s high altitude.

Clark has the sickle cell trait. It is a genetic abnormality which can affect red blood cells. While playing Denver in 2007, Clark had a bad reaction to the high altitude and had to have his spleen and gall bladder removed.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh receiver Mike Wallace, who recently ended his holdout, has been working with the first unit and he should play extensively against the Broncos.

In other Denver notes:
  • Peyton Manning’s former Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy, was a visitor at the Broncos’ practice Monday.
  • Arizona signed receiver Gerell Robinson to its practice squad. Denver recently cut the Arizona State product.
  • The Broncos added former Mississippi State center Quentin Saulsberry to their practice squad.
Receiver Dwayne Bowe is holding out from the Kansas City Chiefs. Receiver Mike Wallace is holding out from the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Similar issues, easy solution?

I’ve been asked several times in the past couple of days if the Chiefs and Steelers could solve their issues by trading Bowe for Wallace. Adding fuel to that talk is the fact that former Kansas City head coach Todd Haley is now the offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh.

I understand the rationale for the question, but I don’t think the reality is as simple as dealing two unhappy receivers.

I’m not sure the Steelers would make the trade. Wallace, 25, is one of the more explosive young receivers. He probably has more long-term worth than Bowe, 27.

I don’t get the sense the Steelers feel like they are in a tough spot. They can simply give Wallace the franchise tag next year if a new deal isn’t made. I’d doubt they’d be excited to dump Wallace and then have to pay Bowe.

I’m sure the Chiefs, though, would be interested in Wallace. They have cap room and signing Wallace to a long-term deal would be a fit on the field and in the pocket book. Getting the Steelers to agree would likely be the tough part.

Perhaps if both holdouts drag out and the two teams lose patience, things can change. Right now, though, I don’t see these two holdouts swapping teams.
ESPN NFL financial guru Andrew Brandt offers an intriguing look at how NFL restricted free agency is dying.

The basis of restricted free agency is a team can sign a player to an offer sheet and his existing team has a week to match the offer. If the team does not match the contract, it is awarded a draft pick from a corresponding round that the existing team assigns the player via a contract tender.

The deadline for teams to give restricted free agents an offer sheet is Friday. Thus far, there have been no offer sheets executed this offseason.

The Chiefs actually visited with Cincinnati restricted free agent linebacker/special teamer Dan Skuta several weeks ago, but thus far nothing has developed. He wasn’t given a draft-round tender so if the Chiefs were to give him an offer sheet and the Bengals didn’t match, the Chiefs would not have to send the Bengals any draft compensation.

There has been a lot of speculation (and we have discussed the possibility) that Denver could make a play at Pittsburgh receiver Mike Wallace, a restricted free agent prize. The Broncos still have some cap room and the speedy Wallace would be a terrific value at No. 25. He’d also be a dandy of a welcome gift for Peyton Manning.

A Denver pursuit of Wallace still makes sense. But as Brandt’s column points out, restricted free agency simply doesn’t appear to be a focal point of teams.
As I digested and began to react to the news that Peyton Manning is about to become a Denver Bronco, I wondered to myself whether the Broncos could be poised to make another huge move.

I wasn’t the only one in our ESPN blog network. Yes, Jamison Hensley, I also believe the Denver Broncos should perhaps consider making a play for Pittsburgh restricted free agent Mike Wallace.

Any team that wants to sign Wallace to an offer sheet must hope the Steelers don’t match. If the Steelers don’t match, the team that signs Wallace must surrender its first-round pick to Pittsburgh. Denver has the No. 25 pick in the draft. The game-breaking Wallace is well worth the No. 25 pick.

Wallace (whom Pittsburgh drafted with a pick acquired from Denver) would likely be interested in playing with Manning, and the feeling would likely be mutual. In Denver, Wallace would be the No. 1 receiver and team with promising receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. That would be a tremendous group for Manning.

Even after signing Manning, the Broncos might be able to construct a winning deal for Wallace. The speedster is only 25, so this would be a long-term commitment, perhaps well beyond Manning’s years.

The only bad part of it is it would take money and a draft pick away from helping the defense. I think Denver needs to continue to work on the defense. But adding Wallace is a plausible move the Broncos should consider.
Peyton Manning answered one question, choosing to play quarterback for the Broncos next season, multiple sources told ESPN.

But here's another one: Whom are you going to throw the ball to, Peyton? Some might answer Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace.

As I speculated earlier this morning, the one team I would watch going after Wallace is the Broncos. They have the cap room ($40 million before the Manning signing), the late first-round pick (25th overall) and the need for a dependable wide receiver.

The Broncos have a promising playmaker in Demaryius Thomas if he stays healthy, and they can always bring along a Manning favorite in tight end Dallas Clark. But look at the other options -- Eric Decker and Matt Willis -- and you can see why the Broncos might be tempted to go after Wallace. And, if you look at the wide receivers left -- Braylon Edwards, Ted Ginn and Early Doucet -- no one will make more of an impact than Wallace.

Of course, the Steelers have the chance to match any offer given to Wallace, a restricted free agent. The deadline to extend offer sheets is April 20.
As soon as free agency began Tuesday afternoon, the Buffalo Bills had a plane waiting for New Orleans free agent receiver Robert Meachem.

The Bills flew him north and dined with him Tuesday night. The Bills had a full itinerary waiting for him Wednesday. Then, Vincent Jackson left the Chargers. All Buffalo bets were off.


With Jackson and several other receivers off the market quickly Tuesday, the San Diego Chargers -- who NFL.com reports showed late interest in Pierre Garcon before he signed with the Redskins -- went from showing no interest in Meachem early in free agency to becoming his most ardent pursuer. In addition to Buffalo, the Chargers blew away two other teams with a huge offer for Meachem.

And now the speedster is going to be Philip Rivers’ newest toy.

Meachem agreed to a four-year, $25.9 million deal with $14 million guaranteed in the first two years of the deal. The agreement came hours after Jackson signed with the Buccaneers for five years and $55.5 million.

There is no doubt Meachem is not as accomplished as Jackson and the Chargers would be best served to add another receiver in free agency. The best options are Brandon Lloyd, Laurent Robinson and Mario Manningham. They also could use their first-round pick on someone such as Notre Dame’s Michael Floyd. I think Lloyd could be an interesting option.

Pittsburgh's Mike Wallace would cost a first-round pick as a restricted free agent if the Steelers didn’t match a deal. I think the Meachem agreement ends that possibility. Perhaps San Diego could look at Oakland’s Chaz Schilens, who played at San Diego State. He’d fit the Chargers’ mold of big receivers.

Meachem does give the Chargers a terrific vertical threat. He has 4.3-second speed in the 40-yard dash. He will be a good fit with Rivers and No. 2 starter Malcom Floyd, who also is a field stretcher. Like Floyd, Meachem has had some durability issues. Vincent Brown likely will be the No. 3 receiver in his second season.

Meachem had 40 catches for 620 yards last season for the Saints, where he often was lost in a strong receiving crew. Meachem, the Saints’ first-round pick in 2007, had 129 catches and 20 touchdowns in the past three seasons, and has averaged 16.1 yards per catch in his career. There is no doubt Meachem has big-play flair and he will fit in Norv Turner’s system, but I still believe the Chargers need to add to their receiving crew.

UPDATE: I caught up with Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. on Wednesday morning. Here are his thoughts on the Chargers’ day at receiver:

“Meachem isn’t Vincent Jackson. He is very talented, though, and I do think his most productive football might be in front of him. He also is a deep threat, which is absolutely key in San Diego’s deep passing attack. But, to me, there was only one No. 1 receiver on the market, and he just signed with Tampa Bay.”

The Chargers are in a tough spot

March, 13, 2012
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This is not a good day in San Diego.

Vincent Jackson has walked away.

While there were indications in recent days that the Chargers were not prepared to match an enormous deal for Jackson, there has long been the thought that the Chargers -- who are heavily pursuing New Orleans’ Robert Meachem on Tuesday night -- couldn’t afford to let Jackson leave.

This is a critical offseason in San Diego and it has not started well. In addition to Jackson leaving, the Chargers saw longtime standout guard Kris Dielman retire because of a severe concussion he suffered last season, the team cut left tackle Marcus McNeill because of a neck injury and valuable running back Mike Tolbert is poised to visit AFC West rival Kansas City on Wednesday. The Chargers also have priority free agents in left tackle Jared Gaither and defensive tackle Antonio Garay. San Diego’s lone bright spot, thus far, was the re-signing of standout center Nick Hardwick on Tuesday to a three-year deal.

[+] EnlargeChargers' Vincent Jackson
Kirby Lee/US PRESSWIREThe Chargers must now figure out how to replace star receiver Vincent Jackson.
The Chargers must get better. They must do some things in free agency.

Owner Dean Spanos upset the fan base when he brought back coach Norv Turner and GM A.J. Smith in January.

Fans expected Spanos to show a commitment to them by getting better in free agency, and the Chargers still could get better.

But seeing Jackson leave is not going to convince the San Diego fan base the Chargers are truly committed to getting back to the playoffs for the first time since the 2009 season.

Jackson is a premier receiver and he was a great fit for quarterback Philip Rivers, who has to be wondering what is going on with his offensive line and receiving crew.

The Chargers gambled by not giving Jackson the franchise tag for a second year because it jumped to more than $13 million this season. He is averaging just more than $11 million per season with Tampa Bay. The Chargers took a shot at Jackson, but they likely never got close to what Tampa Bay offered.

Now, the Chargers have to go find a top receiver. The only receivers on the roster are No. 2 starter Malcom Floyd (who is injury prone) and second-year player Vincent Brown.

The free-agent class is drying up. The best options may be Brandon Lloyd, Meachem, Mario Manningham and Laurent Robinson. Meachem may soon sign with the Bills even though the Chargers are pushing for him. Robinson flourished in Dallas last season after not making the Chargers’ roster last September. I’m not sure any of those players will make anyone forget about Jackson. The Chargers, who badly need a top pass-rusher, may have to consider taking someone such as Notre Dame’s Michael Floyd with the No. 18 overall pick in the draft.

Here is one way I think the Chargers can regain the trust of fans, but it’s a long shot. They could step in front of Buffalo and sign monster pass-rusher Mario Williams and then sign Pittsburgh receiver Mike Wallace to an offer sheet the Steelers couldn’t match. The restricted free agent would cost the Chargers their first-round pick if he signed. But adding Williams (the best free agent on the market) and having Wallace replace Jackson would show San Diego’s fans the team is serious about getting better.

Again, don’t expect it to happen, but the Chargers must improve and getting creative may be necessary.
Weekend mail call:

Jeff Roebuck from Wichita, Kan., wants to know if there is any way the Chiefs could package Dwayne Bowe in a deal to St. Louis in an attempt to draft quarterback Robert Griffin III with the No. 2 pick.

Bill Williamson: It’s an interesting thought. I think the Kansas City Chiefs would love to get a chance to take Griffin, but they will have a hard time putting together a winning package. Teams such as the Cleveland Browns, Washington Redskins and Miami Dolphins will all offer better trades. The Chiefs have the No. 11 pick in the draft and the three other teams all pick higher in the first round. Adding Bowe would sweeten the pot. Still, I’m not sure if a package of Bowe and the No. 11 pick would be enough. The Chiefs would likely have to add, at least, a future first-round pick to the mix. That’s a steep price.

Shaun Lee from San Clemente, Calif., wants to know if I think the Raiders could sign San Diego running back Mike Tolbert if they can’t sign Michael Bush.

BW: It is starting to look like Bush will probably get an offer to leave the Oakland Raiders. While I think Tolbert would be an attractive option for the Raiders if Bush leaves, he may be too expensive for a team that has bigger needs. I say Oakland fills the backup running back job with an in-house candidate.

Marilou from Anchorage, Alaska wants to know if the Broncos could sign Pittsburgh Mike Wallace in restricted free agency.

BW: There is a chance Wallace (who the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted with a pick acquired in a deal involving the Denver Broncos) could leave for the price of a first-round pick. He would be worth the No. 25 pick. But I think Wallace may be intrigued by other possibilities -- he has already mentioned New England and San Francisco as teams that may appeal to him. In the end, I don’t see this pairing happening.
Darrius Heyward-BeyThomas B. Shea/Getty ImagesDarrius Heyward-Bey's touchdown reception helped lead the Raiders to a win over Houston.
Whether Darrius Heyward-Bey will ever live up to his lofty draft status or whether he even becomes a consistently reliable player is still to be determined.

At least, the man who took an overwhelmingly amount of heat (including from this writer) for taking Heyward-Bey with the No. 7 overall pick of the 2009 draft lived to see the Oakland Raiders receiver make some strides.

In the final game he witnessed the Raiders play, Al Davis watched Heyward-Bey be a bright spot for the Raiders in a Week 4 loss to New England. While perhaps honoring the man who drafted him, Heyward-Bey enjoyed his career highlight in Week 5, the day after Davis died at the age of 82.

Heyward-Bey had a team-high seven catches for 99 yards in the Raiders’ 25-20 win at Houston, which goes down as one of the greatest regular-season moments in team history. Heyward-Bey put Oakland back in the game late in the second quarter when he scored on a 34-yard touchdown after showing strong tackle-breaking ability.

It was fitting that Heyward-Bey player such a major role in the Raiders’ first win without Davis. Heyward-Bey was emotional after the game in interviews and talked about the importance of wearing the Silver and Black. The day Davis died, Heyward-Bey tweeted a thank you to Davis for changing his life.

However, the pairing wasn’t initially easy for either man.

The Maryland product was considered a late first-round or second-round prospect prior to the draft. He had good size and stunning speed. Yet, he wasn’t overly productive in college and there were questions about his hands. Still, Davis was -- as he often was -- enamored with Heyward-Bey’s speed. Davis shocked the NFL by taking Heyward-Bey with the No. 7 pick. Most scouts thought Texas Tech’s Michael Crabtree was the best all-around receiving prospect. He went three selections later to San Francisco.

Heyward-Bey didn’t do himself any favors when he dropped several passes in his first NFL minicamp. The drops continued in training camp and then in the season. Heyward-Bey had some positive moments in his first two NFL seasons, but the drops and inconsistency overpowered the bright spots.

Heyward-Bey had only 35 catches in his first 26 games.

After JaMarcus Russell -- the No. 1 pick of the 2007 draft -- busted, Davis (who scored with several late draft picks in recent years) received criticism for blowing another top pick in the form of Heyward-Bey.

Yet, Davis never wavered on Heyward-Bey. Despite several other promising young receivers on the roster, Heyward-Bey continued to get plenty of chances in his third year. It is paying off. He has 16 catches this season. But the key is his 11 catches in the past two games.

He looks much more confident and he plays very physically. The drops are decreasing.

“I keep telling you guys, Darrius is rising,” Raiders coach Hue Jackson told reporters after the Houston game. “I’m very happy for Darrius.”

Heyward-Bey will have to complete this season with several more quality games before he is considered a player who has a clear future. But he's showing that it's worth the Raiders' time to continue to develop him. The Raiders are loaded with intriguing talent at receiver, so Heyward-Bey’s development will only make this offense more difficult to defend.

He also is helping his legacy in the 2009 draft class. Overall, that year’s draft is considered to be poor. Several second- and third-round picks already have been cut by their drafting team, and several first-round picks (including every other AFC West top-round pick: Kansas City’s Tyson Jackson, Denver’s Knowshon Moreno and Robert Ayers and San Diego’s Larry English) have yet to develop. The No. 11 overall pick, Aaron Maybin of Buffalo, already has been cut. Just this week, the Raiders acquired linebacker Aaron Curry -- the No. 4 pick in that draft -- from Seattle for a seventh-round pick in 2012 and a conditional 2013 pick.

Yet, some good receivers were taken in that draft. Taken after Heyward-Bey and Crabtree (he has had a slow start to this season, but he does have 114 catches in 31 games compared with Heyward-Bey’s 51 catches in 30 games) in the first round were Philadelphia’s Jeremy Maclin, Minnesota’s Percy Harvin, the Giants’ Hakeem Nicks and Tennessee’s Kenny Britt. Other notable receivers taken in that draft were Pittsburgh’s Mike Wallace (third), the Jaguars’ Mike Thomas (fourth), Oakland’s Louis Murphy (fourth), the Colts’ Austin Collie (fourth) and the Bears’ Johnny Knox (fifth).

Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. is not sure if Heyward-Bey is in the league of most of those players. Yet, Williamson sees improvements being made.

“He is certainly getting better,” Williamson said. “His routes are crisper and more reliable and his hands are also more reliable. The speed is obvious -- and it is still his greatest asset.”

The Raiders hope to see Heyward-Bey continue to work and become an overall asset -- and become a positive part of Davis’ drafting legacy.
Jay CutlerKirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireDenver has won just 12 games since trading quarterback Jay Cutler to Chicago in 2009.
Jay Cutler became a Denver Bronco months after the team advanced to the AFC Championship Game.

When the Broncos traded up to take Cutler with the No. 11 pick of the 2006 draft, they probably would have been thrilled to know the quarterback would lead his team to a home championship game appearance in his fifth NFL season.

Unfortunately for Denver, Cutler is now a member of the Chicago Bears. The Broncos traded Cutler in April 2009, and they are still looking for their first playoff berth since they drafted him.

“This is the type of move that can adversely affect a franchise for five years,” Scouts Inc.'s Gary Horton said. “There is no question. The Broncos are in much worse shape today than they were the day before they made this trade.”

This week gives Denver a painful reminder of how far the organization has fallen in the two years since Josh McDaniels replaced Mike Shanahan as head coach. Shanahan left a good offense, but Denver’s defense needed to be retooled. The job appeared to be an attractive one. The 8-8 Broncos were headlined by a 25-year-old quarterback who was coming off a Pro Bowl berth is in his second full season as a starter.

One of the primary reasons McDaniels was hired at age 32 to replace Shanahan was his ability to work with Cutler. Instead, the entire franchise was changed after McDaniels tried to acquire former Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel, who was instead traded to Kansas City. McDaniels and Cutler then feuded. Cutler was shipped out.

While Cutler is preparing to face Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday, McDaniels is beginning a stint as the offensive coordinator in St. Louis. He is trying to rehabilitate his once seemingly boundless coaching career after a disastrous 28-game run in Denver. Among McDaniels’ biggest missteps in Denver were poor personnel decisions, beginning with the Cutler trade.

[+] EnlargeTim Tebow
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesThe Broncos hope Tim Tebow develops into their quarterback of the future.
While the Bears are exactly where they hoped they’d be after the trade, Denver is trying to erase the McDaniels mistake. The team is now beginning the John Fox era with another young quarterback, Tim Tebow.

“Chicago got the big prize here,” Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said. “The way this trade worked out for both Chicago and Denver is proof why teams don’t trade young, franchise quarterbacks. It’s just not something you do.”

What bothers Williamson and Horton most about the trade is what Denver did with the picks it got in the Cutler deal.

“The Broncos got value,” Williamson said, "but they squandered the picks.”

Because Denver made so many draft picks, it’s difficult to break down exactly what it received for Cutler. Denver originally sent Cutler and a fifth-round pick in 2009 (which turned out to be productive Bears receiver Johnny Knox) for quarterback Kyle Orton, first-round picks in 2009 and 2010 and a third-round pick in 2009.

Denver took defensive end/linebacker Robert Ayers with the 2009 first-round pick (No. 18). Ayers has shown some ability, but not as much as Denver hoped. It packaged the Bears’ 2009 third-round pick and its own third-round pick in a deal with Pittsburgh for the final pick of the second round and a fourth-round pick. Denver took tight end Richard Quinn in the second round and guard Seth Olsen with the fourth-round pick. Neither has made an impact. Pittsburgh took standout receiver Mike Wallace with the pick from Chicago.

Denver had the No. 11 pick in 2010 from the Bears. The pick was flipped several times and Denver packaged the compensation with other picks that resulted in the selections of receiver Demaryius Thomas, Tebow and receiver Eric Decker. All could have promising futures. The players selected by other teams as part of the 2010 trade were San Francisco first-round pick Anthony Davis, Philadelphia first-round pick Brandon Graham and New England fourth-round pick Aaron Hernandez.

Tangibly, it is safe to say Denver received Orton, Ayers, Quinn, Olsen and some of the trading power to help fuel the early 2010 selections.

Orton played well for Denver, but he could be traded if Denver gives Tebow the opportunity to start in 2011, which is expected. Ayers will have a chance to play defensive end with Fox’s defense likely going to a 4-3 scheme, but he still doesn’t look like a foundation player. It has to eat at Denver fans that the Broncos passed on linebacker Clay Matthews in favor of Ayers. Matthews is a star for Green Bay.

"Denver could have gotten so much more,” Horton said. “You saw Chicago get Knox and Pittsburgh get Wallace in this deal, and you just have to think the Broncos wasted a great opportunity here.

“The Broncos have to hope Tebow is a hit or this franchise will [be] set back for years. You look at Cutler, Brandon Marshall [traded to Miami], Peyton Hillis [traded to Cleveland], Mike Wallace and look at all the missed chances. This could be a very good team. But it’s starting over all because of this [Cutler] trade.”

Chicago is one game away from the Super Bowl.

“It’s not difficult to argue who won this trade,” Williamson said. “It wasn’t the Broncos.”

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