NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- AFC West
Whenever "the predictors" go to work, as Denver Broncos coach John Fox likes to call most anyone who tries to offer thoughts on how the NFL season will go, Fox will often point to what happened in the AFC West in 2013 to show the relative worth of preseason predictions.
"Our division was supposed to be one of the worst, people had plenty to say about that," Fox said. "But then when things finished between the white lines, three teams went to the playoffs and it was really one of the toughest divisions. Our expectation is that it will be tough and that we need to be ready to earn what we get."
Whether or not the division can duplicate its 2013 postseason trifecta remains to be seen, but the AFC West team that may have made the biggest roster splash in last month's draft was the one team in the division that didn't make the playoffs: the Oakland Raiders.
With the rest of the division picking in the bottom third of each round, the Raiders took full advantage of location, location, location, grabbing Khalil Mack at No. 5 overall, quarterback Derek Carr with the fourth pick of the second round and Louisiana Tech defensive tackle Justin Ellis with the seventh pick of the fourth round. Add in guard Gabe Jackson with the 17th pick of the third round and the Raiders were workmanlike in their pursuit of immediate contributors.
But did everybody complete their pre-draft missions? NFL Nation's AFC West reporters -- Jeff Legwold in Denver, Adam Teicher in Kansas City, Eric D. Williams in San Diego and Paul Gutierrez in Oakland tackle it all in 4 Downs.
John Elway's offseason mission was for the Broncos to get "faster, more athletic, across the board." Have the Broncos succeeded?
Paul Gutierrez: File this one under the heading "The rich get richer," and amend to "The conference champs get faster, more athletic across the board." So, in a word, yes. First, the Broncos added DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib in free agency, and while they may have lost a step not only due to age, but to the enormous chips on their respective shoulders, they were steps few others had in the first place. Then the Broncos went out and drafted a cornerback who ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash in Ohio State's Bradley Roby to help soothe the loss of Champ Bailey, and then a big, physical receiver in Indiana's Cody Latimer to give Peyton Manning another target in the wake of Eric Decker's departure to Gotham and the New York Jets. So, yeah, I think the Broncos accomplished Elway's goal. The real trick, then, is putting it all together in the postseason in general -- the Super Bowl in particular -- because, as I've written before, no team excels at losing on Super Sunday in more spectacular fashion this side of Fran Tarkenton's Minnesota Vikings than Elway's Broncos. And to bite a rhyme for Tarkenton's old 1980s show, That's Incredible!
Jeff Legwold: They careened into free agency, checkbook in hand, and came away with DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward and Emmanuel Sanders. The first two players they selected in the draft were two of the fastest on the board at speed positions -- cornerback Bradley Roby and wide receiver Cody Latimer. The feeling inside the Broncos' complex this offseason is that as the injuries piled up last season, their depth chart was good enough for them to make the Super Bowl, but their team speed and athleticism suffered. As they now get into the teeth of their offseason program, it's clear that with the new additions and the return of most of those players who were injured last season, they have a far more athletic roster than they did in a 35-point loss to the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Adam Teicher: Picking near the bottom of every early round makes it difficult for a team to get a lot done. But it looks like the Broncos accomplished what John Elway wanted them to with their first couple of picks, at least. Not that Bradley Roby is Champ Bailey or Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, at least not yet. But he's faster and is otherwise the athletic superior of those other guys at this point in their careers. Cody Latimer is one of those guys the Chiefs will probably regret they didn't get. With his size and speed, Latimer has what teams are looking for in a receiver. And with the Broncos, he won't have the pressure to produce big results immediately.
Eric D. Williams: On paper, Denver looks more athletic on defense in particular with the additions of DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib. But those three players, along with first-round selection Bradley Roby, still have to mesh and develop some chemistry with the rest of the defense, and that might lead to some growing pains early. More importantly, I'm not totally sold that the Broncos fixed the team's most glaring issue from the lopsided Super Bowl loss to Seattle -- protecting Peyton Manning. Getting back a healthy Ryan Clady will be critical for the Broncos, along with better overall performances from Orlando Franklin at left guard and Chris Clark at right tackle.
Did the Chiefs make a mistake by not drafting a wide receiver?
Gutierrez: It would appear as such, especially with the consensus feeling out there before the draft that the Chiefs' biggest need was a receiver. Dwayne Bowe is coming off a career-low 11.8 yards per catch average, while Donnie Avery's two touchdown receptions were the fewest of his career as a starter. Both will be 30 by the end of September, and at the beginning of June, those are essentially the only wideout weapons at Alex Smith's disposal. And it's not as if the Chiefs were lighting it up in the passing game, anyway. The Chiefs had the 24th-ranked passing game in the NFL last season, and when their first pick came up at No. 23 overall, four receivers had already been taken in Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandin Cooks. So, sure, the top-rated pass-catchers may have already been gone, but Kelvin Benjamin and Marqise Lee were both still on the board when the Chiefs instead chose a defensive end in Dee Ford. Unless Bowe and Avery experience career renaissances, or someone else shows up, the Chiefs will regret passing on a receiver with that first pick, especially since they were without a second-round selection.
Legwold: Having seen what Andy Reid has done in the past in the passing game with running backs like Duce Staley and LeSean McCoy, it's likely fourth-round pick De'Anthony Thomas is going to see plenty of time lined up like a wide receiver. And if Thomas plays to his pre-draft scouting report, he should have some impact. The Chiefs were not that productive at wideout last season and seem locked in on Dwayne Bowe improving in 2014, and A.J. Jenkins will give them more as well. But if they don't like what they see in the coming weeks, they may have to sign a veteran when cuts get made around the league in August and September.
Teicher: They didn't make a mistake if they didn't like any of the available receivers when they made their picks in the first and third rounds. But it's difficult to see how the passing game will continue to flourish as it did late last season without the Chiefs getting at least some help from one of their draft picks. Their wide receivers were among the least productive in the league last season and they lost Dexter McCluster, one of their leading pass-catchers. There seems to be a lot of wishful thinking going on at the position. Maybe Dwayne Bowe will bounce back with a better season or Donnie Avery can be more consistent. Perhaps A.J. Jenkins, a former first-round draft pick with the San Francisco 49ers, can improve. It's possible CFL veteran Weston Dressler or speedy fourth-round draft pick De'Anthony Thomas can provide a boost. But from this vantage point it appears the Chiefs have a collection of players at this position who don't add up to much.
Williams: Consistent production at receiver appears to be the Achilles' heel of Kansas City's offense heading into the 2014 season. Dwayne Bowe was considered a true No. 1 receiver three years ago, but hasn't caught more than five touchdown passes in a season since 2010. Donnie Avery can serve as a vertical threat if he can stay healthy. Young players like A.J. Jenkins and Junior Hemingway have the potential to develop into regular contributors, while fourth-round selection De'Anthony Thomas could replace some of the production Kansas City lost due to Dexter McCluster signing with Tennessee in free agency. But the Chiefs do not have an outside receiver who puts fear into an opposing secondary.
@adamteicher No. Rookie wide receivers rarely revolutionize an offense. Andy's O is RB and TE driven, the impact would have been minimal.- Townsend Keller (@Obtuse_Goose_61) May 21, 2014
Did the San Diego Chargers add enough talent through the draft to improve an inconsistent pass defense from last season?
Gutierrez: Well, let's see. The Chargers finished 2013 with the 29th-ranked pass defense in the NFL, last in the AFC West. Only the Dallas Cowboys, Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles were worse overall. So San iego (see what I did there, no 'D' in the Chargers' game?) went out and used its first-round pick, No. 25 overall, on TCU's Jason Verrett, a dark horse of a cornerback if there ever was one in this draft. He was the fourth corner chosen, behind Justin Gilbert, Kyle Fuller and Darqueze Dennard, and should start for the Bolts immediately. A pass-rushing linebacker in Georgia Tech's Jeremiah Attaochu was taken in the second round and the Chargers went defensive tackle in the fifth round with Arkansas State's Ryan Carrethers. And that was it on the defensive side of the ball in the Chargers' draft. So on the surface, by taking only one player from the secondary, the answer would appear to be a healthy ... no. But if Attaochu and Carrethers can supply adequate pressure to affect the quarterback, at least more than last year, how does a healthy "maybe" grab you?
Legwold: The Chargers largely kept it in the fairway in free agency and the draft, preferring a low-key approach they believe will allow them to keep their playoff status. Grind it out will keep it close, but it won't consistently beat the Broncos. It will take explosiveness and perhaps even a turnover or two on top of that. The Chargers played the Broncos better than anyone last season, at least until the Seahawks dismantled Denver in Super Bowl XLVIII. But the Broncos filled holes and actually made their depth chart better. The Chargers look like they have made moves that will help them grow, but at first blush it doesn't look like they did enough to unseat Denver, provided the Broncos keep Peyton Manning and the bulk of their starters healthy.
Teicher: It's difficult to fault the Chargers' efforts. In going 1-2 in the draft with a cornerback, TCU's Jason Verrett, and a pass-rusher, Georgia Tech's Jeremiah Attaochu, the Chargers tried to make the necessary repairs. But Verrett is small and probably best suited to playing nickelback. If that's where he plays, he's a part-timer. As for Attaochu, it's unusual for rookie pass-rushers to come in and have a huge immediate impact, particularly those who aren't selected near the top of the draft. It's not wise for the Chargers to count on a lot from him as a rookie.
Williams: San Diego's first two picks in this year's draft, cornerback Jason Verrett and edge rusher Jeremiah Attaochu, should make an impact in their rookie seasons, upgrading a defense that finished No. 29 against the pass in 2013. Verrett is still rehabbing from surgery to repair a torn labrum and likely won't be cleared to practice until August. But San Diego plans on getting him on the field quickly and can use his tenacity and speed in the back end. Attaochu gives the Chargers much-needed speed off the edge defensively. But besides those two, San Diego's defense should improve against the pass because of a healthy Dwight Freeney and Melvin Ingram providing a more consistent pass rush in 2014.
Will the Raiders' plan to take a play from the Packers -- having their QB of the future (Aaron Rodgers) sit behind the starter (Brett Favre) for a few seasons -- come to fruition, or will Derek Carr supplant Matt Schaub as Oakland's starter this season?
Gutierrez: Stop me if you've heard this before, but this was also Oakland's plan last year ... so to speak. The Raiders acquired Matt Flynn to be their franchise QB and had designs on drafting Matt Barkley before taking Tyler Wilson instead. Terrelle Pryor and Matt McGloin eventually split the gig and neither Flynn nor Wilson made it to the end of the season, while Pryor was traded away in April. This time, though, the Raiders insist they have it right, with coach Dennis Allen going so far as to say that Schaub is a top-10 quarterback in the NFL. They better be right. Because if Carr takes any significant snaps this season, that means something went terribly wrong with Schaub, a two-time Pro Bowler who passed for more than 4,000 yards three times between 2009 and 2012 but is coming off a nightmarish season with the Houston Texans. And after last year's fiasco under center, the brain trust of general manager Reggie McKenzie and Allen can ill afford another such dud. Unless, of course, Carr does supplant Schaub and is the second coming. But that would be dumb luck, and that's not Oakland's plan ... at the moment.
Legwold: Coach Dennis Allen has consistently said he believes Schaub is a top-10 quarterback. But his actions this season will show whether he really believes that or not. The Raiders certainly drafted Carr with the idea he could be the quarterback of the future. But that means the Raiders will have to have organizational discipline to live with the plan. That means avoiding a knee-jerk reaction to public sentiment if Schaub makes mistakes, and keeping Carr on the bench. If the plan is for him to watch and learn, then stick to it; let him watch and learn no matter what is going on around the team. If the Raiders have some success and Schaub can rise above the mistakes, it will be far easier to keep Carr next to a clipboard rather than behind center.
Teicher: It's best for the Raiders in the short term, at least, if Schaub is their starting quarterback for all of 2014. Starting a rookie quarterback is, in most cases, a prelude to disaster. That hasn't always been the case, but generally speaking a team needs more going for it than Oakland has to succeed with a rookie QB. So the best-case scenario for the Raiders is for Schaub to play well enough to allow him to keep his job. They don't need Dennis Allen making the panic move to save his job by switching to Carr, who may or may not be ready to play. Oakland needs Schaub to succeed to the point where you're asking the same question at this time next year.
Williams: Dennis Allen and Reggie McKenzie need to finish around .500 to save their jobs, so the more games Schaub plays and is effective, the better the chance of that happening. Carr has a strong arm and is an interesting prospect, but he's not ready to lead a team and win on a consistent basis in the NFL. The Raiders need Schaub to hop in a time-travel machine and perform like he did in 2009, when he led the league in passing yards and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl.
@PGutierrezESPN Week 7 Johnny vs Derek- Michael Martin (@559Raider87) May 29, 2014