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AFC West roundtable: Rookie impact

5/11/2015
First-rounder Melvin Gordon will carry the rushing workload for an expected playoff contender. Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

With the 2015 NFL draft in the books and the league’s rookies having joined the fray, it’s a good time to take a look at where things stand in the AFC West.

So, we bounced a few questions off ESPN’s NFL Nation reporters in the division -- Eric Williams in San Diego, Bill Williamson in Oakland, Adam Teicher in Kansas City and Jeff Legwold in Denver -- to get their thoughts on how everybody did in the selection weekend.

Who will be each team’s impact rookie?

Williams: You have to go with Melvin Gordon. The Chargers could not consistently run the football last year. Those struggles, along with back and rib injuries to Philip Rivers, led to San Diego’s inconsistencies on offense the second half of the season. Gordon will allow the Chargers to create mismatches on offense, and that should lead to more chunk plays with his speed and explosive playmaking ability. Gordon will make everyone around him better.

Williamson: I’d love to present some intrigue here and pick a dark-horse option. But I have to keep it simple -- it’s Amari Cooper. Cooper, who had an SEC-record 124 catches last season at Alabama, is the perfect pick for Oakland. He will instantly be the Raiders’ best receiver. Andre Holmes led the Raiders with 693 receiving yards last year. Cooper had 26 catches of 20 yards or longer. What makes Cooper so special? He will immediately make 2014 second-round pick, quarterback Derek Carr, better. Carr had his moments last season -- he threw 21 touchdown passes without many weapons. The Carr-Cooper combination could be key to Oakland becoming relevant again in the AFC West.

Teicher: It will be cornerback Marcus Peters, their first-round draft pick, but mostly by default. This Kansas City draft class isn’t heavy with guys who have the look of instant contributors, other than perhaps on special teams. But Peters also has a lot to learn, particularly from a technique standpoint. The Chiefs don’t have to rush him into their starting lineup, but they do need him up to speed sooner rather than later.

Legwold: Tackle Ty Sambrailo and Max Garcia could put themselves into the mix to start in the offensive line and cornerback Lorenzo Doss has the knack for getting to the ball (15 career interceptions at Tulane). But this class will be led by the player the Broncos traded two picks and an offensive line starter (Manny Ramirez) to move up and get -- Shane Ray. Ray, who was only an option for the Broncos at No. 23 because he was issued a misdemeanor citation for possession of marijuana four days before the draft, was an elite edge rusher in this draft class. He will be quickly integrated into Wade Phillips’ aggressive 3-4 scheme and given plenty of opportunity to show exactly why the Broncos were so quick to move up and get him when Ray started to slide in the first round.

Did the team you cover miss a (roster) spot in the draft?

Williams: The Chargers drafted North Dakota State edge rusher Kyle Emanuel in the fifth round, but it’s unrealistic to expect him to replace the production provided by Dwight Freeney last season. Chargers general manager Tom Telesco said Melvin Ingram is in the best shape of his life, and expects last year’s second-round draft choice, Jeremiah Attaochu, to take a jump in his development after a so-so rookie season. The Chargers have not had a double-digit sack leader since Antwan Barnes totaled 11 sacks in 2011. Ingram or Attaochu have to stay healthy and fill that void for the defense to reach its potential.

Williamson: Who is going to rush the passer for Oakland? The Raiders had 22 sacks last season, tied for the second fewest in the NFL and had a league-low seven sacks from the team’s defensive ends. Oakland took Florida State defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. in the second round, No. 35 overall. However, Edwards is not considered a natural pass-rusher. He had three sacks last season and eight sacks in his college career. He is more of a run-stuffer. Oakland bypassed more natural pass-rushers Preston Smith and Randy Gregory to take Edwards. The Raiders did take Virginia’s Max Valles in the sixth round. He had eight sacks last season, but he is considered a developmental player. It may be a lot to ask of him to be a top pass-rushing option as a rookie.

Teicher: Not for the immediate future. The Chiefs did a nice job of filling in some of the thin spots at wide receiver, cornerback, center and inside linebacker by drafting two players at each spot. They might regret not drafting a developmental tackle. They could have a hole in their starting lineup at right tackle in 2016.

Legwold: As the team’s chief football decision-maker, John Elway has consistently said he does not want the team to be in a position to have to “chase a need’’ during the draft because it can lead to reaches and leaves good players on the board for other teams. And the Broncos were nicely disciplined in the draft as they added some options in the offensive line, a nose tackle, two cornerbacks and a potential developmental quarterback. But they did not snag a returner, particularly a punt returner, a spot where a playoff hopeful had little impact last year.

Which team had the best draft in the AFC West? Why?

Williams: Tough choice here, but I’m going with the Chiefs. Kansas City had an AFC West-high four picks in the top 100, and they used those selections well. I know some NFL observers believe that Peters is a risky selection in the first round. However, Andy Reid has proved he can reach unique personalities like Peters. And if he plays to his potential, Peters can develop into a lock-down cornerback in the NFL, making Kansas City’s lethal pass rush even more effective. Kansas City also added another starting-caliber corner in Oregon State’s Steve Nelson in the third round, who should see time as a slot defender. Missouri offensive lineman Mitch Morse, a second-round selection, should compete for a starting job at center left vacant by the departure of Rodney Hudson in free agency. And athletic freak receiver Chris Conley, a third-round selection, gives Alex Smith another playmaker. This draft should help push the Chiefs back into playoff consideration.

Williamson: I really like the Cooper and Clive Walford (Miami tight end taken in the third round) picks. These players, combined with a strong 2014 Oakland draft, will help the Raiders get better. However, the Chargers had the biggest impact draft in the division. Yes, the Chargers had only five picks. But I love the choices of Gordon and linebacker Denzel Perryman. These are impact players. The Chargers are playoff contenders and I think these players will help San Diego in its pursuits. So, for immediate impact, I will go with San Diego, even though I like what Oakland did for the long-term.

Teicher: The Raiders delivered some much-needed receiving help for Carr in the form of Cooper and Walford. That gives them the edge, though the Chargers with Melvin Gordon, the Broncos with Shane Ray and possibly the Chiefs with Peters look like they acquired impact players in the first round.

Legwold: For the second consecutive year, the Raiders showed some needed discipline on the board. Cooper and Walford should contribute immediately and fifth-rounder Neiron Bell should fit in Jack Del Rio’s defense nicely if he can stay healthy. The Chiefs took a chance on Peters, who was dismissed from his team last season at Washington because he couldn’t get along with the coaches, and added some athleticism with Conley, CB Steven Nelson and LB Ramik Wilson. The feisty Wilson is just the kind of guy who earns playing time when the pads go on. And the Broncos may have gotten one of the potentially impressive rookies in Ray, with a nicely-rounded class overall. But in terms of making the most with the picks, the Chargers snagged two potential starters in five picks -- Gordon and Perryman -- and grabbed one of the most productive players on the board in OLB Kyle Emanuel, who played an astounding 61 games in his college career. The Chargers also grabbed CB Craig Mager, one of the rawest players on the board, but with a potential that was well worth the third-round pick.