Saturday, March 23, 2013
AFC West checkpoint
By Bill Williamson
Free agency is 11 days old and the heavy lifting has been done. The Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs were among the busiest teams in the NFL this offseason. Elsewhere in the AFC West, the Oakland Raiders and the San Diego Chargers have taken more measured approaches because of salary-cap constraints.
There are still bargains out there, and I expect both Oakland and San Diego to cherry-pick the remaining scraps in free agency to bolster their rosters. And then there's the draft, coming up in a little more than a month.
Let’s do a late-March checkpoint for each team thus far:
Where are they strong? Denver doesn’t have many holes, and its offense got more potent with the addition of slot receiver Wes Welker. His signing was one of the stories of the offseason. He is a perfect addition and a new toy for quarterback Peyton Manning. Pair Welker with Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, and Denver has arguably the best group of receivers in the NFL. Denver added cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, defensive tackle Terrance Knighton and middle linebacker Stewart Bradley to a defense that finished 2012 rated No. 2 overall in the NFL.
Where are they weak? The Broncos could use a safety, some clarity at middle linebacker, perhaps another pass-rusher and a running back.
Biggest remaining question: Where is Denver going to go with the No. 28 pick in the draft? The John Elway regime is known for taking the best available player. If there is a safety such as Texas’ Kenny Vaccaro or a running back like Alabama's Eddie Lacy available, I can see Elway pouncing. Either could come in and play a major role.
Kansas City Chiefs
Where are they strong? The new regime has done a nice job of beefing up, making the Chiefs better in a lot of spots. They were already good at linebacker; now they are strong in the secondary after adding cornerbacks Sean Smith and Dunta Robinson. Along with Brandon Flowers, this might be the best group of cornerbacks in the NFL. Throw in young safety Eric Berry and this is a powerhouse.
Where are they weak? You never want to go too crazy about a team coming off a 2-14 season, but the Chiefs don’t have a ton of holes. They have improved in key spots and don't have glaring holes. The biggest improvement, of course, was at quarterback, where Alex Smith takes over for Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn. Smith is not elite, not even close. Still, he is far from terrible. With that problem fixed, the Chiefs might look to get stronger on the offensive line and could also use another inside linebacker and another body on the defensive line. But that’s average stuff. Pretty good for a 2-14 team.
Biggest remaining question: Will the Chiefs trade left tackle Branden Albert? The franchised player could command a second-round pick in return. That would make up for the second-round pick Kansas City lost in the Smith trade. The Chiefs could be interested in such a move. If that deal happens, the team would probably take Texas A&M left tackle Luke Joeckel with the No. 1 pick and find an answer elsewhere for the hole at right tackle.
Where are they strong? This team has talent despite the exodus the last two offseasons. I think the most interesting group right now is the linebackers after the addition of free agents Nick Roach, Kevin Burnett and Kaluka Maiava. The Raiders also have second-year player Miles Burris, who started as a rookie. The front seven will vary, but the Raiders are expected to remain a 4-3 base defense -- so there is some versatility on this unit.
Where are they weak? The Raiders have holes on both sides of the ball as they rebuild after years of wild spending by the previous regime. They need big help on the secondary and must continue to work on the defense as a whole. Tight end and offensive line are other positions of need.
Biggest remaining question: Second-year general manager Reggie McKenzie has added some nice pieces at bargain rates in free agency after seeing several good players leave. Can McKenzie continue to find more help? This team still needs six to nine starters.
San Diego Chargers
Where are they strong? This is a good team on defense. It was underrated last season, especially the front seven. The Chargers also have quarterback Philip Rivers. Yes, he has had some issues the last two years, but new coach Mike McCoy has often said the key is to build around Rivers.
Where are they weak? OK, well, the Chargers have to continue to build around Rivers. The offensive line still needs two or three starters, and another skill-position weapon is a must. Cornerback Derek Cox was a good get, but the Chargers need Shareece Wright or Marcus Gilchrist to take the next step at cornerback. Another safety may be needed as well.
Biggest remaining question: How are the offensive line holes going to get fixed? The team will probably draft a left tackle with the No. 11 pick, but this unit needs to get better or Rivers will have no chance to succeed.