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Summer Questions: AFC West

John Leyba/The Denver Post/Getty Images


Denver Broncos

Q: True or False: The Broncos are in "win-now" mode and have mortgaged the future because of it?

A: He's faced defenses with only a few seconds still on the clock and no timeouts in his pocket. He's remained calm in the face of all forms of football stress through the years, but if you want to crack John Elway's oh-so-calm demeanor at least a little bit, just put the phrase "win now" into a description about what the Broncos have done during Elway's tenure.

"People keep asking me, and they keep saying we're a win-now team," Elway said. "Of course we're trying to win now, but we're trying to win from now on, too. We're looking to be competitive -- to compete for world championships for the long haul."

So when the Broncos dove into free agency this past March with a big part of their cash reserves to sign DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward and Emmanuel Sanders, they constructed the deals with the future in mind.

Talib's deal, for example, is six years, $57 million on paper, and though initially the guarantees were reported at $26 million, the deal is a little more diverse than that in practice. The only full, no-matter-what-happens guarantees are in 2014 -- the $4.5 million base salary, the $5 million signing bonus, a $2 million roster bonus and $500,000 worth of game-by-game incentives. That's a potential total of $12 million, if he plays in every game.

The other potential guarantees -- his $5.5 million base salary in 2015 and $8.5 million base salary in 2016 -- are only guaranteed if Talib is on the roster on the first day of each of those league years.

Talib, Sanders and Ward all signed deals that limit the salary cap pain, in terms of "dead money," after the first season. Ware's deal is the one of the four in which the Broncos will need Ware to see the contract through to avoid significant "dead money" issues.

At 31, Ware was the oldest of the first-wave free agents the team signed, and his deal has the biggest per year average

But overall, Elway has tried to sign the bulk of the team's free agents as those players were still young enough to be moving off their initial contract in the league. The Broncos, with the lure of a playoff trip, have also gotten many of their free agents in recent years to split up the payments of the guaranteed money.

They have tried to walk the line between now and later.

-- Jeff Legwold


Kansas City Chiefs

Q: Can the Chiefs maintain the pace they set in the passing game over the last several games of 2013?

A: Given that the Chiefs failed to add a wide receiver to an unproductive group, it's going to be difficult.

The Chiefs quietly had one of the league's most productive passing games over the final seven games, counting the playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts. But it's not realistic to believe the Chiefs will continue that production over a full season with largely the same cast of receivers.

The problem isn't with quarterback Alex Smith, who made progress as the season went on as he became more familiar with his teammates and Andy Reid's system. Other than running back Jamaal Charles, Smith had no consistently productive receiving threat, and that hasn't changed.

The Chiefs are counting on a bounce-back season from their No. 1 wide receiver, Dwayne Bowe. Bowe had his biggest game of the year in the playoff loss, but he still had the least productive full season of his career last year. He will turn 30 in September, so it's natural to wonder whether the inevitable end-of-career slide has begun for him.

Otherwise, the Chiefs are counting on the likes of Donnie Avery and A.J. Jenkins, wide receivers who have disappointed in the past. Help could come from tight end Travis Kelce, who showed promise as a downfield threat last year before a knee ailment ended his rookie season, and rookie De'Anthony Thomas, a slot receiver and running back who has world-class speed.

But by the time the season is finished, the Chiefs might be guilty of wishful thinking with these players and their other receivers. A better move would have been to add a receiver either through free agency or the draft.

-- Adam Teicher


Oakland Raiders

Q: Given the offseason drama surrounding Dennis Allen's job security, before he was retained following a second consecutive 4-12 season, how many games do the Raiders have to win in 2014 to ensure his return?

A: There is no real magic number to save Allen, though an 0-4 start heading into the bye week with increasingly worse showings and a locker room tuning him out would have assistant head coach Tony Sparano on high alert.

Of course, this is worst-case-scenario territory. What owner Mark Davis wants to see, what he needs to see, is marked improvement. Yet with the Raiders having the toughest strength of schedule in the NFL, wins are going to be hard to come by.

Consider: The Raiders are riding a 13-game losing streak in the Eastern time zone, a streak in which they were outscored 469-225. And the NFL scheduling gods have them opening at the New York Jets before going to New England in Week 3 and then across the pond to jolly old England.

That's baptism by fire.

But let's say the Raiders not only survive that early stretch but also thrive. After all, there were five games a year ago in which Oakland held a second-half lead, only to lose. There were two others in which the Raiders were tied at the half but ended up falling. That's seven games in which the Raiders' lack of a killer instinct hurt them. This year's roster is not only better -- on paper -- but also deeper.

When Davis signed off on Reggie McKenzie tapping Allen as his first hire, all parties involved had to know this was at least a three-year process. That's partly why Allen received a four-year contract, unheard of under the late Al Davis. As such, and as noted above, Allen needs to show tangible evidence of a team on the upswing, and winning more than four games would be evidence of that. Let's set the over-under, then, at 6.5 victories against the league's toughest schedule in 2014 for Allen to return.

-- Paul Gutierrez


San Diego Chargers

Q: Can quarterback Philip Rivers produce a repeat performance of his efficient play last season and prove that 2013 was no fluke?

A: With Rivers throwing a combined 48 interceptions in the three years leading up to the 2013 season, some NFL observers believed that the North Carolina State product was in decline. But buoyed by an up-tempo, short-passing game installed by head coach Mike McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, Rivers thrived. He led the league in completion percentage (69.5 percent), and finished in the top five in yards per attempt (8.23), passing yards (4,478), touchdowns (32) and passer rating (105.5) in 2013, and he won the Associated Press Comeback Player of the Year award.

With Whisenhunt taking the head coaching job with the Tennessee Titans and former Chargers quarterbacks coach Frank Reich assuming the role of offensive coordinator, don't expect much to change offensively. In fact, Reich will give Rivers even more leeway to make calls at the line of scrimmage in order to get his team into the right play. The Chargers will also continue to lean on one of the most effective running attacks in the league, led by the three-headed monster of Ryan Mathews, Danny Woodhead and newly acquired Donald Brown.

Balance on offense remains the key of Rivers' continued success in San Diego. The Chargers posted a 9-2 record in games in which they rushed for at least 112 yards last season. So opponents should expect a heavy dose of Mathews, who rushed for a career-high 1,255 yards in 2013, come September.

-- Eric D. Williams