This is the first installment of eight posts regarding a 2016 NFL Off-Season Recap of the moves made by teams around the NFL. We will break down some of the more important acquisitions and departures as well as some previews to their future in the NFL. We will start this week with the AFC West division. Last year, the Denver Broncos won the division, and eventually went on to win another Lombardi trophy. That all started around this time last year. Let’s take a look.
Last year the Oakland Raiders finished at 7-9 and third place in the AFC West. This record was their best record since finishing 8-8 in 2011-12. Behind young players like QB Derek Carr, WR Amari Cooper, and OLB Khalil Mack, the Raiders made significant improvements on the field and began to look like a competitive franchise again. This is something that hasn’t really been seen in a decade.
The biggest losses for the Raiders were T J’Marcus Webb and C Tony Bergstrom. Webb started every game last season at RG and RT. This was key to the confidence of Derek Carr, as he looked more stable in the pocket to look down field. Bergstrom was a solid rotational piece on the offensive line, appearing in all 16 games.
With a hefty amount of cap space, the Raiders took advantage of the talent on the market. They brought in key players like G Kelechi Osemele, CB Sean Smith, LB Bruce Irvin, and S Reggie Nelson. Having an offensive line with Osemele, Donald Penn, and Rodney Hudson will certainly help Carr and the RB crew carry the offense. The defense got a big boost with these acquisitions, including the use of the first round pick on S Karl Joseph out of West Virginia. These four players will slide into starting roles immediately and will certainly make the Raiders a top 10 defense in the league.
Prediction: I see the Raiders ending the season 9-7. This would be the first time Oakland finished with a winning record since 2002, where they lost in the Super Bowl to Tampa Bay. Derek Carr and Amari Cooper will continue to grow as one of the top QB-WR duos in the league. There is a lot of bright lights in the future for the Raiders, they just may be coming from Las Vegas.
San Diego Chargers
The Chargers finished the regular season with a 4-12 record and fourth in the AFC West. This was their worst finish since 2003. The results of the season were not necessarily the fault of the players or the coaches, because everywhere you looked, there was a different Charger down on the field. At different points in the season, the team lost WR Keenan Allen, S Eric Weddle, CB Brandon Flowers, TE Ladarius Green, TE Antonio Gates, DT Corey Liuget, and G Johnnie Troutman. Some of these players missed significant time, and that led to the demise of the 2015 San Diego Chargers.
During this off-season, the Chargers have lost some pretty talented players to other teams including S Eric Weddle, TE Ladarius Green, and DL Kendall Reyes. Weddle was the team leader on defense, and without him, I am not sure who is going to step up and be the vocal centerpiece. Not to mention his play was absolutely phenomenal, as he was named to the Pro-Bowl three times and a First-Team All-Pro twice in his time in San Diego. Green was projected to be the replacement for Antonio Gates, but Gates never slowed down. Green is still a tremendous pass catcher, and his solid hands will be missed in San Diego. Reyes has learned over the last few years to maintain the role of run-stopper and force in the middle. His penetration allowed others to rack up tackles for losses and sacks.
San Diego still has LB Donald Butler and G Johnnie Troutman on the free agent market, and they have yet to be added to a roster. Butler let his play drop off once he got a big contract, and Troutman has just been replaced by better players.
Let’s also not forget that WR Malcom Floyd retired this off-season. He spent his entire 11-year career in San Diego and accrued 34 touchdowns and over 5,500 yards receiving. He had a solid career and will certainly be missed, not only in SD, but in the NFL.
It hasn’t been all bad recently for the Super Chargers. They added some nice pieces to the team like CB Casey Heyward, DT Brandon Mebane, S Dwight Lowery, and WR Travis Benjamin. Heyward and Lowery slide into the secondary in the nickel-corner and FS slot. This will improve a secondary that is already trending upward with some young talent. Mebane slides in to replace Reyes. He has shown year in and year out that he can be a difference maker on a talented defense, as he did for both of Seattle’s Super Bowl runs. Benjamin probably got overpaid. He hasn’t shown much consistency in his NFL career, but being the number one target in Cleveland allowed him to take home a big pay day.
Don’t forget they drafted DE Joey Bosa out of Ohio State in the first round. He is expected to make a large impact on the ends that we really haven’t seen in San Diego since the heyday of Shawne Merriman.
Prediction: I have the Chargers finishing at 8-8. Rivers will have a healthy Keenan Allen and Antonio Gates to start off the year, as well as a healthy offensive line, and this will already set up for an improvement. RB Melvin Gordon can’t be any worse than he was his rookie season. Not to mention they have masked some of the defensive errors with some great additions in the off-season.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs were finally able to put up a record that resembled the talent their roster was made of. They put up an 11-5 season and finished with a Wild Card spot before they lost to New England in the Divisional Round. Jamaal Charles was lost early in the season to a torn ACL, but the slack was picked up quickly by a combination of Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West. The surprising duo allowed OC Doug Pederson to mix up a good balance of run and pass calls to keep defenses guessing.
The losses for the Chiefs aren’t as significant as the they were for the remainder of the division. CB Sean Smith, OL Donald Stephenson, and S Tyvon Branch were the only players that were lost in free agency that should concern Chiefs fans. Smith, now with division rival Oakland, will have to face off against Alex Smith. He will leave second year CB Marcus Peters as the number one cornerback, and there is a big question mark about the second spot. Stephenson played in all 16 games last season at both tackle spots. Right tackle would have been a question mark if not for a signing they made this off-season. Branch and Eric Berry were a fearsome tandem that scared many receivers when going over the middle and kept quarterbacks honest when trying to sneak a pass in over the top.
Former OC Doug Pederson also left the team to join the Philadelphia Eagles as the Head Coach. This is the first time Andy Reid has been without Pederson since 2009, as he was the Quarterback coach and Offensive Quality Control Coordinator in Philadelphia before heading to Kansas City. Former Vikings Head Coach Brad Childress and QB coach Matt Nagy are sharing the responsibilities as OC. This shouldn’t change much about the Chiefs, but if anything, we get to see more from Alex Smith. He is at the point in his career where he is known as a game manager, and he should be able to be a quality starting QB no matter who is calling the plays and designing the offense.
DE Mike Devito and S Husain Abdullah also announced their retirements this off-season due to injury concerns. This removes some experience on the defensive side of the ball.
Kansas City didn’t make many moves to improve their team this off-season. Their main priority was to keep their team intact, and replace Stephenson to solidify their RT spot. They had to sign Derrick Johnson to a long-term contract, and Jaye Howard was also given a decent two-year deal to tighten up the front seven. The addition of RT Mitchell Schwartz should give Alex Smith some confidence to stretch plays to the outside, and he may not have to scramble as much (I know, I know. He’s really good at it).
Prediction: The Kansas City Chiefs will come down a little bit, but not significantly. I see them finishing 9-7. Alex Smith is a middle-of-the-road quarterback, and with the defense losing some strong pieces, I expect them to slow down just a bit. They probably won’t make the playoffs, but there is still some young talent to work with there.
There isn’t much chance for improvement from the Super Bowl champions. They finished the regular season 12-4 before they fought through one of toughest roads to a Lombardi trophy in recent memory. Denver wasn’t fazed by the mid-season switch at quarterback from the proven veteran in Peyton Manning to the mostly unknown Brock Osweiler. The drop-off that Manning experienced last season was historic, and the young gunslinger handled the pressure better than most expected. Now, they look to avoid a post Super Bowl hangover.
The Broncos had a big wake-up call after their Super Bowl parade ended. They lost both of their quarterbacks, Manning and Osweiler, one to retirement and one to free agency. This left a roster that featured only QB Trevor Siemian, who had only one snap in his career, and that was a QB kneel.
A quick realization after winning a Super Bowl is that every team wants to take players from a winning roster. Players that are proven winners and have Super Bowl talent are almost immediately scooped up by teams trying to find their identity. Denver’s defense is a perfect example of this. They lost two top-tier players at their position in DL Malik Jackson and LB Danny Trevathan. Jackson has proven to be a high pressure guy, who has recorded 14.5 sacks in the last three seasons. His highest impact has been on forcing the QB outside of the pocket. This significantly helped players like DE DeMarcus Ware and LB Von Miller rack up their sack totals. Trevathan hasn’t been a huge presence in the backfield, but his ability to cover RBs and TEs is one of the best in the league. He probably lands in the top five of coverage linebackers.
Denver also lost two starting offensive lineman in T Ryan Harris and G Evan Mathis, and a third, G Louis Vasquez, is still a free agent. All three of these players have had successful careers, and without them the Broncos would be left with pretty large holes to fill. Without any acquisitions they would have been left helpless to block for any quarterback they brought into the system.
Luckily, the Broncos were able to find some help along the offensive line. Denver gave pretty lucrative contracts to two new tackles in Donald Stephenson, formerly of Kansas City, and Russell Okung from Seattle. This sets them up to protect the young quarterback they drafted out of Memphis, Paxton Lynch, who is expected to battle it out with QB Mark Sanchez. The quarterback battle will certainly be one to watch, as neither of these two have really earned anything at the NFL level. With Okung’s ability to set the edge, there should be some improvement in the play of both RBs, Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson.
Prediction: Paxton Lynch will win the job over Mark Sanchez. Denver will take a step back as they adjust to their new quarterback learning the NFL speed and the Broncos’ system. They also lost some significant pieces on defense and didn’t replace them in free agency. I think, even with the rookie quarterback, the Broncos go 10-6 and win the division again. They will not have home-field or a bye week in the playoffs and will probably be eliminated in the wild card game.