The AFC West is home to the defending Super Bowl champions, but the Denver Broncos you saw lay waste to the Carolina Panthers in February aren't the ones you'll see suiting up in September. Many of Denver's stars have scattered to the winds, thanks to retirement and free agency. As many as nine of the starters who lined up for Denver against Carolina, including seven offensive starters, will not be in those same spots when the Broncos open the NFL season in a rematch against the Panthers on Sept. 8.
With that in mind, the West feels wide-open. The Kansas City Chiefs were arguably a better team in the regular season than the Broncos, missing out on the division title only because of a ridiculous collapse from a 96-plus percent win expectancy in the final three minutes against Denver in Week 2. The Oakland Raiders have a promising young core of talent and used their $75 million in cap space to fuel a defensive resurgence. And while the San Diego Chargers were sunk last year, they went 3-8 in games decided by one score or less and still have the division's best quarterback; their turnaround could come quickly. That's a lot to compete with for a Broncos team that shed stars all offseason ... unless you argue that they went 12-4 and actually improved at a key position. But who would do that?
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What went right
They quietly might have upgraded at quarterback. It's weird to say about a team that won a Super Bowl and subsequently lost its Hall of Fame starter and its promising backup during the same offseason, but it's entirely possible that the Broncos will get better quarterback play out of Mark Sanchez in 2016 than they did out of Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler last season. That duo combined to post a Total QBR of 46.7, which was 25th in the league.
During his two seasons under Chip Kelly in Philadelphia, Sanchez posted a QBR of 55.0. I'm not so confident in QBR's ability to account for scheme changes to say that Sanchez definitively outplayed Manning and Osweiler, but it's at least in the realm of discussion to suggest that he could play at a similar level in 2016 as those guys did in 2015. Given that Sanchez will have a cap hit of just $4.5 million and cost just a seventh-round pick while Manning (in 2015) and Osweiler (over 2016-17) were each going to cost in excess of $17 million per year, the Broncos may be better off with Sanchez.
While Osweiler unquestionably has more upside, Denver is a veteran team that needed a short-term option with a relatively high floor. They were able to draft a long-term option with massive upside when they grabbed Paxton Lynch at the end of the first round. With Osweiler still mostly an unknown quantity -- he may prove to be a worthwhile NFL starter -- it's still unclear whether he's any better than Sanchez. The opportunity to use that $12.5 million or so elsewhere in 2016 may pan out as the better move for the Broncos.
They found a left tackle on the cheap. Left tackle was a mess last year for the Broncos, who lost Ryan Clady and then rookie Ty Sambrailo to season-ending injuries by the end of September. Ryan Harris eventually filled in before leaving for Pittsburgh. Enter Russell Okung, who critically misjudged the importance of agents by trying to represent himself in free agency.
Okung ended up signing a massively Broncos-friendly contract. His five-year, $53 million deal has no guaranteed money and will earn Okung only up to $5 million this year if he makes the Denver roster. After the season, Denver gets to decide whether they want to pick up an option that will basically give Okung two guaranteed seasons for a total of $21 million, with two additional non-guaranteed seasons tacked on at the end for $25 million more.
It's about as unfavorable a deal as a player can sign entering free agency. You have to feel bad for Okung, given that this might be his only shot at securing a big-money second contract, but it's a great deal for Denver. And by signing Okung, they were able to deal Clady and a seventh-round pick to the New York Jets for a fifth-rounder.
What went wrong
A lot of useful players walked out the door. You know the names. Manning. Osweiler. Malik Jackson. Danny Trevathan. Evan Mathis. Louis Vasquez. Owen Daniels. Some of the names were bigger than their actual on-field impact, but that's a lot of talent leaving, either via free agency, release or retirement. You can understand why the Broncos didn't want to pay Jackson and Osweiler what the AFC South thought they were worth, but it's still frustrating to see huge chunks of a Super Bowl-winning team leave town.
What was interesting is that the Broncos really didn't pursue like-for-like replacements, outside of swapping Clady for Okung. They did add Jared Crick as a nice low-cost replacement for Jackson, but their other offseason signing was Donald Stephenson, who likely will start at right tackle and push the disappointing Michael Schofield into a reserve role. Denver didn't sign a guard despite cutting both starters, with the idea that they'll move Sambrailo inside after signing Okung.
The Broncos value their financial flexibility and likely will pursue players throughout the summer, as they did in signing Mathis this past August. They also picked up several compensatory picks by mostly avoiding free agency, including a juicy pair of third-rounders for Jackson and Osweiler. Now that teams can sign free agents without impacting the compensatory formula, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Broncos try to add a player or two in the weeks to come.
They bungled the C.J. Anderson situation. It has been hard to pin down what the Broncos actually think Anderson is worth. After entering the year as the starter and almost immediately losing the job to Ronnie Hillman, it took the Broncos until the Super Bowl to make Anderson the featured back, the role he should have been in all season while healthy. With Anderson proving to be the lead back, the Broncos should have tendered him at the second-round level, which would have cost Denver $2.5 million and ensured compensation if another team tried to sign him.
Instead, the Broncos tried to save some much-needed cap room and tendered him at the lowest level, which cost $1.7 million and wouldn't have required any compensation if another team tried to sign him away. The Miami Dolphins promptly offered Anderson a four-year, $18-million deal, and the Broncos decided that the same player who wasn't worth the extra $800,000 to all but ensure that nobody would sign him was suddenly worth $6 million guaranteed in 2016.
The Broncos were naive about the Anderson market, but even treating the tender decision as a sunk cost, it doesn't feel like the right move to guarantee a running back this much money, either. Undrafted or otherwise, anonymous running backs like Anderson have a nearly 20-year history of succeeding in Gary Kubiak's offense, a list that includes everyone from Terrell Davis to Arian Foster and Justin Forsett. If there's any place the Broncos can and should be saving money, it's at running back. Anderson has looked good when given playing time, and he should be effective as the starter in 2016, but there's a good chance the Broncos could have just turned the job over to a street free agent or fourth-round pick Devontae Booker and gotten similar production at a fraction of what they'll pay Anderson.
Lock up Von Miller. The Broncos obviously needed to franchise Miller to keep him around. They would have loved to sign Miller to a long-term deal to lower his 2016 cap hit and use the franchise tag elsewhere, but that was going to be close to impossible in the abbreviated window before free agency.
Now that free agency has passed, the leverage has shifted back to the Broncos. The problem for Miller is that he's quite possibly undervalued by the franchise tag. Think about Olivier Vernon, the best pass-rusher available in free agency who just signed a massive deal that will pay him $53.3 million over the next three years. The New York Giants structured the deal in such a way as to have some flexibility after the second season, but for all intents and purposes, it's hard to see them moving on from Vernon before 2019 unless he's a catastrophic failure.
Members of the Vernon family would probably admit that Miller is a better NFL player than their own flesh and blood. Miller is locked up on the franchise tag in 2016 for $14.1 million. The Broncos could tag him again in 2017 and pay him $17 million, and then again in 2018 for $24.4 million. That's $55.5 million, and it gives the Broncos flexibility to get out of the deal if Miller suffers a serious injury.
Miller is reportedly looking to get upper-echelon quarterback money in a deal that would pay him in excess of $20 million per year. If Vernon can get $17 million on the free market, you'd better believe somebody would give Miller what he wanted. It's just hard to see how or why Miller would get there before 2019, and three years is an eternity in football time. Heading into the 2013 season, Miller was coming off of an 18.5-sack season that announced him to be one of the best pass-rushers in the league. The only players topping him were J.J. Watt and Aldon Smith, whose careers have taken massively different turns. Miller likely will have to compromise if he wants the immediate security of a long-term contract.
What went right
They got busy at the draft. The Chiefs were without a third-round pick after the NFL stripped it away for tampering with Jeremy Maclin, but they made up for it with a pair of useful trades down to acquire extra picks. They traded out of the first round, sending the 28th and 249th picks to the San Francisco 49ers for picks 37, 105 and 178. Then, they sent the 59th pick to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (who moved up to draft kicker Roberto Aguayo), getting picks 74 and 106 in return. In all, according to Chase Stuart's draft value chart, the Chiefs sent out 22 points of draft capital in trades and got 30.3 points in return. That 8.2-point difference is like picking up the 63rd pick in the draft, a late second-rounder, for free. That's the exact sort of thing you need to do when the league takes one of your draft picks away.
They retained Eric Berry. It took the franchise tag to keep Berry around, but the Chiefs couldn't let their star safety walk out the door and into unrestricted free agency. Berry has yet to sign his franchise tender of $10.8 million, but it seems likely that he'll be on the field when the Chiefs line up for their home opener against the Chargers on Sept. 11.
What went wrong
They might have lost Justin Houston for the season. This isn't part of their grade, of course, but it's painful to remember and essential to consider that Kansas City's best player might be done for the year before training camp even begins. Houston underwent surgery in March to repair a non-functioning ACL, and while the Chiefs are hoping he will be able to play in 2016, his rehab timeline is (at least publicly) unclear.
They were overly aggressive in locking up veterans on their defense. The Chiefs were arguably football's best defense once Sean Smith returned to the lineup, and with five of their starters hitting free agency, it was going to be tough to hold onto their stars. Curiously, they let the 28-year-old Smith leave for Oakland in free agency while locking up two of the oldest players on the team.
Linebackers Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali each returned to the team, and while they were both effective contributors last year, they will turn 34 and 33 in November, respectively. Furthermore, the second year of Hali's deal is fully guaranteed, as is half of Johnson's 2017 salary. You can understand why the Chiefs did it, given that they are dangerously thin behind Johnson at inside linebacker and need Hali with Houston possibly done for the year, but it's a risky maneuver.
They're still woeful behind Maclin at wide receiver. How did the Chiefs come out of this offseason with Albert Wilson as their No. 2 wideout again? Granted, this was a terrible free-agent market, and they did re-sign Travis Kelce, but Kansas City barely addressed the weakest spot on its roster. The Chiefs took a flier on Raiders backup Rod Streater and spent fourth- and fifth-round picks on Demarcus Robinson and Tyreek Hill. Hill, whose selection resulted in anger from the local community given that he pleaded guilty in college to charges of assaulting his pregnant girlfriend, profiles as a return man. This is still a mess, and with Maclin and Kelce both injury concerns, the Chiefs really needed to add a more plausible, meaningful weapon for Alex Smith.
Lock up Berry and Dontari Poe. In some cases, the next step is an academic exercise. The Indianapolis Colts aren't letting Andrew Luck go. I'm not sure about this one, though, because both Berry and Poe will be unrestricted free agents next year, and the Chiefs are already close to capped out. They have $161 million committed in 2017, and cap space isn't going to be easy to come by. They could carve out $23 million by releasing Eric Fisher (saving $11.9 million), Jamaal Charles ($7 million) and Dustin Colquitt ($4.1 million), but that would just leave them in the market for starters at other positions. There are tough decisions coming in Kansas City.
What went right
They continued to invest in their offensive line. It was a match waiting to happen. The Raiders had as much cap space as any team in recent history heading into the offseason, and with the beginnings of a talented core finally emerging, Oakland actually loomed as a destination for stars entering their prime. With general manager Reggie McKenzie placing a priority on building around his offensive line, Kelechi Osemele seemed like an obvious fit. The five-year, $58.5 million deal the Raiders gave Osemele is a remarkable sum even for one of the league's best guards, but Osemele showed enough in a late-season stint at left tackle that it's not difficult to envision the Raiders lining him up there at some point. And to be honest, if any team could afford to overpay for a star this offseason, it was the Raiders.
They upgraded massively in the secondary. Oakland has been so desperate for cornerbacks that they signed David Amerson off of waivers from Washington in midseason and inserted him straight into the starting lineup the following week. Amerson actually might have been the Raiders' best cornerback the rest of the way, which isn't exactly promising. Oakland's 16th-ranked pass defense by DVOA was driven by the incredible pass rush of Khalil Mack and the takeaways of Amerson and Charles Woodson. Woodson had five picks, but with the future Hall of Famer retiring, the Raiders needed to address the secondary.
They did so in a big way. Signing away Sean Smith from their division rivals in Kansas City gave the Raiders a legitimate above-average cornerback, somebody with the size to press the likes of Demaryius Thomas at the line of scrimmage. Then, they picked up a pair of starting safeties in Reggie Nelson, who posted a league-high eight interceptions last season, and first-round pick Karl Joseph, who will slot in at strong safety and has drawn comparisons to Bob Sanders. If Mack and fellow addition Bruce Irvin can hold up their end of the bargain rushing quarterbacks, this could quickly turn into a very scary pass defense.
They waited in the market and found players at team-friendly prices. Yes, the Raiders went out in the very first days of free agency and signed Osemele and Irvin. Otherwise, though, they were smart to sit around and let the veteran free-agent market unfurl. When things didn't go the way certain players expected, Oakland pounced. Osemele could viably have lined up at left tackle, but when incumbent Donald Penn failed to get a massive deal elsewhere, McKenzie brought him back on a two-year, $11.9 million contract. Nelson signed a two-year, $8.5 million deal. Neither player has any guaranteed money due in 2017.
What went wrong
They failed to upgrade at running back. In what is perpetually a buyer's market, the Raiders stood pat at halfback. Latavius Murray was underwhelming in his first full season as Oakland's starter, struggling with fumble issues and consistency. It would be premature to give up on Murray, who will be a free agent next year, but nobody would have blamed the Raiders for signing a veteran option like Alfred Morris in free agency or using a middle-round draft pick on a back to rotate in alongside Murray. Oakland did use a fifth-round pick on DeAndre Washington, but he profiles as a receiving back and return man. Roy Helu is still lurking behind Murray and has been effective in the past, so things aren't too bad. And in general, when the biggest complaint about a team is that they're thin at running back, things are going reasonably well.
Re-sign Amerson. Even middling cornerbacks are capable of breaking the bank in free agency. The Raiders appear to have stumbled onto something promising in Amerson, and while he washed out of Washington, his play from last year justified a longer contract. With Amerson a free agent after this season, the Raiders would do well to look into signing Amerson now in the hopes of getting a massive discount versus what an average corner would get on the free market. Even if they're wrong, the potential savings might justify offering Amerson a raise on his $930,123 cap hold.
What went right
They invested heavily in improving their defense. The Chargers were a mess on defense last season, finishing 28th in DVOA and dead last against the run. What looked like a young, talented defensive core had never really developed into much of anything. Credit the Chargers for making changes. Out went Kendall Reyes and Donald Butler, the latter of whom was called "a fraud" by Chargers beat writer Kevin Acee after he was released. Butler will be replaced by Denzel Perryman, a run-thumping 2015 second-round pick who started nine games a year ago.
Otherwise, the Chargers brought in as many as four new starters this offseason to revamp their dismal defense. The most notable name is Joey Bosa, whom the Chargers took as the first non-quarterback off of the board in this year's draft with the third overall pick. Bosa, who will line up as an undersized 5-technique defensive end on early downs before shifting around the formation to rush the passer when the Chargers go with their sub packages, will be joined up front by fellow new arrival Brandon Mebane, who was Seattle's best run-stopper along the defensive line for the past few years.
Behind them, the Chargers upgraded a surprisingly subpar secondary from a year ago by signing Green Bay Packers slot corner Casey Hayward and Colts safety Dwight Lowery. Lowery won't be able to live up to the play of departed star Eric Weddle, but Hayward should be a comfortable upgrade on Patrick Robinson. Just getting rid of sub-replacement players such as Butler and Jimmy Wilson, who was run over and exploited in coverage repeatedly before being cut late in the year, is a step forward for the Chargers.
They added depth along the offensive line. Injuries and the San Diego offensive line seem to make fast friends on an annual basis, and the Chargers have been badly overdue for investments along the line over the past several years. While general manager Tom Telesco passed on the top-tier tackle prospects available at No. 3, he did enough to supplement the line this spring.
The Chargers re-signed Joe Barksdale, the one starter from a year ago who made it through all 16 games unharmed. They also added third-round pick Max Tuerk, who missed most of last year with a torn ACL but started at center, guard and tackle at different times for USC. The Chargers might have had Tuerk compete with Chris Watt for the job at center, but after the draft, they pounced to sign curious Chicago Bears release Matt Slauson, who likely will start at center in Week 1. It would be wrong to say that this projects to be a great line, but going from bad to competent can be even more valuable than going from competent to very good. The Chargers should have fewer holes in 2016.
They brought back Ken Whisenhunt as offensive coordinator. While Whisenhunt's time in Tennessee as a head coach looked a lot like his final messy year in Arizona, his disappointing stint on top shouldn't erase the memory of what he was able to do with Philip Rivers in San Diego. During his lone year as Chargers offensive coordinator in 2013, Whisenhunt helped inspire a career year out of a passer who had been in decline for the previous three years. Whisenhunt's return should be an upgrade on Frank Reich, who moved on to serve as the offensive coordinator in Philadelphia.
What went wrong
They ran Weddle out of town. It would have been one thing if the Chargers didn't want to sign their longtime star safety to a new contract, given that Weddle turned 31 in January, but how the the Chargers handled Weddle's departure didn't make the organization look remotely player-friendly. The damage was done during the end of the regular season, but it was hardly a good look.
They overpaid for Travis Benjamin. Needing a third wideout to replace the retiring Malcom Floyd, the Chargers threw $13 million guaranteed over the next two years at Benjamin, who profiles as the fifth option (behind Antonio Gates, Keenan Allen, Stevie Johnson and Danny Woodhead) at best over the next year. Benjamin is a screens-and-bombs receiver who had a breakout 2015 campaign, but it was driven by a 54.4 percent catch rate that was out of line with his previous career average of 42.7 percent. It's possible that Benjamin took a big leap forward, but if that catch rate was a fluke, the Chargers will be paying a premium for a replacement-level deep threat. And even if it was a new level of performance, the Chargers were better off investing their money elsewhere and turning the third wideout slot over to somebody like Dontrelle Inman or a cheaper free agent like Rueben Randle.
Re-sign Allen. Allen was on pace for an absurd line of 134 receptions, 1,450 yards and eight touchdowns before suffering a season-ending lacerated kidney in midseason. Those numbers were driven by a 75 percent catch rate that's probably unsustainable -- Allen was at 65.4 percent across his first two seasons in the league -- but it's evidence as to how wildly valuable he is to the Chargers. San Diego averaged 23.9 points per game with Allen in the lineup and 16.1 points without him, and while he's not the sole party responsible for that difference, the Chargers weren't the same without him. Allen, who will make $1.8 million in the final year of his rookie deal, is about to get a massive raise.