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Sunday, 10 March 2013

Filling The Holes: AFC West

We finish off our look at the AFC in the west. With Peyton Manning firmly in place Denver are the undisputed kings of the division, but that doesn't mean they don't have a few glaring holes that need attention.

With everyone else playing catch-up the draft becomes even more important than normal as Kansas and Oakland find themselves picking in the top 3 while San Diego need to fix their sieve of an offensive line and find some production on defense.

Denver Broncos

Notable Free Agents: Brandon Stokley (WR), Kevin Vickerson (DT), Tracy Porter (CB), Jim Leonard (S)

Franchise Tag: Ryan Clady (LT)

Holes: Running back, Linebacker, Cornerback, Safety

Peyton Manning can paper over a lot of cracks for a team, but there's no getting around just how poor the Denver secondary was in their playoff loss to Baltimore. Champ Bailey proved unable to cope single-handed against elite speed and the safeties simply disappeared. They also struggled mightily against tight ends all year due to the poor coverage skills of their linebackers.

It's very difficult to fix all these things straight away, especially when you've got very limited cap space. The Broncos are trying to re-structure Elvis Dumervil's contract to lower his cap hit, and there's every chance they could cut him if they can't agree as the language in his contract gives allows them to do so before March 16th without penalty. Doing so however would simply open up a new, and very large, hole on the defense.

If they can improve their pass defense by squeezing another year out of Champ Bailey and bringing in coverage players in the draft then they should once again be a serious threat in the AFC.

They could also use a fresh infusion of talent at the Running Back position. Willis McGahee can still be productive in a limited role, but is no guarantee to be healthy, nor is he getting any younger. A late round back would be a good pick up for the Broncos, especially one who excels in pass protection.

San Diego Chargers

Notable Free Agents: Louis Vasquez (RG), Shaun Phillips (OLB), Demorrio Williams (LB), Quentin Jammer (CB)

Holes: Left Tackle, Left Guard, Running back, Pass Rush, Cornerback

There was a period not so long ago where the Chargers had the most talented roster in the NFL. Well those are gone now, and what's left is a frustrated fan base and a declining offense.

The offense, which still has a talented Phil Rivers at the helm, has been stripped of its studs over the last few seasons. Vincent Jackson, Darren Sproles, LaDanian Tomlinson, Marcus McNeill and Kris Dielman have all left the Chargers over the years and have been very inadequately replaced. Last season Rivers was sacked a huge 49 times and was visibly unhappy at his circumstances. Getting better protection for him needs to be priority number 1. It could start with signing a Jake Long or Sebastian Vollmer or they could look to the draft and hope that Eric Fisher or Lane Johnson fall to them at 11th overall. Personally I'd go the route of signing a free agent tackle and then trying to draft Chance Warmack or Jonathan Cooper.

After that the Chargers will be hoping for increased production from recent high picks Melvin Ingram and Corey Liuget to fill in some of the gaps on defense, but they do need to bring in a lot of new linebackers as they have a total of 6 heading to free agency including their leading pass rusher Shaun Phillips. With 3 cornerbacks out the door as well it looks like it could be a long, tough season for the Chargers defense. But at least there's no more Norv Turner.

Oakland Raiders

Notable Free Agents: Mike Goodson (RB), Brandon Myers (TE), Matt Shaughnessy (DE), Matt Giordano (S)

Holes: Quarterback, Defensive Line, Linebacker, Cornerback

Where to begin with the Raiders? Once again they are hard pressed for cap space and thin on talent. They've had to release Richard Seymour to try and create some modicum of flexibility but it still won't be enough to bring in the talent needed to cover up all the holes.

The trade for Carson Palmer was an error from the get go, I wasn't convinced he could still compete in Cincinnati and his time in the Black and Silver has done nothing to change my mind. The error of the trade has been compounded by missing out on the deepest draft class in years in 2012 and now being stuck with a high pick in a thin year. But they have to make the best of a bad situation, which points in the direction of Dee Milliner to bolster an awful secondary or Sharrif Floyd to bring a bit more bite to their defensive line. Moving down is also an option, especially if it sees them recoup a 2nd round pick.

There's no way for them to be competitive this season, not with Manning around. But the return to a man-blocking scheme should see Darren McFadden's production increase dramatically (until he gets hurt around week 7) while the speed they possess at receiver will always cause teams issues.

Terrelle Pryor says he's ready to compete for the starting job, personally I don't think he's at all likely to get it, and don't be too surprised to see the Raiders jump on Geno Smith at 3 as the "answer", this is the Raiders after all.

Kansas City Chiefs

Notable Free Agents: Peyton Hillis (RB), Steve Breaston (WR), Glenn Dorsey (DE)

Franchise Tag: Brandon Albert (LT)

Holes: Defensive Line, Offensive Tackle, Running Back

Andy Reid hasn't been shy about making moves since coming to Kansas. Bringing in Alex Smith for (up to) 2 second rounders, re-signing Dwayne Bowe to a 5 year deal, releasing Eric Winston and now reportedly signing Dunta Robinson to a 3 year deal.

With all that ground work already done it looks like the Chiefs are firmly pointed in the direction of Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel in the draft, though Sharrif Floyd and Star Lotulelei are still options should they decide to bring in one of the many quality free agent tackles to play with Albert.

You might be surprised to see me put Running Back as a need. After all, Jamaal Charles is pretty damn good, but he's no 20+ carry workhorse. He's a deadly player, but you need to keep those fast legs fresh. With Peyton Hillis leaving town a new thumper is needed to smash short yardage situations and rest Charles. One direction could be a veteran like Michael Turner but more likely is taking a compliment to Charles late on in the draft.

Last year I picked the Chiefs to win the AFC West partly on the strength of their squad around a weak QB and partly because I wasn't sure what level Peyton Manning would be able to play at. Well with Manning looking stellar for most of last year I won't be picking the Chiefs to win it this year. But a wildcard berth certainly isn't out of the question at all.

- Toby Durant (@TDonSport)
- The Pulling Linemen

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