Off-Season Report Cards: AFC West
Sizing up the off-season moves of the Broncos, Chiefs, Chargers and Raiders, and how they’ll influence the 2017 campaign
These are the league’s biggest contracts by total dollars.
2016: 9–7, third in AFC West
Significant additions: OT Garrett Bolles (R1), OG Ronald Leary (FA), DT Domata Peko (FA), DL DeMarcus Walker (R2), OT Menelik Watson (FA), head coach Vance Joseph, offensive coordinator Mike McCoy
Significant losses: Coach Gary Kubiak, OT Russell Okung, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, OLB DeMarcus Ware, NT Sylvester Williams
The Broncos won five division titles, two conference crowns and a Super Bowl in John Elway’s first five years in charge.
In Year 6, Denver slipped to 9–7, and the Broncos cleaned house. Sort of.
OK, so things weren’t going exactly by design. The expectation wasn’t that Kubiak was going to walk away after two years, and just 11 months after winning it all. But it happened. The plan wasn’t to have the offensive line in need of a total overhaul. But that happened too. And few expected Trevor Siemian to hold off Paxton Lynch for this long. But that also went down.
So here are Elway and new coach Vance Joseph, with a rebuilt offensive line, no answer on who’s going to play quarterback 15 months removed from Peyton Manning’s retirement, and system tweaks on one side of the ball and a system switch on the other side of the ball. And yet, nothing has changed?
“Winning nine games and not going to the playoffs last was not good enough,” Joseph says now. “And everyone’s motivated, everyone’s engaged in trying to make this thing better moving forward. So that’s what I’ve noticed from day 1 from every guy in the building, every player, every person who works here, from the chef to the personnel people, last year was not good enough.
“Absolutely, they took it personally. And everyone’s working towards make it better.”
OK, so despite all of the above, the cupboard isn’t exactly barren. Whoever plays quarterback will have Demaryius Thomas and Emanuel Sanders to throw to, and CJ Anderson back. The defense still has Von Miller and Chris Harris and Aqib Talib and Brandon Marshall and TJ Ward and Derek Wolfe—and that’s before you get to promising youngsters like Shane Ray and Bradley Roby.
And most of those guys that made up the bulk of the championship core of two years ago are still plenty good for the championship window to remain ajar. But it won’t be that way forever, which is to say any grace period for Joseph, for Siemian or Lynch, and for guys like Bolles, Leary and Watson to come together will be short.
Joseph, for his part, knows it. He’s said repeatedly he’s not walking into a place that’s broken.
But based on the standard set, that doesn’t mean there isn’t something to fix.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
2016: 12–4, first in AFC West, lost in the Divisional Playoff
Significant additions: DL Bennie Logan (FA), QB Patrick Mahomes (R1), RB CJ Spiller (FA)
Significant losses: RB Jamaal Charles, QB Nick Foles, DL Dontari Poe
The move that will most affect the Chiefs’ 2017 season is probably the acquisition of Eagles nose tackle Bennie Logan—and no offense to Logan or the man he’s replacing (Poe), but there just isn’t a ton to talk about there.
OK, so then it’s cool to assess the move that everyone will be discussing anyway?
If things go to plan, Mahomes won’t take a single snap from center Mitch Morse this year, and he may not in 2018 either. The consensus is that the Texas Tech product needs that time anyway and, in landing with a contending team that has an established starting quarterback, the associated belief is that he wound up in about the best situation possible.
But let’s be honest for a minute. GM John Dorsey gave up next year’s one, plus the 91st pick in this year’s draft to move up 17 spots and snare Mahomes. And if you’re going to make a move like that, at that position, it changes the dynamic for a number of people in your organization.
For as stable as they’ve become, the Chiefs aren’t exempt from that.
It starts, obviously, with Alex Smith, now in his fifth season with Kansas City. Fair or not, perception holds that his presence sets a ceiling on how far a talented, well-rounded team can go. And despite four straight winning seasons, and three consecutive years with a passer rating north of 90, Smith hasn’t yet got to a conference championship game with the Chiefs, like he did in 2011 with the Niners.
Next, there’s a core with aging pieces (Derrick Johnson, Tamba Hali) and others deep into their prime (Eric Berry, Jeremy Maclin) that would have an interest in the team sticking with Smith until Mahomes is truly ready—and not buckling to the temptation most teams do when intending to “redshirt” young quarterbacks. If the team decides to take its lumps with Mahomes at some point, those guys are affected.
Then, there’s Dorsey and Andy Reid. The two have built an impressive program and acquiring Smith allowed them to bide their time in finding a young quarterback to hitch their wagon to. This was the year they got aggressive, and most evaluators would tell you this wasn’t exactly a great draft year for quarterbacks, so the long-term future of the Chiefs GM and coach is now tied to the future of Mahomes.
No pressure, kid. Not quite yet, anyway.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
2016: 5–11, fourth in AFC West
Significant additions: Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, OG Dan Feeney (R3), OG Forrest Lamp (R2), head coach Anthony Lynn, OT Russell Okung (FA), WR Mike Williams (R1)
Significant losses: OT King Dunlap, CB Brandon Flowers, G DJ Fluker, head coach Mike McCoy, defensive coordinator John Pagano, LB Manti Te’o, RB Danny Woodhead.
The roster tweaking might wind up being nice, but the players added and subtracted aren’t the story here.
The upcoming tumult of 2017 for this franchise is.
The Chargers are breaking in a new head coach, while spending the spring in their old San Diego facility. The team will break for summer in mid-June, like everyone else, but when they reconvene, the franchise will have moved two hours up the freeway to Orange County. Training camp will be in Costa Mesa, two miles from the team’s temporary regular season home base, some 30 miles south of the team’s home stadium for the next three years—the 27,000-seat StubHub Center.
The truth is, no one knows how this is going to all play out. Traipsing around Southern California certainly didn’t help the 2016 Rams, who finished 4–12 and fired their coach with three weeks left in the season. And it may wind up wreaking havoc on these Chargers all the same.
But if you ask the guys on staff there, the hope is that the opposite will happen—and that Lynn, a powerful leader, will be able to use it to unify his troops. Chargers against everyone… Or something like that.
Of course, if that’s to happen, a few things will have to fall into place, and the first one, without question, regards health. The Chargers have been among the NFL’s most injured teams the last two years running, a major factor in McCoy’s inability to hang on to his job, and without better luck there, it’ll be hard to expect better results than the previous staff got.
Beyond that, the offensive line and secondary need improvement. The Bolts spent big money to bring in oft-injured left tackle Russell Okung, and the hope is the rookie guards they drafted (Lamp, Feeney) will be able to jump in quickly. Conversely, the team left the secondary alone mostly (though Desmond King is a rookie to keep tabs on), with the hope that’ll be one group that’ll be healthier.
The upside is that Philip Rivers will be throwing to a basketball team again—with big, athletic targets (Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Hunter Henry) all over the place, like it was in the glory days—and the defensive core (Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, Denzel Perryman, etc.) seems to fit Bradley’s scheme like a glove.
But to zero in on all that is to get lost in the weeds here. If the Chargers can’t effectively turn a vagabond existence into a rallying cry, the rest won’t matter much.
2016: 12–4, second in AFC West, lost in Wild Card Playoff
Significant additions: CB Gareon Conley; TE Jared Cook; Offensive coordinator Todd Downing; RB Marshawn Lynch; DB Obi Melifonwu; OT Marshall Newhouse; WR/KR Cordarelle Patterson.
Significant losses: S Nate Allen, CB DJ Hayden, DT Stacy McGee, RB Latavius Murray, Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, TE Mychal Rivera, LB Malcolm Smith.
No one in the NFL has a young trio to build around quite like the Raiders do in quarterback Derek Carr, linebacker Khalil Mack and receiver Amari Cooper. And while the team will be faced with challenging contract situations in each of their cases—Carr now, Mack next and then Cooper—the bigger task is putting a championship-level supporting cast around them.
Last year, the Raiders, GM Reggie McKenzie and coach Jack Del Rio showed they’re getting there in reeling off 12 wins. And this year, if what the coaches have seen to this point is any indication—hey have the look of a more physically imposing group on both sides of the ball.
On offense, Murray and Rivera are gone, and in their spots are Lynch and Cook. Both bring elements to the offense that the two they replace couldn’t. Lynch’s punishing style fills a void that Murray wasn’t going to fill, and Cook is the matchup problem in the middle of the field that neither Rivera, nor any NFL tight end that Carr has played with could be.
On the other side of the ball, the addition of big, fast defensive backs in Conley and Melifonwu might as well have been drawn up by coordinator Ken Norton —both were expected to go higher than they did in April.
That’s not to say there aren’t questions here. The linebacker position was a huge need going into the draft – and after Jarrad Davis came off the board three picks before they picked, Oakland waited until the fifth round to take one. The decision to let Musgrave walk and promote the well sought-after Downing will be under some scrutiny. And then, there’s the whole moving-to-Vegas-in-three-years things.
So was it perfect? No. Maybe the staff changes or the holes at linebacker or being a lame-duck will wear on a young team.
But based on what we’ve seen, and with Carr already showing he’s all the way back from his broken leg, it wouldn’t seem smart to count on it. The better bet is the Raiders, behind their three young stallions, stay the upwardly mobile course they set last fall.