Free Agency Diary

AFC West Free Agency Preview

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Over the past five years, the AFC West crown has been won by none other than the Denver Broncos. In a league full of parity, that’s an impressive feat.

What’s even more remarkable is that Denver has appeared in two Super Bowls during that time frame and of course, the second time was the charm.

As John Elway’s ball club prepares for life without Peyton Manning, they’re well aware of how difficult winning the division for a sixth-straight year will be.

If not for a brutal 1-5 start to the season, the Kansas City Chiefs could’ve very well been division champs. Andy Reid’s team finished the regular season winning 10 straight, while also snapping their well documented losing streak in postseason play after trouncing Houston, 30-0.

Meanwhile, Oakland Raiders fans finally have something to be excited about.

After finishing 3-13 two years ago, Oakland experienced a four-game turnaround this past season, Behind the lethal up and coming duo that is Derek Carr and Amari Cooper, this Oakland team has plenty of promise from an offensive standpoint.

Unfortunately, times aren’t as bright in San Diego.

Despite not being able to play in the ‘big game’, the Chargers were competitive year-in and year-out. However, this past season was a completely different scenario.

Sure, all four of these teams need improvement in key areas.

Some just need more than others, so with that being said, let’s take a look at the specific needs and each team’s realistic free agency targets.

Denver Broncos 

Team needs: Quarterback, Running Back, Offensive Line, Defensive Tackle

Fresh off a Super Bowl victory, it may be human nature to let your foot off the gas a little. But with two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback John Elway running things, it’s very unlikely to see anyone get complacent in the Mile High City.

With Manning likely to retire, Denver must decide whether or not Brock Osweiler is the long-term answer.

Also, with Ronnie Hillman likely to leave in free agency, the Broncos must find some depth at running back.

Top target that would make sense: James Starks, RB, Packers

Running backs C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman are both free agents, but it’s widely believed Anderson will remain in the blue and orange, while Hillman will take his talents elsewhere.

This past season, the two backs split carries.

With Hillman probably gone, it’ll be essential for Denver to keep the dual-threat philosophy intact.

Not only would James Starks be well within Denver’s price range, he’s arguably coming off the best season of his seven-year career.

Starks finished with a career-high 601 yards on 148 carries to go along with two touchdowns.

A few other targets: Alfred Morris, RB, Washington; Colt McCoy, QB, Washington; Haloti Ngata, DT, Detroit; Cordy Glenn, LT, Buffalo

Denver can’t go wrong either way with James Starks or Alfred Morris as their backup running back. Both guys have proven to be solid backs in this league and would provide great relief for C.J. Anderson.

It appears that Brock Osweiler is the quarterback of the future, but who will be his backup?

Colt McCoy would be a great acquisition, as he’s shown the ability to be a low turnover guy and you can’t forget the Elway factor. Plus, McCoy is good enough to put a little pressure on Osweiler, which could be a good thing.

As Denver preps for their transition at quarterback, it’ll be vital to make sure Osweiler’s blindside is protected. Corey Glenn would be a great option.

Sure, Haloti Ngati isn’t the same player by any means.

In Denver, does he really have to be that guy?

He doesn’t because he’ll be surrounded by so many great pass rushers. All he’ll have to do is take up space in the running game and be a voice in the locker room.

Kansas City Chiefs

Team needs: Backup Quarterback, Offensive Line, Cornerback, Outside Linebacker

Although Denver has dominated the division for a few years now, it’s safe to say Kansas City believes they’re the team to take the crown.

Before the Chiefs can fully take on the challenge of dethroning Denver, there’s plenty of in-house stuff they must figure out. Guys like Eric Berry, Derrick Johnson, Sean Smith and Tambi Hali are set to hit the open market.

It’s unrealistic for Kansas City to retain all of these players, but the Chiefs are known for picking up a couple of low-key free agents each off-season.

Top target that would make sense: DeShawn Shead, CB, Seattle

Whether Sean Smith returns or not, DeShawn Shead makes too much sense for Kansas City. If Smith returns, Shead would be a major upgrade as the Chiefs third cornerback over the likes of Jamell Fleming and Marcus Cooper.

If Smith bolts, Shead has proven to be a solid second cornerback.

In Seattle, he’s earned the spot opposite of Richard Sherman and he’s a big corner at 6-foot-2 a la Smith.

A few other targets: Morris Claiborne, CB, Dallas; Wes Welker, WR, Rams; Donald Penn, LT, Oakland

In today’s NFL, there’s no such thing as having too many defensive backs. Kansas City found out the hard way as Tom Brady and company just spread them out, exploiting their lack of depth in the secondary.

Morris Claiborne was the sixth-overall pick of the 2012 NFL Draft, but he hasn’t lived up to the billing. However, he would come at a relatively cheap price and maybe a change of scenery would do wonders for him.

Wide receiver has been an issue in Kansas City for quite some time now and while Wes Welker has been injury prone recently, he’ll be a low-risk, high-reward type of signing. Considering Alex Smith loves check downs and short intermediate routes, Welker seems like an ideal fit, assuming he’s healthy enough to play.

In order to max out Smith’s potential, his offensive line must be up to par and while this unit wasn’t ‘terrible’ for the Chiefs, they could definitely use an upgrade and Donald Penn wouldn’t be a bad option.

Penn was a Pro Bowler back in 2010.

Oakland Raiders 

Team needs: Left Tackle, Cornerback, Safety, Inside Linebacker

Oakland is one of the few teams in the NFL that’s primed to ascend to the next level. Having said that, there’s a few key areas general manager Reggie McKenzie must address.

In the wake of Charles Woodson’s retirement, it’s vital for Oakland to find a veteran safety to help lead the back end of the defense. Also, it’s important to note Oakland finished 26th in passing yards allowed this past season, so it wouldn’t be a bad idea to upgrade at the cornerback position.

It feels like forever ago when Oakland had a reliable man in the middle defensively. In 2010, they drafted Rolando McClain with the eighth-overall pick.

Unfortunately, McClain was a trouble maker and when they finally gave up on him in 2012, they’ve had a new starter at the position every year since then.

Top target that would make sense: Eric Weddle, S, San Diego

How huge would this be?

It would be enormous considering Charles Woodson is no longer there. Furthermore, Weddle will bring experience and a certain toughness to this young defensive unit.

Weddle was the captain of the Chargers defense for the past four seasons.

In nine seasons, he’s totaled 19 interceptions, 74 passes defended and 680 tackles.

A few other targets: Janoris Jenkins, CB, Rams; Jerrell Freeman, ILB, Indianapolis; Kelvin Beachum, LT, Pittsburgh; Casey Hayward, CB, Green Bay

As aforementioned, there isn’t a such thing as having too many functional defensive backs, especially in the case of the Raiders. With such a young core of cover guys, expect for them to explore all options in free agency.

When keeping in mind potential and age, Denver’s Danny Trevathan may be the biggest middle linebacker commodity this off-season, but obtaining Jerrell Freeman will be a lot easier for Oakland’s front office. Freeman has been a starter in Indianapolis the past four seasons. He provides good coverage skills for a linebacker and he’s improved against the run.

On the other side of the ball, Oakland has tons of promise. Nonetheless, an improvement on the offensive line would never hurt anyone. This is where we look at Steelers left tackle Kelvin Beachum.

Beachum’s season was cut short after he tore his ACL in week 6 against Arizona. Depending on his asking price, Oakland should give Beachum a long and hard look.

San Diego Chargers

Team needs: Wide Receiver, Tight End, Safety, Defensive Tackle, Offensive Line

This is a franchise in complete transition.

After years of competing in the AFC, it appears it’s time for San Diego to go into full rebuild mode at this point. Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates simply aren’t getting any younger.

With that being said, this is a very prideful organization and with Rivers on the backside of his career, they may attempt to make one last push.

Top target that would make sense: Alshon Jeffery, WR, Chicago

With Malcolm Floyd retiring, San Diego will look to add a big time receiver. In what’s a weak free-agent class for pass catchers, Alshon Jeffery is the biggest fish out there.

Last season, Danny Woodhead was the team’s leading receiver with 80 catches, which isn’t a good sign since Woodhead is technically a running back.

Jeffery caught 54 balls for 807 yards to go along with four touchdowns this past season in Chicago. He would provide Rivers a big target and a much needed threat on the perimeter.

A few other targets: Coby Fleener, TE, Indianapolis; Alex Mack, C, Cleveland; Walter Thurmond, S, Philadelphia

If the Chargers truly want to make one last push with Rivers under center, they must address tight end and center. Gates isn’t the same as he was, but if you pair him with Coby Fleener, things could get interesting.

Even more importantly, going after Alex Mack would be a home run signing.

Some are speculating that Mack will be the highest paid center of all-time when he reaches a new deal. Should San Diego go all in?

Well, if they’re serious about winning, they should.


About Mark Gunnels

Mark Gunnels

Mark Gunnels is an NFL columnist for Football Insiders. He has several years of experience covering the NFL and NCAA football. He's the radio color commentator for Lincoln University football. Mark's work has been featured on Sports Illustrated, Fox Sports and Yard Barker.