So if the BRONCOS have lost some ground in roster strength has anyone in the AFC West gained ground with roster changes. The answer is, ‘yes indeed’ indeed in all cases, and IMO here they are in order of Play-Off potential.
CHARGERS The guys in San Diego didn’t proceed with much fanfare, nor did they break the bank in VFA, but they retained most of their top players and/or replaced some older guys with younger talent. But the first key to success this year is a healthy PHILIP RIVERS who gutted his way through serious injuries late last season. Despite questions about his long term future with the team, there can be little doubt that he’s primed for a big season in 2015.
And the front office did a few things to juice up his playmates on Offense. The oft-injured RB/RYAN MATHEWS was allowed to move on, but has been replaced by First Rounder MELVIN GORDON/RB, who was among college football’s elite, big play runners the past two seasons. DANNY WOODHEAD should be back healthy, which means a lot to RIVERS on passing downs. The most interesting talent additions came at WR. Freelance route runner deluxe STEVIE JOHNSON ended his short stint in San Fran by signing on with the CHARGERS. If he doesn’t run patterns correctly here, RIVERS may punch him out on the sideline early in the season. JACOBY JONES was also added to the mix, but his biggest value will clearly come in the return game. Rookie TITUS DAVIS could be a pleasant surprise in the receiver mix. The OL could also see a boost with VFA additions ORLANDO FRANKLIN/G & JOE BARKSDALE/T. If the latter plays well it might facilitate a move of FLUKER inside to OG. CHRIS WATT must shine at OC, in his second season, since steady NICK HARDWICK has retired because of injury wear and tear. However they shake this group out RIVERS must receive significantly improved protection in 2015.
Even bigger potential for change (hopefully improvement) may be possible on the defensive side where the team is retooling big time in the secondary. Newcomers on that side of the ball include PATRICK ROBINSON/CB/VFA, CRAIG MAGER/CB/R and JIMMY WILSON/S/VFA. Draftee MAGER should be a starter soon, but is small school raw entering the League. They may not be big names but a nice mix of Rookies and VFA have been added elsewhere, and if their roles can be determined quickly should help the depth and versatility of DC/PAGANO’s sub-packages. MITCH UNREIN/DL/VFA could be a key addition up front. A strong group of Rookies should help the LB unit depth as well as bolster the pass-rush group. Names like DENZEL PERRYMAN, DARIUS PHILON, KYLE EMANUEL all may offer a big boost to the most important segment of a PAGANO scheme.
If about a dozen Rookies and VFA step into significant roles quickly this team could be improved enough to give the BRONCOS some serious competition in the West.
CHIEFS This off-season looks to have been much more helpful to the CHIEFS in retaining and adding talent than last year when the Salary Cap dictated that they were doomed to serious losses in Free Agency. The team cut ties with erratic underachiever DWAYNE BOWE at WR. They replaced him with local boy JEREMY MACLIN, whose only serious question mark has been his health as a pro. CHRIS CONLEY/WR/R was a huge addition to the receiving corps, but there are questions about how soon he can contribute at the pro level. If he can surprise in Training Camp it will be a huge boost to the passing attack given his combination of size and speed. The RB corp is excellent with JAMAAL CHARLES, KNILE DAVIS & CYRUS GRAY providing depth and versatility. Then you throw in multi-purpose weapon D’ANTHONY THOMAS, who can help in multiple roles, and steady vet QB ALEX SMITH has enough talent to put some points on the board and chew up clock. The big competition for overall improvement should come along the OL. RODNEY HUDSON/OC was lost in VFA, but the team added MITCH MORSE/R to battle KUSH for that OC spot and VFA PAUL FANAIKA & BEN GRUBBS, who could win both OG slots.
A big key on the defensive unit is having a happy sack master in JUSTIN HOUSTON, who wants a big long term contract for his work in recent seasons. The team is still working on that issue. As it is with many teams in the NFL each year, a big key to the CHIEFS D success will also be getting injured starters back to full health. Unfortunately, such will not be the case with Pro Bowl S/ERIC BERRY, who continues his battle with cancer, but hopes are high that MIKE DEVITO/DE & DERRICK JOHNSON/LB will be back whole. Their DL will win with numbers, more so than individual talent, with the huge exception of All-World NT DONTARI POE. The LB group is blessed with 3 plus-talent Edge Rushers in HOUSTON, TAMBA HALI & DEE FORD, who made solid progress as a Rookie last season. Rookie RAMIK WILSON could also help the depth in that position group. The biggest area of added talent and ramped up competition should be in the secondary. MARCUS PETERS/CB, STEVEN NELSON/CB & JUSTIN COX/S will all be given ample opportunities to earn immediate playing time, with PETERS expected to start. The team also added TYVON BRANCH/S from Oakland. Mix them all in with another half-dozen solid vet returnees like RON PARKER/S, SEAN SMITH/CB & PHILLIP GAINES/CB and sub-package secondary slots should have plenty of bodies to move around.
ALEX SMITH/QB is seen by some as the weak point of this team, but in an ANDY REID’s system SMTIH has more than enough talent and experience to run things the way REID wants them done. With most of 2014’s walking wounded returning healthy, and about a dozen Rookies and VFA contributing this team should be a Wild Card contender in 2015. It may look more like the 2013 CHIEFS than the one that disappointed in 2014.
RAIDERS The RAIDERS clearly look to me like they may have taken the biggest talent step forward this off-season. But the dark hole they are emerging from was very deep. I see their primary goal to be avoiding another double-digit Loss season. And they may have a chance at that. The team jettisoned quite a few of last year’s VFA, who were short term hole pluggers, and not really long term answers. And in most cases this year they brought in players much more likely to upgrade things for the long haul. I see a chance for an immediate 7 starters emerging from the Rookie and VFA classes.
Perhaps most importantly, DEREK CARR/QB should see some serious immediate improvement in his receiving corps. AMARI COOPER/WR/R, MICHAEL CRABTREE/WR/VFA & CLIVE WALFORD/TE/R could all be starters by September or October. Also keep am eye out for Rookie WR/JOSH HARPER who could surprise. RODNEY HUDSON/C/VFA is considered elite and just reaching his prime. Also keep an eye on R/OG/JON FELICIANO. This guy is tough as nails and works his butt off to compensate for a lack of elite athleticism. He could earn an OG spot by mid-season, IMO. Even though Draft bust TRENT RICHARDSON/RB is the big name to help replace DARREN McFADDEN in the RAIDERS backfield watch for VFA/RB/ROY HELU to be the guy to share carries with LATAVIUS MURRAY, who shows flashes when not nicked up.
I look for at least 4 new starters on the RAIDERS D in MARIO EDWARDS/DE/R, DAN WILLIAMS/NT/VFA, CURTIS LOFTON/ILB/VFA & NATE ALLEN/S/VFA. Other newcomers like BEN HEENEY/LB/R, MALCOLM SMITH/OLB/VFA, MAX VALLES/OLB/ER/R, JAMES DOCKERY/CB/VFA could all help improve the defensive depth in back-up and Special Teams roles as well. In the spirit of the departed AL DAVIS watch the team’s efforts to find a role for Draftee ANDRE DEBOSE/R, who has DEION SANDERS type speed and athleticism, but could never carve out a positional fit for himself in college at Florida. At the very least he is an explosive return man. Another player to watch might be KEITH McGILL a Rookie CB last year, who I think the team should be converting back to S this year.
In essence the RAIDERS are getting close to respectability under the watch of GM REGGIE McKENZIE. IF JACK DEL RIO was the right choice for the head Coach job, then this team may make progress and be a spoiler for the teams above them.