Now that the 2014 NFL draft is in the books, we can start to postulate how it might shift the balance of power in the AFC West. Did anyone narrow the gap enough to threaten the Denver Broncos for the top spot in 2014?
A brutal schedule for the AFC West teams makes it improbable that three teams will make the playoffs again. Even two teams making it might be an accomplishment, so closing that gap with the Broncos may be the only route to the playoffs.
As long as Peyton Manning is the quarterback of the Broncos, it’s going to be hard for the other teams in the AFC West. With a few exceptions, this has been the case for Manning’s division opponents throughout his entire career.
The other problem is that the AFC West is poised to beat up on each other. It’s not as if the Broncos and one of the other teams are going to be able to beat up on the other two.
Let’s see how the teams stack up now that the draft is over.
4. Kansas City Chiefs
Some will see the Kansas City Chiefs in last place and assume something went wrong, but that’s not the case. It’s common for a team that bounced back in a big way to regress toward the mean the following year.
A tougher schedule, improvement within the division and injury luck are just a few contributing factors. There is no shortage of examples of this over the last five seasons, and one of them is the 2011 Chiefs.
It doesn’t mean the Chiefs will be 4-12 in 2014, but they could be much closer to or even a bit below .500 in a competitive division. Maybe it’s an overreaction based on the offseason, but Chiefs fans should at least be prepared for some growing pains.
The Chiefs also have a few things going against them. They couldn’t be too active in free agency due to the salary cap and didn’t have their second-round draft pick. They lost more talent than they gained, which is going to make it harder to maintain their record against a much more difficult schedule.
While the Chiefs’ first-round pick is a decent pick for the future, his immediate impact is questionable. You can never have too many pass-rushers, but it’s difficult to imagine Dee Ford as being anything more than a situational player unless someone gets hurt. If pass-rusher Justin Houston or Tamba Hali get hurt, it’s hard to see that as a good thing.
Without a second-round pick, the Chiefs' next pick wasn’t until the third round where they grabbed a developmental cornerback in Phillip Gaines. Fourth-round pick De’Anthony Thomas has a chance to have the most impact because he may play a key role on special teams and could push for one on offense.
The final three picks were developmental prospects, but they will have little to no impact in 2014. There’s just not a lot they have done this offseason that should convince anyone they are going to be as good as last year.
Development of a young quarterback can sometimes keep a team from regressing, but the Chiefs don’t have that going for them. Alex Smith is now a 30-year-old veteran who isn’t going to be a lot better than he was last year.
3. Oakland Raiders
No team in the division improved more than the Oakland Raiders this offseason. The Raiders were very active in free agency because they had the most salary-cap space coming into the offseason and had a top-five draft pick.
The Raiders managed to upgrade their defense by signing pass-rushers LaMarr Woodley and Justin Tuck to replace Lamarr Houston and Jason Hunter. They improved their secondary by going from Tracy Porter and Mike Jenkins to Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers. Even though they lost left tackle Jared Veldheer, the Raiders still improved their offensive line by bringing in Austin Howard, Donald Penn and Kevin Boothe.
Perhaps the biggest move they made was trading for Matt Schaub. There is no doubt Schaub had a terrible year in 2013, but pinning it all on him would be to ignore the role coaching played. The Raiders’ coaching staff made Terrelle Pryor and undrafted free agent Matt McGloin look like competent quarterbacks at times last season. There should at least be some hope they can get Schaub back on the right track.
In the draft, the Raiders landed two potentially franchise-altering players. First, they drafted pass-rusher Khalil Mack No. 5 overall, who further solidifies Oakland’s defense and pass rush. In the second round, the Raiders drafted quarterback Derek Carr, who should have an impact down the line.
The Raiders added two more instant-impact players in the third and fourth rounds with offensive guard Gabe Jackson and nose tackle Justin Ellis. Jackson will push to start, and Ellis will get into the rotation on the defensive line.
In terms of the size and physicality of their offensive and defensive lines, the Raiders may be the most well equipped to slug it out with the NFC West. The Raiders might not even have a winning record in 2014, but they are poised to be a big surprise.
2. San Diego Chargers
The San Diego Chargers won six of their final eight games, including the playoffs last season. Of those wins, four came against AFC West teams and another was a playoff win over the Cincinnati Bengals. The two losses were the Bengals in the regular season and to the Broncos in the playoffs.
What was lost last season in the Chargers’ late-season success was just how bad the defense played overall. San Diego’s defense was 29th in yards per played allowed, 30th in turnovers, 31st in yards per drive allowed and last in plays per drive allowed. San Diego’s ball control offense hid the defense’s obvious deficiencies.
It was a defense without much of a pass rush until Melvin Ingram returned from a torn ACL late in the season. Ingram will return in 2014 and so should outside linebacker Dwight Freeney, who missed the entire season with a torn quad.
The Chargers also added another pass-rusher by trading up in the second round to land Jeremiah Attaochu. Those three should combine to give the Chargers a much better pass rush to help their secondary.
With their first-round pick, the Chargers selected cornerback Jason Verrett. Cornerback was a huge weakness for the team in 2013, so adding a top talent at the position was a huge need. Verrett should start immediately for the Chargers.
In the third round, the Chargers added another likely starter in offensive guard Chris Watt. One of the biggest weaknesses of San Diego’s offensive line has been right guard Jeromey Clary, but now they have his replacement. San Diego is already used to having to slug out victories, so the style to go along with an improved offensive line should help against the tough NFC West teams.
The Chargers also added nose tackle Ryan Carrethers in the fifth round, who should be able to earn playing time as a rookie. He should help the Chargers stop the run, which will be a key when they play the NFC West, the Chiefs and the Raiders.
Most importantly, the Chargers have the second-best quarterback in the division. Philip Rivers may not be the perfect quarterback, but he’s a very good one and should be even better in 2014 after a year in head coach Mike McCoy’s system.
1. Denver Broncos
The Broncos are still the class of the division. After adding pass-rusher Demarcus Ware, strong safety T.J. Ward and cornerback Aqib Talib in free agency, the Broncos are loaded for another run at the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
On offense, the Broncos should continue to be one of the best in the league. The Broncos lost wide receiver Eric Decker in free agency, but they replaced him with Emmanuel Sanders and also added Cody Latimer in the second round.
On defense, the Broncos made it to the Super Bowl without their two best defensive players in linebacker Von Miller and cornerback Chris Harris. Both Miller and Harris are coming off ACL tears but should be ready by Week 1 if everything goes according to plan.
The Broncos were also without free safety Rahim Moore and defensive end Derek Wolfe at the end of the season. Both players had freak injuries away from the field last year and should return in 2014.
The addition of cornerback Bradley Roby in the first round of the draft should only solidify the defense. Roby will likely compete with Kayvon Webster for a nickel role in the defense, but both will have to be ready in case Harris isn’t ready to return to the field in Week 1.
As long as Manning is healthy, the Broncos are in good shape. While Manning protects himself, Denver’s offense line should also be able to do it well in 2014. The return of left tackle Ryan Clady from an Lisfranc foot injury means Chris Clark can move to right tackle and Orlando Franklin to left guard.
The Broncos went 5-1 against the AFC West last year, and none of them has closed the gap enough this offseason to change things in 2014. Even against a much more difficult schedule, the Broncos should be able to continue their winning ways.