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Divisional needs: AFC West preview

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Brian Billick

Brian Billick served as head coach of the Baltimore Ravens from 1999-2007, winning Super Bowl XXXV. He has also authored books, including More Than A Game: The Glorious Present and Uncertain Future of the NFL. Follow him on Twitter.

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Not only the favorite to win the AFC West, but the AFC in general, the Denver Broncos have made some strategic moves in the offseason to elevate their chances in an ever-closing gap of opportunity. The Broncos will be in contention for the next two or three years simply because of Peyton Manning, but by adding key offensive free agents, namely Wes Welker, they show they are going all-in to win an NFL championship while Manning’s window in still open. The Chiefs have once again put together a solid team on paper, but we saw how well that went for them last year. Andy Reid is new to town, but his previous 14 years of head coaching experience gives the Chiefs a veteran leader they haven’t had since Dick Vermeil. I’m not sure the gap between the Chiefs and Broncos will be as large as people think when it comes down to it, but the Chargers and the Raiders are clearly bringing up the rear in the division.

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Denver Broncos
Finished:
13-3, Eliminated by Baltimore in the Divisional round
Drafting: No. 28 in the first round
Needs: DT, MLB, S, RB

The Broncos have had a whirlwind offseason with the surprise signing of Wes Welker and then the fax-gate scandal with Elvis Dumervil, but this is a 13-3 team that got better, albeit during a desperate time frame to win a championship while Peyton Manning can still get it done. While Welker was the splash signing, the re-signing of Manning’s blindside protector, Ryan Clady, may have been just as important. Additionally, the Broncos shored up the interior of the offensive line with the signing of Louis Vasquez, who was the lone bright spot for the Chargers line last season.

With the addition of Welker to an already solid receiving corps of Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, the Broncos are obviously already set at the position, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other holes on the offensive side of the ball. The Broncos would do well to upgrade a tight end position that is pedestrian at best, but the biggest need is to add a playmaker in the backfield. Manning has made a living winning with average running backs like Willis McGahee and Knowshon Moreno, but think what he could be with a game-changer at the position and how much of a headache it would cause for defensive coordinators. While that is fun to think about, it is highly unlikely that they use the 28th pick on a running back, with so many other needs on defense.

The Broncos secondary will forever be remembered for blowing the game against the Ravens by letting Jacoby Jones get deep and beat them on a desperation play late, but if you look at the entire season, the safeties weren’t as bad as that play suggests. They added Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to pair with Champ Bailey at the cornerback position, and while neither are shut-down level players, combined they are a very good tandem. To me, the defensive upgrades need to take place along the front, particularly at defensive tackle and if available, a pass rusher to replace the departed Elvis Dumervil.

Sharrif Floyd and Star Lotulelei are the best at the defensive tackle position with Sheldon Richardson from Missouri also likely to be gone by the time the Broncos pick at No. 28. That leaves the Broncos with a choice between Jesse Williams of Alabama, John Jenkins from Georgia, Sylvester Williams from UNC or recent climber Kawann Short. Of the four, I think Jesse Williams is the best athlete and can provide an interior pass rush that the others can’t.

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If the Broncos decide to fill the void left by Dumervil, there could be an interesting scenario that plays out with former Texas A&M standouts Von Miller and Damontre Moore. While Miller played linebacker for the Aggies, Moore lined up as a more traditional defensive end, but when Miller left for the NFL, Moore slid over to the “joker” rush position that Miller played. Now both of them could reunite with the Denver Broncos. Moore was once considered the best pass rusher in the draft, but his poor workout performances during the evaluation period have left people scratching their heads. He ran just a 4.95 40-yard dash and only put up 12 reps in the bench press. That is like wide receiver strength with offensive lineman speed. Nonetheless, his 12.5 sacks last season are hard to overlook and he plays with quick feet and a natural flow to his game. Because of his recent workouts, Moore may drop all the way to the back end of the first round, a scenario that was impossible to imagine two months ago.

The wild-card pick here could be cornerback as the Broncos know Champ Bailey’s production will eventually decline with age. DRC was a good addition, but he isn’t the overall solution. It would be a great value pick if they could steal a guy like Xavier Rhodes or Desmond Trufant late in the first round and they may be intriguing enough for them to do it.

Kansas City Chiefs
Finished:
2-14
Drafting: No. 1 in the first round
Needs: OL, DL, ILB

Kansas City gets the title of the most revamped team in the NFL; from general manager to head coach to both coordinators and a new quarterback, there hasn’t been another overhaul like it this offseason. While none of the signings have been overtly splashy, no other team has been more strategic with mid-level signings. Combine that with the fact they were able to retain Dwayne Bowe and Brandon Albert, all while acquiring Alex Smith via trade with the San Francisco 49ers. For the most part, Andy Reid’s free-agent signings have either added depth or an opportunity to compete for a starting role. And while that may not sound all that great for a roster that is coming off a 2-14 season, on paper, this team was just as good as any other in the AFC and adding some competition at key positions may be just what they need to push them over the edge. The offseason losses the Chiefs suffered were really with players that had historically underachieved, like Matt Cassel and Glenn Dorsey.

With the first pick in the draft, the Chiefs are obviously capable of going in multiple directions, but I think it is safe to assume they will choose one of two offensive tackles. Luke Joeckel has been tied to the Chiefs since Day 1 of the offseason, but don’t be surprised if you start to hear Eric Fisher’s name a lot more frequently. Fisher just looks like he was built to play the left tackle position and I can’t recall a single time at the Senior Bowl in which he was beat in one-on-one pass rushing drills. In my opinion, Joeckel is a harder tape study because of the offense he comes from at Texas A&M. In that offense, the ball is out so fast that rarely did he have to sustain blocks for an entire seven-step dropback and the spread formations were very helpful to his blocking angles. He is clearly a dominant player, but much like evaluating a quarterback that comes from such a system, you can only extrapolate so many snaps that give an indication of how he will perform on an every-down basis in the NFL.

While the Chiefs have spent some additional time with quarterback Geno Smith, that is most likely a ploy to increase his value as a prospect and encourage other teams to call about a potential draft day trade in which the Chiefs could drop a couple of spots, still target a coveted offensive tackle and acquire some additional picks in the draft. The Chiefs actually selecting a quarterback isn’t going to happen, but the wild-card here could be them tacking on another defensive lineman. This wouldn't be a popular pick for a fan base that has seen Tyson Jackson, Dorsey, Ryan Sims and Dontari Poe all selected in the top-11 picks. Jackson, Dorsey and Sims have been busts, while the jury is still out on Poe. If the Chiefs were to go there again, it could come down to Star Lotulelei or Sharrif Floyd, but I think that is highly unlikely.

San Diego Chargers
Finished:
7-9
Drafting: No. 11 in the first round
Needs: OT, OG, CB, OLB

In the past couple of seasons, San Diego along with Dallas, has had to deal with the perception that they had some of the best talent in the NFL. Turns out they did not. As with most teams, the quarterback position is the key to success and that is even more exaggerated with Philip Rivers. He is coming off back-to-back disappointing seasons in which his two-season interception total was higher than at any other point in his career. But can you blame him? The Chargers failed to retain his favorite wide receiver in Vincent Jackson, Antonio Gates has struggled to stay on the field with foot problems, and most importantly, I’ve seen high school teams with better offensive-line play. The Chargers know it too ... so far this offeason they have signed offensive linemen King Dunlap, Chad Rinehart and Rich Ohrnberger. The problem is, I’m not sure any three of those guys are actually upgrades.

Mike McCoy has put together an excellent staff and was able to retain defensive coordinator, Jon Pagano. The combination of McCoy and Ken Whisenhunt will be invaluable to Rivers’ future development and help him get back into that elite status, but in order to do so, they need to keep him upright.

At No. 11 in the draft, the Chargers may be on the very edge of being able to select a top-tier tackle. If not already gone in the top-five, Joeckel and Fisher definitely don’t get past Arizona at No. 7 and that leaves the rest of the tackle-needy teams to fight over Oklahoma’s Lane Johnson. Johnson is a former high school quarterback that moved to tight end and then defensive end for the Sooners before finally settling in at left tackle. Because of all the position changes, Johnson has a high football IQ and can see things on the football field that other linemen may not catch. He has quick, athletic feet and plays with a natural bend at the waist. He has the potential to be a franchise left tackle that can be left alone on an island to block an opponent's best pass rusher.

Because of that, he may not last until No. 11 in the draft. With teams like Kansas City, Philadelphia, Detroit, Arizona, Buffalo and New York having potential needs at tackle and all selecting before the Chargers in the draft, there is a strong likelihood all three tackles are gone by the time the Chargers are on the clock. If that’s the case, they will look at the next tier of D.J. Fluker and Menelik Watson, but No. 11 may be a little too rich for either one of those players.

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If Johnson is no longer available, I would imagine the Chargers would instead look to the defensive side of the ball and once again take a pass-rushing outside backer, or address the secondary with either a safety or a top corner. The Chargers may be ready to give up on Larry English and because of that need to find someone to play opposite Melvin Ingram, who they took last year at No. 18 overall. Barkevious Mingo out of LSU could be a very interesting pick for the Chargers or if they go to the secondary, it could be safety Kenny Vaccaro who is a cut above the other safeties in this draft class.

Oakland Raiders
Finished:
4-12
Drafting: No. 3 in the first round
Needs: DL, CB, LB, S

Few teams have made more moves, particularly on defense, than the Oakland Raiders. They have added seven potential new starters on a defense that ranked 28th in points allowed. Quite a feat considering the cap chaos they are in. The problem is these guys don’t look, on paper, to be much better. Yet for an organization that has had seven coaches in the last 10 years and no playoff appearances, you have to give them credit for trying.

It is likely that Matt Flynn will fare better than Carson Palmer, but with only one game as a starter for experience, he is an obvious gamble. But the fact that the Raiders, sitting at No. 3 in the draft with an obvious need at quarterback, decided to trade for an untested Flynn rather than take Geno Smith or any quarterback in the class speaks volumes about the talent at the position. At least Flynn won’t have to throw to the mistake that was Darrius Heyward-Bey, but then again, who is he going to throw to? Denarius Moore and Jacoby Ford are good players, but neither are intimidating defensive coordinators in the league.

With the third pick in the draft, the Raiders have been tied to Sharrif Floyd, the defensive tackle out of Florida. If he lives up to his potential, he could give them an interior presence that they haven’t had since Warren Sapp. I say that meaning that he provides an interior pass rush while not sacrificing the running game and can be an interior offensive lineman’s nightmare. Problem is, I see him as a little more athletic version of Glenn Dorsey, and that didn’t work out so well for the Chiefs. While he has rare talent, he still has some bust potential about him ... and with the state of the Raiders, they can’t afford to miss on a third overall pick.

Tagged: 49ers, Broncos, Chiefs, Raiders, Patriots, Seahawks, Buccaneers, Ravens, Cardinals, Chargers, Peyton Manning, Champ Bailey, Ryan Sims, Philip Rivers, Wes Welker, Vincent Jackson, Alex Smith, Elvis Dumervil, Glenn Dorsey, Matt Flynn, King Dunlap, Rich Ohrnberger, Tyson Jackson, Jacoby Ford, Von Miller, Denarius Moore

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