Our Roster Reset series takes a division-by-division look at where things stand across the league heading into the 2020 NFL Draft. Adam Maya examines the current makeup of the AFC West below.
The Kansas City Chiefs won the division crown by five games in 2019. While they seem poised for an encore and perhaps more in 2020, the floor in the AFC West remains high. It wouldn't be a surprise to see any of the other three teams nab a playoff bid.
The Denver Broncos were better than you remember last year, winning seven games and losing five by one possession. They even beat up on a pair of playoff teams (the Titansand Texans). In their quest to end a mini playoff drought (they haven't been to the postseason since 2015), John Elway and Co. were active players in free agency. The defense, which showed marked improvement in Year 1 under Vic Fangio, looks pretty set after the front office tagged safety Justin Simmons and traded for defensive tackle Jurrell Casey and cornerback A.J. Bouye. The addition of running back Melvin Gordon to the backfield could prove significant in the passing game. Denver also provided its quarterback with a quality guard/center in Graham Glasgow. Speaking of QB, the Joe Flacco era in the Mile High City came and went about as quick as his brush with greatness seven years ago. That leaves 2019 second-round pick Drew Lock to make or break the Broncos in 2020.
Quarterback obviously isn't a concern in Kansas City. The defending champions have few concerns, in fact. With little money to spend, the Chiefs have been selective this offseason. They gambled with the non-exclusive tag for defensive tackle Chris Jones, although there's still the chance he refuses to sign. The front office also deftly restructured receiver Sammy Watkins' contract, which keeps the league's most dangerous passing attack fully intact. It's not often that the best team from the previous season is able to mostly stand pat in free agency and still hold that distinction. But that's where Kansas City resides.
No team in the division experienced more turnover in free agency than the Los Angeles Chargers. Perhaps no team improved as much, either, at least on paper. After trotting an aging Philip Rivers out behind a creaky offensive line for years, they invested heavily in the trenches, adding OT Bryan Bulaga and G Trai Turner. Doing so in the same offseason Rivers left is ironic. They also made upgrades to the defensive line, at cornerback and at linebacker, while using their franchise tag on talented tight end Hunter Henry. This team feels like a possible contender, but there's still a great deal of uncertainty with the QB position. That's a new issue for the Chargers.
Jon Gruden's mad science is finally starting to take shape. We think. Missing out on free agent cornerback Byron Jones (who signed with Miami) allowed the Las Vegas Raiders to spend resources overhauling what had been a subpar front seven. They buttressed the big Cory Littleton signing with linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, pass rusher Carl Nassib and defensive tackle Maliek Collins. That alone would make for a great class. They also added insurance at quarterback and tight end with Marcus Mariota and Jason Witten, respectively. You can hear the sizzle all the way from Las Vegas.
FREE AGENCY NOTABLES
Talk about a low-risk, high-reward move. It's rare that you can acquire one of the best players at his position in exchange for a seventh-round pick. The Titans' willingness to part ways with Casey in the trade was more about them and their finances than Casey and his play. That's not to say he carries an exorbitant contract. The 30-year-old lineman still has three years left on a deal that's in line with his performance. And there's no dead money if he's cut after this season, per Over The Cap. That doesn't figure to be a consideration, though, if Casey continues playing the way he always has. He's quietly made five consecutive Pro Bowls while remaining a pass-rushing force inside. Moreover, his athleticism would seem to make him a perfect fit as a 5-technique in Denver's defense. This is the type of player Fangio would covet on the open market. Instead of paying up to coax him to Denver, the Broncos gave up little and, once they surround him with Shelby Harris, Bradley Chubb and Von Miller, figure to get a lot in return.
Honorable mention for this category goes to the trio of new Chargers: Bulaga, Turner and cornerback Chris Harris, the last of whom is doubly impactful within the division because he came from Denver.
Sometimes, it's just time to move on. Time for the player, time for the team. Rivers spent 16 years with the Chargers in a career that will likely be appreciated more with the benefit of ... time. He is, surprisingly, the only QB drafted with a top-five pick this century to earn at least five Pro Bowl nods. (Rivers has eight.) The most recent came in 2018, when he was a darkhorse MVP candidate. But a forgettable 2019 is what gave the Chargers' brass pause about the 38-year-old's future. Those results also helped net the No. 6 pick in April's draft, which could be used to select the next franchise QB, unless Los Angeles takes a flier on Cam Newton. Parting ways with Rivers was fitting for this time of transitions -- to a new stadium, new uniforms and, ideally, an expanded fan base. That doesn't necessarily mean the Chargers will be better in 2020 without Rivers.
Consider him another cap casualty for the Rams. Littleton was a Pro Bowler in 2018 and made second-team All-Pro. He was just as good last year while tallying more tackles, two interceptions, two forced fumbles, 3.5 sacks, four fumble recoveries, six TFLs and nine passes defensed. Few NFL defenders have stat lines as diverse. After cashing in with a three-year, $36 million deal, the fifth-year backer should instantly improve a Raiders defense that ranked near the bottom of the NFL in points allowed and against the pass in 2019. Littleton is one of the league's best coverage linebackers, possessing the ability to track tight ends and running backs alike. His lateral movement makes him especially good in open space. He'll often be tasked to man the middle of the field, which was a black hole for the Raiders last year. Littleton isn't as strong against the run, but run defense is actually a strength of his new team.
Denver Broncos: Their apparent commitment to Lock, a second-year pro, is interesting, given their failures trying to replace Peyton Manning over the past four years -- five, if you count whatever Brock Osweiler was doing in 2015 ahead of Manning's departure. The Broncos did win four of Lock's five starts down the stretch last season, though that was largely thanks to their defense. To be fair, he was excellent on the road against the Texans. Denver still needs to support its young passer with more help on the offensive line and at wide receiver. The draft will be a perfect avenue with which to address the latter. This is a team that can absolutely contend for a wild-card spot if it gets good QB play. Of course, that's a big if.
Kansas City Chiefs: It must be nice being able to bring the band back together. The Chiefs remain Super Bowl favorites, mostly because of Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid, but also because they avoided any major departures this offseason. With a massive Mahomes extension obviously lurking, the next major decision is whether to lock up Jones long term. He played a vital role in the win over the 49ers in Super Bowl LIV, and losing him would change the complexion of a defense that's more good than great. Kansas City's biggest priorities in the draft will probably be bolstering its cornerback depth and interior offensive line. There otherwise aren't any real weaknesses on this team. And Mahomes' track record even when there were weaknesses in the previous two seasons suggests a title run is in order regardless. He's that special.
Las Vegas Raiders: Two years after unloading so much of the team's talent upon his arrival, Gruden still has a good amount of draft capital. The Raiders own five picks in the first three rounds this year, including two in the first. It's a good thing, because they still have a lot of work to do at wide receiver and in the secondary. If the Raiders net positive returns on their veteran defensive acquisitions and improve their quarterback play, they're vying for a playoff spot. Some buzz still exists that they'll make a run at one of the top quarterback prospects. You can't put it past Gruden. But it would be perplexing nonetheless in the wake of the Mariota signing. That competition could be good not only for incumbent QB Derek Carr but for a franchise that has been missing a winning culture since Gruden departed nearly 20 years ago.
Los Angeles Chargers: The Chargers were never supposed to go 5-11 in 2019, and there's probably too much talent on the roster for something like that to happen again. But are they really going to put all their eggs in the Tyrod Taylor basket this year? While he boasts the athleticism Anthony Lynn is said to be seeking, Taylor hasn't been a full-time starter since 2017 with the Bills, and his best season, arguably his lone good one, came in 2015 in Buffalo. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported last month that the Chargers won't pursue a veteran option, but that was before the Panthers released Newton. Here's guessing the former MVP can be had at a low cost on a short-term deal. Otherwise, expect Los Angeles to use its first-round pick on a QB. Its other draft needs include linebacker, defensive tackle and wide receiver.