Analysis

Broncos, Chargers gain ground on AFC West, rest of conference with aggressive start to offseason

The official start to free agency won't begin until 4 p.m. ET Wednesday, but some already have declared winners and losers based on what has transpired to this point in the negotiating window. I've never been a fan of making declarative statements before all the puzzle pieces are on the table, and I'm not going to make one now. What I will say, however, is that no two teams have done more to establish themselves as legitimate Super Bowl contenders than the Denver Broncos and Los Angeles Chargers, who have shaken up not only the AFC West but the conference as a whole.

Both clubs missed the playoffs last season. However, that had more to do with them lacking pieces in one or two areas rather than widespread deficiencies across the roster. For Denver, the issue was the absence of a franchise quarterback; for the Chargers, it was the absence of a complementary edge rusher to Joey Bosa and a ballhawking cornerback.

Consider those to be problems of the past.

First, the Broncos traded for nine-time Pro Bowl quarterback Russell Wilson, a sublime talent who missed the playoffs only twice in 10 seasons with Seattle. He is regarded as one of the league's top deep-ball passers and one of its more dangerous improvisors when extending plays. Drop him onto a team that has loads of offensive talent at the skill positions and a defense that ranked third in points allowed last season, and the ingredients are there for not only a playoff run, but a deep playoff run.

The same can be said of the Chargers, though for different reasons. They already had a top-five quarterback in Justin Herbert, who last year, in only his second season, confirmed his place as one of the game's best. Behind a reinforced offensive line, he directed a unit that tied for second in the NFL in passing yards, ranked fourth in total yards and was fifth in scoring at just under 28 points a game. The issue for the Chargers was their defense, which ranked last in third-down percentage, 26th in red-zone percentage, 28th in goal-to-go percentage and 22nd in interceptions and surrendered more points than all but three teams.

But over the last week, they turned weakness into an apparent strength by trading for three-time All-Pro and 2016 Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack, who missed the final 10 games last season with Chicago because of injury but had six sacks to that point, a pace that would have enabled him to surpass his season-high 15 sacks established in 2015. He is the perfect complement to Bosa, one of the game's top edge rushers, and the best friend of a secondary that was upgraded by the impending addition of ballhawk cornerback J.C. Jackson, the former Patriot who will sign a mega free-agent deal Wednesday.

No player had more interceptions than Jackson's 22 over the past three seasons. His arrival is valuable not only because of his ability to lock down receivers and create takeaways, but also because it will permit head coach (and defensive play-caller) Brandon Staley to move talented second-year cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. into the slot, where he has shown the capability to develop into one of the league's top players at that position.

I like the moves the Chargers and Broncos made not only because they've added established, top-flight players but also because they did not compromise their futures. That might sound strange considering Denver sent two first-round picks, two second-round selections, a fifth-rounder and quarterback Drew Lock, defensive lineman Shelby Harris and tight end Noah Fant to the Seahawks. But, fact is, that was a bargain for an established, Hall of Fame-caliber performer at the league's most important position. Heck, the 49ers nearly gave up a similar package of picks for the right to move up in the 2021 NFL Draft to select Trey Lance, an unproven quarterback who made 17 starts in college.

If the Broncos are as good as I anticipate, those future draft picks will be at the bottom of their respective rounds. And a positive for Denver is that it maintains salary-cap flexibility to be able to go out and supplement the roster in free agency, which it has done by agreeing to terms with defensive end Randy Gregory and defensive tackle D.J. Jones. The possibility remains that the Broncos could still bring back edge rusher Von Miller one season after trading him to the Rams last fall.

The Chargers' moves have been even more impressive because they haven't involved mortgaging draft capital. Sure, they gave up a second- and a sixth-round pick for Mack, but that didn't require a hard gulp for someone of his ability. Mack is 31 years old, but he has been extremely durable since entering the league in 2014, starting all but two games in his career prior to being injured last year. To date, the only thing the Chargers have had to come off of is cash: They pick up Mack's contract, have agreed to a potential $82.5 million deal with Jackson and have agreements in principle with free-agent defensive linemen Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson. Oh, and they signed wideout Mike Williams to an extension that averages $20 million a year. While the cash expenditures are not insignificant (it's always easy to spend someone else's money, right!?), the moves allow them to continue with their draft-and-develop philosophy. And they will make the Chargers a sexy pick to win the division, if not the conference.

The Kansas City Chiefs have won the AFC West six years running, but they showed signs of slippage last season. It will be interesting to see what impact the loss of safety Tyrann Mathieu will have. Justin Reid will come in as a free agent to replace him on the field, but Mathieu brought immeasurable leadership in the locker room. And the loss of cornerback Charvarius Ward to the 49ers could be felt. There also is the issue of finding a consistent pass rush. Frank Clark signed a restructured deal this week, but his performance has fallen off every year he has been in Kansas City. Melvin Ingram, who remains unsigned, was a bigger factor in pass-rush situations last season. The question I keep coming back to with the Chiefs is, are they better able to make a defensive stand than the Broncos or Chargers, both of whose offenses should be able to keep pace with anyone? To this point, the answer is no.

As for the Las Vegas Raiders, there are holes at receiver and in the secondary. That's a problem for a defense that ranked last in interceptions, last in red-zone and goal-to-go percentages and 26th in points allowed. Maybe the new regime has a plan for progress, but at the moment, it's only visible to them. What's easier to see is that the Chargers and Broncos have gained ground on not only the Chiefs, but the rest of the AFC.

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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