The toughest division in the NFL will be no easier in 2017.
Derek Carr's broken leg wiped away the Oakland Raiders' Super Bowl aspirations late last season. With Carr on pace in his rehab this offseason, general manager Reggie McKenzie gave the quarterback new toys Jared Cook and Cordarrelle Patterson. Cook is an immediate upgrade as a receiving tight end. Patterson could be an X-factor as a depth signing behind the receiver duo of Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree. If the Raiders add Marshawn Lynch to a backfield already boasting the shifty Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington, Oakland will own the most balanced and explosive offense in the division.
The biggest offseason move for the Chiefs was locking down Eric Berry, securing a team leader and playmaker who impacts the entire defense. Cutting franchise record-holder Jamaal Charles hurts from a sentimental perspective, but the loss of the running back shouldn't ding Andy Reid's offense. K.C.'s roster remained one of the most stable and well-rounded in the NFL. The swap of an up-and-down Dontari Poe for a run-stuffing Bennie Logan could be viewed as one of the most underrated moves come fall.
John Elway targeted the Broncos' offensive line for upgrades after a disastrous 2016, but he wouldn't shell out the big bucks for questionable talent at the tackle position. Instead, he upgraded the interior of his line, adding guard Ronald Leary and ex-Raider tackle Menelik Watson. The hole at left tackle remains a huge question mark, but Elway and his new staff believe coaching upgrades will make a major difference in 2017. Denver also stayed away from the Tony Romo enticement and will trust Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch to battle for the starting QB gig. Quarterback wasn't the problem last year, but if the offensive line tweaks fail again, either signal-caller will struggle.
The Los Angeles Chargers move into a snug temporary stadium with a new coaching staff, but few big changes were made to a roster that is playoff-caliber -- provided it can stay healthy. The addition of Russell Okung is a big gamble after the left tackle bombed out in one season in Denver. Philip Rivers has dealt with catastrophic offensive line play and an injured receiver corps the last several seasons. If the key members can stay on the field and coach Anthony Lynn can coax another leap out of young running back Melvin Gordon, the Chargers will own a potent offense.
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Cook and his agent might have overplayed their hand in Green Bay, but the tight end landed in a cushy spot in Oakland. Cook, who entered the offseason No. 34 on Around The NFL's list of top free agents, is an ideal fit for the Raiders. The 30-year-old should be a seam-stretching weapon for Carr and will feast on underneath routes with defenses focusing on Cooper and Crabtree. Cook has been inconsistent during his career, but he proved last season that when he's paired with a top-tier quarterback, he can be a playmaker. While Clive Walford and Mychal Rivera (who signed with the Jaguars) couldn't grow into difference makers for Oakland, Cook should come out of the box as the receiving threat Carr needs.
The loss of Poe might be bigger in terms of name value than an on-field change for K.C. In general, the teams in the AFC West didn't lose impact players in free agency that they wanted to return. Poe is one of the most athletic interior defenders and played at a Pro Bowl-level early in his career. The past two seasons, however, he was inconsistent. The Chiefs buffered the loss of Poe by adding Logan, who is a solid interior player, especially versus the run, where Kansas City struggled last season.
The tackle situation was a glaring need in Denver, but instead of overpaying for stop-gap blind-side blockers, Elway decided to upgrade his interior. The Broncos running game was one of the most disappointing aspects of a dismal 2016 offensive campaign, thanks in large part to subpar blocking. Leary is a significant upgrade over Michael Schofield in the run game. If Denver can get more production on the ground in 2017, it will exponentially aid whichever young quarterback starts under center.
Denver Broncos: As stated above, upgrading the offensive tackle position remains the biggest need in Denver. With the 2017 NFL Draft containing few pro-ready tackles, Elway could be forced to reach to fill the void or wait another year and pray the coaching makes the difference. The interior defensive line was pillaged last season, and Denver let disappointing Sylvester Williams walk in free agency. Domata Peko is a low-level plug who will do little to stop the leaks Denver experienced against the run last season. Finding interior penetrators should be a priority for Elway in a deep draft on the defensive line. The retirement of DeMarcus Ware will hurt the locker room, but Von Miller and former first-round pick Shane Ray remain a fearsome pass-rush duo.
Kansas City Chiefs: Unearthing an eventual successor for quarterback Alex Smith is an under-the-radar storyline in K.C. The Chiefs could be in the mix to add a developmental signal-caller early in the draft. The linebacking corps is the most pressing need for Reid. The defense was run over last season after Derrick Johnson went down with a ruptured Achilles tendon in December. Look for the Chiefs to add an inside 'backer and a young pass rusher to eventually take over for Justin Houston and Tamba Hali in the draft later this month.
Los Angeles Chargers: In order to play the type of defense new coordinator Gus Bradley desires, the Chargers must upgrade the safety spot. Using the No. 7 overall pick on Malik Hooker or Jamal Adams would immediately improve a defense that is built up front. The addition of Okung shouldn't stop L.A. from seeking more depth for an offensive line that is perpetually banged-up. The Chargers are also one of several teams that could look to the first two days of the draft to find their quarterback of the future to groom behind Philip Rivers.
Oakland Raiders: Adding Marshawn Lynch seemed like a formality late last week. But as with all things Marshawn, it's anyone's best guess as to when/if the move actually goes down. Adding a power back is a need if a Lynch deal falls through. Upgrading the second level of the defense through the draft -- especially at inside linebacker and the interior of the defensive line -- to complement the outside rushers should also be a priority for McKenzie.