Welcome back to the final edition of our offseason series of Four Downs. We wrap up our look at the biggest pre-free agency holes with the defending Super Bowl champions, the newest relocated franchise, and the rest of the AFC West.
Biggest Need: Right guard
A pair of Broncos offensive needs should be priorities 1 and 1A this offseason: a secondary wideout to go alongside Courtland Sutton, and some offensive line help to give Drew Lock some time in the backfield. Either could be justified as being listed as the biggest hole, but we’ll stick with the big men up front.
Ronald Leary has not managed a full season since 2013; each of his three seasons in Denver has ended with him on injured reserve. It’s not surprising, then, that the Broncos opted to not pick up his 2020 option; $9.3 million is a lot of money for a player who has been mediocre when healthy, and far too often on the trainers’ table. Last year’s second-round pick, Dalton Risner, did a very solid job in his transition to the inside as a rookie, but without Leary, the second guard spot would go to either Austin Schlottmann or Elijah Wilkinson. While both players got significant starting action last season due to Leary’s injuries, they really don’t look like long-term options at the position. Talent will have to be brought in here, if only to give Lock some time in the pocket to develop.
Major Free Agents: Ron Leary, G; Connor McGovern, C; Derek Wolfe, DE; Shelby Harris, DT; Chris Harris, CB; Justin Simmons, S
Technically, as of time of writing, the Broncos have not picked up Von Miller’s 2020 option; they have until March 17 to do so. That’s just a formality, so we’re not listing him here; John Elway announced that they’d pick up Miller’s option at the end of 2019. So don’t freak out when you see Miller listed atop, say, Spotrac’s list of free agents. Barring something truly shocking over the next week and a half, Miller will return in orange and navy.
The Broncos have also announced that they’ll use their franchise tag on Justin Simmons if they can’t get a deal done before free agency starts in earnest. This is also fairly standard procedure for Elway’s Broncos. It’s how they got Von Miller’s deal done back in 2016 — tag the player to give both sides more time to work out a long-term deal. It’s hard to argue Simmons hasn’t earned a big contract; he had a massive breakout season last year and was solid before that.
That leaves the Harrises (Harrisii?) as the biggest questions remaining. Shelby Harris and Derek Wolfe might well be competing for one contract. Sources are currently guessing that Wolfe, who has having a career year in Vic Fangio’s defense, will be the one coming back, with Harris then hitting the open market — which should be quite active if he does end up available. As for Chris Harris, his numbers did take a bit of a dive last season. His 48% success rate in coverage was 65th in the league, and he was third from the bottom with 10.7 yards allowed per pass — he averaged closer to 7.0 working out of the slot under Vance Joseph. He was better than those numbers suggest, and has every chance to bounce back in 2020. At age 31, however, the Broncos might be hesitant about paying him $10 million to $15 million a year, and he might find a better home as a dedicated slot corner somewhere else.
Kansas City Chiefs
Biggest Need: Linebacker
The Chiefs’ defense improved in 2019, finishing with a -3.4% DVOA, their best result since 2015. Of course, that doesn’t hold a candle to what the offense was doing, so their biggest needs still remain on the defensive side of the ball. And, while their overall defensive performance was above average, their run defense was still very bad; a 4.1% DVOA does represent an improvement from 2018’s terrible, worst-in-the-league unit, but it’s not exactly something that’s going to generate too many highlights on the Chiefs’ Super Bowl championship documentary. In addition, the Chiefs struggled to cover opposing running backs in the passing game, allowing a -0.6% DVOA and a league-worst 57.9 yards per game. The Chargers burned them multiple times, and they gave up 159 yards receiving to Aaron Jones. You can put a significant chunk of the blame for both these stats on the linebacking corps.
Both Reggie Ragland and Darron Lee are free agents, and any of the trio of Damien Wilson, Anthony Hitchens, and Ben Niemann could be significantly improved upon. Hitchens may well be the worst of the three, with a 19% broken-tackle rate, but the Chiefs can’t really financially move on from him for another season at least. Finding an every-down linebacker who can do a better job reading the backfield, matching up with the Austin Ekelers of the world, and finishing his tackles in run support would be a significant boon for the defense.
Major Free Agents: Anthony Sherman, FB; Demarcus Robinson, WR; Emmanuel Ogbah, DE; Terrell Suggs, DE; Chris Jones, DT; Xavier Williams, DT; Kendall Fuller, CB
Similar to the Broncos, the Chiefs need to officially confirm their team option on Cameron Erving before the March 17 deadline. Unlike the Broncos, this is far from a lock. Erving would have a $4.7-million cap hit if the Chiefs kept him around, which is a ton of money for a backup tackle. The Chiefs are going to have to give Patrick Mahomes his long-awaited massive extension sooner or later; the days of being able to afford $5-million backups are in the past.
That upcoming Mahomes deal also means the Chiefs have a tough decision to make with Chris Jones. Jones is arguably the best pass-rushing interior lineman in the league not named Aaron Donald, and he is going to get paid as such. Jones had 33 pass pressures last season — fourth among linemen behind Donald, Leonard Williams, and Maliek Collins — and he has been playing at this level for years now. He won’t reach Donald’s $22.5-million-a-year deal, but he’ll probably beat out everyone else, and that’s a problem for the Chiefs, who only have $16.5 million in cap space at the moment. The Chiefs have other moves they can make to free up space (so long, Sammy Watkins!), but a tag-and-trade for draft capital might be their best move with Jones.
The other notable name here is Kendall Fuller. Injuries limited Fuller to 11 games in 2019, and his results on the field were not encouraging. He had just a 35% success rate, which would have been second worst to only Xavier Rhodes last season had he had enough targets to qualify. The Chiefs tried moving Fuller back to safety, but that didn’t work either. It wasn’t that long ago that Fuller was one of the best slot corners in the league, with a 68% success rate back in 2017, and he is only 25 years old. Someone will give him a one-year prove-it deal to see if he can find hints of that old form somewhere.
Las Vegas Raiders
Biggest Need: Linebackers
The Raiders put up a 14.6% defensive DVOA last season. That’s the worst in franchise history. Their pass defense DVOA was 30.3%. That is also the worst in franchise history. Paul Guenther did not successfully turn the Raiders’ defense around in Year 1, and the additions of Vontaze Burfict and Brandon Marshall didn’t exactly pan out, either. The Raiders did successfully fix some of their pass rush woes from two years ago by adding Clelin Ferrell and Maxx Williams in the 2019 draft; it may be time to duplicate that in the 2020 draft.
Mike Mayock admitted that the Raiders “weren’t particularly good at linebacker” during the combine, and took the blame for doing a poor job of managing the roster during the season. But really, the Raiders haven’t put emphasis on the linebacker position in years at this point. They haven’t used a Day 1 or 2 draft pick on any linebacker since Khalil Mack in 2014; you have to go back to Sio Moore the year before that to find an off-ball linebacker in the first three rounds. They haven’t made a big splash signing at the position in over a decade. This is the year to break those streaks, with Kenneth Murray and Patrick Queen looking like solid options with one of Las Vegas’ two first-round picks.
Major Free Agents: Vontaze Burfict, LB; Daryl Worley, CB; Karl Joseph, S
We had to dig deep to even find three notable free agents for the Raiders. Joseph and Worley are the only Raiders with at least 500 snaps last season without a contract for 2020; Burfict the only other one even penciled in as a starter. And with Burfict and Worley not exactly high-priority free agents, pretty much any move the Raiders make this offseason will be adding to their talent rather than just replacing someone.
Karl Joseph is … solid. Consistent. Reliable. And that’s about it. The Raiders declined Joseph’s fifth-year option a year ago, and brought in both Lamarcus Joyner and Johnathan Abram to man the safety positions, so that kind of tells you the level of esteem in which they held Joseph. But Joseph once again had a solid season before blowing out his hamstring. I doubt the Raiders will break the bank for him, but someone in need of a starter could do worse than giving Joseph a one-year deal.
Los Angeles Chargers
Biggest Need: Quarterback
Philip Rivers leaves the Chargers as their all-time leader in completions, passing yards, and passing touchdowns. He has started every game for the Chargers since 2006. And now he’s gone — after he finished 2019 with a 6.8% passing DVOA and 20 interceptions, the Chargers have opted to let Rivers leave in free agency and start anew at the position.
They do have two options on the roster, though neither looks like more than a bridge. Tyrod Taylor got something of a rough deal in Buffalo — he had a top-10 DVOA in 2015, and his worst passing DVOA as a starter is still 4.6% better than Josh Allen’s best season to date. Still, you don’t move on from Rivers to go with Tyrod Taylor; he’s just an acceptable bridge option if a draft pick needs time to work his way into the lineup. The other passer under contract at the moment is Easton Stick, a fifth-round draft pick a year ago from North Dakota State. Stick’s an athletic, duel-threat quarterback who thrived in an RPO-style system in college, with questionable arm strength and accuracy; he’s not the guy of the future, either. The Chargers pick sixth overall in the draft at the moment, which will likely be too late to select either Joe Burrow or Tua Tagovailoa, so they’ll likely have to either proactively move up in the draft, settle for Justin Herbert, or swing for the fences with a free agent. Tom Brady did meet with the Chargers during the combine, and any time you can upgrade from a 38-year-old quarterback with a 6.8% DVOA to a 43-year-old quarterback with a 2.6% DVOA, you’ve got to do it.
Major Free Agents: Philip Rivers, QB; Melvin Gordon, RB; Travis Benjamin, WR; Hunter Henry, TE; Adrian Phillips, S
Both Chargers running backs are without contracts, but Austin Ekeler is a restricted free agent. The Chargers will be able to tender or match any offer teams make for him — and he’ll likely come much cheaper than Melvin Gordon will. Gordon held out through September and wasn’t particularly special when he came back, finishing with a -7.6% rushing DVOA. Ekeler’s rushing DVOA was actually worse at -10.1%, but he had a 39.1% receiving DVOA, compared to Gordon’s -6.7%. Anthony Lynn has said he wants Gordon back, but the Chargers might be better off with Ekeler, Justin Jackson, and Random Day 3 Running Back du jour.
The Chargers would be better suited ensuring they can keep Hunter Henry, who is as talented as he is oft-injured. Henry missed four games last season and still finished fifth in receiving DYAR among tight ends. He was third in DYAR in 2017, when he only missed two games. Of course, in between those two years he missed a full season with a torn ACL, and has yet to play a full season, dealing with fractures and tears and sprains and pretty much any other type of ailment you can think of. Henry’s a good candidate for the franchise tag, giving the Chargers one more year to see if he will be healthy or if he’ll end up bruising his spleen falling down some stairs or something.