A year ago at this time, the Denver Broncos were fresh off an AFC championship—albeit one followed by a blowout loss in the Super Bowl—and had a stranglehold on the West division. Now, rather suddenly, the door might be opening a bit.
After bowing out of the 2014 playoffs with little resistance, the Broncos face the most tumultuous off-season of any AFC West team. Elsewhere, the Chiefs and Chargers are both coming off 9-7 finishes and could be a mere handful of pieces from elevating their rosters to the next level. Oakland will be more competitive than the 4-12 team that still knocked off Kansas City and twice pushed San Diego to the brink last year.
Long story short, keep an eye on the West in 2015. This could be the best division in football.
• Key free agents: S Quinton Carter, G Orlando Franklin, TE Virgil Green, LB Nate Irving, DT Terrance Knighton, LB Brandon Marshall (RFA), C Will Montgomery, S Rahim Moore, TE Jacob Tamme, WR Demaryius Thomas, TE Julius Thomas, WR Wes Welker
• Players team needs to bring back: Franklin, Green, Knighton, Marshall, Demaryius Thomas
Peyton Manning's future remains unsettled, but who will be catching his passes if he does return? Demaryius Thomas, arguably a top-five player at his position league-wide, was the team's leading receiver in 2014 with 111 catches for 1,619 yards. Together, he and Julius Thomas combined for 23 touchdown receptions. Wes Welker finished third on the team with 49 receptions, and both of the tight ends behind Julius Thomas on the depth chart are about to see their contracts expire, too.
What's general manager John Elway to do?
Well, he can start by getting Demaryius Thomas back in the fold, either via a long-term contract or by hitting him with the franchise tag. Either will be a pricey proposition, but Denver enters the off-season with a projected $26 million in cap space (via OvertheCap), more than enough to justify a salary well north of $10 million per year.
As for Julius Thomas: Let him walk. His dozen touchdown grabs will not be replaced easily, nor will Denver find a tight end capable of creating the same mismatches just wandering the streets. But Thomas is gunning for huge money (Jimmy Graham is the highest-paid tight end right now at $10 million per year; seven tight ends average more than $7 million).
Elway said prior to the 2014 season that he doesn't see Thomas in the same class as Graham, and Thomas may have proven him correct.
The run-heavy style of new head coach Gary Kubiak also could limit Thomas' importance in the offense and make the blocking skills of Green and Tamme more worthwhile. Given a chance, Green would be able to expand his pass-catching role. Let's not forget that Kubiak milked 48 catches out of Owen Daniels in Baltimore last year.
Saving some cash for Franklin would be wise. His 10 penalties aside, Franklin's transition to guard went well enough that he should be a priority for Elway this off-season.
Knighton, Irving and Moore all departing at the same time would be a blow to the defense. Can any be talked into cap-friendly deals? Irving is probably most likely to return, while Moore should be able to find some other team willing to pay up for him. While Knighton's situation could depend on the market, he has been a linchpin of the defensive front since he arrived.
• Positions team needs to improve: C, LB, OL depth, S
This was a team many had pegged as Super Bowl favorites for 2014, so the '15 outlook will depend on how much of the roster Elway can keep together and how Manning's feeling. Whether or not Franklin re-signs, the Broncos need at least one or two more interior linemen qualified to compete for starting jobs in camp.
A move for Kayvon Webster from cornerback to safety is rumored to be the fallback plan if Moore walks. Depth there and at linebacker—a spot that was hit hard by injuries last season—would help keep Denver atop the division.
Kansas City Chiefs
• Players team needs to bring back: Houston, Hudson, either Coleman or Parker
Barring a surprise twist, the Chiefs will find some way to get Houston signed for 2015. He's coming off a 22.0-sack season and is quite simply one of the more dominant defenders in the NFL right now.
However, Houston's contract is not necessarily the issue on its own. Kansas City's larger challenge will be navigating its sub-par cap situation (currently projected to be $1.5 million over next year's cap, before adding Houston's deal) without losing either Houston or Tamba Hali.
Cutting the latter would save the Chiefs $9 million toward next year's cap. Hali knows it, too, because he's already said he would be willing to discuss a pay cut.
"We gotta get Houston paid," he said during an interview with 610 Sports last month, via ArrowheadPride.com. "However we can get Houston paid, I think that should be their No. 1 priority right now."
The No. 2 priority ought to be Hudson, who graded out as Pro Football Focus' third-best center last season. The Kansas City Star reported Hudson wants a contract in the $7 million per year range—steep, but not altogether unreasonable. Pittsburgh's Maurkice Pouncey signed an extension last summer worth $8.8 million per season.
Beyond the Houston and Hudson contracts, Kansas City could find valid replacements for just about everyone. Holding onto one of its two free-agent safeties would be smart.
• Positions team needs to improve: CB, G, LB, S, WR
Jeff Allen's return from an elbow injury will ease the Chiefs' woes at the guard spot, but they still will be short a starter and meaningful depth, as neither Linkenbach nor McGlynn adds much as a first-teamer. Inside linebacker was depleted by injury as well when Derrick Johnson suffered an Achilles tear in September.
Those wide receivers ... yikes. The Chiefs did not get a single touchdown from that position in 2014, perhaps fueling the calls for a quarterback upgrade in the process. A bad situation could get even worse if Dwayne Bowe and his problematic $11 million cap hit are cut before next season.
• Key free agents: TE David Ausberry, CB Tarell Brown, WR Andre Holmes (RFA), P Marquette King (RFA), RB Darren McFadden, WR Denarius Moore, CB Carlos Rogers, DT Pat Sims, WR Rod Streater (RFA), C Stefen Wisniewski
• Players team needs to bring back: Brown, Holmes, King, Streater
Three of the four names listed there are restricted free agents, meaning the Raiders hold the cards. Another team swooping in on an RFA does not happen often, but Cleveland pulled the trick last year in signing Andrew Hawkins away from Cincinnati.
Holmes paced Oakland with 693 yards receiving in 2014. Streater led the team with 888 yards in 2013, but an injury cost him most of last season. Both have flashed enough potential for the receiver-starved Raiders, who could have $50 million-plus available under the projected cap, to keep them around. Using a first- or second-round tender should get the job done.
Ditto for King, although handing him a longer-term contract in the neighborhood of $3 million per year (on par with a top-10 punter) might be a better option.
Rogers, 33, played seven games for Oakland before landing on injured reserve. Brown finished the season on injured reserve himself, but he's more of a top-two corner, while Rogers does better work out of the slot. The Raiders landed Brown for one year and $3.5 million last March. It would come as no surprise if he had his eye on a multi-year deal now.
Wisniewski, 25, has been a steady starter for Oakland since 2011. But his upside appears limited and the Raiders may opt to replace him with a cheaper player.
• Positions team needs to improve: C (if Wisniewski leaves), CB, DE, DT, LB, OT, TE, RB, WR
Hey, what did you expect? This is a team that's won 10 games combined over the past three seasons. GM Reggie McKenzie has managed to draft a handful of potential stars recently (Khalil Mack, Derek Carr, Sio Moore), yet the holes on this roster remain glaring.
Where will Oakland start? Wide receiver is the obvious answer, with the Raiders holding the No. 4 pick in the draft and the three teams sitting ahead of them likely to be looking at other positions. The defensive line is also begging for youthful upgrades—McKenzie spent last off-season bringing in veterans like LaMarr Woodley, Antonio Smith and Justin Tuck up front.
San Diego Chargers
• Key free agents: G Jeromey Clary, OT King Dunlap, CB Brandon Flowers, DE/OLB Dwight Freeney, S Marcus Gilchrist, RB Ryan Mathews, DT Ricardo Matthews, C Rich Ohrnberger, WR Eddie Royal, CB Shareece Wright
• Players team needs to bring back: Dunlap and Flowers
Has Ryan Mathews played his last down as a Charger? Sure looks that way. Mathews has frustrated the team that spent a first-round pick on him in 2010, dominant in stretches only to spend weeks at a time banged up.
"We have a lot of questions that have to be answered in the off-season with Ryan and a number of our free agents," Chargers GM Tom Telesco said at the end of the season. "We know what Ryan brings to us. He’s a great kid."
Still under contract at the running back spot (for now) are Danny Woodhead, Donald Brown and out-of-nowhere 2014 standout Branden Oliver. Telesco did say that Brown will be back for the '15 season, although Brown's base salary is not guaranteed from June 1 on out.
Mathews is still the closest thing San Diego has to a true No. 1 bell cow back when he's healthy. He missed half of the 2014 season due to injuries and has played all 16 games just once in his five NFL seasons. If he's willing to re-up on a year-to-year basis, San Diego may want to give him another shot. Anything else would be too much of an investment.
Flowers was the steal of free agency last year at $3 million. The one-time Chief exceeded that value with his play for the Chargers, which will force San Diego to raise his salary if it hopes to keep him. Re-signing Flowers before free agency opens should be the plan. No shortage of teams will come calling once they're able.
Dunlap, 30 in September, has fallen into the prove-it category for several seasons, first with Philadelphia and now San Diego. He finally lasted a full 16-game slate in 2014 and came away as the Chargers' most effective lineman.
Freeney is a tough call. His veteran leadership would not be replaced easily. On the flip side, Freeney produced just 3.5 sacks last season (after 0.5 during an injury-shortened '13 campaign). Jeremiah Attaochu, a 2014 second-rounder, is waiting in the wings.
• Positions team needs to improve: DT, G, OLB, RB
First and foremost, San Diego's defense must become more formidable in the trenches. That means finding another big body to plug in at nose tackle. (Re-signing 300-pounder Ricardo Matthews should be on the docket, too, considering the promise he has displayed.)
Bulking up along the offensive line also will be on the Chargers' to-do list, especially now that Nick Hardwick and Jeromey Clary both have announced their retirements. Hardwick was one of what felt like six dozen Chargers centers to go down with a season-ending injury in 2014.
Freeney's future will impact San Diego's plans off the edge, as could the status of Jarret Johnson. The 33-year-old Johnson reportedly is considering retirement himself and is a cap-casualty candidate due to his $7.5 million number.