Just about everyone expected the Broncos
to be a Super Bowl contender in 2013. The bar was not nearly as high for the remainder of the division, which made the AFC West a pleasant surprise as Kansas City and San Diego joined Denver in the postseason. The Chargers
even won a playoff game, on the road at Cincinnati, before bowing out to the Broncos. We won't mention how the Chiefs
' season ended.
This could be one of the most hotly contested division races next season, if the teams below Denver maintain their current trajectories. An early look at what's ahead for the AFC West in free agency:
• Key free agents: S Mike Adams, DE Robert Ayers, G Zane Beadles, WR Eric Decker, CB Quentin Jammer, RB Knowshon Moreno, DE Shaun Phillips, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, LB Wesley Woodyard
• Players Denver needs back: Beadles, Moreno, Phillips, Rodgers-Cromartie.
The toughest argument to make is in favor of Moreno, so we'll leadoff with him. The Broncos used a 2012 draft pick on the (mostly disappointing) Ronnie Hillman, then took Montee Ball last year. In theory, that set them up to let Moreno walk this offseason. The problem is Moreno remains the best back on this roster, particularly because he remains a very sturdy pass-protector in front of Peyton Manning. Can Moreno find big bucks as a free agent or will teams play it conservatively at running back?
Phillips is in line for a huge pay boost after signing a cheap one-year deal and then blowing up in Denver. His likely price tag should remain in Denver's budget. The same might not be said for Rodgers-Cromartie, who is in line to be paid as a No. 1 cornerback this offseason. If Denver can afford him, it needs to re-sign him -- Chris Harris ended the season with a knee injury, and Champ Bailey's talents are diminishing rapidly.
Beadles has started every game but two over the past four seasons. Disrupting a surprising offensive line would be a mistake.
• Players Denver should let walk: Adams, Decker, Jammer, Woodyard.
Adams is a tweener -- he has been a versatile two-year starter at safety, but he'll be 33 in March and might be replaceable. Decker, on the other hand, is a dynamic talent in this offense. Still, with Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker under contract, and Julius Thomas in need of an extension, the Broncos really have to weigh how much they want to spend on pass-catchers. It's possible Decker will find the market cool (especially with a loaded WR draft class) and circle back to his current team. Otherwise, let someone else overpay for him.
Woodyard has been a key cog at linebacker for multiple seasons, but his injury opened the door for Danny Trevathan and there's no use going back now.
Jammer, even with the ability to play either safety or corner, simply has outlasted his usefulness.
• Outlook: After falling one win shy of a championship, the Broncos face an offseason potentially filled with turnover on the roster. Keeping things together as much as possible for one more Peyton Manning run is imperative. For Denver to do so with 16 unrestricted free agents and just $12 million in available cap space will be a bit of a tap dance. Alterations here and there are inevitable.
BURKE: Potential salary cap casualties
Kansas City Chiefs
• Key free agents: OT Branden Albert, DE Tyson Jackson, S Kendrick Lewis, WR Dexter McCluster, G Geoff Schwartz
• Players Kansas City needs back: Jackson, Schwartz.
Only two, which leaves off some key contributors. But the Chiefs are barely clearing next season's projected salary cap, so re-signing Albert (franchise tagged last year) or Lewis (an emerging player at a position of need for most teams) could be out of the question.
Schwartz should be easier on the Chiefs' wallet, even after wrestling a starting job from Jon Asamoah -- who's also a free agent. Jackson took a pay cut before the 2013 season, so he might up the ante now that he's headed into free agency. Kansas City could opt to let him walk, too, though his contributions up front were crucial.
• Players Kansas City should let walk: Albert, Lewis, McCluster.
The Chiefs would take Albert back in a heartbeat if he helped them out on the financial details. Saving that, it'll be time to put more responsibility on 2013 No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher, who likely would inherit the starting left tackle job. There's no such fallback plan at safety, though 2013 fifth-rounder Sanders Commings could battle for Lewis' vacated starting job. Again, the price tag on Lewis -- as with Albert -- may simply be too high for the Chiefs to make a deal.
McCluster still has value, specifically as a return man. There will be other options there.
• Outlook: The list of in-house free agents is relatively thin, except when one considers the potential impact on the roster. Should everyone listed above leave, the Chiefs would have to replace two starters on the offensive line, one of the D-line, a safety and their slot/return guy. That's a lot of ground to cover in one offseason for a team without much spending cash.
• Key free agents: OT Khalif Barnes, WR Jacoby Ford, DE Lamarr Houston, CB Mike Jenkins, RB Rashad Jennings, RB Darren McFadden, OT Tony Pashos, CB Tracy Porter, DT Pat Sims, OT Jared Veldheer, DT Vance Walker, S Charles Woodson, S Usama Young.
• Players Oakland needs back: Houston, Porter, Sims, Veldheer, Woodson.
What do the Raiders think of Menelik Watson? That answer might drive the team's decision on guys like Barnes and Pashos, who were forced into duty and responded unexpectedly well in 2013. The ideal scenario still has a healthy Veldheer anchoring at left tackle, with Watson on the right side. As such, the Raiders will pursue Veldheer aggressively and might consider the franchise tag.
Houston seems to believe the Raiders want to move on from him, which would be a mistake. He turned in 6.0 sacks last season as the team's most dangerous rusher off the edge.
Porter is still just 27 (feels like he's been around longer than that) and stood out in a crummy Oakland secondary. The cost to retain him will be substantially higher than to keep Woodson in the fold. And the Raiders want to pull the trigger on the latter, because the veteran Woodson provided some guidance last season. He's no longer the Heisman Trophy-winning version of himself, but he brings enough to the table to warrant an offer.
The 330-pound Sims can plug up the middle, which is a valuable trait even if that's all he really contributes. If the Raiders transition to more 3-4 looks, they'll need him.
• Players Oakland should let walk: Ford, Jenkins, Jennings, McFadden.
I'd suggest talking to Jennings over McFadden at this point, even though McFadden is the more talented player. He simply has not been able to stay healthy, so continuing to build the run game around him is a fool's errand. Jennings has not fared much better in terms of staying 100 percent, but the Raiders did get decent mileage out of him last year, so it would not be a surprise if they want him to return.
Jenkins' situation is somewhat similar to that of Barnes and Pashos. The veteran corner started for much of 2013, yet the Raiders would prefer their youth step up. In this case, it's D.J. Hayden.
Ford's long gone.
• Outlook: Oakland is projected to have $60 million in cap space -- an almost unfathomable number. They're not required to spend it all, obviously, but it gives them far more leeway on all their decisions right now. If the opportunity comes up to overpay for a top-notch free agent, the Raiders are in position to do so.
That laundry list of pending free agents will keep GM Reggie McKenzie busy in the meantime. McKenzie was savvy in beginning to rebuild Oakland's roster last offseason. Would losing a huge chunk of players undo some of the progress?
San Diego Chargers
• Key free agents: RB Ronnie Brown, LB Donald Butler, CB Richard Marshall, OL Rich Ohrnberger, G Chad Rinehart, DT Cam Thomas, LB Reggie Walker
• Players San Diego needs back: Butler.
Is that it? Arguments probably could be made for Ohrnberger, Marshall, Walker or even Brown, but there's hardly a must-have in there. Butler qualifies as one because of how effective he was in 12 starts (plus two playoff games) for the Chargers. He's also only 25, so he and Manti T'eo could form a quality LB pairing for awhile.
Three receivers -- Seyi Ajirotutu, Danario Alexander and Lavelle Hawkins -- also are set to hit the market. The Chargers may as well look elsewhere. The best non-Butler case might be in favor of special-teams ace Darrell Stuckey.
• Players San Diego should let walk: Brown, Marshall, Rinehart, Thomas.
They all contributed at various points in 2013: Marshall started six games and played all 16; Brown had 157 yards rushing; Rinehart served on the O-line's first team for more than half the season; and Thomas was a starter heading into the year before coughing up his spot late.
The Chargers would not be significantly worse in any area by letting this quartet and the aforementioned receivers depart.
• Outlook: There's very little saved up here -- San Diego's actually projected to be a few thousand over the cap, as of now. Whatever it can come up with, it figures to use on Butler, draft picks and then a cost-effective signing or two. Will that be enough to get this team back into the playoffs?
More divisional free agency primers