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  • Denver hopes they've found their QB, the Raiders hope their QB finds himself, and the Chiefs and Chargers have the pieces in place for deep postseason runs
By Robert Klemko
June 27, 2018

DENVER BRONCOS

2017 record: 5-11
Crucial veteran additions: CB Tramaine Brock, QB Case Keenum, P Marquette King, DT Clinton McDonald, OT Jared Veldheer
Crucial veteran losses: RB C.J. Anderson, OT Donald Stephenson, CB Aqib Talib
2018 draft class and grades

What improved?

Case Keenum, while not John Elway’s first choice, should be a big upgrade at the most important position on the field. He’ll also help the Broncos identify what they have at wide receiver after using two draft picks (Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton) in the first four rounds to eventually supplant veterans Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Signing Keenum allowed the Broncos to focus on other positions in the draft, and management was thrilled with edge rusher Bradley Chubb’s availability at No. 5 overall. Jared Veldheer is the latest attempt to stop the bleeding on offensive line—Denver allowed the third-most sacks in the NFL in 2017 (52). Even if you ignore Veldheer's season-ending ankle injury last December (which you shouldn’t), Veldheer's performance in Arizona up to that point would indicate he's only a marginal upgrade over Donald Stephenson if he wins his position battle with Menelik Watson.

What needs work?

C.J. Anderson had an ability to create extra yardage with a so-so run blocking group that his replacement, Devontae Booker, has yet to show in limited opportunities. That’s why Denver spent a third-round pick on Royce Freeman. Bradley Roby should be a fine replacement for Aqib Talib, but there's no telling what Denver is getting out of Roby’s replacement, whether it's Tramaine Brock, Brendan Langley or rookie Isaac Yiadom. The third corner spot will likely be a downgrade. Interior offensive linemen Max Garcia and Connor McGovern were liabilities in 2017, especially during Ron Leary’s absence due to injury, and the Broncos did next to nothing to improve the guard position.

What can we expect?

In terms of players whose performances will define the Broncos’ hopes, three stand out. Keenum is obvious. If he can quickly learn a new system and perform on par with his 2017 output, you can pencil the Broncos in for the postseason. Roby steps into the void left by Talib’s departure for the Los Angeles Rams and brings a quietly great résumé and experience as a slot and boundary corner to the role. In his rookie season, left tackle Garett Bolles showed flashes of becoming the franchise tackle Elway has pursued for half a decade, and gives the staff no reason to think he won’t make a big leap in 2018. Conservatively, I’d put the Broncos at 7-9 with a lot of upside.

Fact/tidbit/piece of news learned from OTAs/minicamp: Via Mike Klis, seven rookies earned first-team reps in OTAs this season—Chubb, receivers Sutton and Hamilton, running backs Freeman, David Williams and Phillip Lindsay, and inside linebacker Josey Jewell. Contrast that with a year ago, when no rookies got the opportunity in camp.

Letter grade: B-minus. This grade will seem low if Keenum delivers.


KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

2017 record: 10-6
Crucial veteran additions: CB David Amerson, LB Anthony Hitchens, CB Kendall Fuller, WR Sammy Watkins, NT Xavier Williams
Crucial veteran losses: OG Zach Fulton, EDGE Tamba Hali, LB Derrick Johnson, DT Bennie Logan, CB Marcus Peters, QB Alex Smith, WR Albert Wilson
2018 draft class and grades

What improved?

Despite trading Marcus Peters, the Chiefs could field an improved secondary. They’ll have the presumed healthy return of safety Eric Berry, who ruptured his achilles in the first game of the 2017 season, and the arrival of Kendall Fuller, who thrived in the slot last season in Washington and is gaining recognition as one of the top young cornerbacks in football by the scouting community, as part of the Alex Smith trade. Sammy Watkins, now with his third team, adds diversity and balance to a Chiefs offense that was one of seven that had a tight end as its leading receiver last season. LB Anthony Hitchens should be an improvement over longtime Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson, whose age (34) was showing.

What needs work?

Bringing in free agents Hitchens, CB David Amerson and NT Xavier Williams, coupled with GM Brett Veach and Andy Reid’s decision to spend their first four draft picks on defensive players, means a ton of new faces for defensive coordinator Bob Sutton. The biggest change is the one at quarterback, with Patrick Mahomes replacing Smith. Smith was playing the best football of his career before he was traded, topping 4,000 yards passing for the first time in his 13-year career, at the age of 33. The Chiefs believe Mahomes’ ceiling is much higher, and they've surrounded him with some of the most exciting offensive talent in football, but he's still just 22, with just one meaningful NFL game (a Week 17 start when the Chiefs were already locked into their playoff seed) under his belt.

What can we expect?

Returning a healthy Berry, adding Watkins and replacing Peters with Fuller keeps the Chiefs firmly in contention, but the wild card is the quarterback. My guess: 9-7 in Mahomes’ first season, with turnover issues throughout.

Fact/tidbit /piece of news learned from OTAs/minicamp: Slimmed down defensive players Chris Jones (DL) and Reggie Ragland (LB) said they lost 25 and 10 pounds, respectively, this offseason in an effort to be quicker on their feet.

Letter grade: C-plus. Mahomes must avoid growing pains, and the new faces on defense must produce immediately, if K.C. is going to repeat in the AFC West.


LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

2017 record: 9-7
Crucial veteran additions: TE Virgil Green, C Mike Pouncey, K Caleb Sturgis
Crucial veteran losses: EDGE Jeremiah Attaochu, TE Antonio Gates, OG Matt Slauson
2018 draft class and grades

What improved?

These are exciting times in Los Angeles. The Chargers will enjoy the healthy return of last year’s first- and second-round picks: WR Mike Williams and guard Forrest Lamp. This year’s first-round pick, Derwin James, fills a big need at safety for a defense. Adding Mike Pouncey in free agency to replace Spencer Pulley at center was the cherry on top.

What needs work?

TE Hunter Henry’s season-ending ACL injury is a big blow, especially considering his replacement is likely to be Virgil Green, a one-dimensional blocking tight end who caught 14 passes in 16 starts last season in Denver. Outside of Keenan Allen, Philip Rivers’ receiver group is inexperienced or unproven, meaning at least the earliest chunk of the season may rest on the capable shoulders of running back Melvin Gordon.

What can we expect?

With a healthy Henry, I’d feel comfortable putting this team in the AFC championship game. They might still get there, but there’s a lot to sort out as far as offensive identity. You will see a unique sense of desperation from this team, given the outstanding talent on defense and Rivers’ age (36).

Fact/tidbit/piece of news learned from OTAs/minicamp: Melvin Ingram wants to play tight end.

Letter grade: B. Until the Henry injury had, they had addressed the needs they needed to address this offseason.


OAKLAND RAIDERS

2017 record: 6-10
Crucial veteran additions: WR Martavis Bryant, S Marcus Gilchrist, LB Derrick Johnson, CB Leon Hall, RB Doug Martin, CB Rashaan Melvin, WR Jordy Nelson, LB Tahir Whitehead, CB Daryl Worley
Crucial veteran losses: CB David Amerson, DE Denico Autry, CB T.J. Carrie, WR Michael Crabtree, K Sebastian Janikowski, P Marquette King
2018 draft class and grades

What improved?

There’s no telling what kind of player Martavis Bryant will be without the benefit of a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger) throwing to him and perhaps the best receiver on earth (Antonio Brown) taking heat off him. Plus, there’s a Las Vegas Review Journal report that the Raiders are bracing for league discipline for Bryant, who is in the substance abuse program. Likewise, we can’t know how a 33-year-old Jordy Nelson will play without Aaron Rodgers. Doug Martin joins Marshawn Lynch in a backfield that would’ve been considered unstoppable in 2014.

What needs work?

TJ Carrie is a big loss after finally coming into his own during his fourth and final season in Oakland. Newcomer Leon Hall could start opposite Gareon Conley, who missed most of his rookie season with a shin injury. Given all the uncertainty in the defensive backfield, Jon Gruden has to hope for a big jump from safety Karl Joseph. On the offensive line, first-round pick Kolton Miller joins an outstanding front five that’s had a revolving door at the right tackle position of late. Right guard Gabe Jackson’s performance slide in 2017 could mean trouble for Derek Carr on the right side. If the Raiders are expecting much from 35-year-old linebacker Derrick Johnson, they may be disappointed in his twin surgically-repaired achilles tendons.

What can we expect?

Who is Derek Carr? Is he the budding star who had a 60-19 TD/INT ratio in his second and third seasons, or is he the game manager whose statline more closely resembled Blake Bortles than Drew Brees in 2017. A revamped receiver room should help, as will Year 2 with tight end Jared Cook. Let's put Oakland at 6-10 after an offseason spent treading water.

Fact/tidbit/piece of news learned from OTAs/minicamp: Gruden doesn't seem to have changed much in his decade away from the game.

Letter grade: D-plus. A lot of things will have to go right (Bryant, Nelson thriving despite a QB downgrade, Johnson finding the fountain of youth, Carr recapturing his 2016 form) for Oakland to make a run in 2018.

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