Free Agency Primer: AFC West
With more than 1,100 yards receiving in each of the last two seasons, Dwayne Bowe is likely to be at the top of the Chiefs' priority list in free agency. (Peter Aiken/Getty Images)
Even though the Broncos won a playoff game in 2011, the AFC West has to get better next season. The division race became one of those "Does anyone want to win this thing?" propositions as the season went on, with three teams finishing 8-8 and Denver claiming the title despite losing its last three games.
There are some big names set to hit the free-agent market out of this division, too, so we will have to wait to see how those potential losses impact the race in 2012.
Here's a look at how the AFC West teams stack up as free agency beckons:
• Key free agents: DT Broderick Bunkley, DB Brian Dawkins, TE Daniel Fells, LB Joe Mays, K Matt Prater, QB Brady Quinn, WR Eddie Royal, DT Marcus Thomas, LB Wesley Woodyard.
• Players Denver needs back: Bunkley; Prater; Thomas; Woodyard.
Bunkley and Thomas made up the Broncos' starting defensive tackle pairing for the last 11 games of last season. They played very well together, too, though Bunkley should be the Broncos' top priority -- and also will command more money than Thomas. Outside of Von Miller, Bunkley might have been Denver's top defensive player in 2011.
Woodyard saw an expanded role last season and responded with 97 tackles. He also forced that crucial Marion Barber overtime fumble, which led to a Denver overtime win against the Bears. Prater tied that game late with a 59-yard field goal, then won it with a 51-yarder. The fifth-year kicker has the booming leg that's perfect for Denver's thin air.
• Players Denver should let walk: Dawkins; Mays; Quinn; Royal.
It's not so much that the Broncos would want to give up on Dawkins, but rather that the 38-year-old is coming off a serious neck injury, and it might be better for both parties if Dawkins just calls it a career.
Quinn and Royal are pretty obvious inclusions on this list -- the former won't beat out Tim Tebow and is not a terrific backup option; the latter will want more money than Denver needs to pay a receiver coming off a 19-catch year.
Mays could wind up back in Denver, but the Broncos would be wiser to let him leave so that it can see what Nate Irving can do at middle linebacker.
• Outlook: Most of Denver's work here needs to be done on defense, with Bunkley, Thomas and Mays representing the team's up-the-middle grouping from '11. Dawkins' health will be another issue to monitor going forward.
Kansas City Chiefs
• Key free agents: WR Dwayne Bowe, DB Brandon Carr, DT Kelly Gregg, RB Thomas Jones, FB Le'Ron McClain, QB Kyle Orton, TE Leonard Pope, OT Barry Richardson, C Casey Wiegmann.
• Players Kansas City needs back: Bowe; Carr; Wiegmann.
Romeo Crennel made it pretty clear that the Chiefs want Bowe and Carr back, and neither bit of news should come as a surprise. Bowe has topped 1,000 yards receiving in three of his five years with the Chiefs and remains a top-end option at the position. Carr, meanwhile, has started every game since 2008 and, with Brandon Flowers, gives Kansas City a pretty formidable corner duo.
Wiegmann's status is up to him -- the 38-year-old may opt to retire. If he does, the Chiefs will have to scramble a bit to try to replace him at center. He continues to be one of the team's best offensive linemen.
• Players Kansas City should let walk: Gregg; Jones; McClain; Orton.
Jones and McClain are kind of in the same boat: It's hard to see their respective roles in 2012. The Chiefs did not utilize McClain very much last season, even though he remains a punishing lead blocker. Jones, on the other hand, did lead the team in carries, but with Jackie Battle emerging, Jamaal Charles hopefully returning from injury and Dexter McCluster still in the mix, he should be the fourth option.
Gregg played well enough at nose tackle for K.C., but the Chiefs need to find a long-term candidate for that position -- Gregg will turn 36 next season.
The writing is on the wall for Orton, what with Matt Cassel set to jump back in at QB. Cassel may not be the definitive answer for the Chiefs into the future, but Orton is far from a safer choice.
• Outlook: The Chiefs, coming off a 7-9 season, are in pretty solid shape right now, with few impact free agents and a boatload of money to potentially spend to plug a few holes here and there.
• Key free agents: OT Khalif Barnes, S Tyvon Branch, RB Michael Bush, QB Jason Campbell, S Matt Giordano, C Samson Satele, WR Chaz Schilens, DB Lito Sheppard.
• Players Oakland needs back: Branch; Bush; Giordano; Satele.
Bush is the no-brainer here, and Oakland sounds prepared to franchise tag him if need be.
Branch ought to be more of a focus for Oakland than Giordano, since he would definitely be a starter if he returned. Giordano did start nine games in 2011, but if the Raiders retained him, it might be more for what he does to help the team's depth than how he performed in those outings.
Satele started 15 games last season and did an adequate job. The good news is that he might be even better suited for the new offensive system coming to Oakland under head coach Dennis Allen.
• Players Oakland should let walk: Campbell; Schilens; Sheppard.
Under different circumstances Campbell might be an interesting fit for Allen's possible move to a West Coast-style offense. However, the Raiders' trade for Carson Palmer last season threw all that out the window, and now they simply cannot afford to keep Campbell.
Schilens was one of those prototypical Raiders' draft picks -- fast and loaded with potential -- but he has not panned out.
Sheppard was a mess last season in pass coverage. Oakland has to find a more reliable option.
• Outlook: Getting Bush back in silver and black would be a huge boon for the Raiders, especially as they go through so many changes at the top. It will be interesting to see how they approach things on the defensive side of the ball, considering that they are projected to be well over the salary cap.
San Diego Chargers
• Key free agents: WR Patrick Crayton, LB Na'il Diggs, OT Jared Gaither; DT Antonio Garay, S Steve Gregory, C Nick Hardwick, WR Vincent Jackson, TE Randy McMichael, RB Mike Tolbert.
• Players San Diego needs back: Gaither; Hardwick; Jackson.
Given how much heat the banged-up Chargers offensive line took at times last season, it's odd to place two members of that front on here. And yet, Gaither and Hardwick performed well last season. That was particularly surprising from Gaither, whom the Chargers added off waivers late in the season. He has all the talent in the world but had struggled to display that on the field.
The Chargers should be done using the franchise tag on Jackson. That said, signing him long-term makes a lot of sense -- despite clashing with the organization at times, he is one of the NFL's better receivers when he plays.
• Players San Diego should let walk: Gregory; Tolbert.
Gregory found himself in the starting lineup for 13 games and often looked overmatched. He's an experienced veteran, but if the Chargers cannot convince him to come back as a depth option in the secondary, it's not worth it.
Tolbert will not fail to land offers if he gets to free agency, which means it also would not be shocking to see San Diego bring him back. With Ryan Mathews continuing to get better, though, is there enough of a role for Tolbert to justify handing him a long-term deal? • Outlook: The Chargers, somewhat surprisingly, held on to head coach Norv Turner. They'll try to follow that up by making a splash in free agency, as they are projected to have about $20 million to spend under the salary cap. The positive financial situation means they can be a little more cautious with their own guys, since they will have opportunities to replace people.