With the offseason in full swing, let’s take a look at one major question facing each AFC West team as it begins preparations for the 2011 season:
Will the Broncos get enough defensive help?
Many Denver fans want to know if Tim Tebow or Kyle Orton will be the starting quarterback. That, of course, will be a huge question, but it likely won’t be answered until minicamps unless the Broncos decide to trade Orton by the draft to grab an extra pick. But the early offseason question in Denver will be what the Broncos will do to cure a defense that was last in 2010 in total defense and points allowed.
New Denver coach John Fox is a defensive specialist, so expect him to get as much defensive help as possible. I could see Denver acquiring five to seven new starters on defense. While Denver will likely be active in free agency in its attempt to build defense, the key will be what the Broncos will do with the No. 2 overall draft pick. Expect Denver to look at players such as Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley, Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers and LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson with the pick. Any one of those players would surely be a strong starting option for this defense. Denver, which has two second-round picks, could also look to trade the pick to compile more draft picks. But the No. 2 pick hasn’t been traded in 11 years, so it won’t be easy.
Another interesting piece of Denver’s offseason defensive puzzle will be whether it re-signs cornerback Champ Bailey, 33, who is still playing at a high level. He will be pricey. If Bailey leaves, Denver will have another hole, but it will have more financial means to address defensive areas. (Update: Bailey re-signed with Denver on Tuesday.)
Will the Chiefs be able to continue the development of quarterback Matt Cassel?
The Chiefs have a good thing going. They went 10-6 in 2010 and won their first division title in seven years. The team’s running game is top notch (it was ranked No. 1 in the NFL) and its 3-4 defense is a strong unit, but the key is Cassel. The Chiefs must do what it takes to ensure Cassel -- who slipped in the final two games of the year after making great strides in 2010 -- doesn’t take a step back now that offensive coordinator Charlie Weis has departed. Head coach Todd Haley, new quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn and assistant Nick Sirianni will work closely with Cassel.
One of the Chiefs’ biggest offseason needs is a No. 2 receiver to help Cassel. The Chiefs are in good shape with Pro Bowl receiver Dwayne Bowe and tight end Tony Moeaki, who built a terrific chemistry with Cassel as a rookie in 2010. If the Chiefs can find a legitimate No. 2 receiver to catch 50 to 60 passes, this offense will be in great shape, considering how strong the run game is. The Chiefs, who have the No. 21 pick in the first round, could find a receiver through free agency or through the draft. However they find him, getting a starting-quality receiver is a priority this offseason in Kansas City.
Will the Raiders sign their key free agents?
The Raiders have several free agents. They probably can't re-sign all of them, but there are some priorities.
The biggest priority is Pro Bowl cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha now that defensive lineman Richard Seymour has a two-year, $30 million deal to make him the NFL's richest defensive player. Asomugha’s contract voided unexpectedly after the season. He will be a highly valued player on the open market. Oakland signed Asomugha to a deal that paid about $15 million per season two years ago. He would have been paid $17 million in 2011 if his deal didn’t void. Asomugha, who can’t be franchised, likely won’t be paid $17 million by any team, but some team will gladly pay him a truckload. Oakland owner Al Davis has said he wants to keep Asomugha, but he did indicate the team might be better off spending that $17 million on two or three quality players. Seymour's deal -- especially if there is a salary cap in the new collective bargaining agreement -- could affect Oakland's ability to keep Asomugha.
Other key free agents include guard Robert Gallery, running back Michael Bush, cornerback Stanford Routt, safety Michael Huff and potentially Zach Miller. This is a good, young team, but Oakland will have some tough decisions to make, starting with Asomugha.
What will the Chargers do to ensure their Super Bowl window doesn’t close?
The Chargers are entering a crossroads this offseason. They saw their four-year reign of AFC West titles end in 2010.
This is still a quality team. Teams don’t lead the NFL in offense and defense without talent. But the truth is, San Diego slipped from 13-3 to a 9-7 playoff-less mark in 2010. This team has been considered a Super Bowl contender for the past several years and it has not made a legitimate push.
Quarterback Philip Rivers, 29, is in the prime of his career. He is a top-tier quarterback and good enough to lead a team to a Super Bowl. It's time for San Diego to do what it takes to not waste Rivers’ talents.
San Diego doesn’t need much, but this is no longer the time for the team to simply hope it has enough. It needs another pass-rusher on defense, and maybe a couple more starters on defense. It may also need to add another receiver even though Vincent Jackson was given the franchise tag. Receiver Malcom Floyd, who caught 37 passes for 717 yards in 2010, is a free agent.
The Chargers clearly have a good nucleus, but it is obvious that is not enough. San Diego, which has extra picks in the second and third rounds, may need to move up from No. 18 to find a true blue-chip player, and it may need to sway from its usual plan of not spending in free agency in an attempt to keep its Super Bowl window open.