2012 NFL Free Agency Previews: AFC West

By Ryan Wilson | CBSSports.com
Will Norv Turner and the Chargers be able to rebound from a disappointing 2011 season? (Getty Images)

Denver Broncos

It's not like anyone needs to be reminded of what happened in Denver last season, but in case you're recently out of a coma or just back from Mars, here goes: Tim Tebow happened. Specifically, he took over for Kyle Orton after the Broncos got off to a 1-4 start, looked overwhelmed and out of sorts for the the first month or so, but still helped lead Denver to a six-game winning streak, the division title, and a wild-card win over the Steelers. Although team executive John Elway and head coach John Fox have named Tebow the starter heading into training camp, we wouldn't be surprised if that changed in the coming months.

Free agents of note
We listed Brodrick Bunkley as one of the top-10 free-agent defensive tackles … Safety Brian Dawkins is 38 and is contemplating retirement … Shifty wide receiver and returner Eddie Royal is expected to sign elsewhere … Kicker Matt Prater was franchised.

Needs
The elephant in the room: quarterback. Even if Tebow is the starter in '12, Brady Quinn won't be back. Which means that the Broncos will need a backup. No matter what Dawkins' decides, there's also a need at safety even though Denver drafted Rahim Moore last April. According to Pro Football Focus, J.D. Walton "was the worst center in football" last season. Willis McGahee is 30 and Knowshon Moreno has yet to play up to his 16th-overall draft status, so running back could also be addressed in the coming months. Denver shipped Brandon Lloyd to the Rams midway through the season and Demaryius Thomas was the only legitimate big-play threat (although Tebow and Eric Decker developed a good rapport, too).

Targets
In theory, the list of potential free-agent QB candidates could include Chad Henne, Jason Campbell or even David Garrard. The reality, however, is that those guys a) would like to be starters, and b) saw what happened to Kyle Orton and probably don't want any part of Tebowmania. One solution: the Broncos could go after Peyton Manning (hey, look at that!), demote or trade Tebow, and try to talk one of the aforementioned free agents into coming to Denver to be part of a more conventional offense. PFF thinks that Packers center Scott Wells could be an interesting option, as would former Raider Samson Satele, who excels as a run-blocker. Michael Bush would be an expensive choice at running back and a cheaper alternative could be found in the draft. Denver will need to shore up the middle of their defense if Bunkley leaves and Jason Jones, Sione Pouha or Aubrayo Franklin could work as replacements.

Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs went from AFC West champs in 2010 to a seven-win outfit in 2012 that played so poorly over the first half of the season that head coach Todd Haley was fired. The offense sputtered after Jamaal Charles and Matt Cassel ended up on injured reserve and Tyler Palko took over at quarterback. Despite those shortcomings, the defense was solid under defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel (13th in the league according to Football Outsiders), now the head coach.

Free agents of note
WR Brandon Carr will draw plenty of interest in free agency … The Chiefs signed Kyle Orton late last season and they've said they'd like to keep him … Running back Thomas Jones will be 34 in August and Jackie Battle will likely test free agency too … Defensive tackle Kelly Gregg could retire … Dwayne Bowe was wisely franchised.

Needs
The Chiefs have been mentioned as one of the dozen or so teams interested in Manning but those odds seem long. Kansas City needs to upgrade the right side of the offensive line -- RT Barry Richardson didn't grade out well according to PFF. Charles should be healthy when training camp begins but the Chiefs need to find a young, fresh pair of legs to replace Jones and Battle (Dexter McCluster is a start, but he's more a change-of-pace back at this stage of his career).

Targets
Should Orton not return, Henne and Campbell could be options (to go along with second-year QB Ricky Stanzi), and BenJarvus Green-Ellis or Mike Tolbert could share carries with Charles. If Carr leaves, the Chiefs should be okay -- they signed Stanford Routt last month. Dolphins nose tackle Paul Soliai could bolster the middle of the defense although NFLDraftScout.com's Rob Rangthinks that Dontari Poe could be an option via the draft.

Oakland Raiders

The Raiders got off to a 4-2 start in Hue Jackson's first season as head coach but then Jason Campbell went down with a shoulder injury, the team panicked and gave up a first and second-round pick for Carson Palmer, and lost four of five games to finish 8-8 and lose the AFC West tiebreaker to the Broncos. Jackson was fired in the offseason and new general manager Reggie McKenzie has already begun to clean house.

Free agents of note
Running back Michael Bush wasn't franchised, which means he's headed for free agency … Quarterback Jason Campbell just can't catch a break; after a solid start in '11, he was injured, lost his job and won't get a chance to regain it in Oakland … Center Samson Satele is an adept run-blocker and shouldn't have trouble finding work … Tyvon Branch was one of the Raiders' best defensive players last season and was franchised.

Needs
First need: get under the salary cap. The team already released Routt, and on Friday cut ties with defensive backs Chris Johnson and Hiram Eugene. They'll also make a decision on linebacker Kamerion Wimbley. Palmer, Michael Huff and Richard Seymour have all restructured their contracts. Assuming Oakland can get far enough under the cap to make some meaningful moves, they could stand upgrades in the secondary and linebacker, and also along the offensive line.

Targets
With Brandon Carr and Cortland Finnegan likely out of their price range, Oakland might have to settle for names like William Gay, Aaron Ross or Tracy Porter. And because this is the Raiders, we'll mention that Pacman Jones is available too. PFFcalls the right tackle position "a sore spot," and mentions names like Demetrius Bell, Jared Gaither and Anthony Collins as possible targets (though they may be out of Oakland's price range too).

San Diego Chargers

The Chargers were the second-most disappointing team in the NFL last season, behind the Eagles. They got off to an abysmal start and ran out of games at the end of the year. An 8-8 finish wasn't enough to get Norv Turner fired and he'll return in 2012 with franchise quarterback Philip Rivers but plenty of other question marks on both sides of the ball.

Free agents of note
Mike Tolbert will be one of the best available free-agent running backs when he hits the market … Tackle Jared Gaither played well in his short time in San Diego and the team may try to re-sign him … Same holds for Center Nick Hardwick and fullback Jacob Hester … Defensive tackle Antonio Garay will test free agency although the Chargers would re-sign him if there isn't much demand from other teams … Wide receiver Vincent Jackson has said he wants to stay in San Diego but will he be able to turn down a huge deal from another WR-needy team?

Needs
The team released defensive lineman Luis Castillo and guard Kris Deilman retired last week. The Chargers are reportedly high on guard Tyronne Green so if they can wrap up Gaither and Hardwick, the offensive line would be adequate (hey, it's a start). San Diego reportedly planned to release cornerback Dante Hughes, who had his issues in the sub-packages last season.

Targets
Ideally, the Chargers would lock up Gaither, Hardwick, Jackson and Hester, which would make for a good free agency for them. If they lose out on the o-linemen, that's a huge problem. Bell and Collins could be alternatives at LT, but Gaither is arguably better. And while the offense can survive without Jackson, he makes things a lot easier for Rivers, especially if Antonio Gates is healthy. Possible replacements should V-Jax not return: Reggie Wayne (if he doesn't follow Manning), Brandon Lloyd, and maybe even Marques Colston. (Like Gaither and the free-agent tackles, Jackson's the best of the bunch among the wideouts.) They will also need to replace Tolbert, who rushed for eight touchdowns in '11. Running backs are easy to come by and if GM A.J. Smith can't find a bargain in free agency he could wait until the draft to fill the need.

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