NFL free agency grades for AFC West: Raiders, Broncos, Chargers emerge with high marks as they pursue Chiefs
The AFC West, as a whole, experienced a good period of free agency, but there's still a large gap between the Chiefs and the three other teams
The AFC West might just be the new version of the AFC East, which bodes well for the Chiefs and not at all well for the Broncos, Chargers, and Raiders. With the emergence of Patrick Mahomes under the steady command of Andy Reid, the Chiefs are the West's version of the Patriots. As long as Mahomes and Reid are in Kansas City, the Chiefs will be frontrunners. this means the other three teams are perpetually stuck in catch-up mode -- just ask the Bills, Jets, and Dolphins how difficult it is to overcome an all-time great quarterback and coach combination.
That's the bad news for the Broncos, Raiders, and Chargers. They have to live in the same division as Mahomes for the foreseeable future. The good news is that all three of those teams are coming off pretty successful free agencies. While they're still trailing the Chiefs in the division by a wide margin, all three teams can mostly be happy with how their free agencies unfolded -- and as a result, they'll all head into the upcoming season with the playoffs in mind.
Now that the most important phase of free agency has come and gone, let's review how all four AFC West teams made out. While the Chiefs didn't receive as good of a grade as the three teams they're trying to hold off, it's important to remember that already great teams don't need to do as much in March as not-great teams. Winning free agency doesn't always translate in wins from September to December and extra games in January. The Chiefs still own this division. The Broncos, Chargers, and Raiders all had good offseasons, but they're still trailing the leader.
It's been a mostly good offseason for the Broncos. While there's no doubt that losing Chris Harris, one of the best cornerbacks of the past decade, to a division rival is a brutal blow, the Broncos were always expected to lose him this offseason. That didn't come as much of a surprise. And the Broncos did well to add A.J. Bouye via a cheap trade with the Jaguars. With Bouye, a potentially healthy Bryce Callahan, and safety Justin Simmons (who was franchise tagged), this Broncos secondary still has a chance to be pretty good under Vic Fangio. The Broncos' best move was trading a seventh-round pick for Jurrell Casey. It's a trade that still doesn't make much sense from the Titans' perspective. The Broncos did well to acquire a very good player for very cheap. That entire Broncos defense should be excellent again. But I also like what the Broncos did on offense in bolstering their leaky offensive line by signing Graham Glasgow.
But the Broncos got dinged for their decision to sign Melvin Gordon. It just doesn't make much sense. You'd figure that the team that has watched an undrafted rookie (Phillip Lindsay) outperform a third-round pick (Royce Freeman) would understand that teams shouldn't spend resources on running backs, but the Broncos proceeded to give Gordon $8 million per year. It's an unnecessary signing given the presence of the two aforementioned running backs. The Gordon signing and the loss of Harris prevented the Broncos from getting an A. But still, this was a good period of free agency for the Broncos. They did well to add good players (Bouye and Casey, in particular) who didn't cost much.
Kansas City Chiefs
Nobody should be surprised that the Chiefs haven't done much in free agency. This team just won the Super Bowl, so their roster is already quite good. They've also got some long-term extensions (Patrick Mahomes) that they need to budget for. So, we're not going to ding them for being mostly inactive during free agency. Losing Emmanuel Ogbah and Kendall Fuller are blows to a defense that made a big improvement last season. Bashaud Breeland remains unsigned. He'd also be a big loss for that secondary. Offensively, they haven't lost much, but Stefen Wisniewski as a depth piece up front will be missed.
But the Chiefs have done well to retain important pieces like Chris Jones (franchise tag), Anthony Sherman, and Mike Pennel. Losses were inevitable. But the Chiefs will be keeping most of the gang together for another run at the Super Bowl. That's the important thing. Finding a way to keep Breeland and getting Jones under contract for the long haul would improve their grade substantially.
Las Vegas Raiders
It feels weird to say this, but I actually like what the Raiders did during free agency. Kwiatkoski is one of my favorite signings of the entire offseason. A long-time backup linebacker for the Bears, he made tremendous strides in 2019 when he was forced to fill in for Danny Trevathan. Kwiatkoski and Cory Littleton should give the Raiders much-improved play at linebacker.
Of course, we need to talk about Marcus Mariota. While Mariota's career is trending in the wrong direction after getting usurped by Ryan Tannehill in Tennessee, Mariota was brought to Las Vegas on a very affordable contract. He'll be good competition for Derek Carr. I'd be willing to bet he'll supplant him at some point during the 2020 season. If healthy (a big if), Mariota could be a good fit for Jon Gruden's offense.
Nobody should expect the Raiders to challenge the Chiefs for the division crown. This is still Kansas City's division - and it'll remain that way until Mahomes retires (a scary thought for the three other AFC West teams). But the Raiders found ways to get better during free agency with the draft still to come. They emerge with a high grade. The reason they didn't get an A? A couple of signings that felt unnecessary (Jason Witten) and the fact that they didn't get a better quarterback than Mariota in an offseason with a bevy of quarterbacks available both in free agency and the trade market. I don't think Mariota pushes them over the hump.
Los Angeles Chargers
Outside of their inability to upgrade at quarterback (a pretty big issue) after moving on from Philip Rivers, the Chargers actually experienced a pretty good offseason. I like their extension for Austin Ekeler, the perfect running back for the modern NFL. Keeping Hunter Henry via the franchise tag was a smart move. He's a top-tier tight end when healthy. The problem is, he can't stay healthy. Which makes him the perfect tag candidate.
They added Chris Harris and Linval Joseph to a defense that was already pretty good. It's not difficult to imagine this defense becoming a top-five unit in 2020 with the addition of a great cornerback and a good defensive tackle.
Offensively, the Chargers found a way to improve their line in a big way. Getting Trai Turner for Russell Okung without being forced to part ways with a draft pick was an incredible trade. Bryan Bulaga is an elite offensive tackle if healthy (but again, that's a big if). Unfortunately, the Chargers bolstered their offensive line after they got rid of their Hall-of-Fame quarterback. Missing out on Tom Brady hurt, but the Chargers at least have a pretty good backup plan in Tyrod Taylor. It still feels like Taylor is underappreciated just because his stint with the Browns didn't go as planned even though nobody every succeeds at quarterback in Cleveland. But Taylor is solid, and the Chargers can draft a quarterback now that they've filled most of their important needs via free agency.
Still, the loss of Rivers and their inability to find a great replacement is what prevented the Chargers from getting an A.
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