Fourth of an eight-part series
With the NFL draft coming up April 26-28, we examine each team's personnel and identify its top three needs going into the draft, subject to any free-agent signings it may make before then.
Overview: What a wild offseason it already has been for the Broncos. Following their surprise run to the top of the AFC West and upset of the Steelers in the wild-card round of the playoffs, the Broncos appeared to be settling into the idea of run-first QB Tim Tebow leading them for the foreseeable future. That all changed when Peyton Manning hit the free-agent market. Executive VP of football operations John Elway made an all-out charge at the former Colt, eventually convincing him to sign a five-year, $96 million deal with Denver. A day later, Elway traded Tebow to the Jets for a pair of draft picks. The Broncos, surprise division champs a year ago despite finishing 8-8, will now have a target on their backs to not only return to the top of the standings, but go further in the playoffs with Manning under center.
Need No. 1: Defensive tackle
The Broncos took so much time and effort chasing down Manning that they were unable to retain some of their own free agents. The biggest loss was DT Brodrick Bunkley, who signed a five-year deal with the Saints. A physical run stuffer who had 43 tackles a year ago, Bunkley was a key member of the D-line for both his ability to clog up running lanes and keep blockers off of pass rushers Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller. Elway said prior to free agency that defensive tackle was a priority, and it is surely one that will be addressed in the draft, maybe with multiple picks. Denver doesn’t ask its tackles to be that involved with the pass rush, but if the team can find a lineman who can rush the quarterback, it would make the job of Dumervil and Miller on the outside that much easier.
Need No. 2: Running back
Going from Tebow to Manning will provide a huge upgrade to the passing attack and should decrease the number of sacks and turnovers that bogged down the offense at times last season. However, the change will be a huge blow to the team’s rushing attack, which ranked first in the NFL last season with 164.5 yards per game. Tebow gained about 56 rushing yards per start, and the threat of him scrambling created running lanes for RB Willis McGahee. Adding a productive backup for McGahee to take the load off for the 30-year-old will be necessary if the Broncos want to continue to have a solid running game and replace Tebow’s production.
Need No. 3: Defensive back
Despite drafting two safeties — Rahim Moore and Quinton Carter — in the first four rounds of the 2011 draft, the most productive rookie defensive back for the Broncos last season was undrafted CB Chris Harris. Denver signed a pair of DBs in free agency — S Mike Adams and CB Tracy Porter — but still is looking to get younger in that area of the defense. With FS Brian Dawkins unlikely to return, the team could use more help on the back end, especially against the pass. The Broncos are hopeful the incoming players wind up making a more immediate impact than Moore and Carter did as rookies.
Kansas City Chiefs
Overview: For the second consecutive offseason, GM Scott Pioli took an aggressive approach to upgrade the Chiefs’ offense. A year after drafting Jonathan Baldwin and signing Steve Breaston to improve the WR corps, Pioli sought to increase the depth at other skill-position spots. He signed QB Brady Quinn, RB Peyton Hillis and TE Kevin Boss, all in reserve roles, though it is expected that Hillis and Boss will see the field often in Brian Daboll’s offense. Kansas City was also able to sign ex-Texans ORT Eric Winston, a huge boost to an offensive line that had serious issues a year ago. These moves will allow Pioli to address the defense in the draft, improving a unit that played well at times during the 2011 season. The Chiefs currently have eight draft picks — one in each of the first six rounds and two seventh-rounders.
Need No. 1: Nose tackle
Playing a 3-4 defense, the Chiefs need run stuffers in the middle of the "D." With no proven nose tackle on the roster, an anchor for the defensive line becomes a top need. The Chiefs drafted a tackle last year in Jerrell Powe, though conditioning issues resulted in the sixth-round pick seeing the field in only one game last season. Veteran NT Kelly Gregg, who was signed last offseason, is a free agent and, at age 35, likely on his last legs. Adding a dynamic player in the middle of the line — similar to what Pioli had in New England with Vince Wilfork — would make the Chiefs’ defense one of the league’s premier units.
Need No. 2: Linebacker
The Chiefs also could stand to get stronger on the second level of the defense. ILB Derrick Johnson and OLB Tamba Hali are both elite players and the keys to head coach Romeo Crennel’s scheme, but their teammates in the LB corps aren’t quite as strong. The team is high on OLB Justin Houston, a third-round pick in 2011 who came on late last season, registering 5½ sacks in the final five games. However, he still needs to develop as a run defender and his starting spot is not guaranteed. Finding a playmaking linebacker — either inside or outside — would be a great boost and make life easier for both Johnson and Hali.
Need No. 3: Safety
One of the themes of Pioli’s offseason moves was adding players at positions that were hurt by injury a year ago. Quinn, Hillis and Boss all will back up Chiefs players who ended 2011 on injured reserve. With that in mind, the team could use more help at safety through the draft. SS Eric Berry — a Pro Bowler as a rookie in 2010 — played one series last year before being lost for the rest of the campaign with a torn ACL. Finding a capable third safety to back up Berry and FS Kendrick Lewis would give the team flexibility on defense, likely an extra body on special teams and most importantly, insurance in case Berry is hurt again.
Overview: Reggie McKenzie stepped into difficult circumstances when he took over as general manager in January. The Raiders were way over the salary cap and had to release several key players in order to make any moves in free agency. That led to the departures of OLB Kamerion Wimbley, CB Stanford Routt, TE Kevin Boss and DT John Henderson. Although the team has filled a few of those spots with some signings, the roster is not where McKenzie would like it for first-year head coach Dennis Allen. McKenzie’s job of rebuilding the roster is even tougher when you add in the fact that the team has only five draft picks, and none among the first 94 selections.
Need No. 1: Outside linebacker
With Allen — the former Broncos defensive coordinator — now calling the shots, the Raiders plan to run a hybrid defense, using both 3-4 and 4-3 schemes. That’s what makes the loss of Wimbley, who was experienced playing both defensive end and outside linebacker, so devastating. Now on the Titans, Wimbley provided a consistent rush off the edge, registering a total of 16 sacks the past two seasons. The Raiders signed former Colts LB Philip Wheeler on Friday, and although he's an accomplished run defender, he isn't much of a pass rusher, as evidenced by his total of two sacks over four seasons. Oakland will look to upgrade the OLB position during the draft, maybe even going as far as drafting a pair of prospects at the position. One of those has to be a pass rusher, as the team has no one currently on the roster to fill Wimbley’s role to rush quarterbacks from the outside.
Need No. 2: Tight end
Though he wasn’t great during his one season in Silver and Black, the departure of Boss hurts the Raiders (even more so because he signed with the rival Chiefs, same as Routt). On a roster full of speedy, downfield receivers, Boss was the only target for QB Carson Palmer who was comfortable in the middle of the field and who was able to make tough catches in traffic. Finding either a physical wide receiver or a pass-catching tight end will be a big help to Palmer, who often forced throws deep when he couldn’t find anyone open underneath. The Raiders drafted two tight ends last season, but combined, David Ausberry (seventh round) and Richard Gordon (sixth round) had three receptions for 16 yards. Starting TE Brandon Myers is primarily a blocker.
Need No. 3: Nose tackle
Without many starting spots available, McKenzie will try to fortify the Raiders' depth, especially on defense. Expect the team to add a defensive lineman, particularly a nose tackle, where it currently has nobody to fill the position if the team opts to run a "30" front. More bodies at inside linebacker also would be helpful if that’s the style of defense Allen would like to run. In addition, McKenzie has done a nice job of replacing Routt and Chris Johnson by signing three cornerbacks in free agency, but more talent in the secondary would be useful.
San Diego Chargers
Overview: After back-to-back seasons without reaching the playoffs, the pressure is on Chargers head coach Norv Turner and GM A.J. Smith to win in 2012. The team was active in free agency after losing WR Vincent Jackson to the Buccaneers, re-signing some key offensive linemen, adding several weapons for QB Philip Rivers and upgrading important spots on defense. Smith now looks to acquire some impact rookies in the draft, something he has struggled to do in recent years.
Need No. 1: Offensive guard
Last season, the Chargers faced major injuries on their offensive line, resulting in Rivers being sacked 30 times, though only five sacks came in the final seven games. Two of the unit’s top blockers — OLT Marcus McNeill (cut) and OLG Kris Dielman (retired) — are no longer with the team because of the injuries they suffered in 2011. By re-signing OT Jared Gaither, the team has a fill-in for McNeill, but the void left by Dielman is glaring. San Diego must address the interior of its O-line in the draft with multiple picks, one of whom must be able to come in and compete for a starting job. Both in pass protection and run blocking, the Chargers' line needs to improve if they want to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
Need No. 2: Pass rusher (outside linebacker or defensive end)
With the exception of OLB Antwan Barnes, a third-down pass rusher who finished with a team-high 11 sacks a year ago, the Chargers had major issues getting to the quarterback. No other player on the roster had more than four sacks, and there are concerns the team will be ill-equipped to play new coordinator John Pagano’s attacking style without another pass rusher. Starting OLB Shaun Phillips is expected to return from the calf injury that bothered him much of the season and limited him to 12 games, but more help either at linebacker or on the defensive line is necessary. The Chargers have failed to add a complement to Phillips previously.
Need No. 3: Running back
Outside of Jackson, whom the Chargers replaced with free-agent WRs Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal, the team's biggest loss in free agency was RB Mike Tolbert, who signed with the Panthers. A solid third-down back who could run for tough yards, catch the ball out of the backfield and make an impact on special teams, Tolbert was the perfect fit for Norv Turner’s offense. In his place, FB Le’Ron McClain was signed, but he’s more of a blocker and occasional goal-line ballcarrier. RB Ryan Mathews made the Pro Bowl in his second NFL season in ’11, but adding a backup who can take some of Mathews' carries and also catch the ball out of the backfield will be sought.