Draft Needs: AFC West
Teams have now had a month of free agency to chase down veteran upgrades, replacements, and hole-fillers but their roster-twisting work is not done. Next on the horizon is the 2013 NFL draft and with it comes the yearly opportunity to land youthful talent that, ideally, will provide a long-term positive impact.
In our division-by-division look at current draft needs, the most pressing roster concerns are addressed for each team and Steve Palazzolo tacks on early- and late-round draft day options as we go.
Having landed receiver Wes Welker and guard Luis Vasquez in free agency, the Broncos have added to Peyton Manning’s already dangerous arsenal — a slick and savvy route-runner from the slot and a Top-10 interior pass-blocker, respectively. Plugging in free agent cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and defensive tackle Terrence Knighton on the defensive side leaves a pair of areas still in need of help: middle linebacker and the recently-vacated edge rusher role opposite Von Miller.
Knowing that opponents will likely find themselves pressed to keep up with their Manning-led offense, the Broncos no doubt see it as a priority to replace Elvis Dumervil’s production on the edge with a player capable of being a pocket-pressing force. Robert Ayers hasn’t proven to be that guy, so, barring a veteran addition (Dwight Freeney, John Abraham, etc.), their first-round pick in the upcoming draft (No. 28 overall) could provide the answer.
Early Round Option: Tank Carradine, Florida State
Carradine is one of the many injury risks in this draft, as he suffered a knee injury in Florida State’s regular season finale. He was a projected first-round pick due to his explosiveness and length off the edge and, depending on how risk-adverse the first 27 teams find themselves on draft day, Carradine may be available for the Broncos to snatch up at No. 28.
Mid/Late Round Option: Michael Buchanan, Illinois
The Illinois defense has been high on prospects, but low on production the past couple years and Buchanan has exemplified the company line. A year ago some were comparing him to former Illinois first-round pick Whitney Mercilus, so the potential is there to make an impact in the NFL.
Kansas City Chiefs
With the draft’s top pick in hand and a pair of projected top-flight tackles staring at them, the Chiefs franchise tagged incumbent left tackle Branden Albert and released right tackle Eric Winston one year into his four-year deal. Now at odds with Albert over a long-term contract, is a tackle selection at the outset of the draft too obvious?
Kansas City’s new leadership has used their plentiful cap space to replenish their roster through free agency — securing a new starting quarterback (Alex Smith), a front-line corner (Sean Smith), a stout interior defender (Mike Devito), and a perennially underrated guard (Geoff Schwartz) among others. All of this being done, attention returns to the tackle issue. The vacated right side could temporarily house a top rookie being groomed for a future switch… as easily as it could provide a slot to shift Albert into, making immediate room on the left for said rookie (though Albert would resist). With trade rumors swirling — around Albert as well as the No. 1 pick — there could be a shake-up, but the idea of bringing in the draft’s top talent at an engineered position of need makes too much sense.
Early Round Option: Luke Joeckel, Texas A&M or Eric Fisher, Central Michigan
If the Chiefs decide on taking a tackle, it will come down to Joeckel and Fisher, depending on which player they have rated higher. They may lean toward Joeckel and his SEC production, or perhaps Fisher’s upside is too good to pass up.
Mid/Late Round Option: Xavier Nixon, Florida
Weight problems as well as general inconsistency kept Nixon from reaching his immense potential at the college level, but with his athleticism and a frame conducive to adding strength, Nixon should have a chance to start at some point in the league despite carrying a mid-round grade.
As Reggie McKenzie marches through his Raider remake, a snapshot of the roster reveals a patchwork starting lineup and little evidence of depth at any point across the board. That’s to be expected with an overhaul of this scale — a process that dictates there be less draft focus on filling immediate needs and more on securing foundation pieces for the long-term good of the franchise. With so many of those pillars yet to be put into place, there are a number of directions Oakland could go, but given the nature of this draft’s talent pool, one critical element should be the focus: pass rush.
Yes, they need a quarterback of the future, a pair of long-term answers at cornerback, and help along the O-line, but without a legitimate pass-rushing threat, their job on defense (the team’s Achilles in 2012) becomes that much tougher. Gone are the interior rush skills of Tommy Kelly and Richard Seymour. Gone is the blitzing impact of Philip Wheeler. What’s left is poor production and hopeful hole-fillers with the future pass-rushing anchor somewhere out there awaiting a call.
Early Round Option: Barkevious Mingo, LSU
As mentioned, holes abound throughout the roster so Oakland simply has to find the best player. If they want to upgrade at defensive tackle, Florida’s Sharif Floyd might be the fit as a penetrating interior presence. If they’re looking for an edge rusher, Mingo fits the bill as an explosive option whose best football should be ahead of him.
Mid/Late Round Option: Wes Horton, USC
Though he wasn’t an intimidating presence at USC, Horton showed flashes off the edge throughout his career. If the Raiders do go with an interior player in the first round, look for a player like Horton to be targeted with their fourth- or fifth-round pick.
San Diego Chargers
A pair of poor pass-blocking tackles contributed to Philip Rivers suffering the league’s second-highest number of pressured drop-backs in 2012 (224), and largely to the ineffectiveness of the Charger offense. With Jared Gaither on the shelf all year, rookie left tackle Michael Harris finished dead last in our Pass Blocking Efficiency ratings (86.3, 72nd) and Jeromey Clary didn’t fare much better (93.8, 51st), the team acted fast this offseason to bring in a veteran free agent option in King Dunlap who proved last season that he’s at least capable of holding off the rush.
San Diego’s Dombrowksi-to-Gaither-to-Harris ‘progression’ on the left in the past few years has to have them hungry for a firm and final solution to the issue that has lingered way too long. The Dunlap addition does provide some pass-blocking confidence based on his 2012 successes, but ideally he’d join a high rookie pick to form the 2013 bookends, rather than serve as the key cog in this rebuilt unit. The Chargers may have to move up in the draft to get the guy worthy of building around, but the history here is motivation enough to make a bold move.
Early Round Option: Lane Johnson, Oklahoma
It looks like a battle royal is brewing for the Top 3 left tackle prospects in the draft as needs abound for a franchise tackle among Top 10 teams. With the Chargers sitting at No. 11, they may need to make a move to leapfrog some of their competitors and Johnson is the most realistic target. Though he looks awkward at times, Johnson can move in space and fits the mold of previous left tackles such as Jason Peters and Nate Solder who have started their college careers at tight end before bulking up into a tackle.
Mid/Late Round Option: Chris Faulk, LSU
If the Chargers lose out on one of the elite prospects, Faulk could be a nice find in the later rounds. He was in the mix to be an early-round pick coming into the season but came down with a season-ending knee injury during LSU’s opener. Faulk moves well for a big guy and you can throw him into the plethora of potential injury-laden steals in the 2013 draft.