The AFC West is the most intriguing division heading into free agency.
The Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs are facing several key starters that are slated to hit the market while the Oakland Raiders are loaded with cap space and young talent to close the gap on the two playoff teams from 2015.
The San Diego Chargers are lurking as well and could look to make a big splash in order to draw up more interest in their local market.
Here’s a look at some key needs in the AFC West that could be addressed through free agency, which kicks off March 9.
Needs: Quarterback, inside linebacker, running back
Possible targets: Brock Osweiler (QB), Alfred Morris (RB), Robert Griffin III (QB)
The defending champions have some extremely challenging decisions heading into free agency. The most pressing is at quarterback. Peyton Manning is expected to retire within the month and even if he determines he wants to play another season it’s safe to assume that the team will release him. Backup quarterback Brock Osweiler is a free agent and it’s going to be tricky for the personnel staff to determine his value considering he’s only appeared in 20 games throughout the four years of his career, and attempted only 30 passes in total before this past season.
Denver also has a handful of key defensive players scheduled to hit the free-agent market. One player who will stay in Denver is pass-rushing dynamo Von Miller, who was officially franchise tagged on Tuesday afternoon. However, important starters such as defensive lineman Malik Jackson and inside linebacker Danny Trevathan are likely to test the market. It’s unlikely the Broncos will have enough money or cap space left to pay both of them, given the big rises in salary that are projected for Miller and Osweiler.
The team will also need to upgrade their running depth as change-of-pace back Ronnie Hillman is a UFA. One possible fit would be Alfred Morris, who has familiarity with Gary Kubiak’s offensive scheme after having his best seasons playing for Mike Shanahan in Washington.
Needs: Defensive line, cornerback, free safety
Possible targets: Tamba Hali (DE), Derrick Johnson (LB), Robert Griffin III (QB)
Similar to the Broncos, the Chiefs have plenty of defensive staples without new contracts, including pass rusher Tamba Hali, cornerback Sean Smith, inside linebacker Derrick Johnson, and defensive lineman Jaye Howard while safety Eric Berry received the franchise tag.
Chiefs GM John Dorsey grew up in the Green Bay Packers organization so his MO will be retaining his own players for the most part, rather than jumping into the risky free-agent market. Players such as Berry and Johnson will be a high priority while Hali and Smith could be replaced internally.
Offensively, the one area worth monitoring is at backup quarterback. Chiefs coach Andy Reid is one of the best developers of quarterbacks in the entire league and with current backup Chase Daniel expected to depart in free agency, the team could take a shot at a player with significant upside such as Robert Griffin III t0 back up Alex Smith. It would be fascinating to see what Reid could do with the No. 2 overall pick from 2012.
Needs: Cornerback, safety, defensive end
Possible targets: Malik Jackson (DL), Casey Heyward (CB), Walter Thurmond (S), Jeremy Lane (CB)
The Raiders are projected to have a whopping $70 million in cap space, the second-highest total in the league, and need to spend in order to get to the cap floor. Oakland has drafted exceptionally well over the last two years and now need to boost the roster with some experience as the team’s two most important leaders, Justin Tuck and Charles Woodson, both retired earlier in the off-season.
The biggest area of need is undoubtedly in the secondary where they need help both at safety and at cornerback.
The Raiders will likely target players with familiarity to their coaching staff or front office. Free agent defensive backs such as Jeremy Lane and Walter Thurmond both played for defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. in Seattle while one of the top players on the market, Malik Jackson, was developed in Denver by then-defensive coordinator and current Oakland head coach Jack Del Rio. They have the cash and cap room available to provide Jackson with a offer that exceeds $10 million per season.
Oakland is a couple of players away from being a perennial contender and free agency is a good avenue for them to be aggressive.
Needs: Tight End, free safety, wide receiver
Possible targets: Antonio Gates (TE), Jaye Howard (DL), Marvin Jones (WR)
With an uncertain future in San Diego, the Chargers could have difficulty recruiting players in free agency. In the meantime, they do have some important roster areas to address. Starting safety Eric Weddle’s relationship with the organization has deteriorated and he’s expected to sign with a different team while both of the team’s starting tight ends are free agents.
San Diego needs help on the offensive line (but so does everyone else), and could also look to add depth in their defensive front and at wide receiver in order to boost quarterback Philip Rivers, who will be 35 years old next season.
Head coach Mike McCoy has an uncertain future after a down year so the team may try to make a few splashes.