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IDP Off-Season Outlook: AFC West

We dive deep into the defensive units in the AFC West.

As we near the start of the new league year and the start of free agency on March 17, the DLF IDP team is going around the league to take a look at each team’s rosters, moves and needs headed into the NFL Draft and 2021 season. It’s our hope that this exercise will provide you with valuable information for off-season moves and startup drafts.

Next up: the AFC West.

Denver Broncos

Salary cap situation

With an announced cap floor of $180 million and a cap “balance” of $17.8 million that carries over, Denver is looking at about $43 million in working cap at the time of this writing. If needed, they can free up even more space with cuts mentioned below. But they also need to decide what to do about stud safety Justin Simmons, and there is the small matter of the quarterback position, as Drew Lock can’t seem to read a defense.

Coaching staff continuity

Coach Vic Fangio and defensive coordinator Ed Donatell are back along with every position coach except for one. Christian Parker comes over from Green Bay as the new defensive backs coach, replacing new Chargers defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill in the position.

Edge

No one has a definitive answer for whether or not soon-to-be 32-year-old Von Miller will be back in Denver in 2021, but he certainly has a lot working against him. A difficult battle with COVID-19 and a bad ankle injury wrecked his 2020 season before it started, and in January word leaked that he was the subject of some sort of criminal investigation. If the Broncos decline the final year of his contract, they’ll see a cap savings of more than $17 million after roster displacement. Tough call.

Bradley Chubb has a couple of years left on his rookie deal and will likely be extended after 2021. He’s been pretty good and his best years should still be ahead of him. Malik Reed was a second-year surprise success story filling in for Miller. He has a year remaining on his three-year undrafted rookie deal. Veteran Jeremiah Attaochu is a free agent and could return on another one-year, low-cost contract.

Interior defensive line

Jurrell Casey (31) was supposed to be the key cog inside in 2020 after coming over from the Titans in a trade, but he only played in three games before suffering a season-ending biceps injury. Despite the two years remaining on his contract, Denver already made the call to cut him loose in order to realize a cap savings of a little more than $11 million after roster displacement.

Dre’Mont Jones is coming off a nice second season. Veteran nose tackle Mike Purcell got in less than half a season but will return for 2021. He might not see the final two years of his contract after that. DeShawn Williams proved to be a decent rotational option and has a year remaining on his contract. Shelby Harris (30) and DeMarcus Walker (26) are both unrestricted free agents. All are nice real-life players but don’t offer much fantasy value.

Off-ball linebacker

After surprisingly cutting Todd Davis loose before the season, Denver handed the reigns and all snaps over to AJ Johnson (a restricted free agent) and Josey Jewell (entering the final year of his rookie deal). I feel fairly confident about Johnson receiving a high tender and returning, but he’s a bit older (29) so he might not be a long-term solution.

If one or neither of Johnson or Jewell returns after 2021, there’s an opening for the promising Justin Strnad, who missed his rookie season with a broken wrist. The incoming class of linebackers is both deep and promising, so I’m going out on a limb and saying Denver will address depth in the NFL Draft instead of free agency. If it’s a high enough pick, that player could be in a good spot to produce in 2022.

Safety

Yet again, more tough decisions in Denver with this position. Simmons is a free agent after spending a year on the franchise tag. If they once again fail to agree on a long-term deal, will the Broncos tag him again?

On the other side of the field in Denver’s split safety scheme is Kareem Jackson, who has had an excellent career but is surely nearing the end of his NFL shelf life at 33 years old. Even though he’s still good, Jackson could be a cap casualty: his release would clear a little more than $9.3 million in cap space. Cheap backup Will Parks is a free agent. With a new defensive backs coach in the fold, there’s some potential for a full makeover here.

Dynasty targets, fades and holds

If outside linebackers have value in your league, consider asking about Chubb. Some people see him as a bust, but he had an excellent rookie campaign before tearing an ACL in 2019. He’s still young and I think his arrow is still pointing up, so if the price is right he’s a buy for me.

Keep Strnad on your radar just in case something happens with Johnson or Jewell prior to the season. And both starting linebackers are holds. It’s not that I wouldn’t make either available in a trade, but I’m not being proactive with that as either should make for a useful LB3 in the short-term. The same strategy goes for Simmons right now: I love the player and he’s been a good fantasy producer, but if he hits the market and lands in a single high safety scheme, he’s going to lose a lot of value in the vast majority of leagues.

Kansas City Chiefs

Salary cap situation

The Chiefs have a lot of work to do, and they’ll probably accomplish most of it through extensions and restructures. Based on the $180 million floor and $5.1 million in carryover, Kansas City is about $23 million over the cap.

Coaching staff continuity

Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and the full defensive coaching staff are still in place.

Edge

Gee, I wonder if in retrospect the Chiefs regret the 2019 trade that brought Frank Clark over from Seattle and the five-year, $104 million contract that he signed upon arrival. He’s been a huge disappointment, yet the Chiefs are probably going to have to restructure his deal and kick the can down the road in order to free up $12 million in cap space.

The only other edge who is for sure returning would be Michael Danna, who enjoyed a nice rookie season. Alex Okafor’s contract voids, and Tanoh Kpassagnon and Taco Charlton are entering free agency. There is work to be done here in free agency and the draft.

Interior defensive line

Chris Jones just signed a four-year contract last summer, and he’s all but guaranteed to get restructured to free up more than $13 million in cap space. He’s one of the best pass-rushing interior linemen in the NFL. Versatile rookie Tershawn Wharton is under contract for two more seasons (remember he was undrafted).

Nose tackle Derrick Nnadi is entering the final year of his rookie deal; he’s an extension candidate on a deal that would lower his modest $2.4 million cap charge. Nose Mike Pennel is a free agent. The core is in place here.

Off-ball linebacker

Willie Gay truthers, rejoice! Both Damien Wilson and Ben Niemann are free agents. Good Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise, we won’t see them in Chiefs colors any longer. Anthony Hitchens is entering year four of a five-year deal. If he gets released, it’s likely going to be as a post-June 1 cut to save almost $6 million in cap space this season. I kind of doubt that happens. Dorian O’Daniel is also due back as a depth piece for one more year, but he could get the axe to save a few hundred thousand bucks. I fully expect linebacker to be addressed with young, cheap options in the draft.

Safety

Tyrann Mathieu has a cap number of almost $20 million entering the walk year of his contract. It seems likely that he’ll ink an extension that is cap-friendly in year one. Team tackle leader Daniel Sorensen (31) is a free agent. Is it time to move on? That may depend on how low a salary he’s willing to play for in Kansas City. Juan Thornhill has two years remaining on his rookie deal, and depth option Armani Watts has one year left.

Dynasty targets, fades and holds

I’m selling Clark if I can get a decent return. He hasn’t been very good since he left Seattle, but he’s still got the name value that could attract some trade attention. Jones is great, especially in defensive tackle-premium formats, but he’s too costly to go after. I don’t mind moving him for a younger, promising option like Jeffery Simmons plus an offensive piece and/or a pick. Gay is a big-time target of mine this off-season – he has serious upside for 2021. Explore trade options with whatever owner has him.

Las Vegas Raiders

Salary cap situation

Following the release of receiver Tyrell Williams, Las Vegas was a little less than $8 million over their cap floor ($180 million plus $3.6 million in carryover) at the time of this writing. Getting under looks pretty easy right now though: they could clear more than $26 million in cap space by releasing offensive linemen Trent Brown and Richie Incognito, and slot corner Lamarcus Joyner.

Coaching staff continuity

Gus Bradley, whose success as Seattle’s defensive coordinator in the “Legion of Boom” days propelled him to the Jacksonville head coaching gig, is the new defensive coordinator. Bradley served in the same capacity for the Chargers for the past four seasons.

Rod Marinelli, who stepped in as the interim coordinator after Paul Guenther was fired late in the season, returns as defensive line coach. Bradley has been filling out his staff with former Chargers assistants, including Richard Smith (linebackers coach) and Ron Milus (defensive backs coach).

Edge

The Raiders were dreadful in the sack department but middle of the pack in quarterback hits and pressures, per Pro Football Reference. Las Vegas has to be looking to add a pass rusher this off-season regardless, as this is not an inspiring group. Clelin Ferrell and Maxx Crosby enter year three, and Carl Nassib is back for the second (and likely final) year of his three-year deal.

Arden Key, once a highly thought-of prospect, is in the last year of rookie deal and will be fighting for a roster spot. Takkarist McKinley, the former Falcons first-round pick, ended up in Las Vegas late in the season but never played for the Raiders due to injury. He’s a free agent that seems like an odds-on favorite to return. Another former first-rounder, Vic Beasley, finished up the season in Las Vegas after being jettisoned by Tennessee. He’s also a free agent.

Interior defensive line

There’s one word to describe this group: Abysmal. Maurice Hurst is the best of the bunch, and is entering the final year of his rookie deal. The Raiders had high hopes for former Cowboy Maliek Collins, but it didn’t work out. He’s a free agent, as is veteran Johnathan Hankins. Versatile Kendal Vickers came over from the CFL last season and, as an exclusive rights free agent, should be back for depth. David Irving, the former Cowboy who retired in 2019 so he could smoke pot in peace, already signed a futures deal for 2021.

There’s little doubt Las Vegas is going to address this spot with a splashy free agent and/or a day one or two draft pick. There’s also been some speculation that Ferrell could move inside more on passing downs.

Off-ball linebacker

Cory Littleton was a free agent bust but his contract makes a release cap-prohibitive, so he’ll be back and should still be considered the odds-on favorite to lead the unit in snaps. Nick Kwiatkoski signed a three-year contract before last season that was really a two-year deal; he’ll return for at least this season. Nicholas Morrow, coming off a bit of a breakout season, and Raekwon McMillan are both free agents.

Tanner Muse had a rough rookie training camp – not a surprise considering he was attempting to convert from safety – before injury, but should be ready to go for 2021. An off-the-radar guy I like is former UNLV linebacker Javin White, who impressed in training camp last season and can play in coverage. He’s already signed a futures deal for 2021.

The Raiders spent big on this position last off-season so there’s no way they’re going back to the free-agent well. They need better play from this group and it wouldn’t surprise me to see them spend some draft capital here with an eye on 2022 and beyond.

Safety

The Bradley hire is perfect for Johnathan Abram, a box safety miscast in his first two seasons in a two-high scheme. Now Abram can get down in the box where he belongs. It’s great news from a fantasy standpoint – especially considering the linebacking corps in front of him. (Please, no more running into the television camera boom truck. That was scary.) Veteran Jeff Heath (30) has one more year left on his contract, but his $3.15 million salary isn’t guaranteed so he could be a cap casualty. Erik Harris (31) is a free agent. Deep safety is a need.

Joyner may still be listed as a safety on some platforms – he’s a slot corner though and not a very good one. He’s not going to see the two years remaining on his contract.

Dynasty targets, fades and holds

Yikes. There’s not a lot here that I’m interested in going after. I don’t want anything to do with Crosby or Ferrell for fantasy. Littleton’s worth a look but only if he comes cheap. I know Muse has some appeal and he’s a fine “hold” but I’m not aggressively looking to add him. If you have a deep bench, consider White as a no-cost dart throw at linebacker due to his ability to cover. Abram has his fans and his detractors. I’m a fan, mostly because of the new and natural box safety role he should have. As long as he avoids injury, he has top-five safety upside.

Los Angeles Chargers

Salary cap situation

Working on the announced cap floor of $180 million and $8.1 million in carryover, Los Angeles is a little more than $24 million under the cap. Some other cuts that could come down the pipe – guard Trai Turner was a big disappointment after coming over in a trade from Carolina and his release would shave almost $11 million off the cap – so the Chargers are in a good spot to spend in free agency to improve the offensive line and add some defensive pieces.

Coaching staff continuity

It’s total turnover. Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley stays in town as the Chargers’ new head coach. The result in terms of defensive scheme will be stark. Staley tries to keep the offense guessing with a lot of disguise and multiple looks – that’s a big change from Bradley – and puts his best players in a position to succeed.

Renaldo Hill, who coached Denver’s defensive backs for the past two seasons, comes in as defensive coordinator. Giff Smith sticks as defensive line coach and provides some continuity for stud edge rusher Joey Bosa. Michael Wilhoite – not that far removed from his playing days – is the linebackers coach, and Derrick Ansley transitions from the college ranks to coach the secondary.

I’ll rant on this later, but the Rams were classified in MyFantasyLeague as a 3-4 defensive front, so we may see some positional designation changes at end, tackle and linebacker. Ugh.

Edge

Bosa, who will be 26 once the season kicks off, is locked up for the next several seasons. At the moment, Uchenna Nwosu, who is on the final year of his rookie deal, would slide in at the other edge, with rising third-year man Emeke Egbule providing depth. One wouldn’t think Staley would be comfortable with Nwosu as the top option after Bosa, but if the position isn’t addressed in free agency Nwosu would have a big opportunity in front of him.

Former stud Melvin Ingram and depth piece Isaac Rochell are both free agents. I can’t see Ingram returning. Might we see Leonard Floyd follow Staley to the Bolts? I’m not a huge fan of Floyd and I have no idea how Staley feels about him, but edge is a need and Floyd is familiar with what Staley wants to do on defense.

Interior defensive line

Veteran nose Linval Joseph has another year left on his deal. He’s been mentioned as a potential cut candidate, but he’ll likely be back despite a subpar season. The underrated Justin Jones and the enigma that is Jerry Tillery also return on their rookie contracts. Too bad for Staley there’s no Aaron Donald to work with here, and there doesn’t appear to be one in the draft. Someone is joining this rotation for sure, be it a rookie or veteran.

Off-ball linebacker

Kenneth Murray, Drue Tranquill and Kyzir White are all under contract on their rookie deals. One of them should play a lot and should put up LB1 numbers. If I’m making a bold prediction, it’s that one of them is traded during the NFL Draft. Staley has no ties to any of them that I know of. Denzel Perryman and Nick Vigil are free agents, so at least the linebacker room isn’t as crowded as it was previously.

Safety

Derwin James is in the final year of his rookie deal. After two mostly lost years, you have to wonder if he’ll get an extension or if the Bolts want to get a look at him healthy before tying him up long-term. Still, it stands to reason Staley would want to build around James and Bosa.

Nasir Adderley has been a disappointment, but looks at the moment to be returning as the safety with more deep responsibilities. Alohi Gilman got some run late in the season but didn’t blow anyone away. At the moment he’s the big nickel/dime safety. I do believe the Chargers will be looking at bringing in another safety or two. Rayshawn Jenkins, who filled in as the box safety last season, is a free agent. Jaylen Watkins and Jahleel Addae are out the door as well.

Dynasty targets, fades and holds

It’s pretty frustrating to have to mention the possibility of Bosa being reclassified as an outside linebacker, but that’s a real unknown right now for everyone playing on MyFantasyLeague. I’ve been watching Gary Davenport, who sets the default IDP positions for MFL, for any kind of indication on how he’ll treat this. It’s a pretty easy fix if you’re starting up a league to use Adam Tzikas’ true position tool so you don’t have to worry with this type of nonsense, but if you’re in an established league and you’re not running the show, it’s pretty tough to get the commissioner and the rest of your league mates on board with making the switch due to the change in player value likely created by the move to true position. And most people will just tell you to leave the league, but that’s hard to do as well when you’ve invested years building a roster (rant ends here). As for Bosa, I think you just have to hold on, but if your league setup discounts outside linebackers, be ready to fade fast.

Nwosu is worth a flyer in true position leagues, just in case he gets a shot at major snaps. I’ll say the same for Jones if you’re in deep-roster, defensive tackle-premium formats.

You can’t say linebacker and Chargers without eliciting groans across fantasy-land. We’ve all been there for the rise and the fall. We’re all assuming Staley will stick with the one-linebacker subpackage look but that’s not a given. Staley didn’t invest the first-round pick in Murray, so we can’t assume he’s the one to own, but without a doubt he’s the one with the most talent so I’m cautiously targeting him. I still like Tranquill the player, and I’ll add him if he comes cheap. James is worth checking on in case his owner is frustrated with not having him for the better part of two straight seasons. I don’t know if he’ll be the same player he was prior to his injuries (a broken foot in 2019 and a knee meniscus tear in 2020), but I’ll take that chance given the overall S1 upside.

IDP Off-Season Outlook: AFC West
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