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AFC West Offseason Forecast
By Matt Horkman

Peyton Manning

Denver Broncos

Team Needs: Denver needs to prepare for life without Peyton Manning. They have Brock Osweiler, but he‘s looked awful in preseason. Perhaps John Elway feels differently, but I think he’d have a hard time passing on UCLA’s Brett Hundley with the No. 28 pick. Denver’s top three tight ends (Julius Thomas, Jacob Tamme, & Virgil Green) are all unrestricted free agents. They will have to address the position, as well as its depth. The team may also fare better if they bring in a right tackle, and kick Louis Vasquez inside to guard.

Free Agency: Last year Denver went all in during free agency, signing safety T.J. Ward, defensive end DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and receiver Emmanuel Sanders. Because the team has several unrestricted free agents this year, they will take a more prudent approach. The top priority is to bring back receiver Demaryius Thomas, who is only the third player in NFL history (Jerry Rice & Marvin Harrison) to have at least 1,400 receiving yards in three consecutive seasons. They’d love to have tight end Julius Thomas back, though his price tag might be too hefty. Terrance Knighton is also a key part of the defense. Losing him would leave a major hole in their run defense. Elway has major decisions ahead of him.

Big Picture: At age 39, does Manning have 19 games left in his career? It’s a fair question after watching him fizzle out in the final two months of the season. I have no doubts that Manning can still play the game at a high level, but playoff teams are made in December and January. Manning has had playoff struggles when he was younger, but never before did he look like he couldn’t physically play the game. That appeared to be the case last season. Perhaps it was injury related or perhaps father time is knocking on the door.

Kansas City Chiefs

Team Needs: The Chiefs went the entire season without a wide receiver catching a touchdown pass. They’ll address the position via free agency or the draft. The offensive line regressed last year. They need help inside and at right tackle.

Free Agency: Justin Houston, who led the league with 22 sacks, will be back in Kansas City next season. Look for the team to use the franchise tag on him, and workout a long-term contract in the spring. Andy Reid drafted Jeremy Maclin in Philadelphia. The veteran is just what the Chiefs need at receiver.

Big Picture: Eventually, Reid is going to bring in a young quarterback. Baylor’s Bryce Petty makes some sense, though I wouldn’t start talking about him until round four. They could also look to the trade market. Reid drafted Nick Foles in Philadelphia. Would he consider ditching Smith for a younger, more talented signal caller? Stranger things have happened.

Oakland Raiders

Team Needs: As I wrote in my mock draft, the Raiders haven’t had a 1,000-yard receiver since 2005. I can’t imagine them passing on Amari Cooper with the fourth overall pick. The team also needs to settle on a running back. The defense is progressing, but it could still use a complimentary pass rusher to go with Khalil Mack.

Free Agency: Perhaps the team will pluck a veteran running back out of free agency. Mark Ingram may look good in silver and black. If DeMarco Murray is looking for a payday, then the Raiders will have the money to give him what he wants. General manger Reggie McKenzie showed an affinity toward veteran pass rushers last off-season. If he goes down that path again, keep an eye on Brian Orakpo and Greg Hardy.

Big Picture: Quarterback Derek Carr quietly had a good rookie season. He threw for 3,270 yards, and tossed 21 touchdowns. He also did it without any serviceable skill players around him. With an off-season of development and better players around him, Carr could take his game to the next level. If he does, then Oakland could begin to make a little bit of noise in the AFC.

San Diego Chargers

Team Needs: Running back will be the top priority if San Diego fails to retain Ryan Mathews. The offense is just a different animal when they give Philip Rivers a consistent running game. The defense made some strides a year ago, but they still lack a dominate pass rush.

Free Agency: Mathews is a very good running back when he’s healthy, but he’s simply missed too many games (20) in his career to warrant a big payday. If other teams are hesitant about him, maybe the Chargers can get him back at a bargain. The pass rush market is very good, with Jerry Hughes, Brian Orakpo, Pernell McPhee and Jason Worilds all being good fits for the Chargers.

Big Picture: Did the running game or the departure of Ken Whisenhunt contribute to the decline of Rivers in 2014. He turned the ball over 20 times last year, a number akin to his 2011 and 2012 campaigns. By no means was he bad last season or even in 2011-12, but we’ve seen him play at an MVP level. He might be the greatest inconsistent quarterback of all-time. Sometimes he looks like Tom Brady’s equal in the pocket, other times he channels Vinny Testaverde. The Chargers are hoping he steadies his play next year, as the team has a real shot to push Denver for the divisional title if Manning doesn’t play up to his standards.

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