Matt Williamson is a former scout for the Cleveland Browns and spent the last 10 years at ESPN as a scout and co-host of “The Football Today Podcast.”
The time between the end of the draft and the start of training camp is one for eternal optimism among NFL fans. Their favorite team is going to be so much better in the coming season. That club fixed its problems through free agency and the draft. Its incoming crop of rookies will all work out wonderfully. Injured players from the year before will return better than ever. No one will get hurt in 2017. You get the idea.
Unfortunately, this is most likely the best your favorite team’s roster will look all season. Much will happen between now and the Super Bowl, and much of it will be negative. With that in mind, this is a divisional series highlighting the biggest area of concern for each team right now. Here is the AFC West.
Broncos – Tight End
The quarterback position has been intentionally ignored in this series, but for the 2017 season, the Broncos are one of the least well-off teams in the NFL at the most important position. Denver put a lot of resources into its offensive line, but that doesn’t guarantee the line goes from a weakness to a strength.
Each of these players has an interesting backstory, and it is certainly conceivable that a starter emerges from this middling pile. If one hits, it is likely to be Butt. But will he even be ready for Week 1? With a young work-in-progress type quarterback, having a quality tight end would be ideal. That doesn’t look to be the case in Denver, at least not at the moment.
Chiefs – Inside Linebacker
Even though this is a contending team, the Chiefs‘ draft was very much about the future. As a result, there are a few areas on this roster that are tenuous, including one of the starting guard spots and at cornerback opposite Marcus Peters. But the second level of the defense is most worrisome.
Ramik Wilson didn’t play poorly in a more extended role last year, but he is much more of an early-down player than a pass defender. Derrick Johnson has put together an excellent career, but this will be his 12th NFL season and he is coming off a torn Achilles tendon.
Johnson is savvy, but his best athletic trait is his movement and speed. Some of that will likely be compromised after this serious injury, especially considering Johnson’s age. Kansas City will certainly ease Johnson back into the action, and there isn’t an obvious heir apparent on the roster.
Chargers – Safety
Most of us penciled in Malik Hooker – think the Chargers‘ version of Earl Thomas – to Los Angeles with its early first-round pick. But that isn’t how it went down; instead, the Chargers made it clear that their priority was to finally make Philip Rivers’ life easier by surrounding him with even more young wide receiver and offensive line talent.
That’s a sound strategy, but with Gus Bradley taking over as the Chargers’ defensive coordinator and implementing a Seahawks-like scheme, Los Angeles is lacking at safety – and can’t emulate the Thomas/Kam Chancellor pairing that has been so successful for Seattle over the years.
That said, the Chargers have veterans Dwight Lowery and Jahleel Addae to hold down the fort for now – and they didn’t ignore the safety position altogether in this draft, selecting Rayshawn Jenkins in the fourth round and Desmond King in the fifth. But King’s best role in this defense isn’t yet certain; he could be a big physical off-the-ball cornerback or a true deep free safety.
After greatly fortifying their offense, the Chargers were smart to add playmakers to their secondary. However, even the greatest of optimists won’t see anything comparable to Thomas and Chancellor in the L.A. backfield.
Raiders – Linebacker
Many see the Raiders as the team that could elevate and knock New England off its perch as the AFC’s top franchise. There is much to like here – but most of that optimism revolves around Oakland’s offense.
The Raiders wisely made an effort to drastically improve their secondary. That makes perfect sense. And Oakland has one of the NFL’s premier defensive players in Khalil Mack. But the second level of the Raiders’ defense is extremely troubling – and such a major weakness could severely limit the ceiling of this rejuvenated franchise.
As it stands right now, the second-level defenders for this Super Bowl hopeful are Cory James, Jelani Jenkins, Ben Heeney, and Marquel Lee. They certainly don’t harken back to glory days of Ted Hendricks and Rod Martin. In fact, this group of second-level defenders could be the worst in the entire NFL.
Biggest Weakness Remaining
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