Free Agency Primer: AFC West
This could be one of the most hotly contested division races next season, if the teams below Denver maintain their current trajectories. An early look at what’s ahead for the AFC West in free agency:
• Key free agents: S Mike Adams, DE Robert Ayers, G Zane Beadles, WR Eric Decker, CB Quentin Jammer, RB Knowshon Moreno, DE Shaun Phillips, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, LB Wesley Woodyard
• Players Denver needs back: Beadles, Moreno, Phillips, Rodgers-Cromartie.
The toughest argument to make is in favor of Moreno, so we’ll leadoff with him. The Broncos used a 2012 draft pick on the (mostly disappointing) Ronnie Hillman, then took Montee Ball last year. In theory, that set them up to let Moreno walk this offseason. The problem is Moreno remains the best back on this roster, particularly because he remains a very sturdy pass-protector in front of Peyton Manning. Can Moreno find big bucks as a free agent or will teams play it conservatively at running back?
Phillips is in line for a huge pay boost after signing a cheap one-year deal and then blowing up in Denver. His likely price tag should remain in Denver’s budget. The same might not be said for Rodgers-Cromartie, who is in line to be paid as a No. 1 cornerback this offseason. If Denver can afford him, it needs to re-sign him — Chris Harris ended the season with a knee injury, and Champ Bailey’s talents are diminishing rapidly.
Beadles has started every game but two over the past four seasons. Disrupting a surprising offensive line would be a mistake.
• Players Denver should let walk: Adams, Decker, Jammer, Woodyard.
Adams is a tweener — he has been a versatile two-year starter at safety, but he’ll be 33 in March and might be replaceable. Decker, on the other hand, is a dynamic talent in this offense. Still, with Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker under contract, and Julius Thomas in need of an extension, the Broncos really have to weigh how much they want to spend on pass-catchers. It’s possible Decker will find the market cool (especially with a loaded WR draft class) and circle back to his current team. Otherwise, let someone else overpay for him.
Woodyard has been a key cog at linebacker for multiple seasons, but his injury opened the door for Danny Trevathan and there’s no use going back now.
Jammer, even with the ability to play either safety or corner, simply has outlasted his usefulness.
• Outlook: After falling one win shy of a championship, the Broncos face an offseason potentially filled with turnover on the roster. Keeping things together as much as possible for one more Peyton Manning run is imperative. For Denver to do so with 16 unrestricted free agents and just $12 million in available cap space will be a bit of a tap dance. Alterations here and there are inevitable.
Kansas City Chiefs
• Key free agents: OT Branden Albert, DE Tyson Jackson, S Kendrick Lewis, WR Dexter McCluster, G Geoff Schwartz
• Players Kansas City needs back: Jackson, Schwartz.
Only two, which leaves off some key contributors. But the Chiefs are barely clearing next season’s projected salary cap, so re-signing Albert (franchise tagged last year) or Lewis (an emerging player at a position of need for most teams) could be out of the question.
Schwartz should be easier on the Chiefs’ wallet, even after wrestling a starting job from Jon Asamoah — who’s also a free agent. Jackson took a pay cut before the 2013 season, so he might up the ante now that he’s headed into free agency. Kansas City could opt to let him walk, too, though his contributions up front were crucial.
• Players Kansas City should let walk: Albert, Lewis, McCluster.
The Chiefs would take Albert back in a heartbeat if he helped them out on the financial details. Saving that, it’ll be time to put more responsibility on 2013 No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher, who likely would inherit the starting left tackle job. There’s no such fallback plan at safety, though 2013 fifth-rounder Sanders Commings could battle for Lewis’ vacated starting job. Again, the price tag on Lewis — as with Albert — may simply be too high for the Chiefs to make a deal.
McCluster still has value, specifically as a return man. There will be other options there.
• Outlook: The list of in-house free agents is relatively thin, except when one considers the potential impact on the roster. Should everyone listed above leave, the Chiefs would have to replace two starters on the offensive line, one of the D-line, a safety and their slot/return guy. That’s a lot of ground to cover in one offseason for a team without much spending cash.