We're a week away from the start of the 2023 New League Year.
And although the regular season is still months away, there's always an eye on what the AFC West is up to.
With that in mind, here's a divisional roundtable featuring Aric DiLalla (Denver Broncos), Rachel Gossen (Las Vegas Raiders), Matt McMullen (Kansas City Chiefs) and Eric Smith (Los Angeles Chargers).
What was your No. 1 takeaway from the Combine?
DiLalla: The Broncos' lack of early draft picks means my major takeaway has less to do with the draft and more to do with hearing from Sean Payton at the podium. From the 25 minutes he spent up there, the intentionality of the construction of the Broncos' coaching staff stands out. Denver had a comparably inexperienced coaching staff in 2022, but many of the coaches that the team has announced so far — it's worth noting it's not yet complete — have plenty of experience. Vance Joseph returns to Denver to lead the defense, while Joe Lombardi will be the offensive coordinator. The special teams group has experience with assistant head coach Mike Westhoff and special teams coordinator Ben Kotwica. Payton also complemented that group with some younger coaches, like Chris Banjo. The longtime special-teams contributor announced his retirement and stepped immediately into the role. Denver also hired an experienced head strength and conditioning coach in Dan Dalrymple and added a veteran in Beau Lowery as VP of Player Health and Performance to oversee athletic training, strength and conditioning, nutrition and sports science. Payton said he's building the staff with an overarching idea of how the pieces fit together, and I thought that was just one tangible example of how his experience will help the Broncos.
Gossen: This was my first time at the Combine, and wow, what a week. From talking with prospects to coaches to getting to sit down with GM Dave Ziegler and learn more about what goes on in the interview room – shameless plug – there's constantly something happening in Indy. My biggest impression, though, was the level of confidence and maturity from many of these young prospects at all positions. It's not easy to get up in front of a giant media scrum and answer questions for 15 minutes, then interview in front of team brass before finally putting your talents on display in athletic testing drills. Much respect to the 319 prospects who went through that.
McMullen: Generally speaking, the Combine showed us feats of the human body that we previously didn't know were possible. A defensive end (Nolan Smith) running a 4.39 40-yard dash is absolutely ridiculous. Northwestern defensive end (and Kansas City native) Adetomiwa Adebawore running a 4.49 40-yard dash and recording a 37.50-inch vertical jump at 282 pounds is equally amazing.
The Chiefs are fortunate to be in a position where they can truly take the best player available at pick No. 31, and the fact that there are so many outstanding athletes in this class is great news for KC. They don't have to force anything, and no matter what direction they go, the Chiefs are going to end up with a solid player in Round 1.
Smith: I'll give a pair of answers here, one related to the Bolts and one that is more prospect-based. On the Chargers front, the statement from Chargers General Manager Tom Telesco that "Keenan Allen isn't going anywhere" was more than noteworthy. There had been some outside speculation that Allen might be on the move, but he's staying put in powder blue. In terms of the actual Combine, the tight end class received plenty of hype before the week in Indianapolis and then backed it up in media interviews and on the field. It's a good year to be in the market for a tight end, and the Bolts might fall into that category.
What's the biggest storyline with your team right now?
DiLalla: I think fans and media are both eager to see what sort of impact Sean Payton will have on this team. In his introductory press conference, he said he wasn't big on predictions and didn't offer a win total or anything like that. He did say that the fan base should "expect a completely different type of culture." The details are going to matter a great deal for Payton, which impressed Owner/CEO Greg Penner and GM George Paton during the process. That, of course, leads into how Payton will impact Russell Wilson and the Broncos' offense. Denver certainly needs more out of that unit, and the national perspective is that Payton is the best guy to make that happen.
Gossen: Quarterback, quarterback, quarterback. When the new league year begins on March 15, the Raiders will have one quarterback on the roster – 2022 UDFA Chase Garbers – as Jarrett Stidham will become a free agent and Derek Carr was released on Feb. 14.
Among the four quarterbacks expected to go in the first round, Anthony Richardson and C.J. Stroud undoubtedly raised their draft stock at the Combine, setting analysts and social media abuzz with their athletic abilities – including Richardson breaking the QB Combine record in the vertical jump at 40.5 inches. Are the Raiders more likely to use that No. 7 overall pick on a QB in the 2023 draft class or will they find the quarterback they desire in free agency? We'll just have to wait and see.
McMullen: The Chiefs just won their second championship in four years and employ the reigning NFL MVP, so things are good in Kansas City, but the mandate for a team like the Chiefs is to maintain that success for years to come. Sustained winning is the hardest thing to do in the NFL, and the reason the Chiefs have been able to do it is because General Manager Brett Veach is consistently thinking two or three years ahead. The biggest storyline for the Chiefs this offseason is how he navigates that task while also fielding a team capable of defending its title in 2023. Veach did this masterfully last season and I'm eager to see what he has planned for the coming months.
Smith: It's not a pressing matter since a deal doesn't need to be done today, but with Justin Herbert eligible for a contract extension, anything involving the face of the franchise is big news. The Chargers love Herbert on and off the field. And the quarterback said after the season that "I'd do everything I can to be here." We'll see if the sides can reach a deal this offseason.
Let's look ahead at free agency. Where does your team stand ahead of March 15?
DiLalla: The Broncos have a few free agents that GM George Paton has expressed interest in bringing back, namely defensive end Dre'Mont Jones and inside linebacker Alex Singleton. It will be interesting to see if either player is back in Denver. If not, the needs of the team will change moving forward. I think the national expectation is also that the offensive line will be a priority. NBC Sports' Chris Simms told me recently that he would be surprised if the Broncos don't target that position when free agency begins. Paton has also mentioned running back as an area where the team needs to add.
Gossen: The Raiders have 27 players set to become unrestricted free agents, while four will become restricted free agents. Additionally, Josh Jacobs was franchise tagged on Monday, with Ziegler saying during the Combine that the team is working toward a contract extension, hoping to keep the All-Pro Jacobs in the Silver and Black on a longer-term deal.
McMullen: The Chiefs feature a handful of free agents this year, notably offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr, wide receiver Mecole Hardman, offensive lineman Andrew Wylie, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, tailback Jerick McKinnon and safety Juan Thornhill. Like I discussed above, it'll be interesting to see how Brett Veach navigates this offseason and who he is able to bring back.
Smith: The Bolts have 26 players scheduled to be free agents, but a few of those names catch your eye. Linebacker Drue Tranquill and right tackle Trey Pipkins III both played well in 2022 in their first full seasons as starters, respectively. How the market develops for them could playa. factor on whether or not they return to the team. Keep an eye on special teams, too. That unit was among the league's best in 2022 under first-year Special Teams Coordinator Ryan Ficken. But punter JK Scott and returner DeAndre Carter after set to be unrestricted free agents, while kicker Cameron Dicker is slated to be an exclusive rights free agent.
Finally, let's take a peek at the draft. What's a possible position or two of need?
DiLalla: It's a little tricky for the Broncos, because Denver's first pick doesn't arrive until the early stages of the third round. We'll have to see what happens during free agency, but backup quarterback, running back, offensive line and defensive line are all among the positions that have been mentioned by various media members as current areas of need. I think at that point in the draft, you've got to just go with the best player available. It may be too difficult to head into the draft with the intention of drafting for a specific position.
Gossen: How free agency shakes out will likely give us an idea of what position the Raiders may target in the first round. Looking outside of the obvious quarterback need, one position with a little less of a spotlight on it is the defensive backs. With cornerback Rock Ya-Sin, Anthony Averett and safety Duron Harmon on the way to free agency, the staff could choose to re-sign those veteran presences or go after new pieces in the draft.
I've seen a few mock drafts floating around with Oregon CB Christian Gonzalez projected as the Raiders' pick, and with a deep cornerback class, McDaniels and Ziegler could have some intriguing options in the later rounds.
McMullen: The Chiefs are in a good spot in this regard, and like I mentioned above, I truly believe they can go with the best player available whenever they select. That being said, a few areas that could make sense are wide receiver, edge rusher, offensive tackle and defensive tackle.
Smith: Before the Combine, wide receiver was a popular pick among mock drafters in Round 1. But after the Allen news, perhaps pundits shift away from that position group. If you ask me, tight end and edge rusher could be in play early on. As mentioned above, this tight end class is deep and talented. And, depending on what happens in free agency, the Chargers could likely use some edge depth behind Khalil Mack and Joey Bosa. Linebacker and tackle could also be groups to watch depending on what happens with Tranquill and Pipkins. And don't count out defensive line, either.
Take a look back at photos of the Chargers tackles and sacks from the 2022 season
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