I always feel like getting to the conference championships should be the specific aim for teams. That, rather than the Super Bowl? Well, once we get to the last four, you’d expect everyone to be good enough that ‘Any Given Sunday’ really comes into play. So what of the teams that didn’t make that last four? I look at what the playoff teams that fell short – concluding with the AFC teams – can do to put themselves in prime position to make that last four next year.
On paper, Oakland have the easiest path back to the playoffs and beyond, because prior to Derek Carr’s injury, they were a fairly good value bet for an AFC Championship appearance at least. It’s fair to assume with Carr and Donald Penn fit, Oakland would have beaten Houston and we wouldn’t be writing about them now. Of course, injuries happen, but there are very few teams that can handle an injury to a franchise QB and a franchise left tackle.
Assuming Carr doesn’t get injured again, the problem area for Oakland is defense. Their priorities this offseason should be: someone on defensive interior, alongside Mario Williams Jr; signing one inside linebacker, two if Malcolm Smith leaves in free agency; free safety and a cornerback or two.
Defensive interior is obvious. Oakland conceded on average the tenth-most rushing yards per game, despite being involved in a handful of shootouts of the kind where both teams give up on the run. If Oakland are thinking of addressing this in the first round, Florida’s Caleb Brantley and Michigan’s Chris Wormley are the safest bets to be on the board then as it stands. But I think this might be something for free agency. A splashy move would be on a Kawaan Short or Dontari Poe (if they hit the market), but the opportunity for a one-year ‘prove-it’ deal for a Tyrunn Walker, Sylvester Williams, or Tyson Alualu might appeal.
Oakland also had the fewest sacks in the league, despite the presence of Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin, both of whom (Mack especially), had pretty damn solid seasons rushing the passer. Pass-rush depth on the outside would help, but being able to get push from a variety of positions, plus having the kind of versatility to be able to get sacks from linebacker and, say, safety blitzes, would help. Inside linebacker tends to be a tricky position to bring a rookie straight into and him shine, so let’s again assume a free agent or two comes in. Who? Buffalo’s Zach Brown will command big money after his season, but a more under-the-radar player like Arizona’s Kevin Minter or Tennessee’s Sean Spence might be in play.
The other element that needs sorting out is the secondary. I think Oakland will draft two or three players for the secondary this year comfortably. It’s a deep draft for cornerbacks, but who’ll be on the board in the 20s? Ohio State’s Marshon Lattimore? USC’s Adoree Jackson? Washington’s Sidney Jones? Either of the Florida prospects, Quincy Jones or Jalen Tabor? Iowa’s Desmond King could play corner or safety and may be a decent second-round choice.
Offensively? Well, this year they’ve had one of the top few quarterbacks, a very good one-two punch at receiver, with a decent third option and two emergent tight ends. They’ve had one of the best offensive lines in the league, and have been sporadically decent in the running game too.
So, there isn’t much to fix here. Running back will be a problem: Latavius Murray is at worst a good two-and-a-half-down back, though he’s injury prone and out of contract now. He’ll probably cost $3-4m per year to retain, which wouldn’t be a bad investment if he can stay healthy. If not, in a deep running back class Oakland might fancy their chances in the third or fourth. How about Brian Hill from Wyoming, or Kareem Hunt from Toledo, who could both be value from lesser-known schools. If Oakland want to dip their toe into the free agency water, there’s not much established talent around that might be an improvement on Murray – Eddie Lacy is likely to be the pick of the bunch. I’d also expect Oakland to look for a pass-catching back, Jalen Richard is useful but not a reliable enough #2 back.
The Dolphins overachieved this season, looking like an 8-8 squad (even before injuries), and finishing 10-6 and in the playoffs. That difference was pretty much down to some excellent coaching, and the good news for Miami is that their head coach Adam Gase is back this year. The bad news is that now, improving talent’s going to be their main route to the playoffs. And that’s seldom easy.
If I were Miami, I’d be focusing more on defense, where there are bigger gains to be made. Linebacker is the primary area of need – Kiko Alonso is basically their only serviceable player yet, and he’s (for some reason) deeply unpopular in Miami as it is. What Miami need first is a run-stuffer. Their average of 4.8 yards/carry given up was higher than no-one in the league. Trouble is, linebacker’s a bit weak free-agency-wise. Miami love to splash the cash, so could a Kevin Minter, Malcolm Smith, or even a Jamie Collins take their talents to South Beach?
I’d like to see something else on the pass rush too. Mario Williams looked like he’s at career end, and Cameron Wake despite his excellent 2016 can’t be far behind. Fortunately, it’s a great year to hunt for free agent and rookie pass rushers. Mario Addison from Carolina might be a good value pick-up, as might Green Bay’s Datone Jones. In the draft? How about Dawuane Smoot, or Taco Charlton? This is with the proviso I’ve not watched any film on those two, just a) know they’re highly thought of for around Miami’s draft pick range and b) have the most wonderful names.
I wouldn’t mind Miami drafting or signing some mid-round secondary help either. As long as we’re doing awesome names, how about Damontae Kazee from San Diego State – a former conference player of the year (admittedly in the decidedly mid-major Mountain West).
Damontae Kazee: good cornerback, great name (Hayne Palmour IV/San Diego Union-Tribune)
I don’t see much that Miami should focus on with their skill positions. Kenny Stills is due to be a free agent, but even if he’s not retained Leonte Carroo is waiting in the wings. That said, no-one would be surprised if Jordan Cameron retired due to concussions, Miami should make sure Stills is around just so they’ve kept a reliable group of weapons.
So that leaves the offensive line, which could stand to improve a little still. Branden Albert could well be a cap casualty, which would enable Laremy Tunsil to go back to his college (and pre-draft projection) position at left tackle, though guards will still be needed. Depending on re-signings across the league, any team would be happy to pick up Cincinnati’s Kevin Zeitler or Carolina’s Andrew Norwell. For a cheaper option, how about Jacksonville’s Patrick Omameh, or New Orleans’ Tim Lelito? Guards tend to be a touch easier to find in the draft, too. Notre Dame’s Quenton Nelson is the early leader to be first guard picked, but heck, you could even draft Matt Asiata’s brother Isaac with a late round pick.
The Texans have got an absolutely wretched problem that’s sadly not a new one for them. They have a fantastically well-built roster in many ways. Sound offensive line? Check. Talented wide receivers? Oh yes. Terrifying pass rush and defensive interior? You’d better believe it. One of the best cornerback trios in the league? They sure do. There is so little to improve on.
Except one area: quarterback. The Texans have only existed since 2002, and in that time their best signal-caller has been Matt Schaub. Finally last offseason they thought they’d solved it, giving Brock Osweiler $37m guaranteed on the first two years of a four year deal. Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear.
The Texans are not going all the way with Osweiler at QB. Thing is, they’ve got enough elsewhere that they’ll never really have access to a top quarterback in the draft. And good quarterbacks are so seldom around in free agency, it necessitates decisions like the Osweiler Mistake.
So what can Houston do? Well, they can take a punt on a quarterback still – Derek Carr was the 36th overall pick in 2014. Houston pick 24th(?) this year, at which point a Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson may be available! Thing is, there are reasons for both that plenty of quarterback-needy teams would have passed on them if they were still around. So it’s a gamble. As much of a gamble as trading away some picks for Jimmy Garoppolo or Tony Romo should they be available? Well that depends on the value, but I’d be wary if I were Houston about Romo, they should be looking for a younger guy who can lead the franchise for many-a-year. And that’s all the options they have at QB! And those options involve swallowing about $16m of guaranteed money on a quarterback they won’t be starting.
What else do Houston want to do? Well, there’s no harm in them looking for a mid-round running back – Lamar Miller was fine but teams need a minimum of three good running backs unless they have someone spectacular. I’d want them to hunt for an interior linebacker or a safety, too. Houston are strong enough in most places that a first-round pick on either wouldn’t be too egregious.
Kansas City Chiefs
I’m a bit surprised to be writing this now, as opposed to next week (at the earliest). I thought the Chiefs had a wonderfully well-balanced roster and some top-notch coaching. Trouble is, it just wasn’t quite as good as I thought, all round. And for that reason, identifying obvious areas to ‘kick on’ is rather difficult.
Fortunately for the Chiefs, they’re not far away from the conference championship, so we can look at some areas where they can improve. First up, KC’s biggest weakness on defense this season has been in the run game. Again, this is surprising because received wisdom says “Kansas City, tough defense, top 6 in all areas”. Well, they gave up 171 yards at 5 yards/carry to Pittsburgh on wildcard weekend, and while, y’know, Le’Veon Bell and *that* line, they were averaging 121 yards given up at 4.4 yards/carry in the regular season, which puts them alongside known run-leaky teams like Chicago, Indianapolis and Washington.
The run game should get a bit better with Dontari Poe being back to full health in 2017, if he’s resigned. But there are a couple of obvious positions you can put people in to help defend the run. A 3-4 defensive end would be a start – Jaye Howard’s done fine but one can improve. At the top of the market, Calais Campbell is a bit rich, so Washington’s Chris Baker or Baltimore’s Lawrence Guy could do a job. If they’re just looking for depth, Guy will be comfortably the cheaper option.
Washington’s Chris Baker and his best “Who, me?” face (Getty Images)
You could hunt for an upgrade alongside the aging Derrick Johnson at inside linebacker, but pretty much every team needs an upgrade at inside linebacker. So.
So it’s all about offense. You thought Kansas City’s strength was its run game, didn’t you? Well, it is. So why, come playoff time, Kansas City abandoned the run despite going for 4.4 yards/carry is a bit beyond me. They never trailed heavily so needed to score quickly. And that’s gameplanning. Kansas City have Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West, comfortably one of the better running back pairings. They have a Percy Harvin-style runner/receiver/returner in Tyreek Hill, who’s a walking big-play threat. So, to come back next year? Maybe don’t have a brainfart when it comes to the playoffs! Seems we’ve been saying that about otherwise-excellent Andy Reid-coached teams since year dot.
An upgrade in the pass-catching corps wouldn’t hurt either. Sure, Travis Kelce became a near-elite tight end this year, but that was balanced by Jeremy Maclin having a down year, struggling with injuries and health when returning. Other options like Chris Conley, Albert Wilson and Demarcus Robinson are complementary weapons at best. KC need at least one receiver through the draft/free agency. Draft options generally look more fun, but two of the best options in early round range – John Ross and Curtis Samuel – don’t really look like the type of big-bodied threat KC need. So how about free agency? Alshon Jeffrey is the closest to a top “X” receiver, but someone like Kenny Britt or Robert Woods might be cheaper and still productive.