The AFC West Draft
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Yes, Smarter Stats is here in the offseason as well! In this eight-part series, we'll look at the first round (or first pick, for those teams without first-round picks), and the statistical wisdom of those selections. First, the AFC West.
Denver Broncos (Two first-round picks -- 12th and 18th overall)
The Broncos' draft was widely panned as part of a tumultuous offseason, and the concerns are legitimate. Start with the first-round selection of Georgia running back Knowshon Moreno -- it's not that Moreno isn't a quality player, but the team had glaring needs elsewhere and new head coach Josh McDaniels' comments about the scarcity of high-quality running backs perked up many an ear in a city where zone blocking has rendered the position fairly disposable over the past decade. In fact, the Broncos ranked fourth in Rushing DVOA last season. However, two things are changing under McDaniels -- the passing attack led by Jay Cutler went with Cutler to Chicago, and the new coach wants to install aspects of New England's blocking style to go with what's worked in Denver for so long. To create a need and then fill it, with so many other challenges on the roster? Very questionable.
With their second-round pick, acquired in the trade that sent Cutler to the Bears, Denver filled another need they created as opposed enhancing what they already had. New defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is moving the team to a 3-4 defense, which led the team to select Tennessee's Robert Ayers with the 18th pick. Ayers was a bit of a one-year wonder for the Vols, but the Broncos see him as a defender who can play at outside linebacker, end, and tackle. The team was caught a bit by the draft order -- when they picked Moreno, B.J. Raji and Aaron Maybin were already off the boards. By the time they picked Ayers, Brian Orakpo and Brian Cushing were gone. The commitment to the 3-4 may have taken defensive tackles Peria Jerry and Evander Hood out of the picture. All six defenders listed were more consistent in their collegiate careers than Ayers, and the Broncos will have to hope they didn't back themselves into a corner. A front seven that ranked 23rd in Defensive Adjusted Line Yards last year, and now faces schematic transition, will need Ayers to really step up.
Kansas City Chiefs (3rd overall)
The Chiefs were another team under new management whose first-round decision was informed by a switch to the 3-4. General manager Scott Pioli pulled the trigger on LSU end Tyson Jackson, whose size (6-4, 296) makes him an attractive option at end in that system. Defensive coordinator Clandy Pendergast likes to mix his lines, which could see Jackson playing inside at times. The only team happier about the Chiefs' move to a 3-4 was the Seahawks. When Kansas City selected Jackson, that left Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry, regarded by many as the best defensive player in the draft, for them. The Chiefs may not have been as eager to pay top-5 money to a player who would play inside linebacker in their system. But if Curry turns out to be a star in Seattle, and Jackson can't make an instant impact on a defense that ranked 28th in DVOA last year, it's a bad start for the Pioli regime.
Oakland Raiders (7th overall)
Most analysts had Texas Tech's Michael Crabtree at the top of their receivers list, with Missouri's Jeremy Maclin second. Darius Heyward-Bey of Maryland was down the list a little -- projected by most to go in the mid-to-late first round. But there was his 4.25-40 at the Combine, and Al Davis' need for speed. Those two factors collided when the Raiders took Heyward-Bey with the seventh pick. Observers immediately went on the warpath -- we at Football Outsiders hypothesized that future Oakland draft picks should be accompanied by a laugh track -- because Heyward Bey is known as a receiver without great hands or cut speed. Basically, he was rated as a straight-line speed guy, and little else. For all his speed, he had real trouble getting separation from defensive backs, and the "Workout Warrior" tag has already been applied. If that turns out to be the case, Heyward-Bey will be just the latest in a long line for the Raiders. A catch rate of 58.3 in his senior season (72 targets, 42 catches) doesn't help.
San Diego Chargers (16th Overall)
Without Shawne Merriman in 2008, the Chargers' pass rush disappeared -- San Diego ranked 12th in Defensive Adjusted Sack Rate in 2007, and dropped to 20th without him. The Chargers' defense played smaller, and it showed. With Merriman coming back from a knee injury in the final year of his current contract, additions had to be made. Northern Illinois linebacker Larry English was seen as a reach by some (perhaps because of his small-school pedigree), but there's no doubt about his pass-rush acumen. English was a productive player n each of his last three seasons (no one-year-wonder here), had at least 16 tackles for loss in each of those seasons, and did just as well against major schools as he did against Mid-American Conference underdogs. Injury concerns are there, but English is a pure penetrator who could team with Merriman this season to give the Chargers as formidable sack duo as there is in the NFL.
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