Draft Grades: AFC West
The Wild, Wild (AFC) West has quietly become the NFL’s most competitive division, boasting the vaunted Denver #NoFlyZone defense, the Oakland (soon-to-be Las Vegas) Raiders’ high-scoring offense, the most well-rounded roster in the league in Kansas City, and the flashy L.A. Chargers, led by Philip Rivers and Melvin Gordon on offense and Joey Bosa on defense. All four are playoff contenders, and yet all four entered the 2017 NFL Draft with glaring blemishes. Here’s how the teams addressed their needs in the draft; whether you agree or disagree, react to me on Twitter @DFFDynastyDude!
The 2017 NFL Draft had an uninspired start for the Broncos. First round tackle Garett Bolles of Utah was the 20th pick overall, right after tight end O.J. Watson went 19th to Tampa Bay, with dynamic playmakers like linebacker Reuben Foster, tight end David Njoku, running back Dalvin Cook and even fellow tackle Ryan Ramczyk still on the board. GM John Elway has a penchant for making a splash but exercised discipline in passing on big names in order to play it safe and fill the biggest roster void. Bolles is old for a rookie at 25-years old, less than three months younger than his projected backup, third-year pro Ty Sambrailo. But Bolles brings a massive 6’5”, 300 lb frame, with mauling aggression and the agility to get in front of the NFL’s best edge rushers, which should earn him the Day 1 starting job. In the second round, Elway continued to cross out “To-Do List” items, taking Florida St. edge rusher DeMarcus Walker to replace recently retired DeMarcus Ware (the name similarity is likely a coincidence, but who knows?) and join the onslaught of pass-rushers led by Von Miller.
Then Elway came to life, making flashy picks like wide receiver Carlos Henderson third round pick out of Louisiana Tech Michigan tight end Jake Butt in the fifth round, and Coastal Carolina running back De’Angelo Henderson in the sixth round. With the final pick of the draft the Broncos selected quarterback Chad Kelly from Ole Miss in the seventh round. You could almost hear Elway in the Denver war-room, shouting “WEE!” as he piled up new toys for first-year head coach Vance Joseph. The Henderson’s — Carlos and De’Angelo (no relation) bring speed and elusiveness to the Broncos’ offense. Carlos Henderson gives the Broncos a return man they’ve been missing since the departure of Trindon Holliday. Butt looked like the best tight end in the loaded 2017 draft class before his bowl game ACL tear dropped him to the fifth round. Even Kelly — 2017’s Mr. Irrelevant — has the potential to be the best quarterback on the Broncos’ roster, and could make the QB competition with Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch very interesting.
Round 1, Pick 20 (№20 overall) — Garett Bolles, OT, Utah
Round 2, Pick 19 (№51) — DeMarcus Walker, DE, Florida St.
Round 3, Pick 18 (№82) — Carlos Henderson, WR, Louisiana Tech
Round 3, Pick 37 (№101) — Brendan Langley, CB, Lamar
Round 5, Pick 1 (№145) Jake Butt, TE, Michigan
Round 5, Pick 29 (№172) Isaiah McKenzie, WR, Georgia
Round 6, Pick 19 (№203) De’Angelo Henderson, RB, Coastal Carolina
Round 7, Pick 35 (№253) Chad Kelly, QB, Ole Miss
Bolles steps in as an immediate starter, and Walker has a clear path to a starting job as well. Langley and Carlos Henderson will contribute more on special teams early on, but Henderson could give the offense a third downfield threat, and his speed may be difficult to keep on the sidelines. Butt will need most (if not all) of the 2017 season to recover from an ACL tear, but when healthy, he has the measurables of an elite tight end and should prove to be a steal in the 5th round. If Kelly wins a job on the active roster, he would be an injury or two away from a starting job, and if he gets it, he might just keep it. The Broncos started safe, but filled enough holes and brought in enough high-upside contributors to finish with one of 2017’s best draft classes.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs are built to contend. On their way to the AFC division crown in 2016, they finished in the top half of the league in rushing and defense against the pass, and top 10 in run defense and total yards allowed. But you still get the feeling that the team is swimming upstream with Alex Smith at quarterback; he led a Top-20 passing attack in 2016, but it felt so… boring. Smith only threw for 300+ yards once last season (Week 1 against the Chargers) and didn’t throw more than two touchdowns in a game all season. His 20-for-34, 172-yard, one-touchdown, one-interception performance in the Chiefs’ playoff loss to the Steelers was quintessential Smith and illustrates the team’s problem perfectly. Smith is safe, he goes through his progressions, needs very little reason to check-down, and he doesn’t lose games with bad decision-making… but he doesn’t win games either.
The move to trade up to the 10th overall pick and take gunslinger QB Patrick Mahomes is the move Chiefs fans have been craving. He is the antithesis of everything the Chiefs have been on offense for the better part of a generation. Mahomes isn’t always safe; he plays a little like one of Head Coach Andy Reid’s first proteges, Brett Favre, which would scare the life out of most NFL fan bases. The Chiefs have suffered long enough, though, through Alex Smith, Matt Cassel, Trent Green and Elvis Grbac. Mahomes represents more than a new quarterback; he represents a new philosophy on playing offense. A philosophy that may even strive to score points. It’s risky — especially when one considers that the Chiefs passed on Deshaun Watson to take Mahomes — but Chiefs fans are dying for a little risk.
Round 1, Pick 10 (№10 overall, via trade with the Bills) — Patrick Mahomes, QB, Texas Tech
Round 2, Pick 27 (№59) — Tanoh Kpassagnon, DE, Villanova
Round 3, Pick 22 (№86) — Kareem Hunt, RB, Toledo
Round 4, Pick 33 (№139) Jehu Chesson, WR, Michigan
Round 5, Pick 40 (№183) Ukeme Eligwe, LB, Georgia Southern
Round 6, Pick 35 (№218) Leon McQuay III, S, USC
The Mahomes pick alone is easy to support, but right about the time that he is ready to take over the offense from Smith will also be the time that defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon and running back Kareem Hunt are ready to take on starting roles as well. Kpassagnon is a massive five-technique defensive lineman who needs a little seasoning before he’s ready to terrorize quarterbacks. He has all the physical attributes to be a premier edge rusher. Hunt may be as exciting of a prospect as Mahomes, with the speed, power and receiving abilities to take on a three-down role and send Spencer Ware back to the bench. The grade is lowered slightly because this draft class likely won’t produce immediate results (though Hunt will have an immediate role), but adding this much long-term talent AND an offensive culture shift is a major coup.
Los Angeles Chargers
On the surface, the Chargers’ first draft pick since moving to Los Angeles was a bit of a surprise, but once they made the pick, it looked like a no-brainer. Conventional wisdom had the Chargers taking a defensive back (Malik Hooker or Marshon Lattimore) or a pass-rusher to complement Joey Bosa (Jonathan Allen or Derek Barnett), but when top wide receiver Keenan Allen suffered yet another season-ending injury, it set into motion a plan to give quarterback Philip Rivers a new primary target. Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams was rated as the top WR in the draft class as recently as February, so getting him with the 7th overall pick actually represents quite a bit of value, as well as filling a need.
Now Rivers leads the team into a new home city, and he’s ready to fill the L.A. sky with footballs. Williams is a big, physical target; he’s Malcom Floyd turned up to full blast. He wins jump balls, and he is yet another big target in the red zone, to go along with Hunter Henry and (for a year, at least) Antonio Gates. Rivers hasn’t had a weapon like Williams since Vincent Jackson left for Tampa Bay Even then, Jackson admirably filled the role of WR1, but didn’t have the raw abilities that Williams brings from Day 1. On second thought, maybe this pick has nothing to do with Allen’s injury history; this was about giving Rivers the true #1 receiver he’s never had.
Round 1, Pick 7 (№7 overall) — Mike Williams, WR, Clemson
Round 2, Pick 6 (№38) — Forrest Lamp, OG, Western Kentucky
Round 3, Pick 7 (№71) — Dan Feeney, G, Indiana
Round 4, Pick 6 (№113) Rayshawn Jenkins, S, Miami
Round 5, Pick 7 (№151) Desmond King, S, Iowa
Round 6, Pick 6 (№190) Sam Tevi, OT, Utah
Round 7, Pick 7 (№225) Isaac Rochell, DT, Notre Dame
On Day 2 of the draft, the Chargers made life even more comfortable for Rivers by stealing two first-round talents in offensive linemen Forrest Lamp (second round) and Dan Feeney (third round). The strength of the Chargers’ offensive line will be the interior, which doesn’t help against the great edge pass rushers in the AFC West (Von Miller, Khalil Mack, Justin Houston) but will open running lanes for Melvin Gordon and give Rivers a solid pocket to step up into. Safeties Rayshawn Jenkins (fourth round) and Desmond King (fifth round) have complementary skills — Jenkins is the heavy-hitting enforcer, King is the ball-hawking coverage specialist — and under the tutelage of defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, could develop into a strong tandem in the Chargers’ secondary. The team was expected to spend the seventh overall pick on a defensive back, so landing Williams’ elite playmaking abilities, strengthening the offensive line, and still upgrading the defensive secondary is a major coup for Los Angeles.
The high-powered Oakland offense finished the 2016 season without its star quarterback and still finished the season ranked 7th in overall offense (source: ProFootballReference.com). The draft goal for GM Reggie McKenzie was to bring balance to the AFC West champs. The defense ranked in the bottom half of the league in most statistical categories, including overall team defense. The Raiders likely landed three defensive starters with their first three picks in the 2017 NFL Draft, but the draft class is currently defined by the massive question mark that is first-round pick Gareon Conley. The Ohio State cornerback was regarded as the second-best corner in the draft (behind Marshon Lattimore), but rape allegations two days before the draft knocked Conley all the way down to the 24th pick of the first round. He likely would have fallen even further if the Raiders didn’t stop the free-fall. Now, the Raiders’ draft class will be defined by the outcome of the rape case; Conley has yet to be charged as of this writing.
The draft grade is diminished slightly by the risk of taking Conley in the first round, as there was comparable talent still on the board (Kevin King, Quincy Wilson, etc.) without the off-the-field concerns. If the issue is resolved without Conley facing discipline, this draft class brings marked improvements to the Oakland defense. Conley brings the size and speed to match up, one-on-one with the best wide receivers in the league and team up with David Amerson to give the Raiders one of the best cover corner duos in the league. Safety Obi Melifonwu (second round pick from UConn) almost gets the Raiders back to Grade A-range as a first-round talent that fills a need with excellent value. Melifonwu has the speed and athleticism to play cornerback, but his vicious and sure tackling make him a Day 1 starter at strong safety, opposite FS Karl Joseph.
Defensive Tackle Eddie Vanderdoes (third round, UCLA) gives Head Coach Jack Del Rio the big pass-rushing push from the defensive interior that has been Del Rio’s calling card throughout his coaching career. Injuries have been a concern for Vanderdoes, but the inside-outside pressure from Vanderdoes and Khalil Mack makes this pick an intriguing one. Other notable draft picks: Offensive Tackle David Sharpe (fourth round) replaces Menelik Watson in the rotation, linebacker Marquel Lee (fifth round, Wake Forest) is a much-needed lane-clogging middle linebacker, and running back Elijah Hood (seventh round) gives the Raiders a power back behind Marshawn Lynch.
Round 1, Pick 24 (№24 overall) — Gareon Conley, CB, Ohio St.
Round 2, Pick 24 (№56) — Obi Melifonwu, S, Connecticut
Round 3, Pick 24 (№88) — Eddie Vanderdoes, DT, UCLA
Round 4, Pick 23 (№129) David Sharpe, OT, Florida
Round 5, Pick 24 (№168) Marquel Lee, LB, Wake Forest
Round 7, Pick 3 (№221) (From Cardinals) Shalom Luani, S, Washington State
Round 7, Pick 13 (№231) Jylan Ware, OT, Alabama State
Round 7, Pick 24 (№242) Elijah Hood, RB, North Carolina
Round 7, Pick 26 (№244) (From Seahawks) Treyvon Hester, DT, Toledo
The defense is catching up to the offense just in time for the move to Las Vegas; Sin City gets a bona fide Super Bowl contender. The Raiders had little choice but to bolster the defense, but still could not have done much better in the draft. Melifonwu and Vanderdoes likely walk into starting roles, and look like impact players when they do find the field. This draft class does come with a major asterisk, however, as it will be defined by Conley’s legal matters and subsequent availability. Already preparing for Las Vegas, McKenzie took one of the draft’s biggest gambles. The draft class is already good, but if his gamble pays off, this draft was a great one for the Silver and Black.
Grade: C+* (becomes a “B+” if Conley does not face legal penalties or league suspension).
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Originally published at dynastyfootballfactory.com on May 25, 2017.