Five 2019 offseason moves each AFC West team should make

The NFL offseason is upon us. Most of the league has spent January thinking about what it’s going to do in the player-acquisition period stretching through the end of April, and while the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams are a little behind the pack, I suspect they aren’t too upset about having to catch up.

Over the next two weeks, I’m going to detail the first five moves I think every team should make this offseason. After hitting the NFC last week, I’m getting to the AFC this week. I’ll start out West and finish with the Super Bowl champion Patriots in the East on Friday, as you can see from the schedule below:

Tuesday, Feb. 19: AFC West
Wednesday, Feb. 20: AFC South
Thursday, Feb. 21: AFC North
Friday, Feb. 22: AFC East

AFC West: DEN | KC | LAC | OAK

Let’s begin this week with the AFC West, where the Broncos already kicked off the player-acquisition window by reportedly trading for their new starting quarterback …

1. Cut Case Keenum and Emmanuel Sanders. Realistically, there isn’t going to be a trade market for Denver’s 2018 starting quarterback given his $18 million base salary, $7 million of which is already guaranteed. Likewise, there’s no credible scenario in which the Broncos keep the 30-year-old Keenum with a $21 million cap hit behind Joe Flacco. Denver would eat a $10 million dead cap charge by releasing Keenum, but it would free up $11 million in badly needed cap space in the process.

The Broncos can create more room by moving on from their veteran receiver. Sanders returned to form last season and was averaging 72.3 receiving yards per game, but after tearing an Achilles in December, he might not be ready to start the season on the active roster. The team can cut the soon-to-be 32-year-old and free up $10.3 million more in space. After declining linebacker Brandon Marshall‘s option, these two moves would get the Broncos to $44.5 million in cap space.

2. Bring back Matt Paradis. This offensive line has been a mess for years, but the one bright spot has been the development of Paradis, who redshirted after being drafted in the sixth round in 2014 before starting 57 consecutive games. He missed the final seven games of last season with a fractured fibula, and while he should be healthy to start 2019, the Broncos don’t yet have their star center under contract.

The franchise tag might not apply here, thanks to a rule structure that hasn’t caught up with how teams value players. The NFL makes only one offensive lineman tag value available, and despite the fact that left tackles get paid more than linemen elsewhere along the line, the tag value for guards and centers is based on top-tier blindside protectors.

CBS Sports’ Joel Corry projects that the 2019 tag for offensive linemen will come in at $14.2 million, which is an exorbitant sum considering that the largest annual average salary for any center in the league is Tampa’s Ryan Jensen at $10.5 million. Paradis is also hitting the market at age 29, making him older than most typical first-time free agents. You can understand why he might also want to avoid the franchise tag. This is his best — and possibly only — chance at making life-changing guaranteed money.

In a league desperate for competent line play, though, Paradis is going to have a serious market. Jensen was three years younger than Paradis when he entered free agency, but he got a four-year, $42 million deal after just one year as a starting center. Paradis is likely to get a similar deal; it wouldn’t be a surprise if he picked up a four-year, $44 million pact.

3. Work on bringing back Bradley Roby. A rare hit for GM John Elway in the first round of the draft, Roby excelled as Denver’s third cornerback behind Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr., only to struggle last season after Talib left for the Rams. Roby is an unrestricted free agent, but the Broncos don’t really have anyone to take his place in the lineup; Tramaine Brock is also a free agent, and third-round pick Isaac Yiadom played like a rookie in limited time. If no team blows Roby away with an offer — which is entirely plausible given what we saw last season — the Broncos should trust their first four seasons with Roby over an uneven 2018.

4. Add a weapon at tight end. Jeff Heuerman is a free agent, and while the Broncos were hoping that Jake Butt would give them an athletic tight end, Butt tore an ACL for the third time in practice last September. Knee injuries have limited the former Michigan man to three NFL games in two seasons. Troy Fumagalli, a fifth-round draft pick last year, spent all of his rookie season on injured reserve.

With the Broncos trading Demaryius Thomas and likely moving on from Sanders, they need to get more out of their tight end group as receivers. In a draft rich with tight ends, they have to consider using their second- or third-round pick on a weapon for Flacco. They could also be in the discussion for possible cap casualties such as Kyle Rudolph and Cameron Brate.

5. Resist the urge to go after a quarterback and draft front-seven help. While there were reports that Elway was infatuated with 6-foot-4 Missouri quarterback Drew Lock before the Flacco trade, Lock is the exact sort of big-bodied, inaccurate passer Elway has failed with over the past few seasons. Flacco is not a long-term solution, but unless Dwayne Haskins or Kyler Murray slip to the Broncos at No. 10 overall, Denver won’t be in position to take a franchise quarterback.

Instead, the Broncos should replenish a run defense that ranked 16th in defensive DVOA a year ago. (Denver was fourth, in comparison, against the pass.) The Broncos are set on the edge with Bradley Chubb and Von Miller, but backups Shaquil Barrett and Shane Ray are free agents, so using a mid-round pick on the edge might make sense. The more obvious concern would be at the nose, where Domata Peko is an unrestricted free agent and Shelby Harris is a restricted free agent. The Broncos also could stand to add depth behind Derek Wolfe, who just completed his first 16-game season since 2014.

1. Franchise Dee Ford. The Chiefs can’t afford to lose their best pass-rusher. Ford has 25 sacks in 37 games since becoming a full-time starter in 2016, and while he won’t force seven fumbles again in 2019, he’s a building block for this defense. Kansas City might start with the franchise tag, but Ford and the Chiefs likely should come to terms on an extension in the five-year, $90 million range by the end of the offseason.

2. Release Justin Houston. Ford’s franchise tag would cost about $17.9 million and bring the Chiefs below $8 million in cap space. That’s not enough given the other moves the Chiefs have to make, and the most obvious candidate to hit the street is Kansas City’s other edge rusher. Houston signed a six-year, $101 million extension after a 22-sack season in 2014, but injuries have limited the Georgia product to 30 sacks over the ensuing four seasons. The team would free up $14 million in cap space by moving on from the 30-year-old Houston. Kansas City might get lucky and convince Houston to restructure his deal, but there’s no way he can return in 2019 on a cap hit north of $20 million.

3. Work on a new deal for Chris Jones. The Chiefs also need to find the cap room to work on an extension for Jones, who enters the final season of his rookie contract in 2019. He is set to make only a $1.2 million base salary as part of a cap hit under $2 million, but the team can’t plan on having the franchise tag available for Jones in 2020 for reasons I’ll get to in a minute.

Jones was inconsistent during his college career and disappointed during his second pro campaign before delivering a 15.5-sack campaign for the Chiefs last season. They have to be at least a little reticent about handing him an extension, but he is too good of a player when he’s on for the team to let him leave. The timing of the extension depends on another member of Kansas City’s 2016 draft class. …

4. Or work on an extension for Tyreek Hill. If Kansas City can lock up Ford and sign either Jones or Hill to an extension this offseason, it can hold the franchise tag in wait for the other player next offseason. If not, the Chiefs run the risk of letting either Jones or Hill leave in free agency next March.

On paper, the Chiefs would probably prefer to extend Jones and leave Hill’s rookie deal in place for one more season for financial reasons; Hill’s fifth-round rookie contract is far cheaper than Jones’, and the star wideout is going to net a much larger extension when the two sides do come to terms. You might make the case that the Chiefs should lock up Hill instead because he has been the more consistent player; Jones might not attract quite as large of a deal if he takes a step backward in 2019.

In terms of his on-field performance, Hill compares favorably to the other star wideouts who have signed extensions over the past couple of seasons. His numbers over his second and third seasons are similar to those of the league’s other top young receivers over their same seasons, but he needs fewer touches as a receiver to rack up yardage, as you can see from the yards-per-target category:

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