This is Part 5 of an eight-article series that will provide a bird's eye view of where each team stands at the start of the offseason, looking at cap space, free agents, potential cap casualties and draft capital. We can't predict the future to perfection, but it helps to know this kind of stuff if you're drafting best-ball teams or making dynasty trades in February and early March before free agency begins.
On Monday, we covered the NFC West.
Tuesday, it was the NFC North.
Wednesday, the NFC East.
Thursday, the NFC South.
And now, it's time for the AFC, starting with a division that's home to Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert. While Rodgers-to-the-Broncos rumors remain alive, the Chargers arguably have a better chance to jump from mediocrity to a place among the AFC's elite.
Cap Space: $31.8 million (8th)
Detailed Cap Sheet: https://overthecap.com/salary-cap/denver-broncos/
The Broncos don't have any obvious cuts to free up more than $2-3 million of cap space, but they already have a good amount to begin with, and can then add more by converting base salaries into bonus money for their top players, e.g. LT Garret Bolles ($17 million salary), S Justin Simmons ($15.1 million), CB Ronald Darby ($9.5 million).
Draft Capital: 1st (9), 2nd (40), 2nd (64), 3rd (75), 3rd (96), 4th (113), 5th (144), 5th (151), 7th (248)
This is a weak group of free agents, with Bridgewater, Jackson and Callahan all in their 30s and coming off down seasons. For fantasy, Gordon is the main guy of interest, with a potential departure clearing the path for Javonte Williams. (Even if Gordon were to re-sign, he'd likely be a backup this time around, rather than last year's 50/50 arrangement)
The (Way-Too-Early) Verdict: Betting sites and online rumors still have Denver as the favorite to land Aaron Rodgers... if he leaves Green Bay. The Broncos have promising young players, cap space and five top-100 draft picks, but a number of their key guys underperformed in 2021, namely WRs Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy.
The Broncos will now try to convince Rodgers that bad QB play and/or coaching were to blame, and that things will be much different with him under center and former Packers OC Nathaniel Hackett as the head coach. If the Rodgers thing doesn't work out, Denver could pivot to another veteran QB, or else pick one in the first round.
The Broncos don't seem especially likely to use first/second-round picks on RB, WR or TE, given the resources already devoted to those positions the past few years. Even the backups, WR KJ Hamler (knee) and TE Albert Okwuegbunam, are promising.... which might eventually be a problem for Sutton/Jeudy/Fant if they stall out again.
Kansas City Chiefs
Cap Space: $500k (20th)
Detailed Cap Sheet: https://overthecap.com/salary-cap/kansas-city-chiefs/
The Chiefs can add $19.5 million in cap space if they cut Clark with a post-June 1 designation, while Hitchens' release would free up around $8.4 million. Clark has two years (but no guaranteed money) remaining on his huge contract, and he's managed only 18.5 sacks in 43 regular-season games with the Chiefs, earning three straight Pro Bowl nods seemingly on the strength of reputation rather than performance. Not that he isn't a good player, but the Chiefs are paying him like a great one.
Key Free Agents: LT Orlando Brown, S Tyrann Mathieu, CB Charvarius Ward, WR Byron Pringle, WR Demarcus Robinson, RB Darrel Williams, RB Jerick McKinnon, DL Jarran Reed, S Daniel Sorensen, CB Mike Hughes, LB Ben Niemann, DE/OLB Melvin Ingram
Draft Capital: 1st (30), 2nd (62), 3rd (94), 3rd (102), 4th (133), 6th (189), 7th (231), 7th (241), 7th (249), 7th (260)
Brown likely will be franchise-tagged if the Chiefs can't re-sign him first, as he remained one of the league's better tackles in his first season in Kansas City. Acquiring him cost a first-round pick, and keeping him will cost at least $20 million per season. After Brown, you'd think Mathieu would be the second priority, though he might be able to find more money elsewhere.
The Chiefs have a whole lot of their 2021 defensive snaps head for free agency, but only Ward and Mathieu were essential this past season. It is still a lot of bodies to replace, so the Chiefs figure to focus on defense in the upcoming draft.
On offense, they've got all their key guys besides Brown locked down, but we could see some shuffling at WR behind Tyreek Hill with both Robinson and Pringle headed for free agency. While the Chiefs have found it easy to retain Robinson in the past, Pringle could get WR2/3 type offers from other teams after his strong finish in 2021.
At running back, Williams and McKinnon are headed for free agency, leaving Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Derrick Gore and someone named Brenden Knox as the veterans under team control. The Chiefs could perhaps use a mid-round pick on a running back given the disappointing start to CEH's career, but they're more likely to re-sign McKinnon and/or Williams and add a young guy in the later rounds or off the UDFA scrap heap.
The (Way-Too-Early) Verdict: No team has more talent on offense, and the Chiefs aren't likely to lose much of it this offseason. The defense is another story, but they do have a near-full cupboard of draft picks, and the cap situation offers decent flexibility for a team with so many star players.
The question for fantasy is which guys are worth drafting apart from CEH (begrudgingly) and The Big 3. Interest in Williams and McKinnon likely depends on a return to KC's high-powered offense, while fellow free agent Pringle perhaps offers a bit more intrigue due to his age (even if he signs elsewhere). There's also an opening for a post-hype Mecole Hardman breakout, though I probably won't be the one betting on it.
Las Vegas Raiders
Cap Space: $16.4 million (13th)
Detailed Cap Sheet: https://overthecap.com/salary-cap/las-vegas-raiders/
The Raiders have a nice amount of cap space to begin with, and an easy enough path to create a whole lot more. They can save $11.75 million with Littleton, a free-agent bust who lost his starting job last year, and then $8 million with backup end Nassib and $7 million for backup linebacker Kwiatkowski. That's an extra $26.75 million in space without losing any starters.
As for Drake... the 28-year-old RB has a guaranteed $5.5 million bonus coming in mid-March, but the Raiders can still free up $2.75 million in cap space if he's released, seeing as his base salary isn't guaranteed. (Drake had surgery on his broken right ankle in early December.)
Key Free Agents: CB Casey Hayward, QB Marcus Mariota WR Zay Jones, WR DeSean Jackson, OT Brandon Parker, DL Quinton Jefferson, CB Brandon Facyson, DL Jonathan Hankins, DL Solomon Thomas, LB K.J. Wright
Draft Capital: 1st (22), 2nd (53), 3rd (86), 4th (124), 5th (163), 5th (164), 7th (225)
The Raiders have a bunch of 2021 contributors headed for free agency, but only Hayward was an above-average starter, and he's 32 years old. Parker is the other guy on the list who played at least 60 percent of snaps on one side of the ball last year, grading out as PFF's No. 76 OT out of 83 qualifiers.
Jones made himself some money with a strong finish in 2021, but it's hard to say if he'll get it in Vegas under new management. It's also hard to say if the market will treat him as a likely starter or just a high-end backup. For 29-year-old Mariota, it'll likely be the latter, though he could luck out and find a chance to at least compete for a starting gig.
The (Way-Too-Early) Verdict: This is one of the better situations for a new coach this offseason, with a decent roster, lots of cap flexibility and draft picks in each of the first five rounds. It helps to have QB Derek Carr at a cap hit of only $19.9 million in the final year of his contract, though he may expect a raise/extension, or else a trade to a new team if the Raiders land an upgrade (they aren't usually mentioned as a favorite for Rodgers/Wilson/Watson, but it wouldn't be outlandish, right?).
It also wouldn't be outlandish, nor surprising, if the Raiders were to make a splashy move for a wide receiver, after trudging through last year with Jones and Bryan Edwards as the perimeter guys working outside of Hunter Renfrow and Darren Waller. Even with A+ targets working the middle of the field, you need at least one of your wideouts to be more explosive than Jones/Edwards.
Note: Recent reports from NFL Network suggest new coach Josh McDaniels and GM Dave Ziegler want to give Carr an extension.
Los Angeles Chargers
Cap Space: $48.9 million (2nd)
Detailed Cap Sheet: https://overthecap.com/salary-cap/los-angeles-chargers/
The Chargers don't have many potential veteran cuts to add cap space, but they'll have plenty in the first place, and can afford to bet on bounce-back years for guys like Bulaga ($10.75 million in non-guaranteed compensation) and Davis ($7.4 million non-guaranteed).
Draft Capital: 1st (17), 2nd (48), 3rd (79), 4th (121), 5th (159), 6th (193), 6th (215), 7th (234), 7th (253), 7th (254), 7th (256)
The Chargers have all their own draft picks, plus a compensatory selection at the end of the sixth round and three more at the end of the seventh. Between that and the cap space, they have every opportunity to improve this offseason, and should be able to keep their key free agents or sign/draft comparable replacements.
It also isn't the worst thing to have so many free agents from the defensive front seven, considering the Chargers allowed the third most rushing yards in the league this past season. They need to use some of those resources to get Joey Bosa more help up front, and a quality cornerback would go a long way as well.
For (Mike) Williams, the franchise tag would cost $19.1 million, which is probably slightly more than the AAV he'd get on a multi-year deal. Cook will be much less of a priority, and could even opt for retirement after bouncing around the league for so long. That might open up Donald Parham's big opportunity, or it might put the Chargers in the market for top tight ends in free agency and the draft. Williams and Cook accounted for 211 combined targets last year (129 and 83, respectively).
The (Way-Too-Early) Verdict: The Chiefs, Bengals and Bills have more talent under contract, but the Chargers might be just one strong offseason away from joining the AFC's elite. There's still some sour history to contend with, not to mention an unproven coaching staff, but few teams are set up better for the next few years (really only the three above and the Rams) when we look at talent, cap space and draft capital.
For fantasy purposes, the biggest question right now is whether it'll be Williams, a free agent or a rookie working as Option C behind Austin Ekeler and Keenan Allen in this high-powered offense. Justin Herbert is good enough to support a second fantasy-viable receiver, as we saw last year, and perhaps a tight end as well (Dalton Schultz, anyone?)