Four Downs: Change abounds in AFC West


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Jan 22, 2006
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Four Downs: Change abounds in AFC West
Mike Tanier /

There has been plenty of off-season player movement in the AFC West. And that is especially true of the Denver Broncos, who were wise to acquire the Falcons' top draft pick in the John Abraham trade.

Here is a team-by-team look at how each of the AFC West's teams have fared since the season ended and what each can do to improve itself in the upcoming draft.

Oakland Raiders

Ranch guessing
When researching the background of a new offensive coordinator, you don't expect to wind up at a Bed 'n' Breakfast blog. But that's exactly where the routine Football Outsiders background check led us for new Raiders offensive coordinator Tom Walsh.

Walsh was a Raiders assistant throughout the 1980s and early 90s. He was their offensive coordinator in Art Shell's final year with the team; the Raiders finished 19th in the NFL in points and 17th in total yards under Walsh in 1994. When Shell and his staff were fired, Walsh disappeared from the NFL scene.

Walsh resurfaced in 1996 as the head coach of the Idaho State Bengals. The team finished 3-8 in their first season under Walsh. When the Bengals started the 1998 season 2-6, Walsh was fired.

Walsh soon reappeared as the head coach and director of football operations for the Mobile Admirals in something called the Regional Football League. The RFL billed itself as the "major league of spring football," but it lasted just one season. The Admirals went 6-2 and won the only championship in RFL history, defeating the Houston Outlaws 14-12.

When the RFL folded, Walsh left the bright lights and pressure of spring football. He became owner and proprietor of the Hansen Guest Ranch in Swan Valley, Idaho. Bed 'n' breakfast aficionados and avid fly fishermen know all about the Hansen Guest Ranch; the place is, by all accounts, sweet.

"Featured on this scenic property is a 110-year-old barn that recently has been renovated to include three downstairs suites, each with a queen size bed and a private bath," says the resort's web site. "The loft includes a spacious area with whiteboards suitable for meetings as well as a lounge and a big screen TV. The remodeled Wrangler's Cottage is the original 'hired man's' house, and its spacious floor plan includes two bedrooms, each with a queen size bed, one bath, a sitting area with a pull-out sofa and a kitchenette with a microwave and a mini refrigerator."

We had to quote the ranch web site, as the Raiders' web site is understandably reticent about Walsh's recent whereabouts. "Walsh most recently held the post of head coach at Idaho State," the site demurs. You know, "recently," like 1998.

The official team site is also quiet about how Walsh's last tenure with the team ended. Walsh was loyal to Shell during the 1993 season, when several other Raiders coaches wanted Shell fired. Late in the season, as the Raiders were piling up 50 sacks and 146 penalties (an NFL record), quarterback Jeff Hostetler stopped listening to Shell and Walsh and began to call his own plays.

Readers can make their own conclusions about the Walsh hiring. We don't have DVOA or DPAR figures for the early 1990s or a Regional Football-to-NFL projection system. And while Hansen Guest Ranch earned a 45.6 QBAR rating (Queen-sized Beds Above Replacement) in 2005, that doesn't tell us much about the Raiders. Maybe Walsh has been breaking down film in the 110-year old barn for six years. Maybe this is just a cash grab for one of Shell's buddies. One thing is sure: it's the highest-profile innkeeper-to-sports-coach transition since Manchester United hired Basil Fawlty back in 1983.

Recent transactions
The Football Outsiders' spin on the players coming and going from Oakland:

Aaron Brooks: Many observers believe that the Raiders will draft Vince Young, and that Brooks will mentor (snicker) the young passer, imparting his vast wealth of football knowledge (snort) and helping Young develop into a great decision maker ... (burst into tearful laughter).

Brooks is very similar to Kerry Collins: both are rifle-armed, avoid injuries and rack up impressive passing stats, but both are turnover-prone. However, here are the key differences: 1. Brooks has the scrambling ability to run away from (and into) trouble; and 2. When Collins was forced to deviate from the script, he would take a sack or throw a 30-yard interception, but when Brooks deviates from the script, he does something interesting, like lateral the ball to his right tackle.

Secondary Changes: The Raiders lost Renaldo Hill to free agency but signed Tyrone Poole, a 34-year-old who has been healthy for six games in the past two seasons, and Duane Starks, a 32-year-old (in May) who has been healthy for 22 games in the last three years. Poole was very effective for the Patriots in 2003, and Starks showed he had very little left in the tank in seven starts for the Patriots last year. Between the two of them, the Raiders may have one starting cornerback to replace Charles Woodson. Hill was a starter for most of last season, playing a CB-safety hybrid position in the 4-2-5 scheme Rob Ryan used for much of the year. Ryan hopes to scrap the 4-2-5 this season as an early-down defense.

Ronald Curry: The Raiders re-signed the forever-injured Curry to a cap-friendly deal. Oakland is deep at wide receiver, but if Curry can stay healthy, Shell and Walsh will be able to deploy a deadly four-wideout formation.

Draft preview
An overview of the names being tossed out by the Internet's mock draft community, in addition to Young (who gets the nod in the latest mock draft): Michael Huff, DB, Texas; Vernon Davis, TE, Maryland, Haloti Ngata, DT, Oregon; DE Mario Williams, North Carolina State.

All of these players qualify as "Al Davis types" because they are the biggest, fastest or strongest at their positions (Davis loves superlatives). Vernon Davis makes no sense for a team that already has too many receiving threats, but the devil will get his due if he wants another top athletic specimen. Huff is an outstanding athlete who can play cornerback or safety, and the Raiders need both. Ngata wouldn't be a bad selection; you can never have too many defensive tackles. Williams would also fit: the Raiders have depth on the defensive line; so the gifted-but-raw pass rusher wouldn't be asked to do too much as a rookie.

As for Young, well, he might be too good to pass up if he is on the board at No. 7. But didn't the Raiders select Andrew Walter with a third round pick last year?

The Raiders need to add depth on the offensive line and at linebacker. One mock draft has the team selecting UTEP linebacker Thomas Howard in the second round. Howard is very quick and fast but doesn't have a natural position and has a rep for making mental mistakes. Sounds like a Raiders defender to me.
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