AFC West: Three Burning Questions For Each Team Entering Training Camp

By Ryan Mayer and Rahul Lal

You probably thought you had more time until you read your first article of the NFL offseason, didn’t you? But believe it or not, training camps around the NFL will be underway roughly a month from today and there’s no shortage of juicy storylines for us to dive right into. 

So – enough small talk, let’s get into three of the biggest burning questions surrounding each of the NFL’s 32 teams as we get ready to get ready for another NFL season.

Today we turn our eyes to the West, where the defending Super Bowl Champs reside. The Broncos have some big questions to answer in attempting to defend their Super Bowl title and a couple of divisional rivals are nipping at their heels ready to knock out them out.

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Credit: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Denver Broncos

Training Camp: July 24th (Rookies)/July 27th (Veterans) in Englewood, CO

Who will be the starting QB?

The Broncos won the Super Bowl last season despite having an unsettled quarterback position. Peyton Manning was bad to begin the year before getting hurt and relieved by Brock Osweiler, who performed capably enough to earn himself a BIG contract from the Texans. John Elway had a number that he was not going to go past with Osweiler and he let him walk. Follow that with Manning’s understandable retirement and now you have a Broncos roster that is devoid of good starting QB options.

Elway traded for Mark Sanchez, but Sanchez is an inconsistent option at best as a starter. He’s 37-35 in his career (4-6 the last two years in Philly), completing just 56.7 percent of his passes and has thrown nearly as many interceptions (84) as touchdowns (86). The good news is his last two seasons in Philly did show improved accuracy (64% completion percentage), but it’s unclear if that was due to his own improved understanding or if it was due to the offense in Philadelphia that often got receivers wide open.

The other QB options on the roster are second year Trevor Siemian and rookie Paxton Lynch, who Denver took in the 1st round of the draft with the expectation that he’ll be the QB of the future, but he’s likely not ready to play right away. That leaves a competition between Siemian and Sanchez to be the starter, which in all likelihood will end up with Sanchez as the starter to begin the season.

How do they replace key defensive pieces?

Everyone knows that the Broncos won last season because of their defense. It was suffocating. They led the league in yards allowed (283.1), passing yardage allowed (199.6) and sacks (52). Meanwhile, they were 3rd in rushing yards allowed (83.6) and 4th in points (18.5). It was a statistically dominating season. However, when teams have that kind of dominating unit, it usually ends up getting picked apart during that lovely time of the year known as free agency and that’s what happened this spring to the Broncos.

Gone are starters DE Malik Jackson and LB Danny Trevathan, and depth pieces David Bruton and Omar Bolden. Jackson and Trevathan are the two that hurt. In trying to replace Jackson, the team will look to Jared Crick who came over from the Texans in free agency. Crick will have to vastly outperform his numbers in Houston in order to fill Jackson’s shoes. In the past two seasons, Crick has recorded just 5.5 sacks whereas Jackson had that many last season alone. Granted 3-4 defensive ends aren’t necessarily looked to specifically for sacks, but Crick will have to at the very least occupy blockers to allow the terrifying combo of Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware to come screaming off the edge as they did all season.

As for replacing Trevathan, Brandon Marshall has one inside LB spot locked down, but the other is up in the air. Todd Davis and Corey Nelson both appeared in all 16 games last season but combined for just 20 tackles and one sack. They have three young players in second-year player Zaire Anderson, and rookies Dwayne Norton and Frank Shannon. Who emerges from that group to pair with Marshall will be interesting to watch.

The edge rusher group is still nasty. Miller (contract situation notwithstanding), Ware, Shaquil Barrett, and Shane Ray make a four-man rotation that is nightmarish still for opposing QB’s. Miller could be missing if a long-term agreement isn’t reached, which would open this question up even wider.

Will they get any production out of the TE spot?

Last year the most productive tight end on the roster was Owen Daniels. Nothing against Daniels, but he is a far cry from the player he was during his prime and he was able to provide 46 catches for 571 yards and 3 TD’s last season. Respectable numbers from Daniels, but he’s now gone. So, too, is Vernon Davis, who was traded for in an attempt to inject another dimension into the offense but never really found his rhythm in Mile High.

Now, the team is left with a tight end depth chart that features the following names: Garrett Graham, Virgil Green, Jeff Heuerman, Manasseh Garner, and Henry Krieger-Coble. The total production among those players last season? 16 receptions for 203 yds and 2 TD’s. The Broncos have very good wide receiver options in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. But, with an unstable QB situation, having a productive tight end who can provide a security blanket for whatever player takes that starting job would be hugely beneficial. Barring a career breakout year from one of these guys, there doesn’t seem to be a ton of production on the roster.

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Credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Kansas City Chiefs

Training Camp: July 26th (Rookies)/July 29th (Veterans) in St. Joseph, MO

How will Jamaal Charles look in his return from an ACL tear?

Jamaal Charles has been the workhorse of the Chiefs offense for almost the entirety of his career. It seemed he was well on his way once again last year before tearing his ACL, forcing him to miss the rest of the season. The science of recovery from ACL tears has improved in leaps and bounds in recent years. Multiple players have come back with no ill effects and returned to their previous level of performance. The difference with Charles is that he’s 29 and will be 30 by the time this season ends. At that age, recovery is a bit of a bigger question mark.

In the previous three seasons before last year, Charles averaged 298 touches for 1,683 yards and 13 touchdowns. That’s ludicrous levels of production in the rushing and passing game. Can he take that kind of workload once again coming back off an ACL tear? That’s the big question heading into the 2016 season.

Who steps up to help replace Sean Smith?

The Chiefs secondary took a hit this off season when their top corner Sean Smith decided to leave in free agency and sign with the division rival Raiders. That stings double for Chiefs fans considering not only did he leave, but he also went to the most heated rival of the team. The blow is certainly softened by the way that Marcus Peters has showed out in his debut season with 8 interceptions, returning two of them for touchdowns. Peters certainly has one corner spot locked up, but the question comes when looking at the opposite side of the field.

Marcus Cooper, Jamell Fleming and Phillip Gaines are all back. Cooper was exposed at times when filling in for Smith last season and Fleming and Gaines combined for just three starts. Those three are definitely options to play opposite of Peters, but the Chiefs also went out and drafted a player who could make an impact with their third round pick in Notre Dame corner Keivarae Russell. Russell is an athletic cover corner who could grab a spot from Day 1. Whether it’s in the slot or opposite of Peters, Russell should see a good amount of playing time if he performs the way he’s capable of.

The good news for the Chiefs is they have a veteran safety tandem to back up and help cover for the young guys who will likely be playing in front of them. Eric Berry came back from cancer to show that he’s still one of the best safeties in football last season and Ron Parker provided very solid play alongside him. Having those two in the room and on the practice field to help groom these young defensive backs will be key.

Will anyone emerge as a receiving threat to pair with Jeremy Maclin and Travis Kelce?

The Chiefs big signing in free agency last year was Maclin who showed why he was worth a 5-year $55 million dollar deal by hauling in 87 passes for 1,088 yards and eight touchdowns. Likewise, tight end Travis Kelce earned himself a nice, shiny, new contract extension by grabbing 72 passes for 875 yards and five touchdowns. That’s great production from those two players. Problem is, outside of Albert Wilson (35 catches) no other receiver caught more than 17 passes. The fourth and fifth leaders in receptions on this team? Jamal Charles (21) and Charcandrick West (20) who are both running backs.

Last year’s third round pick Chris Conley was largely disappointing as a rookie with just 17 catches for 199 yards and one touchdown. More concerning is the fact that Conley was targeted 31 times but caught just 17 of those targets (54 percent), which likely didn’t inspire confidence in Alex Smith. The Chiefs added Rod Streater, who fell out of favor in Oakland, in free agency but the question for him is whether he can find the form that led him to catch 60 passes for 888 yards and four touchdowns in 2013. Outside of those two, Albert Wilson is back once again, but he’s likely a slot option as his size (5’9″) would dictate.

A couple of rookies will be battling for spots in 4th round pick DeMarcus Robinson, 5th rounder Tyreek Hill and undrafted free agent Mitch Mathews. Robinson was a swiss-army knife at Florida used in both the air and ground game similar to a DeAnthony Thomas (not as fast) at Oregon. Hill provides much of the same after playing at Oklahoma State and finishing his career at West Alabama. Mathews is a bigger body (6’5″ 225) who averaged 13.5 yards per catch and recorded 24 touchdowns in his final three years at BYU. Any production the Chiefs get out of any of these guys is a bonus.

Finding that secondary weapon that the team can use outside of the Charles, Maclin, Kelce, West group will be important to watch as the Chiefs look to overtake the Broncos atop the division.

For the next preview, I hand things over to our resident Californian and Raiders fan (yes, Raiders fans still exist), Rahul Lal.

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Credit: Thearon W Henderson/Getty Images

Oakland Raiders

Training Camp: July 24th (Rookies)/July 28th (Veterans) in Napa, CA

The AC/DC connection – how good can it be?

Last year we saw the Raiders offense take a huge step in the right direction and that started with quarterback Derek Carr. Carr, who was entering his sophomore season, put up great numbers getting just under 4,000 passing yards and even piled up more passing touchdowns than the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Phillip Rivers, Andy Dalton and Kirk Cousins. While his development has been great, it had a catalyst in Amari Cooper too.

As a rookie, Cooper led the team gaining over 1,000 yards receiving and providing consistent highlights with his lightning speed and great hands. The tandem of Carr and Cooper has shown great promise in just one season but it remains to be seen just how good of a combination the two can be. Can they take their game to the next level and be considered as lethal as some of the other duos in the game? If so, get excited Raider nation.

Is Latavius Murray the running back of the future?

The teams at the top of the AFC West are known for their defenses. After having average-level quarterbacks last year, both the Chiefs and Broncos made their runs starting and ending with their talented defenses. Latavius Murray, the former sixth round pick, had a fine year as the primary rusher, finishing second in the AFC in rushing yards (1,066) while also being a threat as a pass catcher and hauling in 41 receptions last season. Still, some questions remain about his potential and whether he is the lead back of the future for a team that shows off their balanced play calling.

The Raiders had one of the top offensive lines last season and, with the acquisition of Kelechi Osemele in addition to all four members of last year’s line, are solidified to have the top o-line in the NFL. No matter what, any running back can look good behind this o-line but it’s up to GM Reggie Mckenzie, head coach Jack Del Rio and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave to see just how good Murray can develop to be at 26 years old. If he’s the guy for the future, watch out because the Raiders will have a young trio at QB, RB and WR that can only get better.

How much of an impact do the veteran signings on defense have on Khalil Mack?

People knew Mack could be special but last year he showed us exactly how special he truly could be. Mack finished just behind J.J. Watt in the total sack count, including a five-sack performance on the road in Denver, while splitting snaps at both linebacker and defensive end. To show you how incredible Mack can be, he was named to the NFL all-pro first-team at both positions; the first time that has ever happened.

The Raiders have surrounded Mack with veteran talent in offseason acquisitions Bruce Irvin, Sean Smith and Reggie Nelson to join Justin Ellis, Mario Edwards Jr., Dan Williams, David Amerson, first round pick Karl Joseph and former Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith. Defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. has done a great job building up the defense in Oakland just how he did in Seattle a few years ago and, because of the acquisitions of former Seahawks Irvin and Smith, Mack will be able to line up almost exclusively at defensive end and have a defined role. Get ready for plenty more sacks from the third-year star this season.

As you can tell, Rahul, along with many Raiders fans and pundits, is expecting big things from the team this season.

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Credit: Sean M Haffey/Getty Images

San Diego Chargers

Training Camp: July 29th (Rookies & Vets) in San Diego, CA

Will the defense improve?

The Chargers finished 20th in the league in yards allowed (361.9) and were 21st in points allowed at 24.9 points per game. A big part of that came from allowing teams big chunks of yards in the running game giving up 125.3 yards per game (27th) on 4.8 yards per carry (t-30th). Worse for the team is they lost a starting defensive end (Kendall Reyes) and long-time face of the defense Eric Weddle in free agency. That leaves two gaping holes on a defense that was below average last season.

Drafting Joey Bosa No. 3 overall would seem to address the loss of Reyes on the defensive line as he’ll likely step in opposite of Darius Philon with Corey Liuget taking up the nose tackle spot. Bosa is a bit light (288) for a standard 3-4 defensive end, so he may yet be moved around as a chess piece and played as an edge rusher in passing situations. But, as his draft position would indicate, the team is expecting big things from one of college football’s most dominant defensive linemen. The sack total for this team was brutal last year with 32 (24th in NFL) and Bosa should help with that. However, the Chargers will need to get more out of the edge rusher group they’ve invested heavily in during the draft the past few years. Jeremiah Attaochu (2014 2nd round pick) had six sacks last season (up from two in 2014) showing signs of progress and Melvin Ingram (1st round 2012) finally broke out last year with 10.5 sacks. Continuing their development will be key.

Replacing Weddle is more difficult as his level of experience isn’t found on the roster. Dwight Lowery (most recently of the Colts) and Jahleel Addae look to be the likely combination on the back end. Lowery has played nine seasons, but he’s spent the last three years with three different teams, so it’s uncertain what level of production he’ll bring.

Can Melvin Gordon rebound from a bad rookie year?

The Chargers expected Melvin Gordon to be an impact player last season after drafting him 15th overall in the 2015 draft. They were disappointed when Gordon managed to gain only 694 yards on 184 attempts for just a 3.8 yard per carry average and zero touchdowns. That performance led to the Chargers being the 2nd worst team in the league in rush yards per game with just 84.9 and they were last in yards per carry at 3.5. Not exactly what you’re hoping for when you take a running back in the first round.

Heading into Year 2, the expectations of Gordon will be higher than they were last year. Can he live up to those expectations? Because outside of Gordon there aren’t a ton of good running options on this team. Danny Woodhead and Branden Oliver are back but neither was particularly effective in the running game. Granted, Woodhead is more of a receiving threat and that will continue to be his main role. Oliver didn’t show much as an option and other than him there’s second-year back Dreamius Smith who appeared in one game last season and undrafted free agent Kenneth Farrow.

One big point that needs to be noted here is that the offensive line was not exactly cohesive last year (11 different players, 24 combinations), which likely was a big part of the running game’s struggles. That being said, Gordon does share some of the blame as he didn’t look nearly explosive enough to be effective last season.

What will the offensive line look like?

Last year’s offensive line was a revolving door. You saw the number of players and combinations used above and it produced disastrous results in the running game and got Phillip Rivers hit a lot (40 sacks, 21st in NFL). Being able to maintain a consistent starting group from training camp on through the season will be integral to the offense rebounding this season.

The good news for the Chargers is that so far this spring/summer they have been able to find a group of five guys that they like and work well together. As the San Diego Union-Tribune reported after OTA’s, the projected line group is as follows: Left tackle King Dunlap, left guard Orlando Franklin, center Matt Slauson, right guard DJ Fluker and right tackle Joe Barksdale.

That’s great and lines can look awesome in OTA’s, but the question is whether all of these guys can stay healthy. Dunlap missed nine games last year after starting all 16 in 2014. Franklin missed six games last season after missing just one in the previous four years. Slauson, newly arrived from Chicago, has missed just 11 games in his career all of them in 2014. Fluker missed three games last season after missing just one in his first two years. Finally, Barksdale, was the only player of this group to play all 16 games last year and has done so in each of the last three years. All of that paints a picture of a team that got extremely unlucky with injuries to guys who normally aren’t injury prone. Having a healthy starting unit from Day 1 should cure a lot of this team’s offensive ills.

Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.

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