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2016 NFL training camp previews: AFC West


Training camp is quickly approaching, which means it's time to preview the most exciting part of the summer. Over the next month, Around The NFL's Conor Orr will break down all 32 teams and give us something to look for in late July.

Today, we take a look at the AFC West. For the rest of the NFL, click here.


Training camp report date: Rookies July 24, veterans July 27.

Training camp location: Paul D. Bowlen Memorial Broncos Centre, Englewood, Colorado.

Offseason in a nutshell: John Elway is living proof that head of personnel is one of the most thankless jobs around. Even as the team was soaking up the euphoria of a White House visit, Elway was being vice-gripped into handing away one of the most lucrative contracts in NFL history to Von Miller. Brock Osweiler bolted to Houston, and C.J. Anderson nearly left for Miami or Chicago after the low-round-tender strategy backfired. Does he have time to catch his breath now? Not really. Denver opens camp with a three-way quarterback battle -- Mark Sanchez, Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch -- and a little more than $5 million in salary-cap space.

Player to watch: Quarterback Paxton Lynch. The Mile High Report recently summed up the Denver Broncos' quarterbacking situation beautifully: If we're really talking about Trevor Siemian beating out Mark Sanchez for a job, then we're talking about a world where Lynch is the favorite to start. While Denver deserves credit for developing Siemian to this point, there is no real use in sitting a player that some Broncos apparently like more than Osweiler anyway. If there is even a question in Gary Kubiak's mind between Lynch and Siemian, there shouldn't be a moment's hesitation. To be clear, we fully expect Mark Sanchez to be the opening-day starter, but Lynch needs to be a convincing enough No. 2 to earn himself some snaps if QB1 cannot perform up to par.


1. Is all the Siemian rhetoric really a challenge to Sanchez?

When it comes to surviving aggravating, high-profile quarterback competitions, Mark Sanchez is the NFL's Aron Ralston. He weathered not one, but two brutal Summers of Tebow which bookended Hurricane Geno and the shoulder injury that led to his ouster from New York. All of this is to say that Sanchez doesn't need manufactured motivation at this point in his career. He's almost 30 now and understands what it takes to be an NFL quarterback. If that isn't good enough, teams need to stop digging for something that isn't there. Plus, Broncos players are already talking about Sanchez as their starting quarterback, so why create doubt?

"Right now, they're giving all three of those guys equal reps, so I don't think either one of them has created any advantage at this point, because they haven't consistently been with the ones yet," Broncos nose tackle Sylvester Williams recently told SiriusXM. "But I think, going into the camp, I think Coach Kub kind of let us know he's going to go with Mark and give Mark the opportunity to see what he can do and then go on from there."

Sanchez is a more-than-capable option for now; a quarterback who played well with a good offensive line, running game and wide receivers. This is probably the best offense he's been a part of since the 2010 Jets.

2. Will Aqib Talib take significant preseason snaps?

Talib is off crutches following a gunshot incident at a Dallas-area night club in June and is, according to the Denver Post, back running, cutting and planting. While it's easy to assume that someone can just move on -- and by all accounts, Talib was very lucky he wasn't more seriously injured -- any setback to the back end of Denver's defense could affect the balance of pressure and coverage that Wade Phillips artfully created a year ago.

3. Are the Broncos starting a rookie fifth-round pick at guard?

There are other candidates, but quietly Connor McGovern is being touted as a diamond-in-the-rough type of find for a Broncos team looking to fill some pretty hefty shoes. While this rendition of Denver's offensive line will not blow anyone away with name recognition, it's about time the Broncos decided to get younger and less expensive in the hopes of building a cohesive unit that can adequately pave the way for Kubiak's bootleg offense.

Way-too-early season prediction: It's strange seeing a team that could easily go 12-4 next year just as quickly as they could go 4-12. We all expect Denver to come back to Earth, but just how far? Last season, sub-average quarterback play did not stand in the way of a resounding Super Bowl victory. What about this year?


Training camp report date: Rookies and veterans, July 29.

Training camp location: Chargers Park, San Diego, California.

Offseason in a nutshell: If we don't count nearly moving the franchise to Los Angeles, everything was fairly quiet in breezy San Diego this offseason. Antonio Gates is back but Ladarius Green is gone. Eric Weddle got his wish and separated with his long-time team, paving the way for Dwight Lowery. Running back Donald Brown wasn't re-signed but wide receiver Travis Benjamin is here to hopefully add a much-needed second dimension to this offense. The minor swaps, along with a change to Ken Whisenhunt as offensive coordinator, should have the team on more stable footing in 2016, but did they do enough to drastically improve from 4-12?

Player to watch: Defensive end Joey Bosa. As we've noted in the past, Bosa's lost spring is a crying shame for both the Chargers and the young pass rusher. We can endlessly rationalize the argument on both sides but it comes down to minutiae that will never be a problem if the Chargers develop Bosa like they are expected to. Cash flow and offset language. No end in sight. When Bosa takes the field he'll be unfairly subjected to the he doesn't love the game chorus, just another hurdle to overcome as he learns an NFL defense for the first time -- one which he's expected to anchor on the left side.


1. Does Philip Rivers' return to the sweet spot coincide with the return of Ken Whisenhunt?

Rivers completed nearly 70 percent of his passes back in 2013, the last time Whisenhunt was involved with San Diego's offense. During that 9-7 season, Rivers chucked 32 touchdowns on 4,478 passing yards and finished the year with just 11 interceptions. Watching Rivers work with Keenan Allen was a thing of beauty, a relationship that paved the way to Allen's big-time contract extension this summer. So is this a better team personnel-wise than the last time Whisenhunt roamed the sidelines? Rivers, who has had better statistical seasons before and after 2013 but maybe never one as rhythmic and consistent, is out to prove as much.

2. Can Melvin Gordon make a 180-degree turnaround?

Gordon's futile first season was not all his fault, but reading between the lines, one could tell there was some behind-the-scenes cringing done by the Chargers' coaching staff and executive group after witnessing a wildly disappointing 184 carries and 641 yards. It's not fair to blame his struggles on the offensive line alone either, which is why this offseason served as a motivational pick-me-up campaign to boost Gordon's confidence heading into camp. The NFL moves fast and San Diego needs some kind of running game after Gordon finished third to last among qualifying NFL running backs in Rushing Net Yards Over Average (NYoA), a wonderful stat compiled by NFL GSIS that measures a team's performance with that player on the field against a league average that factors in just about everything. The only running backs theoretically worse? DeMarco Murray and Jeremy Hill. The bottom line: San Diego cannot afford to have a player on the field that makes the team markedly worse. Can Gordon show us that 2015 was just an aberration?

3. Can San Diego capitalize on their hotbed of defensive talent?

John Pagano survived an offseason coaching shakeup with one clear directive: Find a way to take a statistically average defense packed full of first-, second- and third-round picks and make it work. Last year, San Diego was -4 in turnover margin and was one of the worst teams in the NFL in defending passes over the middle, short right, deep left and deep middle. Sometimes all it takes is a few tweaks, and the addition of Casey Hayward should help sure up some of the issues they had at the nickel position. Jason Verrett's continued ascension up the cornerback rankings should also make life a little easier on Pagano as he toys with new blood at safety.

Way-too-early season prediction: The division is for the taking, with the Broncos' expected regression thanks to the loss of Peyton Manning/Brock Osweiler, but is San Diego strong enough to compete with Oakland and Kansas City? If this pass defense improves and their 27th-ranked rushing defense can catch up to league average, San Diego could easily double their win total (four) from 2015.


Training camp report date: Rookies July 26, veterans July 29

Training camp location: Missouri Western State University, St. Joseph, Missouri

Offseason in a nutshell: The Chiefs opted for the All Is Well approach to free agency this offseason, adding complementary pieces like wide receiver Rod Streater and a premium upgrade at right tackle with Mitchell Schwartz. All else is status quo, but the Chiefs are betting on good luck and health to keep their quest for AFC West supremacy alive for one more season. With Eric Berry likely approaching free agency and Justin Houston's injury potentially lingering into the regular season (not to mention the uncertainty surrounding Jamaal Charles and his recovery from a second ACL injury), there is a now or never feeling in Kansas City, with the division open for the taking.

Player to watch: Outside linebacker Dee Ford. The former first-round pick missed a portion of minicamp with knee issues, but he should be ready for training camp. Though Tamba Hali and Houston have taken up a large majority of the pass-rushing opportunities, Ford finally has the chance to spread his wings in a multiple, pressure-based defense with great defensive linemen in front of him. Will coordinator Bob Sutton trust him alongside Hali as a base outside linebacker?


1. Will the Chiefs get a full camp out of Eric Berry?

After the franchise-tag deadline came and passed without a long-term deal for Berry, it's safe to wonder if there are any hard feelings lingering in Kansas City. Berry's performance last year was fantastic -- phenomenal, considering that he missed time with Hodgkin lymphoma leading up to the season. The 2015 Comeback Player of the Year was heroic in his personal health battles and has been a consistent face-of-the-franchise-type player in Kansas City. Would it hurt to remind them?

2. Who wins the No. 2 running back job?

The Chiefs inked Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware to long-term extensions this offseason, ensuring that their comfortable depth at running back remains so for another season or two. But someone isn't going to be happy, regardless of how well the Chiefs do this season; as long as Charles is healthy, carries will be at a premium. What is the drop-off, exactly? Last season, with Charles missing the last 11 games, West logged 160 carries and Ware had 72. During Charles' last healthy season, he carried the ball 206 times over 15 games. Knile Davis carried the ball 134 times, and after that, De'Anthony Thomas logged just 14 carries. According to, Ware was the lead candidate to win the job this June, but anything can happen in August.

3. Will Phillip Gaines hold on to the second cornerback spot?

2015 Defensive Rookie of the Year Marcus Peters is a star in the making, but Sean Smith -- who decamped for the Raiders in free agency -- left some big shoes to fill. At the moment, Gaines is holding the job down, but the Chiefs drafted KeiVarae Russell and Eric Murray -- two cornerbacks who will spend all summer vying for playing time.

Way-too-early season prediction: The Chiefs are the safest pick to take the AFC West this year, although there is a lot to like about the Oakland Raiders. There's certainly a way this team can win 10 or 11 games, even if the variables -- Charles and Houston -- don't perform.


Training camp report date: Rookies: Rookies July 24, veterans July 28

Training camp location: Napa Valley Training Complex, Napa, California

Offseason in a nutshell: The Raiders are in the running for the dubious distinction of best offseason, which is normally terrifying for a general manager who needed to spend big on the open market to fill gaps in the starting lineup. But Oakland, like Jacksonville, stockpiled the war chest until the timing was right, and now the team has a legitimate chance of winning the AFC West for the first time since 2002. Kelechi Osemele is in town and, more importantly, playing at his natural guard position after the Raiders wisely re-signed tackle Donald Penn. Cornerback Sean Smith is in the fold, as is versatile SAM and pass rusher Bruce Irvin, who should have the chance to do more of what he loves (rack up sacks) in this defense. While the loss of Justin Tuck hurts the team's chances of being a consistent, every-down run stopper, Oakland should have enough speed to dominate games.

Player to watch: Linebacker Bruce Irvin. "Versatility" is the most prevalent buzzword in the NFL, but thanks to Irvin, the Raiders can show us a tangible definition. Pairing him with Khalil Mack could be a terrifying proposition for NFL offensive coordinators. The scroll of protection audibles alone could be a mile long. Irvin was an eight-sack rookie while playing under current Raiders defensive coordinator (and former Seahawks LB coach) Ken Norton Jr. in Seattle, and now he'll be in a more rush-heavy defense. Training camp will be a great way to discover just how often the team plans on letting both Mack and Irvin loose, and whether the new guy's experience as a traditional 4-3 linebacker will give Oakland the chance to throw out some more exotic looks.


1. Who completes the all-star offensive line?

It's Menelik Watson vs. Austin Howard in a battle (at right tackle) that will decide who will cap off one of the best on-paper offensive lines in football. According to, Watson has the "upper hand", but either choice would give Oakland a massively thick front five that could do some serious bullying against a lighter nickel or sub front. Watson, a developmental second-rounder in 2013, appeared to be on his way to big things in 2015 before suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon in the preseason. He is certainly the higher-upside option Oakland.

2. Will Oakland develop a dependable second ground option behind Latavius Murray?

It's nearly impossible to count on a running back carrying the load in today's NFL, but Murray, who is coming off a Pro Bowl season in 2015 where he rushed for 1,066 yards and six touchdowns, doesn't seem to have many challengers on the depth chart currently. Speed back Taiwan Jones and veteran Roy Helu round out the top end of Oakland's rotation, with rookie DeAndre Washington coming from behind. Washington has drawn early comparisons to Doug Martin, but at 5-foot-8 and a notch above 200 pounds, he's more likely the team's hopeful answer as a third-down back, having caught 41 balls during his senior season at Texas Tech.

3. Does Karl Joseph get off to a fast start?

Joseph will start no matter what -- a ballhawk and brutal tackler like that doesn't waste away on special teams alone. Depending on how physical the Raiders want to be in training camp, we might not see some of his brightest attributes until the games count in September. Assuming Joseph survives the white-board tedium of late July and August, we should emerge from camp with a fuller picture of how the Raiders plan on using their first-round pick and whether he'll fit into the booming Kam Chancellor role that Norton is very familiar with.

Way-too-early season prediction: It's time for this team to win double-digit games. No more excuses, no more drooling over potential. If Oakland does not win at least 10 games this year, it will be a massive disappointment that should be shouldered by the coaching staff. This team has a quarterback well above replacement level, a Pro Bowl running back, one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, arguably the second-best defensive player in football and a rotating cast of fine role players. The division is weak for the first time in half a decade and it is Oakland's to steal.


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