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AFC West training camp preview: Star-studded race to the top

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  • By Grant Gordon NFL.com
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By the end of this month, training camps will open across the NFL. Where are the looming position battles to keep tabs on? Who are the critical players to watch? We'll provide each team's keys in this division-by-division series. Today, Grant Gordon digs into the AFC West:

Denver Broncos

Training camp report dates: Rookies and veterans (July 17).

Location: UCHealth Training Center in Englewood, Colorado.

Most important position battle: Tight end. For three consecutive springs, the Broncos have drafted a tight end -- starting with Jake Butt in the fifth round in 2017, continuing with Troy Fumagalli in the fifth round in 2018 and concluding with Noah Fant's selection in the first round this past April. Denver's competition at tight end will span from the starting role to the last roster spot at the position. Fant, who hauled in 18 touchdown catches combined over his last two seasons at Iowa, showcases 4.50 speed, and if he doesn't start in Week 1, it would seem as if it's only a matter of time before the job is his. Nonetheless, Jeff Heuerman signed a two-year deal in March following a 10-start 2018 campaign. Opportunity came Heuerman's way after Butt, who was off to a solid start to the season, was injured. Fumagalli spent his rookie season on IR. Thus, the tight end situation with the Broncos has been marked by injuries and revolving doors. The reality of it is, there's plenty of depth at the position, but Fant should speed away from the pack.

Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Joe Flacco, quarterback. From the north to the west, Flacco went. For much of his last season with the Ravens, the prospect of being replaced by rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson lingered. An injury to Flacco made it easy to give Jackson a shot, and now Baltimore is Jackson's team and Flacco has moved on to Denver, where, once again, he has a rookie looking over his shoulder. So maybe you can't blame Flacco for not being all that stoked to mentor second-round pick Drew Lock. Lock is the latest in a long line of hopefuls looking to become the Broncos' next franchise quarterback since Peyton Manning retired after the 2015 season. Though the 34-year-old Flacco's days as the man under center in Denver are numbered, he's just two years removed from throwing for a career-high 4,317 yards and has a realistic shot at helping the Broncos get back to the playoffs. With head coach Vic Fangio in his first year at the helm, the defense will continue as the strength of the team and should be stellar. With an experienced Flacco throwing to the likes of Emmanuel Sanders and Courtland Sutton, among others, and with running back Phillip Lindsay aiming for a healthy return from the wrist injury that abbreviated his impressive rookie campaign, Flacco could be the perfect fit -- for this season anyway.

Looming camp question: Can Vic Fangio turn the Broncos in the right direction? When the 2019 season kicks off, Fangio will be 61-years-young and beginning his first campaign as an NFL head coach. The genesis of his NFL coaching career was all the way back in 1986 as the Saints' linebackers coach. It's been a long road for Fangio, and it would seem he's found the perfect fit in Denver, with a defense armed and ready to reclaim its status as a dominant entity. The success of the Broncos' offense might well tell the tale of the season, however. Though Flacco and Sanders (coming back from a torn Achilles) bring a veteran presence, this is largely a young offense, with the likes of Sutton, Lindsay, Fant and running back Royce Freeman finding their way under a defensive-minded coach in his debut campaign. This is a season of huge change in Denver. There are superstars in their prime. There is young talent looking to break out. There is still the lingering long-term uncertainty at quarterback. And there is a new coach for the third time in six seasons. Denver drastically needs to get back on the right course and stop continued instability from squandering such an impressive defense. Making some noise in an arduous division that also includes two of the best teams in the NFL will be difficult, but the prevailing task is turning the Broncos in the correct direction. And that falls upon the shoulders of one spry rookie coach.

Kansas City Chiefs

Training camp report dates: Rookies (July 23) and veterans (July 26).

Location: Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, Missouri.

Most important position battle: Defensive tackle. Chris Jones was as phenomenal as he was underrated in 2018. In a tour de force season, Jones set the NFL record for consecutive games with a sack and was somehow left without a Pro Bowl ticket. The trio of Jones, new defensive end Frank Clark (acquired from the Seahawks) and Alex Okafor (signed from the Saints) produced 32.5 sacks a season ago. The person who starts next to Jones could either buoy the Chiefs' defensive line to another level or simply be the fourth guy on a pretty good line, plugging some holes and bringing home about 30 tackles. Derrick Nnadi returns after starting 11 games with 35 tackles as a rookie. He'll be challenged by big-bodied, back-flipping rookie Khalen Saunders. Much like Jones, the Chiefs' draft was underrated, as it went without a first-round pick, but second-round selection Mecole Hardman will make an instant impact in the receiving and return games, second-rounder Juan Thornhill is likely to start at safety, undrafted free agent Mark Fields is likely to contribute at cornerback and Saunders (picked in the third round) could earn a starting nod. At DT, it's a battle for a starting spot, with the winner possibly providing a crucial cog in a Super Bowl favorite's best defensive unit.

Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Tyrann Mathieu, safety. By signing Mathieu, the Chiefs got themselves a stud at safety who can really play just about anywhere in the defensive backfield and hugely improve the defensive unit against the pass and rush. More than all that, though, Mathieu brings a swagger to the Chiefs that was absent. They had plenty of star power in their defensive ranks, but perhaps there was more pomp than pop, as a unit that featured the since-departed Justin Houston and Dee Ford (Eric Berry played sparingly) allowed 421 points, ninth-most in the NFL and the highest total among playoff-bound teams. It might be a bit far-fetched to hope for a stingy defense that consistently holds opposing offenses down, considering the high-octane thrill ride that is the Chiefs offense isn't exactly the D's greatest ally. Nonetheless, nothing turns a shootout into a blowout like a defense that brings the wood and brings some attitude making a stand. That's what the Chiefs need, and that's what Mathieu can provide.

Looming camp question: Can Patrick Mahomes continue his ascent to becoming the face of the NFL? A year ago in this space, the question was whether Patrick Mahomes was ready to become the face of the Chiefs, with just one prior start under his belt. The man of a thousand throws answered that question with a most emphatic yes. When Mahomes unleashes his latest throwing feat, it's a social media sensation. When Mahomes puts up numbers, they look more like the aftermath of a video game played at rookie difficulty rather than the chronicle-changing bliss they actually prove to be. Beyond the feats of wonder and statistical splendor, Mahomes is the reason the Chiefs are Super Bowl favorites. He's most certainly a shooting superstar, so quickly has he dazzled, so quickly has he delighted fans in Kansas City and beyond. Will this star sustain or burn out? It must be asked. Can Mahomes lead the Chiefs and coach Andy Reid to the Super Bowl, a quest that was interrupted by the Patriots' dynasty a season ago? And now that he's no doubt become the face of his franchise, will the kid with an easy grin and a miracle for an arm take his place as the face of the National Football League?

Los Angeles Chargers

Training camp report date: Rookies and veterans (July 24).

Location: Jack Hammett Sports Complex in Costa Mesa, California.

Most important position battle: Right tackle. Not until November will Sam Tevi celebrate his 25th birthday, so there's still reason for optimism that the young right tackle will improve his game in Year 3. However, he graded 78th among tackles and allowed the third-most pressures at the position last season -- both figures according to the good folks at Pro Football Focus. On a team brimming with talent across both sides of the ball, this is most certainly a slot for improvement. If Tevi, who started 15 games last season, doesn't showcase that improvement in training camp, his likely successor will be Trey Pipkins, Sioux Falls' favorite son and the first Cougars player invited to the NFL Scouting Combine. Pipkins was a standout left tackle for the DII squad before being selected by the Chargers in Round 3 of the 2019 NFL Draft. With Russell Okung locking down the left side (presuming the undisclosed injury that popped up in June doesn't become a more serious concern), Pipkins has a chance to claim the starting spot on the right side. A battle between a DII rookie playing a different position and a returning starter who struggled mightily isn't sexy, but it will be pivotal for the Super Bowl contenders.

Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle. With Joey Bosa in place, the Chargers have a preeminent pass rusher. A solidified presence on the interior of the defensive line has long been missing for the Bolts, though. Not since Jamal Williams in 2007 has a Chargers defensive tackle found his way to the Pro Bowl. Tillery has a chance to be that magnificent presence in the middle. Los Angeles' first-round pick totaled 12.5 sacks over his last two seasons at Notre Dame. An intelligent player who offers the versatility to play three downs and line up in multiple spots, Tillery could not only be the Chargers' newcomer to watch but the standout interior defensive lineman the Bolts and their fans have been seeking for quite some time.

Looming camp question: Will Melvin Gordon get paid or has he played his last down for the Chargers? On a sleepy July morning, Gordon caused a stir when his agent made it known that the Chargers' running back felt "disrespected," wanted a new contract and was going to sit out training camp and demand a trade if he didn't receive said new deal (he has one year left on his rookie pact). Only one running back has scored 10-plus scrimmage touchdowns in each of the last three seasons: Melvin Gordon. Only one running back has more touches than Gordon since 2015 (Todd Gurley has 1,229 to Gordon's 1,079). Hard to argue against Gordon getting a raise when his current cap figure for 2019 is the 11th highest among running backs, according to Over the Cap. Aside from Gordon's situation, the largest quandary for the Chargers was whether they could exceed last season's stellar showing and contend for the Super Bowl. Seemingly overlooked in their conference, their division, even their own city, the Chargers are ridiculously talented. They're a balanced squad; they have the intangibles; they have depth. Yes, Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson are available to pick up the slack in the backfield, but an extended absence from Gordon would cause a day-by-day distraction, a negative change in chemistry and the loss of one third of the most underrated set of offensive triplets in the NFL (Philip Rivers, Keenan Allen and Gordon). Above all else, depending on how long Gordon's cleats stay clean, it might well be a Super Bowl-shattering standoff.

Oakland Raiders

Training camp report dates: Rookies (July 23) and veterans (July 26).

Location: Napa Valley Marriott in Napa, California.

Most important position battle: No. 3 receiving option. In a 2018 season largely absent of highlights, tight end Jared Cook stood tall for the Raiders as their only Pro Bowler. So, of course, the Raiders let him walk, and he promptly headed to New Orleans in the hopes of playing for a Super Bowl. While the Raiders have brought in Antonio Brown and Tyrell Williams, the third pass-catching option is largely in question -- whether it will be the No. 3 receiver, the starting tight end or a running back. J.J. Nelson, formerly of the Arizona Cardinals, has the inside track at the starting spot in the slot, but in 14 games with Arizona a year ago, he posted but seven catches. Hunter Renfrow, the fifth-round rookie out of Clemson, offers some intrigue. Ryan Grant and rookie Keelan Doss could make a bit of noise, also, but likely just a bit. Over at tight end, Darren Waller, Derek Carrier and Luke Willson are the names in the mix, with the 6-foot-6 Waller leading a pack that's not going to enter the same area code as Cook's production and is likely to be blocking far more than catching. First-round running back Josh Jacobs is underrated in the passing game, and RB Jalen Richard is back after tying Cook for the team lead with 68 receptions in 2018. Thus, it's likely that a running back will be the No. 3 receiving option. The safe bet is that Antonio Brown will get more targets, and that might be for the best anyway.

Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: WR Antonio Brown. From free agency to the draft, the Raiders made a lot of noise in the offseason, but nobody made more noise than Brown. Oakland's trade to acquire A.B., meanwhile, was rivaled only by the Cleveland Browns' trade for Odell Beckham when it comes to the biggest move of the offseason. For all the headlines and headaches, Brown is a flat-out stud on the football field. Despite the disharmony that accompanied the end of his time with the Steelers, Brown put together a half-dozen consecutive 100-plus-catch and 1,000-yard seasons. Of course, with Brown, along with seven Pro Bowls comes the ever-present intrigue of what-ifs. What if he and Derek Carr don't click, or Carr throws a touchdown to somebody else when Brown's open? What if Brown and Jon Gruden don't always see eye to eye? Gruden has defended and complimented Brown, for the most part, but it's hard to fathom A.B. won't get at least a mite testy on the sideline once or twice this year. How will that sit with Gruden? Antonio Brown is in Oakland. Get ready for one of the greatest receivers in a generation to bring all his skills -- and potential drama -- to what is expected to be the final season for the Silver and Black in the Bay Area.

Looming camp question: Will the Raiders be able to reignite a pass rush? This is one of the most Raiders of Raiders teams we've seen in a while, and it's difficult to choose just one looming question for a team that boasts such big chests, big personalities, controversial players, and flashy newcomers, not to mention "Hard Knocks" cameras and plans to move to Las Vegas. So why not go with a conundrum that has plagued them since they shipped Khalil Mack to the Bears last September? A horrendously unlucky 13 sacks was all that the Raiders of 2018 could muster. If you didn't just throw up in your mouth drinking that in, ponder further that those 13 sacks ranked the team dead last in the NFL. That total was 17 less than the two teams above them managed (the Patriots and Giants tied for 30th with 30 sacks). Eleven players -- single players, all by their lonesome -- had as many as 13 sacks in the NFL last season. Not Mack, though; he only had 12.5 for Chicago, if you're looking for some silver and black lining. With the No. 4 pick, the sack-starved Raiders selected edge rusher Clelin Ferrell out of Clemson. It seemed to be a bit early, but the pick could be justified because he filled a mammoth void -- and because he's the kind of good character guy needed to turn around a franchise. (Although the team also signed Vontaze Burfict and Richie Incognito, whose reputations do not fit that mold.) Trying to stick to one storyline is tough with these Raiders, but in the pass-rushing department, all jokes aside, the Raiders have to get better after a laughable last season. Arden Key, who garnered one sack in 10 starts for Oakland in 2018's season of quarterback safety, is likely to start opposite Ferrell. With two more defensive ends drafted in Maxx Crosby (fourth round) and Quinton Bell (seventh), a spark must be seen in the pass rush going forward. For all the splash and flash made by their offseason additions, the Raiders' biggest question marks are in the trenches, particularly on the defensive side. As Las Vegas looms, they've made plenty of noise, and everyone turned and looked, but have they truly improved their franchise where it needed it most?.

Follow Grant Gordon on Twitter @TCNGrantGordon.

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