With the unified start to training camp right around the corner on Tuesday, July 27, it's time to get up to speed on all 32 NFL teams. Below, Adam Maya has the lowdown on position battles, key players and notable subplots across the AFC West.
Most important position battle: Quarterback. This position has been unsettled for the past five years. It probably won't be decided in training camp, either. The plan is for inconsistent incumbent Drew Lock and veteran journeyman Teddy Bridgewater to split reps 50-50 leading up to the opener. Regardless of who earns the Week 1 nod, expect both to see the field this season. There are some strong parallels here to the 2020 Bears' QB competition between Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles. That's not a good thing, of course. Lock, who co-led the NFL with 15 interceptions last year as his completion percentage (57.3) plummeted, is presumably staring down his final chance with the Broncos to demonstrate that he's an NFL starter. Bridgewater is likely no more than a one-year insurance policy in the event Lock falters. To be fair, that isn't a given. The 24-year-old has played in just 18 games over his first two seasons. While there aren't many positive trends -- his sack percentage (3.9) is exceptional -- his physical gifts justify giving him a longer look. But like many in Denver these days, he's running out of time.
Newcomer to know/key player returning from injury: Von Miller, outside linebacker. There was legitimate uncertainty a few months back about whether the face of the franchise would be cut. Perhaps the reason he wasn't is he can again be the Broncos' most impactful defensive player. Similar to J.J. Watt, Miller's reported decline seems a bit overstated. After all, he was still one of the more disruptive edge defenders when we last saw him in 2019. He was even better just a year earlier alongside Bradley Chubb -- the same goes for Chubb, who wasn't quite as explosive in 2020 while Miller was sidelined with a dislocated peroneal tendon in his ankle. The year off could ultimately revitalize the former All-Pro, after he'd missed only one game over the previous six seasons. Moreover, his particular injury doesn't typically have lasting effects. His return certainly should. Vic Fangio has kept Denver's defense competitive despite Miller and Chubb overlapping for just four games since the start of the 2019 season. The healthy version of this pass-rushing tandem was dominant. They head into the 2021 campaign determined -- Chubb is playing for a possible extension and the 32-year-old Miller is in a contract year. This all bodes well for the Broncos.
Other subplots to track:
- When Denver last reached the postseason in 2015, its strongest unit on either side of the ball was its secondary. That could be the case again this year. Defensive backs drive Fangio's defense, as illustrated by Denver adding cornerbacks Kyle Fuller, Ronald Darby and Patrick Surtain II and re-signing safeties Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson. An X-factor in this zone-heavy scheme: how the corners handle their respective turns being left on an island.
- It's playoffs or bust for Fangio entering Year 3. Just look at the last firing cycle, where none of the seven departed coaches had postseason droughts longer than three seasons. There's no question Fangio has been hamstrung by pedestrian QB play. That's especially tough when he likely didn't have much say on personnel decisions, and new GM George Paton recently passed on drafting Justin Fields. The star prospect could have been a lifeline. All signs from this proud franchise instead point to Fangio needing to win now.
- It's doubtful that Aaron Rodgers is walking through that door. But rumors of him being open to the idea are partially rooted in Denver's stellar wideouts, even if there isn't a star among them (at least not yet). Add to that a deep tight end group, promising running back room and a serviceable offensive line, and you see why many believe the Broncos boast a winning supporting cast. Whether they're a winner in 2021 will again come down to their QB.
Most important position battle: Wide receiver. The Chiefs arguably boast the best pass-catching duo in football with Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. They just don’t have much to bank on beyond them. It’s the first time since Patrick Mahomes became the starter that his receiving corps seems to be short on depth. Think Green Bay last year if a reliable third option doesn't materialize. The primary candidates to step up are Demarcus Robinson and Mecole Hardman, both of whom have been inconsistent. It made sense to let Sammy Watkins walk in free agency after he missed 14 games over the past three seasons, but his vacancy was not adequately filled. This will be a good litmus test for how much Mahomes can elevate unestablished targets.
Newcomer to know/key player returning from injury: Orlando Brown, left tackle. The Chiefs can only wonder how Super Bowl LV would have played out if longtime left tackle Eric Fisher had been available. There was no way they could shortcut this spot after seeing Mahomes run for his life in the loss to the Buccaneers. Acquiring Brown for essentially a late first-round selection could prove to be one of the best deals of the offseason. He seamlessly shifted to the blindside six weeks into last season and promptly earned a Pro Bowl nod, the second of his young career. Kansas City might be waiting to extend Brown because his three years of experience all came in the Ravens’ run-heavy scheme. Life will be different in Andy Reid’s offense. His price tag will be, too, if he replicates his prior play. But the value he’ll presumably bring in protecting Mahomes is priceless.
Other subplots to track:
- The Chiefs got away with a great deal of mixing and matching on the offensive line last year. That’s certainly not their plan in 2021. Before the Brown trade, they shelled out for guard Joe Thuney and lured former Pro Bowler Kyle Long out of retirement. Long could miss camp because of a lower leg injury, but fellow guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif is back after opting out of last season. This has the makings of a great unit.
- The Frank Clark off-field situation will be worth monitoring. On the field, he was paid to be an upgrade over what Dee Ford provided in Kansas City and hasn’t quite delivered. But Clark's ability to occasionally beat double teams and wreak havoc off the edge makes him the Chiefs’ third-most important defensive player. There doesn’t appear to be a suitable replacement on the current roster, though re-signing Alex Okafor helps the cause.
- The last time the Chiefs’ season ended in a loss, they responded by running roughshod through the league and winning the Super Bowl. Absent of that edge, they were never quite as dominant last year -- Kansas City was sixth in point differential despite a league-leading 14 regular-season victories -- and their playoff run reflected it. Perhaps the only thing greater than their expectations in 2021 will be their motivation.
Most important position battle: Defensive line. This group has been a weakness since Khalil Mack was perplexingly shipped out three Septembers ago. Las Vegas’ current defensive front could finally be a strength. There are few clear starters but legitimate depth, with quality players at the edge spots and along the interior. Free-agent signee Yannick Ngakoue is a former Pro Bowler. Edge rusher Maxx Crosby slightly regressed in Year 2 but was productive nonetheless (seven sacks, 14 TFLs) after a stellar rookie campaign. Quinton Jefferson has proven to have a nice floor, if not a high ceiling. Solomon Thomas is the opposite. Clelin Ferrell might never justify being a fourth overall pick, but he did show promise over an abbreviated second season in which he missed five games (76.1 overall Pro Football Focus grade). Potential is the word that perhaps best describes the whole room. But the Raiders are in desperate need of progress from the D-line to compensate for what looks to be an unreliable secondary.
Newcomer to know/key player returning from injury: Alex Leatherwood, offensive tackle. It’s become somewhat of an annual tradition for the Raiders’ first draft selection to be a player most other evaluators would have happily waited on until later. (Results thus far are mixed, at best, with the last three such examples: Kolton Miller, Ferrell and Henry Ruggs III.) Leatherwood, ranked No. 62 in NFL.com draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah’s top 150 prospect rankings, might be the biggest reach yet of the Raiders' second Jon Gruden era. Las Vegas’ 2021 dice roll, however, will be justified if it hits. Leatherwood (6-foot-5, 312 pounds) is the latest massive, athletic lineman from Alabama -- a great pedigree to pull from. After trading away veteran starters Trent Brown, Gabe Jackson and Rodney Hudson in March, the Raiders simply cannot afford for their new right tackle to not be good. He’ll be counted on as a Day 1 starter for a unit with question marks at center and right guard.
Other subplots to track:
- Kenyan Drake, simply put, was a curious signing. Despite coming off a modest campaign in Arizona, he netted a pretty nice payday (two years, $11 million) that would suggest he’ll have a notable role in the Raiders’ offense. This isn’t the type of pairing you’d expect with young workhorse Josh Jacobs. Both are dynamic receivers out of the backfield and they've each have averaged 200-plus carries the past two seasons. At least one of them figures to become frustrated.
- Derek Carr recently doubled down on his commitment to the Silver and Black, saying he'd probably retire if he were forced to leave Las Vegas. His general lack of excellence, though, has fueled years of speculation that the Raiders are open to upgrading. The 30-year-old game manager can probably quiet that conversation (and earn an extension) if he leads this team to the playoffs. Otherwise, given the precedent with repeatedly unsuccessful HC-QB combos and Carr’s contract carrying zero dead cap hit in 2022, he’s probably out.
- Fourteen head coaches have served in their current role since at least 2018. Gruden is the only one to not reach the playoffs during that span. He seems to have almost unmatched job security. The Raiders have already switched general managers, defensive coordinators and now team presidents within his short tenure. If they don’t win in 2021, Carr will likely be the next casualty, but Gruden could be the biggest culprit.
Most important position battle: Cornerback. The depth chart at this position is written in pencil. That includes the nickel spot, as Chris Harris' play has been trending in the wrong direction the past couple years. Former undrafted free agent Michael Davis earned a contract extension after intercepting five passes over the past two seasons. It's a bit surprising the Chargers didn't go harder after some of the top free-agent CBs given how much their 2020 cast struggled. The notable newcomer is rookie Asante Samuel Jr., who offers the most upside of the group. The second-round pick is undersized but physical. He's good in man and zone coverage. He has a high football IQ, too. Samuel looks to be an ideal fit for Brandon Staley's defense, so it's no surprise he met with teams (Rams, Bears, Packers and Broncos) running similar schemes during the pre-draft process. Expect him to crack the starting lineup soon. If he delivers and Harris rebounds, this unit won't be a weakness.
Newcomer to know/key player returning from injury: Derwin James, safety. Sadly, he was the pick for this category last year, as well. The stakes are even higher after he missed all of 2020 with a torn meniscus in his right knee. It was somewhat surprising the Chargers exercised his fifth-year option this offseason, essentially betting that his next two seasons will be nothing like the last two. Of course, they can't be worse. It's not hard to remember James as the do-it-all defensive back during his All-Pro rookie campaign. He was already in the conversation for best safety in the game. But who is he now, after appearing in just five games since the start of the 2019 season? His absence directly corresponds with a dramatic drop-off from the Chargers' defense in points allowed. He is the biggest X-factor on this roster.
Other subplots to track:
- The Chargers drafted a left tackle with their first pick in the 2021 draft, which was about as predictable as the Jaguars, Jets and 49ers taking quarterbacks with the top three selections, respectively. The blindside has been a huge sore spot for the Chargers, effectually sabotaging Philip Rivers' final season in L.A. and endangering Justin Herbert's first. Steady play from rookie Rashawn Slater would propel the entire line.
- It was only five years ago that Staley was the defensive coordinator at Division III John Carroll University. He now inherits a playoff-ready team after an excellent one-year stint as the Rams' DC. His meteoric rise through the coaching ranks elicits skepticism as much as it includes merit. The same can be said for handing the offensive keys to Joe Lombardi, who was underwhelming as the Lions' offensive coordinator from 2014-2015 before returning to his role as quarterbacks coach in New Orleans, where his level of contribution to the Saints' offense was never quite clear. There's a lot to learn about both.
- There isn't a distinct trend among quarterbacks coming off great rookie campaigns. Most demonstrated either slight improvement or decline, a few cratered, and Dan Marino made the biggest leap. Herbert arguably had the best statistical year ever for a rookie QB, setting multiple records with great efficiency. The expectation now is that he'll continue to play at that level and ultimately lead a winning franchise. That's the biggest change for the Chargers from just 10 months ago, and how the 23-year-old responds to it could define their 2021 season.