What to Watch for this Preseason – AFC West

AFC West Pre-Preseason What to Watch

What is the preseason? What is it’s value? For the fan, it is the sign of things to come. It’s the wonderful embrace of a new NFL season. Best of all, nobody knows how things will work out when the regular season kicks off. During the preseason, every team has hope and every team has a chance at the ultimate prize; the Super Bowl. Yeah, it’s mainly because backups play most of the game and general team depth is really what decides these games, but it also, more specifically, is a time where players must prove themselves. While the starters sit, the bench players fight for playing time, recognition, or a roster spot. These roster battles go well into the 4th Quarter while even the most die-hard fans struggle to remain focused. To counter that, I am providing what I will be watching this preseason, as our beloved sport makes it’s way to the regular season.

Denver Broncos

What to Watch: QB Peyton Manning – What else was I going to put here? Manning is all the rage this offseason and all eyes will be on him this preseason. He is coming back from a couple neck surgeries and there are plenty of questions being asked about the strength of his arm following those procedures. Throw in the fact that he is trying to adjust to a new team, city and offense for the first time in his NFL career after 13 seasons in Indianapolis and you have even more questions. This preseason should allow Manning to get back in the rhythm of the game that he dominated for those 13 seasons, but all eyes will be watching to see if he is the same player that he was.

Short Term Question: Are the Bronco safeties better this year? – I’m trying to avoid making this entire Denver section about Manning, but you can feel free to ask a question about if Manning will stay healthy or he will be the same that he was. Manning applies pretty much everywhere here. Let’s get back to the question at hand… the safeties. Last season, Denver’s defense really turned it on in the second half of the season while Tebow’s offense spun their wheels for the first three quarters of each game. With that said, Denver struggled in the back half with their safeties. The safeties in question are 2nd year players, Quinton Carter and Rahim Moore. They went out and signed S Mike Adams from Cleveland and CB Tracy Porter from New Orleans to help the secondary, but after a season where Denver’s safeties missed a ridiculous amount of tackles, the question remains if the position has improved enough to deal with their difficult schedule this season.

Long Term Question: Can Denver really make a run deep into the playoffs? – First and foremost, they need to make it into the playoffs and that will be challenging given their schedule. Denver plays Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Houston, New England, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Carolina, Tampa Bay, Baltimore, Cleveland and their own division twice (which is one of the most competitive divisions in football). Every team on that schedule is either a legitimate Super Bowl contender or a team that is beginning to make noise as they push for the playoffs… with the possible exception of Tampa Bay and Cleveland. However, both are young and talented, which can be equally as dangerous. That is a schedule that even an “in his prime” Peyton Manning would struggle with. Oh, and another question here could be how Manning’s health will hold up over a full season.

Rookie to Watch: QB Brock Osweiler – The Arizona State product will probably be irrelevant for a year or two, but speculation is that GM John Elway drafted him to eventually replace Manning. Of course, they hope he doesn’t see the field anytime soon, but the 6’7″ QB should be interesting to watch this preseason. He is a raw talent, but has the physical tools for Elway to feel comfortable pulling the trigger on him in the 2nd round. Also watch for RB Ronnie Hillman from San Diego State. He is a shifty runner who has speed and could make an impact this season, especially in the pass game.

Veteran to Watch: RB Knowshon Moreno – This is a guy who was supposed to contribute heavily out of college and has since been hit by the injury bug season after season. For a player who has been written off as a draft bust, the preseason is where you can get back some of your confidence. If not, Moreno is probably looking at 3rd string by the time the regular season starts… or the training room if you follow his history. My final Manning comment: WRs Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas are worth watching as they try to adjust to their new QB.

Kansas City Chiefs

What to Watch: A team that could win the AFC West – Yeah, it sounds a little stupid, but what I’m getting at is that this team looked awful for a large portion of last season. Their defense didn’t look good and their offense was inept… it was bad. Why? Well, they lost most of their better players to season ending injuries over the first couple weeks and then their was a coaching change. So now the Head Coach is Romeo Crennel and they have S Eric Berry, RB Jamaal Charles, TE Tony Moeaki and QB Matt Cassel all back from injuries that made them miss significant time last season. So all we have to go on right now is last season where Kansas City deserved the 11th pick in April’s draft and that fact that they are getting a huge influx of talent back from injury. I’m watching to see if the players coming back are enough to push Kansas City into playoff contention.

Short Term Question: Hello Mr. Charles? – RB Jamaal Charles was widely considered to be a possible breakout star heading into last season before tearing his ACL in Week 2. The theory goes that it takes a little over a year to fully heal from an ACL tear and for RBs who rely on their cutting ability and quickness, this can be difficult. So, which Charles do the Chiefs get? Do they see the guy who picks up where he left off as one of the more dynamic runners in the game? Or, does Charles struggle out of the gate as he continues to work his way back? The preseason will be the first time we can see for ourselves.

Long Term Question: Can Matt Cassel really lead this team back to the playoffs? – This question has been surrounding the Chiefs for a while now. Cassel managed to lead the Chiefs to the playoffs in 2010, but he has never been a QB that can really carry a team, which is what he had to do after Charles went down to injury last season. So the question remains… can Cassel be the guy that leads Kansas City into the playoffs and gets them a playoff win? If the Chiefs return to their running game dominance (they led the NFL in rushing in 2010) they certainly have a chance since Cassel won’t need to do as much. If they try to throw it around, they could struggle. Time will tell if Cassel has what it takes.

Rookie to Watch: DT Dontari Poe – Poe went through the draft process earlier this year and amazed people with his athleticism (run 4.98 second 40-yard dash at the Combine – weighs 346 lbs). He has drawn comparisons to Haloti Ngata and has the potential to be a monster. With that said, there were questions being asked about why he wasn’t dominant in college given his athleticism and size. The raw ability he possesses will mean he will get plenty of opportunities to play during the preseason as he prepares himself for the regular season. Outside of Kansas City’s 1st pick, also look out for WR Devon Wylie who has drawn many comparisons to Patriots WR Wes Welker. Wylie is considered to be faster and more explosive than the Pats receiver.

Veteran to Watch: WR Jonathan Baldwin – He is only a second year player, but he is a big, physical receiver that possesses enough speed to challenge secondaries. If he develops into the player he can be, Cassel will have no excuse with Baldwin and WR Dwayne Bowe as his receivers. Baldwin will be worth watching this preseason as he tries to gain momentum into the regular season.

Oakland Raiders

What to Watch: A new style – This season the Raiders aren’t focusing on their traditional vertical passing game, but instead are adjusting to a new offense (brought in by offensive coordinator, Greg Knapp) that will re-emphasize the run game. This should fit Oakland well with RB Darren McFadden, a solid offensive line and QB Carson Palmer who can be effective with play action. The defensive approach is also changing to a variety of sets and formations in an attempt to confuse opposing offenses. All of these changes in the post-Al Davis era will be interesting to watch this preseason as a new culture is formed.

Short Term Question: How healthy is Darren McFadden? – McFadden always seems to be injured and for that reason, this question is short term and is a question that will be revisited throughout season. McFadden is very, very talented and he can easily make Oakland a frightening team from week to week. That’s if he is healthy though. The preseason, for most players, is for finding that perfect combination of staying healthy and shaking the rust off. McFadden will need to be used in a way that will allow him to do just that and then, if he is healthy come regular season, we will be watching to see if he can play most of Oakland’s games.

Long Term Question: Which Carson Palmer do we see this year? – Last year, Palmer decided that he didn’t want to play with the Cincinnati Bengals anymore, so he refused to go back. Bengals owner, Mike Brown, said “Who cares?” and eventually traded Palmer to Oakland just before the trade deadline. Oakland was looking for the QB who could take them to the playoffs immediately and instead they got a QB who hadn’t played in months and it showed. Palmer struggled initially and people began to wonder if he was worth what Oakland gave for him. Palmer hasn’t been the same since he injured his throwing arm (elbow) a couple years ago and many think he has lost a good portion of the velocity that made him such a formidable thrower back in 2005 with Cincinnati. So, now with Palmer under center for a full offseason, we get to see which Palmer shows up heading into the regular season.

Rookie to Watch: WR Juron Criner – He is 6’3″ and has a lot of raw ability. If everything goes according to plan, he has a pretty high ceiling as far as what he can become. Point being, he has a lot to offer physically. There is a lot about his game that needs to be worked and refined, but the talent is there to be a contributor in the Oakland offense down the road. The preseason is perfect for him because the coaching staff will be able to play him in game situations and see what he does. From a fan perspective, it will just be fun to see flashes of potential from Criner.

Veteran to Watch: WR Denarius Moore – The Tennessee product burst onto the scene last season as a rookie with 33 catches, 618 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns. He has the skills to continue to contribute and build a solid relationship with Carson Palmer. While his playing time may be limited, the time he does play will be interesting because it could be a sign of things to come. Also watch for backup RB Mike Goodson (signed this offseason from Carolina) because he could be getting substantial playing time if McFadden does do down with injury and keep track of QB Terrelle Pryor. Pryor is trying to prove that he can be a pro QB. He be getting plenty of playing time in the 4th quarters or this preseason’s games.

San Diego Chargers

What to Watch: Under performing San Diego prepare for the regular season – It’s a bit of a cop out, but it’s true. San Diego spent this entire offseason reflecting on a season where QB Phillip Rivers played poorly (threw 20 interceptions and fumbled twice), the defense didn’t play up to what they were expected to and San Diego missed out on the playoffs in favor of the Tebow led Denver Broncos who seriously couldn’t throw the ball. There aren’t any major rookies that you need to pay attention to outside of first rounder DE/OLB Melvin Ingram and there aren’t any major storylines going into the preseason that San Diego is facing. They just need to get on track so they can push for the playoffs and maybe more when the regular season starts up.

Short Term Question: Can the San Diego offense execute better? – I already mentioned Rivers who struggled last season. Some blamed an injury, some said it was poor mechanics and I’m sure there were other claims that people just made up to sound important. Whatever it was, it disrupted an offense that, traditionally, has been so solid. San Diego lost WR Vincent Jackson this offseason to Tampa Bay through free agency and they lost do-it-all RB Mike Tolbert to Carolina through free agency as well. They did bring in WR Robert Meachem and WR Eddie Royal in an attempt to replace Jackson’s production and brought in a couple RBs to replace Tolbert (Ronnie Brown, Jackie Battle, drafted Edwin Baker). So now you just have to wonder if San Diego’s offense can improve off of last season. They need Rivers to fix whatever was wrong last season, they need RB Ryan Mathews to finally be the RB that was drafted to replace LaDainian Tomlinson and they need their WRs to step up for Rivers. There are a lot of questions and the preseason is where we will get our first glimpse at the revitalized Charger offense.

Long Term Question: How much should we look into the history of the Chargers? – What I mean by that is… San Diego traditionally starts off the season slow and eventually pushes at the end of the season to get into the playoffs. Last season, they started strong, everyone thought it was odd that they did and many took it as a sign that they were on their way, deep into the playoffs. So what team do we see this year? Under Norv Turner’s coaching, San Diego hasn’t really been able to put both parts of the season together despite their quality talent. It will be interesting to see if San Diego if able to put a full season together. If they do, they have the talent to make some noise.

Rookie to Watch: OLB Melvin Ingram – Ingram was San Diego’s first round pick with the 18th overall. Personally, I thought he should have gone earlier, but what do I know? Ingram is talented. He can play everywhere from DT, DE or rushing OLB. He is currently 2nd on the depth chart at OLB and that usually means we will be seeing plenty of him this preseason. He possesses a variety of pass rushing moves and he should have his fair share of impressive plays in these first couple weeks.

Veteran to Watch: WR Vincent Brown – He is entering his 2nd season after a rookie campaign where he caught 19 passes for 329 yards and 2 touchdowns. I personally think that he could be a solid contributor come the regular season and that starts with a good preseason. He will get his fair share of playing time and have a good shot at earning more playing time come Week 1. Brown had flashes last season where he looked like he be big this year, especially with a full offseason this time around.

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