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NFL pre-camp previews: AFC West

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Peter Schrager

Peter Schrager is the Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com and the national sports correspondent for FOX News Channel's "FOX Report Weekend." He's the co-author of Victor Cruz's New York Times' best-selling memoir "Out of the Blue" and lives in New York. Feel free to e-mail him at peterschrager@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.

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Today's Pre-Camp Two-a-days: AFC WEST | NFC West

DENVER BRONCOS

Broncos at a glance

 
Denver Broncos
Looking for more on the Broncos? Get the inside slant, stats, scores, schedules and more scoops right here.
 

Vegas Super Bowl Odds: 50-1

Training Camp: Dove Valley, Englewood, Colo., July 26

Looming Question: “Who’s replacing Mike Nolan as Denver’s new defensive coordinator?”

Nolan got a lot of love at the start of the 2009 season for revitalizing the downtrodden Denver defense and getting the Broncos out to a surprising 6-0 start. The media went bonkers after the D’s dominant performance in wins at San Diego and against New England, while certain Broncos players spent their Week 7 bye in Bristol doing whatever interviews they could. However, the team then limped to a 2-8 finish over its final 10 games, including an embarrassing Week 17 loss in which Jamaal Charles — yes, Jamaal Charles — ran for 259 yards and two scores.

Overall, Nolan did a fine job in 2009. The unit went from the 30th-ranked D in the league in 2008 to 12th in 2009 and made a much needed transition to an attacking 3-4 scheme. But when Nolan “took his talents down to South Beach” and joined Tony Sparano’s staff in Miami, the Broncos didn’t waste much time or tears in promoting Don “Wink” Martindale as the unit’s new coordinator.

Having coached the linebackers last year, “Wink” became a favorite of both head coach Josh McDaniels and the players. Elvis Dumervil’s breakout season can very much be attributed to Martindale’s work as a position coach. Under “Wink,” the Broncos plan to employ the same aggressive 3-4 defense they did last season under Nolan. However, they hope the rush defense greatly improves. Over the offseason, they brought in free agent veteran defensive tackles Justin Bannan and Jamal Williams, plus veteran defensive end Jarvis Green from New England. The front three needs to drastically improve if Denver’s defense is going to match up against the big boys in 2010.

Nolan’s gone, but life goes on in Denver. Under “Wink,” they hope the defense can do more than just six weeks of quality work. They’re hoping this unit can keep it up for an entire season.

Key Camp Battle: Free Safety: Renaldo Hill vs. Darcel McBath

POLL

  • Who will win the AFC West in 2010?
    • Denver
    • Kansas City
    • Oakland
    • San Diego

In a star-studded defensive backfield made of household names Champ Bailey, Andre Goodman and Brian Dawkins, the free safety spot is the one potential weak spot for Denver. Hill, though not a Pro Bowl performer by any means, is the likely starter and a serviceable veteran. McBath, the most impressive member of the team's 2009 rookie class, is hungry to make a splash. With a lights-out camp, he could unseat Hill as the starter.

Early Edge: Renaldo Hill

New Veteran in Town: Jamal Williams, DT

The Broncos' run defense hit the skids in the final 10 weeks of the season, giving up 170 or more rushing yards in five of those contests. With a playoff spot on the line vs. lowly Kansas City, they gave up 317 rushing yards. The 350-pound Williams comes from the rival Chargers and brings with him playoff experience and three Pro Bowl appearances. A triceps injury sidelined him for the bulk of the ’09 season, but he’s reportedly back, healthy and ready to take the AFC West crown from his old squad.

Young Gun to Watch: Eric Decker, WR

Last October, I had Eric Decker listed as a top-20 NFL draft pick. Then he was lost for the year with a season-ending foot injury. Unable to work out for teams or participate at the combine, the University of Minnesota star slipped to the third round of the draft. He spent the early part of the summer working out at Larry Fitzgerald’s wide receivers camp and is reportedly ready for training camp. Don’t be shocked if he makes more of an impact in his rookie year than Denver’s two first-round selections, Tim Tebow (couldn’t go a whole preview without mentioning him!) and Demaryius Thomas.

 

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

Chiefs at a glance

 
Kansas City Chiefs
Looking for more dirt on the Chiefs? Get the inside slant, stats, scores, schedules and more scoops right here.
 

Vegas Super Bowl Odds: 100-1

Training Camp: Missouri Western State University, St. Joseph, Mo., July 29

Looming Question: Will Branden Albert step it up and be the franchise left tackle in Kansas City?

The Chiefs put a lot of faith — too much, if you ask a lot of their fans — in left tackle Branden Albert this offseason. With a host of top-flight left tackles available when Kansas City was on the clock with the fifth overall selection, the Chiefs opted to take safety Eric Berry instead. With multiple second-round selections, Kansas City took non-tackles there as well. Russell Okung’s going to be a stud left tackle in Seattle. Albert? Well, the jury’s still out.

After a promising 2008 rookie season, newly hired head coach Todd Haley encouraged Albert to lose 30 pounds last offseason. He did. Adjusting to his new weight, the second-year man allowed nine sacks in 2009, tied for fifth among offensive lineman for most in the league. As a whole, the K.C. offensive line surrendered 42 sacks. Rarely was high-priced quarterback Matt Cassel given much time to work in the pocket. His numbers — 16 touchdowns, 16 interceptions, 55 percent completion percentage — actually weren't terrible when you factor in the fact that Cassel was under duress on most passing downs.

Over the offseason, Albert’s been getting at it. He enters camp looking nimble and strong. The Chiefs brass are confident he’s ready to make the leap into the upper echelon of the game’s left tackles.

Kansas City fans — and Matt Cassel — certainly hope he is.

Key Camp Battle: Free Safety: Jon McGraw vs. Kendrick Lewis vs. Jarrad Page

McGraw’s the gritty longtime veteran who’ll be what he is, but Lewis is the up-and-comer who has everyone buzzing in Chiefs camp. A fifth round pick, Lewis has already signed, picked up defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel’s scheme and shown big time ability in workouts. Page’s current contract status is up in the air. He may be on the outside looking in.

Early Edge: Jon McGraw

New Veteran in Town: Thomas Jones, RB

Jones was the third-leading rusher in the NFL last year. Not his team, not his division, not his conference — the NFL!

After giving three quality years of service and no headaches to the Jets, he was released in the offseason. Hey, ‘dems da breaks. He signed on with a young Kansas City team as the rare 32-year-old running back who seems to be getting better with age. He joins Jamaal Charles to form one of the more intriguing duos in the league in 2010. More importantly, he’ll serve as a veteran voice in a locker room full of kids.

Young Gun to Watch: Eric Berry, Safety

You’ve heard all the hyperbole on Berry. He’s a mix of Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu. He’s the best safety to enter to the league since Ronnie Lott. He can start at corner if he wanted to. Hell, he’s the new Chuck Norris! In truth, he’s pretty darn nasty. Whether or not he'll live up to the hype in year one will be a plotline worth following. There’s an outside chance Kansas City starts two rookie safeties — both Berry and fifth round pick Kendrick Lewis.

 

OAKLAND RAIDERS

Raiders at a glance

 
Oakland Raiders
Looking for more info on the Raiders? Get the inside slant, stats, scores, schedules and more scoops right here.
 

Vegas Super Bowl Odds: 100-1

Training Camp: Napa Valley Marriot, Napa Valley, Calif., July 28

Looming Question: “Will there be an offense in 2010?”

The Raidahhhs offense may actually score a few points in 2010. There are upgrades all around. The quarterback position went from a zero to a … well, five and a half … overnight with the JaMarcus Russell-for-Jason Campbell change. Everyone’s talking up second-year wideouts Louis Murphy and Darrius Heyward-Bey and the strides they’ve made this offseason. Running backs Darren McFadden and Michael Bush, both healthy (and in Bush’s case, in shape) this summer, make for a very intriguing thunder/lightning combo out of the backfield. The offensive line is supposed to be better, too. But the reason everyone’s most excited has to do with the man calling the plays, new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson.

Jackson's the man most in the league consider responsible for Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco’s tremendous success in his first two seasons in Baltimore. As quarterbacks coach, he showed Flacco the ropes. He was also instrumental in making Carson Palmer the decorated quarterback he is today. Campbell and Jackson have already begun meshing, and there’s genuine optimism in NoCal about a Raiders offense that might actually be worth watching. Both Jim Plunkett and Rich Gannon ended up in Oakland after failed stints elsewhere. Both led Oakland to Super Bowls.

It’ll take a minor miracle for Campbell to lead Oakland to a Super Bowl in 2010, but down the road -- with Jackson in his ear and on the sidelines -- anything’s possible.

Key Camp Battle: Free Safety: Hiram Eugene vs. Michael Huff vs. Mike Mitchell

The seventh overall pick in 2006, Huff started right away for Oakland as a rookie. In his first few years in town, he didn’t live up to the hype, but he actually had a pretty solid 2009 campaign. Eugene's a punishing hitter who's probably better than Huff against the run. Mitchell, the surprise second-round pick out of Ohio in 2009, battled injuries in his rookie year and is still a giant question mark.

Early Edge: Michael Huff

New Veteran in Town: Kamerion Wimbley, OLB

Though viewed as one of the league’s rising stars after his first few years in Cleveland, Wimbley was traded to Oakland after a rather disappointing 2009 campaign. Blessed with incredible wheels and contrary to popular belief in Cleveland -- a very savvy football mind -- don’t be shocked if Wimbley has a big comeback season lining up behind Richard Seymour in Oakland. His 15 sacks in three seasons are nothing to scoff at. Look for big returns on this low-risk offseason acquisition.

Young Gun to Watch: Rolando McClain, LB

Perhaps no rookie in the entire league faces more pressure and responsibility than the former Alabama star. A guy Nick Saban used to refer to as his “coach on the field,” he should be up for the task. McClain will be making the defensive play calls and thrust into a leadership role right away. After drafting him, the Raiders dealt longtime middle linebacker Kirk Morrison to Jacksonville. If McClain doesn’t step up right away, there’s really no reliable backup plan.

 

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

Chargers at a glance

 
San Diego Chargers
Looking for more dirt on the Chargers? Get the inside slant, stats, scores, schedules and more scoops right here.
 

Vegas Super Bowl Odds: 17-2

Training Camp: Chargers Park, San Diego, Calif., July 25

Looming Question: Forget holdouts Marcus McNeill and Vincent Jackson for a moment. Is rookie Ryan Mathews ready to be Mr. Everything in Year One?

Chargers fans and fantasy football owners alike are salivating over the big time stat projections being tossed around for San Diego’s first-round pick. Days after trading up and drafting Mathews 12th overall, coach Norv Turner told reporters he expected his new toy to have 250 carries and 40 receptions in 2010. Some fantasy geeks online have him breaking 1,500 yards and scoring 15 touchdowns.

Back to reality for a moment, folks. Mathews only played two seasons at Fresno State and caught just 19 balls in that time. He’s never lined up against an NFL defense. Hell, he’s never lined up against an SEC defense.

Filling in for LaDainian Tomlinson won’t be easy. Doing so as a rookie will be a downright arduous task. But Chargers coaches and teammates have been blown away with Mathews’ work ethic, attitude and overall ability thus far. In truth, he could very well be an upgrade from the aging Tomlinson in 2010. San Diego’s offense transformed into a pass first/run second unit in 2009, with the team finishing last or near the bottom of every major rushing statistical category last season. Mathews brings fresh legs and new energy to the Chargers ground game. Paired with Darren Sproles, there’s a lot to like about the San Diego backfield.

Mathews wore Tomlinson’s No. 21 in high school and college, worshipped him as a youngster and knows the impact and accolades his predecessor had on both the league and this franchise. Ego and attitude won’t be the issue with this kid. Making the adjustment from the WAC to the NFL, with no real time or room for slip-ups, will be all that keeps him from being a star in year one.

Key Camp Battle: Right Tackle: Jeromey Clary vs. Brandyn Dombrowski

While the thought of 35-year-old Tra Thomas starting at left tackle in relief of holdout Marcus McNeill may cause nightmares for Chargers fans, the right tackle position should make for one heck of a training camp battle. Clary’s got the experience and has been the starter since 2007, but Dombrowski filled in admirably in 2009 when he went down with an ankle injury.

Early Edge: Jeromey Clary

New Veteran in Town: Tra Thomas, OT

Longtime left tackle Marcus McNeill became a restricted free agent after the CBA expired and the 2010 season became uncapped. He’s holding out until he gets a new contract. Knowing GM A.J. Smith, that might not happen for him anytime soon. Tra Thomas, once a Pro Bowl caliber player in Philadelphia, brings his 35-year-old legs to San Diego where he appears to be the starting left tackle heading into camp. Philip Rivers had career highs across the board last season and was a legitimate MVP candidate behind the two-time Pro Bowler McNeill. He’s going to need Thomas to play at a level far superior to the one he did in Jacksonville last season if Rivers is going to have similar success in 2010.

Young Gun to Watch: Cam Thomas, DT

The University of North Carolina returns 10 of 11 starters on defense in 2010, including six potential 2011 first round NFL Draft picks. The one starter not returning to Chapel Hill? Thomas, a run-clogging 3-4 defensive tackle, who’ll be looked at as one of the many space eaters in San Diego brought in to replace Jamal Williams. He should see a lot of action on running downs in 2010.

Tagged: Broncos, Chiefs, Raiders, Jets, Ravens, Chargers, Tra Thomas, Renaldo Hill, Thomas Jones, Jamal Williams, LaDainian Tomlinson, Jon McGraw, Ed Reed, Jason Campbell, Vincent Jackson, Matt Cassel, Michael Huff, Kamerion Wimbley, Marcus McNeill, Jeromey Clary, Michael Bush, Branden Albert, Jamaal Charles, Mike Mitchell, Eric Berry, Demaryius Thomas, Rolando McClain, Ryan Mathews, Cam Thomas, Eric Decker, Tim Tebow, Kendrick Lewis

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