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Preseason Watch List: AFC West

A detailed look at the key questions facing each team in the preseason

DENVER BRONCOS

Gary Kubiak chose his health and family over football. The veteran head coach decided to step away from football, which forced the Broncos into finding their third head coach in four seasons. The team moved quickly to hire Vance Joseph, the young (44 years old) defensive coach with deep ties to the Broncos. Joseph coached under Kubiak in Houston, and then served as Adam Gase's defensive coordinator last season in Miami. Broncos honcho John Elway chose Joseph because of his leadership qualities, believing a head coach needs to be able to command and maintain the respect of the locker room much more than he needs to be an Xs and Os trailblazer. Armed with an elite defense (4th in points and yards allowed), the Broncos have few questions on that side of the ball. The challenge in the preseason will be figuring out a way to jumpstart an offense that ranked 22nd and 27th in points and yards, respectively.

Camp Details:

  • When: 7/23 (Rookies) / 7/26 (Veterans)
  • Where: UCHealth Training Center (Englewood, CO)
  • Open to Public: Yes (See Website)

Preseason Game Schedule:

  • Aug 10 -- @Chicago 8:00 pm EDT
  • Aug 19 -- @San Francisco 10:00 pm
  • Aug 26 -- Green Bay 9:00 pm
  • Aug 31 -- Arizona 9:00 pm

What We're Watching:

  • Establishing the Vance Joseph era -- Joseph and defensive coordinator Joe Woods inherit an elite defense and won't do much to upset the apple cart. Joseph learned under exiting coordinator Wade Phillips in Houston, and the scheme and terminology remain in place. Mike McCoy returns as offensive coordinator after years away from coaching the Chargers. 
  • Trevor Siemien versus Paxton Lynch -- Broncos fans want 2nd year Paxton Lynch to win the job convincingly in the preseason because Lynch has a Pro Bowl ceiling. Siemien wasn't electric last season, but he wasn't ineffective, either. This battle is wide open, but the winner will take the field with a compelling set of supporting skill players. 
  • Is C.J. Anderson the clear-cut starter? -- New coaches ensure open competitions, and C.J. Anderson hasn't done enough to feel safe in his role as the projected starter. Fortunately for Anderson, improving the running back depth chart was not an offseason priority. Anderson will once again compete with Devontae Booker and Juwan Thompson. The X-factor is Jamaal Charles. Charles is a huge name, but his health is a huge question mark. Many injury experts are unclear whether Charles can even play anymore. 
  • Settling a crowded tight end depth chart -- Rookie tight ends struggle for relevance, so it's understandable if a 5th round rookie is lost in the ether. But Jake Butt would've gone much higher in the draft is he wasn't recovering from a torn ACL suffered late in Michigan's season. Butt projects as a possible Jason Witten clone when healthy, but he won't be healthy until mid-season at the earliest. A.J. Derby, Jeff Heuerman, and Virgil Green all theoretically have a shot at the starting role, but Derby is the one with compelling fantasy upside. 
  • Putting the offensive line puzzle together -- If things go as planned, Denver will have just two starters returning from last year's main lineup. Center Matt Paradis and guard Max Garcia are entrenched, but the Broncos drafted Garett Bolles in the first round to beat out Ty Sambrailo for the left tackle position. Ron Leary was signed to start on the left side. Right tackle will be decided between free agent Menalik Watson, Donald Stephenson and possibly Sombrailo. 

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

The Chiefs went 12-4 in Andy Reid's third season at the helm, and the veteran laden team returns most of last year's contending unit. The question facing the Chiefs is similar to what faced the Eagles under Reid's watch; is being competitive but not a legitimate Super Bowl contender enough? The Chiefs struggled to move (or stop) the ball last year ranking 20th and 24th in yards for and allowed, respectively. They offset those woes with excellent productivity in the red zone. The Chiefs allowed the 7th fewest points and scored the 13th most. Efficiency thy name is Reid. This offseason was about building for the future, but 2017 appears set up for more of the same, barring a shocking turn of events in training camp and the preseason. 

Camp Details:

  • When: 7/24 (Rookies) / 7/27 (Veterans)
  • Where: Missouri Western State University (St. Joseph, MO)
  • Open to Public: Yes (See Website)

Preseason Game Schedule:

  • Aug 11 -- San Francisco 9:00 pm EDT
  • Aug 19 -- @Cincinnati 7:00 pm
  • Aug 25 -- @Seattle 8:00 pm
  • Aug 31 -- Tennessee 8:30 pm

What We're Watching:

  • How quickly can Patrick Mahomes develop? -- It's hard not to look at the Chiefs' success and wonder what the team might have achieved the last three seasons with an elite quarterback. Alex Smith is a smart, competent veteran but his conservatism keeps the offense from maximizing its potential. The Chiefs used a 1st round choice on Patrick Mahomes, whose gun-slinging mentality runs counter to Smith's approach. Is there a chance Reid will hand Mahomes the job in 2017? Most think not, but even Donovan McNabb's time came sooner than he wanted in Philadelphia. 
  • Does Spencer Ware need to worry about Kareem Hunt? -- Spencer Ware was effective last year in the lead role (1,365 yards and 5 touchdowns in 14 games), but there were times when it seemed former star Jamaal Charles would've done much more. Although Ware will continue to have a significant role, there's the chance rookie Kareem Hunt will earn immediate playing time with a strong preseason.
  • Is Tyreek Hill ready for top billing? -- The Chiefs waived Jeremy Maclin after another injury-riddled season. His release wasn't illogical given his play last year, but it was surprising considering his strong ties to Reid from their days in Philadelphia, not to mention the Chiefs complete lack of focus on improving the receiving corps in free agency or the draft. The only receiver on the roster with game-breaking potential is Tyreek Hill; last year's surprise rookie. Hill scored a lot of touchdowns but wasn't a complete receiver. His game is more of a hybrid running back/receiver, yet the Chiefs appear set to make him the top outside target. If he has a strong start to the preseason, fantasy owners will vault him up draft boards given his guaranteed target share. 
  • Are Derrick Johnson and Justin Houston healthy? -- Two of the Chiefs top defenders were injured last season and the pass rush suffered. If Johnson and Houston look healthy in the preseason, the Chiefs can vault back into the conversation as the top fantasy defense.

OAKLAND RAIDERS

Jack Del Rio and his coaching staff did an outstanding job last season as the Raiders finished 12-4 and earned a playoff berth for the first time in 14 years. Expectations are sky high entering this season, with visions of a Super Bowl run abounding. The offense is in good shape, as Derek Carr leads a unit that finished 7th in points and 6th in yards a season ago. Both the run and pass games finished in the top 10 in touchdowns, and return all the key personnel. On defense, the unit was opportunistic but must show more consistency after a 20th place finish. 

Camp Details:

  • When: 7/24 (Rookies) / 7/28 (Veterans)
  • Where: Napa Valley Marriott (Napa, CA)
  • Open to Public: Limited (See Website)

Preseason Game Schedule:

  • Aug 12 -- @Arizona 10:00 pm EDT
  • Aug 19 -- Los Angeles Rams 10:00 pm
  • Aug 26 -- @Dallas 8:00 pm
  • Aug 31 -- Seattle 10:00 pm

What We're Watching:

  • Todd Downing's offensive system -- In spite of finishing 7th in points, the Raiders opted to let offensive coordinator Bill Mugrave walk in the offseason. Head coach Del Rio believed another team was ready to poach quarterbacks coach Todd Downing for an offensive coordinator role; Del Rio went to ownership and expressed a preference to keep Downing over Musgrave if a choice had to be made. Downing takes over the offense with an unquestioned rapport with franchise cornerstone Derek Carr. The system isn't going to change much, if at all, but Downing wants less predictability and more aggressive play-calling to take advantage of one-on-one matchups.--
  • How does Marshawn Lynch look? -- The Raiders rushing offense was borderline elite last year, and the team wanted Latavius Murray back. He took more money from the Vikings though, which prompted Oakland to sign "retired" Marshawn Lynch. Lynch's pedigree speaks for itself, but he has been away from football and is past his prime. Can he play well enough to keep the Raiders in the Top 10 offensively? 
  • Can Amari Cooper finally separate himself from Michael Crabtree? -- Michael Crabtree outperformed Amari Cooper again in 2016, which begs the question -- is Cooper an elite receiver? He's clearly a good receiver, but he's yet to establish himself as one of the league's best. There is still time, but this preseason might be the last we ask if Cooper is significantly better than his teammate. 
  • Is Jared Cook set for a major role? -- Jared Cook looks great in practice. Go back and check the preseason reports for every stop in his career, and you'll be enticed by talk of a difference maker who can't be defended by linebackers in the open field. Once the season starts, Cook rarely lives up to the hype. Cook joins his fourth team and steps into an explosive offense without a top-tier tight end. Is this finally the year when Cook lives up to his preseason billing? 

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

The Mike McCoy Era did not go as planned. McCoy led the Chargers to winning seasons in his first two years but struggled to just nine wins combined in the last two seasons. A 5-11, last place finish was enough to warrant new blood. As the team makes a move from San Diego to Los Angeles and is set to play in a tiny (30,000 person) stadium until their permanent home is completed, hope begins anew with a fresh coaching staff. Anthony Lynn was a finalist for the Chargers job four years ago when McCoy ultimately triumphed, and the Chargers are attempting to right that wrong by hiring him as McCoy's replacement. Lynn kept Ken Whisenhunt in place in recognition of last year's prolific scoring offense (9th in points). On defense, Gus Bradley will convert the team to a 4-3 and look to improve on an abysmal 29th ranking a season ago. 

Camp Details:

  • When: 7/29 (Rookies and Veterans)
  • Where: Jack Hammett Sports Complex (Costa Mea, CA)
  • Open to Public: Yes (See Website)

Preseason Game Schedule:

  • Aug 13 -- Seattle 8:00 pm EDT
  • Aug 20 -- New Orleans 8:00 pm
  • Aug 26 -- @Los Angeles Rams 8:00 pm
  • Aug 31 -- @San Francisco 10:00 pm

What We're Watching:

  • The new coaching staff and new systems -- The Chargers replaced an offensive-minded coach (Mike McCoy) with another offensive coach in Anthonly Lynn. Normally that might mean major scheme changes, but Lynn chose to keep incumbent offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt in place, which means the offense will remain mostly the same. Defensively changes are afoot, as Gus Bradley takes over after a disappointing stint as the Jaguars head coach. Bradly will implement the same attacking, 4-3 defensive front he utilized in Seattle and Jacksonville. 
  • Who is going to back up Melvin Gordon III? -- Branden Oliver, Kenneth Farrow, Andre Williams and, possibly, Kenjon Barner, all have designs on the backup tailback spot. It's an important camp battle given Anthony Lynn's insistence on a productive ground game. The quarter vying for the 2nd spot each have their strengths and weaknesses, and ultimately the team may have to opt for a situational committee in the event of an injury to Gordon.
  • Figuring out the receiver depth chart -- Keenan Allen has missed the last two seasons but appears healthy entering training camp. He's easily the top option if healthy, but the Chargers have depth. Tyrell Williams broke out last season in Allen's stead and is set to start on the opposite side. Rookie first rounder Mike Williams is the long-term star, but he's not healthy and may start the season on the PUP list. Travis Benjamin and Dontrelle Inman both serve key roles and will be featured in spread sets. 
  • The continuation of Hunter Henry's ascension -- Antonio Gates will waltz into the Hall of Fame five years after retirement. Gates is playing this year and eyeing up the all-time touchdown record, but there's little doubt Hunter Henry is the better all-around player. Rivers and Gates trust each other implicitly, so all eyes will be on whether Henry will split snaps with Gates or be a true target hog. 
  • Reshaping the offensive line -- Changes are afoot on the line, from a new coaching staff to personnel turnover. Right tackle Joe Barksdale is the only 2016 starter projected to return to the same position. Veteran Matt Slauson will man left guard while rookie road-grader Forrest Lamp will have every opportunity to lock down the right guard spot. Veteran free agent Russell Okung takes over at left tackle. Okung is a big name, but his play hasn't been elite of late. Finally, there will be an intense competition at center between Spencer Pulley and Max Tuerk. Pulley has the starting experience, but Tuerk has the collegiate pedigree (3rd rounder last year).