Preseason Watch List: AFC West

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

DENVER BRONCOS

For the 2nd time in three years, the Broncos lost in the Divisional Round of the playoffs in spite of winning at least 12 regular season games. It seems every year is a 'win now' season for Denver as Peyton Manning pushed 40 years old. New head coach Gary Kubiak returns to Denver after 10 years coaching in Houston and Baltimore. Kubiak brings along his key assistants from Houston -- OC Rick Dennison and DC Wade Phillips -- who are focused on tweaking what's already an excellent roster into a championship team.

Preseason Game Schedule

  • Aug 14 -- @Seattle 10:00 pm
  • Aug 22 -- @Houston 8:00 pm
  • Aug 29 -- San Francisco 9:00 pm
  • Sep 3 -- Arizona 9:00 pm

What We're Watching

  • Can Peyton Manning thrive in a balanced offense? -- It seems odd to ask the question, but Manning is nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career and has essentially been his own offensive coordinator and play-caller for years. Gary Kubiak has made it clear he plans on running his offense, and expects Manning to fit into his scheme; not the other way around. Will Manning accept putting his final year or two in the hands of someone else? If not, does the offense take an unexpected step back?
  • Is C.J. Anderson a feature back? -- Gary Kubiak -- like his mentor Mike Shanahan -- has a knack for the ground game. Kubiak prefers to rely on one workhorse versus a committee, which bodes well for C.J. Anderson. Fantasy owners seem convinced Anderson will pick up where he left off (the 2nd best fantasy running back over the second half of 2014), but Anderson needs a strong preseason to reinforce that viewpoint.
  • Who backs up Anderson? -- Montee Ball is healthy, and is the obvious choice to backup Anderson. But Juwan Thompson has turned heads in the early days of camp and bears watching closely.
  • Replacing Ryan Clady -- The Broncos lost All Pro left tackle Ryan Clady for the season (torn ACL) and are giving rookie 2nd rounder Ty Sambrailo the first crack at the job. Needless to say, protecting Peyton Manning in the pocket is pivotal to the team's success, and it's a tall order to ask a rookie to handle the pressure.
  • Shuffling the interior offensive line -- In addition to replacing Clady, Denver likely opens the season with new starters at every position other than right guard (Vasquez). It's pivotal the team finds a starting five early in the preseason and allows that unit to develop cohesion before September.
  • A major defensive scheme change -- Jack Del Rio had success as defensive coordinator, but Wade Phillips is one of the best defensive coordinators in the modern era. Phillips will bring his patented, attacking 3-4 front versus Del Rio's 4-3, conservative approach (Del Rio rarely blitzed). Two players to watch are 2nd year NT Sylvester Williams (who must handle the key nose tackle role) and rookie LB Shane Ray (can he push DeMarcus Ware for snaps?).

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

Andy Reid's second season in Kansas City didn't go according to plan. The Chiefs fell back to 9-7 and missed the playoffs; mainly due to the offense's inability to sustain drives. The Chiefs ranked 16th in points scored and 25th in offensive yards -- yet the team didn't make too many changes to the starting lineup. On defense, Kansas City was dominant finishing 2nd and 7th in points and yards allowed, respectively. The team is counting on a few key additions making the difference and helping the Chiefs return to the playoffs.

Preseason Game Schedule

  • Aug 15 -- @Arizona 9:00 pm
  • Aug 21 -- Seattle 8:00 pm
  • Aug 28 -- Tennessee 8:00 pm
  • Sep 3 -- @St. Louis 8:00 pm

What We're Watching

  • Is Jeremy Maclin the missing cog? -- Reid reunites with Maclin, who enjoyed a breakthrough season in Philadelphia (86 receptions for 1,329 yards and 10 touchdowns) and the fit is ideal. Maclin knows Reid's system intimately, and the Chiefs needed a legitimate receiver after inexplicably going the entire 2014 season without completing a touchdown pass to a wide receiver. 
  • Who starts opposite Maclin? -- Fantasy owners aren't paying much attention to the other receivers at present, but it's a long NFL season and we can't rule out the possibility that another Chiefs pass catcher will emerge from the ether. The two likeliest contenders are Albert Wilson and rookie Chris Conley, but converted running back De'Anthony Thomas has gotten early snaps with the first team.
  • Sorting out the offensive line -- The Chiefs signed Paul Fanaika in free agency to compete at guard, but he's been running with the 3rd stringers in early camp practices. Zach Fulton and Derek Sherrod are being given an opportunity to push for starting roles, but Jeff Allen and Donald Stephenson remain the favorites at RG and RT, respectively.
  • Who starts at cornerback? -- Sean Smith will be a fixture in the lineup after he serves a 3-game suspension, but the Chiefs need to figure out who starts opposite Smith (and in his place for a few games). Rookie 1st rounder Marcus Peters is in the mix as are Phillip Gaines, Steven Nelson, Marcus Cooper and Jamell Fleming.

OAKLAND RAIDERS

The Raiders are arguably the NFL's worst franchise and enter 2015 with low expectations paired with hope thanks to major offseason changes. Dennis Allen was fired midway through his 3rd season as the Raiders finished the year 3-13 with the league's worst defense (32nd in points allowed) and second worst offense (31st in points scored). New head coach Jack Del Rio and DC Ken Norton Jr.

Preseason Game Schedule

  • Aug 14 -- St. Louis 10:00 pm
  • Aug 22 -- @Minnesota 8:00 pm
  • Aug 30 -- Arizona 8:00 pm
  • Sep 3 -- @Seattle 10:00 pm

What We're Watching

  • Bill Musgrave's system -- The good news is the Raiders offense was so inept in 2014 that Bill Musgrave almost can't help but improve the situation. Musgrave is a disciple of the classic West Coast offense, and had success as a play-caller in Minnesota (overseeing Adrian Peterson's best seasons). What's unclear is how Musgrave plans to integrate what he learned in Philadelphia last year as the team's quarterbacks coach. Most assume he'll continue to use traditional WCO formations and terminology, but will add the fast paced play-calling that Chip Kelly is known for.
  • Integrating WRs Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree -- The Raiders added an elite rookie and a talented-yet-underachieving veteran to the receiver corps and both have looked good early in training camp. Cooper has the pedigree and is widely expected to be the team's top target. Crabtree was once viewed in a similar fashion, but things never came together in San Francisco. If Crabtree can maintain his early focus while Cooper lives up to his considerable hype, the Raiders could pull themselves out of the offensive basement in a hurry.
  • Is Latavius Murray a feature back? -- Murray is being counted on as a feature back (and fantasy commodity), but must stay healthy and prove he can handle a full-time workload. Remember, Murray only had one 100-yard game last year and it came on four carries.
  • Figuring out the right side of the offensive line -- At right tackle Menelik Watson has outplayed Austin Howard throughout the preseason and has an early lead on the starting job. At right guard, rookie Jon Feliciano and veteran Khalif Barnes have work to do if they plan on pushing J'Marcus Webb out of the role. 
  • Clive Walford vs. Mychel Rivera -- The preseason hype on rookie tight end Walford has gone parabolic, with many NFL analysts predicting he will not only displace Rivera, but will be among the team's top targets. While that may be possible, Walford missed the first few days of camp with an undisclosed injury and Rivera has looked determined.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

Mike McCoy led the Chargers to back-to-back 9-7 seasons, but last year that wasn't good enough for a playoff berth. The team's offense -- McCoy's strong suit -- took a step back last year (17th in points scored, 18th in yards) as the offensive line struggled, Ryan Mathews couldn't stay healthy, and Keenan Allen suffered a sophomore slump. On defense, John Pagano fielded a Top 10 unit and looks to build off last year's success and possibly vault himself atop the 2016 NFL head-coaching candidates.

Preseason Game Schedule

  • Aug 13 -- Dallas 10:00 pm
  • Aug 22 -- @Arizona 10:00 pm
  • Aug 29 -- Seattle 8:00 pm
  • Sep 3 -- @San Francisco 10:00 pm

What We're Watching

  • Will the Chargers extend Philip Rivers? -- Rivers has been balanced about his contract situation, going as far as to say he doesn't want to live in Los Angeles (alluding to a rumored move by the Chargers to L.A.). Yet, the most likely outcome is a multi-year extension by the mid-August deadline.
  • Melvin Gordon III's emergence -- The Chargers let Ryan Mathews walked and targeted Melvin Gordon III in the draft as his replacement. Gordon will be given every opportunity to earn the lead-back role; it's his job to lose. Gordon must prove capable of pass protection and show an ability to catch passes out of the backfield to get the full-time workload fantasy owners envision.
  • Steve Johnson's role -- Steve Johnson was a perennial 1,000-yard receiver in Buffalo but fell out of favor in 2013 and languished as a backup in San Francisco last year. With Eddie Royal moving to Chicago and Malcom Floyd aging and oft-injured, there is excitement for a resurgent year from Johnson. Fantasy owners will drive Johnson's ADP higher with a strong preseason.
  • Will the real Keenan Allen please stand up? -- Allen dominated as a rookie (1,046 yards and 8 TDs) but tailed off last season (783 yards and 4 TDs) yet is still viewed by the team as the clear #1 option. Fantasy owners seem inclined to buy into a bounce back campaign, but Allen's ADP is going to fluctuate wildly this preseason depending on how he looks.
  • LaDarius Green's opportunity to start -- The shocking news of Antonio Gates' 4-game suspension has re-opened the door for Green -- a popular sleeper last year who fell completely flat. If Green has a strong preseason and parlays that into early season success, he may never relinquish the starting job back to Gates.

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