AFC West training camp preview: Key players to watch

By Nick Shook
Around The NFL writer
Read full post on NFL.com

Training camp is quickly approaching, which means it’s time to preview the most exciting part of the summer. With camps opening later this month, Jeremy Bergman, Herbie Teope, Nick Shook and Marc Sessler are examining the key issues for each team in this division-by-division series. Here’s the AFC West camp primer:

Denver Broncos

Training camp report dates: rookies (July 24) and veterans (July 27).

Location: UCHealth Training Center in Englewood, Colorado.

Most important position battle: Devontae Booker vs. Royce Freeman, running back. Denver has struggled to put together a legitimate threat on the ground in the last two seasons, and even though C.J. Anderson broke 1,000 yards rushing in 2017, it’s been a point of relative weakness. With Anderson now in Carolina and Booker in the lead back role (for now), Denver looks to reset the position group. Neither Booker nor Freeman has proven to be a remarkable receiving option, making this competition a closer one, in that the “loser” can’t just be shifted into a receiving-back role. Booker owns the advantage of experience, but Freeman is more equipped for a load, seeing as the third-round pick has 15 pounds on the third-year pro. Then again, Freeman also has a lot of mileage on him from his college days (he rushed 947 times for 5,621 yards and 60 touchdowns in four seasons at Oregon). Freeman could become the sought-after answer at the position, which is important because it can take a portion of the load off the shoulders of new quarterback Case Keenum.

Newcomer to watch: WR Courtland Sutton. This could also go to fifth overall pick Bradley Chubb or Freeman, who was a model of consistency during his four seasons at Oregon, but we’re going with Sutton because of his potential impact and Denver’s need for a reliable receiver opposite Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. The second-round pick is a big-bodied receiver who’s flashed the ability to make spectacular catches and leap for jump balls, but where he fits into the offense will be interesting to see. He and Thomas are similar types of wideouts, but with Thomas now at 30 years old, Sutton arrives as the heir apparent to the role. His potential for immediate contribution could make Case Keenum‘s time with Denver much easier.

Looming camp question: Will Case Keenum be able to play near his 2017 level? Keenum played well above his perceived ceiling in 2017 with the Vikings, so well that his offensive coordinator (Pat Shurmur) got another head-coaching shot. He also earned himself a contract with the Broncos. But can he do it again? Keenum landed inside the top 60 of the Top 100 Players of 2018, but prior to 2017, he never posted a passer rating above 88 and threw more than nine touchdowns in a single season. No one is expecting Keenum to threaten Peyton Manning’s single-season passing touchdown record, but serviceable play is desired by the Broncos. Will Keenum be the conductor of a rejuvenated Broncosoffense, or will he regress to his mean?

Kansas City Chiefs

Training camp report dates: rookies (July 22) and veterans (July 25).

Location: Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, Missouri.

Most important position battle: Derrick Nnadivs. Xavier Williams, defensive tackle. Bennie Logan is gone, having left for Nashville, leaving a decent-sized hole on the defensive interior. Kansas City filled the void by signing local product Williams, but the team also selected Nnadi in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft with the idea he’ll eventually take over as the starter. How long until that happens? Williams doesn’t have much of a track record — 23 games played (two starts), 22 tackles, 0.5 sacks, one forced fumble — to predict whether he’ll be consistently effective, leaving the door open for Nnadi to rise faster than usual. It might not happen out of camp, but the gap could close quickly, should the rookie have a fast start to his pro career. The Chiefs, who ranked 25th against the run in 2017, could use it.

Newcomer to watch: WR Sammy Watkins. No matter how beloved he might have been in Kansas City (or to fantasy owners), Albert Wilson doesn’t really compare to Watkins. The latter comes to Kansas City on a healthy contract with plenty of expectations, both in terms of desired production and pairing with new starting quarterback Patrick Mahomes. How quickly can Watkins establish a rapport with Mahomes? This will help determine how quickly Kansas City can pick up where the departed Alex Smith left off. That will have a direct effect on whether the Chiefs can again reach the playoffs under Andy Reid in 2018.

Looming camp question: Is Patrick Mahomes ready to become the face of the Chiefs? He has the big arm and that one impressive (albeit meaningless) end-of-season win over Denver. But can Mahomes do it consistently as the team’s established starter? Mahomes is a tantalizing prospect for some, thanks to the aforementioned cannon and dual-threat ability. He also had a season to get comfortable behind Alex Smith. How much that truly helped will be on display from the start of camp, and how far the Chiefs go will depend directly on his play.

Los Angeles Chargers

Training camp report date: rookies and veterans (July 27).

Location: Jack Hammett Sports Complex in Costa Mesa, California.

Most important position battle: Kyle Emanuel vs. Uchenna Nwosu, linebacker. Nwosu made his collegiate living as a dependable edge defender at USC, memorably recording a tackle on the goal line with the Pac-12 Championship up for grabs against Stanford. He’s not physically the most stunning prospect, but he thrives with fundamental tackling and great closing speed. Nwosu enters camp set up to give Emanuel — who started 11 games last season and played better than his numbers indicated — a run for the job.

Newcomer to watch: S Derwin James. James wasn’t expected to be available when the Chargers‘ time arrived in the 2018 NFL Draft, and while safety wasn’t really a major need for the team, he’s a talent that was too good to pass up at No. 17 overall. He’s slated to start, but he will face stiff competition from Jahleel Addae in camp. Can James live up to the expectation and earn his starting job? If so, he stands to make a sizable impact for a Chargers defense that was already solid without him.

Looming camp question: Can the Chargers find a reliable kicker? Kicker was the main reason the Chargers didn’t make the playoffs last season. Had Younghoe Koo been able to make a clutch field-goal try or two, Los Angeles would’ve been in a much better position at the end of the season. The Chargers enter camp again unsettled at the position, setting up a competition between Caleb Sturgis — who kicked in just one game last season — and Roberto Aguayo, who was notably released by Tampa Bay after his kicking demons refused to leave him alone. A year after the position sank them, can the Chargers find a solid option to avoid being undercut by special teams failures?

Oakland Raiders

Training camp report dates: rookies (July 23) and veterans (July 26).

Location: Napa Valley Marriott in Napa, California.

Most important position battle: Receiver. Oakland added Jordy Nelson, who isn’t what he was at his peak with the Packers but still has the potential to be a meaningful contributor. The Raiders also welcomed Martavis Bryant and Ryan Switzer into the fold via trade to a corps that, including Amari Cooper and Seth Roberts, will be one of their deeper groups in recent years. Given that Cooper was the team’s second-leading receiver with 680 yards last season, QB Derek Carrcould use the options. Determining who can contribute will be of vital importance for a Raiders offense that was often stuck in second gear in 2017.

Newcomer to watch: DE Arden Key. Key was lauded as a likely first-round pick before the 2017 season, but he slid to the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft due to questions about his drive and conditioning. Even with those questions, though, Key has the tools to become an effective edge defender. If lined up opposite Khalil Mack, he could make for one half of a menacing pass-rushing duo. Conditioning and effort are always tested in camp, making this one more important than usual for his chances of becoming an effective pro.

Looming camp question: Can OT Kolton Miller step into a starting role and perform? Tackle wasn’t a particularly strong position group in this draft, yet, Oakland selected Miller No. 15 overall after trading back in the first round. The Raiders boasted one of the league’s better lines in 2016, but the unit faltered in 2017, resulting in a back injury to Carr and year-long offensive struggles that weren’t entirely the front five’s fault. If Miller can fit in as an effective right tackle (and beat out uninspiring veteran Breno Giacomini), the Raiders should return to blocking prominence, which will again make them an offensive threat — and that will be important as the defense figures things out under new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther.

Follow Nick Shook on Twitter @TheNickShook.

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