- Bill Williamson, ESPN Staff Writer
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This unusual NFL season is about to start in two weeks. A lot has happened in the month since the lockout has been lifted. With the signing period and training camps over, let’s take a checkpoint look at each AFC West team:
Key pickups: Running back Willis McGahee, defensive tackle Ty Warren (he could be out for the year with a triceps injury), defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley, defensive end Derrick Harvey, tight end Daniel Fells.
Key losses: Offensive tackle Ryan Harris.
Story of camp: There has been quarterback news nearly at a daily clip. The fallout is this: Kyle Orton is the starter, Brady Quinn looks like he has the edge to be the backup and second-year quarterback Tim Tebow is currently the third-stringer after a less-than-spectacular training camp. Don’t expect Denver to trade or cut Tebow. He should be in Denver this year, but perhaps being nothing more than a special-package player. Give credit to both Orton (who was nearly dealt to Miami in the days right after the lockout ended) and to Quinn. Both have played well during the tumultuous time at the position.
Keep an eye on: Denver’s defense. The Broncos took a hit with Warren’s injury. He was the team’s big-ticket pickup and he was signed to give stability at the team’s weakest area. But the Broncos seem to have made some strides on defense this summer. The unit, which was No. 32 in the NFL last year, seems more aggressive and it has some playmakers. Pass-rushers Elvis Dumervil (back from missing all of last season with a pectoral injury) and No. 2 overall pick Von Miller look like they could give this unit life. It's clear new head coach John Fox has already positively impacted this unit.
Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson's view: "Denver may be better than people realize. I don’t love the offense, but it will be OK. Defensively, I think they will be much better. I think the front office had a promising offseason as they rebuild.”
Story of camp: The defending AFC West champions had a nice, quiet, productive camp -- until the final days of it. The Chiefs built great momentum after adding several key veterans to an already-impressive roster. The only controversy was whether or not coach Todd Haley was taking a chance by taking camp slowly as a precaution because of missed time during the offseason due to the lockout. Then, the bombshell hit. It was reported that first-round pick Jon Baldwin and veteran running Thomas Jones had a locker room fight. Baldwin hurt his hand as a result and he is expected to miss the rest of the preseason. The Chiefs aren’t talking about it, but it is a strike against Baldwin, who had character concerns at Pitt. The Chiefs took Baldwin to help them win right away. This event isn’t a devastating blow, but it has to raise concerns.
Keep an eye on: Of all of the Chiefs’ moves, the signing of Gaither may be the most intriguing -- and the most promising if he can stay healthy. Before he missed all of last season with a back injury, Gaither was considered one of the better young left tackles in the NFL. Assuming he can play, Gaither could play either left tackle or right tackle. If he plays left tackle, Branden Albert would move to right tackle. He could further solidify a good line.
Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson's view: “I think Kansas City is the second-best team in the division. Give the Chiefs credit. They have surrounded Matt Cassel with every possible weapon to help make him successful. They are also solid on defense. I just don’t think they are as good as the Chargers.”
Story of camp: The Raiders lost some big names and they added some big names as they began the Hue Jackson era. However, a late-round pick from Tennessee stole the show in camp. It has been all about receiver Denarius Moore. He made headlines virtually every day in camp with one spectacular catch after another. Most importantly, he has played well in preseason games and he looks polished. Expect the Raiders to give this kid a chance to contribute right away once the regular season starts.
Keep an eye on: The Raiders’ health has been an issue all camp. Several players have missed serious time. Thus far, though, it doesn’t look like many key players will miss time in the regular season other than receiver Louis Murphy, who had surgery on an undisclosed injury, and young linebacker Travis Goethel is likely out for the year with a knee injury. The team said he won’t play at Denver on Sept. 12, but it hasn’t said how long he will be out. Other players such as Boss, receiver Chaz Schilens and cornerback Chris Johnson all could be back for the opener, which is part of an ESPN “Monday Night Football” doubleheader. Thus far, most of the injuries have been nagging and fairly minor. But sometimes the injury bug hits a team and doesn’t stop all season. For now, this is mostly a preseason nuisance.
Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson's view: "There are things I like. I love the front seven. I love Darren McFadden. But Jason Campbell is an average quarterback on a good day and the offensive line is in flux. Overall, inconsistencies make this the third best team in the division.”
Story of camp: I didn't sense this team scrambling to make up for lost time following the lockout. For the most part, the key components of this team are in place and several players worked out together locally during the length of the lockout. The Chargers had seemingly a zillion free agents and they kept the players they wanted. So, it has been a smooth camp in San Diego as continuity has been the key.
Keep an eye on: A lot has been made of the arrival of Spikes and Sanders to the No. 1-ranked defense in the NFL. But don’t discount impact of No. 18 overall pick Corey Liuget. The Illinois product has been outstanding. He has taken over the preseason games at times. He is an explosive defensive end who quickly gets into the backfield. The game doesn’t seem too big for Liuget. Expect him to be an instant starter and have a chance to be a premier player early in his career.
Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson's view: “I think San Diego is clearly the class of the division. I don’t think people are paying enough attention to this team. I love the offense. Philip Rivers is good as it gets. He has great weapons. Defensively, this team has added playmakers at every level. If the special teams can improve even marginally, they are going to win a lot more games. This could be the year. I think they are a sleeper team that could win it all.”
5dEric D. Williams