AFC West: 09 NFC camp preview
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
Training camp site: Englewood, Colo.
Campfires: A key to camp will be how well rookie running back Knowshon Moreno adjusts. The Broncos drafted him with the No. 12 overall pick because they wanted him to have a major role in the offense. Denver coach Josh McDaniels envisions Moreno as a three-down back. Even though Denver is deep at running back, Moreno wasn't drafted to be a complementary piece.
The Broncos' offense is changing and the Georgia product can be the centerpiece of the unit if he has a strong camp. Moreno was impressive in the offseason and Denver wants to see him lock down a starting job in camp.
The Broncos want to see second-round pick Alphonso Smith take command of the nickel cornerback job. The team sent its first-round pick in next year's draft to Seattle to acquire Smith with the No. 37 pick. He failed to solidify the nickel spot in the offseason, battling with second-year player Jack Williams for the job. Expect the playmaking Smith to pull away from Williams as camp marches on.
|Ron Chenoy/US Presswire|
|Knowshon Moreno could become the workhorse in Denver's offense if he has a good camp.|
Camp will be a downer if ... starting quarterback Kyle Orton doesn't make strides in McDaniels' system. McDaniels picked Orton to be his first quarterback in Denver after the Jay Cutler fiasco. McDaniels chose Orton over several other options because he thought the former Chicago quarterback could excel in his system.
Orton was named the starter over Chris Simms in June, partly to give him the most time in training camp with the first team. If Orton doesn't respond well to McDaniels' offense during camp and in the preseason, the Broncos will be quite nervous about their once-solid quarterback position heading into the season.
Camp will be a success if ... receiver Brandon Marshall doesn't miss any time due to a holdout and is recovered from a late March hip surgery. Marshall has asked to be traded. Yet, he recently said he planned to report to training camp on time -- he is due Monday because he is an injured player -- to avoid being fined.
If Marshall shows up with a good attitude and doesn't show any wear from the surgery -- as the team expects the case will be -- it will be a positive development after a rocky start to McDaniels' era.
Aged secondary: There is no doubt Denver improved its secondary this offseason. The unit, which featured seven different starting safeties in 2008, was revamped. Veteran Andre' Goodman will now start opposite left cornerback Champ Bailey, the lone holdover. Veterans Brian Dawkins and Renaldo Hill were brought in at safety.
This is a solid group. But it is an old group. Dawkins turns 36 in October. Bailey is 31. Goodman will turn 31 next month and Hill will turn 31 in November. It is the oldest secondary in the NFL since at least 2000. The unit may be improved, but it will be interesting to see how this group's legs hold up late in the season.
Kansas City Chiefs
Training camp site: River Falls, Wis.
Campfires: The Chiefs will be interested to see how their defensive line, which they have invested so much in, adjusts to the 3-4 alignment that the new regime has installed in Kansas City.
Former LSU stars Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson are the centerpieces of the line. Dorsey was the No. 5 overall pick in the 2008 draft. Jackson was the No. 3 overall pick this year. Dorsey is a natural 4-3 tackle who will likely be tried at end. Jackson will play end. If Dorsey, who was so-so as a rookie, can make the transition to the 3-4, the Chiefs have a chance for an excellent line. Jackson may not be a dynamic pass-rusher, but he is an excellent run-stuffer and is expected to bring toughness to the line. Both of these former top picks have to show they are ready during camp to bring life to a defense that set an NFL
record for fewest sacks last season with 10.
Replacing the legendary Tony Gonzalez, traded to Atlanta in April for a second-round draft choice next year, will be a big part of training camp. Second-year player Brad Cottam may have an edge. He is a blocking specialist. Journeymen Tony Curtis and Sean Ryan should get a chance to show what they can do. Whoever wins the job likely won't be a major part of the passing offense. New coach Todd Haley was not a big proponent of the position as the offensive coordinator in Arizona last season.
|Kirby Lee/US Presswire|
|Dwayne Bowe has had some problems with hanging on to the ball.|
Camp will be a downer if ... Matt Cassel flops. Cassel is the guy in Kansas City. That became evident when the Chiefs gave him a monster contract earlier this month. Cassel will be paid more than $40 million in guaranteed money in the next three years.
Cassel was a surprise star for New England last season after he took over for an injured Tom Brady in the first game. The Chiefs, led by new general manager Scott Pioli, who witnessed Cassel's success first hand as a New England executive, are hoping the quarterback can enjoy the same success this year. Still, Cassel has a lot fewer weapons than he had with New England, and he will be working behind a young and unsettled offensive line. If Cassel takes his lumps in camp and in the preseason, the Chiefs may have some buyer's remorse.
Camp will be a success if ... the team buys into Haley's approach. The Chiefs were shell-shocked as they transitioned to the tough Haley, who was groomed by Bill Parcells. The Chiefs were used to the easy-going ways of Herm Edwards. Haley is much more demanding and harsher than Edwards ever was.
Haley is a certified screamer and he has expressed this offseason that his team -- which won a total of six games over the past two seasons -- needs to be better in all phases of the game. He also directed a mass weight-loss program because he thought his team was too heavy and too soft. A coach like Haley can either light a fire under a team or alienate it. His first training camp could indicate which way it will go. If the team is behind Haley, the Chiefs' rebuilding period could be shorter than expected.
Hold onto the ball: Cassel's best weapon is receiver Dwayne Bowe. He is a talented player and has a chance to emerge as one of the best young receivers in the game and team with Cassel as a top pass-catch tandem. However, he needs to learn to catch the ball consistently.
Bowe needs to work on his hands during camp. He struggled with dropped ball some during the offseason. He has struggled holding onto the ball in the past. While Larry Johnson appears to have some NFL life left, Bowe is the Chiefs' top weapon. If he drops balls during the season, Cassel's job will be even more difficult. Camp has to be a time where Bowe finds his ball-catching groove.
Training camp site: Napa, Calif.
|AP Photo/Paul Sakuma|
|The Raiders are hoping first-round pick Darrius Heyward-Bey can shore up their receiving corps.|
Campfires: The Raiders have tried to upgrade an offensive line that has struggled in recent years, especially in pass protection. The team has added several pieces and the situation at tackle will be watched closely.
The team brought in talented and massive tackle Khalif Barnes as a free agent from Jacksonville to compete on the left side. However, there were indications after the minicamp season that young Mario Henderson was playing well enough to be considered the favorite to win the job over Barnes. Barnes could still be in the mix at right tackle if Henderson wins the job on the left side.
The Raiders will also need to get some clarity at receiver. The unit has been one of the team's weakest areas for years and the Raiders need some reliable players to emerge during camp. The team is counting on youngsters Chaz Schilens, Johnnie Lee Higgins and Darrius Heyward-Bey. If these young players show they are ready to take the next step, Oakland's offense has a chance to be balanced.
Camp will be a downer if ... quarterback JaMarcus Russell doesn't make strides. Russell has to show he is ready to be an NFL quarterback this season, and training camp and the preseason will go a long way toward telling whether he is ready to make a move. This is Russell's second full season as a starter. He has had some moments, but he has been mostly inconsistent, including during this offseason.
Russell will have extra pressure on him in the presence of veteran backup Jeff Garcia. Garcia has not been shy in expressing that he thinks he should be the starter. However, the Raiders will only be masking a problem if Garcia, 39, is the quarterback. If Russell doesn't have a good camp and he doesn't show consistency is his passing and improved leadership, the Raiders will be in a tough spot.
Camp will be a success if ... the Raiders develop a strong plan on how to use their tailbacks. The Raiders have three solid runners in Darren McFadden, Justin Fargas and Michael Bush. All three players possess rare talents that can help Oakland's offense. The Raiders struggled to use all three well last season.
Training camp must be used to find a suitable role for all three players. This may be the NFL's deepest running back group if all three stay healt
hy. The Raiders can find their niche on offense with McFadden, Fargas and Bush. Finding a way to do it has to be a goal of camp.
Ready or not: All eyes will be on Heyward-Bey, a receiver who was Oakland's first-round pick, and Mike Mitchell, the safety who was Oakland's second-round pick. The selections of both players were roundly criticized on draft day. Heyward-Bey was the first receiver taken at No. 7, but he was considered a low first-round talent. Mitchell was not on the draft board of several teams, yet the hard-hitting Ohio University product was taken with the No. 47 pick.
The Raiders believe both players can be special and it is clear both players have some skills. Yet, because of the negative hype stemming from their selections, extra pressure will be on both players. Their every move will be watched in camp. Welcome to the NFL, fellas.
San Diego Chargers
Training camp site: San Diego, Calif.
Campfires: This camp will be about seeing what a promising rookie class can do in San Diego. For a veteran-based team, there is an intriguing influx of young talent coming to town.
|Christopher Hanewinckel/US Presswire|
|The Chargers' secondary needs Antonio Cromartie to return to Pro Bowl form in 2009.|
First-round pick Larry English is expected to start right away and be part of an intriguing threesome of pass-rushing linebackers that includes Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips. Defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, in his first full season in his role, has been scheming ways all offseason to use all three together. The Chargers believe English is ready to step in and make an impact right away.
Keep an eye out for two other rookies. Third-round pick Louis Vasquez will be given a chance to emerge as a starter at guard. Sixth-round pick Kevin Ellison will have the same chance at safety. He may have a steeper climb up the depth chart than Vasquez, but the Chargers think Ellison can make an impact as a rookie. The USC product was downgraded in the draft because of injuries, but he is skilled and he is a feared hitter. He could be the answer at one of the Chargers' few weak spots. But he needs to show his ability during camp.
Camp will be a downer if ... Merriman doesn't make strides from a serious knee injury he suffered last year. Merriman missed all but one game last season.
The Chargers have been cautiously optimistic about Merriman, but they have been bringing him along slowly. He has been working out on his own and the team will likely be cautious with him during camp. However, Merriman looks fantastic and he reports that he is doing well. The team expects him to be ready for the regular season. The Chargers' entire pass defense missed Merriman last year. If Merriman can't show he is getting ready for the season, the Chargers may be in store for another rocky season on defense.
Camp will be a success if ... cornerback Antonio Cromartie has a big camp and preseason. Cromartie had a disappointing season in 2008 after being a star in 2007. He suffered with injuries and off-field issues last season. He has worked out very hard this year and the Chargers were thrilled with him during the offseason. If he has a big camp, the Chargers should be in great shape on defense, especially if Merriman doesn't have a setback.
Is this it for LT? The Chargers and star running back LaDainian Tomlinson nearly parted ways this offseason before agreeing on a restructured new contract. Tomlinson just turned 30. He is coming off an injury-plagued season in which his production slipped.
He has said often this offseason he feels great. He needs to show he still has the skills that made him one of the greatest running backs in recent memory.