- Bill Williamson, ESPN Staff Writer
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In the past four seasons in the AFC West, it has been the San Diego Chargers and everyone else. The Chargers have won the past four division crowns and have been the class of the division.
As training camps commence, the other three teams in the division -- Denver, Kansas City and Oakland -- are all still in the building phase. Yet, there are enough reasons to believe each team can take a step closer to playoff contention in 2010. In San Diego, the concern is learning to play without some key players while making sure it can stay on top of the AFC West.
All four teams in the division open training camp with intrigue. Let’s take a look:
FOUR BIG QUESTIONS
Denver Broncos: What will Tim Tebow’s role be?
Tim Tebow is the most talked about third quarterback in the history of NFL training camps. But the point is, Tebow will not be the No.3 quarterback in Denver for long. There will be a role for the No. 25 pick in the draft -- whom Denver traded three picks to get -- in 2010.
This training camp is vital for Tebow. Even though Tebow will likely only be Denver’s starter in 2010 if the team completely collapses in the first half of the season, he could get on the field early in the season in some special packages. Watch for Denver to try to incorporate the former Florida star in Wildcat formations and in red zone packages as a rookie. Tebow’s progress in camp will be watched closely even though he isn’t pegged to start right away.
San Diego Chargers: Will holdouts be a distraction?
Veterans Vincent Jackson, Marcus McNeill and Shawne Merriman could all hold out from camp. Jackson and McNeill are expected to hold out well into the season while Merriman is expected to arrive at some point in camp.
These are three good players who are all a big part of San Diego’s team. This is a team with deep playoff hopes. Playing without these three players dampens its chances. The players who are at camp will have to deal both with adjusting on the field without the holdouts and having to address it daily with the media. The holdouts can quickly became a distraction. But if the Chargers are going to survive the holdouts during the regular season, they will have to deal with it now. There is good leadership on this team, so the Chargers should quickly focus on what they can control during camp.
Kansas City Chiefs: Will new-look coaching staff make a quick impact?
Part of the reason there is so much excitement in Kansas City is the addition of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. They were Bill Belichick’s top assistants during New England’s dynasty years last decade.
Kansas City head coach Todd Haley, entering his second season, is excited about his two key coaching additions. He thinks they will make his job easier, and in turn, they will help make the team better. It makes sense. These are two top-notch assistants who know their way around a practice field.
The Chiefs have some very interesting young pieces on both sides of the ball. But they need to be coached. Weis and Crennel should get the offense and defense ready for the regular season with a strong camp.
A major reason the Raiders believe they will snap out of a seven-season funk is the addition of Campbell. The former Washington quarterback came over in an April trade. He takes over for JaMarcus Russell, who was cut in May after a disastrous three-year stint.
Russell failed to give his offense any confidence. Campbell has instant credibility because he is a veteran with some NFL success and because he has a reputation for taking his craft seriously. If the Raiders get solid, consistent quarterback play, they will have a chance to win in 2010.
I don’t see any problems with him doing that. He’s a professional and he plays with confidence. Oakland will leave training camp feeling better about its quarterback than it has in several years.
Broncos: Kyle Orton. This is likely Orton’s final season in Denver. He is a free agent at the end of the year and Denver wouldn’t have given up so many draft picks for Tebow if it thought Orton was the future of the franchise.
Orton will start this season, but he has both Tebow and Brady Quinn gunning for his job. If Orton has a poor camp, his time as Denver’s starter could be shorter than expected. So far this offseason, Orton has stood up to the additions of Quinn and Tebow and he has looked good. He has to continue it in camp or else.
Chiefs: Matt Cassel. Cassel was not good last year in training camp and then he had a mostly unproductive regular season. The Chiefs want to see Cassel take an immediate command of this offense in camp. He is not in danger of losing his starting job.
However, if Cassel doesn’t have a good season, the Chiefs could rethink his future in the offseason. It all starts now. Cassel has to make his coaches and teammates confident in him. The Chiefs have given Cassel a better offense to play with in 2010. It is up to him to show in camp he will take advantage of it.
Chargers: Malcom Floyd. If Jackson stays away well into the season, Floyd will have to be the No.1 receiver in San Diego. He took over as the No. 2 receiver in October last year and responded with a 45-catch season. He proved himself as a decent deep threat with upside. However, he’ll have to be ready to be a top option if Jackson is not ready. So, this training camp is all about making major strides for Floyd. A lot will be expected of him if Jackson isn’t in San Diego in the fall.
Raiders: Tom Cable. Cable talks a good game. He is always positive. He said this week his team (which hasn’t won more than five games in a season since 2002) will be a contender in the AFC West. That’s all well and good, but it is up to Cable to get his team ready.
Cable has to make sure the Raiders become more consistent, they block better, they tackle better and play better against the run. That job starts now. If Cable doesn’t have a good training camp and the Raiders don’t respond early in the season, Cable’s job will be in jeopardy.
Chargers WR Legedu Naanee: While Floyd will have to adjust to being a No. 1 receiver without Jackson in training camp, Naanee will have get used to being a starter.
That is a big difference. Expect Naanee to answer the challenge. He joined training camp four days early when only the rookies were required to be in camp. Coming off an offseason injury, Naanee had a good week. Expect it to continue. This is a big, talented, versatile player. Expect Jackson’s absence to help Naanee to take the next step in his career and become a top receiving option.
There are five first-round draft picks in the AFC West and all are expected to have immediate impacts, with Tebow likely being the least busy in the early season.
Yet, this training camp is critical to Kansas City safety Eric Berry (No. 5 overall pick), Oakland middle linebacker Rolando McClain (No. 8), San Diego running back Ryan Mathews (No. 12) and Denver receiver Demaryius Thomas (No.22). Berry, McClain and Mathews will be instant starters and Thomas should quickly work his way into a major role as a rookie.
I could see these four players all being top performers for their teams in 2010. Their every move in training camp will be worth watching.