NFL roster cuts: AFC | NFC

NFL Nation: Danario Alexander

Keenan AllenAP Photo/Gregory BullKeenan Allen became the fifth rookie since 2000 to top 1,000 receiving yards (1,046 on 71 catches).
SAN DIEGO -- It’s been an eventful offseason for San Diego Chargers receiver Keenan Allen.

Just check Allen’s Instagram account for all of the quirky details. He spent a day with friends at Disneyland, caught passes from Johnny Manziel while the quarterback trained for the draft here in San Diego, attended good friend Cincinnati receiver Marvin Jones' wedding and sat courtside to watch his favorite NBA star, LeBron James, perform against the Charlotte Hornets back in Allen’s home state of North Carolina -- all in the span of about two months.

“He takes his work serious, and he has a lot of pride in what he does,” Allen said about Manziel. “And I have a lot of respect for what he does. I respect his game.”

Of course, this offseason hasn't just been about Kodak moments for Allen. The Cal product also put in extensive work getting stronger and faster in the weight room and on the practice field, preparing for an encore performance to an impressive rookie season.

Allen is out to show doubters he’s not just a one-hit wonder, and his production during a magical rookie season wasn't a fluke.

“One thing for him that’s going to be key -- and I think he knows this -- is not to relax and think you’re going to just duplicate that year,” Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said. “They’re going to know where No. 13 is, have a plan for him and try to take away the things he does well.”

Rivers said it will be important for Allen to focus on doing the small things well in order to improve in his second season. And Rivers believes his new No. 1 receiver has the right mindset.

Allen said a primary focus has been improving his speed. One reason Allen dropped to the third round in the 2013 draft is that he ran a slow time in the 40-yard dash at his pro day. Still recovering from a knee issue that cut short his final season at Cal, Allen was timed at about 4.65 seconds.

Allen believes he is faster now and fully healthy.

“I mean if you run a 4.3 or 4.4, that obviously says that you're fast,” Allen said. “But a 4.6 guy can still make their way into the league. Some of the best receivers in the league ran a 4.5 or 4.6. So now that I'm healthy, I'm pretty sure I'm faster than 4.6.”

Chargers general manager Tom Telesco benefited from doing his homework, evaluating Allen in person and on film, and understanding how he consistently created separation to make big plays.

“His route-running [stood out],” Telesco said, when asked to provide one trait in the evaluation of Allen that would translate to the league. “Not only his quickness getting in and out of breaks, but his feel for it.”

Chargers offensive coordinator Frank Reich says Allen’s ability to make people miss at his size -- 6-foot-2 and 211 pounds -- makes him special.

“He has great wide receiver qualities,” Reich said. “He’s great off the line of scrimmage against press. He’s got great feet. He’s really good with the ball in his hand. You just ask him to keep building on what he did last year.

“From the fifth game on, he literally was a Pro Bowl-caliber player in his rookie year. He was phenomenal. Now, it’s all about consistency. Can you do it year in, year out?”

[+] EnlargeKeenan Allen
Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty ImagesKeenan Allen took to the air to score a TD in an important December road win against Denver.
Allen could have missed out on the opportunity to shine during his rookie season. Still working his way back from the knee injury, he was mired near the bottom of San Diego’s depth chart behind Danario Alexander, Malcom Floyd, Eddie Royal and Vincent Brown during training camp.

Struggling to pick up the offense and unfamiliar with how to handle not being the go-to guy, Allen became frustrated with his lack of playing time and contemplated leaving the team to pursue his other love -- music.

Allen had been singing in the church choir since he was a child, and he also taught himself how to play the piano. He and childhood friend Kenae Stokes spent time in the recording studio and produced a song, with a tentative title “Start the Party.”

But fate conspired to provide Allen with that opportunity to play, as Alexander and Floyd suffered season-ending injuries early last season, forcing Allen into a starting role.

“It was serious to the extent that I was talking to my mama -- and not anyone else,” Allen said about his contemplation of moving on from football. “It was just a thought. I just thought I wanted to do something else. She just told me to stick with it.

“Football is my love, my life. And I just kept playing. Unfortunately those injuries happened, and I was able to make my mark.”

Allen thrived as a starter, leading all rookies in 2013 and setting a team record with 1,046 receiving yards and 71 catches during the regular season. He became the fifth rookie since 2000 to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards, and he was just as effective in the postseason, finishing with eight catches for 163 yards and two touchdowns.

Allen proved to have a nose for the end zone, with eight touchdowns. His signature moment was a 19-yard touchdown on a drag route in a big win at Denver during the regular season. He jumped over defensive back Kayvon Webster and ran over safety Mike Adams to get into the end zone for the score.

A running back in high school, Allen had a growth spurt heading into his junior season, growing from 5-9 to 6-2. That growth spurt led to a change of position from running back to receiver. But Allen kept those instincts for running the football.

He should benefit from the return of Floyd. The 6-5, 225-pound receiver has been a surprise addition for the Chargers, returning from a serious neck injury and looking like his old self during offseason work.

The two receivers forged a strong bond, often getting together to play video games at Allen’s house.

“Malcom is definitely a go-to guy,” Allen said. “He’s one of the best athletes on the team. He’s tall. He’s fast. He’s quick. It’s kind of hard for a DB to get position on him because he’s so big. Just the way he goes out there every day, he works hard and makes plays. He’s just a motivational guy for me.”

While he’s ready to show what he can do on the field come September, Allen is not taking anything for granted. He says he has to once again earn his spot among a talented group of receivers.

“Vincent comes out and has a great practice almost every day,” Allen said. “He puts in work, so it’s real hard to compete with that. Not taking anything from Malcom or Eddie, but Vincent really stands out with his routes and stuff like that.

“There’s always competition. Nobody ever has their guaranteed spot, except for maybe Philip and Antonio Gates.”

Redskins mailbag: Part 2

February, 8, 2014
Feb 8
10:00
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Tried to get to as many questions as possible; tough to do. But in part 2, the topics include free-agent Bengals who might tempt Jay Gruden; Brian Orakpo; Chris Baker and positions the Redskins might target in the second round of the draft.

SAN DIEGO -- Danario Alexander was the best receiver at training camp, according to teammates and reporters covering the San Diego Chargers last August.

However, Alexander’s body betrayed him once again, as he suffered an anterior cruciate ligament tear in his right knee, ending a promising 2013 season during training camp before it got started.

Alexander
And it appears issues with the same knee could force him to miss the beginning of the 2014 training camp. According to a report by Michael Gehlken of U-T San Diego, Alexander had a second surgery on his right knee, pushing back the time table for his return.

Alexander, 25, will be an unrestricted free agent in March. The Chargers could use a receiver with his ability to stretch the field, but the team can’t be assured that Alexander can return to the field healthy.

Unfortunately, that’s been the norm for the talented Alexander, who has endured seven knee surgeries, beginning at the University of Missouri and extending to his NFL career. Alexander was once considered more talented than Philadelphia first-round selection Jeremy Maclin at Missouri.

In 2009, Alexander showed that potential, finishing with 113 catches for 1,781 yards and 14 touchdowns for the Tigers. But he suffered an injury to his left knee at the Senior Bowl, requiring a fourth surgery on his left knee, and went undrafted.

The St. Louis Rams signed Alexander during training camp as a developmental prospect in 2010, and he played there for two seasons, finishing with 46 catches for 737 yards and three touchdowns. However, the Rams cut Alexander during training camp in 2012 with an injury settlement due to a lingering hamstring injury.

In need of receiver help, the Chargers signed Alexander midway through the 2012 season, and he had his best results as a pro, finishing with 37 catches for 658 yards and seven touchdowns in 10 games. Alexander re-signed with the Chargers in April 2013, but never made it out to the field.

That makes the latest news about Alexander’s knee injury more troubling. At 6-5 and 217 pounds, Alexander has the skill set to develop into a No. 1 receiver. He’s fast enough to run by a defensive back, but quick enough in and out of breaks to run polished routes and create separation on intermediate routes.

Alexander has reliable hands, and the ability to create big plays after the catch. But balky knees have robbed him of the chance to show off his spectacular skill set on a consistent basis at the NFL level.

Last week, when starting San Diego receiver Danario Alexander was lost for the season with a torn ACL in his knee, both general manager Tom Telesco and coach Mike McCoy said the Chargers had enough depth at the position not to worry about finding a veteran receiver.

They have to re-evaluate that plan even after it appears the team dodged a huge problem. Initially, the Chargers thought the team’s other starting receiver, Malcom Floyd, suffered a torn ACL on Monday. However, the team says initial results showed he has a knee strain. Floyd will be further examined.

ESPN’s Ed Werder reported that Floyd will send the MRI results to other specialists, including Dr. James Andrews, to confirm the initial diagnosis of a strained knee. Even if the initial diagnosis is accurate, it is expected that Floyd will not return until the regular-season opener and possibly not until Week 2.

This scare should be a lesson to the Chargers’ brass. They must go find a veteran.

Going into training camp, the Chargers’ receiving crew was considered fairly deep. But the potential problem was nearly every player in the group had big injury histories, including Alexander and Floyd. The other four receivers in the rotation, Vincent Brown (who missed all of last season with an ankle injury), rookie Keenan Allen, Eddie Royal and Robert Meachem have all been considered fragile in the past.

Thus with these issues already popping, San Diego needs to go find some insurance.

One of the reasons the Chargers didn’t sign a receiver when Alexander was hurt was the team wasn’t thrilled with the available class of veterans. Now, with the need growing, the Chargers may not have the luxury of being choosy. Two veterans initially come to mind -- Brandon Lloyd and Laurent Robinson. Lloyd played for McCoy in Denver and Robinson was in the Chargers’ camp two years ago and has worked with quarterback Philip Rivers.

Neither one of these players would come in as top-of-the-rotation players, but they would add depth to a position that is becoming increasingly vulnerable in San Diego.
SAN DIEGO -- Gone is the omnipresent GM lurking from the large deck that hovers over the practice field.

Gone is the comfortable head coach who went at his own pace.

It’s a new day for the San Diego Chargers. There is new energy in America’s Finest City.

Change was badly needed. The Chargers arguably had the best roster in the NFL five years ago, but it never paid off. The lack of success finally cost general manager A.J. Smith and coach Norv Turner their jobs after another lackluster season in 2012.

The Chargers’ fans demanded new leadership for the stagnant franchise. They got their wish. The Chargers now have some of the youngest, freshest leaders in football as the team moves past the stale days of the Smith-Turner era.

Smith was famous for watching practice from the deck of his office. New general manager Tom Telesco, 40, watches practice from the sideline. There are no messages of pecking order being sent from the general manager’s office. Telesco, in a camp-issued T-shirt and shorts, could easily be mistaken for an equipment manager.

The head-coaching switch from Turner to Mike McCoy, 41, is almost as distinctive as the change at GM. McCoy’s practices have appeared to be crisper and more detailed-oriented than in the past. There isn’t much downtime in San Diego’s practices. Everyone’s moving at all times. That wasn’t always the case under Turner.

“I think we’re getting a lot done,” quarterback Philip Rivers said. “Coach McCoy clearly has a plan. It’s been impressive. ... The big thing is everyone has bought in to him. The reality is we are .500 over the past three years. It was pretty easy to buy in what’s now going on here.”

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargePhilip Rivers
AP Photo/Lenny IgnelziPhilip Rivers threw 15 picks last season to just 26 touchdown passes.
1. The quarterback: Rivers is a major focal point of this training camp. Telesco hired McCoy, Denver’s former offensive coordinator, with an eye toward fixing Rivers. The quarterback has struggled the past couple of years, particularly with turnovers. McCoy and new offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, the former head coach of Arizona, form a strong quarterback-coaching tandem and quarterback coach Frank Reich is also highly regarded. All three men believe in Rivers, and it seems to be paying off. Rivers has looked fantastic in training camp. His confidence is high, and his passes are accurate. It is vital for both Rivers and the Chargers that he has a good season and the team continues build around him. If not, it could be a crossroads season for both the franchise and Rivers’ career.

2. The offensive line: Because of injuries, this unit has been terrible the past couple of years. No matter how much Rivers improves, he won’t have much of a chance if he doesn't have protection. The Chargers' line has four new starters. It is not a great unit, and there will be some growing pains. But the group is getting rave reviews for being athletic and tough. Rivers is impressed and trusts the group. He thinks it’s deeper with players such as rookie D.J. Fluker at right tackle and veterans King Dunlap and Max Starks competing at left tackle. Dunlap is leading the race. But if there are injuries, this group appears better equipped to weather them than last year's squad.

3. The rookie linebacker: The Chargers are thrilled with inside linebacker Manti Te'o. He will start in the team’s 3-4 schemes. He has looked good in training camp and has fit in with the locker room. The hoax he was involved in at Notre Dame is not a factor. The Chargers love the way he works and practices. He is instinctive, and he plays faster on the field than his combine times suggested. The Chargers think Te’o is ready to make a big impact.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeManti Te'o
Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsThe Chargers are happy with the progress of second-rounder Manti Te'o, who's slated to start at inside linebacker.
The Chargers are loaded with young talent on defense. Any defense that has Eric Weddle at safety, Te’o and Donald Butler at inside linebacker and Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes at defensive end is an impressive group.

I think these players will be the core to one of the better defenses in the coming years. The Chargers are doing backflips over the combination of Liuget and Reyes. Liuget is entering his third NFL season, and Reyes is entering his second. Liuget was terrific all of last season, and Reyes showed serious pass-rush potential toward the end of the season.

While this defense has some holes, there are some exciting pieces here.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

The Chargers are pretty thin in a lot of places. I think this team is on the rise, but it may not be a quick fix. There are too many positions where depth is an issue.

San Diego has dealt with the injury bug already. Pass-rusher Melvin Ingram, the No. 18 overall pick in 2012, suffered a torn ACL in May. Starting receiver Danario Alexander and backup linebacker Jonas Mouton suffered the same injury during camp.

Alexander's and Ingram’s injuries are particularly worrisome. This team can’t afford to lose high-end talent before the season starts. Other positions vulnerable to injuries include the offensive line (even though the depth is better than in the past), defensive tackle, edge rushers and the secondary. There isn’t much wiggle room on this roster.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The Chargers appear to be well-coached. The influx of offensive coaches and the return of several defensive coaches, led by coordinator John Pagano, makes for a nice mix. Most of the new blood was needed on the offensive side of the ball.
  • The team feels great about Dwight Freeney, who was signed to replace Ingram. The Chargers are convinced Freeney still has something left in the tank and will be a difference-maker.
  • The Chargers like the progress of nose tackle Cam Thomas, who they think is ready for a breakout year. Coaches and teammates are talking him up big.
  • San Diego is looking to add depth on the defensive line. Free agent Justin Bannan on is still on the team’s radar. I think we will see the Chargers be active on the waiver wire at a few positions.
  • Free-agent guard Chad Rinehart is showing solid leadership skills.
  • The team loves free-agent running back Danny Woodhead. He has been a camp star and should take pressure off starter Ryan Mathews. Expect to see Woodhead used in several different ways. He could be a poor man’s Darren Sproles, perhaps.
  • Yes, tight end Antonio Gates hasn’t had a superstar season in years because of injuries, but the team likes what they see from him. He may have another year or two left in the tank.
  • Ladarius Green, Gates’ potential successor, is still growing. But he has shown flashes. He has natural pass-catching ability.
  • While there are questions at cornerback, the Chargers feel like Derek Cox and Shareece Wright will be an upgrade over last year’s starting duo of Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason.
  • Rookie quarterback Brad Sorensen has been up and down. He has a good enough arm to keep him on the 53-man roster.
  • Cornerback Johnny Patrick has looked good. He could see a lot of action in nickel situations.
  • Fifth-round pick Tourek Williams is getting looks at both defensive end and outside linebacker. The team would like for him to contribute at linebacker.
  • Robert Meachem, a big-money, free-agent bust last season, has been given new life after Alexander’s injury. Still, I have my doubts that Meachem will make much of a difference. He hasn’t been a standout in camp.

Still hope for San Diego offense

August, 6, 2013
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I had a chance to catch up with San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers before the serious nature of Danario Alexander's knee injury was revealed Wednesday.

Rivers
I asked him what has stood out to him about the offense in the first two weeks of training camp. His answer may help the team navigate through Alexander’s season-ending knee injury.

“Our versatility,” Rivers said. “We can do a lot of different things.”

Yes, Alexander’s presence was part of Rivers’ reasoning. Alexander is 6-foot-5, has great speed and can stretch the field. But Rivers’ thinks this offense will be "varied" and perhaps can handle the loss of a strong receiver.

Rivers thinks the Chargers are deeper in the running game with the addition of Danny Woodhead, who should help starter Ryan Mathews. Also, Woodhead will help in the red zone and on third down.

Rivers likes depth at receiver and at tight end.

“I think we the ability to strike in different ways,” Rivers said. “There is varied talent on this offense."

Yes, the San Diego offense took a hit with the Alexander loss, but if Rivers is right, there is still hope for this unit without Alexander.
The San Diego Chargers are two days away from their first preseason and they have already lost two key players for the season due to a torn ACL in their knees.

In a non-contact drill in May, pass-rusher Melvin Ingram, a 2012 first-round pick, was lost for the season. Tuesday, after a freak contact play with cornerback Shareece Wright, Danario Alexander suffered a torn ACL in his right knee. Initially, the team did not think it was serious.

But Alexander is now out for the year.

A serious injury was the Chargers’ greatest worry about Alexander. He turns 25 Wednesday, but this is his sixth major knee injury dating back to his college days. Injury concerns were the reason why the Chargers didn’t give Alexander a long-term deal in the offseason. He was a restricted free agent.

Now, sadly, we all have to wonder if Alexander will ever enjoy the health to go along with his immense ability. Last year, Alexander showed how he can make an impact if healthy.

Alexander signed off the street and made an instant impact in San Diego. He had 37 catches, 7 touchdown catches and averaged 17.8 yards per catch last season. Alexander had a strong camp and was expected to be a key part of San Diego’s offense. Quarterback Philip Rivers raved about Alexander to me today before the extent of his injury was known.

Alexander earned the respect of the San Diego locker room for coming back from injuries and making such a quick impact last year. I spoke to one prominent San Diego player who said he was almost in tears because he feels so bad for Alexander.

However, the Chargers won’t have much time to dwell on the injury. They will have to march on without Alexander.

When Ingram was hurt, the Chargers had little depth at pass-rusher and had to go out and pay for Dwight Freeney. I don’t think that will be this case at receiver.

I am sure the Chargers will consider adding a player, and the best available receiver is Brandon Lloyd. He played for new San Diego head coach Mike McCoy in Denver.

But the Chargers have a deep group that includes Malcom Floyd, Vincent Brown, rookie Keenan Allen, Eddie Royal and Robert Meachem. Like Alexander, most of these players have had some trouble staying healthy. If the group can stay healthy, they should be solid, although Alexander’s big-play ability will be missed.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

One key positional battle for each AFC West team as training camps get underway:

Denver: Running back, Montee Ball vs. Ronnie Hillman: Hillman is starting training camp as the No. 1 running back. But he will be hard-pressed to keep the job. The plan is for Ball, a second-round pick from Wisconsin, to quickly get ready to take over as the No. 1 back. Denver spent a lot of time grooming him in the offseason, but Ball will have to show he can handle the job in training camp. And he'll need to handle every aspect of being a starting tailback, including picking up blocking schemes. But that goes for Hillman, too. He played some last season and played well in the playoffs. But he is considered more of a change-of-pace guy. So while Hillman gets first crack, I think we will see Ball emerge and Hillman as a backup.Knowshon Moreno will be in the mix early as well, but Denver is going to focus on the youngsters.

Kansas City: Tight end, Tony Moeaki vs. Travis Kelce: The Chiefs’ top tight end this season might be free-agent pickup Anthony Fasano. But the second tight end will get a lot work. Moeaki has a lot of ability, but he has had trouble staying healthy. Kelce is a third-round pick. The new regime really likes him, and he has a chance to get a ton of playing time early. So this will be a solid camp battle. If Moeaki stays healthy, I can see him holding off Kelce, at least, for the short term.

Oakland: Receiver/returner Josh Cribbs vs. Jacoby Ford: I’m not sure this will be an either/or scenario. I think the Raiders would be fine with keeping both players if possible. But Oakland does have several young, intriguing receivers. If the Raiders feel there are some receivers (such as undrafted free agent Conner Vernon) they can’t keep off the 53-man roster, Oakland might only have room for Cribbs or Ford. Not both. Ford has had trouble staying healthy. When healthy, he is a dynamic return man and is better than Cribbs as a receiver. Cribbs is still strong as a returner but is also coming off an injury. It could come down to who is the healthier of the two.

San Diego: Top receivers. The Chargers’ receiving group looks promising, but it is currently difficult to project exactly what the rotation will be. It could shake out in training camp. The top four receivers will likely be Danario Alexander, Vincent Brown, Malcom Floyd and rookie Keenan Allen. I think we will see Brown and Alexander as the top receivers once the season starts. Floyd has been a starter, but he might be best as a No. 3 or No. 4 working as a deep threat. Allen will play, but only if he's ready. Alexander was terrific in the second half of last season after he was signed off the street. If he can show he wasn’t a flash in the pan, he could be dynamic. Brown is the key. He looks like he can be a top-notch possession receiver. He showed promise as a rookie but missed all of last season with an ankle injury. Now he's healthy and ready to go. He could be the most productive receiver on this unit.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What are the three key camp issues facing each AFC West team?

DENVER BRONCOS

Offense: The Wes Welker Factor
Peyton Manning has a new toy. But with the wealth of options in this offense, it seems unlikely Welker will match his production from his days with Tom Brady. Manning will love exploiting the mismatches Welker creates from the slot. Welker’s experience in New England's up-tempo offense should pay off as Denver transitions to a similar pace. It is difficult to find weaknesses in the Broncos’ offense right now.

Defense: Pass-rush issue
Elvis Dumervil is now playing for Baltimore. Von Miller is one of the league’s premier defensive players and pass-rushers, but more is needed. Where will it come from? Derek Wolfe showed some flashes as an inside pass-rusher during his rookie season and on passing downs. Robert Ayers should also be effective when moved inside. Will the edge player opposite Miller -- Ayers on early downs and Shaun Phillips, most likely, on passing downs -- be able to produce? The wild card here is rookie Quanterus Smith.

Wild card: Pass coverage in the middle
Denver had a lot of problems last season covering opposing tight ends in the middle of the field. On paper, it doesn’t look as though the problem has been addressed. Denver’s safety play is average at best, but the middle linebacker spot manned by Joe Mays is the real issue. Look for opposing offenses to keep Denver in base defensive personnel and attack the middle of the field.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

Offense: The Alex Smith Factor
Smith needs plenty of resources to be successful. But if he just makes fewer mistakes at the position than Matt Cassel did a year ago -- something that seems highly likely -- then Kansas City will be much more competitive. Smith also has underrated running skills, and the Chiefs should orchestrate plenty of designed quarterback movement and runs.

Defense: Interior pass rush
The Chiefs were among the worst defenses in the NFL last season at creating pressure on the quarterback between the tackles. Although the team made drastic changes across the roster, this area was not addressed. Unless Dontari Poe steps up in his second season -- and pass rush isn’t really his game -- little should change for Kansas City.

Wild card: Secondary receivers
The Chiefs are very light at wide receiver outside of Dwayne Bowe. They have three strong tight ends and could employ plenty of multiple tight end sets. Jamaal Charles should see plenty of passes thrown his way, but another outside threat needs to step up. Donnie Avery has the speed to open up room for others, but his hands are highly inconsistent. Jon Baldwin and Dexter McCluster have yet to find their place in this league. Keep an eye on Devon Wylie.

OAKLAND RAIDERS

Offense: Man-blocking scheme
For some unknown reason, the Raiders switched in 2012 from a predominantly man-blocking scheme, in which Darren McFadden thrived, to a zone-blocking scheme. That was a failed experiment, especially for McFadden, who is entering the final year of his contract. Switching back could allow him to be the foundation of Oakland’s offense.

Defense: No pass rush
I fear the Raiders will be among the worst defenses in the NFL next season at rushing the passer. Lamarr Houston is a very talented player, capable of greatness, but he isn’t a typical edge pass-rushing defensive end. Andre Carter has had success in this area, but his best days are behind him. I like the additions of Pat Sims and Vance Walker at defensive tackle, but both are run-stuffers. Opposing quarterbacks are going to have a lot of unobstructed time in the pocket this season. Calling Jadeveon Clowney...

Wild card: Building blocks
The Raiders are not going to win the Super Bowl. Instead, they must determine which players are their building blocks. I was impressed by the way the front office, despite many limitations, addressed the team's needs during the offseason. But many of their signings were only one-year deals. Which players do they want to bring back? Many players on Oakland’s roster are auditioning this season.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

Offense: Pass protection
Philip Rivers needs to be protected, which San Diego hasn’t been able to do lately. Although the Chargers used a first-round pick on D.J. Fluker, who is a much better run blocker than pass blocker, I don’t see noticeable upgrades on the offensive line. I also don’t see much upside or potential star power in the group. Changing scheme could help by getting the ball out of Rivers’ hands quicker, but he could be headed for another punishing season.

Defense: Time to step up
The Chargers have several promising young defensive players who could be ready to break out. Eric Weddle is among the league’s best safeties, and Corey Liuget has already established himself as a real force on San Diego’s defensive line. Kendall Reyes might not be far behind Liuget and should become more of a household name this season. Manti Te’o could have an instant impact in his rookie season and pair with Donald Butler to be one of the better inside-linebacker tandems in the league.

Wild card: Receiver situation
Antonio Gates isn’t what he once was, but he still makes plays, and Rivers trusts him. The Chargers have many other receiving options now: Danario Alexander, Malcom Floyd, Keenan Allen, Vincent Brown, Robert Meachem, Eddie Royal, John Phillips, Ladarius Green, Danny Woodhead and Ronnie Brown. How will that sort out? My favorites are Allen, Vincent Brown and Green. Getting these young weapons plenty of reps could pay off in the long term for San Diego.
The St. Louis Rams list nine wide receivers on their 90-man roster. That is the lowest figure in the NFL and three below the league average.

The overall number isn't most important to the Rams right now. For the first time in recent memory, they have five young receivers they're eager to build around: Tavon Austin, Chris Givens, Brian Quick, Stedman Bailey and Austin Pettis.

Pettis, Givens and Quick are returning. Austin and Bailey are new. Danny Amendola, Danario Alexander, Brandon Gibson, Greg Salas and Steve Smith are among those gone from this time last year.

For a closer look at rosters for the Rams and their NFC West rivals, check out my latest roster file, ready for download here.

Enjoy your Saturday -- the second-to-last one before training camps open.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a player entering a contract year on each AFC West team who must deliver in 2013:

Denver Broncos: Left tackle Ryan Clady. Clady will likely deliver just fine in 2013 -- he's an upper-echelon left tackle whom the Broncos have given the franchise tag. He had a strong season as Peyton Manning’s blind-side protector in 2012. Denver wants to sign Clady to a long-term contract and an agreement is likely. However, there is a good chance it won’t come until after the season -- so Clady must continue to play well. He is missing the Broncos' offseason program because of a rotator cuff injury, though that is not expected to be an issue during the season. If Clady continues to play at a high level, he will surely get a rich new contract, whether in Denver or elsewhere.

Kansas City Chiefs: Left tackle Branden Albert. Albert’s contract has been a story all offseason. He was given the franchise tag and signed it early in the process. But he stayed away from the team while the Chiefs considered trading him (with the Dolphins the most seriously interested party). But despite the trade talks and drafting of Eric Fisher (who will play right tackle, though left tackle is his natural position), the Chiefs want Albert to stay. Coach Andy Reid asked Albert to rejoin the team -- and he did a few weeks ago. If the sides don't reach a new deal before the season starts, Albert must remain focused.

Oakland Raiders: Running back Darren McFadden. This is a big year for McFadden. He is coming off a poor season and has been plagued by injuries his entire career. The Raiders are hoping for a McFadden rebirth with Oakland's return to the power-blocking scheme in which he has excelled. He did not fare well in the zone-blocking scheme Oakland used last season. If McFadden can perform well and stay healthy, Oakland will very likely give him an extension -- it will have plenty of cap space. But if McFadden’s injuries persist or if he doesn’t return to form in the new offensive scheme, Oakland will likely allow him to walk.

San Diego Chargers: Receiver Danario Alexander. Alexander is in a position of strength. He has a chance to make himself a lot of money. Long considered a solid prospect because of his size and speed, Alexander’s career stalled because of injuries. But he signed with the Chargers off the street last season and became a huge contributor. The Chargers love him and will give him a chance to have a big role this season. If he can continue his upward climb, Alexander will get big money from San Diego or elsewhere. If Alexander plateaus or gets hurt again, he will likely not command much in free agency.
We continue our AFC West positional rankings with a strong group of receivers:

1. Demaryius Thomas, Denver: Thomas is developing into one of the best receivers in the NFL. He has it all -- and he has Peyton Manning.

2. Wes Welker, Denver: Welker has a specific role, but you can’t argue with his production. He is a special player.

3. Dwayne Bowe, Kansas City: Bowe was No. 1 on this list last year. He hasn’t regressed. He is still top-notch. But the group is better.

4. Eric Decker, Denver: Decker completes what is probably the best trio of receivers in the NFL.

5. Donnie Avery, Kansas City: There is a drop-off here. But Avery is a pro. The free-agent pickup will help the Chiefs.

6. Denarius Moore, Oakland: Moore is a good, young player. He didn’t make the strides he was expected to in Year Two, but the skills are there.

7. Vincent Brown, San Diego: Brown can zoom up the list this season. Big things were expected in 2012, but he missed the entire season with a broken ankle.

8. Danario Alexander, San Diego: He came off the street and made a difference last season. He has big ability. Health is the only question.

9. Malcom Floyd, San Diego: How much has this group improved? Floyd was second on this list a year ago.

10. Rod Streater, Oakland: I wouldn’t be surprised if Streater makes a big leap on this list next year. He was very polished as an undrafted free agent in 2012.

11. Jon Baldwin, Kansas City: The Chiefs are still waiting for the talented 2011 first-round pick to develop.

12. Keenan Allen, San Diego: I expect the rookie to be an instant contributor. The Chargers got a steal in the third round of the draft.

13. Jacoby Ford, Oakland: If he can stay healthy, Ford can make an impact.

14. Dexter McCluster, Kansas City: McCluster can finally make an impact in Andy Reid’s offense.

15. Juron Criner, Oakland: He opened eyes in camp as a rookie, but didn’t do much last season. Still, a solid developmental player.

16. Robert Meachem, San Diego: He can still show something after being a total dud as a free-agent pickup last season.
Tom Telesco is known for his eye for talent.

The new San Diego Chargers’ general manager did not showcase that ability much during free agency as the Chargers added several low-profile players because of salary-cap concerns. The Chargers got some nice pieces, but there were not any big splashes.

San Diego splashed like the Pacific Ocean on Friday night. After the Chargers traded up to take Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o in the second round, they then drafted dynamic Cal receiver Keenan Allen in the third.

Allen was considered a major steal. He had an injury last year and a slow performance at the combine. But he was productive and most teams rated him highly.

The Chargers took Alabama right tackle D.J. Fluker in the first round. After the Allen choice, ESPN analyst Todd McShay said Telesco scored three first-round talents with his first three choices.

Fellow ESPN analyst Bill Polian was Telesco’s boss in Indianapolis. He said they studied Allen closely and Polian said he and Telesco thought Allen can be a Reggie Wayne-type receiver.

Allen is a major gift to San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers. The Chargers badly need skill-position weapons. The receiving crew was lacking since the 2012 departure Vincent Jackson in free agency.

Now with Allen, Vincent Brown and Danario Alexander, the Chargers have three potential standouts along with the solid Malcom Floyd.

I truly expect Allen to make an impact as a rookie. I think this pick will be remembered as the start of something nice for Telesco's tenure.
The San Diego Chargers did some pre-draft veteran shopping Thursday by signing linebacker D.J. Smith.

He was cut by the Green Bay Packers on Wednesday.

Smith, 24, is an intriguing player for San Diego, which could use some help at inside linebacker. Smith, a third-year player, started the first six games of last season before tearing his ACL. There were reports last month that there is no guarantee he will be ready for the start of the 2013 season. The Packers cut him with the failed physical designation.

Smith played in every game as a rookie. Still, it is a worthwhile signing for the Chargers. He has ability, and he should regain his health at some point in the 2013 season, Smith could be a player to watch in San Diego.

Meanwhile, as expected, San Diego receiver Danario Alexander signed his restricted free-agent tender.
A mild gamble paid off for the San Diego Chargers.

No team gave promising receiver Danario Alexander a restricted contract offer sheet by the Friday night deadline. The Chargers did give Alexander, signed off the street last year, a round compensation tender. So, it was thought in league circles that a team could give Alexander a solid offer. Alexander and the Chargers have had a good relationship during the process. He participated at the team’s voluntary minicamp during the week.

Now, that the deadline is passed, Alexander is expected to sign his contract tender. He will be an unrestricted free agent next year.

Alexander made an impact for San Diego after signing during the season. He had 37 catches in nine games and had an instant chemistry with quarterback Philip Rivers.

Alexander is a big receiver at 6-foot-4. His issues have been a series of knee injuries. If he can stay healthy, he has big potential and now the Chargers are able to get the chance to further develop him.

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