AFC West Player Analysis: Every Team, Every Unit, Every Player
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Case Keenum. Backups -- Chad Kelly, Kevin Hogan.
Keenum offered signs that his breakout 2017 season with Minnesota was not a fluke, bringing steadiness, leadership and good decision-making to a position that lacked all three attributes in the last two seasons, when the Broncos cycled through three quarterbacks who are no longer on the roster. Kelly surged past Paxton Lynch for the No. 2 role following a two-touchdown performance in the preseason opener and tightened his grip on the position in the games that followed, rendering Lynch unneeded. The Broncos jettisoned Lynch in favor of Hogan on Sunday, and while Hogan does not have Lynch's physical attributes, his intelligence and ability to learn a scheme could allow him to push Kelly.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- Royce Freeman, FB Andy Janovich. Backups -- Devontae Booker, Phillip Lindsay.
Freeman, a third-round pick, earned the job with a solid preseason, beating out Booker in a race that wasn't that close, based on their practice-field and preseason-game production. Booker, the senior member of the Broncos' three-man running back corps, is the best blocker of the group, which should ensure he receives plenty of snaps. Lindsay, the Broncos' breakout undrafted player, is the smallest and fastest player in the group; he is a chess-piece back who has the toughness to get the occasional carry between the tackles, but is best used in space where he can use his speed and quickness to maximum effect. Any doubts as to whether the Broncos would keep a fullback on the 53-man roster evaporated when Janovich delivered the key blocks on two touchdowns by the first-team offense at Washington in the third preseason game.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Jeff Heuerman. Backups -- Jake Butt, Matt LaCosse.
Heuerman overcame knee soreness early in training camp to earn the starting job ahead of Butt, who was in his first training camp after his rookie season was scuttled because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in his final college game. But the top two tight ends are close, and could be used interchangeably in the offense. Butt's route-running and pass-catching skills could make him the primary option on third down and in the red zone, while Heuerman could see more work on first and second downs. LaCosse earned the No. 3 role by improving his blocking this summer to the point where he beat out incumbent blocking specialist Austin Traylor.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders. Backups -- Courtland Sutton, DaeSean Hamilton, Tim Patrick, Isaiah McKenzie, Jordan Taylor (PUP/could return later in season).
This could be the deepest position on the roster, thanks to the draft-weekend additions of Sutton and Hamilton, both of whom should see extensive rotational work behind Thomas and Sanders. Patrick, who used an outstanding summer to earn a roster spot, will play on special teams and can win jump balls, while McKenzie gets to continue his development as he tries to improve his ball-security issues from last year. Jordan Taylor starts the season on the physically unable to perform list after missing the offseason because of two hip surgeries; if he can return by midseason, the Broncos will have a solid relief option if injuries strike.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Garett Bolles, LG Ron Leary, C Matt Paradis, RG Connor McGovern, RT Jared Veldheer. Backups -- G/C Max Garcia, RG/RT Billy Turner, G/T Elijah Wilkinson, G/C Sam Jones.
Although Leary missed playing time in the preseason due to injuries, the Broncos appear to have more stability on the offensive line than they have in recent years. Paradis heads into his final year before being eligible for unrestricted free agency as one of the league's steadiest centers; he has not missed a snap in three years as the starter. Bolles looks improved from his inconsistent rookie season; playing next to Leary has helped him find stability. Veldheer looks like an upgrade on the revolving-door right tackle situation of the last three years, while McGovern looks like he can make his natural strength translate to a starting role. Garcia brings starting experience as the swing interior backup, while Turner is the first man in on the right side. Wilkinson and Jones are versatile depth pieces who could factor into the Broncos' plans for future years.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- DE Adam Gotsis, NT Domata Peko Sr., DE Derek Wolfe. Backups -- DE/NT Shelby Harris, DE/NT Zach Kerr, DE DeMarcus Walker.
What this unit lacks in raw star power it makes up for with depth; Harris delivers starting-caliber work in a rotational role and was second on the team in sacks last year. Walker could have a specialized pass-rush role after being moved to outside linebacker last year before being shifted back to the inside; he will play at 280-285 pounds, his college weight. Denver's run defense led the league in per-carry average allowed last year, and the defensive line was a significant reason why.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- OLB Von Miller, OLB Bradley Chubb, ILB Brandon Marshall, ILB Todd Davis. Backups -- OLB Shane Ray, OLB Bradley Chubb, ILB Josey Jewell, ILB Joe Jones, ILB Keishawn Bierria, ILB Alexander Johnson.
On the outside, the Broncos are set with talent and depth. Miller remains in his prime, and Chubb could provide an ideal complement, playing at 269 pounds and occasionally lining up with one hand in the dirt. Both of their backups -- Barrett and Ray -- have 15 career starts apiece, and Ray is playing at 250 pounds, the heaviest weight of his career to date. Marshall and Davis return as the starters on the inside, but Jewell's strong preseason work ensures that the Broncos will find repetitions for the fourth-round pick. Jones and Bierria should factor on special teams. Johnson, who signed during the preseason after not playing football for three and a half years while facing rape charges for which he was acquitted this summer, will be brought along slowly, but the Broncos like his potential.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- CB Chris Harris Jr., CB Bradley Roby, S Justin Simmons, S Darian Stewart. Backups -- CB Tramaine Brock, CB Adam Jones, S Will Parks, S Dymonte Thomas, CB Isaac Yiadom, S Su'a Cravens (IR/could return later in season).
Depth is a concern in the secondary following the offseason trade of Aqib Talib and the decision to place Su'a Cravens on injured reserve after he dealt with knee soreness throughout the preseason. Cravens' injury and the season-ending torn hamstring suffered by Jamal Carter likely gave Thomas a roster spot; he showed promise in the preseason win over Washington on Aug. 24, and could see sub-package time along with Parks. Denver's starting quartet of Harris, Roby, Simmons and Stewart should still be solid, but teams will likely throw at the No. 3 cornerback. Brock will handle that role right away, but Jones could rotate into the spot. Either way, look for teams to stay away from Harris and, to a lesser degree Roby, and force the issue to the rest of the defensive backfield.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Brandon McManus, P Marquette King, LS Casey Kreiter, KR Phillip Lindsay, PR Adam Jones.
McManus looks like he might have put a frustrating 2017 season behind him; he was 9-of-10 on field-goal attempts in the preseason with his only miss coming from 58 yards. King should offer improvement in distance and precision punting over Riley Dixon, who was traded to the New York Giants after King was signed. Jones worked on returning punts last week and did enough to earn the job ahead of McKenzie, who was cut for a day and then re-signed to the 53-man roster Sunday.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Patrick Mahomes. Backup -- Chad Henne.
Friends and colleagues close to head coach Andy Reid say he's more excited for the upcoming season than they have seen him in years, and that's due to the presence of Mahomes. The Chiefs expect some growing pains with their quarterback of the future, but optimism runs high that he's the real deal. Mahomes showed remarkable accuracy in the preseason, completing 72 percent of his passes and compiling a 103.5 passer rating. The Chiefs opted to go with two quarterbacks on the active roster for the first time since Reid's arrival in Kansas City in 2013. Henne brings a veteran presence to the quarterback room and demonstrated in the preseason his knowledge of the West Coast offense should keep the curtain up if pressed into duty.
RUNNING BACKS: Starter -- Kareem Hunt, FB Anthony Sherman. Backups -- Spencer Ware, Damien Williams, Darrel Williams.
Hunt led the NFL in rushing a year ago with 1,327 yards, and the club hopes to figure him more into the passing game than he did a year ago. He caught 53 passes for 455 yards last season, but did almost all of his damage on first and second downs. Ware and Damien Williams provide experienced depth behind Hunt the team lacked a year ago. Both players are returning from injuries, however, with Ware successfully recovering from a serious knee injury that knocked him out for the 2017 campaign. Rookie Darrel Williams shows promise as a between-the-tackles runner as well as a pass catcher out of the backfield.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Travis Kelce. Backup -- Demetrius Harris (SUS), Alex Ellis.
Kelce comes off back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons, and expect that trend to continue despite increased firepower at receiver. The greater number of targets at the disposal of Mahomes may actually help open the middle of the field for Kelce if it results in fewer double teams. Harris must sit out Week 1 against the Los Angeles Chargers due to a suspension stemming from his March 2017 arrest for marijuana possession. Ellis, a former walk-on at Tennessee, impressed throughout the offseason program and training camp with his reliable hands and ability to get open. He finished second on the team in receptions during the preseason with 10 catches for 93 yards.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Chris Conley. Backups -- Demarcus Robinson, Marcus Kemp, De'Anthony Thomas.
Hill led the Chiefs with 1,183 receiving yards last season, and the addition of Watkins should open up more opportunities for the dynamic playmaker. The Chiefs opted to add to their inventory of targets for Mahomes in his first season as starter rather than shore up a leaky defense. That means the receivers group needs to power an offense that may find itself in shootouts with great frequency. Conley returns from a season-ending Achilles tear last year. Robinson shows flashes, but in year three needs to build on the 21 catches for 212 yards he posted a year ago.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starter -- LT Eric Fisher, LG Cameron Erving, C Mitch Morse, RG Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, RT Mitchell Schwartz. Backups -- C/G Jordan Devey, G/T Andrew Wylie, G Kahlil McKenzie, G Ike Boettger.
The Chiefs have stocked up on the offensive line with 10 linemen on the roster, including three intriguing young players. The veteran Schwartz anchors the line, but the club needs healthy seasons from Morse and Duvernay-Tardif to prevent another slump like the one that occurred last year after a 5-0 start. Erving is the team's most versatile lineman and might be the backup at tackle and center in the case of injuries. The Chiefs love what they have seen so far from McKenzie, who makes the jump to offense after playing defensive line in college at Tennessee. He needs to improve his technique and fundamentals, but as a mauler he more than held his own during the preseason. Wylie brings a nasty attitude off the bench, while the veteran Devey provides a steady hand as a backup.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LDE Allen Bailey, NT Xavier Williams, RDE Chris Jones. Backups -- DE Jarvis Jenkins, DT Derrick Nnadi, DL Justin Hamilton.
The Chiefs ranked 25th against the run last year, so they invested in free agent Williams and third-round pick Nnadi to shore up their interior defense. The Chiefs believe a fitter, stronger Jones can add a punch to the team's pass rush this season. Bailey remains a dependable space eater on the line, and Jenkins contributed valuable snaps late last season in a reserve role.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- LOLB Justin Houston, LILB Anthony Hitchens, RILB Reggie Ragland, ROLB Dee Ford. Backups -- OLB Breeland Speaks, OLB Tanoh Kpassagnon, ILB Terrance Smith, ILB Ben Niemann, ILB Dorian O'Daniel.
Much of the Chiefs' pass defense in 2018 depends upon Houston and Ford remaining healthy and sustaining an effective edge rusher. The Chiefs moved up in the second round to snag Speaks, who along with Kpassagnon they hope can spell their starters to keep Houston and Ford fresh. The 285-pound Speaks can also kick inside when necessary on the line. Hitchens and Ragland played very little together during the preseason and may need time to build chemistry up the middle. O'Daniel still needs to get the defensive playbook down but the team likes his hard-hitting ability as a dime linebacker. Undrafted rookie Niemann forced his way onto the roster with a fantastic camp and preseason.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starter -- LCB Kendall Fuller, RCB Steven Nelson, SS Eric Berry, FS Eric Murray. Backups -- CB Orlando Scandrick, S Ron Parker, S Armani Watts, CB Tremon Smith, CB Charvarius Ward, S Jordan Lucas, S Daniel Sorensen (IR/could return later in season).
The secondary already faced the dilemma of replacing Marcus Peters, but now defensive coordinator Bob Sutton must deal with Daniel Sorensen gone for at least the first half of the season on injured reserve and Berry dealing with a sore heel. The cornerback position also remains unsettled. The Chiefs opted for new addition Scandrick as the club's nickel back, releasing David Amerson, who spent the offseason and most of training camp at that spot. Parker's return provides insurance at safety. Young backups such as Watts, Smith, Ward and Lucas may need to contribute earlier than expected.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Harrison Butker, P Dustin Colquitt, LS James Winchester, KR De'Anthony Thomas, PR Tyreek Hill.
The Chiefs' special teams may rank among the best in the league. Butker's record-setting rookie campaign looks like no fluke as he finished the preseason a perfect 9-of-9 on field goals. Colquitt remains one of the game's better directional punters and Winchester is as reliable as they come as a long snapper. Hill may see less duty on punt return duty this season as coaches look to reduce his injury exposure. Expect Tremon Smith to play a role in the return game as the season progresses.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Philip Rivers. Backup - Geno Smith.
Rivers looks around and sees a formidable running game, a line that protects him, weapons on the outside and a reliable safety valve at tight end. Headed into his 15th season, Rivers isn't trying to carry the load himself, although he could as he's coming off another 4,000-yard passing season and a newfound ability to take care of the football. With all that is at his disposal, Rivers could be primed for a big season even at this late stage of his career. Smith offers an experienced, if erratic, backup. Everybody is behind Rivers in terms of leadership -- on either side of the ball -- and his value to this team.
RUNNING BACKS: Starter - Melvin Gordon. Backups - Austin Ekeler, FB Derek Watt.
Gordon has been brought along slowly in camp, with head coach Anthony Lynn knowing his workload will be among the team's heaviest. Gordon, one of the league's top backs in numerous categories in 2018, looks to duplicate his 1,000-yard rushing season with what's expected to be improved run blocking. Gordon is also slippery out of the backfield as a receiver and the same goes for Ekeler, an undrafted rookie find in the 2017 camp. Watt delivers a punch when the team goes with the jumbo package and is good for a deception carry on occasion.
TIGHT ENDS: Starters -- Antonio Gates, Virgil Green. Backups - Sean Culkin, Hunter Henry (PUP/could erturn later in season).
Gates came in the week before the opener and he the delay shouldn't bother him going into his 16th season. It will be interesting to see how much he has left, although he showed well down the stretch last year when Henry got hurt. Henry got hurt again this year, which motivated the Chargers to bring Gates back for one more year. There's a chance Henry can return before the season ends. Green is here to do what he did in Denver: block.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Keenan Allen, Tyrell Williams. Backups - Mike Williams, Travis Benjamin, Geremy Davis, J.J. Jones.
Allen is the alpha dog of this unit coming off his Pro Bowl season where he rewrote some Chargers records. Tyrell Williams has a 1,000-yard season on his resume and is a great option if coverages roll over to Allen. Don't forget Mike Williams, a first-round pick in 2017 that had his rookie season derailed by injuries. He has looked super in camp and the preseason games.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Russell Okung, LG Dan Freeney, C Mike Pouncey, RG Michael Schofield, RT Joe Barksdale. Backups - LT Sam Tevi, LG/C Scott Quessenberry, C Cole Toner, RG Forrest Lamp.
The line surrendered but 18 sacks last year, the best in the league. And that was before they added the Pro Bowler Pouncey in the offseason. While the unit was keen in keeping Philip Rivers clean, the run-blocking wasn't as pristine. That's where head coach Anthony Lynn wants to see improvement. The reason the Chargers signed Pouncey, a Pro Bowler, is to add some grit and brawn to the running game. Despite Melvin Gordon's big year, the team had trouble running the back in critical parts of games. Pouncey will help there and Freeney, in his second year, should be much improved.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LDE Joey Bosa, NT Brandon Mebane, RDT Darius Philon, RDE Melvin Ingram. Backups - NT Damion Square, NT Corey Liuget (SUS), NT T.Y McGill, DT Justin Jones, DE Chris Landrum, DE Isaac Rochell.
Bosa heads into fist game still nursing a bad foot that has lingered for several weeks. Bosa and Ingram are beasts and them coming from each side will cause many a pocket to collapse this season. The Chargers know what they are going to get from those two -- each a double-digit sacker season -- but it's the play inside that has to show an upgrade. The veteran Mebane's play has to be monitored and Liuget is suspended the first four games. Jones, a rookie, will get in the rotation inside in a hurry.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- WLB Jatavis Brown, MLB Denzel Perryman, SLB Kyle Emanuel. Backups - WLB Nick Dzubnar, SLB Uchenna Nwosu, OLB Kyzir White, OLB Emmanuel Ellerbee.
Shoring up the run defense has been a familiar refrain for the coaches during camp; the Chargers were No. 26 in yards per carry last year. It's the same group as in 2017 that struggled, but the key is having Perryman on the field more. Nwosu and White have flashed during camp and they could be asked to contribute early. This unit benefits greatly if the play in front of them improves.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- RCB Casey Hayward, LCB Trevor Williams, FS Rayshawn Jenkins, SS Jahleel Addae. Backups - CB Desmond King, CB Michael Davis, CB Craig Mager, FS Derwin James, SS Adrian Phillips.
It's clear Pro Bowler Hayward has become the leader of this group as well as one of the best corners in the league. Williams again steps in for Jason Verrett (knee) and he proved himself up to the challenge last year. Addae is physical and the key is him lasting 16 seasons. Don't overlook James, a first-round pick, to be in the starting lineup sooner than later.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Caleb Sturgis, P Drew Kaser, PR Travis Benjamin, KR Desmond King, LS Mike Windt.
Four kickers and one year ago, the Chargers missed the playoffs because of the unreliability of the kicking game. Sturgis will get the first shot of getting it right but don't expect head coach Anthony Lynn to show much patience if he is off-kilter. Benjamin supplies the quicks in the return game, although his decision-making is often curious. King has a spark on kickoff returns.
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Derek Carr. Backup -- AJ McCarron.
After getting minimal time in the preseason, it's time to see how Carr fares in an offense that has been entrusted to him. He'll have more responsibility than ever in a system that has myriad shifts and motions, not to mention more time under center after lots of spread formations in years past. McCarron was acquired to bring in someone Gruden believes capable of avoiding turnovers and managing the offense if Carr were to go down.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- Marshawn Lynch, FB Keith Smith. Backups -- Doug Martin, Jalen Richard, DeAndre Washington.
A 60-yard run called back by a penalty was all anyone needed to see out of Lynch in the preseason. He looks to be in better shape and has a line coach in Tom Cable who understands his strengths in terms of blocking schemes. Smith is the classic block-and-catch fullback Gruden loves. Martin will spell Lynch, while Richard and Washington function as satellite backs who can lineup anywhere.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Jared Cook. Backups -- Lee Smith, Derek Carrier.
Gruden quickly became enamored with the matchup possibilities of Cook, who is too fast and athletic to be covered by linebackers and most strong safeties and can be flexed or put in motion. Smith is the classic dirty-work, in-line tight end with a nasty attitude. Carrier can block as well, but also has some of Cook's receiving skills having been a former wideout.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Amari Cooper, Jordy Nelson. Backups -- Seth Roberts, Keon Hatcher, Dwayne Harris, Brandon LaFell.
The passing game will be built around Cooper, who will be pushed to know all three positions including the slot, where he did some of his best work last year. At least one receiver flourishes with big numbers in the Gruden system, and much is expected of Cooper. Nelson spent training camp demonstrating he could still get separation and break free. Looked good, too. But the regular season will be the test. Roberts looked on the verge of being cut but survived in part because Martavis Bryant flopped as a trade acquisition and was released. Hatcher won a spot with a strong camp and preseason. He and Harris (the return specialist). LaFell was a late addition with 394 career receptions and 29 touchdowns.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Kolton Miller, LG Kelechi Osemele, C Rodney Hudson, RG Gabe Jackson, RT Donald Penn. Backups -- G Jon Feliciano, T Brandon Parker, T T.J. Clemmings, T Jason Murray.
The outside spots are a question mark with the rookie Miller on the left side and Penn playing on the right for the first time and recovering from Lisfranc surgery. Their ability to zone block and free Lynch, as well as protect Carr, will help determine the season. The Raiders are rock steady in the middle three spots with Osemele, Hudson and Jackson -- one of the best (and most well-paid) trios in the NFL. Feliciano is the primary backup at all three inside spots. Park is developing and Clemmings and Murray were late waiver claims hoping to stick.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- RE Bruce Irvin, NT Justin Ellis, DT PJ Hall, LE Tank Carradine. Backups -- E-T Frostee Rucker, DE Arden Key, DE Fadol Brown, DE Shilique Calhoun, DT Mo Hurst, DT Brian Price.
No longer a linebacker, Irvin will have his hand on the ground, rush the passer and hope for his first career year with double-digit sacks. Ellis was re-signed to plug the middle and the additions of Hall and Hurst inside give the Raiders potentially the best interior pressure they have had in years. Carradine, who will start in place of the departed Khalil Mack, had a solid camp after never settling in with the 49ers. Key's third-down pass-rush skills will be utilized instantly. Rucker's experience and knowledge of coordinator Paul Guenther's system is important. Brown and Calhoun won spots with solid camps. Price was a late waiver claim from Dallas, with Treyvon Hester waived.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- SLB Emmanuel Lamur, MLB Derrick Johnson, WLB Tahir Whitehead. Backups -- MLB Marquel Lee, OLB Nick Morrow, OLB Kyle Wilber.
Lamur is another former Bengal who played with Guenther, and early indications are the Raiders upgraded at both outside spots because Whitehead has looked versatile, active and looked like a leader. It remains to be seen if Johnson can hold off Lee, whose play seemed to take a leap from Year 1 to Year 2. Morrow's athleticism remains intriguing, while Wilber is a core special teams player.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Gareon Conley, SS Karl Joseph, SS Marcus Gilchrist, RCB Rashaan Melvin. Backups -- CB-S Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB Nick Nelson, CB Leon Hall, S Erik Harris, S Reggie Nelson.
Conley has managed to stay healthy for almost a month -- something that eluded him as a rookie. Putting practices together is huge, because he looks like a natural cover corner to go along with free-agent acquisition Melvin. Rodgers-Cromartie can play virtually anywhere in the secondary and Nelson was around the ball in camp and exhibition games. Hall provides another level of experience. At safety, Joseph and Gilchrist are hardly carved in stone, with Harris and Nelson also competing for time.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Mike Nugent, P Johnny Townsend, LS Brian DePaola, KR/PR Dwayne Harris.
When undrafted free agent Eddy Pineiro went on injured reserve with a groin injury, the job fell to Nugent, formerly of the Cowboys. The Raiders will be on the lookout for another kicker if Nugent falters. Townsend doesn't have nearly the leg of the departed Marquette King, but the Raiders are counting on his directional punting to swing field position. DePaola replaces Jon Condo as the snapper, while Harris opens the season as the primary kickoff and punt return specialist.