Let’s look at one player from each AFC West team who will loom large for his team in Week 1:
Elvis Dumervil, defensive end: When Dumervil stands in the field against the Oakland Raiders on Monday night it will be his first time in a meaningful game since the 2009 season when he led the NFL with 17 sacks. He missed all of last season with a pectoral injury. Dumervil is a defensive end in John Fox’s system after being a linebacker in Denver’s 3-4 system of the past regime. Dumervil has looked good in the preseason. He will need to lead a strong pass-rush (that also features rookie Von Miller) against Oakland. Denver’s best chance of beating the Raiders will be by attacking Oakland’s questionable offensive line and getting to quarterback Jason Campbell. It all starts with Dumervil.
Matt Cassel, quarterback: Cassel's status is clouded by a report by the Kansas City Star that said he has a ribs injury that could keep him out of the game. If so, Tyler Palko would likely make his first NFL start at the age of 28. Still, we're spotlighting Cassel, because all eyes will be on him if he does play. Cassel struggled in his final two games of the past season. Now, with Charlie Weis (who Cassel thrived under for most of last season) gone and Jim Zorn as Kansas City’s quarterbacks coach, Cassel needs to show he is ready to make more strides. The Kansas City offense didn’t show much in the preseason, so there are questions whether Cassel is ready for the next step as the Chiefs host the Buffalo Bills. The season-ending loss of tight end Tony Moeaki and the fact that first-round pick Jon Baldwin is still dealing with a thumb injury suffered in a reported fight with running back Thomas Jones makes Cassel’s job even more difficult if he does play.
Darren McFadden, running back: McFadden exploded in his third NFL season last year and he became one of the better all-around running backs in the NFL. He missed the entire preseason after breaking an orbital bone early in camp, but he is expected to be healthy at Denver on Monday. He makes the Oakland offense go. I expect the Raiders to give McFadden every chance to wear down the Denver defense and to give the Raiders a chance to run away from the home team.
Ryan Mathews, running back: The Chargers are looking for dividends from the No. 12 overall pick in the 2010 draft. Mathews has looked good in the preseason. He will share carries with Mike Tolbert, but San Diego would like Mathews to set the tone, starting Sunday against the visiting Minnesota Vikings. If Mathews can have a big first game, that will give the coaching staff a bunch of confidence in him moving forward.