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