AFC West training-camp preview

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AFC West training-camp preview

Don Banks, SI.com

Team on the rise

SAN DIEGO

More accurately, the Chargers should be a team on the rebound this season; they slipped to 9-7 and out of the playoffs last year after winning the division in 2004. Widely lauded as the one best teams ever to miss the postseason, the '05 Chargers proved they could win anywhere (like at Indianapolis in Week 15) and lose to anyone (at home against Miami in Week 14, one of three glaring home defeats).

The Chargers still have a bevy of talent, but how far they go this season will almost certainly revolve around the maturation of their new starting quarterback, Philip Rivers, who replaces the departed Drew Brees. Rivers has appeared in only two games in his first two NFL seasons, but if the 2004 first-round pick can at least handle a caretaker quarterback role this year, San Diego has enough weapons around him to be very formidable on offense.

Defensively, the Chargers have a stout front seven (San Diego was first against the run in '05), and they tried to solidify their problematic secondary by drafting Florida State cornerback Antonio Cromartie in the first round. Here's another hopeful sign: After a killer schedule last year, San Diego faces only one '05 playoff team in the season's first half, and five overall.

Team in transition

KANSAS CITY

Head coach Dick Vermeil has retired -- for good this time. Offensive coordinator Al Saunders didn't get the nod as his replacement and moved on to work for Joe Gibbs in Washington. That's plenty of transition for any team to cope with, but the Chiefs are a veteran club that should be able to deal with the changes that new head coach Herman Edwards and newly promoted offensive coordinator Mike Solari bring to the table.

Not that K.C. wants to change a thing on offense, where ultraproductive running back Larry Johnson, quarterback Trent Green and tight end Tony Gonzalez will again be capable of inflicting pain on any defense. As always, it's the Chiefs' defense that needs the upgrade, after finishing 25th overall in yards allowed in 2005. First-round draft pick Tamba Hali, a defensive end out of Penn State, is being counted on to amp up a pass rush led by playmaking defensive end Jared Allen. Given K.C.'s long-standing pass-coverage problems, focusing on the pass rush is a smart move. It would be a nice boost to the secondary if the Chiefs can finally land free-agent cornerback Ty Law, because it's hard to see the likes of cornerback Lenny Walls and safeties Greg Wesley and Sammy Knight having markedly different results than they did last year.

Coach in the spotlight

MARTY SCHOTTENHEIMER, SAN DIEGO

Although it wasn't his call to make -- or his preference -- Schottenheimer will have to live with the decision that elevated Rivers to starting quarterback and turned Brees loose during free agency. Chargers general manager A.J. Smith and Schottenheimer had a rather public falling-out last year, precipitating owner Dean Spanos to chide both men for not handling their differences in a professional manner. Look for Schottenheimer and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to respond to Rivers' inexperience by not asking too much of their novice starter, building the bulk of the team's game plan around all-world running back LaDainian Tomlinson. Winning with an unproven quarterback is a tough assignment in the NFL, but if Schottenheimer can't manage it this season, someone else will get the chance in San Diego in 2007.

Impact player in the making

MICHAEL HUFF, OAKLAND

By the end of the pre-draft personnel-analysis process, the playmaking Texas safety was considered one of the cleanest prospects on the board, and next in a line of game-impacting safeties who have entered the NFL in recent years. It's unfair to expect an Ed Reed- or Troy Polamalu-type performance out of him in his rookie season, but Huff is big, fast and will hit you, be it on run defense or in pass coverage. He will take his place in a young and inexperienced secondary, but it's a unit that has talent and a chance to grow together into a quality outfit.

Story to watch unfold

Kansas City obviously thought Penn State running back Larry Johnson could be good when it drafted him in the first round in 2003. But no one in their right mind imagined that by the end of the 2005 season Johnson would make us all ask, "Priest who?'' In only nine starts Johnson scored 16 touchdowns and averaged 150.1 yards rushing per game, with another 343 yards and a touchdown as a pass-catcher. It boggles the mind when you project those numbers over the course of a full 16-game regular season. If the Chiefs don't run him into the ground, Johnson is a league MVP waiting to happen.

Biggest splash of the offseason

With Rod Smith not getting any younger and the underachieving Ashley Lelie trying to talk his way out of town, the Broncos were in the market for top-line receiving help this offseason. Whether they got it or not in trading for disgruntled Green Bay pass-catcher Javon Walker remains to be seen. The former 2002 first-round pick had a breakthrough, Pro Bowl season in '04 for the Packers, but his follow-up effort was a zero thanks to his contract unhappiness and a season-ending knee injury in Week 1. If Walker returns to his form of two years ago, the Broncos have their No. 1 receiver issue settled, because he can make things happen downfield and is productive after the catch. But players usually take two years to shake off all the effects of an ACL injury, meaning this season might be a transitional one for Walker in Denver.

Pay no attention to . . .

Conventional wisdom holds that the newly acquired Aaron Brooks is the slam-dunk starting quarterback in Oakland. And maybe he is -- for now. But don't overlook second-year man Andrew Walter, the team's third-round pick in 2005. The 6-foot-6, 230-pound Walter has the kind of big arm that Oakland likes in its vertical passing game, and his growth in grasping the offense during this year's offseason workouts has been evident. If Brooks pulls a repeat of the inconsistent play and questionable decision-making that he exhibited so often in New Orleans, Walter could quickly work his way into the Raiders' starting picture.

Potential land mine

When the Broncos traded up in the first round and surprisingly grabbed Vanderbilt quarterback Jay Cutler at No. 11, it was clear that Jake Plummer's days as Denver's unquestioned starting quarterback were numbered. After having the most complete season of his uneven career in 2005, Plummer had a meltdown in the AFC title game against Pittsburgh, having a hand in four Broncos turnovers. Cutler was selected as the quarterback of the future, but it'll be interesting to see what effect his presence has on Plummer's game and confidence level. If Plummer starts off slowly this season after his playoff egg-laying, momentum will inevitably build among the team's vocal fans and the media for Cutler's starting candidacy. With the Broncos built to win now, they need Plummer at his best for the present, even if everyone in Denver can already see the future.

http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/news;_y...ug=cnnsi-afcwesttraining&prov=cnnsi&type=lgns
 
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