What We Have Learned So Far From AFC West Training Camps
The MMQB team is making its way around the nation visiting NFL training camps this preseason. Up today we have a few observations and takeaways from visiting the AFC West teams, plus one lingering question for each team.
• Vic Fangio’s staff has been pushing the details and staging physical practices to build a tough, smart team this training camp. Most offensive coaches have seen Fangio as one of the most difficult defensive coaches to face over the last decade, and in Denver, the team is realizing how Fangio earned that reputation.
• The back-end battle at receiver is interesting. Courtland Sutton, Emmanuel Sanders and Daeshon Hamilton are in place, and Tim Patrick looks like a good bet to be in the mix too. Who else do they keep? It actually might matter, given Sanders’s injury situation. River Cracraft, Juwann Winfree, Kelvin McKnight and Fred Brown are jockeying.
• Tight end is an important spot in new OC Rich Scangarello’s system, and the addition of first-round pick Noah Fant is an illustration of that. And the team actually feels like, through camp, it’s developed some depth there, with Jeff Heuerman, Troy Fumagalli and Jake Butt. Even Bug Howard has looked good coming back.
• The Broncos have spilled resources into fixing their offensive line problems, and the team now figures that the season could hinge on how all of that comes together. Second-rounder Dalton Risner, in particular, is a piece that the team believes will make a difference—they see him as a Logan Mankins-type of mauler at guard.
• The team’s sophomore class continues to look like the foundation of wherever this team is headed, with Bradley Chubb, Sutton, Josey Jewell, Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman all figuring into the 2019 equation in a very big way.
QUESTION: How much does Joe Flacco have left in the tank? Over his time in Baltimore, Flacco proved to be a quarterback capable of being a star when everything was right around him, but not quite one that would help the team overcome holes in the roster, or carry a group with major deficiencies. In Denver, Flacco has an OC from the Gary Kubiak tree (Scangarello had his best year under Kubiak), and a solid, but not spectacular, supporting cast. So we should get a good look at how much he’s got left in the tank.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
• There are lots of new pieces on defense in Kansas City, and rookie S Juan Thornhill is one to watch. He’s gotten his hands on the ball pretty much daily in camp, and he’s flashed some versatility to pair well with Tyrann Mathieu. He'll likely supplant Daniel Sorenson in the starting lineup at some point.
• Mecole Hardman is going to be a really interesting addition to the Chiefs’ offense. He's had an up-and-down camp, but his explosiveness is there. And the Chiefs are going to be creative, a la Tyreek Hill, in getting him the ball in their spread sets out of the backfield, on reverses, etc.
• The pairing of Frank Clark and Chris Jones on the defensive line looks capable of causing chaos, and adding new DL coach Brendan Daly to the mix looks like it'll make a difference too. (A side note: Clark’s contract is a factor in the negotiations with Jones ... it’s tough for Kansas City to give Jones less than Clark got.)
• If there’s one spot that the Chiefs need to sort out, it’s at cornerback. Kansas City was serious about drafting one in the second round of this year’s draft, but by the time they were in striking distance of a trade up, the guys they liked were gone. I wouldn't rule out an acquisition of some sort there.
• One place where Patrick Mahomes has taken a step forward is in his leadership. And not just on offense—he’s also tried to help the revamped defense by pointing things out in practice, which shows how he's become more assertive.
QUESTION: What sort of difference will new DC Steve Spagnuolo make? He and Andy Reid worked together for nearly a decade in Philadelphia, and Spagnuolo has made a living with aggressive, complex and creative defenses. With so many new pieces (Clark, Mathieu) in and old pieces out, and a new system in and old system out, can this come together on the fly? The last time I can remember a Super Bowl contender doing something like this was the 2001 Rams, with Lovie Smith as DC. That worked. We’ll see if this does.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
• The cornerback spot opposite Casey Hayward is shaping up as the big training camp battle here. Among the candidates, Trevor Williams is showing signs of bouncing back from a shaky 2018, and Michael Davis has taken a good step forward. If this position is in good shape going into Week 1, the defense would have few holes.
• The offensive line is the other area of concern for the Chargers. The good news is Forrest Lamp looks like he'll finally break through and become a starter. The bad news is it might have to be at LT, given that Russell Okung is still recovering from a pulmonary embolism suffered in June. The Chargers are working several different combinations to find their best five.
• A name to watch: Second-year LB Kyzir White. The super athletic converted college safety won the WILL linebacker spot last year, then got hurt. Thomas Davis is at that position now, but White’s vying for time... somewhere.
• White is not the only young LB bringing promise. The coaches love Unchenna Owusu’s versatility to play up at SLB and down in the nickel. Fourth-round pick Drue Tranquill has popped as well. Depth at the position forced some interesting situations last fall, but it’s better now.
• I don’t know that much changes in the Melvin Gordon situation anytime soon. My sense is the Chargers are pretty comfortable with their position and offer (in the $10 million per range). I also don’t believe there’s the trade value out there to motivate the team to move him.
QUESTION: Will Okung be ready to go in September? October? Ideally, the Chargers get him back at left tackle, Lamp settles in somewhere else, and the rest of the pieces fall into place. With Philip Rivers at 37 years old, and some moving parts in the backfield, there’s no question the o-line is the one position group that could swing the season in one direction or another. And not having Okung deep into the season would really complicate things there.
• Antonio Brown remains front and center in the Raiders training camp, whether or not he’s actually there. Brown has shown no shortage of drama so far this season, from his frostbitten feet due to a cryotherapy mishap (which we heard more about on the second episode of Hard Knocks) to wanting to wear his trusty old helmet (he lost his grievance vs. the NFL). I left Napa feeling that Oakland thinks the infratructure will be good for the receiver—let’s see how that pans out.
• I’ve said his name a bunch this offseason, but it’s hard to overstate how high the Raiders are on TE Darren Waller. Oakland sees him as a freakish athlete for the position and a good fit for the role vacated by the departed Jared Cook. He hasn’t been practicing because he’s dealing with a “mild shoulder problem.”
• The first-round draft picks (DE Clelin Ferrell, RB Josh Jacobs, S Johnathan Abram) have come as advertised. Thanks to Hard Knocks, we’ve become familiar with Abram already—personality-wise, he's a lot like Rodney Harrison. Interestingly enough, he was convinced he was going to the Patriots pre-draft, and knowing that, it makes sense that Raiders GM Mike Mayock loved him.
• A couple of the middle-round picks look like they could carve out roles early on offense—TE Foster Moreau and slot Hunter Renfrow. Both have picked up Jon Gruden’s system quickly.
• Derek Carr is way ahead of where he was last year, and people see that the relationship between he and Gruden is growing. Does that guarantee anything beyond this year? No. But it gives him a chance to build on last year’s strong finish.
• Talking with Gruden about where the team is, two things really stand out. One, he feels like the organization is finally aligned. And two, team speed is a lot better than it was at this time last year. Gruden feels optimistic about the team’s progression and speed, but what will that mean wins-wise? Hard to tell. The AFC West is pretty tough.
QUESTION: How quickly can the fleet of young guys contribute? You could argue that this is as dependent of first- and second-year players as Gruden has ever been, through his 13 years as an NFL head coach. So guys like Ferrell and Jacobs and Abram, as well as Moreau and Renfrow should have a shot to make a difference, and the continued development of a sophomore class headed by Kolton Miller, P.J. Hall and Maurice Hurst.
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