As training camp approaches, we take a look at the players on each team who will be most heavily scrutinized. The list contains a fair number of quarterbacks — no stunner there — but we tried to highlight as many non-QBs as we could. The players highlighted range from rookies to veterans with 10 or more years of experience.
In the fourth of an eight-part series, we look at the AFC West, from the 2011 order of finish:
Broncos QB Peyton Manning
Uh, ya think? Yes, it’s quite obvious who is the No. 1 story in Denver. The health of the neck, his return to the field, Peyton’s legacy, the chemistry with mostly new receivers, a brutal schedule — it’s all on the table this season after one of the biggest free-agent defections in the past 20 years. Manning is attempting to take what Joe Montana did 20 years ago and expand upon it. Montana had two strong seasons with the Chiefs after leaving the 49ers, but injuries kept him from going further. Manning, no doubt, believes he can play at least three more years at a high level.
Others worth mentioning: S Quinton Carter, WR Demaryius Thomas.
Chargers OLB Shaun Phillips
Phillips’ pass rush dropped off last season, and though he got close to making several sacks, he couldn’t quite finish, ending the season with 3½ — down from 11 in 2010. A foot injury really set him back, but hopes are high with the additions of free agent Jarret Johnson and first-rounder Melvin Ingram that Phillips can regain his edge. The Chargers’ defense really fell off last season and was terrible on third downs (ranked dead last). New coordinator John Pagano — previously Phillips’ LB coach — is going to attempt to replicate what his brother (Chuck, now the Colts’ head coach) did in Baltimore with an attacking style of odd-front defense. An improved front seven could help that cause.
Others worth mentioning: WR Vincent Brown, QB Philip Rivers.
Raiders QB Carson Palmer
The choice actually might have been LB Rolando McClain, but the former No. 8 overall pick in the 2010 draft was found guilty of multiple gun-related charges and sentenced to 180 days in an Alabama jail, although his attorney is reportedly seeking a jury trial now. His future with the Raiders is very much in question now, considering McClain and his actions don't appear to be in line with what new head coach Dennis Allen and GM Reggie McKenzie want for the Raiders. The question now is whether Palmer is, either. His biggest supporter, Hue Jackson, is gone. Palmer should maintain the starting spot to open the season, but he faces a moderately tricky early schedule and must prove at age 32 that he represents the Raiders' best chance to win now. If he struggles, Matt Leinart or Terrelle Pryor might get a shot. Can Palmer hang on to his starting gig through the Raiders' Week 12 road trip to Cincinnati, Palmer's old stomping grounds?
Others worth mentioning: RB Darren McFadden, CB DeMarcus Van Dyke.
Chiefs RBs Peyton Hillis and Jamaal Charles
We’ll cheat here and give you two guys who could be better than one — any one back whom the Chiefs could have offered last season, anyway. With Charles going down early with a torn ACL, it left the position without any real juice (the long run from the group last season was 34 yards) and took away the Chiefs’ ability to control the clock early and late in games. Meanwhile, Hillis had something of a nightmare season in Cleveland after not long ago being hailed as a folk hero. A change of scenery for Hillis and better health for Charles, who has vowed to take his frustrations out on the competition, could reap big rewards in tandem for this offense.
Others worth mentioning: OLT Branden Albert, NT Dontari Poe.