The past decade has seen no team take a true stranglehold on this division and with Norv Turner in charge in San Diego, they remain just as likely to stumble their way through the season as to throttle the other three teams on their way to the playoffs. The Broncos will have their big free agent catch on display, the Chiefs will be looking to get healthy and rebound, and the Raiders are starting anew with fresh leadership in place–and all will have an eye on the West crown.
But, camp comes first so let’s take a look at each team’s significant August battles as we edge ever closer to the start of some real football!
Position: Tight End
The Players: Jacob Tamme, Joel Dreessen, Julius Thomas, and Virgil Green
The Battle: The Broncos are looking to give Peyton Manning a solid and quick outlet on every throw, so they figure to run multiple tight end sets as often as they can. They passed up the chance to reunite Manning with Dallas Clark, one of his favorite targets for years in Indianapolis, instead signing Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen in free agency. Tamme was once Clark’s understudy, and Dreessen, quietly had a impressive season in Houston.
Both Tamme and Dreessen will likely figure heavily in the Denver plans, pushing incumbent young players Julius Thomas and Virgil Green down the depth chart. Green has some position flexibility, but is also serving a suspension for taking a banned substance before he obtained an exemption from the league. Tamme is very much a receiving option before a blocker, but Dreessen was our sixth-ranked TE last season and–outside of penalties, he picked up six–he graded well in all facets of the game to end up with a +10.2 overall.
2012 is going to be about keeping Peyton Manning healthy and always giving him somewhere to go with the football, so the tight ends are going to be a prominent feature of that offense.
The Verdict: Tamme and Dreessen are both likely to see significant snaps as part of the tight end-heavy Broncos offense. Though Dreessen might be the more complete player, Tamme has the advantage of being familiar with Manning from their time in Indianapolis. Virgil Green may have a chance to contribute when he returns from his suspension, but he will likely have to rely on his versatility to do so, while Julius Thomas may find himself as the odd man out just trying to see the field.
Position: Left Guard
The Players: Ryan Lilja and Jeff Allen
The Battle: Ryan Lilja is one of those players that teams are constantly looking to upgrade on. He does nothing fantastically, but also isn’t a liability in any area either, finishing the season just above average with a grade of +1.9 in 2011. His run blocking wasn’t fantastic, and is the weaker area of his game, especially as he gets up in years, and the Chiefs need to be able to run the football to be successful. Lilja is definitely good enough to get the job done, but without ever standing out as a dominant player, he is always going to be thought of as replaceable, and the Chiefs might just have the guy to replace him.
They took Jeff Allen in the draft with the 44th overall pick and he figures to be given a chance to unseat Lilja for the starting job, sooner or later. Allen picked up an injury and was sidelined for OTAs, but expects to be back in action for training camp where he will be given a long look by Chiefs coaches for the job.
The Verdict: In a case like this, the Chiefs know what they have in Lilja, and it’s more than good enough to go into the season and get the job done. They also know that they can do better, and so they’re going to use training camp to get an idea if Allen can step in right away and be an upgrade. If he shows he can do exactly that, then there is little Lilja can do to keep his job. This battle is going to come down to how well Allen can show in camp, and whether the Chiefs think that’s a better option than their baseline from Lilja.
The Players: Ron Bartell, Shawntae Spencer, DeMarcus Van Dyke, Chimdi Chekwa amongst others.
The Battle: In the past eighteen months, the Oakland Raiders have completely overhauled their cornerback stable. Since they had to bow out of the race for Nnamdi Asomugha due to the finances, they have set about a major turnover; getting rid of everybody else that was in the group and bringing in a host of young players and a few ageing veterans on the cheap in this year’s free agency. They let go of Stanford Routt to address the crazy contract situation the new regime inherited, and they now have to cobble together a set of corners from the group they have.
Ron Bartell is a quality corner at his best, but he is coming off a serious neck injury and, at 30 years old, with a season away from the game, it’s a big ask to expect him to step right in and perform. Shawntae Spencer is the other player of the group with experience to note, but he tumbled down the 49ers’ depth chart last season and saw just 87 snaps over the year. 2010 was the last year he saw significant action and he allowed 70.1% of the throws into his coverage to be complete, which is far from good.
After that duo, Oakland is hoping someone can step up from the young players and demand playing time. Van Dyke and Chekwa both saw time last season as rookies but neither stood out in a positive way, though Van Dyke certainly flashed some impressive coverage ability. There is talk that Chekwa is better suited for a safety role, but the Raiders have those positions well covered so he will likely be given a chance to earn a spot at corner.
The Verdict: If Bartell can show he is healthy, then even given the time he has missed he should be the class of the group and have one of the starting spots nailed down. The opposite side is not so clear, with the Raiders hoping Van Dyke is the player who can win the job. If he has a strong camp, he could do that and overtake Spencer for the other starting spot.
Position: Nose Tackle
The Players: Antonio Garay and Cam Thomas
The Battle: The Chargers have a few interesting battles to be played out through training camp, but the most interesting one might be the battle for the nose tackle spot. For years they were set at the position with the immovable object of Jammal Williams in the middle, but now they have a pair of players battling to start Week 1. Antonio Garay is the incumbent starter, re-signed in free agency to a modest two-year contract after attracting little significant interest elsewhere. Cam Thomas is the second-year player who has a good chance to unseat the veteran and is the main reason the Chargers didn’t push hard to keep Garay off the market.
Garay isn’t far removed from an excellent season, but his best work is done as a pass rusher where he can use his strength to manhandle offensive linemen out of his way and penetrate into the backfield. By contrast, Thomas is at his best stuffing the run, in a prototypical nose tackle spot in the middle. Though their grades wee not dissimilar last season (+4.0 for Garay, +5.8 for Thomas) the makeup of those grades definitely was. Garay notched a +7.3 grade for his pass rush, despite only three sacks on the season, whereas Thomas earned a +6.2 grade for his run defense.
Thomas is certainly the long-term plan for the Chargers at the position, but the question is how far away is that long-term transition, and could it happen as early as training camp?
The Verdict: The most sensible option for San Diego would be to install Thomas as the starter and give him the two-down run stuffing role that he is best suited for, while keeping Garay fresh for pass-rushing duties in sub-packages, which in today’s NFL will actually earn him more snaps in the long run anyway. Unfortunately, the Chargers seem to be obsessed with having their best players starting on defense regardless of situation, and it may be costing them. Garay moving to that role could also be a boon to the woeful play the Chargers have had at DE for a while now, because he is a legitimate threat inside in those situations. I suspect Garay will keep the starting NT job for a while longer.