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5 biggest storylines for AFC West teams entering training camp

Nick Roy / theScore

With NFL training camp getting underway in late July, theScore is examining the biggest storylines in every division across the league.

AFC (July 14-17)
East | South | West | North

NFC (July 21-24)
East | South | West | North

Mahomes' encore

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We're not sure how Mahomes could possibly top his first two years as a starter, which included a Super Bowl MVP, regular-season MVP, and All-Pro selection, all while owning the NFL lead in passing touchdowns. But if anyone can do it, it's him.

Fresh off a blockbuster contract extension that could pay him a whopping $503 million, all eyes are on the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback. Mahomes owns a 28-8 record as a starter, including playoff action, and has most of his supporting cast returning. Football's unquestioned premier passer has displayed a seemingly flawless game thus far and, at just 24 years old, could still elevate his game. It's a scary thought for opposing defenses and a fun storyline to keep an eye on as well.

In a normal year, the reigning Super Bowl champion often faces a disadvantage due to shortened recovery time. Five of the 10 winning squads in the last decade failed to earn a playoff victory the following campaign, and there hasn't been a back-to-back champ since 2003-04. However, a pandemic-impacted offseason could give Kansas City an unprecedented advantage.

Questions will naturally arise for Mahomes ahead of the 2020 season: Will he take a step back now that he got paid? Will top-tier coordinators figure him out? Is his elite production sustainable? These are all fair questions for a normal NFL player, but we all know this gunslinger is far from normal.

Can Broncos' offense live up to the hype?

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Denver is among the league's most hyped teams entering the 2020 campaign, and for good reason. Vic Fangio's squad finished last season winning four of its last five games while quarterback Drew Lock showed promise as a rookie. Lock completed 64% of his passes for seven touchdowns and three interceptions in five starts despite spending most of the year on injured reserve.

The Broncos added plenty of weapons for their sophomore signal-caller this offseason. Melvin Gordon and his 47 touchdowns since 2016 bolster a rushing attack that already features the versatile Phillip Lindsay. Denver also reshaped its receiving corps, selecting Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler early in the 2020 draft. Jeudy's ability to separate anywhere on the field and Hamler's blazing speed should complement 2019 breakout star Courtland Sutton and ascending tight end Noah Fant.

While the unit appears dynamic on paper, it's still difficult to trust such a young crop of players. Jeudy and Hamler should share large workloads as rookies and Lock has limited experience. In his five starts under center, the 2019 second-rounder ranked 18th among quarterbacks in PFF's adjusted completion percentage (73.6%) and 23rd in passer rating under pressure (58.4). Lock must improve his decision-making in order to take a second-year leap, and an unconventional training camp could hinder his progress.

At least the Broncos' blocking unit stands to improve. Lloyd Cushenberry was another piece added in April's draft and is the early favorite to start at center. Meanwhile, Denver signed former Detroit Lion Graham Glasgow in free agency to take over at right guard or center should Cushenberry struggle out of the gate. Regardless, an upgraded blocking unit will do wonders for a club on the path to a playoff spot.

Pandemic impacts QB battles

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The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on the NFL and nearly every other sports league worldwide. The shortened offseason could also disrupt quarterback battles as camp rolls around.

Los Angeles is the most relevant example of this. The Chargers selected former Oregon standout Justin Herbert sixth overall this past April, though veteran passer Tyrod Taylor won't go down without a fight. Most clubs end up playing first-round signal-callers early on, but 2020 presents a different set of circumstances. With potentially limited reps for Herbert available with the first team, Taylor is the favorite to start Week 1.

The Raiders are in a similar situation. Derek Carr currently has a stranglehold on the QB1 spot despite the franchise signing Marcus Mariota as an insurance policy this past March. Mariota failed to meet expectations as the second overall pick with the Tennessee Titans but could thrive in the right system. That system could be Gruden's, though he may not get a legitimate chance to display it.

Time for results in Vegas

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We're entering Year 3 of the Jon Gruden experiment and it's time for the head coach to take the next step, especially during the team's first campaign in Las Vegas. Gruden helped elevate his squad from 4-12 in 2018 to 7-9 last season, but we need to see even more growth in 2020 to justify his high-profile second stint.

An improved defense will certainly help his cause. Veterans Prince Amukamara and Damarious Randall along with first-round rookie Damon Arnette join the secondary while Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski represent major upgrades at linebacker. These additions, accompanying potential sophomore leaps from Clelin Ferrell and Maxx Crosby up front, could make the Raiders' stop unit dangerous for the first time in what feels like forever.

Ultimately, the boss' success in 2020 will be tied to his offense. Carr played his best football since 2016 last season, combining high-percentage throws with well-timed downfield attempts. The quarterback taking another step forward is crucial to Vegas. Rookie Henry Ruggs should help the deep passing game with his 4.27 speed while Darren Waller, Tyrell Williams, and Hunter Renfrow return as dependable targets. Gruden's scheme is all about exploiting every offensive mismatch possible.

The pieces finally appear in place, and a lot is riding on Gruden quickly acclimating his new weapons on both sides of the ball in camp. Still, there are no more excuses in Vegas, and even in a competitive division, the head coach must yield results.

Young guns return to action

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Budding youngsters will be returning to the AFC West next season following injury-riddled campaigns, and the Chargers stand to benefit the most. Derwin James suffered a stress fracture in his foot last summer and suited up for just five games as a result. James is a true defensive unicorn who thrives at any position.

Position Career Snaps Snap %
Along LOS 276 20.9%
Box S/LB 566 42.9%
Slot CB 226 17.1%
Wide CB 29 2.2%
Free safety 223 16.9%

The former first-rounder was a star in his debut season - only Jamal Adams accumulated more tackles behind the line of scrimmage and only Eddie Jackson broke up more passes in 2018. A sophomore breakout was hindered by his foot injury, but James is poised to dominate as he returns to full health. Nasir Adderley's 2019 was also cut short after suffering a hamstring injury. The Chargers' second-rounder a year ago profiles as an ideal complement to James in the deep part of the field.

Elsewhere in the division, the Broncos' pass rush will receive a boost as Bradley Chubb reenters the starting lineup. Chubb partially tore his ACL in Week 4, leaving him unable to build on a successful rookie campaign. The No. 5 overall pick in 2018 amassed 12 sacks and two forced fumbles across his first 16 contests, and his presence on the edge will likely do wonders for Von Miller and the rest of Denver's stop unit.

In Vegas, Johnathan Abram is back to man the team's secondary and could be a true X-factor in 2020. Abram, the last of the Raiders' three first-round picks in 2019, tore his rotator cuff and labrum in Week 1.

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