The AFC West might be the most interesting division in the league. All four teams can go into the season realistically feeling like they have a chance to win the division. Only the Broncos, however, can say they've got Peyton Manning to help them do it.
But we don't yet really know if Manning will be up to playing a 16 game season, and until that's revealed the AFC West is certainly up for grabs. It'll take strong performances from the top and bottom of every roster to take home the crown. Which players are stepping up early in the AFC West?
WR Eric Decker: The addition of Peyton Manning to the Bronco’s offense is a boost for pretty much everyone on the roster. In their preseason game against San Francisco, it was clear that no one will benefit more than Eric Decker. Decker caught four passes in that game, including two touchdowns.
Based on training camp and preseason performances it appears that Decker has become Manning’s favorite receiver, and is Manning stays healthy that can only be good news for the receiver. He should be receiving a ton of looks in the red zone, and overall could even push for 100 receptions.
DE Derek Wolfe: The rookie defensive end may be in the starting line up because of Jason Hunter’s injury, but that doesn’t mean that Derek Wolfe didn’t earn his job. He’s proven himself to be a three down player, and he’s shown the versatility to play both defensive end and tackle.
Just as in college, when Wolfe lead FBS football with 21 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, the lineman has been productive in the NFL as well, leading Denver in tackles. He’s become one of the most important players in the Bronco’s front seven, and he hasn’t disappointed so far.
Kansas City Chiefs
QB Brady Quinn: Kansas City may not have preferred it, but during a summer where very few Chiefs players stood out Brady Quinn beat out Ricky Stanzi for the second string quarterback job.
Stanzi was clearly the coaches preference- he was even ahead of Quinn on the depth chart for part of the summer, but Stanzi went on to put together a very disappointing preseason. Quinn had some good performances, such as against St. Louis when he went 5-6 for 81 yards and one score. He gave the coaching staff no real choice but to give him the nod, and he’ll spend the year as Matt Cassell’s back up.
RT Eric Winston: The Chiefs signed Eric Winston because he was regarded as one of the best offensive lineman in the league. In the first few months of his time there, he has yet to disappoint.
Kansas City plugged Winston in at right tackle and the addition appears to have been a solid one. He’s brought cohesion and leadership to the offensive line on the field. In the locker room he brings veteran voice and work ethic that will help a young team how to be professionals. He wasn’t a cheap investment by any means (his contract is worth $22 million), but it will be a shock if it doesn’t pay off for Kansas City.
QB Terrelle Pryor: Impressive showings during the preseason aren’t rare. On a weekly basis we’ll see running backs surprise a team and rush for 100 yards, or see an undrafted receiver snag two touchdowns. But putting up 227 total yards of offense? That is rare – but Terrelle Pryor did just that.
Pryor made big plays through the air and on the ground in the Raiders’ preseason match up against Detroit. He had a 59 yard scramble paired with a 17 yard touchdown run, and threw for two touchdowns of 39 and 76 yards. His comfort level has sky rocketed and he’s no showing command of the huddle. He won’t push for to be the starter in 2012, but he’s shown much more potential for the future than many gave him credit for.
WR Rod Streater: Expecting an undrafted wide receiver to make much of a splash in his rookie year is often asking too much. Loooking for a big performance out of a player who only caught 19 passes in his final college season? That’s even more of a stretch. But in spite of that, it’s just what Rod Streater is doing.
Streater only caught 19 passes during his senior year at Temple, which makes it remarkable that he’s already caught 18 passes during the preseason. He’s shown the ability to develop chemistry with all of the Raiders’ quarterbacks, and Carson Palmer especially has stated he has a good deal of trust in the young player. With the numerous injury concerns Oakland has at wide receiver, they’d be wise to make sure that Streater has a spot on their final 53.
San Diego Chargers
LB Larry English: When the Chargers drafted Melvin Ingram, Larry English became an after thought to many that follow the team. English was drafted with high expectations himself, but injuries and a struggle to adjust to the speed of the NFL had derailed his career thus far.
It’s starting to look like he’s finally putting it together, however. He’s recorded three sacks during the preseason, nearly half of what he’d been able to do during his entire career prior to 2012. He’s playing with more decisiveness, and he’s been healthy throughout camp. Both he and Ingram look ready to cause chaos in back fields this fall.
K Nate Kaeding: Just a year ago Nate Kaeding’s knee was torn to shreds on the opening kickoff of the 2011 season. He missed the entire season, and many observers wondered if Kaeding would ever be able to kick in the NFL again.
Fast forward to the 2012 preseason, and so far it appears as though Kaeding will be just fine. The NFL’s most accurate kicker looked like his old self in Minnesota, where he hit field goals of 50 and 55 yards, as well as the 45 yard game winner. He’s had a stellar camp and there’s no reason the Chargers should be worried about their kicker heading into the season.