Scouting the NFL: AFC West Players To Watch

With the regular season around the corner, Inside The Pylon reached out to former NFL scout and current Scouting Academy director Dan Hatman for a cheat sheet on who the pros are keeping an eye on – and who may be in danger of losing their job. Here, he identifies which AFC West players to watch in 2015.

Denver Broncos

Rookie Who Is Needed Early Players Who Need to Develop Quickly Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline Most Intriguing to Study Excited About Expanded Role
Ty Sambrailo Brock Osweiler /
Matt Paradis
DeMarcus Ware Shane Ray Derek Wolfe

The Denver Broncos are coming off two consecutive disappointing playoff performances, losing to the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII, and getting upset last season by the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round. And while their window to win now is closing – hinging on the health and dwindling arm strength of future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning – the Broncos still boast one of the most fearsome pass rushes in the game. The
Most Intriguing Player to Study here is rookie OLB Shane Ray, the 23rd overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Ray is a slightly undersized OLB in a 3-4 system, but he possesses explosive speed from the edge that he uses to disrupt the backfield, as evidenced by his 14.5 sacks in his final year at Missouri. Ray stepping up would be huge because DeMarcus Ware, outside of Manning,  is the top candidate for Veteran Expected to Decline. Ware just turned 33, and although he played in all 16 games last year, he posted the third lowest sack and tackle totals of his career. No longer the elite pass rusher he was with the Dallas Cowboys, Ware’s production is based on maintaining proper leverage on the OT and/or getting the QB pushed his way by rushers like Von Miller and Derek Wolfe.

Although he is suspended for the first four games this season for a violation of the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy, Wolfe is an important piece for the Broncos defensive line. A fourth-year veteran, Wolfe is a prototypical 5 technique 3-4 defensive end. He stands 6’5” and weighs 290 pounds and uses his high motor to tie up tackles and allow speed rushing linebackers to overwhelm the pocket, or to set the edge in the run game, making him a player to be Excited about an Expanded Role. Although he has only recorded 1.5 sacks last year in 16 starts, he handled the run game well and showed flashes of his ability to rush the passer

Much of the success of the Broncos’ offense will be related to the offensive line’s ability to protect Manning. The veteran QB  has historically been able to protect himself and minimize the time his linemen need to protect, but Denver would be well served to give him all the support they can. Protecting his blindside will be the Rookie Who Needs to Develop Early, Ty Sambrailo, a second-round draft pick in 2015. Sambrailo was in line to compete for the RT position, but a season ending injury to Ryan Clady pushed the rookie into a competition for the man protecting Manning. The transition should be smooth for Sambrailo, as he played LT in a zone blocking system while at Colorado State and already possesses the necessary footwork to excel at pass protection. Another factor in the Broncos’ offensive line is the second year center, Matt Paradis, a sixth round developmental pick who spent last season on the practice squad and is taking over for the departed Manny Ramirez.  The Broncos need him to Develop Quickly, and so far in preseason he has responded by flashing both the strong scheme intelligence and the quickness needed to succeed at center in Denver’s system. The addition of RG Evan Mathis will hopefully help the development of the two youngsters and provide excellent protection for Manning.

Although the Broncos hope Brock Osweiler is backup QB all season, they still need the fourth-year signal caller to Develop Quickly in order to assess whether he is the quarterback of the future in Denver. The fourth-year quarterback has only attempted 30 passes in his entire career but, should Manning go down, the Broncos need him to produce immediately. He has played well this preseason, but as Blake Bortles learned last year, preseason play is a different beast than regular season. Osweiler has all the physical tools: He stands 6’8″ with tremendous arm strength. But the rub is that his mental processing and decision making skills have lagged behind his physical gifts. After spending three seasons under Peyton Manning, Denver hopes that when Osweiler’s name is called, they’ll be seeing lots of plays like this:

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Kansas City Chiefs

Rookie Who Is Needed Early Players Who Need to Develop Quickly Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline Most Intriguing to Study Excited About Expanded Role
Mitch Morse Eric Fisher /
Albert Wilson
Derrick Johnson Tyvon Branch Dee Ford

Last season, the Kansas City Chiefs earned the dubious distinction of completing an entire season without a wide receiver catching a touchdown pass, a feat not accomplished since 1964. The Chiefs have attempted to remedy this by signing WR Jeremy Maclin and drafting another WR, Chris Conley, in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft. But it is second year wideout Albert Wilson who
Needs to Develop Quickly. Wilson joined the Chiefs as an undrafted free agent and played in 12 games last year, performing well down the stretch. Ideally, Wilson will develop into a strong outside receiver to line up opposite of Maclin, giving Alex Smith three reliable targets in Maclin, Wilson, and TE Travis Kelce.

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Protecting Smith is an offensive line that has found itself going through constant change. Last year’s group had no depth and, with injuries and suspensions, the line play deteriorated, allowing an astonishing 49 sacks. This offseason, head coach Andy Reid made efforts to shore up the line by trading for LG Ben Grubbs, adding depth by signing Paul Fanaika (out for the season) and drafting the Rookie Who is Needed Early in Mitch Morse. The second-round selection played tackle at Missouri but has moved to center, where he will need to anchor the line immediately. Morse combines grit with smart play and has the ability to get to the second level. But he has big shoes to fill in Rodney Hudson‘s departure and is a total question mark at center. Former first overall pick in the 2013 draft Eric Fisher needs to Develop Quickly to solidify the Chiefs’ line. While not a bust, Fisher has struggled in his first two seasons of play. A former LT from Central Michigan, he started his rookie year at RT before moving back to the left last year, struggling mightily in the process. Reid announced this week that Fisher will be moving back to RT for the 2015 season. Fisher possesses good footwork and quickness out of his stance, as well as excellent size, but will need to improve his punch timing and placement to prove, early this season, that he was worth a first overall pick.

On the defensive front, the Chiefs’ defense played a Jekyll and Hyde act in 2014; their pass defense was one of the best in the league, their run defense was one of the worst, surrendering 2,036 yards on the ground last year – fifth-worst in the NFL. Returning from a torn achilles, ILB Derrick Johnson should help with that, but the injury may make him the Veteran Who May be Ready to Decline. Coming back from a torn achilles is difficult for any player, but for a 33 year old linebacker, it may mean the loss of speed and agility needed to shut down the run game. In order to help the linebacking corps with limiting opponents’ running backs, the Chiefs will need OLB Dee Ford to embrace his Expanding Role. The former first round draft pick spent last year transitioning into a pro-style OLB, recording eight tackles and 1.5 sacks. But he will be called upon more this season to spell ten year veteran Tamba Hali. Ford must overcome inconsistent play and show the ability to set the edge and disrupt running plays.

The Chiefs solidified an already strong secondary with the signing of safety Tyvon Branch this past offseason. What makes Branch the Most Intriguing Player to Study is his history of unique play in the middle of the field. At one point in his career, Branch was one of the few defenders in the NFL who could match up with Rob Gronkowski and win his fair share of those battles. Injuries and scheme changes have limited this impact, but, if he can return to his previous form, he gives the Chiefs a versatile playmaker at safety while Eric Berry recovers from cancer.

Oakland Raiders

Rookie Who Is Needed Early Players Who Need to Develop Quickly Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline Most Intriguing to Study Excited About Expanded Role
Mario Edwards Jr. Derek Carr /
Latavius Murray
Donald Penn Nate Allen Ray Ray Armstrong

Head Coach Jack del Rio takes over an Oakland Raiders team on the upswing, coming off of two strong drafts and a solid haul in free agency this offseason. The Raiders need second year quarterback Derek Carr to
Develop Quickly, and general manager Reggie McKenzie has worked to give him the tools to do so by drafting phenom wideout Amari Cooper fourth overall, and by adding veterans Rodney Hudson, Michael Crabtree, and Roy Helu. Carr hopes to build on a rookie season where he passed for over 3,000 yards and threw 21 touchdowns with 12 interceptions. Last year, former Offensive Coordinator Greg Olsen (now in Jacksonville) focused heavily on teaching Carr protections, limited reads, and getting the ball out quickly to develop confidence. Now, though, he will need pick up del Rio’s and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave’s offense quickly and show expanded mental processing in the pocket to deliver strikes to his new weapons.

One of Carr’s weapons will be third year running back Latavius Murray, who will also need to Develop Quickly  in order to make this offense a productive unit from the start. Murray, who missed his entire rookie season due to injury in 2013, turned heads with his play late last year. He has the physical gifts to be a punishing back, standing 6’3” and weighing 230 pounds while running 4.4 forty, but he still needs to show consistency. He will have a chance as del Rio loves to play pound and ground. In this play, Murray shows what he can when he puts it together, hitting the hole hard, cutting back to an open lane, and bursting away from the line for a 90 yard score:

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Helping to protect Carr and create opportunities for Murray is left tackle Donald Penn, but to do that he must avoid being the Veteran who May be Ready to Decline. But at 32 years old the former Buccaneer may see the effects of playing seven consecutive seasons without missing a game. Penn has never been the most athletic tackle, and he has shown signs on tape of declining physical skills. The Raiders need Penn to continue his gradual decline, not to fall off a cliff as is so common in the NFL. Behind Penn are players like Khalif Barnes and J’Marcus Webb who have struggled to perform at a starter level for 16 weeks.

On the defensive side of the field, the Raiders are looking to improve on their middle of the pack finish in 2014. They struggled both at pressuring the quarterback and containing the run. Accordingly, they drafted Mario Edwards Jr. the second round and in the hope that he could fill some of their defensive holes. Edwards Jr. is a versatile player who possess good closing speed and solid strength. The rookie defensive end has impressed this preseason after a slow start, collecting 2.5 sacks in 4 games. But for the Rookie Who is Needed Early to really make an impact, he must help free up double teams on second year star Khalil Mack to create a disruptive tandem. Ray Ray Armstrong, the player to be Most Excited About an Expanded Role, is another disruptive force at weakside linebacker for the Raiders. Although slightly undersized, Armstrong makes up for it with speedy and fierce play, which should play well in Ken Norton Jr.‘s defense. And with the departure of Sio Moore, Armstrong has the opportunity to earn a starting job and give the Raiders a boost off the edge.  

To help solidify their shaky secondary, the Raiders signed safety Nate Allen to a three year deal this offseason.  The former Eagle has had an up and down career marred by injury and inconsistent play. And while the veteran was known in Philly for getting toasted by wide receivers, he still recorded four interceptions, a sack, and 51 tackles, showing his versatility and making him the Most Intriguing to Study. Allen played mainly deep safety with the Eagles, but is able to step up to the line and contain the run; film shows that he is improving, despite what Eagles fans think of his play. Additionally, lining up next to Charles Woodson will allow Allen to learn from the best and hopefully reach his full potential.

San Diego Chargers

Rookie Who Is Needed Early Players Who Need to Develop Quickly Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline Most Intriguing to Study Excited About Expanded Role
Melvin Gordon Keenan Allen / Jahleel Addae Antonio Gates Jimmy Wilson Jeremiah Attaochu

Last season the San Diego Chargers placed 30th in total rushing yards, averaging only 85 yards per game. To remedy that, the Chargers drafted college football’s leading rusher in 2014, Melvin Gordon, with the 15th overall pick. If the  passing game is going to be opened up for Philip Rivers, that makes Gordon the
Rookie Who is Needed Early. Although he has struggled in preseason, averaging only 2.3 yards per carry, Gordon possess all the tools needed to be an explosive back.  He is a tremendous open field rusher who isn’t afraid of contact, though he has a tendency to bounce outside too much. To be successful, the Chargers need him to run with that same ferocity between the tackles.

If Gordon can help to establish the ground game, then Keenan Allen needs to Develop Quickly and assert himself as the Chargers’ top pass catching option. The third year wideout suffered a sophomore slump last season – his touchdown total halved while yards per catch fell by 4 – but came into the preseason matured and ready to be a leader. He adopted a new training regimen and diet and has arrived in camp in better shape. The addition of Stevie Johnson also allows Allen to move back into the slot where, based on his time at Cal, he is more experienced – and more disruptive.

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Allen will be especially needed early, because the Veteran Who May be Ready to Decline, Antonio Gates, is suspended for the first four games of the season. Gates has just turned 35 and has recorded only two 100 yard receiving games in the last three seasons while seeing his average yards per game fall to 51 yards in 2014, among the lowest averages of his career. He still showed himself a redzone threat, however, hauling in 12 touchdown catches. Although he is Rivers’s favorite target near the end zone, the veteran may need to start sharing duties with Ladarius Green in the open field, as aging receivers lose the speed and athleticism needed to get open on a consistent basis.

On the defensive side of the field, the Chargers boast an underrated defense, particularly their secondary. But with Eric Weddle playing possibly his last season in San Diego, the Chargers need two players to step up: Jahleel Addae and newcomer Jimmy Wilson. Addae must Develop Quickly to solidify the strong safety position vacated by Marcus Gilchrist (NYJ) and keep the Chargers pass defense a top five unit. The third year player out of Central Michigan is a punishing hitter, but must improve when isolated in pass coverage. This preseason he has gotten positive grades for improving the angles he takes and the speed at which he reads the offense. Now he must do that on a consistent basis. In competition for the strong safety position is former Miami Dolphins defensive back Jimmy Wilson. During his tenure in Miami, Wilson played both nickel cornerback and strong safety, showing versatility that will be needed in San Diego, even if he doesn’t win the starting strong safety role. Similar to Addae, Wilson is a hard hitting safety who can help in the run game, but will need to show ability in pass defense. Wilson has caught evaluators’ eye due to his physical tools, but has struggled to adapt to concepts and earn the trust of coaching staffs. Because of his experience and versatility, however, Wilson is the Most Intriguing Player to Study heading into the season.

If the Chargers want to make the playoffs this year, they must get after the quarterback on a more consistent basis. This is where Jeremiah Attaochu becomes a key player and one Excited About an Expanded Role. Attaochu has all of the tools to be a dominant pass rusher, combining a high motor with speed and athleticism. But his technique is holding him back as he struggles to shed blocks and use his hands to get separation from offensive linemen. Playing just 161 snaps last season, Taking over for departed veteran Dwight Freeney, Attaochu enters this year a starter and, if he makes the leap, he will give the Chargers the pass rush they have sorely needed.

Follow Dan on Twitter @Dan_Hatman

Dan Hatman is the Director of The Scouting Academy and writes for Inside The Pylon when not teaching future football scouts and coaches how to do their job.

All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.

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