All across the country NFL training camps are opening up, which means it is getting very close to being football season. The only bad news is that fans are subjected to four preseason games before the actual meaningful games get underway. The preseason games are simply a way for the owners to put some more money in their pocket while the individual players can get themselves ready for the regular seasonm or in other cases allow a player to make the team.
There are the obvious players in the AFC West that will garner a majority of the attention as the preseason moves along. Everyone is waiting to see how Peyton Manning looks in Denver as he comes back after sitting last season out due to injury. In Kansas City, fans will anxiously be waiting to see how the trio of Tony Moeaki, Eric Berry and Jamaal Charles look in their returns from injury. Out on the West Coast, fans of both the Raiders and Chargers will be watching to see if Carson Palmer and Philip Rivers can fully return to their former glory.
As everyone knows, especially in Kansas City, NFL teams though consist of 53 guys. So which other players in the AFC West that may not be as high profile should fans be watching a little closer in the preseason this year?
1. Jonathan Baldwin, WR - Kansas City Chiefs
With the possibly training camp holdout of Dwayne Bowe the performance of Baldwin becomes even more important to the Chiefs chances in 2012. After missing out on valuable practice time last year before the season due to the NFL lockout, Baldwin set himself further back by injuring himself in a fight with former teammate Thomas Jones. These events can partially be to blame for the somewhat disappointing rookie season that Baldwin had.
Now with the likely absence of Bowe in training camp it figures that Baldwin will step into the number one receiver's role. This should allow him to get plenty of repetitions with Matt Cassel and become very comfortable in new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll's system. The flip side though is with Bowe not playing it likely means that Baldwin will be facing the opposing teams top cover man in the preseason.
It will be interesting to see how big of a step up he has made from his rookie to his sophomore season and the preseason should give fans their first glimpse of this. It should be noted that if Bowe does hold out for an extended period of time the chances of him getting injured and missing a few games would likely be elevated. If this does happen the experience that Baldwin can gain as the top receiving option in the preseason could be very valuable.
2. Brock Osweiler, QB - Denver Broncos
While the main focus on quarterback play in the Rocky Mountains will understandably be on Manning, the play of Osweiler should be examined very carefully as well. It is no secret that John Elway hopes that Osweiler won't see the field in the regular season for at least four to five years but with Manning's age and recent injury history that timeframe could be accelerated.
There are two main reasons why Bronco fans should watch Osweiler's play so carefully in the preseason. The first is the obvious reason that if Manning gets hurt he could be the next man up assuming he beats out Caleb Hanie for the backup job.
The second reason is that Elway spent a very valuable second round draft pick on him. With the Broncos clearly in win-now mode with the signing of Manning that pick could have been used on a player to make more of an immediate impact. If Osweiler comes out and plays well in the preseason then Bronco fans might feel better not only about their short term play at the quarterback position but the prospects for the future.
3. Melvin Ingram, LB - San Diego Chargers
Even though Ingram is a first round pick he likely will not be the focus of Charger fans when evaluating the team early in the preseason. Many people will presumably be watching the Chargers offense to see if they can continue to be a top unit even with the loss of Vincent Jackson in free agency.
In the NFL, Ingram will likely be making the move to rush outside linebacker from the defensive end spot he played in at South Carolina. The first few preseason games should give a pretty good indication if the transition will be a smooth one for him. Last season the Chargers struggled mightily to get off the field on defense so they are desperate for Ingram to provide a pass rush. Charger fans have to hope that Ingram can adapt as quickly to a rush linebacker position in the pros as Von Miller did last year for Denver.
4. DeMarcus Van Dyke and Chimdi Chekwa, CBs - Oakland Raiders
Just because it's the Raiders let's do a little cheating here and pick two players and not just one. The reason that fans will want to pay attention to the play of the Raiders 2011 third and fourth round draft selections is simply because of who they are trying to beat out for the starting jobs.
In front of Van Dyke and Chekwa are two players , Ronald Bartell and Shawntae Spencer, who are both now in their thirties and were cut by their respective teams following last season. In the case of Spencer despite being projected to possibly start last season in San Francisco, he was inactive for five games coming down the stretch of the season and for both of the 49ers playoff contests. As for Bartell, he is coming off a 2011 season where he sustained a neck injury in the opener and missed the entire season and was eventually released by the Rams who finished last season at 2-14.
It should go without saying that Raider fans have to be hoping for some vast improvement from both Van Dyke and Chekwa in the 2012 season. If neither player steps up in the preseason to challenge for a starting role it could be a bad omen for the season ahead in Oakland.