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NFL Preview: Broncos high in West picks

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The Sports Xchange

The Denver Broncos are expected to be manning the top spot in the AFC West for 2015, according to a survey of The Sports Xchange’s football staff.

Although the Broncos, led by 18th-year veteran quarterback Peyton Manning, are clearly favored, first-place votes also went to the Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers, who came in second and third.

The Oakland Raiders are expected to be more competitive in 2015, but they still finished a distant fourth in the poll, getting one vote as high as second place.

Here is a closer look at the AFC West for 2015, with teams listed in order of predicted finish by The Sports Xchange.

DENVER BRONCOS

2015 TSX DIVISIONAL PICK 1st

2014 RECORD: 12-5

DIVISIONAL RECORD: 6-0

COACH: Gary Kubiak

1st season with Broncos

8th season as NFL head coach

63-66 overall; 2-2 postseason

Strength of schedule

Overall .541; Division .438; Non-Division .603.

–TEAM STRENGTH: Pass rush. Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware each played only nine snaps against San Francisco last Saturday, but in their brief time on the field, they would prove enough, with a sack for each. Malik Jackson supplements the Pro Bowlers’ edge rush with some punch from the three-technique, and first-round pick Shane Ray has enjoyed some flashes of brilliance. If the Broncos can play from ahead and turn their pass rush loose, the defense could be in line for some explosive plays.

–BIGGEST CONCERN: Offensive line. Even after the trade for Evan Mathis gave the Broncos two recent All-Pro guards, the starting line will still feature two players with no regular-season snaps to their name — rookie left tackle Ty Sambrailo and center Matt Paradis, a 2014 practice-squad player. Look for the Broncos to use their tight ends to stay home and block until their line solidifies.

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter — Peyton Manning. Backups — Brock Osweiler, Trevor Siemian.

Manning will have to adjust to taking more snaps under center in head coach Gary Kubiak’s tweaked offense, but he will still have the ability to go up-tempo, make checks and calls at the line of scrimmage and find elite targets downfield in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. The biggest question is whether the blocking scheme can keep him upright; he suffered three sacks in one half against San Francisco last week. Osweiler has looked steadier this preseason than ever before, but he is at a crucial point on his career track; his rookie contract expires after this year and the Broncos may have to decide on his future without a regular-season start to guide them. Siemian struggled in the preseason finale but showed enough promise throughout the summer to earn a roster spot.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter — C.J. Anderson. Backups — Ronnie Hillman, Juwan Thompson.

Anderson is the clear No. 1 running back and could be in line for a season that surpasses his explosive 2014 that sent him to the Pro Bowl. But Kubiak’s desire to keep his running backs fresh means plenty of opportunities for Hillman, who beat out Montee Ball to earn the No. 2 job that could be more like a 1A at times. Thompson has multiple special-teams roles, will be used in short yardage and can fill in at fullback. The Broncos kept Kapri Bibbs on the practice squad; when he passed through waivers, it made waiving Ball a reasonable option.

TIGHT ENDS: Starters — Owen Daniels, James Casey. Backups — Virgil Green, Mitchell Henry.

Daniels wasted little time finding timing with Manning and his experience in Kubiak’s offenses in Houston and Baltimore has made him an invaluable teacher to the rest of the offense. Casey will work as a hybrid tight end/fullback; his versatility allows the Broncos to change formations while keeping the same personnel on the field, aiding their no-huddle attack. Green will rotate in to relieve Daniels and could also see some fullback work. The Broncos claimed Hardy off waivers for depth, and he could get a look at fullback behind Casey.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders. Backups — Cody Latimer, Jordan Norwood, Andre Caldwell, Bennie Fowler.

Thomas and Sanders are as good a 1-2 punch as exists in the NFL, but Sanders missed the preseason with a hamstring injury, so it could be a week or two before his timing is up to speed. Latimer took advantage of the extra work on the first team throughout the offseason and in training camp and has timing with Manning; when the Broncos go into three-wide receiver sets, he could line up outside, with Sanders moving into the slot. Norwood and Caldwell have made strong pushes, however, and could take some snaps from Latimer.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LT Ty Sambrailo, LG Evan Mathis, C Matt Paradis, RG Louis Vasquez, RT Ryan Harris. Backups — T Michael Schofield, G/C Max Garcia, C James Ferentz, G/C Shelley Smith.

The Aug. 26 signing of Mathis brought stability to a line that was a massive question mark in the wake of Ryan Clady’s torn ACL. Mathis and Vasquez provide the Broncos a pair of guards that could be the league’s best; they were the All-Pro tandem in 2013 and Mathis was a Pro Bowler last year in Philadelphia. Sambrailo has improved with each game; although the Broncos will have to help him against some of the elite pass rushers they face early, the job of protecting Manning’s blind side does not appear too big for him. Paradis’ progress moved him up to the first team after five days of training camp; the quarterbacks have praised his ability to make pre-snap reads. Harris is on his third Broncos stint and is steady, as long as his back troubles don’t recur. Schofield will be the swing backup at both tackle spots after the trade of Chris Clark. Garcia was supplanted on the first team by Mathis but has the inside track on working as the swing interior backup and took snaps at center last week, although Smith has more experience in that swing role. Ferentz is a prospect the Broncos liked because of his similarity to Paradis.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — DE Malik Jackson, NT Sylvester Williams, DE Antonio Smith. Backups — DE Vance Walker, DE Kenny Anunike, NT Darius Kilgo. Others: DE Derek Wolfe (starter, suspended 4 games).

With Wolfe out, Walker and Smith will see more time up front and will split time as Wolfe’s replacement. Anunike could factor into the mix when he recovers from the knee scope he underwent Aug. 20. Jackson has emerged as a force working from the 3-technique and could be in line for a big year as he capitalizes on the attention given to the edge rushers. Williams has played with more fire this summer than at any point since he was drafted, but he is being pushed by Kilgo, a stout sixth-round pick who has provided more pass-rush punch than expected.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — OLB Von Miller, OLB DeMarcus Ware, ILB Brandon Marshall, ILB Danny Trevathan. Backups — OLB Shaquil Barrett, OLB Shane Ray, OLB Lerentee McCray, ILB Todd Davis, ILB Corey Nelson.

If Marshall and Trevathan can stay healthy, this could be the most formidable quartet of starting linebackers in the league. Trevathan and Marshall both flourished as the weakside linebackers in the previous 4-3 alignment, with Marshall replacing the injured Trevathan last year and showing no drop-off. Miller and Ware are in more natural spots for their skill-sets, and the addition of first-round pick Ray and the emergence of Barrett give the Broncos a chance to rest their top two edge rushers. Nelson showed enough progress in the preseason to beat out veteran Steven Johnson for a roster spot. With only two inside linebackers behind Marshall and Trevathan, the Broncos appear confident in their ability to avoid the injuries they had last year.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Aqib Talib, RCB Chris Harris Jr., FS David Bruton, SS Darian Stewart. Backups — CB Bradley Roby, CB Kayvon Webster, S Omar Bolden, S Josh Bush, CB Curtis Marsh, CB Lorenzo Doss. Others: S T.J. Ward (starter, suspended 1 game).

Talib and Harris both went to the Pro Bowl last year and will be left on an island more often in Wade Phillips’ aggressive scheme. Ward will move into the box and even into the slot on occasion and could be the Broncos’ most versatile defensive back once he returns. Stewart has been the first-teamer throughout the preseason, but the Broncos have worked Bruton into various sub packages to try to get him on the field. Bruton should continue pushing for the starting job even after he returns to the second team once Ward returns. Roby and Webster give the Broncos above-average depth at cornerback.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Brandon McManus, P Britton Colquitt, LS Aaron Brewer, KR Omar Bolden, PR Emmanuel Sanders.

McManus beat out Connor Barth by improving his accuracy thanks to the removal of a “jab step” from his run-up to the football; he will also handle kickoffs, where he was one of the league’s best last year. Colquitt turned back a challenge from Spencer Lanning with two strong games after Lanning was claimed off waivers. Bolden didn’t do enough to seize the punt-return duties, which for now will pass to Sanders, as the Broncos want to find ways to get him the ball if they can’t involve him in the offense as much as they did last year.

PRACTICE SQUAD: ILB Zaire Anderson, RB Kapri Bibbs, C Dillon Day, TE Arthur Lynch, OLB Danny Mason, DL Chuka Ndulue, CB Taurean Nixon, T Kyle Roberts, WR Jordan Taylor, DE George Uko.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

2015 TSX DIVISIONAL PICK: 2nd

2014 RECORD: 9-7

DIVISIONAL RECORD: 3-3

COACH: Andy Reid

3rd season with Chiefs

20-13 overall; 0-1 postseason

17th season as NFL head coach

160-115-1 overall; 10-10 postseason

Strength of schedule:

Overall .545; Division .500; Non-Division .572.

–TEAM STRENGTH: Linebackers. Coming off a ruptured Achilles tendon that kept him sidelined for 15 games last season, inside linebacker Derrick Johnson has shown he’s retained his speed and quickness. His addition, along with Pro Bowl outside linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, gives the Chiefs one of the best groups in the league. The Chiefs’ 2014 first-round draft choice Dee Ford has shown development from his rookie season and will be a much bigger factor this season. Rookie draft choices Ramik Wilson and D. J. Alexander will scuffle for playing time. Coordinator Bob Sutton has tweaked his scheme to take advantage of the different talents of his linebackers.

–BIGGEST CONCERN: Offensive line. The biggest question mark that followed the Chiefs from the offseason into training camp was the big blockers upfront. It appeared there would be only one starter back in his position from the 2014 season — left tackle Eric Fisher. The Chiefs acquired left guard Ben Grubbs in a trade with New Orleans and the remaining three starting jobs were open. After training camp and three preseason games, nothing is settled on the right side of the line and Fisher has missed the last two weeks because of a high ankle sprain. Jeff Allen has worked at guard and tackle, but he went down because of a sprained MCL in the first preseason game and hasn’t returned to practice. It appears rookie Mitch Morse has moved into the starting center spot ahead of Eric Kush, but the injuries have left the group without much cohesion.

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter — Alex Smith. Backups — Chase Daniel, Aaron Murray.

No change in this trio from last season, although No. 3 Murray showed major improvement in the preseason. Smith is being asked to take his game to another level this season, and it appears he finally has talented targets to connect with. No team threw deep less often than the Chiefs in 2014. They don’t plan to be No. 32 in the coming season.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters — Jamaal Charles, FB Anthony Sherman. Backups — Knile Davis, Charcandrick West.

Charles begins the regular season healthy, something he never was during the 2014 schedule, thanks to strains and sprains suffered in the preseason. Davis showed improvement in catching the football and West stepped forward in August and earned a roster spot. Sherman remains one of the Chiefs’ most underrated players for what he does on offense and special teams.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Travis Kelce. Backups — Demetrius Harris, James O’Shaughnessy, Brian Parker.

Kelce has come a long way since this time last season, when he had not caught a regular-season pass in the league. He established his potential by leading the Chiefs in catches and receiving yards last season. Reid and the offensive staff expect more from Kelce this year. There’s a lack of veteran experience on the bench, with rookies O’Shaughnessy and Parker, while Harris is rebounding from foot surgery in May and did not practice or play until last week.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Jeremy Maclin, Albert Wilson. Backups — Jason Avant, Chris Conley, Frankie Hammond, De’Anthony Thomas.

The addition of Maclin figures to make a big change in the passing game and he’s already shown a connection with Smith. Although the start of training camp was lost to Conley because of a knee injury, he’s seen a lot of playing time in the last three preseason games and has produced. Thomas missed most of the game action in the preseason due to a calf injury, but his move to full-time receiver adds another element of speed to the group. After not catching a touchdown pass last season, the Chiefs’ receivers need only one scoring catch to show improvement.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LT Donald Stephenson, LG Ben Grubbs, C Mitch Morse, RG Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, RT Eric Fisher. Backups — G/T Jeff Allen, G/T Paul Fanaika, C/G Zach Fulton, G/T Jah Reid.

Head coach Andy Reid said he would find the five best blockers and they would be his starting offensive line, and the head coach stayed true to his promise, although it’s a very inexperienced unit. There will be four new starters from last year’s group, with only Fisher returning, albeit at a new spot on the right side. Grubbs was the big addition, coming over in a trade from New Orleans. Morse has shown real promise at center and the development of Duvernay-Tardif in his second NFL season has been remarkable. Reid likes Stephenson more at left tackle than the right side. The late addition of Reid gives the Chiefs more experience on the bench.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — DLE Mike DeVito, NT Jaye Howard, DRE Allen Bailey. Backups — DE Rakeem Nunez-Roches, NT Dontari Poe, DE Nick Williams.

The Chiefs wait for the return of Poe from July back surgery to repair a disc. He did not join practice in training camp and saw no snaps in the four preseason games. DeVito has bounced back from his ruptured Achilles suffered in last year’s opener. Depth is shallow and lacks experience, so the group may remain fluid in the opening weeks of the season.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — WLB Tamba Hali, MLB Josh Mauga, ILB Derrick Johnson, SLB Justin Houston. Backups — ILB D.J. Alexander, OLB Dee Ford, MLB Ramik Wilson, ILB Frank Zombo.

The strongest part of the Chiefs roster is the linebacking corps, with three Pro Bowlers as starters thanks to the return of Johnson from his ruptured Achilles tendon from last season. He’s lost a few pounds and appears to have retained the quickness that’s been a hallmark in his playmaking ability. Houston will have a tough time duplicating his 22 1/2 sacks from last season. Hali is probably in his final season with the Chiefs, while Ford will see more playing time after gaining little action in his rookie season.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Phillip Gaines, RCB Marcus Peters, FS Husain Abdullah, SS Ron Parker. Backups — S Eric Berry, S Tyvon Branch, CB Marcus Cooper, CB Jamell Fleming, CB Steven Nelson, S Daniel Sorensen. Others: CB Sean Smith (starter, suspended 3 games).

Losing Smith to a three-game NFL suspension hurts, but first-round draft choice Peters has really shown a package of skills that needs only continued experience to make him a solid starter for many years with the Chiefs. Berry is back from his battle against Hodgkins lymphoma and he will see plenty of snaps in the sub-defenses. Gaines will be the key in the secondary, coming off a typical up-and-down season for a rookie last year.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Starters — K Cairo Santos, P Dustin Colquitt, LS James Winchester, KOR Chris Conley, KOR Knile Davis, PR Frankie Hammond, PR De’Anthony Thomas.

Under special teams coordinator Dave Toub, the Chiefs have returned six punts and kickoffs for touchdown in two seasons. Davis and Thomas provide a threat to score every time they catch the ball. Colquitt is one of the league’s most versatile punters and is very skilled at dropping his kicks inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Winchester will be in his first NFL season.

PRACTICE SQUARD: WR Da’Ron Brown, DT Hebron Fangupo, T Laurence Gibson, CB Jeremy Harris, DE David Irving, C Daniel Munyer, G/T Jarrod Pughsley, TE Ross Travis, FB Spencer Ware, WR Fred Williams.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

2015 TSX DIVISIONAL PICK: 3rd

2014 RECORD: 9-7

DIVISIONAL RECORD: 2-4

COACH: Mike McCoy

3rd season as Chargers/NFL head coach

19-15 overall; 1-1 postseason

Strength of schedule

Overall .518; Division .500; Non-Division .528.

–TEAM STRENGTH: The passing game figures to be what the Chargers lean on, and why not with an elite quarterback such as Philip Rivers. The 12-year pro has had an excellent camp, one which included him obtaining an $84-million contract extension. He is also in year three of coach Mike McCoy’s up-tempo offense, which trusts Rivers’ moxie changing in and out of plays. Wide receiver Keenan Allen seems to have a renewed focus this year and Malcom Floyd, in what he says is his last year, is playing with urgency. Stevie Johnson has been dynamite, in addition to connecting with Rivers on non-verbal signs regarding routes and adjustments that came quicker than both thought. The one hiccup is that suspended tight end Antonio Gates will miss the first four games. But LaDarius Green could minimize the absence of Gates. Plus, running back Danny Woodhead is back from last year’s broken leg to give Rivers a steady safety value out of the backfield.

–BIGGEST CONCERN: King Dunlap is at his left tackle spot, but he is the only Chargers lineman to return to where he blocked last year on opening day. It remains a mystery as to whether the Chargers’ revamped offensive line — the results have been mixed — will provide consistent protection for Philip Rivers and be able to open lanes for what last year was a tepid running attack. Orlando Franklin was brought in from Denver to play left guard. Chris Watt has started five career games — college included — at center. Right guard is manned by D.J. Fluker, after he spent his first two seasons at right tackle. Joe Barksdale comes over from the Rams and he takes over for Fluker at right tackle. How quickly this unit comes together will be a big piece of the Chargers’ offensive puzzle.

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter — Philip Rivers. Backup — Kellen Clemens.

The biggest goal of camp and the preseason was getting Rivers out of them in one piece. He’s healthy, has a new contract and eager for a big season — and he should in Year 3 of head coach Mike McCoy’s system. A bit of surprise the Chargers are going with just two quarterbacks as Brad Sorensen didn’t make the final cut, btu was signed to the practice squad.

RUNNING BACKS: Starter — Melvin Gordon. Backups — Branden Oliver, Danny Woodhead, Donald Brown.

Some Chargers watchers are concerned Gordon didn’t light it up in the preseason. But the coaches and players know they have something special in Gordon and are basically telling everyone to chill. A big plus for Gordon is he doesn’t have to do the heavy lifting by himself. Woodhead is looking spry after breaking his leg last year and Oliver continues to run away from people. Brown made the squad, a slight surprise considering his body of work with the Chargers and the depth here.

TIGHT ENDS: Starters — Ladarius Green, David Johnson. Backups — Kyle Miller. Others: Antonio Gates (starter, suspended 4 games).

Interesting unit here as Gates will miss the first quarter of the season. Green has been hyped for some time; his time is now, especially early, to prove he’s the real deal. Johnson will be asked to block. The team hates to not have Gates, but he’ll have some fresh legs when he shows up in Week 5.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Keenan Allen, Malcom Floyd. Backups –Stevie Johnson, Jacoby Jones, Dontrelle Inman.

Allen hasn’t had Rivers barking him like in his first two camps — that’s a good thing. Allen seems set on playing with more consistency and the Chargers are all for that. Floyd is going into his last year but he’s playing like he could extend his career — if he wants. Johnson has taken on Eddie Royal’s number and role. He had a great summer and already has a connection with Rivers. Jones and Inman will have to fight for the leftover snaps.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LT King Dunlap, LG Orlando Franklin, C Chris Watt, RG D.J. Fluker, RT Joe Barksdale. Backups — T/G Chris Hairston, C Trevor Robinson, G Johnnie Troutman, T Tyree Burwell. Others: G Craig Watts (backup, suspended 2 games, remainder of 4-game suspension from last season).

The time is here to find just what the Chargers have here. Just one lineman, Dunlap, returns at the same position he was at last year. Otherwise it’s either new faces or new places for the rest of the line. Franklin should be an upgrade but he’s been bothered by some kind of leg injury that bears watching. Watt is a converted guard; Fluker a converted tackle. Barksdale figures to be steady and reliable and the Chargers will take that.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — DLE Corey Liuget, NT Sean Lissemore, DRE Kendall Reyes. Backups — DE Ricardo Mathews, NT Ryan Carrethers, DE Mitch Unrein, DE Darius Philon.

Liuget could be headed to the Pro Bowl — his level of play has increased that much. But he needs some help and it’s not clear where that will come from. Lissemore is a body; Carrethers could push him for snaps. Reyes has leveled off and goes long stretches of non-productivity. Considering the undersized inside linebackers behind them, it’s a key for the defensive linemen to play big.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — OLB Melvin Ingram, ILB Manti Te’o, ILB Donald Butler, OLB Jerry Attaochu. Backups — OLB Kyle Emanuel, ILB Kavell Conner, ILB Denzel Perryman, OLB Tourek Williams, OLB Cordarro Law, ILB Nick Dzubnar.

Ingram is fit and playing with vigor. But will it last as injuries have restricted him to six sacks in three seasons. Te’o is making progress, but he often gets overwhelmed at the point of attack. Butler was a disaster last year and seems bent on making good on him being good again — we’ll see. Attaochu was dogged by a leg injury during the preseason games. The Chargers are super-high on rookie Kyle Emanuel, which shows you how desperate they are to find a pass rush after collecting but 26 sacks last year — Emanuel is a fifth-round pick from North Dakota State. Conner is watching in the base defense; Perryman likely makes his mark on special teams.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Brandon Flowers, RCB Jason Verrett, FS Eric Weddle, SS Jahleel Addae. Backups — CB Steve Williams, CB Patrick Robinson, FS Darrell Stuckey, SS Jimmy Wilson, CB Craig Mager.

This could be a team strength and that hasn’t been mentioned in these parts for some time. But Flowers is a steady veteran and in Verrett, the staff thinks he is very good. But he has to stay on the field after his rookie year was a mixed bag on the health front. Weddle is in a contract year and he’s keen on showing the Chargers are making a mistake by not extending their longtime defensive captain. Addae is a big-time hitter, the best here since Rodney Harrison. He’s not that good, but one gets the drift of his physical style.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Josh Lambo, P Mike Scifres, LS Mike Windt, KOR Jacoby Jones, PR Jacoby Jones.

Many eyebrows were raised when Lambo won out over Nick Novak to be the kicker; Novak is the second-most accurate kicker in franchise history. But Lambo’s strong leg on kickoffs was the difference. Mike Scifres is back after missing the last three games last year and booming punts again in camp and preseason games. Jones, the Chargers hope, breathes some life into the return game and uncovers those hidden special-teams yards.

PRACTICE SQUAD: TE Alex Bayer, CB Greg Ducre, WR Javontee Herndon, G Michael Huey, LB Ryan Mueller, OL Michael Ola, S Adrian Phillips, RB Dreamius Smith, QB Brad Sorensen, DT Damion Square.

OAKLAND RAIDERS

2015 TSX DIVISIONAL PICK: 4th

2014 RECORD: 3-13

DIVISIONAL RECORD: 1-5

COACH: Jack Del Rio

1st season with Raiders

10th season as NFL head coach

69-73 overall; 1-2 postseason

Strength of schedule:

Overall .545; Division .625; Non-Division .497.

–TEAM STRENGTH: Defensive line. With Khalil Mack seeing more time as a defensive end than strong-side linebacker, it bolsters a unit that is already brimming with size end explosiveness. Tackles Dan Williams and Justin Ellis are formidable and quicker than you would expect at a combined 665 pounds. Rookie Mario Edwards Jr. looks like an instant contributor both inside and outside, with young linemen Denico Autry and Shelby Harris thriving during training camp and the preseason. That doesn’t even include Justin Tuck, a veteran whose snaps have been limited to keep him fresh.

–BIGGEST CONCERN: Cornerback. The Raiders looked toward experienced free-agent corners the last three years (Ron Bartell and Shawntae Spencer in 2012, Tracy Porter and Mike Jenkins in 2013, Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown last season) and regretted it. In 2015, they will start with their own young talent — DJ Hayden and TJ Carrie slated as starters, with Keith McGill in reserve. There is woefully little experience and Hayden is learning the hard way, although he is at least staying away from injuries.

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter — Derek Carr. Backup — Matt McGloin.

Carr is the most established Raiders starter since Rich Gannon in 2004, but he wasn’t particularly sharp in the preseason while McGloin had a passer rating of 110.6. Still, the Raiders are committed to building around Carr to the point where many of the up-tempo, no-huddle plays he utilized at Fresno State have been added to the offense. McGloin is in many ways an ideal backup — with more in the way of leadership, confidence and preparation than natural ability.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters — Latavius Murray, FB Marcel Reece. Backups — Taiwan Jones, Roy Helu Jr., FB Jamize Olawale.

Murray was slowed late in the preseason after a promising debut, but a lot of that was the Raiders simply taking the ball out of his hands to make sure he was ready to start the season. The Raiders may not use a true fullback often, with Reece’s role being more as a receiver and occasional ball-carrier — an underutilized feature of his game under previous regimes. Helu should help as a third-down back, particularly in the screen game, while Jones may get a few opportunities per game to show off his speed. Olawale is a block-and-catch fullback and core special teams player.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter — Lee Smith. Backups — Mychal Rivera, Clive Walford, Gabe Holmes.

Smith was brought in to fortify the offensive line and looks like a displaced tackle. He’ll be on the field during all double-tight sets as well as run downs. Rivera does his best work off the line — in motion, flexed outside or coming out of the backfield as a receiver. Walford should emerge as a go-to figure by the end of the season if he can remain healthy.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters — Michael Crabtree, Amari Cooper. Backups — Andre Holmes, Seth Roberts, Bruce Butler, Rod Streater.

Crabtree, a regular participant in training camp unlike most of his stint with the 49ers, became an immediate favorite of Carr and aims for a big season on a one-year contract. Cooper looked the part of the No. 4 pick in the draft, a potential 70-1,000 player as a rookie. Holmes and Streater, go-to receivers in 2013 and 2014, were forced to compete for roster spots.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — LT Donald Penn, LG Gabe Jackson, C Rodney Hudson, RG J’Marcus Webb, RT Austin Howard. Backups — G/C Jon Feliciano, T/G Khalif Barnes, G/C Tony Bergstrom, T/G Matt McCants.

This unit looks strong from the middle through the left side, with Hudson, Jackson and Penn. Hudson arrives as a big-ticket free agent and a big upgrade over Stefen Wisniewski, who played with a bad shoulder last season. Penn and Jackson were excellent pass blockers who seek to improve their run blocking. Webb will be watched closely as a converted tackle. Barnes and McCants are potential replacements for Howard if he fails, although McCants struggled mightily in the preseason finale.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters — DE Justin Tuck, DT Justin Ellis, DT Dan Williams, DE Khalil Mack. Backups — DT Stacy McGee, DE Benson Mayowa, DL Mario Edwards Jr., DE Denico Autry, DE Lavar Edwards.

Tuck was put on ice during the preseason and will probably have limited snaps in deference to his age. Ellis and Williams are both 330 pounds yet agile and interchangeable as the nose and 3-technique. Mack will be found on both sides, sometimes lining up as a lineman, others as an outside linebacker. He’ll almost always be coming forward and is a force vs. pass and run. Edwards shows explosive ability and will benefit from Mack’s presence. Mayowa and Autry both earned their spots with solid training camp performances and look like fits for the Seattle-style defense the Raiders will employ under new coordinator Ken Norton Jr. McGee, who fell out of favor last season after a promising rookie season, gets another chance.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — WLB Malcolm Smith, MLB Curtis Lofton, SLB Ray-Ray Armstrong. Backups — MLB Ben Heeney, OLB Lorenzo Alexander, OLB Neiron Ball.

Smith has been essential in helping coordinator Ken Norton Jr. install a new system, having played for him both at USC and in Seattle. Lofton looks to clean up as a tackler backing up the Williams-Ellis tandem up front. Armstrong has curbed his penchant for penalties and caught Del Rio’s eye in the offseason. Heeney’s sideline-to-sideline aggression will push Lofton if the veteran shows signs of wear and tear. Alexander is a veteran brought in to play special teams and lend stability, while Ball is a rookie who showed promise as a pass rusher.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB DJ Hayden, FS Charles Woodson, SS Nate Allen, RCB TJ Carrie. Backups — CB Keith McGill, S Larry Asante, CB Dexter McDonald, CB Neiko Thorpe, S Keenan Lambert.

Hayden was pushed for a time by McGill but managed to hold on to the starting spot. Among his issues are a failure to turn around in time to make a play even when his coverage is good, a problem the Raiders consider correctable. Carrie’s health was an issue in college, duties as a return specialist might not help the rookie. Woodson, who turns 39 during the season, faded ever so slightly late last season but generally remained a legit starter. Allen’s signing was panned league-wide because of coverage breakdowns on the back end, but he had a solid preseason. McDonald has the press coverage size and skill for the position, while Thorpe will contribute the most on special teams. Asante is extremely aggressive but can be fragile, while Lambert was a waiver claim from Seattle.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Sebastian Janikowski, P Marquette King, LS Jon Condo, PR TJ Carrie, KR Taiwan Jones.

With Janikowski, the Raiders probably won’t do a lot of gambling on conversions, considering his accuracy rate inside the 40 has been nearly automatic throughout his career. King hopes to improve on a solid second season that saw him develop touch, dropping kicks inside the 20 and avoiding touchbacks. Condo is one of the NFL’s top long snappers. Carrie and Jones get first crack as return specialists, an area where the Raiders have struggled for years.

PRACTICE SQUAD: RB George Atkinson III, G Mitch Bell, CB SaQwan Edwards, QB Garrett Gilbert, DE Shelby Harris, T Dan Kistler, S Tevin McDonald, DT Leon Orr, LB Josh Shirley, DE Max Valles.

–Correspondents covering each team for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this report.


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