There was time earlier this century when, other than the occasional strong year from the San Diego Chargers, the AFC West and NFC West were among the worst divisions in football. That has changed in a big way in recent years. The Denver Broncos are one of the top teams in the AFC, and the NFC West has been an annual threat to send two or three teams into the playoffs.
That should be the case again this season. Peyton Manning is still the quarterback for the Broncos, which means they'll have roughly a million yards of offense, and the rest of that division could also be good in 2015 -- even the Oakland Raiders. In Derek Carr, the Raiders might have finally found the young franchise quarterback they've been looking for since, seemingly, the beginning of time.
In the NFC West, the Seattle Seahawks are hoping to come back even stronger after falling to the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, while the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers still boast talented rosters.
But there are question marks all over both divisions, especially for the teams that had crazy offseasons (49ers) and those looking to take that next step (Cardinals, Kansas City Chiefs). Training camp should be an illuminating time for each division. Here's what you can expect out of them when things get underway in late July:
Start Date: July 31
Location: Paul D. Bowlen Memorial Center, Dove Valley, Colo. & Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver, Colo.
Player you'll be buzzing about: DE Malik Jackson -- Jackson is in the final year of his rookie contract. He's set to become a full-time starter this season and will want to show the team he should remain a starter.
What to watch: Peyton Manning is the Broncos' offense at this stage, and as he gets older all eyes will be on how his throwing arm is holding up in areas like velocity and accuracy. Unfortunately for Manning, the biggest question mark on the team is its offensive line. Four of the five starters from the end of 2014 are gone, and the Broncos will be conducting battles at multiple positions.
Most important position battle: Manning won't be around forever and the Broncos insist they want to run a more balanced offense. That means they'll run it more, but will it be C.J. Anderson or Montee Ball carrying the football the most?
For more on the Broncos, check out Mile High Report.
Kansas City Chiefs
Start Date: Aug. 1
Location: Missouri Western State University, St. Joseph, Mo.
Player you'll be buzzing about: CB Phillip Gaines -- Gaines started off slow, but he improved every single week last season as a rookie and is a projected starter heading into training camp. He can make waves.
What to watch: Justin Houston just signed a massive deal, and although some might suggest he has little motivation now, Houston insisted that getting a big paycheck is not like winning the lottery. He's looking to prove that he was worth the record $101 million contract that the Chiefs gave him. It will also be interesting to see how Derrick Johnson and Mike DeVito look. Both defenders sustained ruptured Achilles in Week 1 of 2014.
Most important position battle: Wide receiver -- The Chiefs have had low production out of their receivers for a while now, but with Jeremy Maclin in town, it will be a race to see who can be a productive No. 2 alongside him.
For more on the Chiefs, check out Arrowhead Pride.
San Diego Chargers
Start Date: July 30
Location: Chargers Park, San Diego, Calif.
Player you'll be buzzing about: LB Denzel Perryman -- It would be easy to go with running back Melvin Gordon, the team's first-round pick, but second-rounder Perryman is explosive and will be trying to show the team he deserves a starting role early.
What to watch: The Chargers have been searching for help at running back for years, and they took advantage of the strongest running back draft class we've seen in a long time and picked Gordon. Quarterback Philip Rivers is still the guy who will drive the offense, but Gordon is loaded with potential and the Chargers should have a balanced attack next season. However, there's the question of whether anybody will step up at tight end after Antonio Gates was suspended for four games.
Most important position battle: Defensive line -- The Chargers have Corey Liuget, but outside of him they need to get the defensive line depth sorted out. Sean Lissemore and former Bronco Mitch Unrein are a couple of other names to watch.
For more on the Chargers, check out Bolts From The Blue.
Start Date: July 31
Location: Napa Valley Marriott, Napa Valley, Calif.
Player you'll be buzzing about: RB Latavius Murray -- In his second NFL season, Murray only carried the ball 82 times, but he made the most out of them with two touchdowns and a 5.2 yards per carry average. Although it's still too early to know what Murray can do as a full-time starter, the Raiders could have a real superstar on their hands.
What to watch: Derek Carr showed plenty of promise as a rookie and now he has a brand-new set of toys to work with in the passing game. In free agency, the team added Michael Crabtree, and then selected Amari Cooper and Clive Walford in the first two rounds of the 2015 NFL Draft. Carr's ability to jell with his new weapons in the passing game will be a big key for the Raiders' offense.
Most important position battle: Tight end -- Mychal Rivera had the second-most receptions on the team in 2014, but the position has been completely overhauled. In addition to adding Walford in the draft, the Raiders signed Lee Smith in free agency. Smith isn't a big receiving threat, but he's a strong blocker who could cut into Rivera's snaps. It's Walford who could end up being the complete tight end that absorbs the most snaps, though, if he reaches his potential sooner rather than later.
For more on the Raiders, check out Silver And Black Pride.
Start Date: July 31
Location: Virginia Mason Athletic Center, Renton, Wash.
Player you'll be buzzing about: DE Cassius Marsh -- The Seahawks already could have used depth at pass rusher even before they lost O'Brien Schofield this offseason. That leaves a big rotational opportunity for Marsh, who is essentially starting his redshirt rookie year after playing just 71 snaps in 2014 before a foot injury ended his year.
What to watch: At this point, it's not really a question of whether former Saints TE Jimmy Graham will be a main target for Russell Wilson, but rather how quickly the two will develop that connection. The offense will center around Marshawn Lynch once again, but if Wilson and Graham are on point from the start, the Seahawks can be a force. Of course, that all hinges on Wilson being in good spirits given his ongoing contract situation.
Most important position battle: Seattle is a mostly complete team and center is really the only position up for grabs. The team traded Max Unger as part of the Graham trade, and the Seahawks will turn to guys like Lemuel Jeanpierre, Drew Nowak, Patrick Lewis and Kristjan Sokoli to battle for the position.
For more on the Seahawks, check out Field Gulls.
Start Date: Aug. 1
Location: University of Phoenix Stadium, Phoenix, Ariz.
Player you'll be buzzing about: WR John Brown -- Brown contributed as a rookie, and the Cardinals think he might be the real deal. They're planning for life without Larry Fitzgerald in the future and Brown should be able to rise to the occasion.
What to watch: Despite serious issues at the quarterback position and the fact that everyone doubted them, the Cardinals have been excellent these past two seasons. Now that Carson Palmer is healthy, everything the Cardinals do will be focused on making sure it stays that way. They had one of the worst offensive lines in the league not so long ago, but now it's looking much improved with new addition Mike Iupati and a competition at the right tackle spot.
Most important position battle: Right tackle -- As mentioned above, the Cardinals need to keep Palmer healthy, and that starts with keeping him upright in the games. Bobby Massie and first-round pick D.J. Humphries will likely battle for the spot.
For more on the Cardinals, check out Revenge of The Birds.
San Francisco 49ers
Start Date: Aug. 1
Location: San Francisco 49ers complex, Santa Clara, Calif.
Player you'll be buzzing about: RB Carlos Hyde -- The 49ers let Frank Gore walk during free agency and Hyde, who looked solid as a rookie, will take over as the feature back in what should be a run-first offense.
What to watch: The 49ers are in disarray after a tumultuous offseason. How will the new coaching staff handle its first training camp, and how will offensive and defensive leaders like Colin Kaepernick and NaVorro Bowman respond to them? Speaking of Bowman, how he looks after missing an entire season due to injury could have a lot to do with whether the 49ers can find success this season.
Most important position battle: Cornerback -- the 49ers saw two big-name starters in Perrish Cox and Chris Culliver depart in free agency, and they will need to sort out their entire depth chart at the position. Kenneth Acker, Keith Reaser, Tramaine Brock, Dontae Johnson and Jimmie Ward should all be in the conversation.
For more on the 49ers, check out Niners Nation.
Start Date: Aug. 1
Location: Russell Athletic Training Center, Earth City, Mo.
Player you'll be buzzing about: LB Akeem Ayers -- Ayers was a second-round pick in 2011, but he hasn't met his potential thus far. He'll get every opportunity to do that in St. Louis and should win the starting outside linebacker spot opposite Alec Ogletree.
What to watch: Every year the Rams are a "potential breakout team," and this year is no different. It all depends on whether Jeff Fisher's new offense finds its identity early. The Rams want rookie RB Todd Gurley to pave the way for a run-first offense, but new quarterback Nick Foles will also need to be successful for the Rams to find success overall.
Most important position battle: Wide receiver -- Neither Brian Quick nor Kenny Britt inspires much confidence, but if one of them really stands above the other in training camp, the Rams could be in a good position.
For more on the Rams, check out Turf Show Times.