After detailing the positional rankings for each offense in the NFC East, we switch gears to the AFC West and look at defenses, where many of the top players in the league can be found. This series will consist in its entirety of 16 parts, as we rank the position groups of each division in the NFL on both sides of the ball. Keep in mind that each position group is ranked based on current ability with a lean toward “near future” projections thrown in.
Interior Defensive Linemen
1. Kansas City Chiefs – Chris Jones, Bennie Logan, Allen Bailey, Rakeem Nunez-Roches
2. Los Angeles Chargers – Brandon Mebane, Corey Liuget, Damion Square, Darius Philon
3. Oakland Raiders – Mario Edwards, Darius Latham, Justin Ellis, Eddie Vanderdoes, Jihad Ward, Denico Autry
4. Denver Broncos – Derek Wolfe, Domata Peko, Jared Crick, Adam Gotsis, Demarcus Walker
Analysis: Because Derek Wolfe is probably the best or second-best player on this list, seeing the Broncos in the last spot may rub some people the wrong way. However, the rest of Denver’s group is borderline awful at this point, and while some might hold out hope for Adam Gotsis and Demarcus Walker to develop over time, I didn’t see either as high ceiling players before the draft. Jared Crick is a high-effort player limited by his lack of athleticism, and Domata Peko has been a below-average starter for most of his career.
The Chiefs’ group is led by high-upside second-year defender Chris Jones, a physical and athletic specimen who was highly impressive as a rookie. Bennie Logan is one of the more underrated interior defensive linemen in the NFL, and Allen Bailey was a quality starter before a pectoral injury ended his 2016 campaign after just five games.
The middle spots were tough to separate. The Raiders’ group probably has more promise, but the Chargers’ unit is currently better. Despite being lost to an injury last season, Brandon Mebane is one of the better nose tackles in the league, and Corey Liuget is still a solid, versatile player even if he is overpaid. Damion Square had some admirable moments last season, but all in all this is a decent group without any real star power. If Mario Edwards can get back to where he was before his neck injury as a rookie, the Raiders’ group could certainly surpass them by next year. I liked Eddie Vanderdoes and Darius Latham, and even think Jihad Ward has promise despite a rough rookie season.
1. Los Angeles – Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, Jeremiah Attaochu, Kyle Emanuel
2. Kansas City – Justin Houston, Dee Ford, Tamba Hali, Frank Zombo
3. Denver – Von Miller, Shane Ray, Shaq Barrett, Vontarrius Dora
4. Oakland – Khalil Mack, Bruce Irvin, Shilique Calhoun, James Cowser
Analysis: Is there a more difficult position group to rank in any division in the entire NFL? Three of the NFL’s top four edge defenders are in the AFC West, and Joey Bosa looks like he’s on his way to making at least the top five. Los Angeles mans the top spot on this list after Bosa’s incredible rookie season and Melvin Ingram’s consistent excellence over the past few seasons. Kansas City could regain first place if Justin Houston is healthy next season, but the 28-year-old has struggled with knee injuries and various maladies over the past two seasons. Dee Ford is a terrific pass rusher, but Ingram is the far superior all-around defender, and Attaochu has a ton of promise if the Chargers’ new coaching staff works him into the rotation.
Von Miller is the best player on this list, and Khalil Mack might be the second best (at least, until Houston proves he’s fully healthy), but their teams can’t boast quite the same depth the Chargers and Chiefs can. As a package deal I’d take Shane Ray and Shaq Barrett over Bruce Irvin and Shilique Calhoun, but it’s extremely close. Irvin is a fine run defender and strong in coverage, but he is frustratingly unrefined as a pass rusher, five years into his NFL career.
Barrett will finally get his chance to shoulder a larger workload after flashing a lot of promise over the past two years, but Ray will be the early-down starter at least. I’d expect to see a number of packages with Ray inside next to Wolfe, and Miller and Barrett coming off the edge on long and late downs.
1. Denver – Brandon Marshall, Todd Davis, Corey Nelson, Zaire Anderson
2. Chargers – Jatavis Brown, Denzel Perryman, Joshua Perry, Korey Toomer
3. Chiefs – Derrick Johnson, Ramik Wilson, D.J. Alexander, Josh Mauga
4. Oakland – Cory James, Jelani Jenkins, Ben Heeney, Marquel Lee
Analysis: The AFC West is fairly weak down the middle defensively, especially at the second level. Denver tops my list because Brandon Marshall is currently the best off-ball linebacker in the division, but Todd Davis is merely adequate and the depth on all four teams is below-average. An argument can still be made for Derrick Johnson, one of my favorite players over the past 10 years, to be an LB1 in the division, but a second torn Achilles suffered this past season only adds to a murky health situation for the soon-to-be 35-year-old. At some point, age and injuries begin to take their toll.
I thought Ramik Wilson made impressive strides by the end of last season, but the Chargers featured their own emerging duo in rookie Jatavis Brown and second-year linebacker Denzel Perryman. Brown impressed as a three-down presence, especially against the pass, while Perryman fulfilled his thumper role with 72 tackles in 11 starts. Oakland’s group is widely considered one of the worst in the NFL, bringing a combined 14 starts from last season into the 2017 campaign. Jelani Jenkins is injury-prone and inconsistent. Ben Heeney has been a disappointment, which could open the door for rookie Marquel Lee to contribute early and often.
1. Denver – Aqib Talib, Chris Harris, Bradley Roby, Brendan Langley
2. Los Angeles – Jason Verrett, Casey Hayward, Desmond King, Craig Mager
3. Kansas City – Marcus Peters, Terrance Mitchell, Phillip Gaines, Steven Nelson
4. Oakland – Gareon Conley, David Amerson, Sean Smith, Travis Carrie
Analysis: The Broncos might have the best cornerbacks in the NFL. Aqib Talib and Chris Harris are both top-10 corners across the league, and Bradley Roby probably cracks the top 20. They are the clear cut No. 1 groups in the division, but after that it gets very tough.
When healthy, Jason Verrett is one of the better corners in the NFL, but he has never played a full season, and has started just four games twice in his three-year career. Casey Hayward was outstanding last season. His presence gives the Chargers a top-tier starting tandem if Verrett can stay on the field. The depth is poor however, so the Chargers drafted King on day three to hopefully provide a starting presence at the nickel.
I’d take Marcus Peters over any of San Diego’s corners, but Kansas City has struggled to supply him with a quality bookend. In just 240 snaps last season, Terrance Mitchell looked like he could be the answer, but the sample size is too small to draw any real conclusions on the journeyman corner at this time. According to Pro Football Focus Elite, Steven Nelson allowed just 0.89 yards per coverage snap in 466 reps in the slot, good enough for the sixth-best mark in the NFL among nickel corners. If they can get the other outside spot nailed down, the Chiefs’ cornerback collection could move into elite territory.
The Raiders’ group has a ton of promise, especially if Gareon Conley starts right away as a rookie. He’s polished and capable of making the kinds of plays on the ball few first-year corners can, but David Amerson was miserable last season and Sean Smith gave up way too many big plays. If Smith can return to his pre-2016 form and Amerson can at least be adequate, which he has shown the potential to be at times, Oakland could gain a crucial bounce-back year from a secondary that may have needed time to jell together.
1. Kansas City – Eric Berry, Ron Parker, Daniel Sorenson
2. Denver – T.J. Ward, Darian Stewart, Justin Simmons, Will Parks
3. Oakland – Karl Joseph, Obi Melifonwu, Reggie Nelson
4. Chargers – Jahleel Addae, Dwight Lowery, Rayshawn Jenkins, Tre Boston
Analysis: The Chiefs have one of the best safety tandems in the league in Eric Berry and Ron Parker, and Daniel Sorenson has been a great fit as their dime linebacker/safety hybrid. One of their strongest position groups is the Chargers’ biggest defensive weakness, however: The Bolts have yet to find an above-average replacement for Eric Weddle. Jahleel Addae offers a solid presence against the run, but no one in their group offers the center-fielding skills to play single-high in Gus Bradley’s defense.
Denver has a deep safety group: All four aforementioned players played over 250 snaps last season. T.J. Ward is on the decline as a cover man, but he’s still strong against the run, and Darian Stewart was excellent as the starting free safety last season. Simmons and Parks both flashed impressive skill sets to become starters down the road, perhaps sooner rather than later if Ward’s decline quickens.
The Raiders’ unit could someday top this list after an impressive rookie season by Karl Joseph. Obi Melifonwu has all the traits to be a terrific running mate for the second-year safety — both safeties offer the versatility to play in deep coverage, in the slot or in the box. That should allow Oakland to do a lot of different things with its coverage schemes this season.