While the seemingly endless period between the NFL Draft and the beginning of the preseason can be a boring time for many NFL fans, it is never too early to analyze the best players in the league. This week, the Last Word On Sports NFL department will be compiling a list of the ten best players in each division heading into the 2016 season. The focus of this article is the AFC West.
Top Players of the AFC West Heading into 2017
1. Khalil Mack
Is this the result of the Raiders team manager writing this article or is it the objective truth? Nobody in the NFL has more sacks than Khalil Mack over the last two seasons. Despite the fact that the Oakland Raiders were the worst pass rushing team in football, Mack still wreaked havoc, registering 11 sacks, an interception, which he returned for a touchdown, and five forced fumbles.
Khalil Mack is arguably the best defensive player in the National Football League, so even in a division where each team has a blue chipper at pass rusher, he’s number one. Khalil Mack is Godzilla, and the AFC West is Tokyo.
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) May 21, 2017
2. Von Miller
If Khalil Mack is Godzilla, Von Miller is King Kong. If you doubt that Von Miller needs to be above the other eight men on this list, just go back and watch the AFC Championship and Super Bowl from two years ago. Miller absolutely took over those games, and is in the conversation for the NFL’s best pass rusher.
Against the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers, Miller registered five sacks, two forced fumbles, and an interception. He did that in two games against the NFL’s MVP, Cam Newton, and future Hall of Famer, Tom Brady. The Denver Broncos have fallen off since Peyton Manning retired, but Von Miller is just as scary as he’s always been.
3. Justin Houston
Justin Houston at number three might be a rough call for some people, but upon further review, there’s really no choice. The last time Houston was really healthy, he had 22 sacks. Injuries have kept him off the field, but when he’s made cameos, he’s been the same player.
Just look at last year against the Denver Broncos. Houston finally got back on the field, and what did he do? Register two sacks, one of which was a safety. If he could just stay healthy, Houston is one of the best defensive players in the NFL.
4. Derek Carr
In last year’s version of this article, Derek Carr was the second best quarterback in the AFC West. After 2016, there was no question who the best in the division really is. Derek Carr was a legitimate MVP candidate for Oakland last year, shredding defenses and setting a NFL record for game-winning touchdown passes along the way. Despite the fact that the Raiders led the league in dropped passes, Carr always made it work.
When Carr went down in week 16, the Raiders completely imploded. They couldn’t move the ball on the ground or through the air, and it was obvious that they needed their franchise quarterback. In a year or two, Carr may even unseat his teammate as the best player in the division.
5. Philip Rivers
Just because Carr is the best, that doesn’t mean that Philip Rivers isn’t very, very good. Despite the fact that the San Diego Chargers lacked serious weapons on offense, Rivers still managed to make it work in 2016. While it’s true that Rivers led the league in interceptions, he was trying to keep the Titanic afloat by himself. The Chargers found hilarious ways to lose this year, and Rivers was hardly the biggest reason why.
6. Eric Berry
Eric Berry is one of the NFL’s best safeties. After being diagnosed with cancer, Berry had to take some time off of football. How did he respond? By coming back and having a monster season. If you need a reason for Berry to be on this list, just go back to his insane game against the Atlanta Falcons.
Trailing, Berry picked off offensive player of the year, Matt Ryan, and it took it to the house, giving Kansas City a six point lead. Atlanta didn’t wait long to respond though, scoring a touchdown of their own. However, when Ryan and the Falcons went for two, Perry picked the Super Bowl starter off again, taking it all the way down the field to give the Chiefs two points. That’s insane.
7. Chris Harris
Chris Harris is an elite player, but one that has been forgotten about. When the Denver Broncos slouched into third place in the AFC West, people forgot about the defenders not named Von Miller. Chris Harris had the highest PFF grade of any corner in the National Football League at 92.9.
Only a few people in the NFL took more snaps on defense than Harris, and he was still a shutdown corner. In a world where people rave about Patrick Peterson and Marcus Peters, it’s Chris Harris that scares quarterbacks the most.
8. Joey Bosa
Joey Bosa missed the entire off-season. He missed all of the camps and reps, and held out into the season. What happened in his first NFL game? He had two sacks against an offensive line that only gave up 18 sacks all season.
Bosa was the obvious choice for defensive rookie of the year, and the only question about him revolves around whether he can keep it up. If the same Joey Bosa that dominated in 2016 shows up in 2017? He’ll be even higher on next year’s version of this list.
9a. Amari Cooper
When listing the great quarterbacks in NFL history, almost all of them have a number one target. Joe Montana had Jerry Rice, Peyton Manning had Marvin Harrison, and now Derek Carr has Amari Cooper. Cooper isn’t the tallest or the fastest receiver in football, but his footwork and agility are outstanding.
One on one, there isn’t a corner in the NFL that can hang with the youngster from Alabama on his best day. He can juke you out of your cleats with or without the ball, and when he gets into open space, it’s over. As Cooper begins to develop, his name will be mentioned with the likes of Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr.
9b. Travis Kelce
Travis Kelce isn’t number ten on this list, he’s 9b. Why? Because despite being a tight end in a relatively conservative offense, the young tight end had a monster 2016. No tight end in the NFL had more yards than Kelce, and he gave the Chiefs a physicality they were lacking on offense.
Unlike Cooper, Kelce doesn’t have a Michael Crabtree to split coverage or a Derek Carr to air the ball out. Kelce is easily the number one target in that offense, and he still succeeds despite that. Kelce and Cooper are apples and oranges, but neither man deserves to be ranked above the other.