2017 AFC West Breakdown by Position: The Defense and Special Teams

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ENGLEWOOD, CO - AUGUST 07: Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller (58) runs through drills during practice. The team moved practice indoors during training training camp on August 7, 2017 in Englewood, Colorado at Dove Valley. (Photo by John Leyba/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

During the month of August, the good folks at Last Word on Pro Football will be breaking down every division in the league by position. This article contains a position-by-position breakdown of the AFC West defenses. The breakdown will contain “the best” at each unit followed by “the rest” in descending order.

2017 AFC West Breakdown by Position: The Defense and Special Teams

Defensive Line

The Best- Oakland Raiders

The Rest- Denver Broncos, Los Angeles Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs.

It might be surprising to see the Oakland Raiders at the top, but when you look at the starters, it’s actually quite obvious. Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin play defensive end and linebacker, but in their official depth chart, Mack is an end, and Irvin lines up everywhere. Furthermore, Mario Edwards Jr., Justin Ellis, Eddie Vanderdoes, Denico Autry, and Darius Latham are all talented. If this team starts clicking, it’s gonna be a rough season for Philip Rivers, Alex Smith, and the cardboard cut out of John Elway that will be starting over Paxton Lynch and Trevor Siemian.

That’s not to discredit the talent in the rest of the division, because there’s still a ton of defensive line talent. In Denver, Derek Wolfe might be the NFL’s most underrated defensive lineman, and who wasn’t impressed by Joey Bosa‘s work with the Chargers?

Ultimately the Chiefs have the worst defensive line in the division because they just have the fewest stars. Every other team in the AFC West has a star on the defensive line, and as underrated as Rakeem Nunez-Roches is, he has yet to truly break out.

Linebackers

The Best- Denver Broncos

The Rest- Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Chargers, Oakland Raiders

Shane Ray looks like he’s making some progress, and Brandon Marshall probably doesn’t get enough credit, but when it comes to naming the best linebacking corps in the AFC West, the conversation begins and ends with Von Miller. Miller is arguably the best defensive player in the NFL, and as Mack elevated Oakland’s defensive line, Miller makes Denver’s linebackers the best.

Kansas City’s linebackers might be even better than Denver’s if they could just stay healthy, but that’s the problem. Justin Houston can’t seem to stay on the field, and Kansas City’s run defense fell apart without Derrick Johnson last year. Tamba Hali is great when he’s motivated, and Dee Ford is actually turning into a bit of a player too. The group just needs to prove they can stay healthy and they can take the top spot on this list.

The Los Angeles Chargers have one of the most underrated linebacking corps in football. Jatavis Brown and Denzel Perryman are solid players you probably haven’t heard of, and the same is true for stud pass rusher, Melvin Ingram. They’re a very good unit, and it’ll be interesting to see how they play in 2017.

When you look at Oakland’s linebacking corps, it might be one of the best and worst in the NFL depending on the scheme. When Mack and Irvin are standing up, they’ve got a great duo of rushing ends. However when they’re in a 4-3, they’re counting on Jelani Jenkins, Cory James, and rookie Marquel Lee. That’s the curious thing about Oakland’s defense this year, nobody really knows what they’re running, but these linebackers will play a huge role.

Cornerbacks

The Best- Denver Broncos

The Rest- Los Angeles Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders

This isn’t just true for the AFC West, the duo of Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. is the best in the entire National Football League. Even their third corner, Bradley Roby, is solid. There’s no doubt that Von Miller is a beast, but it certainly helps that quarterbacks couldn’t complete passes against these corners anyway.

The Los Angeles Chargers have one of the most underrated corner duos in football. Jason Verrett and Casey Heyward are both underrated, and almost never get the full credit that they deserve. If only they played in another division, they may have topped this section.

While Marcus Peters certainly isn’t as good as people pretend he is, he’s still very, very good. In fact, he’s only going to get better. His teammate, Phillip Gaines isn’t terrible either. However, Steven Nelson is a huge liability in coverage, and in a league where elite offenses usually have three or four good receivers, this could be troubling for the Chiefs down the road.

The Raiders have a ton of corners with great potential, but so far there’s been no consistent production. Sean Smith, David Amerson, Gareon Conley, T.J. Carrie, and undrafted standout Breon Borders have all the potential in the world. But whether it’s because of bad coaching or bad playing, they just haven’t turned it into production yet.

Safety

The Best- Kansas City Chiefs

The Rest- Los Angeles Chargers, Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders

When you’ve got one of the NFL’s best safeties in Eric Berry, the debate is a very quick one. There’s not much the dynamic defensive back can’t do, and even if Ron Parker went out and took a nap, this would still be the best safety tandem in the AFC West.

The Los Angeles Chargers and Denver Broncos are in a weirdly similar situation with their safeties. Denver has T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart and Los Angeles has Dwight Lowery and Jahleel Addae, and while both duos have moments of brilliance, neither are anything to write home to mom about, and both benefit from good corners.

Karl Joseph is great, and with time, he’ll become one of the NFL’s better safeties, but the same could not be said for his safety counterpart. Despite being named to the Pro Bowl, Reggie Nelson was a serious problem in coverage last year. Sean Smith caught a ton of blame, and he deserved a lot of it, but if you go back and watch just about any big play that happened against Oakland’s secondary, Reggie Nelson was usually the one chasing the receiver.

Special Teams

The Best- Oakland Raiders

The Rest- Kansas City, Denver Broncos, Los Angeles Chargers

The Oakland Raiders have a kicker named Sebastian Janikowski that isn’t always consistent, but could probably kick the football into outer space if you asked nicely, a punter named Marquette King that dances as he pins defenders deep in their own redzone, and Cordarrelle Patterson, the most consistent kick returner in football. Any more questions?

The Chiefs are a very close second. A very, very close second. After all, Tyreek Hill is a returning machine, and if kickers and returners were separate categories, they’d run away with it. But Dustin Colquitt is just a decent punter, and Cairo Santos is just a perfectly adequate kicker.

Denver’s special teams is just middle of the pack. They’ve got a very good kicker in Brandon McManus, and a decent punter in Riley Dixon, but they lack a true returner at this point. They’re hoping Isaiah McKenzie can provide some much needed spark.

The Chargers have easily the worst special teams in the division. They lack a real returner, they have a middle of the pack punter, and a kicker that only made 81% of his field goals, and he only attempted 32.

But wait, there’s more! If you haven’t already, go ahead and check out the best position groups in the AFC West on offense! Just a heads up though, Raiders fans will enjoy that article a lot more than they enjoyed this one!
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