2019 AFC West Breakdown by Position: The Defense and Special Teams

AFC West Breakdown
SEATTLE, WA - AUGUST 08: Linebacker Von Miller #58 of the Denver Broncos readies himself for the next play during the NFL game against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on August 8, 2019 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie/Getty Images)

During the month of August, the Last Word on Sports NFL department will be breaking down every division in the league by position. This article contains a breakdown at each position for the AFC West defenses and special teams positions. The breakdown will contain “the best” at each unit followed by “the rest” in descending order.

2019 AFC West Breakdown by Position: The Offense

2019 AFC West Breakdown by Position: The Defense and Special Teams

Defensive Line

The Best: Los Angeles Chargers

The Rest: Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, Denver Broncos

The Chargers have the best defensive line simply by virtue of having the pass rusher duo of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. When on the field together, these two are a nightmare for quarterbacks. However, they look to be improving on the defensive tackle front as well – if first-round pick Jerry Tillery lives up to his billing. Justin Jones is also there to help out with that.

The Chiefs are not that far behind though. They already had Chris Jones, who is an excellent defensive tackle. But they made multiple acquisitions at defensive end this off-season, including Frank Clark, Alex Okafor, and Emmanuel Ogbah. Clark is the biggest factor here; he and Jones will definitely be a problem for opposing offenses.

The Raiders only have half of the equation filled out. While they have a decent lineup of defensive tackles to choose from including Maurice Hurst Jr, Johnathan Hankins, and Ethan Westbrooks, they’re looking thinner at defensive end. They did select Clelin Ferrell with the fourth overall pick. But the only defensive end on the roster with much history is Benson Mayowa. Furthermore, three of the defensive ends on the roster are rookies. That’s a lot of young talent to build upon, but also unproven talent.

Surprisingly, the Broncos are looking pretty thin at the defensive line despite being known more for their defense. Their only standouts are Shelby Harris and Derek Wolfe, and neither of them currently stand out as much compared to the best defensive players (or their potential in the case of Farrell) on the other three West teams. They will have to look elsewhere for elite defensive play.

Linebackers

The Best: Denver Broncos

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

The Broncos lost a couple of good members of this depth chart this off-season, but it overall still looks strong – mainly because of Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. Miller has been playing at an elite level for years. And Chubb had a great rookie year putting up 12 sacks. They also have Todd Davis, who had a career-high in tackles in 2018 (114) plus Dekoda Watson if he can stay healthy. The depth chart gets thinner after that, but overall they a strong starting core at the position.

Meanwhile, the Chargers have improved a bit at this position over the last year. First, Uchenna Nwosu had a fine rookie year, capped by him forcing the game-winning fumble in the Wildcard game against the Baltimore Ravens. Then they signed Thomas Davis in the off-season, who declined a bit in 2018 but still seems capable of contributing and will at least provide a veteran presence for the team. There’s also Jatavis Brown and Denzel Perryman returning, the latter of whom will need to stay healthy. There’s not much depth beyond that either, but they still look improved since the start of last season.

Elsewhere, the Chiefs lost Dee Ford and Justin Houston to free agency, but they signed Darron Lee instead who could be a good starter for them. There’s also last year’s free agency pickup Anthony Hitchens who had a career year in 2018 with 135 tackles. Then there’s Reggie Ragland (who finished second on the team in tackles behind Hitchens), Damien Wilson and Jeremiah Attaochu to help round out the lineup. This lineup looks slightly declined from last year, but they’ve still got a decent bunch overall.

The Raiders signed Brandon Marshall from the Broncos this off-season, but they don’t have a lot else besides Tahir Whitehead. They signed Vontaze Burfict as well, but he’s been on the decline for a bit now due in part to being injury-prone. It’s anybody’s guess who’ll be out there otherwise – maybe Marquel Lee or James Cowser. All in all, this is definitely the thinnest linebacker lineup in the West.

Cornerback

The Best: Denver Broncos

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

After seeing their cornerback corps decline a little bit last year, they rectified that this off-season by signing Bryce Callahan and Kareem Jackson, to go along with Chris Harris Jr. Callahan and Harris will make a quite good duo, and Jackson will probably make some good contributions as well. It’ll also help if Isaac Yiadom makes some progression in his second year.

The Chiefs made a couple of acquisitions of their own this off-season in Morris Claiborne and Bashaud Breeland. Claiborne is coming off a career year and though he is suspended for the first four games this season, he’ll probably do fine opposite Kendall Fuller. Breeland will have to stay healthy, but he’s capable if he does so.

The Chargers have an interesting issue of sorts. While they have two recent Pro Bowlers in Casey Hayward and Desmond King (though Hayward was less prolific in 2018), for some reason they seem determined to only play King as a nickel/slot corner. Meanwhile, the actual #2 corner spot looks to go to Trevor Williams again or maybe Michael Davis. Williams is a bit inconsistent, and he’ll also need to avoid getting injured again.

The Raiders also have depth issues of their own. While Gareon Conley broke out a bit in his second year, the next guys up after that include Daryl Worley, Nevin Lawson (who is also suspended for four games), and second-round pick Trayvon Mullen. Besides Conley, it’s anybody’s guess who will be out there for the Raiders when it’s all said and done (and that includes when Lawson returns).

Safety

The Best: Los Angeles Chargers

The Rest: Oakland Raiders, Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs

As of this writing, Derwin James has suffered a stress fracture in his foot and his timetable for return is indefinite. For the moment, we’ll assume that he’ll return at some point in the season. But even without him, the Chargers have a quite solid safety lineup. There’s Adrian Phillips to fall back on; much like James, he can play in multiple places on the field and was also a Pro Bowler last year. They also drafted Nasir Adderley in the second round; while he is a rookie, he was also considered a steal much like James was. There’s also Jaylen Watkins if he can stay healthy.

The Raiders are also looking fairly improved at this position. They made an underrated signing this off-season in Lamarcus Joyner at free safety. Elsewhere, they have a bunch of choices to choose from at strong safety – including Karl Joseph, Erik Harris, Jordan Richards, and first-round pick Johnathan Abram. With that many choices, it’s hard to believe they wouldn’t have someone good out there. And if anything were to happen to Joyner, they could switch one of the strong safety backups to the other side.

The Broncos have Will Parks at the strong safety position… and not a whole lot else, but he’s okay enough. At free safety, you have Justin Simmons, who had a bit of a poor Pro Football Focus score at 60.9 but also had a career year in tackles (97) and interceptions (three). Still, if he does have any significant struggles, they can fall back to Su’a Cravens.

Meanwhile, the Chiefs also made a big free agent pickup this off-season in Tyrann Mathieu, who will have the strong safety spot locked down. As for the free safety position, it comes down between Daniel Sorensen and second-round pick Juan Thornhill. While that isn’t necessarily a bad position to be in, this safety lineup does feel a bit less prolific outside of Mathieu.

Special Teams

The Best: Kansas City Chiefs

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

The Chiefs undeniably have the most complete special teams in the West. They have an accurate kicker in Harrison Butker, a two-time Pro Bowl punter in Dustin Colquitt, and both Tyreek Hill and rookie Mecole Hardman for the return game. They’re only the team in the West to be pretty set at all three key of these key spots.

The Raiders are the only other one to have a solid returner in Dwayne Harris. They also have Daniel Carlson at kicker, who did a lot better once he went from the Minnesota Vikings to the Raiders. He’s not a rookie anymore either. Their punting situation looks more iffy, with the only punter on the roster being some guy named A.J. Cole III.

Elsewhere, the Chargers finally found a reliable kicker in Michael Badgley. They also have an iffy punter situation though. The competition is currently between Ty Long and Tyler Newsome. Neither of them have experience punting in the regular season (though Long has been in the CFL). The Broncos have the opposite problem; they have a solid punter in Colby Wadman, but a sometimes shaky kicker in Brandon McManus. He can kick it a long way… it’s just that sometimes you have no idea where it’s going.

Coaching

The Best: Kansas City Chiefs

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

Andy Reid finally shook off some of his playoff struggles that he’s had with the Chiefs as he finally took them to the AFC Championship Game, which went into overtime. Even despite some questionable clock management at times, he’s a pretty good coach overall. He gets his teams to the playoffs the majority of the time. And anyone who can make playoffs four out of five years with “Captain Checkdown” Alex Smith at quarterback deserves respect.

Anthony Lynn has also quickly put himself in a good position with the Chargers – by almost getting the team to the playoffs in 2017 after a 0-4 start, and then actually doing so in 2018 with a 12-4 season that saw the team have their best season in nearly a decade. He definitely seems to have this team rallied around him, and as long as that’s the case (and as long as Philip Rivers is still there), they’re sure to continue to be successful.

Elsewhere, Jon Gruden’s first season with the Raiders didn’t go well. The team may have been deliberately tanking it, but that doesn’t excuse how lifeless the offense often looked – or some of his questionable GM decisions. He still has some goodwill from his better years from his time with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and his first Raiders tenure, but he’ll need to improve.

The Broncos have a new head coach in Vic Fangio. This is also his first head coaching tenure, which leaves him automatically at the bottom of this list for now. Sure, he’s been a good defensive coordinator. But so was Wade Phillips.

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