2016 AFC West Breakdown by Position: The Defense and Special Teams

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 position-by-position breakdown of the AFC West’s defenses and special teams. The breakdown will contain “the best” at each unit followed by “the rest” in descending order.

2016 AFC West Breakdown by Position: The Defense and Special Teams

Defensive Line

The Best: Oakland Raiders

The Rest: Kansas City Chiefs, Denver Broncos, San Diego Chargers

The Oakland Raiders have a ton of potential on the defensive line. Pass rusher Khalil Mack headlines a defensive line that features Dan Williams, Mario Edwards Jr., and rookie Jihad Ward. While it’s unclear which formations the Raiders will line up in most of the time in 2016, the Raiders have plenty of tools along the line to stuff the run and torment passers.

Not much has changed up front for the Kansas City Chiefs. Alarmingly-athletic big man Dontari Poe will keep clogging up the middle as Jaye Howard and Allen Bailey help free up the rushing linebackers. The Chiefs defensive line has a very important, yet very subtle, job.

The Denver Broncos are going to miss Malik Jackson terribly this year. They managed to retain the services of Derek Wolfe, which is important, but Vance Walker has been remarkably mediocre during his career and will struggle to fill the void.

The San Diego Chargers will rely heavily on rookie Joey Bosa to help this defensive line. While he’s not projected to start due to his holdout, he’ll need to start off hot if he wants to help the Chargers become a dominant 3-4 team. Brandon Mebane and Corey Liuget are proven veterans in this league, but neither man is going to transform this defense.

Linebacker

The Best: Denver Broncos

The Rest: Oakland Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers

Despite losing Danny Trevathan to the Chicago Bears, the Denver Broncos return Brandon Marshall, DeMarcus Ware, and Von Miller in 2016. Serving as a role player during his young career, a lot will be asked of Todd Davis in 2016. Fortunately, the surrounding talent should be able to mask any big mistakes.

Oddly enough, Khalil Mack also headlines a young group of Raider linebackers. Along with Bruce Irvin, Aldon Smith, Malcolm Smith, and Ben Heeney, the Raiders will be dangerous at linebacker. Heeney has shown flashes of brilliance, but ultimately, he’s the weak link. If he can play well, this unit could be among the best in the league.

Justin Houston‘s injury is what prevents the Chiefs from nabbing the top spot on this list. When healthy, the team of Houston, Tamba Hali, Derrick Johnson, and Josh Mauga are among the best in football. Unfortunately, age is catching up with Hali, and Houston’s nagging injuries are becoming worrisome. If the young Dee Ford was ever going to come into his own, 2016 should be the time.

There’s a lot of pressure on Melvin Ingram to be huge for the Chargers this year. Manti Te’o has shown flashes in his young NFL career, but he has yet to perform well enough to shake the criticism that haunted him in the draft a few years back. So much of how San Diego’s 3-4 scheme will do is dependent on whether Joey Bosa is able to create pressure without help from blitzing linebackers.

Cornerback

The Best: Denver Broncos

The Rest: Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs

Both Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. are elite corners on their own, but throw in Bradley Roby and you have one of the best corner corps in the game of football. The stifling pass defense was one of the biggest reasons for Denver’s success in 2015, and if the pass rush continues to dominate, they’ll have continued success this season.

David Amerson and Sean Smith make up one of the most curious corner tandems in the NFL. Neither man was drafted by the Raiders, but both are hoping to redefine their legacies. If both men play as well as they did in 2015, the Raiders will be much improved.

The Chargers have one of the better young corners in the league in Jason Verrett, and Brandon Flowers has played well over short periods in the past. San Diego doesn’t have a ton of depth at corner, but they’re hoping that the young Joey Bosa can pressure quarterbacks into bad passes.

The loss of Sean Smith was devastating for the Chiefs. Marcus Peters had a great 2015 campaign, but he’s not going to get a ton of help. Phillip Gaines will have to to fill Smith’s shoes, especially in a competitive AFC West.

Safety

The Best: Denver Broncos

The Rest: Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers

Denver will return both of their starting safeties in 2016. T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart are good, but not great. Both players greatly benefit from Von Miller and the pass rush while anchoring the secondary. With all of the losses on the Denver defense, it’ll be interesting to see if both men can keep producing at a high level.

Eric Berry is one of the best safeties in football. Despite missing significant time after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, Berry recovered and even made the Pro Bowl last season. Unfortunately for Kansas City, contract talks have not gone well, and the other safety spot lacks a true starter.

A weakness of the Raiders last year, Oakland made both safety positions a priority this off-season. Despite losing future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson to retirement, general manager Reggie McKenzie went out and grabbed Pro Bowl safety Reggie Nelson and West Virginia‘s Karl Joseph. It’s unclear how both men will perform, but they have ton of potential.

The loss of Eric Weddle can’t be understated for the Chargers. Weddle was a real leader for the team, and his departure leaves a huge void on San Diego’s defense.

Special Teams

The Best: Denver Broncos

The Rest: Oakland Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers

The Denver Broncos have the most complete special teams in the division. Brandon McManus is a solid kicker, Britton Colquitt is a good punter, and Emmanuel Sanders is a good returner. While Oakland has a talented kicker and punter and Kansas City has a talented return game, nobody else in the division has a complete unit. The Chargers have a new punter in Drew Kaser and a new returner in Travis Benjamin, so it will be interesting to see how the improvements affect San Diego’s special teams.

Coaches

The Best: Kansas City Chiefs

The Rest: Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers

Despite failing to win a Super Bowl as a head coach to date, Andy Reid is easily the best coach in the AFC West. Reid’s signature west coast offense was practically designed with Alex Smith in mind. He’s able to run the exact offense and defense that he wants to with the Chiefs, and he does it well.

It’s hard not to give Gary Kubiak his due. He could get 1,000 yards out of any running back with his zone scheme, and he managed to win a Super Bowl with a quarterback controversy. The reason that Kubiak isn’t number one on this list is that he mostly inherited this team from John Fox. It’ll be interesting to see how Kubiak does now that the roster has changed drastically.

Jack Del Rio was a pleasant surprise for the Oakland Raiders. After toiling away as a defensive coordinator, Del Rio was finally given another shot as a head coach with his hometown team. Del Rio grew up a Raiders fan, and under his leadership, the Raiders look to return to greatness in 2016.

Most people assumed that the San Diego Chargers would fire Mike McCoy. Under his leadership, the Chargers have been downright awful. They didn’t win a single divisional game last year, and he hasn’t brought anything new to the table. Not only was 2015’s first-round pick a bust, but his 2016 first-round pick reportedly isn’t talking to him. McCoy is the worst coach in the division, and it’s highly unlikely that he’ll be back next season.

Check out the AFC West offensive breakdown.


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