2021 AFC West Breakdown by Position: The Defense

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During the month of September, 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 defenses. The breakdown will contain “the best” at each unit followed by “the rest” in descending order.

2021 AFC West Defense Breakdown by Position

Interior Defensive Line

The Best: Kansas City Chiefs

Among defensive linemen in the AFC West, Chris Jones of the Kansas City Chiefs is indisputably the best. While some list him as a defensive end, he is closer to a defensive tackle in a 4-3 scheme. He also fits as a defensive end in a 3-4, making him an interior defensive lineman. He has posted at least 7.5 sacks for the last three straight years. As such, Jones’s pass-rush production makes him a lock in this AFC West defense breakdown. Their depth is a bit difficult to parse but with Jones at the top of the chart, the Chiefs are at the top of this position-group ranking.

The Rest: Denver Broncos, Las Vegas Raiders, Los Angeles Chargers

In Denver, Shelby Harris and Mike Purcell are a great pair of interior linemen. Purcell excels against the run while Shelby Harris is one of the best pass defenders among all defensive linemen in football. In fact, Harris leads the league in deflections from the position over the last few years. On the other side of the formation, Dre’Mont Jones is poised to start for a full season for the first time in his career. He could very well prove himself another fine addition to the pair of Harris and Purcell.

In Las Vegas, the Raiders have Jonathan Hankins and Quinton Jefferson manning the interior of the trenches. Hankins has underperformed for most of his career but still possesses incredible talent and potential. At 29 years of age, however, potential does not matter nearly as much. With the running attacks in the AFC West, these two will need to have outstanding seasons to not fall to last on this portion of the list.

Unfortunately for Chargers fans, Los Angeles essentially has no interior pass rush. Linval Joseph, their starting nose tackle, has never surpassed four sacks in a season. Their defensive ends, Jerry Tillery and Justin Jones, have a total of 6.5 career sacks combined in five collective seasons. They perform decently against the run but quite clearly belong at the bottom of the interior defensive line rankings for the AFC West defense breakdown.

Edge Rusher

The Best: Denver Broncos

This one is a no-brainer. Denver undoubtedly boasts the best edge-rushing unit in the division. In fact, they have a legitimate argument for being the best pass-rushing duo in all of football. As such, they are clearly the only option here. Von Miller is a future first-ballot Hall of Famer while Bradley Chubb has been making a name for himself ever since joining the team in 2018. While the two haven’t been able to play as much together as the front office or coaches intended, 2021 presents their best opportunity to do so.

The Rest: Los Angeles Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs, Las Vegas Raiders

Joey Bosa is the second-best pass rusher in the division behind Von Miller. In his first year playing outside linebacker for a 3-4 scheme under Brandon Staley, Bosa is poised for his best season yet. While the rest of the pass rush in Los Angeles is mediocre, Bosa can provide the team with a bonafide threat off of the edge. The Chargers will need this against high-octane offenses like Kansas City’s.

Speaking of Kansas City, the Chiefs boast Frank Clark as their premier pass rusher. Clark is somewhat undisciplined, but his talent and athleticism more than make up for it. He does not wield the same pedigree as Von Miller or Joey Bosa, but as essentially the only true threat off the edge Kansas City has, they must make do. Without an effective edge-defender complement on the other side of Clark, the Chiefs earn third (at best) in the division for edge rushers.

The Raiders don’t really have an edge rush. That said, there is serious potential for Yannick Ngakoue to return to form, which would free up other pass rushers for one-on-one opportunities. Clelin Ferrell has, like many young Raiders, thus far failed to deliver on his draft position. If he and Ngakoue can produce off the edge, Vegas may finally have a pass rush again for the first time since trading away Khalil Mack. At the moment, however, they are quite clearly the last team in terms of edge defenders in this AFC West defense breakdown.


The Best: Las Vegas Raiders

On paper, the Raiders have an outstanding linebacker group. Denzel Perryman, Nick Kwiatkoski, and K.J. Wright headline the unit and provide the team with arguably their best linebacker corps in years. While arguments can be made for the Broncos to hold this position for this portion of the list, Gus Bradley will have this unit ready for the season. If these three (and even Cory Littleton) can communicate well and cover tight ends and running backs, there’s no question this is the best linebacker trio in the division (excluding edge rushers, obviously).

The Rest: Denver Broncos, Los Angeles Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs

This position is probably the most competitive between the four teams in the AFC West. The Broncos, however, deploy Alexander Johnson as their top inside linebacker. At worst the second-best inside backer in the division, Johnson’s production over the last two seasons very nearly pushes Denver to the top of this list. Josey Jewell lacks the speed and coverage capabilities to sustain play at the position, especially in this division. As such, Denver hopes Justin Strnad and rookie Baron Browning can bridge the gap.

The Chargers really only have Kenneth Murray, Jr. in terms of linebackers who might contribute toward moving the team up these rankings. Drue Tranquill and Uchenna Nwosu aren’t scaring anybody. However, Brandon Staley has proven himself a front seven guru, having coached Von Miller, Bradley Chubb, and Aaron Donald over the last few seasons. Under his tutelage, the potential for this unit is higher than it might ordinarily be. That said, until that potential comes to fruition (if it even does), the Chargers cannot rank higher than third in this portion of the AFC West defense breakdown for 2021.

Like Los Angeles, Kansas City only really has one bonafide linebacker. In three years with the Chiefs, Anthony Hitchens has accrued 301 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, and two pass deflections. He also has steadily improved the completion percentage he has allowed opposing passers each season. Beyond Hitchens, Nick Bolton and Dorian O’Daniel round out the group with Willie Gay currently on injured reserve. Even with Gay healthy, the Chiefs employ the worst linebacker unit in the division.


The Best: Denver Broncos

There’s no debate on this one. The Denver Broncos have four cornerbacks on their roster who could serve as a number-one corner for most teams in the league. Bryce Callahan is the best nickelback in the league. Kyle Fuller reunites with Vic Fangio, under whom he had his best season as a pro. Ronald Darby, a free-agent acquisition this off-season, is criminally underrated. He should see a fair number of passes thrown his way with the other corners covering the rest of the field. First-round pick Pat Surtain II has already shown his playmaking abilities in the preseason. The second-generation NFL player will reportedly spend much of 2021 covering Travis Kelce, Darren Waller, and other similar pass-catchers.

The Rest: Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Chargers, Las Vegas Raiders

L’Jarius Sneed and Charvarius Ward are incredibly athletic— and incredibly underrated. While corner certainly isn’t the primary strength of the Kansas City defense, it is a position group worth paying attention to. The play of Kansas City’s front seven and safeties will frame the production of these two corners (as well as Mike Hughes and Rashad Fenton). The cornerback unit for the Chiefs is not composed of world-beaters. Despite this, they are more than serviceable and fairly proficient— at least relative to Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

After moving on from veteran Casey Hayward, Jr., the Los Angeles Chargers secondary looks quite different. Chris Harris, Jr., one of the best corners over the last decade, shifts to the number-one cornerback role for the first time with his new team. His veteran savvy should help rookie Asante Samuel, Jr. develop quicker. If this were to happen, it would lead to this cornerback corps surpassing Kansas City in spades. Samuel’s inexperience at the professional level, however, prevents them from placing second in this portion of the AFC West defense breakdown.

And then there’s the Raiders. The aforementioned Casey Hayward, Jr. remained in the division by signing with the Raiders to fill their top cornerback position. While experienced and talented, Hayward is not close to who he used to be, as evidenced by the Chargers moving on from him. On the other side of the field, Trayvon Mullen, Jr. is nothing to write home about. Underwhelming second-year players who need to have a good season to establish a foothold on this team comprise the depth behind these two corners. As such, the Raiders are obviously the lowest-ranked team in the division for cornerbacks.


The Best: Denver Broncos

The Broncos boast the best safety tandem in football. Justin Simmons is an ironman and arguably the best safety in the league to begin with. He pairs well with veteran Kareem Jackson. In their two shared seasons as Broncos, they totaled 12 interceptions, 38 deflections, 349 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, a forced fumble, three fumble recoveries, and a touchdown. Behind these two stands two rookies and an impressive young safety who solidified his roster spot with an incredible preseason this year.

The Rest: Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Chargers, Las Vegas Raiders

In Kansas City, Tyrann Mathieu is the leader of the defense. One of the best safeties in the league, the ‘Honey Badger’ makes plays all over the field and can play any position in the secondary. His production ordinarily might be enough to earn the Chiefs a high rank for this position. That said, his counterpart at the safety position, Daniel Sorenson, is not remotely close to the level of Justin Simmons or Kareem Jackson. As such, the Chiefs cannot rank higher than second in this regard.

Derwin James, Jr. of the Los Angeles Chargers is a former First-Team All-Pro, an accolade he earned as a rookie in 2018. When healthy, James is outstanding and inarguably one of the best safeties in the NFL. The operative part of that sentence—“when healthy”—is unfortunately always a concern, it seems. After missing 11 games in 2019, James missed all of 2020. Without James, the safety position in Los Angeles is below mediocre.

For the Raiders, though, safety is another weak position group on defense. It’s no surprise to see Las Vegas ranking last at safety in this AFC West defense breakdown. Johnathan Abram may have had a decent season in 2020. Unfortunately, he has nonetheless yet to deliver on his first-round pedigree, much like most young Raiders. Despite this fact, he is poised for a big year in 2021. Still, he will need to make a considerable leap to justify remaining a starter. Beside him at safety is rookie Tre’von Moehrig. Moehrig is a rangy athlete capable of creating turnovers for a defense desperate for takeaways. This unproven, yet talented safety could very well push the Raiders higher in rank for safeties among AFC West teams. That said, at the moment it would be unreasonable to rank them higher than fourth.

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