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 of the AFC West defenses. The breakdown will contain “the best” at each unit followed by “the rest” in descending order.
2022 AFC West Defense Breakdown by Position
The Best: Kansas City Chiefs
The Rest: Denver Broncos, Los Angeles Chargers, Las Vegas Raiders
Even with the Chiefs 4-3 defensive ends being sorted elsewhere with the edge rushers, Chris Jones alone pretty much elevates the Chiefs to the top spot here as he’s easily the best defensive tackle in the division, having gone All-Pro three of the last four seasons. His fellow starter at defensive tackle, Derrick Nnadi, may not be anything special, but he got a few sacks as well last year. Also helping the Chiefs case is the depth at defensive tackle, where they have Taylor Stallworth and Tershawn Wharton – both of whom have made contributions in the rotation as well.
Essentially all the other teams – the 3-4 ones – have two more proven starters and a bit more uncertainty at the third spot. The Broncos have a strong defensive tackle of their own in D.J. Jones, who had a PFF score of 73.2 last year. Dre’Mont Jones has gotten 12 sacks over the last two years for them as well. That leaves DeShawn Williams and rookie Eyioma Uwazurike to compete for playing time.
The Chargers notably improved their defensive line in the off-season by acquiring Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson, but their remaining spot looks to be fought over between Jerry Tillery (who basically has one more year to prove he’s not a bust) and Morgan Fox.
The Raiders have been trying to add players this year that fit their new 3-4 defensive scheme. Bilal Nichols is one such player, and he looks to be the best option on their defensive line. They have veteran Johnathan Hankins returning, but he has not done a whole lot in the last two years. That looks to leave Andrew Billings and rookie Neil Farrell Jr, though it is unclear where some of the other backup/rotational linemen will end up position-wise in the new scheme. Still, they seem to have the least upside on the d-line currently.
The Best: Las Vegas Raiders
The Rest: Los Angeles Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs, Denver Broncos
Ranking the duos of Joey Bosa & Khalil Mack – and Maxx Crosby & Chandler Jones – is quite difficult, as both duos would pretty easily be the top choice if they weren’t in the same division. Crosby and Jones narrowly get the edge – and it partially comes down to the recency bias of Mack being injured most of last season and the small question of whether his most elite years are already past. Meanwhile, Crosby went All-Pro for the first time last year and Jones got 10.5 sacks, bouncing back from his own injury-shortened year. You could almost interchange these two duos depending on which players you personally favor the most, and any team would be overjoyed to have either duo.
The Chiefs main star among their edge rushers is Frank Clark; even though his sack numbers have gone down, he’s made the Pro Bowl three straight years now. While Mike Danna isn’t anything special, they also have Carlos Dunlap; and while he isn’t a full-time starter anymore, he is more than capable of getting sacks as a rotational player. He got 8.5 sacks in such a role last year. There’s also first-rounder George Karlaftis to round out the options.
The Broncos are no slouches at edge rusher but they don’t quite hold up to the competition. Randy Gregory and Bradley Chubb are the presumed starters. The concern with Chubb is if he can stay healthy, but even when he was healthy last year he wasn’t doing much. On the plus side, they also have Malik Reed who has 13 sacks over the last two years, as well as the second-year Johnathon Cooper and second-round rookie Nik Bonitto – meaning that at worst, the future should be promising.
The Best: Las Vegas Raiders
The Rest: Kansas City Chiefs, Denver Broncos, Los Angeles Chargers
The Raiders get the top spot here most for having Denzel Perryman, who had a big breakout year in 2021 with his new team. He was in on over 150 tackles last year (a franchise and personal record) and made his first Pro Bowl. The other starter on the tandem looks to be Jayon Brown, who has been regressing since peaking in 2018; we’ll see if he can turn things around.
The Chiefs have a promising second-year player in Nick Bolton, who was in on over 100 tackles in his rookie year and made the PFWA All-Rookie Team. The issue is it goes a bit downhill after that; Willie Gay is alright but isn’t a standout, and the remaining options are Elijah Lee, Jermaine Carter, and third-round rookie Leo Chenal. They’re probably a little closer than the Raiders to having a proven lineup, but they’re not there yet, and they don’t have the star power that the Raiders do with Perryman.
For the Broncos, they have a couple of starters that could do well – if they both can stay healthy. Josey Jewell was fine in 2020 but missed virtually all of 2021 due to injury. The team seems high on Jonas Griffith, but he needs to put together a good full season as well. Alex Singleton is the most notable backup, and he’s not necessarily a lock to make the roster.
The Chargers remain high on Kenneth Murray but he took a serious step back in his second year. Apparently he was playing hurt for much of last year, but they will need a bounce-back year from him for this linebacker corps to have much hope. Drue Tranquill is alright but also had a bit of a down 2021 season after coming back from a broken ankle in 2020. Troy Reeder is the best depth option available unless Kyle Van Noy gets rotated into the inside.
The Best: Los Angeles Chargers
The Rest: Denver Broncos, Las Vegas Raiders, Kansas City Chiefs
The Chargers already had a serviceable set of starting cornerbacks, but adding J.C. Jackson puts them at the top of this list easily. Jackson, who is coming off an All-Pro year, has been quite the ball-hawk, pulling in 17 interceptions over the last two years. After Jackson, they have Asante Samuel Jr – who was doing quite well in his rookie year before he had a couple of concussions – as well as Bryce Callahan in the slot. Your cornerback groups are in good shape when Michael Davis is the CB4.
The Broncos have Patrick Surtain II as their main starter, and he had a strong rookie season and should only improve further in 2022. The other presumed starter, Ronald Darby, has had a career of ups and downs; if he has one of his “up” years, Denver will be in fine shape. K’Waun Williams is also a fine option for them to have a slot cornerback.
The Raiders have a promising sophomore cornerback of their own in Nate Hobbs (albeit not as flashy stats-wise as Surtain thus far). Their other primary cornerbacks consist of Rock Ya-Sin and Anthony Averett. The latter is another up-and-down player who shut down Tyreek Hill last year but struggled in some other games. If Averett plays more consistently, they might be okay; there is still a little more uncertainty here than some other teams, though.
The main proven option for the Chiefs is L’Jarius Sneed, who isn’t outstanding but has pulled in five interceptions in two years. The issue here is that they’re resting a lot of their hopes otherwise on Trent McDuffie, a rookie – a first-rounder, but a rookie nonetheless. If he flames out or just isn’t ready yet, Rashad Fenton is probably their best fall-back option. A promising future is ahead, but this group remains at the bottom of the division for now.
The Best: Los Angeles Chargers
The Rest: Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Las Vegas Raiders
The Chargers and Broncos both have an all-star among their safeties lineup; the Chargers have Derwin James at strong safety and the Broncos have Justin Simmons at free safety. Both went All-Pro in 2021. The decision here basically comes down to which team has the better duo overall. Chargers free safety Nasir Adderley isn’t great, but he has been steadily improving and had a better 2021 than Kareem Jackson did for the Broncos (allowed 75% receptions on targets thrown his way). Jackson’s had a good career but his best days seem to be behind him.
The Chiefs don’t have anybody as elite as Simmons or James, but Juan Thornhill is a fine starter at safety for them. They picked up Justin Reid as well, who had a strong first couple of seasons followed by a disappointing next two seasons. If he gets back to who he was in his first two years, they will be in fine shape – and between Deon Bush and second-round rookie Bryan Cook, it’s not like they have nobody else to turn if necessary.
The Raiders have Trevon Moehrig at free safety, who did pretty decently in his rookie year. Their problem is that they are still stuck with Johnathan Abram at strong safety, who has been there three years now and has not been very good. Interestingly, he’s been moved around a bit in nickel formations in the preseason and has done a little better there. Regardless, the problem is there isn’t really anybody better to start at strong safety, which leaves them at the bottom of the safety duos in the West.
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