AFC West Primer: Where Do The Chargers Positions Rank Defensively?
The Kansas City Chiefs may have the best offense in the AFC West, but the Division boasts great defensive units! Surprisingly, the Los Angeles Chargers actually have two different Defensive Player of the Year candidates with Joey Bosa and the return of Derwin James. The Denver Broncos get back one of the best pass rushers over the last decade in Von Miller. They also have Justin Simmons who just made his second All-Pro team in back-to-back years. While the Las Vegas Raiders seem like the least talented defense in the AFC West, former All-Pro Casey Hayward Jr. is ready for a bounce-back year. They have a young core who just needs time to develop. It is now time to see where the Chargers defensive position groups rank against the rest of the AFC West.
Edge RusherEmbed from Getty Images
- Broncos: Von Miller | Bradley Chubb | Malik Reed | Derrek Tuszka
- Chargers: Joey Bosa | Uchenna Nwosu | Kyler Fackrell | Chris Rumph II | Jessie Lemonier
- Raiders: Yannick Ngakoue | Maxx Crosby | Clelin Ferrell | Malcolm Koonce
- Chiefs: Alex Okafor | Frank Clarke | Mike Danna | Taco Charlton | Tim Ward
The Broncos have two different edge rushers who could notch 15+ sacks next season. Von Miller, even at 32-years-old, is still one of the NFL’s best while Bradley Chubb managed 7.5 sacks last season. With both players on the field at the same time, they will wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks next year. If one of them does go down to injury, Malik Reed is the kind of backup that could be a bonafide starter on another team. He had eight sacks last year while filling in for Miller.
Joey Bosa is the NFL’s best edge rusher, but he has dealt with a plethora of injuries over the years. Expect the scheme change with some luck of health to push him up near the 20-sack threshold next season. Uchenna Nwosu has an opportunity to fill a role similar to Leonard Floyd last year and is talented enough to do so. Nwosu has sat behind Melvin Ingram for some time, but he was actually more productive last season on the field statistically than Ingram was. He was Cynthia Freland’s favorite for the Chargers Breakout Player of the Year. The Chargers also have depth with Kyler Fackrell and a developmental piece in Chris Rumph II. He will need to bulk up to efficiently play the run, but he offers upside as a situational pass rusher.
The Raiders added veteran and Pro Bowler Yannick Ngakoue. He has at least eight sacks in every season which shows the level of production he brings. Opposite him, Clelin Ferrell, who was drafted 4th-overall in 2019, will battle Maxx Crosby. Crosby has drastically outplayed him for starter duties as a 4th-round pick. The Raiders have three talented edge rushers but have struggled to be consistently dominant for more than a few years.
The Chiefs on the other hand have serious problems at Edge. Frank Clark may open the season as the starter, but he will likely miss a large chunk of the season due to suspension from a gun charge he is fighting in California. The Chiefs re-signed Alex Okafor, but they lack depth at the position. They have moved Defensive Tackle Chris Jones to edge in camp and while Jones is massively talented, he may not be best utilized at that position. Taco Charlton never lived up to his draft position, and Mike Danna has a long way to go to be a reliable piece off the edge. The Chiefs, who have a strong overall roster, do have serious issues at the most important position on defense.
Interior Defensive LineEmbed from Getty Images
- Chiefs: Chris Jones | Jarran Reed | Khalen Saunders | Derrick Nnadi
- Broncos: Shelby Harris | Dre’Mont Jones | Mike Purcell | Agim McTelvin | Shamar Stephen | Jonathan Harris
- Chargers: Linval Joseph | Jerry Tillery | Justin Jones | Christian Covington | Cortez Broughton | Breiden Fehoku
- Raiders: Johnathan Hankins | Quinton Jefferson | Solomon Thomas | Darius Philon
Chris Jones is one of the most disruptive interior defensive linemen, whether rushing the passer or in-run defense and Jarren Reed will be a great compliment to him. The issue in Kansas City is that they lack dominant edge rushers and have contemplated moving Jones outside (as stated above). While Jones playing out of position is not wise, the fact that they have such strong depth with Khalen Saunders and Derrick Nnadi allows move Jones to edge as a sort of band-aid until they can fully address the issue next year.
The Bronco’s interior defensive line is also one of the strongest in not just the AFC West, but the entire NFL. Shelby Harris has been dominant as a run defender since he arrived in Denver in 2017 and he had 27 pressures last season. He was PFF’s 8th highest graded interior defender. Dre’Mont Jones improved each of the past two seasons and should he follow the trend, is on track to be a breakout star. He had seven sacks last year and was credited with 21 stops. Mike Purcell is the team’s nose tackle, and while he does not provide much in terms of pass rush, he reliably takes on double teams and is a strong run defender.
Somehow, Linval Joseph played every snap on defense for the Chargers last season at 32 years old. There are not many men of his size or age that are able to move the way he does. Beside him, Jerry Tillery and Justin Jones will battle to be the starter. Based on the fact that Tillery is the better pass rusher and the strides he made from year one to year two, he should win the job. Tillery needs to get better as a run defender and the hope is that with a full offseason and better coaching, he can develop that part of his game.
There was a time when Johnathan Hankins was highly regarded, but those days seemed to have passed. He can be disruptive against the run, but he lost a step from his earlier years with the Giants. The Raiders did have a promising player in Maurice Hurst but released him for some strange reason. They will rely on Quinton Jefferson who was a rotational player for the Bills last season and hope Solomon Thomas can reach the potential that saw him drafted 3rd overall in 2017. Thomas struggled for the 49ers, even in a group that had strong defensive players around him.
LinebackersEmbed from Getty Images
- Broncos: Josey Jewell | Alexander Johnson | Baron Browning | Justin Strnad
- Chargers: Kenneth Murray | Drue Tranquill | Kyzir White | Nick Niemann | Amen Ogbongbemiga
- Chiefs: Anthony Hitchens | Willie Gay Jr. | Nick Bolton | Ben Niemann | Dorian O’Daniel
- Raiders: Cory Littleton | Nick Kwiatkoski | Nicholas Morrow | James Onwualu | Asmar Bilal
Josey Jewell and Alexander Johnson might have been the best linebacker duo in the NFL last season. They are helped tremendously with a strong defensive line that frees them up to make plays. According to PFF, Johnson was credited with the 3rd most stops (58) in the NFL while Jewell was credited with the 16th most stops (42). They also drafted super-athletic Ohio State linebacker Baron Browning who has raw talent and plenty of it.
The Chargers on the other hand might have the most athletic duo in the AFC West. Kenneth Murray had a combined 107 tackles in a scheme that didn’t fit his skillset. Drue Tranquill was one of the best linebackers in his class as a rookie but his heartbreaking injury last year forced him out for the entire season. The two players complement each other very well as Murray’s strength is playing near the line of scrimmage while Tranquill excels in pass coverage. Behind them, Kyzir White provides starting experience with Nick Niemann and Amen Ogbongbemiga playing vital special teams roles.
Anthony Hitchens is the veteran of the Chief’s young linebacker corps, but Willie Gay Jr. and Nick Bolton are two super talented, young linebackers. They are inexperienced players who will likely see significant playing time next year. The Chiefs don’t typically like playing rookies, and that could lead to Ben Niemann playing as a starter, which would not be in the Chief’s best interest.
The Raiders signed Cory Littleton who was one of the hottest free agents in 2020. He had 134 tackles for the Los Angeles Rams, but he was not impressive his first year in Las Vegas. The Raiders scheme doesn’t fit his skillset and with Gus Bradley as his new defensive coordinator, things are not likely to change in his favor. But with Nick Kwiatkoski, the duo has experience with a lack of quality depth behind them.
CornerbackEmbed from Getty Images
- Broncos: Kyle Fuller | Ronald Darby | Patrick Surtain II | Bryce Callahan | Michael Ojemudia
- Chargers: Chris Harris Jr. | Michael Davis | Asante Samuel Jr. | Brandon Facyson | Tevaughn Campbell
- Chiefs: Charvarius Ward | L’ Jarius Sneed | Mike Hughes | Rashad Fenton | DeAndre Baker
- Raiders: Casey Hayward Jr. | Trayvon Mullen | Damon Arnette | Rasul Douglas | De’Vante Bausby
The Broncos really have an incredible depth chart at cornerback. Kyle Fuller, Ronald Darby, and Patrick Surtain would all be capable CB1’s on other teams, but then you can add Bryce Callahan to play in the slot making that the best Dime room in the NFL. According to PFF, the Broncos have three different players who are graded over 70.0 and within the top-30 in coverage. Then, Patrick Surtain was seen by many as the best rookie prospect in the draft. Even Michael Ojemudia started 11 games for them last season. Expect the Broncos pass defense to allow the fewest yards through the air in not just the AFC West, but the entire NFL. They could possibly break single-season records in the process.
Chris Harris may no longer be the All-Pro talent he once was, but he can still be a reliable slot defender for the Bolts. Michael Davis was a key re-signing and should step into the role of following the opposing team’s top receiver with Pro-Bowl potential. The Chargers got a draft day steal in Asante Samuel in the 2nd round of the NFL draft. Samuel fits the scheme that Brandon Staley will employ perfectly. It’s only four days into the Chargers training camp and Brandon Facyson is already flashing. Some believe he could start opposite Michael Davis on the boundary allowing Samuel to develop at a slower pace.
Charvarius Ward was the Chief’s number one last year and he played fairly well for them last season. On the other hand, L’Jarius Sneed could end up being the better corner based on how well he played last season. Sneed notched three interceptions, seven pass deflections, and two sacks in just nine games. The Chiefs also have two young former 1st-round picks in Mike Hughes and DeAndre Baker. They are talented castaways with something to prove.
The Raiders find themself at the bottom of yet another positional ranking. Casey Hayward has been a Charger favorite for years, but he struggled the last two seasons. He seemed to regress, especially defending the deep ball. His age is catching up to him, but he is still a very smart cerebral player who has enough left in the tank to regain form. Behind him, Trayvon Mullen and Damon Arnette are early draft picks that could develop further but have struggled thus far in their early careers.
SafetiesEmbed from Getty Images
- Broncos: Justin Simmons | Kareem Jackson | Caden Sterns | Jamar Johnson | Tedric Thompson
- Chiefs: Tyrann Mathieu | Juan Thornhill | Daniel Sorensen | Armani Watts | Will Parks
- Chargers: Derwin James Jr. | Nasir Adderley | Mark Webb | Alohi Gilman
- Raiders: Johnathan Abram | Trevon Moehrig | Karl Joseph | Tyree Gillespie
Again, the Broncos have the best defensive backfield in the AFC West with two top-10 safeties in coverage according to PFF. Justin Simmons is fresh off his 2nd All-Pro Season with five interceptions while Kareem Jackson was the 5th graded safety in coverage. Behind them, the Broncos have plenty of depth, so much so, that everyone in their defensive back room will not be able to make the 53-man roster. Expect a player who gets sent to their practice squad to be signed away to another team with a light secondary.
Honey Badger is the heart and soul of the Chiefs defense. Tyrann Mathieu is the ultimate chess piece for Steve Spagnuolo where Mathieu is often lined up everywhere on the defense. Juan Thornhill compliments Mathieu well and allows Mathieu to float around to multiple positions, which gets Daniel Sorensen on the field in Big Nickel situations. Sorensen is the weak link to the Chiefs secondary, but he has plenty of experience for them.
If Derwin James is able to stay healthy, he is one of the most dynamic players in the NFL. The issue is that James has only played in 21 regular-season games out of a possible 48. Nasir Adderley is very talented but struggled in Gus Bradley’s single high role last year in his first full season as a starter. If Brandon Staley can unleash Adderley’s potential in a new scheme, the Chargers starting safeties could be an NFL best. Another issue with the Chargers safety room is a lack of experience and depth. Alohi Gilman and Mark Webb are late-round draft picks that seem underwhelming but could surprise.
Trevon Moehrig was the best safety in this year’s draft class, but his fit in Gus Bradley’s (who switched to the AFC West rival Raiders) secondary is a bit questionable. He is expected to play the single high role in a bland cover-3 defense. This seems a bit out of position compared to his role with TCU. Johnathan Abram was one of the worst safeties in the NFL last year. He will be asked to fill the role Rayshawn Jenkins did in 2020 for the Chargers.