The Best Of The West: Ranking The 4 AFC West Linebacker Groups
In the newest rendition of the AFC West divisional position rankings, I will be tackling the AFC West linebacker groups. We previously have done the AFC West’s defensive lines, secondaries, and the wide receivers. As I said last time, this will be a summer project of sorts from the LAFB so stay tuned for the next edition by Chase Bendel and me.
This group is probably going to end up being one of the muddier lists that we do, especially with all the Vic Fangio/Brandon Staley influence in the AFC West and lack of value placed on the position from these teams as a whole. I’ll be listing the top four (off the ball) linebackers for each unit according to the depth charts on Ourlads. New veteran additions to the respective unit will be listed in italics, and relevant rookie additions will be noted as well.
4. Los Angeles Chargers – Kenneth Murray, Troy Reeder, Drue Tranquill, Nick Niemann
This will likely be the only group where the Chargers end up in last place in the AFC West for me. This is the position group with the most question marks on the roster, and a large part of that has to do with the departure of Kyzir White.
There’s a strong argument for White being the best linebacker in the AFC West last season. Especially when you take into consideration his ability to drop into pass coverage effectively. The Chargers will miss having such a well-rounded presence in the middle of their defense, especially against the elite offenses in the AFC West
The Chargers could be looking at a committee approach by replacing him with Drue Tranquill and taking some potential development from Nick Niemann into account. Staley also ran a lot of 5-1 front looks with the Rams to put a different flavor to their nickel packages, and if he wants to make that same kind of shift with the Chargers this year it means fewer linebacker snaps in general.
Reeder was not nearly as impactful as White in the run game regarding their respective 2021 seasons. White’s 32 run stops last year were tied for the 7th most in the entire league last year. Reeder only had 12 run stops, albeit on 126 fewer run defense snaps. However, Reeder’s tackles were slightly more efficient with an average depth of tackle of 3.3 compared to White’s 3.9, per PFF.
The vast majority of Niemann’s snaps as a rookie came on special teams but I do believe in his skill set and athleticism translating to a plus coverage defender, to potentially replace that aspect of White’s role this year. Niemann actually tested as a better athlete at the combine and even tested in the high 90s percentile in a few categories. That athleticism and length should translate to a solid coverage profile.
In terms of the starting duo, it all hinges on Kenneth Murray’s health and his confidence as he recovers from yet another offseason surgery, this time being an ankle injury. He was clearly limited last year by a couple of factors, including the ankle injury, but he showed some really promising flashes as a rookie. I would expect the Chargers’ training staff to ease him back into a full workload, the question is when does that process start to ramp up? He was seen on a scooter during the first week of OTA’s so it seems like he’s still a ways away from being healthy.
Reeder, Niemann, and Amen Ogbongbemiga will have a big opportunity to fight for one starting spot in Murray’s absence. Drue Tranquill will hold down the fort at the other spot, as he did through most of last season. Tranquill isn’t the same kind of explosive playmaker that White is, but they share a lot of the same attributes, especially on the mental side of the game. Tranquill is a fantastic communicator and plays with strong instincts. He’s a very good number two option that is capable of being a number one in stints.
Overall, I think the Chargers will be fine at this position group and you could certainly argue that their depth is better than some of the other teams in the AFC West but they lack a true lead dog in the room and that hurts their ceiling. The veteran presences of Tranquill and Reeder will keep it from bottoming out, but unless Murray takes a massive leap forward I believe this will end up being a solid but unspectacular group. Kyle Van Noy could fill a role in this group if necessary, but I expect the vast majority of his snaps to come as an edge rusher for the Chargers.
3. Denver Broncos – Josey Jewell, Alex Singleton, Justin Strnad, Jonas Griffith
The Broncos find themselves in a similar situation as the Chargers in the sense that this position group lacks a top dog, but that is a little more of a self-inflicted wound than the Chargers because they reportedly are shifting former third-round pick Baron Browning to edge rusher. I was incredibly impressed with what Browning did down the stretch of his rookie season and he was somebody I thought could become that guy.
Still, they have some very reliable veteran players to lead this group in Josey Jewell and Alex Singleton. I think those two players are better than what the Chargers will have, which is why I have the Raiders higher. Even with Justin Strnad and Jonas Griffith, the Broncos have some real depth questions again though.
2. Las Vegas Raiders – Denzel Perryman, Divine Deablo, Jayon Brown, Micah Kiser
Writing about and analyzing the Raiders linebacker room is painful for me as somebody who absolutely loved watching Denzel Perryman play on a week-to-week basis. Finally watching him stay healthy for the majority of a whole season while playing for a different team in the AFC West is borderline cruel and unusual punishment for me.
As a result, he was able to put together the Pro Bowl season we all knew he was always capable of. His 37 run stops in 2021 were third-most in the league and most in the AFC West in 2021. Stealing him from the Panthers was arguably the best transaction Mike Mayock ever made.
Outside of Perryman, the Raiders have good depth too. Divine Deablo really came on strong down the stretch of last season for them and profiles as a perfect modern-day coverage linebacker with his background as a college safety. Jayon Brown and Micah Kiser have each been very useful players for their respective teams in the past as well.
1. Kansas City Chiefs – Nick Bolton, Willie Gay Jr., Leo Chenal (R), Jermaine Carter
Unfortunately for the rest of the teams in the AFC West, Brett Veach and company have shown the ability to turn former positions of weakness into positions of strength. The offensive line is the most notable, but right up there with them is this linebacker group which they have poured consistent draft resources into. Each of their three starters has been drafted in the last three seasons, and while Leo Chenal hasn’t taken the field yet I have no doubt that he will hit just like Nick Bolton and Willie Gay have.
I talked about White having an argument for the best linebacker in the AFC West, and I would say that Perryman has one too, but a case could be made for Bolton as well. He totaled 34 run stops last year which was the fourth-most in the league, trailing only Perryman (37), Roquan Smith (42), and C.J. Mosely (43). He also had an average depth of tackle of 2.3 yards, which was 5th best among qualified linebackers.
This means that he was basically living at the line of scrimmage, and doing it as a rookie. In fact, his 34 run stops were the most by a rookie linebacker since 2018, when Fred Warner and Darius Leonard each had 35. That year Warner had an average depth of tackle of 3.5 and Leonard all the way up at 4.9 (I still believe Derwin James was robbed for Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2018). There aren’t many other cases of rookie linebackers that were as impactful as Bolton was last year.
If Chenal does hit the ground running (which he should), the Chiefs could create a massive grand canyon-sized gap in between their linebacker group, and the rest of their AFC West peers. Frankly, this group has the talent to challenge the best in the whole league in my opinion.