The AFC West is set to be one of the most hotly contested divisions in the NFL this upcoming season. After a season where the Kansas City Chiefs and the LA Chargers battled it out at the top of the division, the Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders will be desperate to redress the balance.
Both teams went about their business spectacularly in the NFL Draft. Additionally, both teams added contributory pieces during free agency. Did they do enough to close the gap to the top and compete?
With the draft behind us and official training camps still some weeks away, we’re in to the period with no real football action. It’s a time for rumour, heresay, and conjecture.
In my Hodgkinson’s Huddle column there’s no place for such rumour. However, there is always place for some opinion based competition. Over the next few weeks leading up to the season, I will embark on ranking the strength of each team in the AFC West. On a position by position basis, I will rank them from worst to first.
Let’s call it, the AFC West Positional Power Ranking!
First up, I’ll take a look at how the teams rank in terms of their players at the safety position.
4. Denver Broncos
If the power rankings rewarded consistency alone, then the Broncos would be at the top. However, they only reward quality and performance and that’s a different matter.
Denver’s safety position returns Justin Simmons and Will Parks who both started 16 games last season. They were drafted together out of the 2016 NFL Draft. Simmons had the far superior season in 2018, racking up 97 tackles and 3 interceptions. Despite having a fierce front seven including Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, the Broncos defence ranked in the bottom half of both pass and rush defence statistics.
Parks could find his game time reduced this season because of some free agency moves. Kareem Jackson was added during free agency and despite him traditionally playing cornerback, all signs out of Denver suggest Vic Fangio intends to utilise him at saftey. Jackson adds productivity to the unit, with an interception in all bar one season during his time in Houston. However, it remains to be seen how successfully he can transition to safety.
Finally, can Sua Cravens stay healthy enough to make a difference? The former second round pick has play making ability but has barely seen the field.
3. Oakland Raiders
The Raiders finished absolutely plum last in total defence last season. After the trade of Khalil Mack they possessed zero pass rushing threat and as such the secondary paid the price. So, why don’t I have them ranked last in the AFC West for this coming season?
Well, the Raiders went out and made significant strides in their safety core this off season.
Lamarcus Joyner was one of the highest ranked free agents and the Raiders swooped to secure him. Joyner brings a wealth of all round production to the secondary. Last season alone he tallied a sack, fumble recovery, and interception to add to his 78 tackles. As a member of the LA Rams team that went to the Super Bowl he also brings a winning mentality.
Joyner will likely be joined in the starting line up by rookie Johnathan Abram. He’s another upgrade over last year’s unit and will contribute immediately. With his hard hitting style, he will make the perfect Oakland Raider. During his time at Mississippi State he was a vocal leader and I expect that to continue in Oakland. Abram will also provide run support for a team desperate to stop the opposition anyway they can.
As well as adding pieces since the end of the season, the Raiders also rewarded Erik Harris with a 2 year, $6.5m contract. To my mind, he was a more effective contributor last season that Karl Joseph. Despite head coach Jon Gruden’s protestations that Joseph still has a future as a Raider, I’m not convinced he has.
2. Kansas City Chiefs
It’s almost tempting to copy and paste the above and just substitute player names. The Kansas City Chiefs defence last season was a hot mess. However, because of Patrick Mahomes and the offence, it went largely unnoticed until it was too late. In fairness to that 2018 unit, it was plagued with injuries from the offset. Both Eric Berry and Daniel Sorenson lost large amounts of playing time. Berry in particular was a huge loss, both as a football player and a leader.
It’s all change for 2019. Surprisingly, and upsettingly for Chiefs fans, Berry is no more in Kansas. With a new defensive co-ordinator in Steve Spagnuolo there will be a new system and Berry didn’t figure in it.
They have got significantly better in my opinion. That starts with the acquisition of Tyrann Mathieu. “The Honeybadger” has turned his one year tour in Texas in to a 3 year, $42 million contract with the Chiefs. He’ll be worth every penny. To my mind, Mathieu has been one of the premier safeties in the game over the last few years. His production for the Texans last year was startling and his ability to get in to the backfield will be perfect for Spagnuolo’s blitz minded defence. Importantly, he’ll immediately assume the leadership role at the heart of the secondary.
Despite returning Sorenson and last year’s 4th round pick, Armani Watts, I expect Mathieu will be joined at starting safety by Juan Thornhill. I think Thornhill was a bit of a steal at the back end of the second round of this years draft. He was voted first team All-ACC in his final year at Virginia and then crushed the combine to enhance his stock. Thornhill’s play during rookie mini-camp has already caught the eye of coaches and fans.
1. Los Angeles Chargers
It was a close run thing between the Chargers and the Chiefs. Which is ominous for my prediction of a closer battle in the AFC West this season. However, when considering all the available evidence, if I chose the Chiefs over the Chargers, I’m betting against Derwin James. If I’m betting against Derwin James, I’m betting against the following stat line:
16 games, 105 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 3 INTs and 13 passes defenced.
That’s James’ stat line from 2018, his rookie season. Rookies just aren’t meant to be that good, that dominant, in their first season. It helps when you’ve got a stellar defence around you with the likes of Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. However, James is that good.
He’s joined in the secondary by Adrian Phillips who signed a contract extension in March. The Chargers were confident enough in what they have in Phillips to let Jahleel Addae leave to the Texans. Not only can he contribute at safety but he’s an important part of their special teams unit.
I use “contribute” very specifically for Phillips’ role this season. This is because of Nasir Adderley. I fully expect the rookie out of Delaware to force his way in to the starting line up and it could be that Phillips and Adderley are used in rotation or even as part of a 3 safety package. Adderley could be a really special talent in the league and his inclusion helps push the Chargers to the top of my positional power rankings.
So, the LA Chargers top the first week on my AFC West Positional Power Ranking. Join me next week for “Hodgkinson’s Huddle” as I take a look at the running back situation and rank the teams. As always, any feedback is welcome and you can find me @ojhodgkinson on Twitter.
Feature Image: David Richard (AP)
Statistics provided from www.espn.co.uk and www.profootballrefernce.com