It’s been a wild week for the AFC West. With training camp still a week or two away, it’s a traditionally quiet time in the NFL. Despite this, the division has been making plenty of headlines.
The Tyreek Hill saga continues apace in Kansas City. With every passing day there seems to be new, contradictory, information. The situation is a mess.
In Oakland, the move to bring in Richie Incognito appears flawed already. It was announced this week that he will face a two game suspension from the league. The suspension stems from two violations of the NFL’s conduct policy. Both occurred in 2018, and the Raiders had prior knowledge of the incidents.
Then the big news of the week broke on Thursday. The Los Angeles Chargers star running back, Melvin Gordon, issued a “pay me or trade me” ultimatum to the franchise. It’s an interesting situation, given the debate over the value of the running back position in the league. Le’veon Bell’s handling of his contract with the Steelers, and subsequent pay day from the New York Jets, has set the bar for the running backs.
Gordon gives me a perfect link to this week’s AFC West positional power rankings.
It’s been some weeks since I last put together a positional piece. Last time out, it was him that gave the Chargers the edge in the AFC West running back rankings. You can find those, and the ones for the safety position right here:
This week is the turn of the linebackers. There were some closes calls and tough decisions with this position. Let’s go!
4. Kansas City Chiefs
There were some tough decisions and close calls. This wasn’t one of them. The Chiefs lost some key pieces of the linebacker group over the spring. Of course, some of this was mitigated by a change of co-ordinator. However, losing Dee Ford and Justin Houston doesn’t help your linebacker group whether you play a 3-4 or 4-3 defence. I genuinely believe that they could have found a way to be difference makers in the system.
The Chiefs being rock bottom seems tough on Anthony Hitchens. 2018 was his best season to date in the league, in his first season outside of Dallas. Combined with Damien Wilson, the Chiefs group has a very Cowboys feel to it. These two are consistent, especially against the run, but aren’t going to wow you with their production.
Reggie Ragland could be that wow factor. However, it is a “could”. That uncertainty as to whether he will ever realise his potential, is what led Buffalo to trade the former 2nd round pick after a torn ACL. He flashed some playmaking ability in 2018, with an interception and a pass break up. The Chiefs will need to see more in 2019.
The main depth is made up of two second year players in Ben Niemann and Dorian O’Donnell. Both were called in to action as rookies, and O’Donnell was the more impressive of the two. They’re joined by Jeremiah Attaochu, who is familiar to the Chiefs after four years with the Chargers.
3. Oakland Raiders
This was the toughest, and closest, of calls. I actually believe that the Raiders starting linebacker group can be the key to success in Oakland this season. Their combined experience, with their talent level, makes for a difference making unit. This is, however, a positional rankings based on depth as well.
Let’s start with the trio that are set to solidify the Raiders defence in 2019. The group is led by Tahir Whitehead. After 6 years in Detroit, Whitehead had arguably his best season in 2018. Statistically, it was his second best. He logged 88 solo tackles, 1 forced fumble, 1 interception, and 5 pass break ups. That production was overshadowed by a generally poor Raiders defence.
He’ll be joined by Vontaze Burfict and Brandon Marshall this year. They form the most experienced linebacker line up in the AFC West, if not the entire league. Question marks hang over Burfict, but a change of scenery could see him once again be the dominant middle linebacker he was at the height of his career. He just needs to stay on the field. Marshall brings talent, experience, and a culture of winning from his time at the Broncos. If he can keep healthy, he will be a great addition.
Behind those three, it is a relatively inexperienced group. Marquel Lee is in his third year in the league. He doubled his production in 2018 from his rookie year. Jason Cabinda played 10 games in 2018 and looked solid if not spectacular. Undrafted free agent, Te’von Coney, brings a physicality to the position. Although unpolished, if he can learn from Whithead and co, he can be a starter in the league.
2. Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers added some experience of their own during the off-season. Thomas Davis was drafted by the Carolina Panthers in the 2005 NFL Draft. This season will mark the first time he has played outside of Carolina in his career. Despite some injuries in his career, he remains a productive player in the league. It is more than production that he brings to the table for the Chargers though. His experience, and leadership, will be invaluable for a young linebacker group that find themselves in a Philip Rivers Super Bowl window.
Outside of Davis, the most experienced linebacker is Denzel Perryman, who was drafted in 2015. Other than that, the rest of the depth is made up of second year players, and rookies, Drue Tranquil and Emeke Egbule. Re-signing Perryman was a priority of the Chargers over the spring. Now they need him to stay healthy.
The Chargers get the nod over the Raiders due to the sheer production potential from the depth. Uchenna Nwosu showed clear playmaking ability in his first season. He racked up 3.5 sacks, including 1 in the post season win over the Baltimore Ravens. Kyzir White had contributed an interception and 2 pass breaks in his rookie year before ending the season on injured reserve. Jatavis Brown started last season as a back up, but due to injuries and impressive play found himself as the mic linebacker by the end of the season. He was second on the team in tackles, and also contributed 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, and 5 pass break ups.
The future of the LA Chargers defence is in good hands.
1. Denver Broncos
Was it really going to be anyone other than the Broncos? Their linebacker group contains one man whose name alone strikes fear in to the heart of opposition quarterbacks. He even has is own pass rushing clinic.
Since being drafted second overall in the 2011 NFL Draft, Miller has been wreaking havoc in the AFC West. He has been consistently the best pass rusher in the game. After a 2018 season that saw him contribute 14.5 sacks, he is just two short of 100 career sacks. He didn’t show any sign of slowing down last year, and there’s no reason to suggest he will in 2019.
If facing off against Miller wasn’t bad enough, you have to contend with Bradley Chubb when you face the Broncos. There is just no way to gameplan for both of these incredible outside linebackers. Chubb started all 16 games as a rookie and finished with 12 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and 41 solo tackles. You need a great right AND left tackle when facing this double headed defensive monster.
In between the two OLB’s, Todd Davis has been a constant presence at inside linebacker for the Broncos. 2018 was his best year with 80 tackles. He also added his first career interception against Arizona. He’ll be joined in 2019 by Josey Jewell. Last year’s 4th round pick out of Iowa wasn’t slated to play straight away but ended up with over 770 snaps. He made solid plays in 2018, and the Broncos were confident enough in his ability to let Brandon Marshall walk. Jewell’s development under new head coach, Vic Fangio, will be crucial to the success of his career.
Behind the starting four, Dekoda Watson (OLB) and Keishawn Bierria (ILB) look set to be the primary back ups. Watson has experience in the league and Bierria saw action as a rookie in 2018.
Miller and the Broncos conclude our positional power rankings for the linebackers of the AFC West. Next time, I’ll be looking at the receiver groups for the division. Will there be a different number one? For any thoughts or feedback on the rankings, find me at @ojhodgkinson on Twitter, or comment below.
Photo Credit: Isaiah J Downing – USA Today Sports
All statistics courtesy of www.profootballreference.com