By Matt Citak
The time has come. With NFL training camps underway, there will officially be football on every weekend from now until February. With the most glorious time of the year finally here, we are going to take a look at each division around the NFL and break down the best player at each position. Now it is time to check out the AFC West’s top players on defense.
DE: Khalil Mack, Oakland Raiders
Mack has become possibly the best edge rusher in the NFL over his first three seasons. Appearing in all 16 games last season, Mack racked up 73 combined tackles, 11.0 sacks, five forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, an interception, and three passes defended. His 96 total quarterback pressures in the regular season were the most of any player, and he also led the league with a pressure on 19.3 percent of his pass-rush attempts. But Mack is not a one-dimensional player; he also dominates against the run. He had 32 run stops, which was the third highest among all edge defenders in 2016. Mack has 26.0 sacks in the last two seasons, and is in the discussion for the most dominant force off the edge in the league.
DL: Bennie Logan, Kansas City Chiefs
Logan is a tried-and-true nose tackle, which effectively limits him to being just a two-down player. However, when he is on the field for those two downs, Logan has the ability to make a major impact. The defensive tackle was not a good fit in Philadelphia’s new defensive scheme last year, evidenced by his worst season in three years. But two seasons ago, Logan was fourth among the league’s interior defenders with 45 defensive stops, despite only playing 597 total snaps. He ended that season with a 14.8 percent run-stop percentage, which was second behind Damon Harrison. With the Chiefs signing him to a one-year, prove-it deal, Logan will not lack the motivation to put together another strong season.
DL: Derek Wolfe, Denver Broncos
Wolfe normally splits his time between defensive end and defensive tackle, so this position was switched to “defensive lineman” so he could be included on this list. Wolfe had a solid 2016 campaign, recorded a career-high 51 combined tackles, 5.5 sacks, and four passes defended in 14 games. He led all 3-4 defensive ends that have at least 200 run stops in run-stop percentage at 9.6 percent, beating out Leger Douzable and Leonard Williams. It was also only two seasons ago that Wolfe finished as Pro Football Focus’ ninth-ranked interior defender with an overall grade of 88.8. While he wasn’t as good last year, he still ranked as the 27th best interior defender among 125 qualified players. Wolfe is a very underrated cog in the Denver defense.
DE: Joey Bosa, Los Angeles Chargers
Bosa played in only 12 games for the Chargers last season, yet still put together an incredibly impressive rookie season. The 6-foot-5 defensive end collected 41 combined tackles, 10.5 sacks, and one forced fumble in only three-quarters of the season. Bosa ranked third among players of his position in pass-rush productivity with a mark of 13.8, which trailed only Mack and Von Miller. At the end of the season, PFF gave him the highest ranking of any rookie in his class, along with the 13th overall ranking in the site’s list of top 50 players of 2017. Since the start of the PFF era in 2006, no player has accumulated more total pressures than Bosa’s 59 over their first 12 games. Bosa has already established himself as one of the league’s most dominant pass rushers.
LB: Von Miller, Denver Broncos
Miller has been unstoppable since he entered the league back in 2011. In those six seasons, Miller has picked up double-digit sacks in all but one (he only played in nine games that year) and has a career sack total of 73.5. He finished 2016 with 13.5 sacks and 10 additional hits, along with 55 hurries, three forced fumbles, and three passes defended. His pass rushing is dominant, but it’s his run-defense that is the most underrated part of his game. Miller led all edge defenders with 53 defensive stops last season, which was nine more than any other player. His overall PFF grade of 91.7 ranked fourth among his position, but it would be difficult to argue that he is right up there with Mack as the league’s top pass rushers.
LB: Melvin Ingram, Los Angeles Chargers
The AFC West is filled with very talented edge defenders, so Ingram gets the nod here. Ingram put together his second consecutive strong performance last year, recording 60 combined tackles, 8.0 sacks, a career-best four forced fumbles and five passes defended. Ingram’s game took a big leap, as his overall grade of 88.1 ranked sixth out of 109 edge defenders. Over the last two seasons, there have been very few pass-rushers more effective than the 6-foot-2 edge defender out of South Carolina. Ingram’s 125 total pressures during that span ranks fourth among 3-4 outside linebackers, while his 20 sacks rank fifth. With Bosa and Ingram both healthy entering the 2017 season, the Chargers defense could be in for a big improvement this year.
CB: Chris Harris Jr., Denver Broncos
Harris is playing like the best cornerback in all of football right now. In 16 games last season, Harris allowed an average of just 8.9 yards per reception and 126 total yards after the catch, despite being targeted 84 times. His 28 defensive stops in 2016 were also two more than any other corner. Harris also provides the Broncos with some flexibility, as he has the talent to line up both on the outside and in the slot, and is elite regardless of where he plays. Over the last five seasons, Harris has surrendered just 0.79 yards per coverage snap, the best mark of any corner. That is pretty unbelievable considering Harris signed with Denver as an undrafted free agent in 2011. Harris finished the season as PFF’s top-ranked corner, and there is no reason to believe he cannot do it again in 2017.
CB: Aqib Talib, Denver Broncos
Talib had the strongest season of his career in 2016, despite the fact that he missed three games due to injury. In the 13 games he did appear in, Talib was impossible to throw on. He did not allow a touchdown all season, and when targeted he gave up a passer rating of just 49.5. Talib allowed only 351 receiving yards in those 13 games, and did not surrender a catch longer than 26 yards. PFF rewarded him for his play with the second-highest grade among the league’s corners, and more importantly, their award for the Best Coverage Defender of 2016. Talib and Harris were both Pro Bowlers and first-team All-Pros last season. Barring any injuries, the two can easily repeat that accomplishment again this season.
CB: Casey Hayward, Los Angeles Chargers
Hayward is another player coming off his best season yet. In his first campaign with the Chargers, Hayward led the NFL in interceptions with a whopping seven. But his great performance goes beyond interceptions. Hayward allowed only one touchdown over 93 passes thrown his way over the 16-game season, and was not beaten for a pass longer than 40 yards. He finished just behind Talib with a passer rating allowed of just 53.4 when targeted, which was the third-best mark among starting cornerbacks. Hayward is now looking like an absolute steal for the Chargers, who signed the corner to a three-year, $15.3 million contract with only $6.8 million guaranteed prior to last season. Hayward turns 28 at the start of the season, and is just about to enter the prime of his career, which spells trouble for the quarterbacks of the AFC West.
FS: Eric Berry, Kansas City Chiefs
Berry’s story is still one of the most feel-good ones you will ever hear in the NFL. The perseverance he had to go through what he did and come out the other side as strong as ever is truly spectacular. But his performance on the field over the last two seasons makes it even more impressive. In 16 games last year, Berry picked up 77 combined tackles, one forced fumble, nine passes defended, and tied his career-high with four interceptions, running two of them back for touchdowns. Berry finished with the sixth-highest overall PFF grade among safeties with an 89.2 mark, earning strong grades in both run and pass defense. The 28-year-old safety is not only one of the best safeties and overall defenders in the NFL, but he is also one of the most inspirational players in the league.
SS: T.J. Ward, Denver Broncos
2016 was a down year for Ward, who posted the lowest PFF grade of his career (75.6). However besides last season, Ward has been one of the most consistent safeties in the league since 2011. He graded in the top 10 at his position four times in the last six seasons, and top 20 in all but one. Despite the dip in production, Ward continued to pressure opposing quarterbacks effectively. The safety led all players at his position with 17 pressures, and ranked third out of 32 qualifying safeties in pass-rush productivity at 28.3. In fact, his pass-rush productivity of 28.3 was the second-highest mark among all safeties of the last 10 seasons, trailing only Rodney Harrison’s 2007 campaign. With Ward entering a contract year and hoping for a big extension, expect a bounce-back season from him in 2017.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.