The AFC West recently has risen to historic prominence. One year after three of three of the four teams finished with losing records, three teams in the division made the playoffs, with the Broncos locking up the #1 overall seed in the postseason, and the Chargers and Chiefs securing both Wild Card spots.
To the seasoned NFL fan, the AFC West is stacked with talent at every position. Here is the best player at every spot going into the 2014 season.
Quarterback: Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos
Could it be any simpler? Although Phillip Rivers had a career year and helped the Chargers get back into the postseason, Manning is still the standard of signal callers in the league. His mental side of the game can trump any big armed or speedy young quarterback. Manning proved that despite failing arm strength, he could use his elite brain to pick apart defenses en route to the greatest statistical season of a quarterback ever, throwing the most yards (5,477) and touchdowns (55).
He will probably only be around for another season or two, but Manning will continue to cement his legacy in the AFC West and make the entire division better with other teams improving themselves just to have a chance.
Similar to Manning, Charles is the obvious choice. Charles has a deadly combination of speed, burst, and vision that helps him become the focal point of the Chiefs offense. Despite his smaller size, he is used extensively as a workhorse back and gains yards with power and finesse. In his three seasons as a fulltime stater (not counting his 2012 when he missed the year) Charles has rushed for over 4,000 yards.
In addition to his big rushing numbers, Charles is a dangerous weapon as a receiver. One of his best games in 2013 was the week 15 against the Oakland Raiders when he caught eight passes for 195 yards and four touchdowns. Charles had more yards reciving than each of his Kansas City teammates combined.
Looking around the division, Ryan Matthews would be in consideration if he had a better all around game. Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones Drew are not near the top levels at this point in their careers. And Montee Ball is just entering his first season as a full starter, so Charles has the division on lockdown as the best running back.
Fullback: Marcel Reece, Oakland Raiders
As one of the only true fullbacks in the division, Reece’s ability puts him above the rest. Anthony Sherman is the only other listed fullback in the AFC West, but he doesnt even come close to Reece. While Reece isn’t a power lead blocker like the ancient fullback, he is still a vital part of the team.
A combination fullback/tight end/ H-Back, Reece is better used with the ball in his hands. He possesses dangerous speed for a man of his size, and frequently can beat linebackers and safetys. While not used as a rusher often, he still can hit the hole and break tackles, at times better than the starting running backs. Where Reece really shines is in the passing game, where the team lines him up all over the field and lets him work on defenders who are either too slow or too small for him.
When used correctly, Reece is a dangerous offensive chess piece that makes him one of the best of a dying position.
Wide Receiver: Demaryius Thomas, Denver Broncos
Since coming into the league, Demaryius Thomas has done nothing but make plays. During his second year in his first playoff game, he caught a short pass from Tim Tebow and raced 80 yards to the endzone to score a major upset over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Since Peyton Manning came to town, he has only gotten better. While offensive skill players do see a significant stat bump with Peyton Manning, he also teaches them to refine their skill.
Thomas has a freak combination of size and speed that allows him to catch passes anywhere on the field over any defender. The Broncos especially love to take advantage of his size and speed on bubble screen passes where he can run past and break through defenders.
While the division is stacked with pass catching talent, Andre Holmes and Keenan Allen cant even come close and Dwayne Bowe has struggled since his 2010 breakout year. Even when Peyton Manning retires, Thomas will still be a dominant receiver.
Tight End: Ladarius Green, San Diego Chargers
Yes Julius Thomas catches passes from Peyton Manning and went from 4th string to Pro Bowler, but Green is the best tight end by far. For his size, he moves as fast as any wide receiver and is a constant mismatch. While he is still Antonio Gates‘s backup, the Chargers have said that they will be working to get Green more work this year to bring the offense to a new level.
The Chargers love to line up Green outside like a receiver and let him work on small corners. It worked perfectly in their playoff loss to the Bengals when he reached over Chris Crocker to snag a red zone touchdown. While Julius Thomas may get the glory of fantasy lovers, Green is laying in wait, ready to dominate the division.
Left Tackle: Ryan Clady, Denver Broncos
While he did miss most of 2013 while the Broncos went to the Super Bowl, Clady is still a force in protection. Protecting one of the best modern area signal callers, he frequently matches up with some of the best pass rushers in the league and stonewalls them for 60 minutes. In 2012, his last full season, Clady only allowed one sack the entire year.
Left Guard: Jeff Allen, Kansas City Chiefs
While not a household name, Allen has done some amazing things in two seasons in Kansas City, starting 27 games and helping Jamal Charles put up monster rushing numbers. Allen is one of the few returning starters on the offensive line and will help the offense put up record numbers again. Allen graded out poorly as a starter, but has worked hard in the offseason to become a stronger player.
Allen really only gets the award because the division contains the worst graded guard of 2013 (Khalif Barnes), an average journeyman (Chad Rinehart), and a right tackle playing guard for the first time in his career. (Orlando Franklin)
Center: Stefan Wisniewski, Oakland Raiders
Since coming into the league in 2011, Wisniewski has been one of the best talents on some awful Raiders teams. He has developed into one of the most underrated centers in the league. Despite the middling quarterback talent and inconsistent running game, Wisniewski has always created push up the middle and kept his QB clean.
While the Chiefs’ Rodney Hudson is also a top talent, and Manny Ramirez helped the Broncos pave the way to a historic season, Wisniewski is still the top talent based on his individual game. While the entire landscape of Oakland changes around him, #61 will still pave the way.
Right Guard: Louis Vasquez, Denver Broncos
Outside of Geoff Schwartz last season, there probably hasn’t been a better right guard in the AFC West throughout the past five seasons. Originally a third round pick of the Chargers in 2009, Vasquez has been setting the standard for guard play in the AFC West since. Vasquez rated as one of the best in pass protection, hence why the Broncos paid him handsomely to protect Peyton Manning.
Similar to Jeff Allen, he doesnt have much competition for the spot in the division. All three other teams are having competitions for right guard. Chris Watt vs Johnnie Troutman in San Diego. Zach Fulton and Rishaw Johnson in Kansas City. Austin Howard in Oakland is the only outright starter but he is a former tackle playing guard for the first time.
With his massive frame, Fluker is an imposing force. When he came into the league, he had questions about his pass protection but he quickly adapted to the NFL game. With a full offseason under his belt, Fluker can hone his skills even further and possibly grow into an elite tackle.
Chris Clark of the Broncos comes close but Peyton Manning made Charlie Johnson look like a Pro Bowler. Donald Stephenson of the Chiefs is a great player, but only will become a full time starter this year.
Interior defensive lineman(3-4 DE, NT 4-3 DT): Dontari Poe, Kansas City Chiefs
While there are some pretty great interior tackles in the AFC West, Poe is simply the best. His massive 6’3, 346 lb frame obviously can clog up the middle of an offensive line, but Poe has displayed excellent quickness for his size. While most men of his size are strict run pluggers, Poe is not only quick enough to burst through blocks and disrupt an entire game, but also quick enough to disrupt the passing game as well.
Edge Rusher (4-3 DE, 3-4 OLB): Von Miller, Denver Broncos
Although he is listed as a 4-3 OLB, Von Miller makes his money with his hand in the dirt. He is one of the best pass rushers in the game, and despite his torn ACL in 2013, he will still be a dominant force in 2014. Miller displays excellent bend and quickness, but also enough power to bull rush through All-Pro tackles. If it weren’t for his early season suspension and late season ACL tear, Miller might have broken
the sack record in 2013, so his 2014 outlook is promising.
Miller barely won out over Justin Houston of the Chiefs, a menacing force who will likely make Tamba Hali expendable next year. Depending on how he does in his rookie year, Khalil Mack of the Raiders could be as good as Miller since he plays a similar role in Oakland.
The quiet, unheralded star in Kansas City’s elite defense, Johnson does it all. He cuts through gaps to take down running backs and quarterbacks, reads the entire offense to get his teammates in the right position, and drops back in coverage like a natural. While the team struggles to put a decent running mate next to him at ILB, Johnson keeps on making plays consistently.
Johnson edges out Donald Butler of the San Diego Chargers simply because he has been doing so good for a longer period of time, gaining three straight Pro Bowls in the last three seasons. If Johnson ever went down, Kansas City would be at a severe loss without their leader.
Cornerback: Aqib Talib, Denver Broncos
Although it is Talib’s first season out west, the talent he comes in with is good enough the Broncos to give him $57 million over six years. Despite some off the field issues in the past, he comes into Denver with a clean slate and shutdown ability. In New England and Tampa Bay, Talib was at his best covering no. 1 receivers and shutting down that entire side. He will have some challenges with AFC receivers, but theres no reason to believe he won’t be a phenomenal talent in 2014.
The only other corner in the division that can come close to Talib is his own teammate, Chris Harris. However, Harris is coming off a torn ACL and is really only at his best covering the slot. He does play the outside on base downs, but the Broncos prefer to keep him inside where his small size wont be an issue.
Safety: Eric Weddle, San Diego Chargers and Eric Berry, Kansas City Chiefs
The only straight up tie in this entire series. Both are such outstanding players that neither is better than the other. Both do different jobs, but are so good at it. Weddle is a classic roaming center field free safety. His deep coverage skills have helped make up for lackluster corner play in San Diego. In addition, his speed to quickly come up and stop a run is second to none.
Berry is a strong safety who excels closer to the line of scrimmage. He is an imposing tackler who makes receivers and tight ends regret going over the middle. While his coverage skills aren’t on the level of Weddle, he is still talented enough to pick up anyone and run with them.
If it weren’t for these two, Tyvon Branch of the Raiders would be the top choice. The strong safety in Oakland is both a monster in coverage and the run game. He is one of the few who could shut down Rob Gronkowski.
Kicker: Matt Prater, Denver Broncos
While Sebastian Janikowski of the Raiders may have all the awards to his name, Prater has the talent. He has one of the strongest legs around and is extremely clutch. Luckily with Peyton Manning, he doesn’t have to be relied on for game winners like the Tim Tebow era. While the thin air in Denver does
give him a home advantage unlike any other, Prater is still one of the best.
Punter: Mike Scifres, San Diego Chargers
With Shane Lechler in Houston, the AFC West now has a new top-tier elite punter. His leg has helped San Diego throughout the year. His gross average of 45.3 yards is actually the fourth best in league history, while his net average of 38.5 is fifth best of all time. Among all punters with at least 500 career attempts, Scifres is the most accurate punter of all time with 39.6% of all his punts landing inside the 20.
He’s also not a bad emergency kicker too. In 2011, when Nate Kaeding tore his knee up on the opening kickoff, Scifres made three extra point attempts and made a 40-yard game tying field goal.
While the Coloquitt brothers in Kansas City and Denver are the First Family of Punting, they cant even hold a candle to Scifres historical ability.
Returner: De’Anthony Thomas, Kansas City
Thomas may not even have a real position in the NFL, but one thing describes him: fast. He is simply an all purpose weapon who will be given the ball and just run with it. The rookie out of Oregon will never start most likely, but given what he has done in two games in the preseason so far, Thomas will be fun to watch. He returned a punt 89 yards for a score in the first week of the preseason.
The Best Players in the NFL by Division