So there’s no such thing as an All-AFC West team. But what if there was? That’s essentially the premise behind this piece. If there was a special postseason honor to be had regarding the best players in the division, who would make that list in 2021?
Here are my predictions for this hypothetical team.
Edge - Von Miller, Broncos
There may be some who are out on Miller and believe he’s sliding down the back nine at a rapid pace, but not me. Despite missing the entire 2020 season, and posting some career-low numbers in 15 games two years ago, I believe Miller will be back with a vengeance in 2021.
Miller has only played in less than 15 games just one other season, so my money is on him staying healthy this year. After posting double-digit sacks every year except 2013 (five in nine games) and 2019 (eight)
Edge - Joey Bosa, Chargers
Despite injuries keeping him from putting up ideal sack numbers, Bosa fought through a trio of ailments hitting him all at once to still dominate opposing offenses on a weekly basis. His numbers could have looked even worse, but a three-sack, six tackle-for-loss effort against the Bills helped pad his stats despite missing four games and playing part-time snaps in two others.
In Brandon Staley’s defense, which utilizes a variety of stunts and games up front to aid the pass rush, there’s no reason Bosa should wreak havoc in the same manner as Aaron Donald did in 2020. Even if he wasn’t the one taking the quarterback down, Donald created opportunities for his teammates and that’s another area the Chargers will look to improve in from a year ago.
Defensive Tackle - Chris Jones
One of the biggest, most-athletic players at his position over the past few seasons, Jones has been a disruptive mainstay for the Chiefs front line that has helped their defense complement their offense just enough to keep their success rolling year after year. Not many interior linemen in the division have been able to compete with him as of late and I think that continues into 2021. He’ll have a much more difficult matchup against the Bolts with Corey Linlsey now at the pivot, but against the rest of the division, he’s going to eat once more.
Defensive Tackle - Shelby Harris, Broncos
I’ve always been a big fan of Harris in that he’s an unsung hero year after year that makes plays consistently when his team needs them. Maybe it’s because those plays usually come against the Bolts that they stand out so much to me but regardless, this guy deserves all the praise he gets. The hope is that someone along the interior of the Chargers is able to push for a spot like this, but until then, I think Harris is the next best interior player behind Jones.
Linebacker - Alexander Johnson, Broncos
Johnson was a rather unheard-of player before landing a starting role in the middle for the Broncos. This past season, he racked up a career-high 124 tackles and four TFLs with a pair of forced fumbles. While he’s not an elite cover linebacker, Johnson is simply really good at one important aspect of defense: tackling. He’s a sure-handed as they come. From 2019-2020, he recorded 31 more total tackles and also managed to lower his missed-tackle rate from 7.9 percent to 5.3. He also lowered the completion rate against him in coverage by almost 10 percent while seeing 25 more balls thrown his way.
He also tends to be a pain in the side of the Chargers whenever they play, so that helps him earn a spot here on this team.
Linebacker - Kenneth Murray Jr., Chargers
After a rookie season that say Murray set the franchise record for tackles by a defender in their rookie season, many believe the former Sooner is on a one-way track to a breakout in his second NFL season.
Known for his speed, explosiveness, and having sideline-to-sideline range, Murray’s untapped potential and erratic tendencies will be polished and guided by the team’s new defensive mastermind at head coach. If Brandon Staley was able to trot out the league’s top defense with a couple Joe Shmoes at inside linebacker for the Rams, I think he can do a bit more with Murray and Drue Tranquill in the middle of his new unit.
One more important note: Murray told the media earlier this month that he’s getting the opportunity to play more downhill in Staley’s system, something he did a lot of in college and not so much within Gus Bradley’s system. With that in mind, expect a lot more disruption from Murray this season and in the future.
Cornerback - L’Jarius Sneed, Chiefs
As a rookie, Sneed only needed to wait until his first professional game to make his mark in the NFL. In the season’s opener against the Texans, Sneed picked off Deshaun Watson and batted away two more passes. One week later, he also recorded his second-career pick against against Justin Herbert in their overtime victory over the Bolts. While undersized, this guy plays so much larger and I don’t think that chip on his shoulder is going anywhere anytime soon.
Cornerback - Michael Davis, Chargers
Chris Harris Jr. is the veteran and former All-Pro in the cornerback room, but Davis is back with the Chargers on a new long-term deal so I expect the former UDFA gem to finally start hitting his prime as a professional. He led the team a year ago with three interceptions, including an exciting pick-six against Tom Brady and the Bucs in week four. In his first season under a new, hefty contract, expect Davis to push his play even further now that’s slated as the future of the Chargers secondary.
Cornerback - Patrick Surtain II, Broncos
The cornerback group isn’t the strongest throughout the NFL and I think that leaves space for a rookie like Surtain to step in and carve out a place among the best during his first professional season. All the talk about Surtain coming out of Broncos camp has been that he’s just so incredibly pro ready from the jump and that’s not a surprise when you remember who his father is. I expect big things from this NFL legacy.
Safety - Justin Simmons, Broncos
New defensive coordinator for the Chargers, Renaldo Hill, played a key role in Simmons’ development into an All-Pro player in the NFL. While we’re glad to have Hill on the Bolts’ staff now, Simmons will remain a top talent at the position without his former position coach. After 96 total tackles and a career-high five interceptions in 2020, there’s no other player who can touch Simmons’ level of play outside of the player I’m about to talk about next.
Safety - Derwin James Jr., Chargers
After missing 27 of the past 32 possible games for the Chargers, James is fully expected to come back with a vengeance in 2021. Former safety John Johnson III was a pivotal member of the Rams number one-ranked defense under Staley and James is expected to slide right into that field general-type role while also seeing plenty of time moving around the defense as a box safety, slot corner, and deep safety in two-high looks.
A true do-it-all defender, the sky remains the limit for James this season.