Off-ball linebacking corps are steadily working their way from three regular starters to two as the league moves farther and farther into near full-time nickel defenses. Along with that, coverage ability at the linebacker spot is at a premium. But they still have to be solid tacklers. So, they have to be big, fast, agile, and stout. And with one less of them on the field most of the time. Not an easy assignment. Let’s look at how the AFC West linebacking corps stand up.
Starters: Alexander Johnson, Todd Davis
Davis is coming off a career year in which he was tied for the ninth-most tackles in the league (134). But it didn’t come completely out of nowhere. He had 114 tackles the season before and has been a full-time starter for the Broncos since 2016. He was also a steady presence on the team’s 2015 Super Bowl squad.
Last season was Johnson’s first as a full-time starter and the future looks bright. Opposing quarterbacks had an 84.3 passer rating when targeting his coverage, which was fifth in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. So, the Broncos have the tackle machine in Davis and the coverage linebacker in Johnson.
Starters: Cory Littleton, Nick Kwiatkowski
Littleton enters the AFC West and instantly becomes arguably the best all-around linebacker in the division. He was the one tied with Todd Davis for ninth in the league with 134 tackles. In addition, he missed just one tackle all last season, giving him PFF’s top tackling efficiency rating among off-ball linebackers. Unlike Davis, Littleton can also do it in coverage. He has put up 5 interceptions and 22 pass breakups over the past two seasons.
Kwiatkoski saw the most extensive starting experience of his career late last season. He started eight games, including the final seven and performed well enough to become a coveted free-agent pickup. Over the final eight games of last season, he put up 42 tackles, four pass breakups and two sacks. He will finally be given his shot to prove he’s worthy of being a full-time starter.
Starters: Kenneth Murray, Drue Tranquill/Denzel Perryman
Perryman on rushing downs, Tranquill on passing downs
There is a chance the Chargers could have a very good linebacking unit this season. Drue Tranquill’s arrow is pointed up after a strong rookie season. He was especially good in coverage. He also had more tackles (75) than veteran teammate Denzel Perryman (68) despite starting just three games to Perryman’s ten.
For Perryman’s part, he was hampered by injuries. Then again, staying on the field has been Perryman’s issue throughout his career. He has never played a full 16 games in a season and in saw a combined 16 games in 2017 and 2018 combined.
Tranquill and Perryman will be joined by first-round pick Kenneth Murray who was the second linebacker taken in the draft behind Isaiah Simmons. Uncertainty is mainly what lands this unit as third in the division, but there is also a lot of potential.
Starters: Anthony Hitchens, Willie Gay Jr./Damien Wilson
The Chiefs will be hoping rookie second-round pick Willie Gay Jr can step up and take a starting spot. They, like every team in this division, are in need of a linebacker to cover the outstanding tight ends in the division. Though the Chiefs are lucky that the best of the bunch is on their team.
Hitchens reverted to the mean after exploding for 135 tackles in 2018. He and his former Cowboys teammate Damien Wilson tag-teamed for 169 tackles between the two of them.