The three AFC West teams with a first-round pick are in luck.
There could be 12-14 pass-rushers taken in the first round of the April draft. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay has said this is the biggest and best group of defensive lineman he has seen in years. San Diego general manager A.J. Smith said he thinks the defensive end and linebacker group is particularly strong.
Denver (which has the No. 2 pick), San Diego (No. 18) and Kansas City (No. 21) all need pass-rushers. It’s arguably each team’s top need. It looks more likely each day that the draft will occur before free agency because of the lockout. There will probably be urgency for each of the three teams (Oakland doesn’t pick until No. 48 and doesn’t have a pressing need at pass-rusher) to address its pass-rushing needs in the draft.
The following is a look at some of the top pass-rushers who have a chance to end up in the AFC West. We are not including defensive tackles even though both Alabama’s Marcell Dareus and Auburn’s Nick Fairley have strong pass-rushing skills. Both could end up in Denver. We’re looking just at ends and linebackers. We’re going in the order of the range that they could be drafted:
Da'Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson
Why he is a candidate: He is considered one of the best all-around talents in the draft. He led college football's FBS with 15.5 sacks last year.
Warning sign: He had only one great year of college play and had knee surgery in January. He will need to prove to teams during his April 1 pro day that he is healthy.
Chances of ending up in AFC West: Denver has a workout set up with him. He could be the No. 2 pick. But he could also fall to the Nos. 5-7 range. I could see Denver potentially trading down to take him.
Von Miller, LB, Texas A&M
Why he is a candidate: He has been one of the most impressive draft prospects of the entire class this offseason. He has blazing 4.49 speed.
Warning sign: There has been some concern that his great testing may not translate to great NFL play a la Jets’ bust Vernon Gholston.
Chances of ending up in AFC West: Denver has worked out Miller. He is a candidate for the Broncos at No. 2. If he falls to the No. 5 to 7 range (I don’t see him falling further than that), I could see either Denver trading down to take him or San Diego considering moving up to get him.
Robert Quinn, DE, North Carolina
Why he is a candidate: He is considered one of the best performers in the draft. He has game-changing ability.
Warning sign: Quinn missed the entire 2010 season after he accepted gifts from an agent.
Chances of ending up in AFC West: I think he’ll fall between Denver and San Diego.
J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin
Why he is a candidate: He has scouts drooling this offseason. He is one of the great risers in the draft.
Warning sign: Some teams may think he looks better in shorts and a T-shirt than on the field.
Chances of ending up in AFC West: He is the type of player the Chargers could trade up to get. San Diego General manager A.J. Smith was at his pro day. He could go in the 10-12 range.
Cameron Jordan, DE, California
Why he is a candidate: He is the full package. He performs well. He tests well. He has a high character and his father, Steve, was an NFL tight end.
Warning sign: There’s very low risk here. There may be some worry he is a tad small to make a huge difference as an every-down player.
Chances of ending up in AFC West: I think San Diego is a prime candidate to get him. He will be popular starting around pick No. 15. The Chargers might have to trade up a few spots to get him.
Aldon Smith, LB-DE, Missouri
Why he is a candidate: He is supremely talented. He is a game-changer and he's a stats monster.
Warning sign: He had injury issues and he has not played a lot of college football.
Chances of ending up in AFC West: Smith could go anywhere from No. 15 to 25. The Chiefs like him and have a workout set with him.
Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue
Why he is a candidate: He is classic pass-rusher. He has a high motor and he is relentless in his pursuit of the quarterback.
Warning sign: He may be a bit small at 6-foot-4, 263 to take the every-down pounding at defensive end.
Chances of ending up in AFC West: He could be a perfect fit in San Diego. Kerrigan is already being linked to the Chargers. If he gets by the Chargers, the Chiefs could take a look at him.
Muhammad Wilkerson, DE, Temple
Why he is a candidate: Like Watt, Wilkerson is zooming up draft boards. He is big and strong and he can play at end and tackle. He is disruptive.
Warning sign: He played at a small school and there is always a concern about the move up in competition.
Chances of ending up in AFC West: He’s another name the Chargers will consider. San Diego could move down to get him. The Chiefs are also a serious candidate for Wilkerson. The Chiefs are working him out.
Justin Houston, LB-DE, Georgia
Why he is a candidate: Big-play performer who dominated at the highest level of college football. He looks like a perfect rush linebacker for a 3-4 team.
Warning sign: He doesn’t have great size, and a lack of production before last season could concern teams.
Chances of ending up in AFC West: He should be available at No. 21, where the Chiefs would be tempted to take him. Kansas City has a workout set up with him.
Akeem Ayers, LB, UCLA
Why he is a candidate: He looks like a perfect 3-4 outside linebacker. He appears ready for the NFL game.
Warning sign: He didn’t have a great combine and may fall behind some of the other top prospects.
Chances of ending up in AFC West: I could see the Chiefs taking him if they traded down to the No. 25 to 28 range. He could also be a fit for the Chargers if they traded down or traded back into the end of the first round by using their extra picks as ammunition.
Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa
Why he is a candidate: He is a big, strong player who was dominant early in his career. He could be a solid 3-4 defensive end.
Warning sign: His play slipped some in 2010 and there is concern he will not stand out as an NFL player.
Chances of ending up in AFC West: He could be a secondary selection for the Chargers if they get back into the end of the first round.
Cameron Heyward, DE, Ohio State
Why he is a candidate: He is a big, strong productive college player with NFL bloodlines. He is the son of the late Craig “Ironhead” Heyward. He can play in both the 3-4 and the 4-3.
Warning sign: He is not a refined player, and he could have trouble with technique in the NFL.
Chances of ending up in AFC West: He could be on the Chargers’ list and perhaps Denver could look at him if he falls to No. 36 overall in the second round.