Who is the AFC West's top defender?

In the AFC West, it is easy to focus on the passing attacks led by Philip Rivers and now Peyton Manning, or the fantastic crop of running backs in the division.

But the purpose of this post is to predict which defensive player in the AFC West will have the best season in 2012. There are plenty to choose from, including some young, up-and-coming stars. In fact, the Broncos, Chiefs and Chargers all drafted defense in the first round of this year’s draft, while the Raiders didn’t make their first selection until the third round.

I have narrowed my pick for this honor down to three players, but first, the honorable mention list -- and certainly any of these players could validate themselves as the best in the division once the 2012 season is completed. They are Elvis Dumervil, Champ Bailey, Justin Houston, Derrick Johnson, Brandon Flowers, Lamarr Houston, Richard Seymour, Shaun Phillips and Eric Weddle.

All of these players are great. Some are ascending like Houston and Houston. A few could fall off as they age another year like future Hall of Famers Bailey and Seymour. But overall, I am pretty confident these nine players will prove to be very difficult for opposing offenses to play against.

Without further ado, here are my thoughts on the three defensive studs who have the best chance to emerge as the best in the AFC West in 2012.

Eric Berry, S, Kansas City Chiefs: At this time next year, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Berry was considered the best safety in all of football. Earl Thomas and stalwarts Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed -- along with Weddle -- could have something to say about that, but Berry is a unique talent who simply can do everything well at this position.

We have just seen the tip of the iceberg in terms of what he is capable of doing on the field. But of course, the issue in 2011 for Berry was getting on the field, as an ACL injury derailed his second season before it started.

If we knew Berry was going to be the same physical specimen in terms of his movement skills as he was when he entered the league, I might just pull the trigger on making Berry my selection as the best defensive player in the division for 2012. I couldn’t be higher on this young man overall, and from all reports he is back to full health. Still, I want to see it for myself. With that being said, I can’t wait to scout him this preseason. Berry is special.

Tamba Hali, LB, Kansas City Chiefs: Hali is one of the very best -- and chronically underrated -- defensive players in the entire league. And he seems to get better every season. Hali is truly an elite edge pass-rusher.

In the past, Hali disrupted quarterbacks consistently even though the Chiefs didn’t have a dangerous edge presence on his opposite side. Now, with the emergence of Justin Houston, Hali should be primed for the best season of his fantastic career.

The relentless and explosive Hali is more than just a great pass-rusher, though. In fact, he plays the run right at him very well with excellent strength, leverage, hand-usage and recognition skills. But Hali also has to be accounted for as a backside pursuit player who can track down a running back from behind.

As quarterbacks around the league and especially those in the AFC West know all too well, Hali closes on his prey about as well as any upfield player in the league. As you can see from the players I have listed -- not to mention Romeo Crennel’s defensive mind -- I am expecting Kansas City to have one of the very best defenses in football this season.

Von Miller, LB, Denver Broncos: You could certainly make the argument that Miller was the best rookie in the NFL last season. Many thought Miller was miscast as a strongside linebacker in Denver’s 4-3 defense -- and I actually tend to agree, which just shows how amazing Miller would be as an every-down 3-4 outside linebacker.

Some of the very best players can transcend scheme. They are just great pretty much no matter where you put them. That applies to Miller, who is obviously renowned as a fantastic upfield pass-rusher, but also proved to be extremely effective as a run defender and even in coverage. He will only improve in these departments as well, especially with his coverage skills.

Much like Hali, Miller is an extreme handful versus the run at him or away. This guy is just flat out fast, and few pursue the ball carrier as well. But not only is Miller fast, he is also extremely quick, nimble, agile and demonstrates fantastic balance and awareness in every phase. If the Manning experiment works out and forces the Broncos’ opponents to throw the football more as a result, that will translate into more opportunities for Miller to attack the quarterback, which is what he does best.

After dominating for about the first two-thirds of his rookie season, Miller’s play dropped off a bit after he broke his thumb. Obviously that can have a major effect on a defensive player who relies on hand usage to take on blocks, defeat pass protectors and tackle the ball carrier as much as Miller. He also could have hit a bit of a rookie wall to go along with that substantial injury he suffered.

I do not expect his play to fall off in any manner in 2012. In fact, I am so high on Miller as an overall player that he will be my preseason prediction for the 2012 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.