efore I get to my rankings, a couple of things — call them asterisks, call them whatever.
First, I didn’t put any quarterbacks on here. They already get all the love, and my man Phil Rivers is a future Hall of Famer. I don’t need to explain that. You know what it is.
Second, I only picked three Chargers. I definitely could have picked more.
Now of course I’m biased, but, honestly, I think that this year we have the most talented roster we’ve had since I’ve been here. We’re a lot closer to the team that closed out last season 9–3 than the one that started off 0–4, I can tell you that. I could have filled this whole list with Chargers, good as we got it right now. But I wanted to be fair, you know? Spread some love around the division.
Also, I didn’t put myself on this list.
I don’t know why. I just didn’t. I’ll let other people decide where I stack up and let my game speak for itself.
O.K. Enough asterisks.
Let’s get into it.
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(7) Derrick Johnson, LB, Oakland Raiders
So, let’s say we’re running power — off-tackle with the fullback leading the way. If everybody on defense is doing their job, there’s no lane for me to cut it back inside. The defensive end is squeezing the hole and keeping contain, so there’s nowhere for me to bounce outside. The only opening is off-tackle, where, whenever we’ve played the Chiefs, it’s been just me and Derrick Johnson, the fullback the only thing between us.
Now, in that situation, most linebackers will take the fullback and either try to bowl him over or swim or rip by him to make a play on the running back. But Derrick likes to cut the fullback — just take his legs out. And I’m telling you, it trashes the hole, man. I’m trying to find room to run, and there’s just bodies everywhere.
So the only place for me to go is … up.
I have to get over the bodies on the ground somehow, right?
Now, anybody who’s ever played running back knows that you don’t want to jump in the hole. That few steps of momentum you get from the handoff to the point of contact is your biggest advantage. The second you jump in the air, all that momentum is gone. And it’s a lot easier for a D-lineman to get off his block and stick an arm out and grab a guy who’s in the air than one who’s still pounding ahead on the ground at full speed. Being up in the air is a bad place to be if you’re a running back.
But here’s the thing … Derrick doesn’t cut the fullback every time. He picks his spots. It’s a chess game with him. So when I get the ball and I get to the hole, I basically have to guess where he’s gonna be before he gets there.
It doesn’t always work for him. Sometimes he gets burned. Sometimes I guess that he’s gonna cut the fullback, and I time my jump just right and I burst through the hole. Or I guess that he’s gonna stay up and engage the fullback, and I beat him to the hole and slide through before he can blow it up. And it’s funny because on those plays — the ones where I get him — I’ll walk right past him on my way back to the huddle, and I’ll be smiling. Maybe even laughing a little. And he’ll just be shaking his head, giving me this look, like, Ima get you next time.
Then we square back up and do it again.
Derrick Johnson is real, man. He can wreck a play and he’s real smart and calculated in his approach, and when he gets his hands on you … man, he’s a beast. It’s a tough tackle to break.
And now he’s staying in the division with the Raiders?
I guess I still gotta see him twice a year.
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images
(6) Tyreek Hill, WR, Kansas City Chiefs
When Tyreek took a punt to the house against us — that’s when I knew he was the real deal.
I was on the sidelines, so I saw it live. He fielded the punt at like the five-yard line, and everybody thought he was going to fair catch it. So they stopped right in front of him. But he didn’t fair catch it. He caught it, then he stuck his foot in the ground, and it was curtains.
I remember when he did that, I looked around at the other guys on the sideline, and nobody said anything. Because no words needed to be said. We all saw it. We were all just like, Wow……
He’s just so fast, man. And if you don’t lock him up before he gets going, it’s over. He’s gone. Like there are a lot of fast guys in the league. But most guys got straight-line speed, you know? They can’t really make moves without slowing down. Tyreek will be running full speed — blazing speed — and then make a cut or throw a juke and make somebody miss, without even slowing down. Not a lot of people can do that.
He’s the kind of guy you gotta game plan for. If you don’t he’ll take over a game.
Charles Baus/Cal Sport Media via AP Images
(5) Amari Cooper, WR, Oakland Raiders
I’m a little biased because Coop is my guy. I’ve trained with him in the off-season before, and he’s legit. He’s such a complete receiver. He’s one of the few guys who can take a screen to the house. He’s got the speed to go 80 on you. He’s one of the best route runners in the league, and he’s so strong at the line that most cornerbacks can’t throw hands with him.
Like if a good corner gets his hands on you — hits you with that jam — he’ll throw your timing off. But when you’re as physical at the line as Coop is … Coop just ain’t having that, you know? You’re not gonna just muscle him like that.
That strength — that’s the “it” factor with Coop. When I’ve worked out with him, he was in there doing the same weight as me. And I don’t see a lot of receivers able to work like that.
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(4) Von Miller, LB, Denver Broncos
The Broncos’ whole D-line is extra fire, to be honest.
But Von himself is just a special player.
When I’m coming out of the backfield on a route, it’s a mandatory chip on Von. It’s like, Don’t even worry about the route, man. Just take Von out. You have to account for him on every play.
It all starts with his explosiveness — he’s got that getoff, man. He’s so quick off the line. Phil is always back there changing up the snap count, trying to keep Von guessing. And you can’t let the play clock run down, because if it gets down to 0:01, and Von can time the snap … he’ll be right on you, man. That getoff is just too hot.
One thing about Von is that when he gets to the quarterback, he doesn’t really go for the big hit. He can if he wants to, but he likes to go for the ball. Go watch any of his highlight tapes. You might see one or two big hits, but what you’ll see most is strip sacks. He’s savvy with that, man.
Overall, he’s just a really balanced player. Some guys are strong, some guys are elusive. Von is both. He can bull rush you, throw a spin move at you or just speed rush and blow right by you.
That’s what separates him from everybody else. Some guys have mastered one move. Von has mastered all of them.
And you never know which one he’s gonna throw at you.
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(3) Keenan Allen, WR, Los Angeles Chargers
Keenan plays football like he plays basketball, and I’m telling you … get Keenan on the court, and he’s trouble. His handles arefire. He’ll carve you up, man — have you going one way, then hit you with the cross, and it’s straight to the basket. Curtains.
Me? I ain’t too savvy with the rock like Keenan. I’m more of a shooter. I post up in the corner and wait for Keenan to find me. The rest of the time I play hardcore defense. That’s my game.
But Kennan is nice with it. And he’s out there carving up corners on Sundays the same way he does on the court … just without the basketball in his hands.
That’s Keenan’s crossover right there.
Imagine trying to D up a point guard at the top of the key, and having him throw this at you:
I bet Keenan was laughing when he caught that ball and hit the sideline, ’cause he knew he just did that guy dirty.
What Keenan does at the line of scrimmage is unmatched. He’s untouchable. Corners can’t even jam him, he’s so elusive. If they try, there’s a good chance they’re gonna miss, and then he just embarrasses them. Watching Keenan at the line is like … it’s artwork. That’s the best way I can describe it.
I actually study Keenan a lot. I have his one-on-ones on my iPad and I watch him at the line and after the catch, trying to pick up whatever I can to improve my own game. He makes a lot of crazy catches — and if the ball is in the air, there’s a good chance he’s coming down with it — but he’s real savvy down the field. Honestly, I feel like he’s one of the best in the National Football League with the ball in his hands. He has a nose for the end zone, and the same way he can make guys miss at the line, in the open field? It’s art, man.
The crazy thing with Kennan is, I don’t even think we’ve seen the best of him. He’s been hurt a lot. If he had been healthy for the last few years, I know people would be talking about him in the conversation with Odell and Antonio Brown and the other top receivers. But they just ain’t seen it all yet.
If you don’t know about Keenan Allen, I’m telling you now — and remember that you heard it right here….
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(2) Melvin Ingram, DE, Los Angeles Chargers
I can already hear you….
C’mon, how you gonna rank another linebacker over Von Miller!
Here’s how: Because I don’t think there’s anything Von Miller can do that Melvin Ingram can’t. And that’s no slight toward Von. I already told you, he’s a nightmare. He’s on this list for a reason. But for those of you thinking I’m just ranking Mel above Von because Mel’s my teammate, I have one question for you.
Have you ever seen Melvin Ingram play?
Like, really play — as much as you’ve probably seen Von?
I bet you haven’t.
And that’s where I think Mel and Von are different. You don’t see the Chargers on Monday night very much. Or on Thursday Night Football. We don’t get a lot of primetime games like the Broncos have had over the last few years. We haven’t had those deep playoff runs where the whole world is watching. So, the way I see it, Von has just been in the spotlight a lot more than Mel.
Don’t get me wrong, Von has taken advantage. He’s earned all the attention he gets. I mean, he’s a Super Bowl MVP. The real deal. And he’s been real savvy about it, too. He’s at press conferences with the glasses on. He’s got the cowboy hat and the cowboy boots. The sack dance. The whole “raising chickens” thing. He used that spotlight to build a brand for himself.
And you know what? Good for him. Go get yours, Von. I ain’t even mad.
I just think that Mel is every bit as good as Von — he just hasn’t gotten that opportunity to showcase it to the world. Kind of like Keenan, a lot of people just don’t know about Melvin Ingram.
But I do. I battle this guy every day, and I’m telling you, he can wreck a practice. He’ll literally walk by me in between sessions and be like, “Yo, Flash … you want me to blow up this period, or you want me to let y’all live?”
I’m always like, “Blow it up, man. That’s how we get better.”
Then he’ll be lined up on the left side of the field and I’ll be in the backfield, running a stretch play to the right, and when I get the ball, he’ll be right in my face. I’ll be like, “Damn, how’d you get over here so fast.”
Then I’d go back and watch the film and see that he ran over like two or three guys and ran clear across the field like it was nothing.
The guy’s a monster.
Just the other day in practice I saw him pop a running back — not me, thank goodness — and the ball came flying out. He’s built like an interior lineman, but he has the speed and the moves to get into the backfield and wreck a play, just like Von.
Watch this clip real quick:
Now tell me, if you didn’t know any better, wouldn’t you swear that was Von Miller on that sack?
That’s what I’m trying to tell you: Von Miller and Melvin Ingram are the exact same player. What they can do off the line, rushing the quarterback, just blowing things up … they’re special.
And if you don’t think Melvin Ingram is in Von Miller’s class, then you haven’t seen him play.
Steve Nehf/The Denver Post via Getty Images
(1) Casey Hayward, DB, Los Angeles Chargers
I didn’t believe it, either.
When you see Casey, you don’t think he’s lockdown like he is. He’s not long and lanky like Richard Sherman or Aqib Talib. He’s more low-key athletic, like Darrelle Revis or Chris Harris.
Casey is one of the only guys I’ve ever seen who can D Keenan up on the basketball court. I’ve seen them two go at it, blow for blow. He’ll stay right in Keenan’s chest on that crossover. Keenan still gets him sometimes, because the cross is legit, but watching those two go at it out the court is pretty wild.
I just kind of stand in my corner, and … watch.
Casey is the total package. Like, a lot of corners can’t catch. Casey can. He has great hands. And great feet, too — I think that comes from basketball, because I always watch his feet when he’s D-ing Keenan up, and they’re so quick.
But more than anything, Casey is probably the smartest player I’ve been around.
You hear about guys watching a lot of film — film junkies, they call them. Well, when it comes to that, Casey is the real deal. It’ll be an off day, or a night during our bye week, or even in the off-season, and we’ll have a bunch of people together, just kickin’ it — having a little party, playing some cards. We’ll be sitting around the table, playing spades or tonk or whatever, and Casey will just up and say he’s gotta go.
We’ll be like, “Where you goin’, Casey?”
“I got some film to finish up.”
We’ll all look at each other, like, Really, man?
And there’s no talking him out of it. Like sometimes he’d rather go watch some film than kick it with his boys.
Film junkie, man. He lives for it.
And it shows on Sundays. I feel like when Casey is out there, he has one of those little white cartoon bubbles coming from out of his helmet — you know, the little cloud or whatever that’s supposed to tell people what you’re thinking — and it has bullet points on the guy he’s lined up against.
He knows your tendencies. He knows your go-to move, and he’s going to take it away from you. He knows your favorite route, and he won’t let you have it. He knows what you’re gonna do before you even do it. And all he has to do is look at a formation and he pretty much knows what’s coming. He knows your offense as well as you do. As all-around talented as he is, his brain might be his strongest tool.
Like I said, when I first met him, I didn’t think he had it like that. But now, after being around him, and seeing the way he works? Man, Casey has every bit of my respect. He’s definitely the best player in the division, for my money.
Honestly, you could make the case that Casey is the best corner in the NFL, period.