Ranking the linebackers in the AFC West

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

We are continuing our AFC West rankings with a look at the top linebackers in the division.

1. Shawne Merriman, San Diego: The Chargers are counting the days until he returns from a knee injury that kept him out of all but one game last season. Merriman is an elite pass rusher, but he is also a complete player who makes San Diego's defense go.

2. D.J. Williams, Denver: Williams is top player. The problem with him is he has moves positions nearly every year. Now, he is playing an inside linebacker position for Denver as it moves to the 3-4 defensive front.

3. Kirk Morrison, Oakland: He is a tackle machine and one of Oakland's best players on defense. He's an underrated player.

4. Thomas Howard, Oakland: Howard, too, is a top defensive player in this division. He always seems to come up with the big play.

5. Shaun Phillips, San Diego: Phillips is an emotional leader on the defense, who has big-play capability. Merriman's return will help him.

6. Larry English, San Diego: I expect an immediate impact made by the No. 16 overall pick in this year's draft. English has looked fantastic this spring. He is a pass rusher, whose presence will be helped by Merriman.

7. Stephen Cooper, San Diego: Yet another playmaker on San Diego's linebacker roster. He is a smart player, who is always around the ball.

8. Derrick Johnson, Kansas City: Johnson has been good in this league. He struggled last season. Perhaps the help Kansas City has given him at the position will revive him. He has good ability.

9. Zach Thomas, Kansas City: Thomas is nearing the end, but he is a leader and he always finds ways to make tackles. He'll make his presence felt.

10. Mike Vrabel, Kansas City: Like Thomas, Vrabel is nearing the end. But he is a gritty player, who'll make his share of plays.

11. Boss Bailey, Denver: Bailey has been injury plagued and he will struggle to come back from a serious knee injury. If healthy, he is a solid player.

12. Kevin Burnett, San Diego: Burnett was brought in as a free agent to help on passing downs. The Chargers have high hopes for him.