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AFC West: Aside from Rivers, defenders lead the way

Leaders come in all types. Some are quiet, some flamboyant, some spiritual, some charismatic. But in the NFL, they all have one thing in common: They are the guys their teammates follow in tough times and rally behind, the guys setting the tone at practice, the first ones there, the last ones to leave. They're the ones who have no fear of game deficits or the two-minute warning, the ones players turn to for direction in trying to achieve the ultimate team goal -- winning on Sundays. This week, identifies the squad leaders of each team.

Other than the obvious choice of San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, the primary leaders in the AFC West come from the defensive side of the ball.

But there is variety among the positions. You have a tackle (Oakland's Richard Seymour), a linebacker (Kansas City's Mike Vrabel), and a safety (Denver's Brian Dawkins).

AFC West squad leaders

Broncos: S Brian Dawkins

After the 2008 season, there was plenty of talk about a leadership void on the Philadelphia Eagles when Dawkins entered free agency and wound up joining the Broncos. He is a tone-setter, both with his physical style of play and commanding presence in the locker room. All of the teammates he has ever had see him constantly display a commitment to doing everything in his power to help them succeed.

In 15 seasons, Dawkins has established himself as one of the NFL's top players at his position. That and his thorough understanding of all aspects of playing safety, defense, and football in general allow him to have a highly credible voice with his teammates. Dawkins will say the right thing at the right time to help keep everyone on track, although that has been a tremendous challenge this season for the 2-6 Broncos. A typical example of his leadership was when he recently discussed the need for the Broncos to forget about trying to analyze all of the reasons for their poor record and focus on making certain that the second half of the season isn't a repeat of the first half.

Chiefs: LB Mike Vrabel

Andy Studebaker, a third-year linebacker for the Chiefs, said it best about Vrabel when he described him as "an open door." That's Studebaker's way of saying that Vrabel is always available to answer questions from Studebaker and other younger defensive players. In fact, Vrabel, who is 35 and in his 14th season, encourages teammates to treat him as a walking, talking version of the defensive playbook.

The only person who knows the Chiefs' defensive scheme better than Vrabel is coordinator Romeo Crennel, for whom Vrabel played for four seasons when Crennel held the same position with the New England Patriots. Vrabel sees the fact that he isn't burdened by having to constantly study and learn the defense as a chance to spend time with younger players and offer them plenty of guidance in practice and games.

Raiders: DT Richard Seymour

When the Raiders gave up a first-round pick in the 2011 draft to acquire Seymour from New England just before the start of the 2009 season, they knew exactly what they were getting. And the investment wasn't merely for what Seymour could contribute as a player, which was plenty. It also was for what he would bring as a leader, which was equally considerable.

Seymour's biggest impact has been on the Raiders' two top defensive rookies, middle linebacker Rolando McClain and end Lamarr Houston, whom he helped with his transition from tackle in college. Granted, Seymour wasn't initially thrilled with leaving a perennial contender to join a perpetually struggling club on the other side of the country. But he eventually came around and assumed a leadership role that has only grown stronger this season, his 10th in the NFL.

Perhaps Seymour's turning point as a Raider came in training camp. After signing his one-year tender offer in June, he reported to camp on time and in condition when it was clear he wasn't going to reach a long-term agreement with the team. He then made a point of arriving on a bus with rookies and other younger players.

Chargers: QB Philip Rivers

A year ago, running back LaDainian Tomlinson was mostly recognized as the Chargers' primary leader. And as long as he was around, no one else would be recognized accordingly. After Tomlinson's release and subsequent signing with the New York Jets, the leadership torch was passed to Rivers. Although the Chargers have had their struggles, Rivers has filled the role admirably.

He makes himself easy to follow because of his exceptional play. But Rivers also has the respect of his teammates for being true to the priorities he preaches: Faith, family, and football. He says he can see himself as a coach down the line, feeling a natural connection with those duties while leading his first football camp for youngsters last summer, which benefited the Rivers of Hope Foundation and supports foster children in San Diego.

Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci.

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