Has adding Davante Adams, Russell Wilson and Khalil Mack loosened the Chiefs' hold on AFC West?

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Parity hasn't been a strength of the AFC West, at least over the past 15 years.

It started with the Chargers, who won four division titles in a row from 2006-09 behind players such as quarterback Philip Rivers and Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson. Then it was the Denver Broncos' turn, as they won five AFC West crowns in a row from 2011-15, led by Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning and future Hall of Fame pass-rusher Von Miller.

Now it's the Kansas City Chiefs on top, as K.C. is on a streak of six division championships in a row led by quarterback Patrick Mahomes, wide receiver Tyreek Hill, tight end Travis Kelce and coach Andy Reid. The Chiefs are the current standard and their dominance has keyed a spirited game of "Can you top this?" from the Los Angeles Chargers, Broncos and Las Vegas Raiders this offseason.

Russell Wilson, Davante Adams, Khalil Mack, Chandler Jones. An AFC West division already stacked with talent just leveled up, determined to chase down the Chiefs and bring the AFC West a parity it has long lacked.

AFC West writers Paul Gutierrez, Jeff Legwold and Adam Teicher discuss the new look of the division:

With the additions this offseason, is the AFC West the toughest division in the NFL?

Gutierrez: To quote Blackstreet, "No diggity, no doubt." Put it this way: The, ahem, worst quarterback in the division would be the best in the NFC East.

The six-time division champion Chiefs might have been the least active in the division, but they did add JuJu Smith-Schuster to Hill and Kelce as targets for Mahomes. And, well, they're still the Chiefs.

And while the Broncos added a future Hall of Famer in Wilson and the Chargers did the same on the defensive side of the ball with Mack, the Raiders added the best receiver in the game in Adams and the most productive sack master of the past decade in Jones. Buckle up.

Legwold: Short answer: Yes. Many personnel executives would argue that quarterback and edge rusher are the foundational pieces to any team. No division in the league has seen the kind of upgrades this offseason at quarterback and edge rusher that the AFC West has made. The division is now stacked, top to bottom, with proven quarterbacks and edge-rush combinations that would be the envy of most.

Wilson's and Randy Gregory's arrival in Denver with Mack's trade to the Chargers as well as Jones' jump to the Raiders is just the start. Toss in Adams' trade to the Raiders, Smith-Schuster's arrival in Kansas City and it's clear Wilson's arrival in Denver was the first of several high-profile dominoes to fall in the division's March madness.

Teicher: I can't see an argument for any other division. I could make a case for the Broncos, Chargers or Chiefs reaching the Super Bowl next season. I can't see the Raiders getting through the AFC West -- not to mention potential playoff opposition that includes the Bills and Bengals -- but that's no shame in this division or this conference.

One word of caution: Not all of these big AFC West trades or free-agent signings will work out as planned. But the division will still be the most difficult to win and the champion will truly be the survivor of the fittest.

How would you rank the quarterbacks? Why?

Gutierrez: You trying to get me blocked on Twitter by the QB I cover (wait, that already happened)?

OK, then, let's rank 'em by where they currently stand in terms of career accomplishments at this stage of their careers: 1, Mahomes, who, at just 26, already has a league MVP as well as a Super Bowl MVP on his mantle. 2, Wilson, who has a gold jacket in his future to go with his Super Bowl ring. 3,Derek Carr, who holds virtually every Raiders passing record and, turning 31 later this month, might not have hit his ceiling yet with his college bestie joining him in Las Vegas. 4, Justin Herbert, who has thrown the most TD passes in the first two years of his career (69) but has a losing record and has yet to appear in the postseason but might actually have the brightest future.

Legwold: Put Mahomes at the top with four 4,000-yard passing seasons in his four years as a starter, one MVP Award and one Super Bowl MVP Award. He is the, well, chief reason the Chiefs have won six consecutive division titles and given he's 26 years old, he's also the biggest reason every other team in the division felt the need to be so aggressive to try and change things.

Wilson is next. He has missed three games in 10 years, his team has posted a winning record in every season except one of those years (oh, and that was the year he missed his only three games), he's a nine-time Pro Bowl selection and has a Super Bowl ring to go with nine seasons of 11 or fewer interceptions, six with fewer than 10 interceptions.

If the question was who will be the best quarterback 10 years from now, the answer might still be Mahomes, but Herbert, if he stays healthy and continues on his career arc, will be in the conversation. With 69 touchdown passes in two seasons, the ability to make the double-take worthy throws and his composure and ability to process in the moment, give him so much room to grow. But he's yet to play in a playoff game, so while it all looks like he would flourish, he still doesn't have that part of the résumé.

Carr would easily top the list of underappreciated quarterbacks and this ranking only adds to that. The three-time Pro Bowl selection does bring it on himself with the "what happened there?" throws from time to time. He has only had the chance to play in one playoff game in eight years and Adams' arrival could certainly help him push up the list.

Teicher:1, Mahomes. He has the most ability of the bunch to make everybody around him a better player. 2, Herbert. This was basically a coin flip for me between Herbert and Wilson. Herbert has only scratched the surface and his big upside was the tiebreaker. 3, Wilson. His arrival in Denver gets the Broncos out of last place in this ranking, at least. 4, Carr. There's no shame in being last on this list in this division.

Pass-rushers or quarterbacks, what is the division's strength?

Gutierrez: Yes. OK, that's a cop-out. The real answer, though, rests in the trenches. Because if an offensive line can't protect its quarterback, none of it matters. So it says here that whichever team has the best offensive line will dictate that quarterbacks are the division's strength. Otherwise, the Chargers' Mack and Joey Bosa, the Chiefs' Frank Clark and Chris Jones, the Broncos' Bradley Chubb and Gregory and the Raiders' Chandler Jones and Maxx Crosby will eat. And they'll all eat well. Dinner is served.

Legwold: The unique thing is it's not only pass-rushers, it's pass-rush combinations. The division is now stacked with players who force offenses into tough choices on high-stress downs, whether it's Mack and Bosa, or Chandler Jones and Crosby, Gregory and Chubb or Chris Jones and Clark, there are migraines waiting to happen for offensive coordinators.

But the quarterbacks rule the world these days -- just look at the contracts for the best ones -- and all four teams not only have a proven starter, they have quarterbacks who can push, and lift, those around them.

And Mahomes is so good he has simply forced the other three teams in the division to look at what he has already done, as well as how many years he still will do those type of things, and forced them to react with every resource they have available.

Because if they don't they'll just watch the Chiefs win the division over and over again.

Teicher: Both groups are imposing, on paper at least. I'm confident the QBs will be on the field, too. I'm not as certain about the edge rushers. The Chargers' Mack is 31 and three years removed from his last 10-plus-sack season. Clark hasn't been productive for the Chiefs in three seasons other than in short and isolated stretches. Gregory of the Broncos hasn't been elite, even if he's getting paid like it. Chandler Jones of the Raiders is 32. Things won't work out for all of these players next season. Maybe they work out for none.

Can someone unseat the Chiefs after six consecutive division titles?

Gutierrez: No. At least, not until someone actually does it, right? The Chiefs were 5-1 against the AFC West last year, with the Chargers -- who might have the best talent from 1-53 in the division but need to prove they can get over the hump -- handing them their loss and taking them to overtime in the second meeting. The Broncos might be the most improved team in the division but were also its worst last season. And two years ago the Raiders were one series away from sweeping the Chiefs but were outscored by a combined 89-23 in two embarrassing losses last season. Stay tuned.

Legwold: Look, here's the math, in the past six seasons the Chiefs have finished 6-0 in division games twice, 5-1 three times and 4-2 once. Over that span just two other teams have finished with a winning record in division games -- Raiders at 4-2 in 2020 and the Chargers at 4-2 in 2018.

The Broncos haven't beaten the Chiefs in any of those six seasons. So, until somebody makes life more difficult for the Chiefs, it's hard to show a lot of confidence in the rest of the group.

But this was the year when everyone else was far more aggressive in the offseason than the Chiefs, so we'll see if that changes things.

Teicher: The key to the Chiefs' run has been their dominance of the division. They are 31-5 in the division since 2016, including a perfect 6-0 in 2016 and 2019. Their worst was 4-2 in 2020, when they didn't lose to an opponent outside the division. At this point, it's difficult to see that type of dominance continuing in 2022, so the answer here is yes.

But the Chiefs have the best chance from this point forward to make improvements. They have four draft picks in the first three rounds. No other AFC West team has more than two.

Related Video