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Not Your Typical AFC West: Chiefs Won’t Be Alone in 2022

The Chiefs can still win the West, but it will be especially hard-fought this season.

The NFL offseason isn't in the books quite yet, but the majority of the damage has already been done. The first wave or two of free agency is in the rearview mirror, as is the 2022 NFL Draft. While there's still time left for teams to either get better or worse before the regular season, the general outlook on all 32 franchises has been set.

For the Kansas City Chiefs, that outlook appears to be a bit different than it's been in recent years.

Dec 23, 2018; Seattle, WA, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) and head coach Andy Reid sit on the bench during the third quarter against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Following the 2018 season that saw the Chiefs make it to within a coin-toss of the Super Bowl, the league has been on clear notice that One Arrowhead Drive is the destination the AFC runs through. That was the case last season, for the most part, despite Kansas City struggling and even looking mortal at times. After losing the AFC Championship Game in epic fashion to the Cincinnati Bengals, however, a new reality set in.

Long gone are the days in which Chiefs general manager Brett Veach can try his best to 'run it back' with a winning roster. Kansas City's depth chart has seen a great deal of change this offseason, headlined by the departures of wide receiver Tyreek Hill (trade), safety Tyrann Mathieu (free agency), cornerback Charvarius Ward (free agency) and others. Out with the old, in with the new is the team's new relative line of thinking, but it's going to take time to recoup such significant losses. 

With an injection of new talent arises plenty of new opportunities, but it's extremely hard to argue that the Chiefs are a better team now than they were in January when their season ended. Is there improved depth and youth on the roster? Sure, but the star power and continuity are slim. Veach and company did a terrific job putting the franchise in a great position for long-term success, although it came at the cost of sacrificing that sense of short-term dominance over the rest of the conference.

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Dec 2, 2018; Oakland, CA, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) meets with Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (4) after the game at Oakland Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

That same sentiment is echoed throughout the AFC West, as each and every non-Chiefs team made objectively winning moves during the offseason. 2021's second-place finisher, the Las Vegas Raiders, enter a different era under new head coach Josh McDaniels. He also has superstar wideout Davante Adams to work with after Las Vegas traded for him earlier in the offseason from the Green Bay Packers. 

The Raiders project to have an improved offense with McDaniels and Adams scheming with quarterback Derek Carr. Additionally, a better defense with additions such as Chandler Jones, Rock Ya-Sin, Duron Harmon and Jayon Brown is absolutely on the table. On paper, a 10-win team from last year didn't seem to get worse and may actually see a better on-field product after a smart offseason. 

The third-place Los Angeles Chargers, who came very close to making the playoffs in year one under head coach Brandon Staley last season, could also be on the rise. Star quarterback Justin Herbert is still on his rookie contract, which allowed LA to make splash moves such as signing cornerback J.C. Jackson and trading for stud pass-rusher Khalil Mack. Elsewhere, standout receiver Mike Williams was re-signed and linebacker Kyle Van Noy was recently inked from the free-agent market. The Chargers' improvements are real, regardless of how real they turn out to be.

Dec 16, 2021; Inglewood, California, USA; Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) moves the ball under pressure from Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker Nick Bolton (54) during the second half at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

From a positional value standpoint, no AFC West club made a bigger move this offseason than the Denver Broncos. After going 7-10 in 2021, Denver noticed a pressing need for a star quarterback and promptly traded for a player who has maintained that status despite coming off a rough season. The jury is out in regards to just how good Russell Wilson is these days but if he returns to form, the Broncos suddenly become a highly competitive club. Even if he isn't elite anymore, he's much better than what the team has had as of late. 

The Chiefs' 2022 draft class is perhaps the best of Veach's tenure with the team, but the immediate impact of rookies is going to have a very hard time outweighing the impact of players such as Adams, Jackson, Mack and Wilson. Kansas City is playing the long game by retooling on the fly around their star quarterback. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that — and it may actually be the right move — but to think that it secures the team a seventh straight AFC West crown would be foolish. 

None of this is to say that betting against a Patrick Mahomes-led team is a wise idea. In fact, it's a risky proposition given how well the Chiefs have recovered from what originally appeared to be a full regression of an offseason. With that said, the rest of the division did improve. No matter what, the story of how the West is won will hinge upon new faces in the same old four places. This isn't a typical division, so don't be surprised to see the Chiefs struggle to win it. If they come out on top, it'll be one of their more impressive feats in the past few years — and that's saying a lot.

Jan 8, 2022; Denver, Colorado, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) attempts a pass in the second quarter against the Denver Broncos at Empower Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports