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The Chiefs' Path to Success in a New-Look AFC

The Chiefs’ excellent draft class could be timed well when looking at the timelines for the other AFC teams

The 2022 season might be one of transition for the Kansas City Chiefs. “Transition” does not mean the Chiefs are tanking and will end up with a top-five draft pick. What it does mean is that the Chiefs find themselves with new expectations from most who follow the NFL.

The Chiefs are not expected to be the clear-cut AFC favorite. That expectation seems to have fallen on the Buffalo Bills so far.

This offseason, the Chiefs are typically grouped with the next tier of AFC teams. A tier that usually includes teams like the Chargers and Bengals, among others. This is a bit of a step down in expectations from the last two years when the Chiefs were considered locked and loaded AFC frontrunners.

Those lower expectations could be short-lived.

Oct 10, 2021; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (15) talks with Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) and quarterback Chad Henne (4) (left to right) before the game at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

There is a unique wave of young quarterback talent that has taken over the AFC. Beyond Patrick Mahomes, there are quarterbacks like Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson who already have elite seasons under their belt in their young careers. Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Tua Tagovailoa, Mac Jones, Kenny Pickett and Davis Mills round out the AFC's quarterbacks, and a few of those names have a serious chance to step up this year.

The conference also has proven veterans like Derek Carr, Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan. Those three are still playing well, and the largest salary cap hit among the trio s Wilson's, with a cap hit of only $24 million.

Apr 25, 2022; Englewood, CO, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson (3) looks on during a Denver Broncos mini camp at UCHealth Training Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Right now, every AFC team either has a cheap and young franchise quarterback, a promising rookie-contract quarterback, or a good veteran on a reasonable salary. The AFC is stacked at a position that has historically been hard to find.

The Chiefs find themselves in a stacked conference. The good quarterbacks are cheap, and there is a real chance that more young, low-cost quarterbacks could prove themselves.

What happens when those quarterbacks get paid or prove they are not starters? That is where the Chiefs’ second serious Super Bowl window opens.

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For an example, look to Josh Allen. Allen, like Patrick Mahomes, has also received a top-of-the-market extension. However, because Allen was drafted one year behind Mahomes, the Bills’ timeline is one year behind the Chiefs. Allen is in the final year where his contract is cheap compared to the player he is. Allen’s salary cap hit is jumping from ~$16 million in 2022 to ~$39 million in 2023. If the Bills are going to seriously take advantage of Allen's below-market rates, they have to do it this season.

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

Herbert, Burrow and Jackson will also closely follow suit with Allen and will likely get market-resetting contracts in the next few years. As the salary cap skyrockets in the coming seasons, the contract demands of these quarterbacks will rise and rise. This rewards a team that already locked in their quarterback to a long-term deal. This is the time to remember that the Chiefs and Mahomes are currently tied together through 2031.

While there are other teams in the AFC who have cheap, young franchise quarterbacks who are set up well if those quarterbacks take the next step, none of them have done it yet. The Jets are all-in on Zach Wilson, but if Wilson busts, where does that leave the Jets in a conference stacked with good quarterbacks? It is much harder to maintain an elite roster than to keep an elite quarterback.

Monitoring how the young, unproven AFC quarterbacks do this year will be interesting. If none of those unproven quarterbacks take the next step like Mahomes, Herbert and Allen have done in the past few years, there could be a time period where the quarterbacks who run the AFC are not on their rookie contract. This will favor teams with quarterbacks in the middle of their extension and teams with a lot of young, cheap talent elsewhere.

Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen hurdles over players in the AFC Divisional Round against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium on Jan. 24, 2022. Syndication Democrat And Chronicle

That second factor is where the Chiefs' 2022 draft class comes in.

If the Chiefs' universally praised 2022 draft class lives up to its billing, Kansas City will be sitting pretty. With the team's top three picks coming at premium positions (edge rusher, cornerback, and wide receiver), the Chiefs will have good-to-great starters at positions that clog up the salary cap for other teams.

Beyond the promising 2022 class, the Chiefs currently hold 11 picks in the 2023 NFL Draft, and Mahomes’s very malleable contract gives the Chiefs a serious leg up if they indeed hit on these young players. With the flexibility of future picks and the chance to restructure the Mahomes contract, the Chiefs can stay aggressive.

Sep 4, 2021; Seattle, Washington, USA; Washington Huskies defensive back Trent McDuffie (22) participates in pregame warmups against the Montana Grizzlies at Alaska Airlines Field at Husky Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

This aggression would come at a time when the Chargers, Bengals, Bills, and Ravens are either paying their young quarterbacks big money or have already begun dealing with the effects of paying them big money. That is some excellent timing for the Chiefs.

While the Chiefs have lower expectations this year and could finish short of the AFC Championship for the first time in the Mahomes era, Kansas City's future is looking excellent. In the prime of Mahomes’ career, they have a real shot to take advantage of an AFC in transition and start another run with a young and deep roster.

It really seems like the Chiefs are walking now so they can run later. That run later, in their second window with Mahomes, could be even more fruitful than their first.