AFC WEST: Like in the times of old, the NFL is about to enter a new frontier. With the AFC gearing up for an all-out brawl, the AFC West has quickly settled in as a territory that would rival the boomtowns of yesteryear.
While the Kansas City Chiefs have kept the division relevant for the past decade, change is coming. Following an offseason of unparalleled movement, it appears that the Las Vegas Raiders, Los Angeles Chargers, and Denver Broncos have made enough strides to even the playing field. While there isn’t any tumbleweed in sight, the division has created a battlefield that would make the combatants at the O.K. Corral sweat.
Each squad within the division has made several big moves in preparation for the ultimate shootout out west. And while you might not be up on your Clint Eastwood filmography or seen the 90s classic “Tombstone,” it’s hard to ignore the parallels of the Old West tropes within the fearsome foursome of contenders.
Kansas City Chiefs | The gunslingers
The Andy Reid-led Chiefs have been the dominant force in the division for years. Patrick Mahomes has become the stuff of legends, doing his best Billy The Kid impression with his style of quarterback play. He’s a fearless young gunslinger with an uncanny delivery and impressive quickness. Mahomes’ early exploits — with his top weapon, wideout Tyreek Hill — helped him find fortune and fame in unmatched time.
However, Hill is now gone, moved to Miami in a deal that the Chiefs hope they won’t regret. To mitigate the loss of Hill, the Chiefs refilled Mahomes’ receiver arsenal with JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and second-round pick Skyy Moore. That new trio will join a posse already headlined by Mecole Hardman, who’s expected to replace Hill’s blazing speed in the lineup.
While some pundits have questioned if Hill’s departure has made the Chiefs vulnerable, Mahomes’ efficiency and fearlessness gives Kansas City the hope that they can persevere with better-equipped enemies circling the barn.
The Chiefs have reinforced their defense with upside, swapping out aging veterans with new hotshots to contend this season and beyond. Kansas City brought in safety Justin Reid, 25, to replace Tyrann Mathieu, 30, as the new leader of the secondary. The Chiefs then spent their two first-round picks — one of which came in the Hill swap — on cornerback Trent McDuffie and defensive end George Karlaftis. Both rookies are expected to be thrown onto the field early and have the upside to make an immediate difference.
Unlike the rest of the AFC West, the Chiefs have a proven base of talent that will allow them to take in new recruits and continue riding in stride. With household names like tight end Travis Kelce, defensive end Frank Clark, and offensive tackle Orlando Brown already setting the tone around Mahomes, the Chiefs can make the most of their new arrivals — like running back Ronald Jones — and ascending homegrown talent, such as safety Juan Thornhill and center Creed Humphrey.
The Chiefs are well beyond robbing stagecoaches (or bottom-feeding squads) or holding up banks (unless you’re referencing Brown’s impending contract extension). They have their sights set on glory beyond the frontier.
Kansas City has tasted the success of finding silver — from the Lombardi Trophy — in the rough terrain in the NFL, and they’ll continue to ride from town to town until the wheels come off their wagons.
Las Vegas Raiders | The gamblers
Despite making the playoffs with the underwhelming hand dealt to them by the midseason ouster of head coach Jon Gruden, the Raiders decided to reshuffle their coaching staff and front office. Vegas moved on from GM Mike Mayock and interim head coach Rich Bisaccia this offseason.
Like a newly-settled businessman looking for a faro game at a saloon, Raiders owner Mark Davis knew what his next move would be. He zeroed in on former Denver Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels, who spent the past 10 seasons coordinating the offense in New England.
Coming off an impressive revival season tutoring then-rookie QB Mac Jones, McDaniels had finally washed off the stink of his previous territory. McDaniels was an abject disaster as the sheriff in Denver with less than two years on the job. His arrogance and immaturity, along with his odd outlook on roster management, led to his short stint in the Rockies. Having presumably matured since his 11-17 tenure with the Broncos, McDaniels agreed to be paired with new GM Dave Ziegler, who worked with him with in New England.
In another sign of change for McDaniels, he doubled down on several incumbent talents in Las Vegas. Despite all the head-scratching moves made by the Mayock-Gruden regime, McDaniels and Ziegler still inherited a playoff roster, led by longtime stalwart QB Derek Carr. This offseason, the team recommitted to Carr with a three-year, $121.5 million contract extension. The franchise also locked up Pro Bowl defensive end Maxx Crosby and emerging wideout Hunter Renfrow to long-term pacts as well.
But the Raiders wouldn’t be true gamblers without going all in on a pair of big names to compete with the Chiefs. First, the Raiders traded 2022 first- and second-round picks to the Green Bay Packers for All-Pro wideout Davante Adams and then signed him to a five-year, $141.25 million contract extension, making him one of the highest-paid receivers in the league.
Las Vegas then traded away 27-year-old pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue to the Indianapolis Colts in order to make room for 32-year-old EDGE Chandler Jones and his three-year, $51 million deal in free agency.
The Raiders are betting that Adams thrives with his longtime friend and college QB, Carr, right off the bat. They’re also wagering that Jones will maintain his high level of productivity, despite entering an age range that typically sees a drop off in consistency and durability.
But those bets are calculated. The Raiders gambled on players they are familiar with, as Carr already has a built-in relationship and chemistry with Adams, and McDaniels and Ziegler worked with Jones for four years in New England. Adams will make Carr and Renfrow better, while Jones will enhance Crosby’s opportunities and vice versa.
The Raiders have put chips down on several gambles and reinforced them with surefire additions as insurance.
Los Angeles Chargers | Bright-eyed settlers
Like the Raiders, the Chargers have traveled to find fortune out West. After leaving San Diego in 2017, the Chargers took some time to settle into their new mining camp in Los Angeles, as the in-city rival to the thriving Rams. The Chargers eventually scaled the Oregon Trail to strike it rich with QB Justin Herbert, who has been an immediate boom for the bright-eyed settlers.
Herbert has thrown for 9,350 yards and 69 touchdowns in his first two seasons, setting up the Chargers to thrive for years to come in their still relatively new surroundings. With second-year head coach Brandon Staley getting comfortable with his spot at the top, the Chargers have a strong outlook heading into training camp after last year’s letdown in the regular-season finale. The Chargers were on the cusp of a playoff berth, but the gambling Raiders were able to pull off the last-minute upset after a defensive breakdown by Los Angeles.
Following that disappointment, the Chargers took aggressive swings to improve their defense. The Chargers signed former Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson — who produced 25 interceptions across four seasons — to a five-year, $82.5 million contract. They then traded a pair of picks — including a 2022 second-round selection — to the Chicago Bears for former All-Pro pass rusher Khalil Mack, who will be used as a bookend to Joey Bosa.
From there, the organization did right by Herbert. They re-signed former first-round pick Mike Williams to a long-term contract in free agency and selected guard Zion Johnson with the 17th overall pick. The Chargers went from being a territory with tents to putting up massive brick and mortar buildings to house the droves of fans who will travel from all around California to jump on their bandwagon.
Herbert is the goldmine that will make Los Angeles relevant in a dangerous division. But the new arrivals and notable incumbent talent — such as offensive tackle Rashawn Slater, safety Derwin James, and wideout Keenan Allen — will help the franchise re-find its success of the past, and hopefully, push them across the finish line in their hopes of winning a Super Bowl.
Denver Broncos | The new lawmen
Since Peyton Manning stepped down as sheriff following the 2015 season, Denver has been a lawless abyss of failed QB experiments and underwhelming head-coaching tenures. Manning led the Broncos to a Super Bowl 50 victory and then hung up his spurs. From there, the town has failed to find a worthwhile replacement for him or former head coach Gary Kubiak.
Following six years of failures, GM George Paton decided to switch up the formula this offseason. After back-to-back misses with defensive-minded head coaches, Paton replaced Vic Fangio with former Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett — a spirited, innovative leader who is looking to make the most of his new opportunity. Then, to set up Hackett for success, Paton traded a trio of veteran players, two first-round picks, two second-round picks, and more to the Seattle Seahawks for QB Russell Wilson in March.
Like Wyatt Earp leaving Dodge City for Tombstone, Wilson is a veteran sharpshooter who is looking to move past his glory days in another town to create a bright future in a new location. Luckily for Wilson, he comes to Denver with a fully stocked arsenal of weapons at his disposal. The Super Bowl-winning QB inherits wideouts Tim Patrick, Jerry Jeudy, K.J. Hamler, and Courtland Sutton, as well as running backs Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams in the backfield.
And while losing Fangio’s brilliance on defense will probably cause a setback on that side of the ball, Paton has still stocked the shelves with ascending talent. Former first-round picks, pass rusher Bradley Chubb and cornerback Patrick Surtain II, lead a strong young corps of defenders in Hackett’s first season at the helm. The Broncos have also supplemented their incumbent defensive talent with the arrivals of veterans D.J. Jones, Randy Gregory, K’Waun Williams, and Alex Singleton.
With gunslingers, gamblers, and a host of settlers within the division, Hackett, Wilson, and the rest of their lawmen will look to provide the order. It’ll be a battle, but the Broncos are built to counter the host of characters in their division, and they’ll look to trend in the worst-to-first direction.
How the (AFC) West will be won
The Chargers, Raiders, and Broncos are nipping at the Chiefs’ spurs as the summer settles in. While the gunslingers — like modern-day cowboys — have ruled the division like outlaws, the new arrivals in the AFC West are likely to balance the scales of power.
While the Broncos seem like the most improved posse on the block, the Chargers and Raiders have enhanced playoff-caliber rosters that could surge with additional ingredients. Reid, the division’s lone mainstay at head coach, will need to continue to reinvent his offense to keep his control, as three young coaches look to push him off his pedestal. But ultimately, the division will likely come down to the play of the four Pro Bowl QBs leading the charge for each squad.
Herbert, Mahomes, Wilson, and Carr are all formidable talents. But durability, productivity, and their ability to elevate the talent around them will make the difference in a division that has all the makings of a legendary battle that would make Kevin Costner squeal with delight.