Three questions each AFC West team must answer before 2022 season: Are Chiefs still elite without Tyreek Hill?
Written by ABC Audio ALL RIGHTS RESERVED on July 22, 2022
If there’s any contender for the best division in NFL history, the 2022 version of the AFC West will certainly challenge for the title. All of the AFC West teams loaded up for a run at the Kansas City Chiefs, winners of six consecutive division titles and owners of the game’s most dynamic duo — Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes.
The Chiefs did part ways with Tyreek Hill this offseason, an eye-opening move to their division rivals that gave them the chance to prepare their squads for a division takeover. The Denver Broncos acquired Russell Wilson and made him their franchise quarterback, while the Las Vegas Raiders reunited Derek Carr and Davante Adams on offense and signed Chandler Jones to pair with Maxx Crosby on the defensive line.
The Los Angeles Chargers almost snatched the division from the Chiefs last year with Justin Herbert emerging as one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Los Angeles re-signed Mike Williams and took advantage of Herbert playing on a rookie contract by signing J.C. Jackson and acquiring Khalil Mack on defense. The Chargers are one of the talented young teams in the league and are ready to make a Super Bowl run of their own.
While the Chiefs don’t have Hill, they added JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling to their wide receiver group — also drafting Skyy Moore to cap off the revamped unit. Kansas City has the pieces in place for another deep playoff run, even if the Super Bowl contenders have plenty of questions to answer heading into the year.
With training camps set to get underway across the NFL, all four teams in the AFC West have a legitimate opportunity at winning the division — and conference — this year. However, all of them have to address these three questions over the course of the year if they wish to achieve their Super Bowl dreams.
1. Who is the No. 1 wide receiver now that Tyreek Hill is gone? The Chiefs are going to be fine at the wide receiver position with Smith-Schuster, Valdes-Scantling, Mecole Hardman and Moore. Travis Kelce is the No. 1 pass target, but which of these receivers will emerge as Mahomes’ top wideout?
Smith-Schuster is more than ideal for the slot and should thrive catching passes in Reid’s offense. Valdes-Scantling and Hardman are more suited for deep passes, though Hardman could emerge as a reliable pass catcher with more targets in Year 4. Moore will get to learn on the fly and has the potential to be a WR1 down the road, but it’s unfair to put that burden on him immediately.
Kelce and Smith-Schuster appear suited to be the top pass catchers. Will Kansas City match the production Hill brought over the past six seasons? Don’t bet against Mahomes with more options available in the passing game — something the Chiefs sorely lacked last year.
2. Is Clyde Edwards-Helaire ready to be the No. 1 running back? Edwards-Helaire has some serious competition coming his way in 2022, as the Ronald Jones signing by Kansas City may be one of the most underrated moves of the offseason. Jones will push Edwards-Helaire for snaps, but the Chiefs drafted him in the first round for a reason.
Hip and knee injuries have caused Edwards-Helaire to miss time in his two years in the league, even though he’s been steady — if not game-breaking on the field. The Chiefs need to have a consistent running game, which includes Edwards-Helaire staying healthy and becoming a difference-maker in the offense. If Edwards-Helaire isn’t up to the task, Jones will have the opportunity sooner rather than later.
3. Will this be Orlando Brown’s last year with the Chiefs? Brown and the Chiefs were close toward this being a non-issue, but couldn’t come to terms on an extension that would have made him one of the highest-paid left tackles in the league. Brown will play under the $16.6 million franchise tag this season as a result, even though he hasn’t signed the tag yet.
If Brown holds out, Lucas Niang is the top candidate to take over the left tackle spot with Andrew Wylie pushing him for the starting job. Rookie Darian Kinnard could also be in the mix, but he’s better suited for right tackle. That is less than ideal for the Chiefs, who have one of the best offensive lines in football when Brown is on the field. Brown wants to be paid like he’s one of the premier left tackles in the league, and he has the opportunity to show the Chiefs he’s worth more than what Kansas City offered him in 2022.
The Chiefs could franchise tag Brown again this offseason and re-enter talks, but Kansas City can’t let this be a distraction for 2022. They have to hope Brown doesn’t hold out, or else they are back to square one in finding a franchise left tackle — which Brown is ready to assure he is.
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1. Who’s going to be the No. 2 running back? The Chargers are loaded at a lot of skill positions with top-end talent, including Ekeler at running back. When Ekeler is relieved, who’s going to be that reliable No. 2 back? The Chargers did draft Isaiah Spiller in the fourth round in the hopes he’d fill that role, but Joshua Kelley will also be competing for that role.
Justin Jackson is still a free agent — and has been reliable as a No. 2 over the years. Perhaps he’s an option if Spiller isn’t ready to spell Ekeler, but the hopes are Spiller seizes the job.
2. Is the run defense going to be significantly better in 2022? The Chargers had the third-worst run defense in football last season, allowing 175 rushing yards six times in 2021 — twice in the last three games. The run defense is what ultimately cost Los Angeles a playoff spot.
The Chargers made improvements to fix their biggest weakness, adding Sebastian Joseph-Day, Austin Johnson and Kyle Van Noy to improve the unit. Los Angeles allowed 22 rush touchdowns (fourth-most in NFL) and 4.6 yards per carry (third-highest in NFL) last season. Brandon Staley was brought to the Chargers to create an elite defense and he now has the pieces (along with J.C. Jackson and Khalil Mack) to make this a top 10 unit.
There are no excuses why the Chargers’ defense — especially against the run — should not improve.
3. Who’s the right tackle? Storm Norton was a weak link in the Chargers’ offensive line last season, a unit Los Angeles has done an excellent job of addressing over the last two seasons. Los Angeles has one of the best left tackles in the league in Rashawn Slater and signed Corey Linsley, who is also one of the best centers in the league. First-round pick Zion Johnson will occupy one of the guard spots (likely right guard) and Matt Feiler at the other (likely left guard).
Norton started 15 of 17 games, allowed nine sacks and 53 pressures last season. He was one of the worst right tackles in pass protection and returned as an exclusive rights free agent. The Charges also have Trey Pipkins, who has started 10 game sin his three years with the team (including two last season).
Don’t sleep on undrafted rookie Andrew Trainer, who can play his way into the mix as well. Right tackle will be one of the most intriguing battles in training camp.
1. Will the Darren Waller contract situation get settled? The Raiders have shelled out money to a lot of players over the past few years. During that time, Waller has emerged into one of the best pass-catching tight ends in football — and he’s underpaid for his position.
Waller has two years left on his deal and has a cap number of $6,843,750 this year and $7,000,000 in 2023 — underpaid among tight ends compared to his performance since signing his extension in 2019. While Waller is waiting for an extension of his own, there’s good news for the Raiders. Waller doesn’t envision himself leaving Vegas and loves playing for the franchise.
How much Waller gets paid is the question, especially after coming off a season where he had 55 catches for 665 yards and two touchdowns — a year which he missed six games due to injury. This may be a typical “wait-and-see” move that’s settled midseason.
2. Is the secondary good enough? The Raiders had one of the underrated coordinator hires this offseason by bringing in Patrick Graham, whose job is to revamp a defense that finished 26th in points allowed (25.8 per game) and had the third-fewest takeaways in the league (15). Vegas also had just six interceptions last year, the fewest in the NFL.
Vegas brought in Rock Ya-Sin and Duron Harmon in the secondary, moving on from Casey Hayward in the hopes of creating more turnovers. Trevon Moehrig-Woodard and Johnathan Abram have the potential to be one of the best safety units in the game and Trayvon Mullen played just five games due to injury. Mullen is starting camp on the PUP list, so Anthony Averett or Amik Robertson will be tasked to fill the void at outside cornerback until he returns.
Graham has a reputation to get the most out of the personnel he has. The Raiders have talent in the secondary, but Graham is the X factor in turning around this pass defense.
3. Is there enough firepower to shore up the run defense? The Raiders did an excellent job at giving Maxx Crosby a complementary pass rusher in Chandler Jones who will get after the quarterback. Jones isn’t exactly a run-stopping end like Crosby, but that won’t be his job in Vegas.
The Raiders have Johnathan Hankins at one of the defensive tackle spots, but he’s starting camp on the PUP list. Bilal Nichols will also start camp on the PUP list, so that’s two projected starters on the line out to start camp. There will be competition for playing time there, as rookies Neil Farrell Jr. and Matthew Butler will look to separate themselves from Vernon Butler and Kyle Peko.
Is that enough to convince Vegas not to upgrade the interior? The Raiders were below average in run defense last year and Hankins was the only upgrade in free agency. Farrell and Butler were both Day 3 picks, so it’s hard to expect them to make an immediate impact in their rookie year. This unit appears to be the weakest link on the Raiders.
1. Can Russell Wilson get the Broncos to Super Bowl contenders? There’s no denying the Broncos are a better team with Wilson at quarterback, the franchise quarterback the team has been searching for since Peyton Manning retired after they won the Super Bowl. Denver instantly will compete for a playoff spot with Wilson under center.
Wilson has higher ambitions for his new franchise, getting the Broncos to the pinnacle of the NFL and a Super Bowl championship. That’s a daunting task for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since the 2015 season. Wilson is in the prime of his career at 33 years old, but is coming off a season which he had his lowest completion percentage since 2017, fewest passing touchdowns since 2016, and fewest passing yards per game since 2018. Despite all this, Wilson is the only quarterback in the NFL with a 100 passer rating in each of the last four seasons.
This will all come down to how new coach Nathaniel Hackett uses Wilson in his offense and what Hackett learned from working with Aaron Rodgers and helping him win MVP in consecutive seasons. If Hackett can get Wilson to Rodgers-level, the Broncos will be a force in the AFC for years to come.
2. Who’s going to be the tight end? The Broncos are loaded at wide receiver with Jerry Jeudy, Tim Patrick, Courtland Sutton, and KJ Hamler — but tight end remains up in the air. Albert Okwuegbunam, who has 44 catches for 451 yards and three touchdowns in two seasons as a backup to Noah Fant, assumes the No. 1 tight end role after Fant was traded to Seattle.
If Okwuegbunam can’t provide consistent production, the Broncos will put a lot of pressure on third-round rookie Greg Dulcich to be a security blanket in the middle of the field. Dulcich has excellent hands and could be the pass catcher over the middle of the field Wilson needs, but that’s a lot of pressure to bestow upon a rookie.
The Broncos like what they have at tight end, so it would be shocking to see them add a veteran. The Okwuegbunam-Dulcich battle will be fun to watch in camp.
3. How is the pass rush going to look? The Broncos took steps in improving their pass rush this offseason, highlighted by the signing of Randy Gregory away from the Dallas Cowboys (that’s a major get for Denver). Bradley Chubb is a good player when healthy, but he’s missed double-digit games in two of the last three years.
Gregory and Chubb can be a dangerous combination if both can stay on the field. Second-round pick Nik Bonitto also will battle for snaps in the rotation after accumulating 16 sacks in his last two seasons at Oklahoma while Dre’Mont Jones has 12 sacks over the last two years. Jones, as a No. 3 or No. 4 edge rusher, is in an excellent situation for the Broncos, who had 36 sacks last year (tied for 18th in the NFL).
The Broncos are going to have to put consistent pressure on Mahomes, Herbert and Carr to win the AFC West. If Chubb is healthy and back to Pro Bowl form, there’s an excellent chance the Broncos’ pass rush can lead them to a division title.