With Denver’s addition of Russell Wilson on Tuesday, the AFC West cemented its place as the Alpha Dog of NFL divisions in 2022 – but who is in the best position to win the division?
Chiefs Focus @ChiefsFocus
Charles Robinson @CRob5769
Two hours. It only took two hours for my blog about the Broncos missing out on Aaron Rodgers to become outdated. Tuesday was a gigantic news day in the NFL, with the announcement that Rodgers would return to Green Bay on a ridiculous 4-year $200 million deal followed two hours later by the trade announcement between the Seahawks and Broncos sending franchise quarterback Russell Wilson to Denver. Denver paid a bounty for Wilson, sending their 2022 and 2023 first and second round draft picks to Seattle along with quarterback Drew Lock, tight end Noah Fant, and defensive tackle Shelby Harris. The Broncos also sent a fifth-round pick to Seattle but got a fourth rounder back from the Seahawks with Wilson.
As the dust was settling from the news of the trade a very predictable trend began on twitter – how do the resumes of each AFC West quarterback stack up? When you have a division with a young gun like Justin Herbert, a proven veteran in Derek Carr, a former Super Bowl champion in Russell Wilson, and a player widely regarded as the best in the world in Patrick Mahomes it makes things very, very interesting.
But which metrics do you use to dictate that who is the best – not just individually, but for their respective team? Super Bowl wins and appearances? Wilson and Patrick Mahomes both have 2 appearances – eerily similar, both won in their second year as a starter, and lost in the Super Bowl the very next. With Ma
homes only being in year 4 as a starter, it’s tough to compare where he will end up. For Wilson – he hasn’t been able to get back to that mountain top. In each of the last 7 seasons Wilson has failed to get the Seahawks past the division round, missing the playoffs altogether in 2017 and 2021. Mahomes obviously did not get back this year as the Chiefs fell to the Bengals in the AFC Championship at home this past season.
Do we look at individual honors? Well, all the QBs in the West have been selected to at least one Pro Bowl. Justin Herbert followed up an Offensive Rookie of the Year season in 2020 with a Pro Bowl appearance in 2021. Derek Carr has been to the Pro Bowl 3 times, and in 2016 finished 3rd in MVP voting and 6th in Offensive Player of the Year voting – but he hasn’t received any individual recognition since 2017. Mahomes has screamed out of the gates in his first five seasons (four as the Chiefs starting QB) – 4 Pro Bowl selections, an Offensive Player of the Year, All Pro first team selection, and MVP in 2018, 4th place in Offensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl MVP in 2019, 3rd place in MVP, 2nd place in Offensive Player of the Year, and All Pro second team in 2020. Wilson has been voted to 9 Pro Bowls and has placed 3rd in Offensive Player of the Year voting twice (2012 and 2015) as well as placing 4th twice (2013 and 2019), but has never even received as much as a MVP vote.
Statistics? This is almost impossible to truly compare apples to apples. Herbert just completed his second year, Mahomes his fifth – but fourth as a starter. Carr just completed his eighth season as the Raiders signal caller, and Wilson enjoyed ten seasons in Seattle before moving to higher ground in Denver. For the sake of the audience here, let’s take a look at Mahomes and Wilson in their first four seasons as starting QBs:
Statistically, Mahomes definitely takes the cake. Now, it would be unfair to leave this at simple face value – the offenses that Andy Reid and Pete Carroll call are two very, very different things – particularly when Wilson was a young QB and the offense centered largely around Marshawn Lynch. The difference in attempts for the two QBs alone can tell that story. So why don’t we look at Wilson’s most recent 4 full seasons compared to Mahomes first 4 as a starter. Wilson missed 3 full games and part of a fourth after suffering a finger injury against the Rams in Week 5.
Ope…still Patrick. Again, Mahomes outpaces Wilson in attempts and completions, but he still takes the cake on completion percentage, QB Rating, and QBR. While we’re on the head-to-head comparison of the two, we can look at playoff win loss as well. I mentioned their similar paths to Super Bowls early in their careers, and what each has experienced since winning their respective Lombardis. Wilson carries a 9-7 overall career playoff record in 10 seasons. Mahomes, in 4 seasons starting, holds a record or 8-3 in the postseason.
This would all be very relevant if NFL games were played in an NFL Combine style battle of individual skills. They, of course, are not. While Denver will certainly look the most different coming in to 2022 compared to 2021, each team in the AFC West will look to make improvements in order to attempt to either maintain a stranglehold on the division (Chiefs) or to unseat the long-standing division juggernaut (Broncos, Raiders, Chargers).
Denver finished last in the AFC West last year but had a strong running game and stout defense that led a lackluster offense (mainly due to quarterback play) to a 7-10 record. Denver will return receivers Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick, and Jerry Jeudy – an explosive trio that combined with tight end Albert Okwuegbunam combined for 9 of the Broncos 20 receiving touchdowns last season. They will, however, miss the production of Fant, who was lost in the Wilson trade. He accounted for 670 yards (3rd on the team), 68 receptions (1st on the team), and 4 TD (2nd on the team). They will also likely go into the season without leading rusher Melvin Gordon, who is a free agent heading into 2022. Gordon accounted for 8 of the Broncos 16 rushing TD last year, but rookie Javonte Williams nearly matched his yardage total and should be able to come on strong. Denver’s defense was strong last season and will be in 2022 as well, even with the loss of Harris.
The Chargers will return essentially their entire team that was an overtime win away from making the playoffs for the first time in Justin Herbert’s young career. While they do have a few free agents on the defensive side of the ball, they extended their most important offensive FA this week when they signed receiver Mike Williams to a 3-year, $60 million deal. Williams is arguably Justin Herbert’s favorite target, and one of the best young wide receivers in the game. Defensively they’ll return their core led by all-world defensive end Joey Bosa and safety Derwin James, all while having the benefit of playing a third-place schedule in 2022.
The Raiders have the biggest identity crisis on their hands on the offensive side of the ball. They did sneak into the playoffs last year, yes, but they did so with close wins over 4 non-playoff teams to end the season. The Raiders, in all reality, were not close to real contention in 2021. In the two games they played against the Chiefs last season they were outscored 89-23. They will return Derek Carr, Darren Waller, Josh Jacobs, and Hunter Renfrow on the offensive side with new head coach Josh McDaniel bringing an undoubtedly creative style to the mix but lack speed on the outside to compete with the other offenses in the division. Defensively the Raiders can rush the passer very well, but struggle in coverage and in stopping the run. There is a lot of time left before the 2022 campaign kicks off, but the Raiders seem to have some work to do.
So do the Chiefs, but not quite as much. When you have Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, and Tyreek Hill coming back you have an offensive nucleus better than any in the NFL currently, and arguably in the history of the game. Those in doubt, I would encourage you to watch the final 2 minutes and overtime period of the AFC Divisional matchup with the Buffalo Bills. “Do it, Kelce” and the number 13 still give me chills, even after the loss to the Bengals. But the Chiefs do have a good deal of question marks heading into free agency and the draft. Will they cut Frank Clark? What happens with free agents like Tyrann Mathieu and Charvarius Ward, who will undoubtedly command big pay days on the open market? Who will the Chiefs add to the running back room? What free agent wide receiver will the Chiefs bring in to give Patrick Mahomes another weapon when defenses key on Hill and Kelce? The Mahomes factor stirs confidence, but all those questions need to be answered if Chiefs fans want to confidently enter the 2022 season and the team’s march for a 7th consecutive AFC West title and another run at the Super Bowl.
Did I answer any of the questions posed on twitter earlier this week? The better question is why are we even debating this? Patrick Mahomes is clearly the best quarterback in the AFC West and the NFL, even if folks want to act like it is 2014 and this version of Russell Wilson is the same that we’ve seen in the past.
Are the Chiefs the best team in the division? That’s impossible to tell right now. Probably, but there are dominos that could fall in certain ways that debilitate a defense that was already a liability at times last year. A second quality receiving target is needed, and the running back room is thin if Darrell and Jerick both walk.
Does Wilson have some good weapons in Denver? Certainly. But he’s not throwing the ball to DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. This will undoubtedly be different for Wilson, but it will also be very different for Denver. They have a competent quarterback and will be in contention for the division without question.
The Chargers will be there.
The Raiders have work to do but ultimately were one of the 7 playoff teams in the AFC from a year ago.
I would take an initial stab at picking records for next year, but that would be incredibly foolish to do before free agency and the draft. A lot of things are still in store that will shift the balance of power in the division. These next two months will determine a lot about who will eventually be crowned the 2022 AFC West champion.