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How the AFC West Became the NFL’s Most All In Division

AFC West teams went wild this offseason, with blockbuster trades for Russell Wilson and Davante Adams, and a massive contract extension for Derwin James Jr. But will these moves be enough for the Broncos, Raiders, or Chargers to end the Chiefs’ reign atop the NFL’s deepest division?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

NFL teams have spent the past six months reshaping their rosters and now, finally, the 2022 regular season is nearly upon us. But which teams have truly pushed all their pieces to the middle of the table and are ready to make a serious run to Super Bowl LVII? Welcome to The Ringer’s All In Week, where we’ll examine the quarterback moves, team-building philosophies, and gambles that teams have made to compete for a championship and determine what it truly means to be all in.

There’s new signage on the wall inside the main meeting room at Broncos headquarters. Twenty-one letters. Six words. The Team. The Ball. The West.

Denver hasn’t been shy about its Super Bowl aspirations since trading for Russell Wilson back in March, but including “The West” on its literal vision board is far more telling about the franchise’s immediate goals. Before the Broncos can even dream about Lombardi, they need to contend with Mahomes, Herbert, and Carr to be competitive in the NFL’s toughest division.

“It’s going to be a bloodbath,” said Broncos left tackle Garett Bolles of the AFC West, “but that’s what you look forward to. You want to come out of a division like this and go into the playoffs, because you know you’re battle tested and ready to roll. I can tell you this, one of these teams in the AFC West will probably win the Super Bowl because of the caliber of teams we have here. I’m not saying the rest of the league isn’t great, I’m just saying our division is, from top to bottom, stacked at all positions and all aspects of the game.”

The Broncos might be all in on Wilson—indeed, Denver ranks second on The Ringer’s All In-dex—but they’re hardly alone. The AFC West is, by far, the most all in division in the NFL, with the Chargers (seventh) and Raiders (eighth) joining the Broncos in the top 10 of our rankings. The Chiefs rank significantly lower at no. 24, but that’s a function of (a) the security that comes with a six-year reign as division champions; (b) the Tyreek Hill trade, which bolstered their draft chest; and (c) a two-year-old contract for Mahomes that, while massive, looks like a relative bargain now as inflation hits the rest of the quarterback market. (Three quarterbacks have a higher average salary than Mahomes, and eight passers have more money fully guaranteed in their deals.)

The Chiefs are 20-4 in the AFC West since Mahomes took over as the starter in 2018, and are 31-5 since 2016. They’ve defeated the Broncos 13 straight times (Denver’s last win in the series was in Week 2 of the 2015 season, when Peyton Manning was still the quarterback) and have won eight of their past nine games against the Raiders (and outscored the Raiders 89-23 in two games last year). Only the Chargers have proved to be remotely competitive with Kansas City, splitting their season series each of the past two seasons, and yet the Chargers still finished third in the division last year. Mahomes is, without question, King of the West.

So the Chargers, Raiders, and Broncos had no choice but to spend this year, highlighted by a combination of big-name trades and big-money extensions. It’s like the division’s GMs decided at the same time they couldn’t allow the Chiefs to build a divisional dynasty in the West the way the Patriots did in the AFC East for most of two decades. The Patriots won 16 of 17 AFC East titles between 2003 and 2019; the only season they did not claim the division title was 2008, when Tom Brady missed most of the season with a torn ACL.

Sure, New England’s AFC East rivals could argue they tried to compete, but the truth is they just stunk at it. If you’re going to try to take down the best quarterback–head coach duo of all time, you’re going to need better options than Mark Sanchez or Ryan Tannehill or journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick (who played for all three non-Patriots AFC East teams) or, God forbid, J.P. Losman or E.J. Manuel. Bill Belichick and Brady deserve the bulk of the credit for the Patriots’ sustained success, but the rest of the division’s decade-plus of futility deserves at least an honorable mention.

This brings us back to the AFC West. Earlier this year, Broncos GM George Paton told me it felt like he was in an arms race with his division rivals. His team’s trade for Wilson was almost immediately followed by the Chargers’ trade for Khalil Mack and the Raiders’ blockbuster for Davante Adams. And within the first few days of free agency opening in March, the Chargers added the top available cornerback in J.C. Jackson and the Raiders signed veteran pass rusher Chandler Jones. It was a dizzying display of wheeling and dealing, and by the time the Chiefs made the stunning decision to trade away Hill on March 23, the landscape of the division had changed completely. The rest of the AFC West was officially all in to chase down the Chiefs.

The Broncos, Chargers, and Raiders are all in, albeit in different ways. The commonality is they’re all doing it to catch—and maybe, if it works out, pass—the Chiefs. Let’s look at the three AFC West challengers, how they went all in, and why.

Denver Broncos: All the Way In

Denver’s moves were born out of desperation, and a lack of relevance not just in the NFL, but in its own division, since Manning retired after the Broncos won Super Bowl 50. The Broncos have cycled through a rotation of mediocre quarterbacks and head coaches ever since—Nathaniel Hackett is the Broncos’ third head coach since 2017—and kicker Brandon McManus is the only remaining Broncos player who has ever beaten the Chiefs. The Broncos have won just two total division games in the past two years, both against the Chargers. It was time for Paton, who replaced John Elway in 2021, to do something different. The Wilson trade seemingly came out of nowhere; Paton had kept his pursuit of Wilson secret while speculation was rampant that the Broncos would make a hard run at Aaron Rodgers.

The cost to acquire Wilson was significant: five draft picks (two first-rounders, two second-rounders, and a fifth), plus three players (tight end Noah Fant, defensive tackle Shelby Harris, and quarterback Drew Lock), but it was a bargain compared to the cost of continued irrelevancy. The Wilson trade pushed the Broncos nearly to the top of the All In-dex (and the Broncos will likely remain near the top in 2023 if they give Wilson a new contract that’s in line with other top QB deals, somewhere in the range of $50 million per year).

The Broncos are betting big on their new 33-year-old quarterback and hoping the rest of the roster is good enough that simply adding a proven, high-end starting quarterback will enable them to close the gap with the rest of the division. The risk is that even if Wilson is a significant upgrade from Lock and Teddy Bridgewater, he still might be only the third-best quarterback in the division. Finishing third in a loaded AFC West might still be enough to make the playoffs this season, but Paton didn’t push all of his chips into the middle just to have to face the Bills or the Chiefs in the wild-card round.

Las Vegas Raiders: Big Moves, but Big Questions Remain

The Raiders’ all-in plan involved spending big on Davante Adams to give Derek Carr one of the most intriguing receiving groups in the NFL: a true elite no. 1 in Adams, a dynamic slot receiver in Hunter Renfrow, and tight end Darren Waller, who had back-to-back 1,110-yard receiving seasons in 2019 and 2020 when he was healthy. (Waller had just 55 catches and two touchdowns in 11 games last season.)

The rub here is that while the other three teams in the division seemingly have long-term commitment to their quarterbacks—we’ll boldly assume that the Chargers and Broncos will sign Herbert and Wilson to extensions in the not-too-distant future—the Raiders are only loosely committed to Carr. He signed a three-year extension earlier this year, but the Raiders could cut him in February before his 2023 salary and his 2024 bonus become guaranteed. So, maybe Carr will wow new head coach Josh McDaniels this year and the Raiders offense will take off as Carr and Adams rekindle their collegiate connection. Or maybe McDaniels will decide Carr isn’t his guy and start looking for a different quarterback in the draft, free agency (hey, Tom Brady could be available once again!), or via trade.

The addition of Adams should make the Raiders offense more explosive and should help Carr make his case to stick around long term, but the question for the Raiders is whether they have done enough defensively to compete with the AFC West’s elite offenses, particularly the Chiefs’. The Raiders have beaten the Chiefs just once in the Mahomes era (a 40-32 win in 2020), and have given up at least 28 points to Kansas City each time they’ve played since 2018. That includes allowing the Chiefs to score 41 and 48 points in two games last season. The Raiders replaced defensive coordinator Gus Bradley with Patrick Graham, who was most recently defensive coordinator of the Giants and overlapped with McDaniels on Belichick’s staff in New England from 2012 to 2015. Jones, with his 107.5 career sacks, was the big addition this offseason, and paired with Maxx Crosby, who signed a four-year extension earlier this year, the Raiders should have their best pass rush since Khalil Mack was traded away in 2018. But outside of those two pass rushers, the Raiders haven’t spent big on defense, and it shows in the All In-dex, where they rank 21st in spending.

Los Angeles Chargers: Spending Big to Help Justin Herbert

The Chargers, meanwhile, are the only team in the division with a starting quarterback still on a rookie contract, which has given GM Tom Telesco freedom to go all in to another degree than his peers. The Chargers haven’t had to give up major draft assets for a quarterback like the Broncos did, or look outside for a receiver, like the Raiders did. Instead, Telesco chose to re-sign former first-round receiver Mike Williams this spring, and now the Chargers have two homegrown receivers (along with Keenan Allen) making an average salary of about $20 million per year. They have used first-round picks on offensive linemen in back-to-back drafts (left tackle Rashawn Slater in 2021 and right guard Zion Johnson in 2022), selections that have allowed them to spend their money elsewhere. And boy, are they.

After signing safety Derwin James Jr. to a new contract last week that will make him the league’s highest-paid safety, the Chargers are now the no. 1 in spending, according to the All In-dex’s accounting. The Chargers are paying at or near the top of the market for James, pass rusher Joey Bosa, and Jackson, and yet it doesn’t feel like irresponsible spending. Even the trade for Mack, which cost just a 2022 second-round pick and a 2023 sixth, seems like decent value for an aging but potentially still elite defender.

The Chargers look like a team that knows what it has in Herbert—an ascending elite talent—and knew they needed a better and more complete team around him. Catching the Chiefs seems like an attainable goal. The Chargers have beaten the Chiefs once in each of the past two seasons, and nearly swept Kansas City last season—losing the second game 34-28 in overtime.

All of these moves around the division have not gone unnoticed in Kansas City. Earlier this month, Chiefs GM Brett Veach spoke to The Ringer’s Kevin Clark about how the dynamics in the West have changed; other teams have resources to spend in ways the Chiefs did not. (Kansas City has Mahomes, tight end Travis Kelce, and defensive tackle Chris Jones on big deals, and traded Hill away rather than signing him to a massive receiver contract. They replaced him with JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who cost less than $8 million against the Chiefs’ salary cap this year combined.) Veach acknowledged that the Chiefs “have a target on our back” after reigning for so long. Indeed, the rest of the West is taking aim, and showing us through their trades, spending, and inspirational signage.