For the past several years, the Kansas City Chiefs have reigned supreme in the AFC West. Dating back to 2016, they have won the division six straight times. Each of the past four years have featured the Chiefs hosting the AFC Championship Game, and two included trips to the Super Bowl.
However, that run of dominance is in real jeopardy in 2022. While the rest of the teams in the division spent the offseason adding impact players at a dizzying pace, a lack of cap space prevented the Chiefs from making any major moves.
In fact, the biggest move Kansas City made in the offseason involved one of the team's best players, Tyreek Hill, leaving town. And as if major questions at wide receiver and defense weren't bad enough, the team's best offensive lineman is unhappy about his contract situation and not expected to report to training camp.
The key word for the 2022 Chiefs as camp opens is uncertainty—so much uncertainty that Kansas City's divisional dominance could be derailed.
That disgruntled offensive lineman is left tackle Orlando Brown Jr., who the Chiefs acquired from the Baltimore Ravens via trade last year. The Chiefs applied the franchise tag to Brown in March, and the July 15 deadline for the team to sign Brown to a long-term deal came and went without an agreement.
Per Pete Grathoff of the Kansas City Star, while appearing on NFL Now, the NFL Network’s Jeffri Chadiha reported that the team wasn't happy with how negotiations with Brown unfolded.
“There was frustration and there was disappointment. They really like Orlando Brown Jr., they love having him be a part of this team, but the money he was asking for was too high for them. They feel like they don’t want to not have stability at left tackle here, but they also don’t want to pay top-of-the-market money for a player that they don’t think is the best player at his position in the NFL.
"One front office person said, 'This isn’t the same guy that we traded for.' The feeling there is that when they got him from Baltimore is that he was going to be a team player and work with them on a team-friendly type of deal. That was not the case. Right now we’re looking at a situation where Orlando Brown probably won’t be there for training camp and may not be there for Week 1.”
While speaking to reporters at OTAs, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes expressed optimism that Brown would eventually re-join the team:
"I talk to Orlando all the time. Me and him have a great relationship. Obviously, we wanted to get the deal done. I'm sure he wanted to get the deal done, everything like that. But at the end of the day, we're gonna go out there and play football and I'm excited for him to be here and be a part of the team again."
However, head coach Andy Reid admitted that Brown might not be out there when Kansas City's veteran players report July 26:
"I don't know whether he's going to be here or not. If he's here, great. And if he's not, we move on. That's how we've done it in the past. This isn't the first time I've been through something like this. My thing is, we just go. Whoever the next guy is that's gonna step in there—we know Joe Thuney can do it in a heartbeat—so, if we need to go in that direction, we can go in that direction. We've got some new faces in there that can also do it."
That Reid would express a "next man up" philosophy is understandable. And the reality is that Brown doesn't have much in the way of leverage—his options are to play in 2022 under the $16.7 million franchise tag or sit out and forfeit almost $1 million for every game missed.
But if Brown digs in and misses regular-season action, his absence won't be easily shrugged off. Thuney is a capable veteran guard, but he's just that—a guard. He hasn't spent any real time at tackle since college. Reserve tackle Geron Christian started eight games for the Houston Texans in 2021, but he's not close to the caliber of player Brown is.
One of the Chiefs' strengths is an offensive line that Pro Football Focus ranked ninth in the league this year. But that's with Brown on the field. Remove him from the equation, and the line is average.
It's just one more potential issue for a team that was already staring at a few.
While appearing on Good Morning Football last week, Chiefs wideout Mecole Hardman said he thinks the team's new-look receiving corps will shine in 2022.
"[Losing] a guy like Tyreek [Hill] with a lot of targets, I think it's a lot of targets to go around," he said, per Kevin Patra of NFL.com. "Obviously, we've got a good group of guys, receivers-wise, so it's definitely going to be a good year to come up a little bit and just have fun with it and just take advantage of the opportunity."
But after trading Hill to the Miami Dolphins, every wide receiver on Kansas City's roster combined has exactly one 1,000-yard season—JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2018. Last year, Smith-Schuster had just 15 catches over five games before he suffered a shoulder injury that ended his regular season.
Fellow free-agent addition Marquez Valdes-Scantling has never had 40 catches or 700 receiving yards in a season. Hardman's best season was last year, when he caught 59 passes for 693 yards.
Yes, the Chiefs still have the NFL's best tight end in Travis Kelce. But until one of those wideouts shows he can be a consistent threat, Kelce will receive all kinds of attention from opposing defenses.
The defense has issues as well. The Chiefs were 27th in the league against the pass in 2021, allowing 251.4 yards per game. Kansas City's secondary lost cornerback Charvarius Ward and safety Tyrann Mathieu in free agency, and while the team added replacements in Trent McDuffie and Justin Reid, the former is a rookie and the latter is a clear downgrade from Mathieu.
That revamped secondary will likely be tested with regularity in 2022—only three teams logged fewer sacks in 2021 than the Chiefs.
What exacerbates these issues is that while the Chiefs took a step back (on paper) this offseason, every other team in the AFC West leaped forward.
The Raiders made big-time acquisitions on both sides of the ball, signing edge-rusher Chandler Jones and trading for wide receiver Davante Adams. The Los Angeles Chargers should be vastly improved on defense after adding edge-rusher Khalil Mack and cornerback J.C. Jackson. The Denver Broncos made the biggest splash of all, trading for quarterback Russell Wilson.
The gap between the Chiefs and the rest of the AFC West hasn't just shrunk. It has evaporated.
Now, this doesn't mean that the Chiefs are doomed. Teams don't win half a dozen consecutive division titles by accident, and any team led by Mahomes will be dangerous.
But the days of the Chiefs being head-and-shoulders better than everyone in the division appear to be over. Whether it's the pass-catching corps, the defensive backfield or potentially the offensive line, there's much more uncertainty in Kansas City in 2022.
And at some point, one of these problems will become one problem too many.