COLUMNS

Kansas City Chiefs are vulnerable in the AFC West after trading Tyreek Hill

Mar 24, 2022, 6:00 AM
Tyreek Hill...
(Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images)
(Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images)

The writing was on the wall 11 days ago, when Kansas City Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill posted what amounted to a goodbye on social media. Nevertheless, the NFL world was stunned on Wednesday when Hill was dealt to the Miami Dolphins for five draft picks, including first- and second-rounders in next month’s draft.

The Denver Broncos certainly won’t miss him; Hill will finish his Chiefs career with a perfect 11-0 record against the orange and blue.

Hill, who had been negotiating a contract extension with the Chiefs in the offseason, obviously took notice of new Las Vegas Raiders receiver Davante Adams’ new deal, the largest in history for a wideout. Hill and his representatives wanted a bigger one than that, and they got it when the Dolphins signed him to a four-year, $120 million extension that sets a new benchmark for the position at $30 million per season. With nearly $45 million dollars due to Hill in 2026, the final number will be significantly smaller, but Hill still gets his moment atop the heap.

For the Kansas City Chiefs, the loss of the league’s most explosive playmaker can’t be overstated, leaving the Chiefs vulnerable in the tightly contested AFC West for the first time in years. While Kansas City added former Pittsburgh Steeler Juju Smith-Schuster and former New York Giant Corey Coleman in the offseason, neither of them replace Hill’s unparalleled speed, or his rapport with quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

It’s likely that the Chiefs will select a wide receiver from a deep pool of prospects with either their first-or second-round selections in April’s draft, but it’s all but impossible for any draftee to immediately replace Hill’s production, let alone earn Mahomes’ trust as Hill did over the last four seasons. Hill has broken the 1,200-yard receiving mark in three of those years, caught 43 touchdowns and led the league in yards per touch twice, but numbers alone don’t fully describe what he brings to the Chiefs’ offense — or what they’ve lost by trading him.

In the 11 games he’s played against the Denver Broncos since 2016, the Broncos have defended Hill far better than the Las Vegas Raiders and the Los Angeles Chargers, their colleagues in the AFC West, but that doesn’t mean that he hasn’t done major damage. While Hill only has 492 yards and five receiving touchdowns during that span, he’s run for two more, and has provided a unique, three-level threat that the Broncos have had to focus on, often leaving tight end Travis Kelce to wreak havoc on Denver’s defense. In only 15 division games since 2013, Kelce has shredded the Broncos to the tune of 1,176 yards and six touchdowns, and Denver has now lost to the Chiefs 13 consecutive times.

Hill’s ability to extend plays meshes perfectly with Mahomes’ ability to do the same, and without that ability to stall and wait for Hill’s speed to open a gap in the opposing defense, Mahomes may struggle — and the league got a sneak preview of what could happen this fall. In the early part of the 2021 season, teams focused on stopping the deep ball against Kansas City, forcing Mahomes to keep his throws underneath. The four-time Pro Bowler and former MVP struggled during the first two months of the season, throwing nine interceptions in the Chiefs’ first seven games. After a surprising 3-4 start, the Chiefs righted the ship and claimed their sixth straight AFC West crown, but without Hill and his ability to find cracks in any defense, teams will be allowed to play a more traditional defense, focusing their efforts on containing the soon-to-be 33-year-old Kelce.

Mahomes is the most dangerous quarterback in the NFL; creative, accurate and strong. He’s more than capable of adapting — but he will have to adapt.

The Broncos’ additions of pass-rusher Randy Gregory and defensive lineman D.J. Jones give Denver a multi-faceted pass rush, especially if defensive end Dre’Mont Jones’ strong finish to last year’s campaign continues, and if former first-round pick Bradley Chubb can somehow return to his rookie form after what’s become an injury-riddled career. Without Hill’s game-breaking speed, Mahomes’ notoriously dangerous roll-outs become less effective, and the Chiefs’ explosive offense instantly becomes less so.

After adding Super Bowl-winning quarterback Russell Wilson in a blockbuster trade with Seattle, the Broncos expect their own offense to take a quantum leap forward. The Chiefs’ AFC West rivals have been building in unprecedented fashion this offseason, all of it designed to break Kansas City’s stranglehold on the division. Any backsliding by the Chiefs closes the gap, and the Broncos are as well-positioned to take advantage of it as are the Raiders and Chargers.

Worst to first? A few weeks ago, the notion was almost laughable for the Denver Broncos. No one’s laughing anymore.
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Shawn Drotar (@sdrotar) is the on-air host of “Sandy & Shawn;” weeknights from 9 PM-midnight on 104.3 The Fan, as well as the host of “The Fan’s Nuggets Postgame” and “The Fan’s Avalanche Postgame,” both starting immediately after each game’s final horn.
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Kansas City Chiefs are vulnerable in the AFC West after trading Tyreek Hill