Our series of offseason questions continues...
Here's an odd way of looking at the Kansas City Chiefs running back situation heading into 2012: They could lose last season's leading rusher, 60 percent of the depth chart in free agency and actually get significantly better next season.
Yes, I'm talking about the return of Jamaal Charles in 2012. For you Chiefs optimists, this is your ace. The team can be really good simply by adding Charles back to the field. (I think it's important in general to remember that over the next seven months.)
But who's going to split the load with him? Charles' best season came in 2010 with Thomas Jones shouldering part of the load. A lot of teams are investing in a two-back setup and I think that makes sense. That's one of my big questions as the Chiefs start to hit free agency and the NFL draft, and especially since the Chiefs have two running backs (Thomas Jones, Jackie Battle) and a fullback (Le'Ron McClain) scheduled for free agency.
So who can take the role of Charles' sidekick?
Chiefs free agents
The last two seasons this role has belonged to Thomas Jones, who is scheduled to be a free agent. Jones brings some intangibles to the table but at the end of the day he simply was not very productive in 2011. Running backs usually don't improve at his age (33). (And, yes, I still think it's weird to describe someone that's 33 as "old".)
Jackie Battle was the Chiefs leading rusher last season and he's also scheduled to be a free agent. I wouldn't be surprised to see the Chiefs bring him back as he can also contribute on special teams. I think there's a role for him on the team, quite possibly complementing Charles.
The final in-house candidate to split carries with Charles is Le'Ron McClain, who is also going to be a free agent. The Chiefs used McClain as a fullback last season so if they saw him as a guy who could take 10-plus carries a game they certainly didn't show it.
Chiefs under contract
Dexter McCluster will get some carries for sure. But I also think the Chiefs need a bigger back to pair with Charles. McCluster is a nice luxury but I don't foresee him as a guy that carries the ball 150-plus times. With Charles out last season, McCluster carried it more than normal an ended up with just 114 carries.
Shaun Draughn was acquired midseason but we don't really know anything about him. Seems unlikely he'd be considered the favorite for this role. He's under contract next season.
Free agency/NFL draft
I'd guess the Chiefs are keeping an eye on the running back market. Peyton Hillis, Ryan Grant...there are some names out there. Cedric Benson is another one, which reminds me of Scott Pioli and the Patriots once picking up a former "disgruntled" Bengals running back. 1,600+ rushing yards, a Super Bowl title and three straight years of 12-plus touchdowns later and Corey Dillon doesn't look like such a bad signing. I'm not saying sign Benson, I'm just pointing out that Pioli has usually had that veteran back whether it be a Kevin Faulk or a Corey Dillon or a Thomas Jones.
The Chiefs also have the draft to address this but I just assume pick up a known quantity on the free agent market and use the draft for other purposes. You strike it rich in the draft with a guy like Jamaal Charles every once in a while but I think the role of Charles' co-pilot has veteran written all over it.
I think the Chiefs will re-sign Jackie Battle but also look at the veteran running back market in free agency. I can't tell you who that'll be but of the options in finding someone to pair with Charles I think a combination of Battle and a veteran free agent makes sense.