The strength has become a weakness — or at the very least, a question mark.
One year ago, and certainly earlier than that, the Kansas City Chiefs were set at running back. Not only did the team boast the talents of Jamaal Charles, one of the most productive backs per carry in NFL history, but they were also as deep at the position as any other team.
Even after Charles went down, youngsters like Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West seemed nearly as adept, as a duo, at moving the chains as Charles. Even after losing Charles, the Chiefs continued to run the ball successfully during a magical season that included the most impressive single-season turnaround in franchise history (and maybe league history).
Dorsey rewarded both Ware and West with equal contracts on the cheap, providing security for the players and the team with matching two-year deals worth $3.6 million. On paper, the Chiefs had arguably the best backfield in the NFL coming into the season with Charles, Ware, West and Knile Davis on the depth chart. Not only was the ceiling as high as ever with the hope of Charles' return to health, but the floor was also set with known young commodities in house for another two years.
Unfortunately the Chiefs running game failed to play out as expected in 2016. Charles logged a scant 27 snaps in 2017, and the dynamic duo of Ware and West looked mediocre most of the time. While Ware flashed signs of breaking out, he failed to distance himself over the long haul and played in only 53 percent of all offensive snaps. For West, the total was lower at 35 percent. The ceiling and floor both turned out to be much lower than anyone expected.
Heading into the 2017 season, there are now more questions than answers at a position that was seemingly set 12 months ago. Let's take a closer look at the issues and what the team can expect moving forward:
The reality here is a painful one for all parties involved, from player to coach to fan. Charles is, after all, a singular talent — the most exciting player in a generation in Kansas City. He's historically good as a running back with an obnoxious 5.5 yards per carry for his career. He's also only carried the ball 84 times in the last two years and, coming into 2017, he'll be a 30-year-old running back coming off of knee surgery with a considerable injury history.
Despite how dear Charles is to everyone, there is only one course of action for John Dorsey when it comes to Jamaal Charles: to not expect anything from him. If Charles is able to play again in 2017, and he's stated that his goal is definitely to return, then the Chiefs can deal with having such a positive problem on their hands with too much talent at one position. But if there's any reliance whatsoever on having Charles healthy and ready to go for a season's workload, Dorsey would be out of his mind. And he's not.
Instead, I would expect Dorsey to either cut Charles outright (if he's coldblooded) or renegotiate Charles' deal for a team-friendly deal. There's simply zero leverage here for Charles, while at the same time, it makes no sense for him to leave. The familiarity with Reid's offense and KC in general makes the Chiefs the best possible place to attempt a comeback, but the weight of doing so rests upon Charles' shoulders.
In short, the plan moving forward for Dorsey will likely be not including Charles within that plan. He's the proverbial cherry on top of the roster sundae, if available, and of course that's how we all hope things will turn out.
That first game opened our eyes. When the Chiefs completed the biggest comeback in franchise history in Week 1 over the San Diego Chargers, every fan believed that Spencer Ware was the team's next franchise back. He had 11 rushes for 70 yards (6.4 yards per carry) and 7 receptions for another 129 yards receiving. The superlative performance served notice to the NFL that the Chiefs could afford to have Charles sit and that Dorsey was a genius for signing Ware on the cheap.
Unfortunately, Week 1 was by far the high point of the season for Ware, who actually looked less effective as the season wore on. In October, Ware was averaging 5.1 yards per carry, but that total fell to 4.1 in November and a miserable 3.3 in December. Fortunately the team was able to weather his worst performances against the Falcons and Raiders down the stretch (2.1 and 2.8 yards per carry, respectively) for wins, but the Chiefs simply have to be better at running the football in 2017.
The good news is that the Chiefs are not staring at bare cupboards at the position, and there is some level of security knowing that Ware is returning to the tune of a $1.1M cap hit. Perhaps another offseason of rest and working out with the team's conditioning and strength coaches can keep Ware fresh for the stretch run. Perhaps he just needs a better complement. It would behoove Dorsey to plan on the latter and hopefully force Ware to compete for the type of minutes he was given this year.
At least Spencer Ware started off strong. Charcandrick West barely showed up at all on the stat sheet in 2016. In the offseason, Ware and West were addressed as a duo, but it took only one week for a new pecking order on the depth chart. West's season-ending stats of 88 carries for 293 rushing yards makes him seem more like a fringe roster player heading into a new season than someone upon whom the Chiefs can depend.
West's finances are identical to Ware's, which means he's signed on the cheap, but back-up running backs are all cheap these days and West shouldn't expect anything to be handed to him in this coming offseason. The Chiefs could easily eat the ~$600K of dead money if they released him, so I'd expect Dorsey to bring in competition for all levels of the depth chart and for West to know he has to earn his reps in training camp.
It likely won't be a popular opinion, especially for folks who'd like to see significant changes under center, but I'd expect John Dorsey to address running back with a decent draft investment if the right player is there on the board (Day 2 or early Day 3 pick). The team is deep enough to now take some more chances at skill positions, and this is a very deep draft for great young playmakers.
The Chiefs have had great success with character concerns both mild (Marcus Peters) and serious (Tyreek Hill), so you’re going to hear Joe Mixon, who may or may not have an NFL future. Maybe Christian McCaffrey or Alvin Kamara will fall, or a later round gem like Kareem Hunt stays available. Either way, I'd expect Dorsey to turn in a draft card with a running back's name on it in the first four rounds and likely come home with two new names once draft weekend is wrapped up (and undrafted free agents signed).
Just to be lame and have something permanently on the internet showing how completely wrong I am:
1. Spencer Ware
2. Joe Mixon
3. Jamaal Charles (re-signed to a $1.5M deal worth up to $6M with incentives)
4. Charcandrick West
5. Undrafted free agent who will land on practice squad and have an odd amount of Arrowhead Pride commenters serious about his pro potential