It was a bit of a surprising move, but late on Saturday night, the Kansas City Chiefs signed running back LeSean McCoy. The Buffalo Bills had released McCoy earlier in the day; a number of teams had been reported to have interest in signing him.
The Chiefs had already traded veteran running back Carlos Hyde for second-year offensive lineman Martinas Rankin, which left their running back room with only three players — and opened the door for McCoy’s acquisition. While the one-year, $4 million contract McCoy signed isn’t huge, there is enough guaranteed money to assume he’ll play a role for the Chiefs this season.
The biggest question about McCoy is simple: how much juice does he have left in the tank — and what can a 31-year-old running back do for an already-prolific offense?
At first glance, McCoy’s prospects don’t look very good. As a member of the Bills In 2018, McCoy had the worst statistical output of his career in every single category. The Bills had lost enough faith in him that they brought in 34-year-old Frank Gore and drafted Devin Singletary in the third round. The Bills did save substantial money by releasing McCoy, but they had been preparing to replace him all offseason.
So we took a trip down to the AP Laboratory to look through some film over the last three years of McCoy’s career — and see what he could do for the Chiefs in 2019.
After a decade of playing the league, it becomes clear how a player succeeds in the NFL. For McCoy, that starts with his vision, quickness and open-field elusiveness.
LeSean McCoy has long been one of the best inside zone runners in the NFL with his vision and quickness. While, physically, McCoy may be slowing down a LITTLE bit the vision remains.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 1, 2019
- Press LoS
- Flash hips playside
- Cut backside as LBs over-pursue
- Read blocks - bounce wide pic.twitter.com/ezpagIdzhY
A hallmark of McCoy’s career has been his effectiveness at running inside zone plays. His quick feet (and lateral agility) allow him to press the line of scrimmage and seamlessly bounce from gap to gap. Many players have come to the NFL with similar physical traits, but what separates McCoy from the rest is how well he’s able to see the field — along with his ability to work up to the line of scrimmage and stutter his feet while he surveys the running lanes.
Patiently working into the scrum in the trenches forces defenders to commit first — or risk the offense getting a few free yards. McCoy’s ability to insert himself into that position and force the defenders to show their hand has always been a major part of his game. As the defenders make their initial moves, he’s able to identify the gaps they are abandoning and work his way through them.
Being in the league for as long as McCoy has, you learn some small tricks of the trade. There was zero room in the 2017 playoff game but McCoy sets up two free LBs to produce a 12 yard gain— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 1, 2019
- Both climbing are late
- Stutter, ins hip flash gets both LB to step up
- Burst upfield pic.twitter.com/fvFRhXqVwz
On this play, McCoy is showcasing his vision — as well as his ability set up defenders not only for his own movement, but also for those of his blockers. As he approaches the line of scrimmage, he keeps all of his running options open, forcing the linebackers to step forward. If McCoy is able to bounce outside, this immediately opens up a gap — because his blockers are climbing to the second level.
Vision, patience, and anticipation are top-tier traits for a running back. But if they are combined with average physical traits, the upside is limited. Thankfully for McCoy and the Chiefs, he still possesses top-tier lateral agility and quickness. Here, he’s able to cut around the guard and linebacker on a dime — and then burst upfield before anyone can close the space.
Whether working vertically between the tackles, laterally across the line of scrimmage or in the open field, McCoy still has the quickness to take advantage of the angles he creates with his vision and patience.
From THIS preseason; McCoy may have lost a half a step in terms of long speed ... But there is still enough juice to take advantage of what's available. McCoy consistently does a good job of maximizing what's available & still creates well in space. pic.twitter.com/WGysAYjO8I— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 1, 2019
This play is from the preseason — and should help quell some concerns that McCoy has nothing left in the tank. He may not have the same top-end speed or elite acceleration he used to possess, but he still has enough of both to be a highly effective NFL player.
The vision and patience at the LoS are consistent throughout McCoy's tape even in 2018 during a sub-par, statistical, year.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 1, 2019
If the IOL doesn't get any vertical push or to the 2nd level quickly, it greatly hampers McCoy's running style. Buf's OL wasn't the picture of great either pic.twitter.com/MnscgZbN6Y
While this example isn’t strictly an open-field play, it does show McCoy’s ability to make players miss — even in tight spaces. As McCoy bursts into the second level — and defenders attempt to close in on him — he shows the acceleration and lateral agility to make defenders miss.
The Bills didn’t provide many opportunities for McCoy to work the second and third levels of defenses — as he had done in the past — which helps explain his career-low yards-per-carry numbers last season.
McCoy has always been a receiving threat out of the backfield but saw a decline in his production in 2018.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 1, 2019
A quality route runner, not great but knows how to gain separation, and is sure handed. His biggest threat is still his YAC ability. Still has top tier change of direction pic.twitter.com/l8qpfMwPrh
Here’s a more traditional open-field play that showcases some of McCoy’s receiving ability.
A good jab-step on the out route gives McCoy enough space that once he catches the ball, he can begin to set up the defenders. One by one, defenders approach him. One by one, he eludes them — gaining an additional 12 yards.
Whether bursting through the line on a run play — or receiving a pass out of the backfield — if you can get McCoy isolated in space against one or more defenders, he is still one of the league’s most difficult players to bring down.
McCoy may not be Alvin Kamara as a route runner but he's far above average for a RB. Working here in a Texas concept he's on the angle route and does a great job selling the flat before breaking inside. pic.twitter.com/v9cpGNC9JK— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) September 2, 2019
Here’s a fun play that better demonstrates his ability as a receiver than the simple out route above.
McCoy’s dead-leg release as he approaches the line of scrimmage makes the linebacker expect the out route — but McCoy snaps off his angle to come back inside for lots of separation.
With the Chiefs, McCoy won’t likely see a lot of snaps split out as a wide receiver. But as a receiver out of the backfield, McCoy is more than just effective as a route runner — and while operating in space.
I’ve focused on McCoy’s positives because with free-agent signings such as this one — especially those for role players like McCoy — it can be more beneficial to understand how the Chiefs will be trying to utilize them. McCoy definitely has weaknesses as a running back. He’s always had them, but as he has approached the tail end of his career, they have become more pronounced.
The Chiefs’ offensive coaching staff can be very good at maximizing skillsets of their players; we shouldn’t expect the Chiefs to run McCoy in power plays out of 21 personnel. McCoy has reached the time in his career where he’s no longer ideally used a feature back. Instead, we should expect to see him used in rotation with other talented running backs. That should maximize his impact with the Chiefs.
The biggest concern with McCoy is that the Chiefs’ top three running backs all share the same general skill set; McCoy, Damien Williams and Darwin Thompson are all quick, shifty backs who operate well in space (and as receivers), but aren’t particularly powerful runners who are good at picking up the tough yards.
Among Chiefs running backs, only Darrel Williams possesses those skills — and using him would require the Chiefs to dress a total of five running backs (including Anthony Sherman) on game days. With McCoy’s acquisition, the overall talent level among Chiefs running backs has improved, but the diversity among them may have regressed.
So now that the team has a three-headed monster of elusive, dynamic running backs at the top of the depth chart, who will get the touches?
Damien Williams has certainly earned a spot as the starting running back, but when you look through McCoy’s tape over the last two years, it’s not hard to see a path for him to take over as the second back on the field.
Given McCoy’s veteran savvy, top-tier vision (and quickness to match Williams) the advantages Williams may have over McCoy — namely his receiving ability and top-end speed — could better serve the Chiefs in the backup position. Meanwhile, after an extremely strong preseason, Thompson still sits in the wings. Will he become a better option — and if so, when?
This isn’t a bad problem for the Chiefs to have. If the Chiefs offensive line can give better blocking than last year’s Bills team, McCoy could very easily return to his form from two years ago. If that is the case, how would you prefer the RB touches to be split among Williams, McCoy, and Thompson?