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How the Chiefs can add running back depth for this season

Kansas City has a solid starter at running back. But which backs will stand behind him?

Syndication: Arizona Republic Joe Rondone/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK

In the past two editions of the NFL Draft, Kansas City Chiefs general manager Brett Veach has hit on multiple late-round picks. One of his greatest may very well be former Rutgers running back Isiah Pacheco, whom Veach took in the seventh round (251st overall) last April.

It’s rare for seventh-round rookies to make an NFL team’s initial 53-man roster. Pacheco not only made the team, but also became Kansas City’s starting running back for the Week 7 game against the San Francisco 49ers — and never looked back.

He ended the season with 830 yards rushing, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. But while Pacheco looks like a lock to remain the Chiefs’ starter in 2023, there are still some question marks at the position.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire

As last season began, 2020’s first-round pick was the starting running back — and expectations were high for the former LSU star. Unfortunately, he has fallen well short of them — mostly because of injuries. Over three seasons in Kansas City, Edwards-Helaire has played in just 36 of the team’s 59 regular season and playoff games.

So before the May 2 deadline, the Chiefs must decide whether they will pick up his fifth-year option, allowing him to remain with the team at a 2024 salary of $5.5 million. At this time, the odds that Kansas City will pick up Edwards-Helaire’s option appear slim.

Some have even wondered whether the team would even keep him (and his $2.1 million salary and workout bonus) for the coming season. But according to Spotrac, $1.2 million of Edwards-Helaire’s 2023 salary was guaranteed when he signed his rookie contract in 2020. Releasing him now would save the Chiefs only $900,000 against the cap.

Jerick McKinnon

Playing in his seventh NFL campaign in over nine years, McKinnon played a major role in helping Kansas City reach — and win — Super Bowl LVII. Turning in one of the best years of his career, he accumulated 803 yards (and 11 touchdowns) from scrimmage. His nine receiving scores topped all of the league’s running backs — and ranked sixth among all players.

Not to be overlooked is what McKinnon added to the Chiefs’ offense as a pass blocker. His ability to pick up a blitz was — by far — the best on the team.

McKinnon’s only downside is his age; he’ll be 31 when the season begins. Just as he did following his first season with Kansas City, he will enter the offseason as a free agent. It will be interesting to see if the Chiefs re-sign him — but if they do, it might be a while before they get it done. Last season, it was mid-June before the team signed him to a one-year Veteran Salary Benefit (VSB) contract that paid him $1.2 million — but cost the Chiefs a little bit more than $1 million against the cap.

Free Agency

Should the Chiefs move on either McKinnon or Edwards-Helarie, they could choose to add a veteran backup. With Pacheco holding down the starting spot, it’s likely that Kansas City will want a back that could carry the load in case of injury — or to help manage the workload.

Free-agent options like Josh Jacobs, Saquon Barkley, Miles Sanders and Tony Pollard are likely to demand more money (and carries) than the Chiefs would be willing to offer. But available veterans like Jamaal Williams, Samaje Perine, Marlon Mack, Devin Singletary, David Montgomery, Rashaad Penny, Melvin Gordon and Kareem Hunt oould do the trick.

Mack was on Kansas City’s radar as a trade candidate two seasons ago — and after a disappointing year in Denver, he might be back in play. Hunt will always be a player that Chiefs’ fans will want back on the team — but the team may have an entirely different idea about that.

Perine would be an excellent option. He can carry the load if necessary — and also serve as the third-down back that Kansas City will need if McKinnon does not return.

You can check out the full list of free-agent running backs here.

The draft

There are plenty of running backs in 2023’s draft class. While there are some that carry star power, that’s not likely to be what the Chiefs will be seeking. It’s more likely the team will be after a mid to late-round pick who could be acquired inexpensively — but provide a lot of value. Players who could fill that bill include Devon Achane of Texas A&M, Deuce Vaughn from Kansas State, East Carolina’s Keaton Mitchell and Tulane’s Tyjae Spears.

Achane will probably be off the board long before the Chiefs will be looking for a running back. But Mitchell could be a perfect change-of-pace back — and should be there around the draft’s fourth or fifth round.

East Carolina v Memphis Photo by Joe Murphy/Getty Images

Standing at only 5 feet 9, Mitchell’s size may cause a lot of teams to pass on him — which would be perfect for the Chiefs. He is a great perimeter runner with good long speed to make the big runs.

Mitchell could also use some work on catching passes out the backfield; sometimes he struggles to catch passes away from his body. Just like most rookie backs, he will also need some work on picking up blitzes. He could also serve as a kick returner.

The bottom line

At running back, Pacheco is the only sure thing on Kansas City’s roster — although Edwards-Helaire is pretty likely to be back, too. Based on how productive he was last season, it wouldn’t be a surprise for McKinnon to return — although his age may stand in the way. But even if all three return, it’s likely that in 2023, the Chiefs will have some new faces in the running back room.

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