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5 running backs the Chiefs could consider in free agency

Kansas City GM Brett Veach might end up getting a free-agent running back.

Detroit Lions v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

With the NFL’s legal tampering period set to begin on Monday — and the official start of free agency on Wednesday — many NFL players will be joining new teams. While the overall strength of 2023’s free agency class is fairly limited, there’s actually quite a bit of solid depth at running back — a position where the Kansas City Chiefs might make a move.

Current running backs

Kansas City has two running backs from its 2022 roster returning for 2023: Isiah Pacheco and Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Two of last season’s practice-squad running backs — Jerrion Ealy and La’Mical Perine — are signed to reserve/future contracts that will become effective when the league year begins on Wednesday.

After finishing the season as a healthy Super Bowl scratch (and choosing to miss the team’s victory parade to attend a fashion show in New York), there has been some speculation about Edwards-Helaire’s future. The team is widely expected to decline his fifth-year contract option (a decision that must be made before May 1), under which he would earn $5.5 million. Without that option in place, Edwards-Helaire will be on the last year of his deal.

With cap hit of $3.4 million this season, some have suggested he might be traded. While that is possible, $1.2 million of his $2 million salary is guaranteed — meaning that Kansas City would only gain just $900,000 in cap space by trading or releasing the three-year veteran.

Meanwhile, Pacheco is coming off a fantastic rookie season in which he became the No. 1 back in the league’s best offense. Still, Pacheco has room to grow. His skills as a receiver and pass protector need work — as does his on-field vision.

Both Jerick McKinnon and Ronald Jones will become free agents on Wednesday. While Jones had little to no impact on the 2022 season, McKinnon was a significant part of the offense, logging 10 touchdowns and 803 yards from scrimmage — and was the team’s primary back for pass protection. While McKinnon and Pacheco complemented each other’s skill sets well, Edwards-Helaire and Pacheco do not.

So Chiefs’ general manager Brett Veach has some work to do at running back.

Potential free-agent backs

The free-agent class is headlined by big names like the Philadelphia Eagles’ Miles Sanders, the Detroit Lions’ Jamaal Williams and the Chicago Bears’ David Montgomery — all of whom could garner big contracts. But the 2023 draft is really deep at the position, so the market could be over-saturated. That could become an advantage for Kansas City.

Williams has found the end zone (and converted short-yardage situations) better than almost any other NFL back — and this is one of the few things with which the Chiefs’ offense has struggled.

Montgomery would have familiarity with the Kansas City offense, having played for offensive coordinator Matt Nagy in Chicago. Montgomery — just 25 — has never really had a good offensive line in front of him. And he’s had more than 300 yards receiving in each of his last three seasons.

If the Chiefs wanted to add another playmaker for less money, however, two players who could replace what McKinnon brought to the table are the Cincinnati Bengals’ Samaje Perine and the Miami Dolphins’ Raheem Mostert. Both can be counted upon as pass blockers — and as receivers out of the backfield as well. While both will require some financial investment, neither would break the bank.

The Seattle Seahawks’ Rashaad Penny could also make some sense. While he missed almost all of 2022 with a broken fibula, he was one of the league’s best backs in 2021. He doesn’t bring much as a receiver or pass protector, but he can take advantage of open space better than almost any other back on the market.

The bottom line

It seems almost certain that Kansas City will add a running back or two in 2023 — but who and where? Given the team’s long list of other draft needs at premium positions (EDGE, tackle and wide receiver), it’s reasonable to think the team could look for a running back in free agency.

We’ve seen general manager Brett Veach make some big swings for running backs — including taking Edwards-Helaire in the first round and picking up free agents LeSean McCoy and Le’Veon Bell. We could see Veach make another move at running back this season.

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