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10 Biggest Questions: Will Deneric Prince or Clyde Edwards-Helaire crack the running back rotation?

Trying to answer the top 10 questions about the reigning Super Bowl champions heading into their title defense.

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

Heading into the season, I'll be covering my "10 Biggest Questions" regarding the 2023 Kansas City Chiefs. Last week, we asked... what is the Chiefs' contingency plan at offensive tackle?

This week, we shift our attention to the running back room.

Will Deneric Prince or Clyde Edwards-Helaire crack the running back rotation?

This offseason, the Chiefs prioritized continuity at the running back position. Isiah Pacheco returns as the clear starter, and the Chiefs re-signed veteran Jerick McKinnon to a one-year deal as the third-down running back. Running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire also returns from injury.

The only serious addition the Chiefs made was signing undrafted free agent Deneric Prince from Tulsa. Prince, a 216-pound player who led the 2023 NFL Draft running back class in speed score, has already received praise from the Chiefs coaching staff this offseason. But outside of Prince, the running back room largely remains the same this year.

In terms of running back roles, Pacheco's role feels completely solidified. To start last season, the Chiefs had a steady rotation of Edwards-Helaire, McKinnon and Pacheco, but after the bye, Pacheco became the lead guy on early downs. Pacheco's speed and physicality brought the offense a different yet needed element. In games like the Super Bowl or at the Los Angeles Chargers, Pacheco had critical moments where the Chiefs would give him the ball for an entire drive and score.

While I expect Pacheco to remain the team's early down solution at running back, I'm still skeptical he ever becomes a true third-down running back. Pacheco currently lacks the route running or pass protection ability of McKinnon or even Edwards-Helaire. In addition to that, Pacheco's physical style leads to injuries, which already showed up in his rookie year. Asking him to play more snaps and take on more contact likely isn't the best option over the course of a long season.

However, with how well McKinnon played in 2022, this was never an issue for the Chiefs. Even at McKinnon's advanced age and injury history, he was still one of the best third-down running backs in the NFL. McKinnon led all running backs in receiving touchdowns with nine and was a critical part of the Chief's red-zone package. McKinnon was not only a great receiver, but you could make a highlight film of McKinnon knocking defenders into the dirt with his ability to chip last season.

If McKinnon can stave off the aging curve and still perform at a high level in 2023, then the Chiefs running back rotation should largely look the same. Edwards-Helaire and Prince would be able to find opportunities in between Pacheco and McKinnon, but the room should look similar to last year.

Injuries could play a role

While the Chiefs do have continuity in the running back room, I wouldn't argue they have certainty. Pacheco feels like he can last throughout a season, but his relentless running style will lead to bumps and bruises along the way. Pacheco's already had multiple surgeries and had a heavy offensive load in college; he's not a guaranteed health bet.

Even if Pacheco holds up, the bigger concern is McKinnon. McKinnon is now 31 years old, which is already past when most running backs start to see decline. McKinnon hasn't received many touches, which has helped him maintain most of his athleticism, but his injury history is brutal. McKinnon also dealt with injuries last year, playing through nagging ailments throughout last season. While I thought McKinnon played excellent, there did seem to be a dip in speed over the course of the season as the injuries started to pile up.

While I love having McKinnon back and hope he stays healthy, the chances he can stay healthy with the same usage seem low. I think load-managing McKinnon — similar to what they did with him in 2021 — would make sense for the Chiefs. McKinnon already didn't participate in offseason activities, and I wouldn't be surprised if he's limited in training camp. During the regular season, I feel it would be wise to keep McKinnon on ice as much as possible to get him healthy for the playoffs.

If that's the case and McKinnon's snaps become limited, that means someone else will need to step up in the running back room. I suspect the Chiefs will keep four running backs, but who will emerge as the third running back is interesting.

In terms of tenure, Edwards-Helaire has the favorite.

Edwards-Helaire came into offseason activities in great shape, finally seeing a healthy offseason. He also has the ideal receiving traits needed if McKinnon is out. The Edwards-Helaire draft pick hasn't worked out, but the Chiefs might still have vested interest in giving him opportunities to see if he can pop.

However, if they're looking for more juice at the running back position, Prince feels like a great option. Special teams coach Dave Toub compared Prince to former Chiefs running back Knile Davis, which was an excellent comparison. Davis was also a bigger running back with dynamic open-field speed, and Prince has both of those traits. Prince also has a significantly larger frame than Edwards-Helaire, which would help spell the need for McKinnon in pass protection.

As of the start of training camp, my guess is Edwards-Helaire will be the third running back, but I do feel Prince will get opportunities to overcome that. And while running back isn't a high-priority position for the Chiefs, they need to find a way to keep Pacheco and McKinnon healthy for the postseason. To do that, one of Edwards-Helaire or Prince must step up and fill that spot.

The third running back battle isn't generally an interesting training camp topic, but I'm curious to see how that unfolds going into the season.

Do you see Edwards-Helaire or Prince contributing? What's more likely? Let's hear your thoughts below.

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