clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Have the Chiefs helped to suppress the NFL’s running back market?

Has Kansas City proved that running backs don’t matter?

NFL: Super Bowl LVII-Kansas City Chiefs vs Philadelphia Eagles Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Since the deadline for the NFL's franchise-tagged players to agree to new long-term contracts passed, there has been plenty of discussion about the market value of running backs. The New York Giants' Saquon Barkley, the Las Vegas Raiders' Josh Jacobs and Dallas Cowboys' Tony Pollard all failed to get new contracts with their teams. If they sign their tags, they'll play the 2023 season for the current running back tag value of $10.1 million. Compared to players at most other positions, these are small numbers.

Have the Kansas City Chiefs played a part in suppressing this market?

Running backs in revolt

Several of the league's current and former running backs have taken to social media to express their frustration with the situation.

Some observers have pointed to the Chiefs as a team with a successful approach toward running backs. Since the team began its current division championship streak in 2016, only one of its players rushed for 1,000 yards or more: Kareem Hunt, who led the league with 1,327 yards as a rookie in 2017.

Kansas City has won two championships in the last four seasons. In the first, its leading rusher was free agent Damien Williams. That season, he was in the second year of a three-season deal that cost just $1.7 million against the cap. In the most recent championship, seventh-round rookie Isiah Pacheco led the team's rushing attack.

Kansas City head coach Andy Reid has designed an offense that can succeed with almost any serviceable running back. In it, players like Spencer Ware, Darrel Williams, Knile Davis — and even 31-year-old LeSean McCoy — have sometimes looked like must-add fantasy players.

But is the team deliberately neglecting the running back position — and by doing so, playing a part in depressing the market? If it is, it is not alone.

What might have been

Kansas City has not given a running back a top-of-the-market contract since 2014, when Jamaal Charles was signed to a two-year extension worth $7 million in average annual value (AAV). Under Reid, the team has brought in free agents such as McCoy, Le'Veon Bell, Ronald Jones and Jerick McKinnon. But the Chiefs haven't made big-money deals with any of them.

Still, the last five years could have turned out much differently. In 2018 — his second season — Hunt appeared unstoppable under new starting quarterback Patrick Mahomes. During the 11 games in which he played alongside Mahomes, wide receiver Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce, we might have seen the most dominant Kansas City offense in franchise history.

But after a video of Hunt pushing and kicking a woman became public, the Chiefs released him. If he had remained with the team through his rookie deal, would the Chiefs have extended him after the 2019 season — or signed him to a new contract after the 2020 season? We will never know. He certainly played well enough to warrant it during his time in Kansas City.

After the team's 2019 championship, the Chiefs ran it back with a roster that included their "luxury" first-round pick of Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Early returns suggested the Chiefs had found yet another elite back.

But since his hot start as a rookie, Edwards-Helaire has never produced at the same level — and before his fourth season, Kansas City chose not to pick up his fifth-year option. Without an enormous 2023 season — and perhaps even with one — it seems doubtful that Edwards-Helaire will be re-signed in 2024.

Still, investing a first-round pick cannot be viewed as neglecting the position. While the team hasn't made a significant financial commitment to a running back in quite a while, the Chiefs have shown a desire to improve at the position.

Looking ahead

Part of the dramatic shift in running back compensation is the result of teams paying for future production rather than past achievements. That is the lesson learned when players like Hunt (27), Dalvin Cook (27) and Ezekiel Elliott (28) are still sitting on the free agent market in late July.

So it is likely that Kansas City's current starting running back Isiah Pacheco — a seventh-round draft pick now entering his second season — won't be a great candidate for an extension. He will not be eligible for one until he is facing his age-26 season. At that time, we may be able to say that Pacheco has been a great back in Kansas City. But will we be certain he can continue to be great in the next three or four years?

As long as the Chiefs have Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Chris Jones (fingers crossed) making near top-of-the-market money, the team won't be in a position to give a running back a significant contract. The team just won't be able to help raise the market for running backs — and it can be argued that even if it could, it wouldn't try.

NEW: Join Arrowhead Pride Premier

If you love Arrowhead Pride, you won’t want to miss Pete Sweeney in your inbox each week as he delivers deep analysis and insights on the Chiefs' path to the Super Bowl.