Going into cutdown day, I thought running back was one of the Kansas City Chiefs’ critical positions.
Isiah Pacheco and Jerick McKinnon were clearly the top two running backs on the depth chart. But who were going to be the third and fourth running backs? Three players were fighting those spots: Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Deneric Prince and La’Mical Perine.
Unlike with many positions, the Chiefs’ third man up will likely be very important. As I explained in my “10 Biggest Questions” series, Pacheco returning from offseason surgery (and McKinnon having a limited his role to keep him healthy) creates a situation where this player will receive more opportunities than almost any other team’s third back. While McKinnon would be likely to get most third-down snaps, the third back will share time with Pacheco — and If the starter is slow to start (or is re-injured), whoever wins the job will suddenly be at the top of the rotation.
Through most pf training camp, it seemed like Prince was the leading candidate for the job. During OTAs, he became an option as a kick returner option as he excelled as a open-field runner. Special teams coordinator Dave Toub compared Prince to former Kansas City running back Knile Davis. To me, Prince seemed more viable as a special teams player — and had one elite trait: open-field speed. In contrast, at this point of his career, Edwards-Helaire appears to lack any distinguishing traits. I felt would cause him to fall behind in the rotation.
Regardless of my own view, however, I knew the preseason would make the team’s intentions clearer. Once we got opportunities to see each of these players perform in their respective roles, the pecking order would come together in a way that was easy to understand.
But after cutdown day, I wouldn't say it became any easier to understand the Chiefs’ plan. The team kept Pacheco, McKinnon and Edwards-Helaire — and after clearing waivers, Prince and Perine were signed to the practice squad. It now appears Kansas City will open the season with three running backs.
While it’s always been obvious Pacheco and McKinnon were going to make the team, Edwards-Helaire’s retention was surprising to many — but not for me. Without re-litigating his draft position and the first three years of his career, it never made sense for the Chiefs to release him. Because $1.2 million of his $2 million base salary was guaranteed, releasing him would have saved just $765,000 against the cap. It’s clear that the team believed the potential savings weren’t enough to justify his release.
So I wasn’t shocked to see Edwards-Helaire be Kansas City’s first-string running back during preseason games. While I didn’t think he played particularly well in the limited opportunities available to first-team players, the Chiefs still have belief in him. While I have yet to see the explosiveness or agility Edwards-Helaire displayed at LSU, head coach Andy Reid may still have a plan to get his career back on track.
The thing that really surprised me was the team’s decision to keep only three running backs; I — and most others — assumed the Chiefs would keep four. With no fullback (and only two quarterbacks) on the roster, it seemed this would be possible — so I was floored when both Prince and Perine were waived.
To be fair, Prince had a rough preseason. He never looked comfortable with kickoffs. (Eventually, veteran wide receiver Richie James took those opportunities). His straight-line speed was immediately apparent — but as a running back in live action, he seemed to lack the deceleration (or agility) to make basic cuts or make defenders miss. He missed holes and ran into his own linemen. On the whole, the game just looked too fast for him. Now that he’s on the practice squad, I still think there’s an opportunity for him to develop.
But I was shocked Perine didn’t make the 53-man roster. During the offseason, I hadn’t even considered him as a realistic possibility to make the team — but his preseason work was truly impressive. He displayed solid vision, contact balance and explosiveness. Compared to Edwards-Helaire or Prince, I saw him as the best option as the third back; I felt he was a lock to make the team. Now that he’s on the practice squad, I assume he’ll be the first man called up should any of the rostered backs miss time with injuries.
So just like it was at the beginning of 2022, Pacheco and Edwards-Helaire will split early-down opportunities — while McKinnon will be third-down back. Pacheco has grown as a player, but I’m still concerned about Edwards-Helaire. I feel badly about how his career has gone, so I’m rooting for him to succeed — but nothing about his preseason performance made me feel better about how he’s going to perform.
Just the same, I feel okay about the team’s running back rotation. I have few concerns about the performance of Pacheco and McKinnon — but if either is one injured, that’s another story. Coming into the season, I didn’t feel great about Kansas City’s running back depth — and the preseason did little to inspire more hope. Since the Chiefs have the best quarterback of all time, it might be that this won’t matter. But I’m still curious to see how the running backs perform this season.