Breaking down the Chiefs running backs ahead of training camp

As mini camp winds down the competition in the running back room heated up with the addition of Jerrick McKinnon. New faces, old faces, and even some potential dark horse candidates will look to compete to make the roster.

The 2021 Kansas City Chiefs left a lot to be desired at the running back position, but through the offseason, they have put together a group that has individual unique skill sets. These skill-sets combined with what they already had in the room should make for a fun camp, and also create a culture of competition that will push the best to the top. Let’s take a look at the candidates and see what they bring to the table.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire

For all intents and purposes, CEH struggled immensely during the 2021 season and didn’t seem to find his way until late in the season. Injuries and inconsistent play saw his snaps and production decrease, and untimely fumbles against the Baltimore Ravens and Los Angeles Charges contributed to losses. After posting 1,000 plus scrimmage yards in 2020, he regressed to just 626 yards both rushing and receiving in 2021. He did however show signs of his 2020 season in the playoffs where he ran with authority.

This will be a make-or-break season for Edwards-Helaire as far as his time in KC is concerned, but also for the future of his career. He was given the benefit of the doubt early on, but the coaches moved on with other players once he showed he was struggling. This offseason he revealed that complications of gall bladder surgery were a culprit in his struggles, mainly because he lost weight and lacked explosion. Hopefully, a healthy 2022 offseason will result in the foundation for a good season. With health and proper utilization in the passing game, this could be the year that turns around his career.

Ronald Jones

One of the Chiefs’ only notable free-agent signings the Chiefs was bringing in Ronald Jones who spent the first four years of his career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Jones was respectable during his time with the Bucs but saw a reduction in playing time once the team signed Leonard Fournette. In 2021 Jones saw limited snaps despite back-to-back seasons of over 1,000 yards from scrimmage. What Jones can provide is big-play ability out of the backfield.

The Chiefs lacked a back with the big-play ability the last couple of seasons, and while the ground and pound run game did chip away at teams it did feel like there were chances for bigger plays, especially with the level that the offensive line played at during the 2021 season. Jones is not much of a threat in the pass-catching game and has had ball security issues, as well as not being the most reliable blocking back. It will be interesting to see the role that he plays in KC.

Jerrick McKinnon

Prior to the start of mandatory minicamp, McKinnon was a free agent, but on the first day of camp, the team resigned the back as he enters his 9th season. A quiet regular season in 2021 gave way to a big post-season surge for McKinnon, as injuries thrust him into a starting role for the playoffs, and he did not disappoint.

McKinnon had the fresh legs in the playoffs, and the Chiefs utilized his skill set as much as possible. McKinnon averaged 105 yards a game in the playoffs running and catching the football and was a key contributor in the wins vs the Steelers and Bills. With a surge like that it seemed likely Mckinnon would be back. McKinnon was good, but he was also fresh at that point in the season, and as Patrick Mahomes took more check-downs McKinnon found himself benefitting greatly. At 30 years old it is impossible to tell how well he will perform, or if his body can hold up through a full season, but if it is a truck back by committee he should have a chance to contribute. Nothing is guaranteed despite the postseason’s success, and he will once again have to earn touches.

Isiah Pacheco

The Chiefs added some youth to the room by drafting Isiah Pacheco in the 7th round of the draft, and with him, they also add some more explosive playmaking ability. Pacheco ran the fastest 40 of any running back at the NFL Combine back in March at 4.37. In an era that has dramatically devalued the position of running back, this kind of speed and acceleration at the second level seemed to be overlooked due to the lack of play-making ability at the line of scrimmage.

Pacheco did not excel much at creating his own runs that the line, but when he did have some space or a seam he hit it hard. This is exactly what the Chiefs are looking for. The Chiefs’ offensive line played at a high level all year, and pending the Orlando Brown contract talks, the unit will be back together again. With Darian Kinnard battling with Andrew Wylie for the starting right tackle job this will be a group that can do some serious mauling on the ground, and with speed like Pacheco has it could lead to some massive rips. Early on I expect Pacheco to be the starting kick returner, but it will be fun to see if he develops a role in the offense later on in the season.

Derrick Gore

Fan-favorite Derrick Gore is back in KC this offseason, and he will yet again have a chance to compete for a roster spot. His hard style of running and some big rips in both the run and pass game had Chiefs fans clamoring for Gore in 2021, and they saw progressively more of him as the season progressed.

Nothing is guaranteed for Gore, but his experience in the system will give him an advantage when it comes to knowing the offense. He runs with a head of steam and made the most of his opportunities in 2021. The veteran back will have ample chances to make the roster but will need a stand-out preseason and camp to secure a spot.

Jerrion Ealy

Brett Veach has been a wizard at finding talent in the late rounds of the draft as well as undrafted free agents, and a player to keep an eye on this year is Ole Miss product, Jerrion Ealy. After a productive career in SEC Early that saw him average 5.8 yards per rush and 7.1 yards per reception, the Chiefs pounced on Early, quickly signing him to the roster. What he brings is some quick twitch and pass-catching ability.

The biggest knock on Ealy and likely the reason he was not drafted was his size. At only 5’9″ and 185 pounds he may struggle to hold up against rugged NFL front 7’s in a traditional running back role, but Andy Reid is anything but conventional. The Chiefs also have him listed as a WR on the roster, which leads me to believe they will test his ability to run routes out of the slot and backfield during training camp and the pre-season. It will be a long shot if he makes the roster, but he should be a great practice squad candidate.

Tayon Fleet Davis

A productive player at Maryland, Fleet Davis will be fighting the uphill battle all camp to make the Chiefs roster, but will eventually be given a shot to perform in the preseason. Although he is the low man on the totem pole in the Chiefs running back room that does not mean he can’t provide value to the Chiefs in some way.

Although in a small sample size Davis has shown the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, which is what makes him a fit for the Chiefs, and likely why Veach signed him to the roster. His work will be cut out for him, but I would expect to see him retained to the practice squad.

How it shakes out

Training camp is right around the corner, and for the players above will be a chance to make and help contribute to the team. This unit will fall under heavy scrutiny this season and is being analyzed with a close eye. Throw out draft position, years in the league, and past production. To make the roster on the team this year every one of these guys will have to come in and compete. I expect four to make the active roster, and they will likely dress three guys a week. If CEH is truly healthy he has the tools to become the starting back, with RoJo filling in as well, or being put in high red zone situations that could favor his speed. Pacheco will bring the value of his kick return ability, but also his raw athletic ability. His speed will be enough for the Chiefs to not risk putting him on the practice squad, and if he pans out it could turn into a steal. McKinnon is the next man up for me. He understands what the team wants to do and has the trust of Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes. Unless they are poached by other teams I think Ealy and Fleet Davis will both be practice squad players, with Ealy having the chance to compete at wide receiver as well.

I would also not rule out the possibility of the Chiefs trading one of these players if the level of competition is good across the board. The most likely candidate in my eyes would be Ronald Jones. He has the veteran experience and the open field ability that a team in need may be willing to trade a depth player or even a mid to late-round draft pick for his services. Veach traded Carlos Hyde right after camp in 2019 and acquired eventual starter Martinas Rankin at a modest cost. If there was a trade this year it would likely be for a depth defensive end product.

This will be a fun unit to watch in camp and it will be interesting to see how it all pans out. Someone in this unit will flourish in the system, whether it is CEH or even Davis. The offensive line play will be elite and so will the quarterback play. They lost a 1,000-yard player in Darell Williams, who they elected to not bring back so there will be plenty of opportunities. Teams in the AFC West and in the AFC, in general, are equipt to rush the passer and drop in coverage all day long, but when it comes to stopping the run and covering RBs they are not so much. If one of these guys can take advantage of the talent the team has surrounded them with it could take this offense to the next level.

Even if one clear-cut candidate does not emerge they will certainly have enough depth and unique skillsets to make it a hard back-by-committee team to stop.

Had the Chiefs ran the ball more in the AFC Championship game they would have gone to the Super Bowl and likely won the Super Bowl. This unit will play a bigger role in 2022 than most think. It’s going to be fun to see what comes from this competition, and who emerges as “The Dude”.