Trying to answer the top 10 questions about the reigning Super Bowl champions heading into their title defense.
Heading into the season, I’ll cover my “10 Biggest Questions” regarding 2023 Kansas City Chiefs. Last week we asked… what is the Chiefs’ contingency plan at offensive tackle?
This week we turn our attention to the 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 signs undrafted free agent Deneric Prince from Tulsa. Prince, a 216-pound player who led the 2023 NFL Draft the return class in speed score, has already received praise from the Chiefs coaching staff this offseason. But outside of Prince, the backroom remains largely the same this year.
In terms of recurring 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 go-to guy on early downs. Pacheco’s speed and physicality brought another but necessary element to the attack. In games like Super Bowl or at Los Angeles ChargersPacheco had critical moments when the Chiefs would give him the ball on a full drive and score.
While I expect Pacheco to remain the team’s early down solution at running back, I remain skeptical that he will ever become a true third-down running back. Pacheco currently lacks the route-running or pass protection ability of McKinnon or even Edwards-Helaire. On top of that, Pacheco’s physical style leads to injuries, which already showed in his rookie year. Asking him to play more snaps and make more contact probably isn’t the best option over the course of a long season.
But 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 Chiefs’ red zone package. Not only was McKinnon a great receiver, but you could make a highlight film of McKinnon knocking defenders into the ground 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 look pretty much the same. Edwards-Helaire and Prince would be able to find opportunities between Pacheco and McKinnon, but the space should be similar to last year.
Injuries can play a role
While the Chiefs have continuity in the backroom, I wouldn’t argue that they have security. Pacheco feels he can last a season, but his relentless running style will lead to bumps and bruises along the way. Pacheco’s already had multiple surgeries and carried a heavy offensive load in college; he’s not a guaranteed health bet.
Even if Pacheco holds up, McKinnon is the biggest concern. McKinnon is now 31 years old, which is past when most running backs start to see decline. McKinnon hasn’t received many touches, which has helped him retain most of his athleticism, but his injury history is brutal. McKinnon also dealt with injuries last year and played through nagging ailments throughout last season. While I thought McKinnon played excellently, there seemed to be a dip in speed over the course of the season as the injuries began to pile up.
While I love having McKinnon back and hope he stays healthy, the chances of him staying healthy with the same usage seem slim. I think load management of 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 the 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 have to step up in the backroom. I suspect the Chiefs will keep four running backs, but who emerges as the third running back is interesting.
In terms of tenure, Edwards-Helaire has the favorite.
Edwards-Helaire entered offseason activities in good shape, and finally saw a healthy offseason. He also has the ideal receiving attributes needed if McKinnon is out. The Edwards-Helaire draft pick hasn’t worked out, but the Chiefs may still have interest in giving him opportunities to see if he can make the jump.
But if they’re looking for more juice at the running back position, Prince feels like a good 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 speed in the open field, 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.
From the start of training camp, my guess is Edwards-Helaire will be the third running back, but I feel Prince will get opportunities to overcome that. And while running back isn’t a high-priority position for the Chiefs, they must find a way to keep Pacheco and McKinnon healthy in the postseason. To do that, one of Edwards-Helaire or Prince will have to step up and fill that spot.
The third running back matchup isn’t generally a topic of interest in training camp, but I’m curious to see how it develops over the course of the season.
Can you see Edwards-Helaire or Prince contributing? Which is more likely? Let us hear your thoughts below.