Training Camp: Running Backs

Training Camp: Running Backs

By Max Lowson, Sports Radio 810 Contributor

When training camp arrives in just four weeks, the Chiefs coaching staff is tasked with solidifying their 53-man roster to enter the regular season with. Kansas City will have some difficult decisions to make regarding schemes and personnel they will field throughout the 2021 season following roster changes at several key positions.

The new-look offensive line, headlined by the 2-time pro-bowler Orlando Brown Jr., is a major improvement from last season and should provide Patrick Mahomes all of the protection in the pocket that he needs. The addition of Jarran Reed to pair with Frank Clark and Chris Jones on the defensive line makes Kansas City’s pass rush very formidable. The O-line and D-line are both critical to the functioning of their respective side of the ball; the fact that they have both been upgraded makes the Chiefs’ odds of winning their second Super Bowl in three years marginally greater.

Another major focus of training camp is player development. While older players who are in the twilight of their careers may start to decline physically, training camp allows younger players to demonstrate the work they have put in during the off-season to improve their game. The Chiefs have a lot of key position players that are still very young; Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Mecole Hardman, Darwin Thompson, and L’Jarius Sneed are key pieces to Kansas City’s future that are all under the age of 25.

Sneed has recently made the NFL All-Under-25 Team entering the 2021 season. He has already proven to be a steal as a fourth round selection in last year’s draft, and has the potential to be one of the league’s top cornerbacks for a very long time. “Around the NFL” writer Nick Shook describes Sneed as “…a weapon for the Chiefs in his first season, one capable of being deployed in a variety of situations and producing a positive outcome”. Sneed is a versatile corner who is capable of pressuring the quarterback, covering slot receivers and dropping back in coverage, all of which he has proven to be comfortable doing.

In CBS Sports’ 2020 NFL re-draft, Sneed was the 7th overall selection and just the second defensive player taken. It is not far-fetched to predict Sneed will be the leader of the Chiefs secondary for the better part of the next decade. Chiefs faithful should be ecstatic about his presence on the defensive unit and eager to see what parts of his game have improved heading into his second season.

Mecole Hardman is a blossoming weapon for the Chiefs receiving core. While he is currently the 3rd passing option behind Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, he is a quick and shifty talent that gives Mahomes a reliable deep threat on any given play. Making the Pro Bowl in his rookie season (2019), tallying over 500 passing yards in each of his first two seasons and scoring 10 touchdowns in his first two years proves Hardman has already made a significant impact on the Chiefs success. His impact will only expand from here, as he will continue to learn from Tyreek (a player of similar physique) and become even more comfortable from pure experience as a starting WR on a team in the constant national spotlight.

Hardman and Sneed are just two examples of young assets that will make this Chiefs squad better in the years to come. The position with the most depth, young talent and question marks, as it pertains to each of their roles for the upcoming season, is undoubtedly the pool of running backs the Chiefs have at their disposal.

The Chiefs will likely feature 7 different backs at training camp, beginning on July 28th; Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Darrel Williams, Darwin Thompson, Jerick McKinnon, Elijah McGruire, Derrick Gore and Michael Burton. Coming off of his fantastic rookie season, Clyde Edwards-Helaire will be a sure-fire starter for years to come. Edwards-Helaire has demonstrated the ability to be a dynamic 2-way halfback with skills as a runner and a pass-catcher; something that certainly does not grow on trees and is therefore of great value to any NFL offense. Edwards-Helaire totaled 5 touchdowns, 1,100 yards from scrimmage, and averaged 4.4 yards per rush and 8.3 yards per catch in his 2020 campaign. He had three games of over 100 yards, including his 169 yard performance in Week 6 against Buffalo and his 134 yard Week 3 vs Baltimore, where he tallied 70 receiving yards.

Edwards-Helaire is focused on becoming even more of a threat in the passing game, something that will suit the Chiefs offense ideally with the presence of Darrel Williams and the addition of Jerick McKinnonk. This provides an incredibly valuable dimension to Kansas City’s attack, as Edwards-Helaire can be used more frequently in play-action and screens; plays that should be open, considering the amount of defensive attention required for Hill and Kelce.

When asked about his opinion of Edwards-Helaire’s commitment to improving as a pass-catching threat, Reid addressed his utilization of his rookie back last year during June 17th’s press conference at Chiefs pre-camp, “We didn’t have a huge expanded role for him in the pass game, just kind of getting him in the swing of the defenses that the NFL plays and then all the run plays that we have and the routes that we did have that tie in with everybody.”

As it pertains to this year, and what the coaching staff will focus on in training camp, Reid intends to incorporate the pass attack into Edwards-Helaire’s game. Thus far, Reid has “…given him a little bit more [passing looks] this offseason and he’s handled it well.” The Chiefs head coach is optimistic about what he has seen thus far, and says that “I look forward to getting him up to training camp where we can keep growing in that area.”

If able to return to his 2017 form, I anticipate Jerick McKinnon to share the bulk of the run game, along with Edwards-Helaire, for Kansas City next season. McKinnon enters his first season as a Chief after a one year stint with the 49ers. During his first four seasons in the league with Baltimore, McKinnon was a highly effective back, totaling over 2,900 yards from scrimmage and scoring 12 touchdowns in 58 games. He broke out in the 2017 season, where he totaled nearly 1,000 yards. McKinnon particularly excelled in the pass game this season, notching 421 total pass yards and 2 passing TDs.

McKinnon missed the entirety of both the 2018 and 2019 seasons following a knee injury he suffered entering the 2018 season. He would have returned for the majority of the 2019 season, however he suffered a major setback which prevented this from happening. If he is able to remain healthy, McKinnon’s versatility could be a great fit for the Chiefs offensive system.

One intangible that Reid loves about McKinnon is his experience and feel for the game. Reid said about McKinnon that “He’s been doing this a while and he does it well. I mean, these were passing camps more than running camps, but he sure has a nice feel for the pass game and I look forward to giving him the whole package once we get up there and let’s see what he can do once we get playing real football.”

Undrafted in 2018, Darrel Williams has been a symbol of persistence and dedication. He fought hard to make the roster in 2018, and once he did, he has been a clutch playmaker when the opportunities present themselves. With 4th down and less than 2 yards to go, Williams converted on all four of his attempts, totaling 45 yards, or 11.3 yards per touch.

This ranks 2nd in the league in these particular situations. For coach Reid to call his number in these high leverage situations demonstrates the level of trust that he has already garnered from the coaching staff in his short career. Considering Williams is such a hungry player who thrives in these pressure-filled moments, I expect the Chiefs to continue to utilize him when these moments arrive throughout the course of next season and beyond.

If the Chiefs follow the typical 4-running back depth lineup, Darwin Thompson is likely the fourth back that will make the Chiefs 53-man roster. Drafted No. 214 overall in 2019, Thompson’s opportunities have come few and far between. He appeared in 10 games in 2019, but just 5 games last season due to the emergence of Edwards-Helaire and the presence of Le’Veon Bell. Thompson still has lots of room to grow as a 24-year-old. He took 131 snaps between the kickoff return and kickoff coverage units last season, demonstrating his ability to be used in special teams if his role as a back is limited. Thompson had a huge game in Week 17 against the Chargers last season, where he went for 110 yards on 21 touches.

While it will be a difficult task, it is very possible for Elijah McGuire, Derrick Gore or Michael Burton to make the Chiefs roster. In McGuire’s two seasons (2017 and 2018) with the Jets, he was a consistent member of the rotation, totaling nearly 500 yards from scrimmage each year and scoring 4 touchdowns in the 2018 season. After spending time on and off of the practice squad in 2019 and 2020, it will be difficult for McGuire to show the coaching staff that he deserves a spot over Thompson, considering Edwards-Helaire, McKinnon and Williams are virtual locks to make the team.

Derrick Gore has spent time on the Chargers practice squad over the last two years after being undrafted in 2019. He has never made a regular season appearance, however he impressed LA’s coaching staff in the final game of the 2019 pre-season with his 64-yard, 1 TD outing against San Francisco.

Michael Burton, on the other hand, has spent six seasons in the NFL, primarily serving as a blocker and special teamer. He therefore differs in skillset from the rest of these players in the Chiefs running back room. Burton is more of a natural fullback; his ability to play on special teams, or perhaps as a fullback in short-yardage situations, could potentially earn him a spot on the roster.

While the prospect of Burton, Gore and/or McGuire making the team is something that will require the Chiefs’ attention, the primary focus of the coaching staff will be to establish roles for Edwards-Helaire, McKinnon, and Williams, all running backs deserving of substantive playing time. Each of these backs will likely have to make some sacrifice, as Reid will want to use each of their unique skill sets depending on what the situation calls for. If each member of this running back room demonstrates selflessness by prioritizing winning first, trusts one another, and is willing to communicate their concerns as they arise, this Chiefs running back collective has the chance to be one of the better groups in today’s NFL.