ST. JOSEPH, Mo. – The Kansas City Chiefs have been doing no favors to the Colts' Jonathan Taylor, the Giants' Saquon Barkley, the Raiders' Josh Jacobs and every other running back that wants to get paid handsomely for what they do.
The Chiefs have proven they can win with bargain finds in the backfield.
Take last season, when the Chiefs won a seventh consecutive AFC West title and defeated the Eagles to win their second Super Bowl title in four years. Their leading rusher was seventh-round draft pick Isiah Pacheco in the first year of his paltry rookie contract, the top backup was journeyman Jerick McKinnon making pennies on the dollar, and nobody else behind them was making much money, either.
Yet the Chiefs were the runaway leaders in total offense, and not just because Patrick Mahomes was flinging the ball all over the field on his way to an MVP season. The Chiefs also were perfectly middle-of-the-road when it came to rushing offense.
“I think it's cyclical,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “Running backs when I got in the league were making good money. Then all the sudden the pass game came up, and it's working through the colleges and high schools, and so everyone wants to play wide receiver now that teams are throwing the ball, so it devalues that position just a bit.”
All told, the Chiefs have $7.1 million currently committed to running backs and fullbacks, more than only five other teams. By comparison, five players — including Barkley, who recently signed his one-year deal with New York — have a base salary that is more than the Chiefs’ backfield payroll, and 11 players have a total contract value this season that eclipses the same total.
Two running backs, the Titans’ Derrick Henry and the Browns’ Nick Chubb, carry a salary cap total that is double what the Chiefs are spending on their entire fleet of running backs this season.
That’s not exactly encouraging for Taylor, who is suddenly at odds with the Colts over his future, or Jacobs, who won the 2022 rushing title and led the league in yards from scrimmage but has yet to sign his $10.1 million franchise tender.
The Chiefs are rolling into their Super Bowl title defense with largely the same backfield: acheco, that late-round steal-turned star, and McKinnon, the aging veteran who has proven he can still produce. They are joined by Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who is in the final year of his rookie deal, and potentially Deneric Prince, an undrafted rookie out of Tulsa who's turned so many heads in training camp that he could have a job locked up before the first preseason game.
“I mean, he can catch the ball in the backfield, he can run the ball really well, and he's getting better and better with protection stuff,” Mahomes said, “so I think they're just continuing to get him reps. We're going to have a deep running back room, and it's always good to have those guys that we can trust to be in there for the big moments of the game.”
The Chiefs certainly have trust in Pacheco and McKinnon in those moments.
Pacheco began last season as an afterthought, but when Edwards-Helaire struggled again with injuries, the player affectionately known as “Pops” seized on his opportunity. He ran for 95 yards in a playoff win over Jacksonville, had five catches for 59 yards in the AFC title game against Cincinnati, and reached the end zone in the Chiefs' 38-35 win over the Eagles.
Oh, and he played the Super Bowl with a broken hand and a torn labrum in his shoulder. The injuries required separate surgeries in the offseason, and they have kept him out of contact drills in camp, though he should be ready for Week 1.
“This is where you get the most out of it, and ain't nothing better than the camp when you're with your guys and you're pushing each other day-in and day-out to get better,” said Pacheco, the fifth different leading rusher for Kansas City in the past five years.
“For me, I want to run for 1,000 yards, so that's the goal, obviously, and it starts here today in practice, day by day.”
McKinnon, meanwhile, scored in six straight games to end the regular season, then became infamous for not scoring in the Super Bowl — he downed himself at the goal line, allowing the clock to run and setting up the Chiefs' winning field goal.
He had offers elsewhere in the offseason, but McKinnon chose to return to Kansas City for a modest $1,317,500 this season.
"It’ll come around,” Reid said of the contract values for running backs. “It’ll work its way back around.”
Not any time soon. And certainly not in Kansas City.
NOTES: LB Drue Tranquill (neck) returned to practice after missing the previous day. ... CB Jaylen Watson was excused from the workout for personal reasons. ... Missouri Gov. Mike Parson attended the humid practice, which began indoors due to lightning before moving back outside.
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