No matter how you slice it, the Kansas City Chiefs' offense is going to look different this coming season.
The odds are also fair that Andy Reid and Eric Bieniemy's unit could take a small step back statistically. While the likes of JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Ronald Jones could serve as helpful newcomers, they will be replacing the losses of proven contributors such as Tyreek Hill and Darrel Williams. Could a more diverse assortment of weapons in the passing game and a more effective running game help Kansas City's offensive attack avoid collapses such as its second-half performance in last season's AFC Championship Game? Sure, but not without some growing pains.
These changes will come with new challenges for returning players, and running back Jerick McKinnon is no different. After experiencing free agency again for a few months, the veteran recently re-signed to Kansas City on a one-year deal. This comes after a late-season push that saw him "pop" as arguably the Chiefs' best running back. Joshua Brisco of Arrowhead Report highlighted McKinnon's success in his article covering Kansas City's transaction of re-signing the 30-year-old:
With issues ranging from injuries to usage, McKinnon got just 12 carries during the 2021 regular season and caught 13 passes, with five carries and three receptions coming in Week 18. Then, in three playoff games, McKinnon took 34 carries for 150 yards (4.41 yards per attempt) in addition to 14 catches for 165 yards and a touchdown. McKinnon's playoff usage and production outpaced his entire regular season.
If this move was made back in March, no one would bat an eye. In a vacuum, it would have made perfect sense. McKinnon's production in the postseason was what prompted many to clamor for him to be retained for this season, after all. The Chiefs doing just that — bringing back a player who stepped up in a major way at a deficient position — was almost expected at the start of free agency. Instead, they loaded up by signing the aforementioned Jones, drafting rookie Isiah Pacheco and re-signing McKinnon.
Without that vacuum in place, however, it's easy to see why McKinnon won't be promised anything this time around. The position group is no longer deficient, and it wasn't even before he re-entered the mix.
Had the Chiefs opted against carrying a fullback on their roster in recent seasons, the idea of McKinnon making the team would lean heavily on the side of likely. But with Clyde Edwards-Helaire facing a make-or-break season, Jones set to make a maximum of $5 million, the team spending a draft pick on Pacheco and Mike Burton still roaming around, carrying four traditional halfbacks seems rather unlikely. That's even without mentioning Derrick Gore, who was on the outside looking in as things stood pre-McKinnon re-signing.
Jones's contract is incentive-laden and it's possible that he is indeed the odd man out, but he could also be the best pure runner of the group. Betting on him to not make the team is a risky proposition. Don't let Reid's “you can’t have enough running backs" quote from earlier in June fool you; from a numbers and roster-building standpoint, McKinnon is far from a guarantee to make the final cut.
McKinnon's track record must also be taken into account. Not only did it take him all season to stay healthy enough to make a major impact on the Chiefs' offense, but the sample size in which he did so wasn't all that impressive. He was terrific for a few games, but is that worth banking on now that he's 30? His age and lengthy injury history make for a bad combination in the modern NFL for any player, but especially at the running back position.
None of this is to definitively project anything in regards to Kansas City's depth chart at running back. The only mortal lock of the group is Edwards-Helaire, so there's wiggle room for a fluid situation elsewhere. As training camp and the preseason approach, that picture will become clearer and clearer. With that said, don't write McKinnon's name down in pen or Sharpie marker simply because he returned on another one-year deal. There are equal or more reasons to doubt his job security compared to that of Jones, and the weight of the downsides may prove to be too heavy over time.