The Chiefs' Running Back Group Is Poised for a Big 2021 Campaign

Contributions from running backs weren't as plentiful as the Chiefs had hoped in 2020. There's an emphasis being placed on improvement ahead of this season.
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After an underwhelming year and a bit of offseason shuffling, the Kansas City Chiefs' running backs are ready to take a leap this season.

When the team selected Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the first round of last year's draft, the pick came with a certain set of expectations. Aside from being an elusive rusher with great short-area burst and contact balance, the LSU product figured to be a cornerstone threat in the passing game. That combination simply never came to fruition, as Edwards-Helaire tallied 1,100 yards from scrimmage and just five touchdowns in 13 games. 

Veteran halfback Le'Veon Bell was acquired during the season, yet failed to make a huge impact when on the field. Despite the hype surrounding the move, he averaged 4.0 yards per rushing attempt and scored a pair of touchdowns on 76 total touches. Darrel Williams made some key plays but was primarily a third-down back who also got some run during two-minute drills. Darwin Thompson served merely as a Week 17 feel-good story.

As a whole, the Chiefs ranked 16th in the NFL in rushing yards last season. This middle-of-the-pack rushing attack was never quite complemented by a feature through the air. Among running backs with at least 10 games played, Edwards-Helaire ranked 14th in targets per game at 4.2. He wants to improve that number this year, and head coach Andy Reid is excited to potentially extend him that opportunity.

"Yeah, I think that's good," Reid said in a post-minicamp press conference last week. "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. But we've tried to give him a little bit more this offseason and he's handled it well. I look forward to getting him up to training camp where we can keep growing in that area."

Another player who could contribute in the backfield is free-agent signing Jerick McKinnon. After missing two consecutive seasons, the former Minnesota Viking and San Francisco 49er amassed 572 total yards and six touchdowns in 2020. Returning to the field was a major step in the right direction for a running back who's battled injuries in the past.

Not only is McKinnon a willing pass blocker and decent rusher with a solid all-around reputation, but he offers legitimate value in the receiving game. In five career seasons, the 29-year-old has been targeted 237 times. He's recorded 175 receptions for 1,237 yards and six touchdowns as a weapon out of the backfield. Not much has been said of McKinnon this offseason, although Reid is impressed.

"Well, he’s experienced," Reid said. "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 of 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.”

In Edwards-Helaire and McKinnon, the Chiefs have two running backs who should factor into the passing game. Williams is another one, providing short-yardage value and the ability to protect quarterback Patrick Mahomes as needed. Thompson, albeit from the outside looking in, should add healthy competition to the position group as well. It's shaping up to be a solid one. 

After an offseason that saw the team lose wide receiver Sammy Watkins to free agency, the emergence of a reliable pass-catching option would be a major development. While last season was far from a disaster for Chiefs running backs, it certainly managed to be underwhelming. If Reid and his players have anything to say or do about it, that won't be the case in 2021. 

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