Do the Kansas City Chiefs really need a 3rd down running back?

It certainly seems like the Chiefs need another addition at running back before the season starts.
Kansas City Chiefs v Houston Texans
Kansas City Chiefs v Houston Texans / Carmen Mandato/GettyImages

The Kansas City Chiefs are viewed as one of the best offensive units in all the NFL. The Chiefs actually had a down year (by their standards) on offense last season, but that was largely do to the overall performance of their wide receivers.

A lot of time has already been devoted to discussing the wide receiver position this offseason. Meanwhile, one of their other positions of weakness is flying a little under the radar, that being a passing-down running back.

In today's NFL, a pass-heavy offense has to employ a reliable passing-down running back. That job is typically referred to as a "third down back", but because that back is often used on any clear passing downs, the job goes well beyond just 3rd downs.

Last season, Jerick McKinnon played that role for the Chiefs. He played 281 snaps and 243 of those were credited as a receiver or a pass blocker via Pro Football Focus. So 86.5% of his snaps were either as a receiver or in pass protection.

Running back has become a topic of concern among some fans wondering if another running back addition is needed or not.

All of KC's running backs have a high percentage of receiving/pass-blocking reps because of how often KC throws the ball, but McKinnon's 86.5% was by far the highest. Isiah Pacheco was at 58.9% and Clyde Edwards-Helaire was at 68.9%. So if we translate those percentages into over-simplified roles, Pacheco was the primary rusher, McKinnon was the passing down specialist, and Clyde spelled them both when needed.

Now, maybe the Chiefs feel like Pacheco has improved on passing downs enough that he can play more on clear passing downs. The PFF ratings from last season point to that being a possibility. They gave Pacheco a 69.9 receiving grade, which was slightly higher than McKinnon's 69.1. What is really surprising is that Pacheco's pass-blocking grade was also higher than McKinnon's (67.4 vs 58.1). I don't take PFF grades as the be-all and end-all of player evaluation, but I do think they can point to a general impression of how a player does in that area.

So the problem isn't Pacheco's performance on passing downs. Rather, it's the fact that he already played 781 snaps last season, and asking him to pick up McKinnon's 281 snaps (which would put him at 1,062) would be a bad idea given his slight frame and violent running style. The other problem is that if they added the passing down snaps to Pacheco and shifted more early down snaps to Edwards-Helaire to offset that load, the PFF rushing grades from last season don't support that as a good plan.

Pacheco had an 80.2 rushing grade last season. That was the 14th-best of qualifying running backs last season. Clyde's rushing grade was 64.6. That was 51st out of 59 qualifying running backs. So while Pacheco seems well suited to pick up more passing down work, they don't seem to have anyone that would be a proven productive choice to pick up the early down work.

The Chiefs could try to make Edwards-Helaire the passing down back. He certainly was viewed as a good receiving back coming out of college, but the Chiefs seemed hesitant to give him that role during his first four years with the team, so does it seem likely they would do that next year? Maybe, but it certainly seems like they should at the very least have a backup plan for the passing down job.

The other problem is that teams (the Chiefs included) are typically very hesitant to give the passing down role to a young unproven player because of the pass protection responsibilities that young backs typically aren't ready for. So even if you're high on guys like Deneric Prince, Emani Bailey, Carson Steele, or even Louis Rees-Zammit the odds of them being trusted as the primary passing-down back are extremely small. One of them could be groomed to take over the role eventually, but it seems highly unlikely for 2024.

So it feels to me like the Chiefs have to make some kind of signing before the season starts. Maybe they want to see how the young guys respond first, but it just doesn't feel like they have enough reliable options, especially since both Pacheco and CEH have some injury history. I wouldn't rule out them bringing back Jerick McKinnon at some point, but I also think he has looked like he is gradually slowing down, which happens at his age in the NFL.

So are there any other free-agent options out there? The most obvious one would be Kareem Hunt. Hunt has a history with Kansas City and knows the system. He's also worked as Cleveland's passing down back for the past several seasons. Hunt isn't in his prime anymore, but he is 28 compared to McKinnon's 32. The bigger concern may be the off-the-field issues that caused KC to cut ties with him the first time around. Given the Rashee Rice drama, they may not want the media backlash that would come with bringing him back to KC, but he would fill the hole they currently have on the roster.

The only other option I can see in free agency is Cam Akers. Akers has had his own injury issues (he's coming off a second Achilles injury) and there was certainly some question about his relationship with the Rams. However, Akers has been a successful featured back with some pass-catching upside. In his limited snaps (139 total) last season he graded out with an impressive 76.4 receiving grade and 71.2 pass blocking grade. Pass blocking wasn't known as Akers's forte coming into the league, but he's improved in that area over his time in the NFL.

If the Chiefs wanted to sign someone with the potential to work as a pass-catching back, Akers might be the most talented option if he's going to be cleared to play by the start of the season. A passing down role might be a good role for him as he tries to prove he's healthy and wouldn't require quite as much of a strain on him as he gets back to 100%. Plus, he's only 24 years old, so if they signed him to a reasonable 1-year deal this season and it went well, there would be the potential to sign him to something more long-term.

Whether it is McKinnon, Hunt, Akers, or someone else, it certainly seems like the Chiefs need another addition at running back before the season starts. I believe that person needs to be a pass-catching specialist, but if they found someone who would be good on early downs, I don't hate the idea of using Pacheco more on passing downs either. Either way, I believe running back is a position where an addition needs to be made.