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Pre-Camp Breakdown: Examining a Talented Group of Running Backs

The Chiefs currently feature eight running backs (including a fullback) heading into camp

The Kansas City Chiefs are set to kick off training camp next month, and with the annual pilgrimage to St. Joseph nearly here, we're going to spend the next several weeks examining every position group on the roster heading into camp.

We began with quarterback last week and will continue with the Chiefs' backfield, where Kansas City currently features eight running backs (including a fullback) heading into camp. That group includes Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Ronald Jones, Jerick McKinnon, Isiah Pacheco, Derrick Gore, Jerrion Ealy, Tayon Fleet-Davis and Michael Burton.

Here's a closer look at each member of the Chiefs' backfield.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire

Edwards-Helaire is entering his third campaign with the Chiefs after rushing for 517 yards and four touchdowns on 119 carries in 2021. He also caught 19 passes for 129 yards and two scores.

The former first-round pick ranked seventh in the NFL in rushing (291 yards) through the first four weeks of the season and compiled back-to-back outings with 100+ rushing yards before suffering a knee injury in Week 5 that kept him off the field until Week 11. He later sustained a collarbone injury in Week 16 that led to a two-game absence, but Edwards-Helaire returned to average 7.4 yards-per-carry (96 yards on 13 attempts) in two postseason games with three rushes of 10+ yards.

Still just 23 years old, Edwards-Helaire will look to build off that strong showing at the end of last season. It's worth adding that Edwards-Helaire mentioned in early June that this is the healthiest he has felt since his rookie season, when he amassed 1,100 total yards from scrimmage.

Ronald Jones

The Chiefs signed Jones this offseason following four seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where the former second-round pick racked up 2,174 rushing yards and 19 total touchdowns in 55 total games (25 starts).

His best season was in 2020, when Jones rushed for 978 yards and seven scores as Tampa Bay's primary running back. He averaged 5.1 yards-per-carry that season, which ranked sixth among all eligible running backs. Jones was particularly effective on rushes between the tackles that season, tallying 712 yards on 123 attempts while averaging 5.8 yards-per-carry.

Jones rushed for 428 yards and four touchdowns on 101 attempts last season in 16 games (3 starts), averaging 4.2 yards-per-carry.

Jerick McKinnon

McKinnon is back with Kansas City for a second year after tallying 169 yards from scrimmage (62 rushing, 107 receiving) in 13 regular-season games last season. Those stats don't quite capture his contributions to the team, however, as the veteran tailback returned from injury late in the campaign and made a real impact down the stretch, racking up 365 scrimmage yards on 56 touches over the Chiefs' final four games (including the playoffs). He had at least 50 scrimmage yards in all four games.

That performance was a callback to McKinnon's first four years as a professional, when he racked up 2,902 yards from scrimmage (1,918 rushing, 984 receiving) and 12 touchdowns across 58 games for Minnesota from 2014-17. His best season was in 2017, as McKinnon set career highs in rushing yards (570), receiving yards (421) and receptions (51) to finish just shy of 1,000 total yards from scrimmage on the season (991).

McKinnon's impressive year earned him a contract with the 49ers ahead of the 2018 season, but a knee injury suffered prior to Week 1 – and a subsequent setback – forced the speedy playmaker to miss all of 2018 and 2019 before bouncing back to amass 572 yards from scrimmage (319 rushing, 253 receiving) in 2020.

Just 30 years old, McKinnon will aim to find the success he enjoyed late last season once again in 2022.

Isiah Pacheco

The Chiefs drafted Pacheco in the seventh round (No. 251 overall) of this year's draft after the Rutgers' standout led the Scarlet Knights in rushing in each of the last three seasons. He recorded at least 500 rushing yards in all four of his years on campus, finishing his career at Rutgers with 2,442 yards and 18 touchdowns across 44 total games (34 starts). That was all despite an offensive line that routinely struggled, according to Dane Brugler.

Here's more on Pacheco's playstyle from Lance Zierlein:

"Hard-charging, high-energy runner with three-down size and potential to compete for a roster spot as a late-round selection. Pacheco plays the game like a race car with no brakes. His feet never stop moving."

The 5-foot-11, 215-pound Pacheco is fast, too. He ran a 4.37 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, which was matched by only South Dakota State's Pierre Strong among running backs. Pacheco is also impressively strong, as noted by Dane Brugler:

"He has a ripped physique, and clearly focuses on weight/strength training."

That strength – combined with Pacheco's competitive nature – was apparent throughout his college career in the form of his willingness as a pass-blocker. Brugler even went as far to mention Pacheco's upside in pass-protection as one of the reasons that he could stick in the NFL.

Derrick Gore

A free-agent signee last offseason who began the 2021 campaign on the practice squad, Gore was promoted to the active roster in mid-October and didn't waste the opportunity. He went on to rush for 256 yards and two touchdowns on 51 attempts in 11 games – averaging 5.0 yards-per-carry – while catching nine passes for 105 yards. That stretch included a 51-yard touchdown against the Las Vegas Raiders and a 50-yard reception against Pittsburgh a few weeks later.

The five-foot-nine, 207-pound Gore entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2019 and began his career with the Los Angeles Chargers, where he participated in training camp and earned a spot on the practice squad in 2019 and 2020 before seeing his first regular-season action in 2021 as a member of the Chiefs.

Jerrion Ealy

One of the more accomplished players in this year's class of undrafted free agents, Ealy was a three-time "Second-Team All-SEC" honoree after racking up at least 700 rushing yards in each of the last three campaigns.

He rushed for 722 yards and six touchdowns as a freshman, averaging 6.9 yards-per-carry while earning Freshman All-American recognition. Ealy settled in as the Rebels' starter in the two seasons that followed, rushing for 745 yards and nine touchdowns in 2020 before tallying 768 rushing yards and five scores last season.

In total, Ealy amassed 2,235 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground during his three-year career – averaging 5.8 yards-per-attempt across 384 carries – while also contributing as a pass-catcher, hauling in 67 grabs for 545 yards and four touchdowns. Additionally, Ealy impressed in the return game, too. He averaged 25.4 yards-per-kick-return with two touchdowns in his career. It's also worth mentioning that Ealy's broad jump (10 feet, 8 inches) was tied for the best of any running back at the Combine.

Here's what Dane Brugler wrote about Ealy in his draft guide:

"Ealy has his limitations, which makes him more of a hybrid back, but his athletic versatility as a rusher, receiver and returner can be an asset in the right situation. He projects best in a Nyheim Hines-type of role."

Ealy will have a chance to prove that he deserves to stick around during training camp and in the preseason.

Tayon Fleet-Davis

Another undrafted free agent signee, Fleet-Davis led Maryland in rushing last season, amassing 721 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground while averaging 5.6 yards-per-carry. It was a breakout season of sorts for Fleet-Davis, who had manned a rotational role up until last season. In fact, the 6-foot-0, 215-pound tailback rushed for more yards last season than he had in the four years prior (615) and nearly had as many carries (128) as he had in his first four seasons (146) combined.

It's safe to say that he made the most of the opportunity, and it caught the eye of the Chiefs.

Michael Burton

A fullback by trade, Burton falls into a bit of a different category despite being generally grouped in with the running backs. He logged 95 offensive snaps last season, mostly serving in a blocking capacity, but Burton still managed to record 11 offensive touches for 57 total yards and a touchdown. His main contributions, however, were on special teams. Burton was on the field for 207 special teams' snaps in 2021, which ranked seventh on the team.

Before joining the Chiefs, Burton – originally a fifth-round pick of the Detroit Lions in 2015 – spent time with the Chicago Bears, Washington Commanders and New Orleans Saints.

The Bottom Line

This may be one of the most interesting position groups to follow in camp, as the Chiefs currently employ several talented players and simply won't be able to keep all of them. Kansas City kept four running backs (including a fullback) heading into Week 1 in each of the last two years, but they kept five in 2019, so there's recent precedent for the Chiefs to hold on to as many as four "true" running backs (setting fullback aside) to begin the season.

That decision will ultimately come down to how each member of the group performs in camp, but the roster math elsewhere will also come into play. For example, when the Chiefs kept five running backs in 2019, they only held on to three tight ends. The puzzle of how the roster depth fits together will be compelling, to say the least, and the Chiefs' talented stable of tailbacks will play a big part in that.

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