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2018 Season in Review – Running Backs

Now I’m not going to beat around the bush, this season wasn’t the easiest of rides as far as the Chiefs running back situation is concerned. It had many ups and downs throughout the season. However, it is a true credit to the offence as a whole who were able to survive the turmoil and still produce great performances week in week out. Let’s dive into the chaos.

The biggest problem the position faced was undoubtedly the Kareem Hunt situation which occurred halfway through the season. Cutting the team’s star running back from the team was a damaging but, in my opinion, necessary decision that the Chiefs’ front office had to make. His actions were bad enough, let alone the fact that he then continued to lie to the organisation about it for the following 8 months.

However, his production prior to week 12 was formidable to say the least. He totalled 14 touchdowns in the 11 games he played (7 rushing and 7 receiving) which was 3 more than he had in his entire rookie season. On top of this, Hunt also picked up over 820 yards off of 181 carries which amounts to 4.6 yards per game. That’s decent numbers for a second year running back and it is a shame that we had to let that talent go.

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His absence was definitely felt in the first game back without him, week 13, despite still picking up a win at Oakland. Spencer Ware became our new starting running back but only managed to rack up 47 yards on 14 attempts and a touchdown. In fact Mahomes had a better rushing performance than Ware that game with 52 rushes off of 9 attempts; 5.77 yards per carry compared to Ware’s 3.57.

So, had the Chiefs’ taken a step back with the ground game? Most definitely. However this week did help to uncover a possible diamond in the rough. Damien Williams managed to put up 38 yards on only having 5 attempts in the game (that’s 7.6 yard per attempt).

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I believe the Chiefs just needed time to adjust to not having a feature back on the roster anymore. Over the next few weeks the way the team distributed the ball became more of a ‘running back by committee’ style (similar to Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram in New Orleans) as opposed to having a sole back for most duties (similar to Elliott at the Cowboys).

So surely that would have solved all our running back problems? With a healthy Ware and Williams we can still create a fearsome ground game, right? Well we weren’t out of the woods just yet as Ware went on to pick up a hamstring injury in that dramatic overtime game against Baltimore, which really threw a spanner in the works.

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Now the pressure resided on Damien Williams’ shoulders to get the job done on the ground. He seemed to carry that extra load particularly well in week 15 against the Chargers at Arrowhead. Despite losing the game Williams made Ware’s injury look obsolete, rushing for 49 yards on 10 carries (not particularly impressive) however he did also put up 2 touchdowns on the day. He also caught all of his 6 targets that game for 74 yards.

And this wasn’t a fluke game either. Damien Williams then came out in week 16 against the Seahawks and rushed the ball for 103 yards on 10 carries (10.3 yards per attempt). He also had another 100% catch rate against Seattle too, catching all 7 of his targets for over 30 yards AND a receiving touchdown.

It seems that, despite not completely making up for the loss of Hunt and then Ware, the Chiefs still managed to maintain a decent running game which kept the opponent guessing enough for Mahomes to do his thing.

Performance of the Season:

With that being said, it’s time to see which running back put up the best solo performance of the season and which game it was in. I used a similar method for choosing the winner as I did for my quarterback performance of the season (check out my previous article to find out).

I decided to go for Damien William’s performance in the divisional round matchup against the Colts for my running back ‘performance of the season’. In this game Williams ran for 129 yards on 25 carries (5.16 yards per attempt) as well as taking 1 in for a touchdown. He put up more yards in this game than any of the other Chiefs’ backs had this season. For that I believe it deserves merit.

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This is also on top of the stakes that surrounded this game. It was the first playoff win in his 5 year career as well as only being his second playoff appearance. The win also ended the Chiefs’ streak of 25 years without a home playoff win. This victory was largely thanks to Williams’ performance on the ground; and for these reasons it was hard to not give it to him.

The Future:

Who knows what’s in store for the future of the Chiefs’ running back position? I certainly don’t. However I can try to put forward some ideas for what might happen. Luckily, the Chiefs have several options going into the 2019 season; here’s just a few.

The first option is to spend big bucks to bring in a free agent running back to take over the starting role. So, If we were to go shopping in free agency who would it be; and why?

The obvious name on everyone’s minds is Le’veon Bell. The former Steelers’ back was largely regarded as the best running back in the league 2 seasons ago, but would it be realistic to go after him? Despite how unbelievably unfair having Mahomes and Bell on the same team would be for the rest of the league, I just don’t think it’s feasible. It was revealed in November 2018 that Bell was looking for a huge $17 million annual salary from any team that was looking to grab him off the free agency market this year. If the Chiefs were to take this, it would cause them to suffer a cap hit that simply isn’t worth the end result. Other options are former Londoner Jay Ajayi from the Eagles, C.J. Anderson from the Rams and Mark Ingram at the Saints. The list is much longer than this but these are definitely the most notable names.

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If I could choose one of these players to join the Chiefs’ roster next season it would probably be Ingram. He’s projected to only be valued at around $4.4 million a year which sounds like a lot, but in comparison to Bell it’s miniscule. However he is 3 years older than the 25 year old Ajayi who’s currently valued at $3.6 million a year. The only issue with Ajayi I have is that he tore his ACL in week 5 this year and his recovery from it is up in the air considering how impactful this type of injury can be. Plus I don’t think age is an issue as, with a decent back for a year or 2 and simply an average defence, the Chiefs can really make a push for a title in the next couple of seasons.

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Another choice is that we can just mimic New Orleans by trying to create a ‘running back by committee’ system in Kansas City. With Ware back healthy again after his injury, we still have quite a strong depth at running back. Williams proved himself in the last quarter of the season, we re-signed Charcandrick West in early December, and the 2018 undrafted free agent Darrel Williams brings some young energy to the team.

If Ware doesn’t show any signs of his injury affecting his performance in the long term and he can still put up similar numbers to what he was doing before his injury then I have faith this method will work. Plus not signing a big free agent deal will save us a lot of cap space for players that need it more (like Tyreek Hill, Chris Jones and Dee Ford). Having said this, Ware is a free agent himself so it could pan out that he moves on to another team anyway.

The third option is to pick up a guy in the draft. However with varied prospects at running back in this year’s draft class, as well as much bigger needs at linebacker and defensive back, I doubt that this is the way the Chiefs will go to find a new number 1 guy. However, let’s play devil’s advocate and weigh up who the Chiefs could possibly draft. The first guy on many people’s radar is Josh Jacobs out of Alabama, he’s definitely a first round talent and therefore I don’t think he’ll fall all the way to 29th in March for the Chiefs to pick him. Also, I think we have to use our first rounder to fill a larger hole on the team: the defence.

Another guy who could possibly fall to the Chiefs is Penn State running back Miles Sanders. Many websites noted him as a running back with a reasonable amount of potential but they weren’t convinced entirely. This is mainly because, in his last 2 years of college, he sat behind the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year Saquon Barkley. He could be an option for Brett Veach in the later rounds and could prove to be a good pick-up. One upside to sitting for a lot of his college career is that he wouldn’t have suffered through as many hits which means he’s avoided wearing his body down for the elite level. I’m not particularly sold on him but if he’s still hanging around in rounds 5 and onwards, why not?

I think that the team’s best option, if Spencer Ware decides to leave KC, is to pick up a cheap free agent in the off season and set up a ‘running back by committee’ system. However, if Ware stays on the roster and he accepts a contract from the Chiefs, I think that sticking with the current roster is the best idea going into next year. I don’t think that Damien Williams is ready to be the best back on a team’s roster, despite his performance late in the season. I feel like he’s better suited to play in a system where the pressure is taken off of him slightly.

Therefore, if Ware left and we took a running back in the later rounds, I don’t think our depth alone would be enough to carry the ground game all season long. Even though I think that a ‘running back by committee’ system is the best way to approach next season, I still believe that we need a guy to be a consistent veteran in the depth chart to lead the position; just like Mark Ingram did for Alvin Kamara.

The position faced a whole load of speed bumps this year and the future is questionable. However I think that this situation does help to shine an even brighter light over the rest of the offence who still managed to put up numbers and win games despite the commotion. But that’s not to say that the run game was completely dire this year, there was still the odd big game or 2.

 

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