With one single move, the Chiefs not only beefed up their interior run defense — they also assured running back Jamaal Charles won’t return this season, after all.
On Tuesday, the Chiefs designated injured inside linebacker Justin March-Lillard to return. March-Lillard, a starter who has been on injured reserve since mid-October with a broken bone in his hand, has not been added to the 53-man roster yet, but the Chiefs are now allowed to bring him back immediately, provided they clear a roster spot, since March-Lillard has been on injured-reserve for at least eight weeks.
The NFL allows teams to bring one player back from injured reserve per year, so the Chiefs’ decision means Charles, who underwent additional knee surgery five weeks ago, won’t be returning this year.
The move to activate March-Lillard — who started the Chiefs’ first five games and recorded 22 tackles and two pass deflections — comes on the heels of a 19-17 loss to the Tennessee Titans in which the Chiefs’ 28th-ranked run defense was gashed for 148 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries, an average of 5.1 yards per carry.
The Chiefs played the game with Ramik Wilson and D.J. Alexander at inside linebacker. Wilson, a fourth-round pick in 2015, was released by the Chiefs before this season once March-Lillard, an undrafted free agent in 2015, seized the starting job after projected starter Josh Mauga was lost for the year with a labral tear in his hip.
But Wilson, who started two games a year ago, was recalled from the practice squad in October once March-Lillard went down and has been productive in his nine starts since then, racking up 57 tackles, two pass deflections and one interception.
Alexander, meanwhile, was recently named to the Pro Bowl as a first alternate on special teams but made his first career start on defense Sunday. He played the weakside inside linebacker spot vacated by star Derrick Johnson, who suffered a season-ending left Achilles injury against Oakland on Dec. 8. The ground-oriented Titans — who entered the game ranked third in the NFL in rushing — attacked Alexander on Sunday early and often. Alexander finished with four tackles.
March-Lillard, who made a bevy of plays as a weakside inside linebacker throughout organized team activities and training camp the last two seasons to seize the starting job, figures to give the unit a boost.
But one could argue that Charles, 29, could have done the same for an offense that ranks 23rd in total yards and has been largely inconsistent and has been missing Charles’ all-around dynamism for most of the year.
Charles had arthroscopic surgery in his left knee Nov. 14 by orthopedic surgeon James Andrews. Charles had the same procedure on his right knee earlier in the month, once he was placed on injured reserve due to lingering pain in both knees.
Charles tore a knee ligament last season and missed the first three games this year before making his debut at Pittsburgh in the fourth week. He got his most extensive playing time in the next game at Oakland and scored a rushing touchdown.
Charles appeared in the next game, getting one rushing attempt against the Saints before the Chiefs shut him down due to his ongoing knee pain. He finishes the season with 40 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries in three games.
Prior to the injury, Charles indicated a desire to play four more years or so, but if that indeed remains his plan, it’s unclear whether he’ll do that in Kansas City. Charles is set to enter the last year of his contract — he has a $7 million cap number for next season — and the Chiefs, who already have around $162 million ($7 million more than the 2016 cap number) committed for 2017, can gain all that in cap savings by releasing him.
In Charles’ stead, Spencer Ware has carried the load this year, rushing 201 times for 860 yards and three touchdowns. He has also caught 31 passes for 427 yards and two touchdowns and has nearly 58 percent of the offensive snaps, almost double that of his backup, Charcardrick West (32.7 percent).