At least theoretically, the jettisoning of Kareem Hunt, last year’s NFL rushing leader, opens the door for the Chiefs to explore options at the running back position this offseason. But it shouldn’t surprise anyone if no big-ticket free-agent running back addition joins the roster, and that may be wise for the roster’s long-term viability.
Unless the Chiefs shift their approach to the position under coach Andy Reid — one he has maintained since long before coming to Kansas City — it’s unlikely the team adds a high-priced free-agent to the backfield. Such an addition could handcuff their ability to secure some of their top young players, guys who are on the verge of being viewed as league-wide stars such as wide receiver/punt returner Tyreek Hill and defensive lineman Chris Jones.
The NFL informed teams last week that next year’s salary cap is expected to be between $187 million and $191.1 million after having been $177,200,000 this year, and the website Spotrac projects the Chiefs will have $42,062,780 in salary cap space next season.
That sounds like a lot of money, but the Chiefs will have to devote resources to retaining or replacing some of their best players this offseason and next.
This offseason’s group of Chiefs free agents includes starters Dee Ford (outside linebacker/edge rusher), cornerback Steven Nelson, wide receiver Chris Conley, center Mitch Morse, defensive lineman Allen Bailey, cornerback Orlando Scandrick, safety Ron Parker and fullback Anthony Sherman. Ford, Nelson and Bailey are having career years, statistically. Ford and Sherman were selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time in their careers earlier this week.
Also on the horizon, Hill and Jones can become unrestricted free agents following the 2019 season. Since neither was a first-round selection, they don’t qualify for the Chiefs to exercise a fifth-year club option on their contracts.
The Chiefs can’t even begin talks about renegotiating the final year of their deals or extending their contracts until after the final regular-season game this year, though a team source told The Star that securing Hill and Jones beyond their current contract terms would be a priority.
Jones, who has 14 sacks while rushing as an interior defensive lineman, will make a base salary of $916,476 this season, and is slated to make $1,199,714 in 2019. He was named a Pro Bowl alternate on Wednesday.
“He still has room to grow, which is great,” Reid said of Jones on Wednesday. “He isn’t tapped out by any means where he is at.”
Meanwhile, Hill is set to make $630,000 in base salary this season and $720,000 next. Hill has already surpassed 1,000 receiving yards for his third straight season and just got selected to his third consecutive Pro Bowl, finishing 10th among all players in fan voting.
A more likely scenario at running back would be the Chiefs re-signing both or some combination of their pending free-agents, Spencer Ware and Damien Williams, to go along with rookie Darrel Williams, who is under contract for next season, and likely adding another back through either the draft or free agency.
Any dream scenario of adding Le’Veon Bell doesn’t factor in his potential financial impact. After all, Bell sat out this entire season despite having $14.54 million on the table in the form of a franchise tender. Reportedly, he turned down a five-year $70 million ($14 million per year) offer from the Steelers.
By comparison, the running back position cost the Chiefs just shy of $3.3 million against the salary cap this season. Reid has stated in the past that he’s embraced the approach he learned from Ron Wolf while serving as an assistant coach with the Green Bay Packers. Due to high turnover and risk of injury at the position, Wolf always wanted multiple running backs who could be plugged into the offense and played at any time.
During Reid’s tenure with the Philadelphia Eagles, a portion of which included Reid having final say on the roster, Philly’s leading rushers were running backs acquired through the draft — Duce Staley (1999-2002), Brian Westbrook (2003-08) and Lesean McCoy (2009-12). With the Chiefs, Jamaal Charles (who predated Reid) and Hunt were draft picks; Ware signed as a free agent after being cut by Seattle, while West signed as an undrafted free agent.
The Chiefs also feel as though they got a steal by signing Darrel Williams as an undrafted free agent. Williams has only been active for four games this season, but the 5-foot-11, 224-pound LSU product fits the team’s stated running back profile of a big back who can catch the ball. He recorded his first professional touchdown on a screen pass last Thursday against the Los Angeles Chargers.
“He has made good progress,” Reid said of Williams. “Sharp kid. He has a good feel for football. He’s big, has a good feel in traffic of navigating through things. Good hands. That was a good keep by Brett (Veach). He has had some good snaps for us. Powerful runner.”
It’s also telling that the Chiefs decided to keep Williams on the 53-man roster when they had experienced players like West in camp.
“(He) can do everything well ... He’s very good in pass pro, tough runner in between the tackles, he can catch the football ...” Veach said after final roster cuts in September. “You have to be able to do everything, and sometimes you get these guys late in the draft or free agents and they’re one dimensional. When you have guys come in at this stage, being versatile and being able to help out in many different ways is a big deal.”