Camp Notebook: Chiefs’ Running Back Depth Far From Settled Behind Clyde Edwards-Helaire

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — While Clyde Edwards-Helaire is the established mainstay of the Chiefs’ offensive backfield, it remains a wide-open race behind him for who is the team’s No. 2 running back.

One day it’s Ronald Jones, who rushed for 978 yards in Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl campaign in 2020. The next day it’s Jerick McKinnon, who tallied 315 yards from scrimmage in three playoff games last season.

Or it could be Derrick Gore, who averaged 5 yards per carry in a backup role last season. Then again, Chiefs general manager Brett Veach said he believes there was a 1,000-yard back available in the seventh round of this year’s draft, where he selected Isiah Pacheco.

When Jones signed with the Chiefs in March, some expected he might compete with Edwards-Helaire for the No. 1 role. The offseason program and training camp, however, has underscored that Edwards-Helaire is the principal back but how Jones fits in remains unclear.

Offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy says Jones is “doing some good things running the football” during camp.

He just needs to continue becoming the football player we expect him to be, because we expect our guys to do a lot from that running back position,” Bieniemy said “And the thing that he’s done, he’s accepted the challenge and he’s doing things that he hasn’t really done in the past. The thing that I love about him, every single day he comes out here and works his tail off.”

While Jones has been an enigma at times during camp it’s Pacheco who has become the most intriguing player in the backfield. He’s impressed with his quickness to hit the hole and he’s demonstrated agility and contact balance that some scouts questioned coming out of Rutgers.

Fullback Michael Burton is quite familiar with Pacheco’s game. Burton is another former Rutgers player, and he remembers first watching Pacheco during spring practices.

“I thought, OK, this kid’s got some juice, he’s strong, powerful, he can run,” Burton said. “Good kid, wants to learn. He’s been exciting to watch out here, and he’s been doing a great job.”

How the running back room rounds out will start to become into focus starting with Saturday’s preseason opener against the Chicago Bears. Pacheco expects to get plenty of work, and Bieniemy wants to see what he and others can do in this offense.

“He’s a tough kid, obviously we got a lot of good players in that room,” Bieniemy said. “In time, everything will tell for itself, but right now he’s doing some good things, he’s working his tail off. But also too, you’ve got a lot of other guys in there competing their tails off as well.”

Notes & observations

It was another moist day in St. Joseph with the thermometer hitting 86 degrees with a heat index of 94 when the final horn of practice blared at 11:21, putting a cap on a 2-hour, 6-minute workout.

It was definitely a strain for the first-team offense and defense, which endured a full practice before embarking on the penultimate session of the day, another long-drive period lasting 16 straight plays.

Linebacker Nick Bolton, however, is embracing the long-drive periods. On Saturday head coach Andy Reid kept the first teams on the field for 14 consecutive plays.

“It’s very challenging, it’s kind of unique to coach Reid’s camp,” Bolton said. “I kind of like it though. You go on a long drive, simulate the fourth quarter, you’ve got to dig down deep and find a way to get stops. I think it’s beneficial for us, I’m excited. As we keep building, they keep getting longer. Again, it’s one of those things I kind of like about this camp.”

It was also another tough day for the offense, which faced a series of difficult scenarios. After the traditional stretch, individual and installation periods, the squad got together for a team blitz period, in which the defense tested some of its new blitzes against the offense.

The first play set the tone for the day. Patrick Mahomes completed a pass over the middle of JuJu Smith-Schuster. Rookie cornerback Joshua Williams appeared to attempt to touch the receiver around the shoulder pads but seemed to get his hand caught on Smith-Schuster’s facemask. The receiver’s head jerked backward and he went to ground hard, but shortly afterward bounced backup and returned to action.

After a group period and one-on-one matchups between receivers and defensive backs, it was a 9-on-7 run period. The order changed from Saturday’s rotation with Clyde Edwards-Helaire again leading off but followed by Ronald Jones and Jerick McKinnon this time around. Isiah Pacheco and Derrick Gore finished the period.

The next full-team period was another difficult scenario for the offense with 24 seconds on the clock and down by one point from their own 25-yard line. Mahomes and the first-team offense faced its lowest point in camp on this drive.

Facing a dime defense with four safeties (Justin Reid, Juan Thornhill, Bryan Cook and Deon Bush), Mahomes nearly hit a home run on a deep throw to Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who split between Bush and cornerback Trent McDuffie. But the ball traveled a bit too far for an incompletion.

On fourth down, disaster struck. The offense was called for false starts on three straight plays, and Reid pulled the first-team off the field rather than run a Hail Mary play. That sequence prompted offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy to say afterward that there are lessons to be learned after every practice.

“Every play is not going to be your best play, so how you respond tells you what type of character you have,” Bieniemy said. “So we’ve got to make sure that we’re displaying that character and understanding this is a team game. We will respond but that last play can’t impact what we’re going to do next.”

The second-team offense took the field and — after a fourth-straight false start penalty — moved into range for a field by Harrison Butker.

The first-team came back for another chance and moved the ball with short competitions from Mahomes to Noah Gray and Smith-Schuster and two runs from Mecole Hardman, including a read-option Wildcat play from Hardman, kept the ball for a run to the right side. That’s a formation the Chiefs have shown quite a few times in camp.

But it was the defense that came up with the big play. Defensive end George Karlaftis got penetration in the backfield for a would-be sack, and swiped the ball out of hands of Mahomes for a drive-ending stop.

After a special teams period focused on field goals, it was another dual session with a 7-on-7 period on one end of the field and the defensive line versus the offensive line on the other end. In addition to one-on-one pass rushing and blocking, the lines also worked on stunts. The offensive line won the majority of this session, led by Creed Humphrey who has simply dominated in any one-on-one matchup during camp. the trimmed-down Frank Clark also continues to demonstrate a strong speed rush.

The final 7-on-7 period preceding the long-drive session showcased the day’s best plays from receivers and defensive back. McDuffie continues to demonstrate play-making ability and good coverage. He’s only real weakness is height, as demonstrated in a matchup with the 6-foot-4 Valdes-Scantling. Mahomes deliver a high ball on an out route to the receiver, and the 5-foot-11 McDuffie was draped all over Valdes-Scantling, who was able to reach high and bring down the catch.

The offense’s biggest play of the game came when Hardman streaked by Williams down the field and Mahomes hit him in stride for an easy touchdown.

After the long drive session ended, the final session was a special teams period focused on kickoffs. Isiah Pacheco, Corey Coleman, Skyy Moore, Jerrion Ealy and Devin Gray lined up as returners.

Injury report

Tight end Jody Fortson was among five players who did not participate in Sunday’s practice. Fortson has missed the past six practices since suffering a quad strain on July 30.

Cornerback Rashad Fenton (shoulder) and right tackle Lucas Niang (knee) remain on the physically unable to perform list. Wide receiver Gary Jennings (concussion) and defensive tackle Taylor Stallworth (knee contusion) also did not practice.

Wide receiver Daurice Fountain returned to practice after suffering a finger injury on Saturday. Defensive end Carlos Dunlap exited practice before its conclusion as he continues ramping up to full activities. Sunday was his third practice since joining the club.

Mixing and matching

The coaching staff continues rotating players in different positions, especially in the third cornerback spot, the backfield depth chart behind Edwards-Helaire and the defensive line depth chart.

The offensive line saw some switching on Sunday with Geron Christian taking most of the reps at right tackle with the first-team offense and Andrew Wylie working primarily at right guard with the No. 2 offense.

It’s difficult to draw too many conclusions from one day of practice, especially when offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy emphasizes that offensive line coach Andy Heck likes to rotate and cross-train his roster. The Chiefs view Wylie as a Swiss Army knife who can play four positions and want him to get reps at multiple spots. He’s played three positions — right tackle, left tackle and right guard — in this camp.

Meanwhile Christian has been battling for a backup swing tackle with Roderick Johnson, who has taken reps at both left and right tackle with the first team.

“This is a stage where you’re always trying to get look at certain players to see what they can do and how that they handle when placed in that situation,” Bieniemy said. “We just want to see guys play.”

Not everything is what it seems during training camp, and one day’s rotations shouldn’t be used to draw sweeping conclusions, especially until after the first preseason game.

Converting pressures into sacks

Last season the Chiefs’ defense ranked among the leaders in putting pressure on opposing passers. The club finished sixth in total pressures (178) fifth in pressure percentage (26.4%) and eighth in quarterback knockdowns (59). Yet they finished 29th in the league in sacks with just 31.

That’s a number new defensive line coach Joe Cullen wants to improve, says defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi.

“He breaks it into pretty much three steps of the rush, and he emphasizes it every day at us,” Nnadi said. “From the approach to the combat zone to the finish, he does everything into details every single step of the rush. I feel like with that, it gives it more of a bonus per se to our pass rushes and our interior line.”

The 54-year-old Cullen has been primarily a defensive line coach since 1991 at the college and NFL levels and has been an assistant with Detroit, Jacksonville, Cleveland, Tampa Bay and Baltimore. He spent a second season with the Jaguars last season as defensive coordinator before joining the Chiefs’ staff.

Nnadi said he has responded to how Cullen challenges his players.

“He expects a lot out of me, and he challenges me every day,” Nnadi said. “Every day is a mission, like what are we doing today, how can we get better, how fast, how hard can we play. I’m always up for a challenge.”

Transactions

Wide receiver Devin Gray made his debut on the practice field wearing No. 80. The club cleared space on the 90-player roster by waiving cornerback Deandre Baker.

The 27-year-old Gray entered the league as an undrafted free agent from Cincinnati in 2018, and spent time with Atlanta and Baltimore along with a stint in The Spring League in 2021 and the USFL in 2022.

The 6-foot, 192-pound Gray has never played in an NFL regular-season game but played eight games for Philadelphia in the USFL this spring, with 25 catches for 210 yards and two touchdowns. In the USFL championship game, Gray caught five passes for 46 yards and a score.

Baker initially signed with the Chiefs practice squad in November 2020 after the Giants waived him. The former first-round pick played in 10 regular-season games for the Chiefs the past two seasons with starts.

What’s next?

The Chiefs have three practices this week before heading to Chicago for their first preseason game against the Bears on Saturday. The team will hold workouts on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday mornings starting at 9:15 a.m.

Monday and Tuesday’s practice sessions will likely be larger sessions running about two hours heavy on individual drills, 7-on-7 and team periods. Thursday before a game is normally a 10-10-10 practice running about 90 minutes where the No. 1 offense and defense go against the No. 2 squads in a brisk practice but with no pads and not at full speed.

The forecast calls for a slight chance of rain during each practice day. The team will normally stay on the field during rain showers but if there is lighting in the area the practice will move indoors. Indoor practices are closed to the public.

Tickets for Tuesday’s practice are sold out but tickets for Monday and Thursday remain available. Tickets are free but must be reserved on the club’s website. The university also collects a $5 parking fee per vehicle.