With Kareem Hunt banished, will Chiefs turn to a big-money free agent like Le’Veon Bell?

Terez PaylorSenior NFL writer

Before we get into whether the Kansas City Chiefs can turn one great back (Kareem Hunt) into another (Le’Veon Bell), come back with me to October 2015, when the Chiefs were 1-5, losers of five straight, and had just lost their best player, running back Jamaal Charles, to a season-ending knee injury.

If Kansas City was not in the throes of watching the Royals win the World Series, the heat on Reid — who was headed for a backslide in his third year in Kansas City — would have been extraordinary at the time. As it was, the city basically ignored the Chiefs with the contempt disappointed parents have for a troubled kid when they’re distracted by their good child’s most recent award.

Yet, the Chiefs pulled themselves out of the abyss without Charles, rallying to win their final 10 regular-season games to curb any “Fire Reid” talk. A big reason for that streak was the way they seamlessly implemented two backs nobody had ever heard of — Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West — into the offense.

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The Chiefs got an up-close view of Le’Veon Bell’s skills during the playoffs in 2017. (Getty Images)
The Chiefs got an up-close view of Le’Veon Bell’s skills during the playoffs in 2017. (Getty Images)

Charles, a megastar at the time of his injury, was never the same, it turns out. But the Chiefs kept rolling the following years, using a combination of Ware (a former sixth-round pick of Seattle) and West (an undrafted free agent) to get by in 2016 before watching Hunt (a third-rounder) turn into a star as a rookie in 2017.

So yes, the ability to slide almost anyone in at running back and watch them blossom has been consistent in Kansas City since Reid and Eric Bieniemy, who was promoted to offensive coordinator from running backs coach in January, arrived in 2013.

And that’s why, in the aftermath of Hunt’s release for lying to the Chiefs about his role in an ugly altercation with a woman in February, the club is highly unlikely to spend big money on a free agent back like Bell in March.

Bell is a nice fit, but the cost might be too steep

That’s not to say Hunt’s release isn’t a big deal. From a football standpoint, his absence will be a significant blow to a potentially generational offensive core that mirrored Dallas’ triplets of quarterback Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith in the early 90s. Between Hunt, 23, quarterback Patrick Mahomes, 23, and Tyreek Hill, 24, the Chiefs were set at the skill positions for the next five years.

Bell, who turns 27 in February, would be a pretty seamless replacement. The Chiefs know how good Bell — an elite receiver and blocker for a running back — is, as his unique, patient running style was a big reason he gashed the Chiefs for 170 yards in an epic performance that helped the Steelers upset the Chiefs in the divisional round in January 2017.

But Bell has baggage, and that factors into the equation. Although he should be fresh after sitting out all season due to a contract dispute with the Pittsburgh Steelers, he missed eight games in 2015 with a torn MCL, and was also suspended two games that season after he was arrested with then-teammate LeGarrette Blount on DUI and marijuana possession charges. In 2016, he was also suspended three games for reportedly missing multiple drug tests.

Bell will be looking for a deal that exceeds the $33 million in guarantees he reportedly turned down from Pittsburgh before the season.

And while the Chiefs figure to have money in 2019 — upwards of $44 million at this point, with even more available with some big-money cuts — those are resources better spent elsewhere, like franchising 27-year-old outside linebacker Dee Ford, who has 10 and a half sacks and six forced fumbles, and re-signing defensive end Chris Jones and Hill, both of whom will be free agents after 2019. 

Free-agent priorities lie elsewhere

Hill, one the league’s preeminent deep threats, has racked up 1,119 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns on the way to another Pro Bowl-type season. Jones has recorded a career-high 10 sacks in 2018. The Chiefs can franchise only one of them, potentially risking the other to break the bank on the open market as a free agent in 2020, so it would behoove them to sign one to a big-money extension as soon as they can (which is after the season).

What’s more, the Chiefs can also use that salary-cap space to add pieces to the league’s 31stranked defense, particularly trouble spots like corner, safety and defensive line, which could easily be their Achilles’ heel when January rolls around. And depending on what the club does with Justin Houston — who has four sacks this season, turns 30 in January and can free up $14 million in cap space with his release — you can also add edge rusher to that list.

So yes, expect running back to be low on the Chiefs’ list of free-agent priorities, though that doesn’t mean they won’t invest in the position this offseason. If anything, the Chiefs’ 40-33 win over Oakland on Sunday — in which they racked up 469 yards and Mahomes led them in rushing with 52 — showed that while Kansas City’s offense is still dangerous, it’s not as dynamic without one of the league’s best “make-you-miss” guys in Hunt, who has forced 54 missed tackles this year according to Football Outsiders, the second-highest in the league.

That’s why it’s reasonable to assume that Hunt’s absence is a long-term hole that will be filled through the 2019 NFL draft, where the Chiefs are slated to have four top-100 picks. It’s a sound strategy, considering the wear and tear of the position and the plethora of talented runners who go in the second and third rounds yearly.

Chiefs running back Spencer Ware (L) will have to help carry the load in the backfield this season for Kansas City. (AP)
Chiefs running back Spencer Ware (L) will have to help carry the load in the backfield this season for Kansas City. (AP)

Chiefs must figure out the present

The Chiefs, who lead the AFC with a 10-2 record, will have to figure out how to carry on their Super Bowl march without one of the game’s best young running backs.

Ware, who started Sunday, finished with 47 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries but didn’t have the same juice Hunt did. His backup, Damien Williams, is regarded as a quality third-down back, while the third man on the depth chart, rookie Darrel Williams, showed some flashes in the preseason.

As such, the Chiefs are expected to sign Charcandrick West after a workout on Monday, sources told Yahoo Sports, provided he passes a physical. The move is believed to be for precautionary reasons, as the club doesn’t have a practice squad runner to call up in case of injury, and the Chiefs will give those four opportunities to help them win without Hunt before addressing the situation from a more long-term perspective this offseason.

And chances are, if Reid found a way to do it after the Jamaal Charles injury in 2015 — with a quarterback (Alex Smith) who was not nearly as dynamic as Mahomes, an MVP candidate — it’s hard to imagine him losing that same touch in 2018.

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