Continuing the position-by-position look at the Chiefs, we turn our attention to the running backs.
To say the 2007 campaign didn't go well for the two-time Pro Bowler would probably be something of an understatement.
After missing most of the preseason thanks to his contract holdout, Johnson never did seem to get into a groove once the season began. Not only was his production far below his normal output, he often seemed frustrated with Mike Solari's overly conservative play calling, the lack of holes his offensive line was providing him, or a combination of the two.
In the team's first game after the break, Johnson turned in what might have been his best all-around effort of the season in a contest against the Green Bay Packers, running and catching the ball very effectively.
Unfortunately that game marked not only the end of Johnson's season, but the starting point of a losing streak that the Chiefs have yet to snap. Just when it seemed like he was starting to overcome his slow start to 2007, Johnson was injured in the fourth quarter when Packers linebacker AJ Hawk rolled up on his foot while making a tackle. With a small broken bone in his foot, Johnson didn't play again for the rest of 2007.
Without their star running back on the field, the Chiefs' record plummeted from 4-3 to 4-12.
Johnson should come back healthy and has already expressed excitement about the hiring of new offensive coordinator Chan Gailey. When Jerome Bettis was traded to Pittsburgh in 1996, his role in Gailey's run-heavy offense not only took him to the Pro Bowl in two consecutive years, but also netted him the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year award. Perhaps Johnson has similar goals in mind for 2008.
But there is concern among Chiefs fans that the moody running back who ran roughshod in 2005 and 2006 might not be returning to the team. Sure, Johnson the man will be back, but what about the player? Does the anger persist after getting his big contract last summer? And after setting the league record for carries in a single season, can his body still hold up to the physical pounding?
It remains to be seen how effective Johnson will be going forward, but the frustrating efforts of 2007 should be all the motivation he needs to succeed.
A fifth-round pick from Louisville last April, Smith became the Chiefs' starter after both Johnson's injury and the retirement of Priest Holmes. In his first start, the rookie exploded onto the NFL stage with 150 yards rushing and two touchdowns. While he didn't see the same high level of success in his subsequent action, Smith proved to be more than capable of running the ball at the pro level.
He enters 2008 as the Chiefs' primary backup, and because of his style—Smith is more of an elusive cutback runner—is distinct from Johnson's power rushing attack, he provides the team with a nice change of pace.
Gilbert Harris and Jackie Battle
These two runners, grouped together, mainly saw action in 2007 because of the rash of injuries Kansas City suffered at the position. Once Johnson and Holmes were out, Harris became Smith's backup but didn't play in the team's final two games. After an injury to Smith in the Chiefs' final game, Battle saw the majority of the action against the New York Jets.
Neither back's numbers stand out to any great degree, but Battle did score an impressive goal-line touchdown against the Detroit Lions in which he appeared bottled up near the line of scrimmage and still drove his way forward for the score. The determination he showed on that play alone might have helped him keep a spot on the Chiefs' roster moving forward.
Kris Wilson and Boomer Grigsby
The fullback in Kansas City's offense is a blocker first and a pass catcher second, with only three carries credited to the position in 2007. Wilson and Grigsby both played the role last season, though fullback is not the natural position for either.
Wilson is a tight end who took over the fullback spot in 2006 after an injury to the incumbent and fan-favorite Grigsby—a converted linebacker who switched to the offensive side just last year.
Wilson is a free agent and, based on comments he made to his hometown newspaper in January, appears ready to test the market. Whether the Chiefs plan on making an offer to keep him is unknown.
Grigsby presumably enters 2008 as the starting fullback, assuming the team was pleased enough with his progress.
The Chiefs appear set at running back with the solid one-two punch of Johnson and Smith. Their early draft position at least raises the question of whether they might consider taking Arkansas RB Darren McFadden, but that seems highly unlikely.
They could look to add another young back in the later rounds for more depth, but there shouldn't be much movement at the position during free agency. Whether they look to add a fullback will depend on their assessment of Grigsby.