Move #3 – Sign Him or Trade Him?

If you think the Chiefs have a difficult decision to make with their quarterbacks, it pales in comparison to the one they have to make with running back Larry Johnson. The decision is pretty simple – sign him long term, or trade him.

There is no question that Johnson is one of the top offensive talents in the league. I'm not about to suggest the Chiefs trade him. In fact, I'm on the record that President Carl Peterson should sign him before the team departs for River Falls – hopefully for the last time.

Johnson is one of those athletes that is ultra-talented, enjoys life off the field, works hard and wears his emotions on his sleeve. Some say the last part of that is a good thing, others don't.

As everyone knows, I'm a huge LJ supporter. He spent his first three seasons under duress from his former head coach and his locker mate, Priest Holmes. It wasn't easy for a man who just wanted a chance to be the starter. He developed an attitude that fueled his punishing running style.

When Vermeil departed, Herm Edwards sat his running back down and proclaimed him the starter for 2006. That paid dividends once Johnson caught on fire midway through the season. It took a while to adjust to the loss of both left tackle Willie Roaf and quarterback Trent Green, but he made the most of his opportunities.

This past season he rushed for 1,789 yards, caught 41 passes for 410 yards and scored a combined 19 touchdowns. Not bad when you consider the offensive line was beaten, battered and sometimes out-manned by opposing defenses. Still, LJ has his critics.

He wants to be the best back in the league. Though he might be the toughest runner, he has some work to do to improve his game. One of those areas is in pass blocking.

When Vermeil came to Kansas City he impressed upon tight end Tony Gonzalez that to be successful in this league, you had to be more than a pass catcher. Gonzalez worked his tail off and became a solid blocker. That took some of his catches away, but it made him a complete player.

Johnson has to do the same. He can work on pass blocking by drilling a stationary dummy 100 times a day, just to train the body to hit oncoming rushers. After that drill he needs to catch about 100 balls per day so he can improve his receiving skills.

You see, age is going to eventually come up and bite Johnson in the rear. He'll be 28 next season, which means he'll be at the peak of his NFL prowess. If he wants serious money after the 2007 season (as an unrestricted free agent), teams are going to want the entire package.

The Chiefs know if they're going to have any success in winning the division or winning a playoff game they need a healthy, motivated and focused Johnson. He's the key to the Chiefs offensive engine because if he's churning up yards, the passing game should be better next season regardless of who the starting quarterback might be.

Of course having an offensive line that can open up holes will help, but let's assume for a moment the Chiefs will take care of that minor snag in the offseason. (See tomorrow's article for that plan).

But paramount to all of this is making sure Johnson gets a new contract. It would be beneficial to get that done prior to the NFL draft in April. The Chiefs currently have two backups ready to support LJ next year, but only Michael Bennett has starting experience and he's not proven to be very durable throughout this career. The other back is Derrick Ross, who in my opinion has the tools to be a very effective every down runner in this league. He reminds me of a young Priest Holmes. He'll get a chance to show his stuff next summer.

But Johnson still is the best option. Carl Peterson has a tough task in trying to decide his value. In actual dollars and cents, the Chiefs GM probably overpaid for Trent Green three years ago, but there weren't many options for this team. Peterson correctly paid him for his talent, loyalty and leadership. He might have stretched the dollars for Gonzalez but he's proven to be worth every penny the Chiefs have given him from his very first contract.

But running backs are viewed differently. LaDanian Tomlinson signed an eight-year, $60 million contract extension back in 2004.

Tomlinson will also be 28 this year and there is no guarantee he can duplicate the record setting season he just enjoyed. There is also no guarantee that LJ can run for another 1,500 yards in 2007 after setting an NFL record for rushing attempts this season.

The point that I'm trying to make is that the Chiefs must make the right decision with their star running back. I believe 100 percent that LJ loves playing for Edwards. If the offense is tweaked, Johnson could put up numbers similar to Tomlinson's.

But for how many seasons?

That's the rub, and that's something Peterson and Edwards have to factor in when they do their roster evaluations this month. The unthinkable would be for them to seriously consider trading Johnson. Everyone knows of his affinity for New York. The fact he's making that city his offseason residence should indicate to the Chiefs maybe that's where he'd like to play.

Would Kansas City trade him to the New York Jets? Probably not. I can't see those two teams making another deal for quite sometime.

But the New York Giants could be a perfect match for LJ. With Tiki Barber retiring and the Giants running an offense that is very similar to the one Kansas City wants to run, it could prove a most intriguing fit for Johnson.

If the Giants offer the Chiefs a pair of first-round picks, plus a second rounder, they'd be foolish not to trade Johnson. But even that might not be enough. The Giants will be a desperate team next season. Their head coach, Tom Coughlin, will be on the hot seat, the quarterback Eli Manning has nowhere near the talent of his older brother.

You know that city loves a star, and LJ could be a god in New York, but he can also be one in Kansas City. The Chiefs probably won't consider a trade, but if the Giants or any other team offer them a Herschel Walker-type deal, then they should think about it.

But when reality sets in at the end of the day (and in this article) the best thing the Chiefs can do is to get Johnson a new deal that makes him one of the highest paid running backs in the NFL. After that, the Chiefs have to hope he can develop into a complete player who's willing to carry this team on his back game in game out until his legs can't do it anymore – three or four seasons from now.

Tomorrow: Offensive Line

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