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Film review: How not to use Chiefs running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire

Kansas City’s usage of the 2020 first-round draft pick has been... rather perplexing through the first five weeks.

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

When the Kansas City Chiefs were first on the clock in the 2020 NFL Draft, nobody knew how it would play out. When the pick was announced, it seemed like half of the fan base cheered as it understood the selection, and the other half fired off positional value takes.

LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire was the pick. A 5-foot-5 running back with 4.6 speed can make for a red flag, but with Brett Veach, Andy Reid and even Patrick Mahomes all vouching for him, he still became a selection that made most fans happy. Everyone ultimately agreed that his skill set perfectly aligned with what the Chiefs like to do.

So, what is that skill set?

After five weeks, it might be a fair question to ask, as he has essentially been utilized as a run-of-the-mill running back without any exceptional traits. The Chiefs offense has not really featured him since the first week of the season — and even then, it was purely as a runner — and they still haven’t tapped into his most attractive trait: his receiving ability.

The results haven’t been bad, but they also haven’t been that of an impact first-round pick, which is about the only way to justify picking a back that early. It is by no means time to panic, but it is time to have a real conversation about what the Chiefs’ plan was with this particular draft pick.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Talent

First — to be clear: this is not your typical film review of Clyde Edwards-Helaire.

There will be some trait and skill-based analysis throughout the post, but I want to focus on the Chiefs’ usage of Edwards-Helaire and how it is making his first-round selection look worse than it was.

On the actual field, Edwards-Helaire is doing a solid job. When there is space, he finds it, and when there is a defender to make miss, he does. He consistently gets what is available and oftentimes, even more. The issue is that it’s been four games since Edwards-Helaire has been able to wow fans in a way that justifies the early pick.

A nice cut for a 10-yard gain only leads to so much respect no matter how nuanced the rep may be.

This split-zone run is executed well by the offensive line, but Edwards-Helaire is nearly perfect. Pressing into the line of scrimmage without tipping his helmet creates the two-way go, and he doesn’t run up into his blockers. He flashes back-side as if he’s about to cut all the way across, which pulls the MIKE linebacker up into that hole and influences the defensive tackle trying to read through Austin Reiter’s block.

The jump-cut back outside is quick, and he then gets upfield instantly afterward, maximizing the yards before he is dragged down. This is a very nice rep, and it shows why he’s more than an adequate runner despite the measurables. The issue is that this rep does not move the needle in terms of a first-round pick.

Usage

This brings us to the crux of the issue: the usage of Edwards-Helaire.

Drafting a player in the first round means he should come with some level of a standout trait — a skill that he is better at than the opposition no matter what.

For Edwards-Helaire, that trait is his receiving ability. His hands — and his ability to beat linebackers or safeties in coverage thanks to short-area quickness — might be better than nearly every running back in the NFL. That is why he was considered a perfect fit for the Chiefs offense, and those skills were put to great use at LSU.

However, for the Chiefs, this has become his norm:

There is so much to unpack here, but here is the most significant issue: the Chiefs get a man coverage identification, as the linebacker follows the motion back to the middle of the formation.

Edwards-Helaire runs a sharp little out route that likely equates to being open no matter what, but it’s even more pronounced with a coverage mixup. He is open by a good seven-plus yards out of his break with plenty of space to work with. But the ball isn’t even close to on its way, and it is not thrown until he comes to a standstill and the linebacker has already made up all of that ground.

This man coverage identification combined with this route combination should be an instant tip that he’s going to be open. It is difficult to fault the Chiefs for trying to push the ball downfield so often, but this look is exactly what you want to see pre-snap for the player you drafted in round one, and he is just thrust off as a check-down as he faces the most advantageous look possible.

Edwards-Helaire ran 25 routes against the Las Vegas Raiders. Of those 25 routes, 19 took him into the flats within five yards of the line of scrimmage. Only on three of those routes into the flat did he get a look from the quarterback within the first two and a half seconds of the snap. The Chiefs are treating Edwards-Helaire as a traditional running back whose only use as a receiver is getting the ball as a last resort rather than an actual weapon.

What’s wrong with that?

The issue is that Edwards-Helaire is incredibly good as a receiver and the most dangerous in the open field. His top-end speed may not be great, but his short-area quickness and balance are what allow him to create yards in space.

This shows why the Chiefs ought to put the ball in his hands out in space. Don’t wait until the last second and check it down to him while being hugged by two defenders to save a couple yards. Get the ball out early and let him work, as he will turn those three yards into seven or eight. Using him in the flat isn’t a bad idea; the problem is the Chiefs are only doing that.

The LSU Tigers used Edwards-Helaire as a vertical receiver and across the middle of the field. The Chiefs are still struggling with how to tap into that ability, as noted by him having only six routes that weren’t into the flat. They have to find more ways to weaponize him as receiver, or he will never maximize his potential.

This seam route has just enough deception rounding out of the backfield that Edwards-Helaire is able to gain leverage and blow by the linebacker.

Edwards-Helaire should have been part of the progression early on, once man coverage was identified. This is how you take a play who may only ever be a “good” runner to a “great” player at the running back position.

Play to his strengths in more than 15% of his reps on the field.


Now. That all being said...

When he does get those opportunities, Edwards-Helaire has to make them count. This angle route has to be brought in despite the tough throw. Making sure you bring this pass in earns you more looks. As you can see from the route, this is going to be there when the Chiefs want it.

The bottom line

There are some folks out there already panicking about the Edwards-Helaire draft pick and how it may have been a waste of a first-round pick. The production has not been great and there has been a lack of dynamic plays since the first week of the year. If the trend continues, the draft pick will absolutely have to be questioned.

Edwards-Helaire is a good runner that is consistent and gets every bit of yardage available — and oftentimes a bit more — when he is called upon. He is just not the most dynamic runner without quality blocking, and the Chiefs will not be providing that this season.

So how should the Chiefs make the most of the first-round pick?

The answer is very, very simple: ask him to do what he does best.

Quit running Edwards-Helaire into the flat as a distraction and last-second check-down player. Identify matchups you like and then utilize him to attack those matchups vertically or across the field rather than sitting outside in the flat. His most dynamic ability is as a receiver and in the open field, so find ways to get him into those positions.

Having him run only 25 routes with 19 of them being into the flat is not what made him a first-round player. Those ratios and plan of attack have to change moving forward or the pick will continue to gain more steam as a question rather than an answer.