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Why Edwards-Helaire was the right pick — even in the first round

While a running back’s value may not match the value of the picks used to select him, that doesn’t mean the Chiefs were wrong to take Edwards-Helaire in the first round.

SEC Championship - Georgia v LSU Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

It was inevitable that when the Kansas City Chiefs selected LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the first round of the NFL Draft on Thursday night, a significant number of Chiefs fans would be unhappy that the team went with a first-round running back.

This was easy to predict. As we’ve published mock drafts by national analysts over the last month or two — many of which had the Chiefs picking running backs D’Andre Swift or Jonathan Taylor with the 32nd pick — there was a lot of pushback about those choices on social media and from our readers.

And to be honest, I agreed. I would have much preferred for the Chiefs to go after a linebacker in the first round — the only position where I believe the team has a genuine weakness. At first, the decision made no sense to me.

So in the aftermath of the team’s selection, there was plenty of pushback — including from our own sports analytics expert Ethan Douglas, whose Friday morning article made a strong, fact-based case against drafting running backs with a high-value selection. Ethan argued that the data clearly shows running backs don’t add enough to a team’s chance of winning its games to justify the cost of the selection — in other words, that running backs don’t provide enough surplus value to justify a first-round pick.

And I am not going to say Ethan is wrong — because he isn’t.

I am, however, going to say that the situation is more nuanced than that.

Speaking in the aftermath of the selection, Chiefs general manager Brett Veach made it plain that as far as the Chiefs were concerned, Edwards-Helaire was the best player available to them.

“It sounds cliché to say ‘best player available,’ but this guy, we viewed this guy as an extraordinary running back and a rare talent for the things he can do.” said Veach. “Again, we had a pocket of guys. Some were offensive linemen, some were corners, some were linebackers. The way it worked out, where we picked — and what was left — we just felt like he was the best player and it made the most sense for us.”

Veach’s comments also gave ample evidence that the Chiefs viewed him not as just the best they could get at that moment, but maybe one of the best players they were considering at any position.

“Those guys, all three of those guys are really good players,” Veach said of Edwards-Helaire, Taylor and Swift. “The kid, his interior running ability, just the vision and the instincts are just rare and unique. The guy kind of has the ability to play the game in slow motion. Lateral, agility, vision, his ability to start and stop and redirect his hands out of the backfield. Some of those guys, one guy may have one trait, the other guy has another trait. We felt like he kind of had all of those traits.”

Buffalo Bills v Philadelphia Eagles

Veach said that he and head coach Andy Reid had agreed that Edwards-Helaire reminded them of Philadelphia Eagles running back Brian Westbrook, whom Reid had coached over his entire Eagles career. After the pick was announced, NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah chose to compare him to former Chiefs running back Priest Holmes.

But if you want a more recent comparison, what about former Chief Kareem Hunt? When I read the Arrowhead Pride Nerd Squad’s pre-draft writeup of Edwards-Helaire, that was what I saw: a player who could wear the shoes the team has been trying to fill ever since Hunt was released in 2018.

Knowing what we know now, is there any Eagles fan from the 2000s would balk at using a first-round pick for Westbrook? Or a Chiefs ran from the 2000s who would hesitate to pull the trigger on a first-round selection for Holmes? Or any current Chiefs fan who would mind paying that price to once again get us what Hunt gave us on the field during his short time with the team?

While analysis of draft value is useful — even valuable — it often presumes that the draft is an end, rather than a means to an end. While any general manager would ignore draft value at their own peril, not a single one has ever won a championship based on whether or not they gave the right amount of draft capital for each player they selected. Championships are won by GMs who assemble the best teams — and coaches who utilize them properly.

I would even go as far as to say that in a given moment, if a GM truly believes positional need doesn’t outweigh acquiring the best player available, they’d be a damn fool to allow draft value to keep them from picking the better player. A general manager who is so unsure of their evaluations has no business holding the job.

In the final analysis, draft value only matters when things go wrong. If this former LSU running back is truly as gifted as Veach and Reid believe he is, then he is going to supercharge the Chiefs offense. He’ll give defenses one more player for which they must account — and make every call in Reid’s playbook available on every down. If that happens, no one is going to care which pick the Chiefs used to acquire Edwards-Helaire.

If it doesn’t... well, then Veach will have to pay the consequences for that decision. That’s why he makes the big bucks.

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