As we excitedly wait for Kansas City Chiefs training camp to open in late July, it’s a good time to recall the 2020 team’s performance in specific areas of the game and determine if it is set to improve or regress in 2021.
We heard second-year running back Clyde Edwards Helaire talk about working on his receiving ability during minicamp last week. He had some flashes last year but ultimately didn’t produce like some thought the first-round pick could right away. I watched every one of his targets from 2020 and came away with an idea of how he can improve in 2021:
Before digging deeper into this phase of the game, I’ll lay the foundation with how Edwards-Helaire performed statistically.
- In all 19 games of 2020, Edwards-Helaire totaled 54 targets — 17 more than the second-most of Chiefs’ running backs: Darrel Williams. He caught 39 passes with an average gain of 8.2 yards and had only one score through the air. He earned three drops and produced an 85.4 passer rating when targeted.
- Edwards-Helaire had only six targets on screen passes, per PFF. For reference, Darrel Williams had 10 screen opportunities. Damien Williams saw 18 in 2018 and 11 in 2019. LeSean McCoy had 10 in 2019. Spencer Ware had 12 in 2018. Each of these running backs had fewer total targets than Edwards-Helaire in 2020.
Early in the season, the Chiefs tested Edwards-Helaire as a receiver. Over 27% of his regular-season targets came in Weeks 2 and 3, including a five-catch, 70-yard performance against the Baltimore Ravens on Monday Night Football.
Getting into how the #Chiefs used Clyde in the passing game last season— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) June 22, 2021
This was his best receiving rep all season in Wk 3. Thought it might be a sign of things to come, but it turned out to be one of the only vertical routes they gave him.
Need to see more of this in 2021 pic.twitter.com/58294t6xcx
This particular 24-yard catch was a glimpse into his potential as a real asset in the passing game. He releases out of the backfield to get vertical and towards the sideline on a flag route, running through physical man coverage from first-round linebacker and former LSU teammate Patrick Queen. He tracks a great pass perfectly over his shoulder to make an impressive reception.
Unfortunately, you didn’t see these types of vertical routes attempted to Edwards-Helaire the rest of the season. They tried wheel routes and splitting him out wide, but this was one of the only big plays he made off of a legitimate pass route.
Instead, the rookie made his living in the passing game by being quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ security blanket.
There just weren't many big plays from a designed pass to CEH. A lot of his receiving production came off of Mahomes checking down when the downfield reads weren't open #Chiefs pic.twitter.com/zf4nZNtjYr— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) June 22, 2021
A lot of Edwards-Helaire’s 320 receiving yards came as a check-down when Mahomes could not find a window to pass downfield. He was able to turn these passes into big plays because of his open-field elusiveness and ability to gain extra yards after initial tackling contact.
The majority of his big receiving plays came in these scenarios. There are a few reasons that he wasn’t schemed up in the passing game as much as other backs in the past: first, Darrel Williams was the primary third-down back, and an abnormal rookie year likely hurt his understanding of the playbook. But perhaps the most significant reason was the ineffectiveness of screen passes.
#Chiefs didn't execute nor use screens in '20 like they had in previous seasons. The improved OL unit, plus CEH more experienced, should improve this phase— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) June 22, 2021
Clyde had 6 screen tgts on 54 total
Darrel Williams had 10 screens. Dame Williams had 18 '18. LeSean had 10 in '19! pic.twitter.com/HQS0DO3ZNd
It was a combination of the poor offensive line play and — at times — Edwards-Helaire’s lack of feel for the blocking development that doomed the 2020 Chiefs’ screen game. Even though it seemed evident that Edwards-Helaire should be the primary receiver on screens, he tied for the third-most opportunities on the team with Le’Veon Bell.
Clyde had his rookie moments in the screen game.— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) June 22, 2021
Here, he's out wide. They run a middle screen for him. Instead of waiting a tick for his OL to form the wall and run off their buts back inside, he immediately runs forward in front of his lead blockers into a tackle pic.twitter.com/UCiiGmUkV0
On this particular play, Edwards-Helaire isn’t patient enough to allow his offensive line to get to their spots on the middle screen and set a wall for him to run back through the inside. Instead, he runs forward immediately and in front of his lead blockers for a short gain. The seam was pretty tight, but he could have turned this into a massive play with better vision.
The Chiefs’ offensive line was not springing backs for big plays on these screens like in years past, but Edwards-Helaire wasn’t executing his job at times either. The improvement of the front five combined with another offseason of experience to gain for the second-year back should lead to more effective screen plays this upcoming season.
Looking forward to 2021
Edwards-Helaire talked about being able to line up in the slot and out wide at receiver more in 2021 during his minicamp press conference last week. It’s a skill set that he used in his college days and something the Chiefs didn’t really utilize in 2020.
These are the type of plays we need to see run more for CEH— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) June 11, 2021
Slot alignment, quick out, but Clyde doesn't handle the catching part smoothly here -- although it is a tough catch
Only four targets from a slot alignment for him in 2020, 18 slot snaps total #Chiefs pic.twitter.com/r2CTJU4YXK
His quickness and ability to make defenders miss in the open field should allow him to succeed as a slot receiver. He can win on quick throws to the flat or beat a linebacker forced to cover him man-to-man out in more open space.
It also allows the Chiefs to get creative with their personnel to confuse defenses, especially if rookie tight end Noah Gray earns fullback repetitions. Those two could either be a two-back set or split out at wide receiver.
The more Edwards-Helaire is on the field this season, the better the Chiefs’ passing offense has the chance to be. If both he and the team are more comfortable running legitimate routes, lining up as a receiver and executing the screen game, he could be Mahomes’ third-favorite target — and a game-changing one.