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How the Chiefs get Clyde Edwards-Helaire more involved as a receiver

You have to look back to look forward sometimes. I studied how the Chiefs used one player as a pass-catcher last year and how he could take a step forward in 2021.

Kansas City Chiefs v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

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:

The numbers

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.

The film

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

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.

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.

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