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Chiefs running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire is no bust

The Kansas City running back’s career hasn’t met our expectations — but it would be unfair to call him a bust.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

When the Kansas City Chiefs selected former LSU running back Clyde-Edwards Helaire in the first round (32nd overall) of the 2020 NFL Draft, the choice was immediately controversial.

Part of that came from the team's decision to select a running back in the first round, which is perceived by some draft observers as a terrible idea.

Some of it was the result of the revelation that Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes had played a role in selecting him — and that Chiefs head coach Andy Reid saw a parallel between Edwards-Helaire and All-Pro running back Brian Westbrook, whom Reid had drafted for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2002.

After missing time with injuries during each of his first two seasons, the controversy around the running back continued to mount. He appeared in just 23 games, collecting 1,320 yards (and eight touchdowns) on 300 carries, along with 426 yards (and three more TDs) on 55 receptions.

Even worse, Edwards-Helaire's first two career fumbles proved very costly. The first came at the Baltimore Ravens' 32-yard line with just 1:24 remaining as Kansas City trailed Baltimore 36-35 in Week 2 of 2021. Just a week later, his second-quarter fumble at the Los Angeles Chargers' 36-yard line blunted a Chiefs drive (and led to a Chargers touchdown) that might have made the difference in Kansas City's 30-24 loss.

Two years into his NFL career, a very ugly word is now beginning to be associated with Edward-Helaire's name: bust.

Is it deserved? Let's see.

The first-round running back issue

Kansas City Chiefs v Las Vegas Raiders Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

It is an article of faith among many draft experts that it is not worthwhile to select a running back in the first round. The argument is that because a running back provides so little value that it is a waste of resources to use a precious first-round pick to acquire one.

But there isn't much evidence that this is actually true. In a recent project to create a more relevant draft-pick value chart, I collected data for all players drafted between 1989 and 2016. On average, drafted running backs provided the drafting team an approximate value (AV) of 11.6. That was fifth behind offensive linemen (14.5), defensive linemen (12.9), linebackers (12.7) and quarterbacks (12.1) — and ahead of wide receivers (10.5), defensive backs (10.1), tight ends (6.3) and fullbacks (4.0).

Even if you don't find that to be persuasive, it is very clear that NFL general managers don't believe in avoiding first-round running backs. The percentage of RBs taken in each round of the draft from 1989 through 2016 only varies 1.8%. That is the least variance for any offensive or defensive position — and is dwarfed by the figure for quarterbacks (10.7%).

Besides... the no-running-backs-in-the-first-round argument is essentially based on the idea that the draft is an end unto itself — as if GMs get paid more if they use their draft picks more efficiently than others.

But a GM's job isn't to "win the draft." Instead, it is to build a quality roster. When you're on the clock, that means you take the player who — in the circumstances then existing — gives you the best chance to achieve that goal. Except for how it relates to your team's needs, the position they play shouldn't even be a consideration.

The Patrick Mahomes issue

New York Jets v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

This part of the Edwards-Helaire controversy appears to stem from a remark that Reid made to the running back right after he was selected.

“We asked Pat Mahomes, ‘Who do you want?’ and he picked you,” Chiefs head coach Andy Reid told Edwards-Helaire with a smile over a video call. “How great is that? You better be ready to go.”

Yet, in that same call, general manager Brett Veach explained what really took place.

“Clyde, I told Clark (Hunt) and coach Reid [Thursday] that about 4 o’ clock, Clyde was going to be our pick because coach and I were thinking your way, and then when we texted Pat and I asked Pat. I said, ‘Give me a name,’ and I said, ‘Don’t think about it.’ And he said, ‘Clyde.’ And I said, ‘Well, good. Good.’ We’re excited, man.”

This makes it clear that Reid and Veach had already made up their minds about the LSU star before contacting Mahomes. Reid's comment was simply intended to get his new running back fired up about the prospect of playing with the reigning Super Bowl MVP.

The Brian Westbrook issue

New York Giants vs Philadelphia Eagles - September 12, 2004 Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

After Edwards-Helaire's first two seasons in the league, the comparison to the former Eagles running back must ring a little hollow. But it's probably more apt than you realize.

Taken in the third round (91st overall), Westbrook played only sparingly in his first two seasons, collecting 806 yards (and seven touchdowns) on 163 attempts in 30 games (including just 11 starts), averaging 4.9 yards per attempt. He also had 418 yards (and four TDs) on 46 receptions — while accumulating five fumbles.

So through the first two years of his career, Edwards-Helaire has actually produced more than Westbook in fewer games — and has made fewer turnovers, too.

It wasn't until his third season that Westbrook became a regular starter. In 2004, he made his first Pro Bowl on the strength of 1,515 yards from scrimmage (and nine touchdowns) in 12 starts over 13 games, collecting nearly half of that in receiving yards.

In that third season, Westbrook caught 83.9% of his targets. In 2021, Edwards-Helaire was just as reliable as a pass-catcher, bringing in 82.6% of the balls thrown his way. The difference is that during his third season, fully half of Westbrook's touches came on passing plays — while in 2021, only about one in six of Edwards-Helaire's plays were passing targets.

Given the team's offseason changes, it's not all that improbable that Edwards-Helaire could see that kind of target distribution in 2022 — and as long as he remains healthy, he could reach the kinds of numbers that Westbrook attained starting in 2004.

The disappointment issue

NFL: DEC 20 Chiefs at Saints Photo by Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

But for Edwards-Helaire, that "as long as he remains healthy" qualifier has been the main problem. Projected over a full season, the running back might have earned more than 1,300 yards scrimmage yards (including nearly 1,000 rushing yards) in his rookie season, along with around 1,100 yards (including nearly 900 on the ground) in his second year.

Even with first-round expectations (which might not be fair, but are nonetheless part of NFL life), it's likely that few fans (or analysts) would have quibbled much with that production — especially in a Reid offense with Mahomes under center. It's just that it didn't happen — and the two costly fumbles in Weeks 2 and 3 of last season did happen.

So to this point in his career, it's entirely reasonable to be disappointed in what we have seen from Edwards-Helaire.

But that doesn't make him a bust.

Even with what is a disappointing career arc to this point, Edwards-Helaire has provided an AV of 13 to the Chiefs. An AV of 4 in a given year is average — so through two seasons, he's well above that.

As I noted in a comment on Friday, 18 running backs were selected during the 2020 NFL Draft. Just three of them — Jonathan Taylor (27), Antonio Gibson (14) and D'Andre Swift (13) — have an AV score at (or above) Edwards-Helaire's over those two seasons. AJ Dillion has an 11 AV score, Zack Moss has 8 and J.K. Dobbins has 7. The 11 remaining backs possess an AV score less than one-third of Edwards-Helaire's.

None of this should temper our disappointment in his injury history — or the way that the Chiefs may have failed to utilize him in the way he could (or should) have been. But the team still has two full seasons to find a way to do better by their starting running back — and when Taylor, Gibson and Swift are demanding new contracts after their fourth seasons, the Chiefs could be getting a fifth one out of Edwards-Helaire's rookie deal.

Other backs taken in the same draft have provided more production — and the former LSU back certainly hasn't met our expectations. But that could still happen — and even if it doesn't, he still won't be a bust.