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The Reid Remix: How Clyde Edwards-Helaire can boost the Chiefs’ offense

This summer series turns its focus to the third-year running back with plenty to prove in 2022.

AFC Divisional Playoffs - Buffalo Bills v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

For the first time in the Patrick Mahomes era, the Kansas City Chiefs’ offense will not feature what has been the league’s most dangerous, big-play threat: wide receiver Tyreek Hill. For this reason, the 2022 season won’t look quite the same.

So in this summer series — The Reid Remix — we’ll use statistics, film and quotes we’ve heard this offseason to preview how different aspects of the unit could look in the coming season.

We started by explaining the basics, then took a closer look at Mecole Hardman. This time, we’ll be examining the potential impact of running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire.

What we know

Through two seasons (and 27 total games) as the team’s primary back, Edwards-Helaire’s overall impact is reflected in his statistics: a very solid, average output. He owns a career yards-per-carry rate of 4.4 yards, which happens to be the NFL average over the last two seasons.

Edwards-Helaire has had great highs — which were on display in the four 100-yard rushing games he has had. His best-looking carries seem to come on the Chiefs’ most commonly-used type of running play: inside zone runs.

The straight-ahead, zone blocking allows Edwards-Helaire to manipulate the off-ball linebackers. With his short stature, he is already hard to locate through traffic. On top of that, he is an intelligent player who understands how to suck a linebacker into one gap before bouncing into another lane. He possesses exceptional lateral agility and explosion, which allows him to sell the initial action better than most other backs.

On the other hand, outside zone runs — which try to stretch the defense horizontally — just don’t fit Edwards-Helaire’s skills. He doesn’t have the top speed to threaten around the edge of the blocking, which relaxes defenders in their cutback lanes so they can more easily build a wall — giving a running back nowhere to go.

Meanwhile — after 54 targets as a rookie — Edwards-Helaire only saw 26 targets in 2021, converting those into 21 receptions for 142 yards and two touchdowns; both scores came on screen passes.

What can change in 2022

In his first season, Edwards-Helaire ranked sixth on the team in targets — although he was only five targets away from the fourth-leading spot. During his second year, injuries impacted his standing — but either way, he should see an uptick in throws this season.

First of all, his role in the offense may put him on the field more often on passing downs. In previous seasons, the coaching staff trusted running back Darrel Williams to play in most third-down passing situations; in 2021, Edwards-Helaire only saw five combined third-down opportunities. Without Williams, Edwards-Helaire is naturally the player to step into that particular role — although running back Jerick McKinnon (who was re-signed on Monday) won’t make it easy on him.

It is unlikely that new free-agent running back Ronald Jones will be leaned upon for these kinds of plays; his previous performances as a pass-catcher (and pass protector) have been insufficient. His impact is likely coming on first and second downs, where a higher-volume running game could utilize his strengths.

So this higher reliance on Edwards-Helaire for important passing downs will lead to more screens (and other primary routes) designed for him to move the sticks. He’s always been the preferred target on these types of plays — getting him into open space against individual defenders — but because he hasn’t been the primary back on passing downs, his opportunities have been limited.

If Edwards-Helaire is indeed able to transition into being the primary back on passing downs, he’ll be more likely to see targets on third-and-short plays like this one. Knowing that the defense is crowding the line of scrimmage (and using press-man coverage), a flare pass to a running back in the opposite flat of his man defender is an easy short-yardage conversion. In recent seasons, Williams has definitely seen the majority of these kinds of targets.

Finally, Edwards-Helaire is one of the few pass-catching options who is returning from last season. With wide receivers adjusting to a new scheme, Kansas City coaches (and quarterback Patrick Mahomes) could be more willing to lean on a familiar face for important conversions.

How he raises the offense’s ceiling

As the back with the most experience in Andy Reid’s system, Edwards-Helaire will find himself on the field for any sort of down. So if he truly is the most trusted third-down back, that gives the Chiefs another advantage: unpredictability.

Kansas City will not only be able to utilize his strengths as an early-down runner (or in short-yardage situations), but also as a receiver on any down. This will prevent defenses from picking up play-calling tendencies when he’s in the formation. This will be especially helpful if Kansas City can convert to a more downhill, vertical running game.

That unpredictability could spread to his play-to-play alignment, which has room to grow in 2022.

As we see here, the offense has already started experimenting with Edwards-Helaire running routes from the slot. Towards the end of 2021, the primary way to do that was using a traditional empty formation that sends a back to the outside — before motioning him back in to see how the defense would adjust. Midway through the motion, Edwards-Helaire would turn and run the route — either a speed out or an angle route.

Without Hill on the team, there’s even more reason to get creative in utilizing pre-snap motion and quick-hitting throws from unique packages.

On this variation of a guard-tackle counter run, you see the running back take the handoff — while Hill runs to the flat in the opposite direction of the run. It’s a read play whose intent is to put the ball with the player who has the most space in front of them.

Imagine that play coming out of a two-back formation, where Edwards-Healire is in HIll’s place as a threat to take advantage of the open space.

The wrinkle can take advantage of the heavier defensive personnel that usually matches up against multi-back offensive formations — or hammer the ground game if the defense continues to stay in lighter formations.

If Edwards-Helaire is finally utilized as the versatile weapon that he was expected to be when he was taken in the 2020 NFL Draft, he could allow the Chiefs to become even more creative in their personnel packages.

In future editions of The Reid Remix, we’ll dive into other aspects of Kansas City’s 2022 offense.

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