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How Clyde Edwards-Helaire could be poised for a third-season breakout

Kansas City’s starting running back has never met the high expectations that come from being a first-round draft pick.

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

Right from the first moment he became a member of the Kansas City Chiefs in the spring of 2020, former LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire has faced the high expectations that come with being selected in the first round of the NFL Draft.

“The kid, his interior running ability, just the vision and the instincts are just rare and unique,” said Chiefs general manager Brett Veach after selecting him with the 32nd overall pick. “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.”

Then there was the little matter of absorbing head coach Andy Reid’s complex playbook. That is more difficult than it might be on other teams — because on each play, everyone is expected to know every other player’s responsibilities.

As a rookie, Edwards-Helaire thought it was easy.

“I remember I got scrutinized for saying that the playbook wasn’t that hard to learn,” Edwards-Helaire told friend-of-the-site Nate Taylor of The Athletic, laughing. “It was three years in college where I needed to learn three different playbooks. But this is Year 3, and now I understand more the fine-tuned, pinpoint details of those little things.

“Coach Reid will tell us every other week that he’s still learning stuff about the offense, so you’ll never really become a master at it. You can only get as good as you want yourself to. That’s really what it’s been, just trying to learn everything and help where I can.”

But it wasn’t the only hill he’s had to climb. He had the misfortune to begin his NFL career amid the coronavirus pandemic, missing out on lots of on-field instruction as teams were forced to resort to virtual meetings, an abbreviated training camp and no preseason games.

Then during the fourth quarter of the Week 15 game against the New Orleans Saints, he suffered what looked like a brutal injury to his hip and ankle. He missed the rest of the regular season and saw only limited use during the postseason run.

In the offseason, Edwards-Helaire underwent gall bladder surgery, which again limited what he could do during the offseason program. And then, in his second season — after a rookie campaign in which he had gained 1,100 yards from scrimmage — he rushed for only 517 yards and caught just 19 passes for 129 yards. Critical fumbles in back-to-back losses to the Baltimore Ravens and Los Angeles Chargers were followed by knee and collarbone injuries that limited him to just 10 games in the regular season.

Edwards-Helaire says that in 2022, things are finally back on track.

“This offseason, it was pretty much getting back to the basics, being able to have a full offseason,” he told Taylor. “That was one of the things Coach Reid and I talked about. He said, ‘This is really your first real offseason in the NFL.’ Really, health was the biggest thing.”

And as Ron Kopp Jr. has noted in his “Reid Remix” series this summer, Edwards-Helaire needs things to change.

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 won’t make it easy on him.

Ron went on to explain that being able to use Edwards-Helaire in these situations will give the Chiefs an additional 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.

This has been the goal all along.

“Watching the Kansas City offense last year, they were big on getting the back out in space,” Edwards-Helaire told reporters immediately after he was drafted. “Any checkdown, any way the back can get out and run a route, that’s where I absolutely did most of my damage as far as being in the passing game [at LSU] — and that’s what Kansas City is big on and that’s what the foundation is built on: being able to get the ball in space and spread the ball out.”

But Edwards-Helaire told Taylor that in the Chiefs’ new-look offense — which will no longer be able to rely on wide receiver Tyreek Hill as the main target — he won’t be the only player who will be able to bring an unexpected wrinkle to any game.

“The great thing about this offense is that you can stick anybody anywhere,” he said. “As long as we know what we’re doing and executing, it can be unmatched depending on our matchups. I can line up from the 1, 2, 3 or 4-spot and run any route.

“Travis [Kelce] can do the same thing — from [Marquez Valdes-Scantling] to JuJu [Smith-Schuster] to Mecole [Hardman]. It just shows you that we can be as versatile as we want. It’s not the same thing that [opposing defenses] have been seeing the last six years.”

When Edwards-Helaire was selected in 2020, the Chiefs believed they were getting a player similar to Brian Westbrook, who was a pivotal contributor to Reid’s Philadelphia Eagles offense for nine seasons in the early 2000s. But it wasn’t until Westbrook’s third season that he exploded for 1,515 yards from scrimmage, divided between 177 rushes and 87 targets in the passing game.

Might the third season be the charm for Kansas City’s starting running back? We’re about to find out.

Be sure to check out Taylor’s full story on Edwards-Helaire in The Athletic.

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