Analyzing the value of the Kansas City Chiefs first-round draft pick running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire and how it impacts the team’s long-term plans.
Before I make any arguments about Kansas City Chiefs rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, I want to establish some common ground.
- Patrick Mahomes is the most valuable football player on the planet.
- Andy Reid is (without any doubt) the best offensive mind in football.
- Brett Veach and Reid deserve all the credit for being aggressive in drafting Mahomes as well as building a team that ended up winning the Super Bowl.
I think almost everyone can agree with those statements above. The good news for the 2020 season is that everything mentioned above remains true. Mahomes will be healthier. Reid will continue to lap the rest of the league with his brilliance. Steve Spagnuolo will find ways to utilize talent effectively on the defensive side of the ball. The “Legion of Zoom” will remain a nightmare for every single defensive coordinator.
All of this means the Chiefs have a nice margin for error. Mahomes, Reid and the rest of the offensive firepower is enough to erase almost any problem this team may have. In fact, if the Chiefs did not have a single pick in the 2020 draft, they would likely remain the favorites to win it all. That is how talented this team is.
My displeasure with the Clyde Edwards-Helaire pick does not change my excitement for the Chiefs upcoming season. It also does not change my belief that this team is going to rip through the AFC just as they have the last two seasons. Finally, it’s not a claim that I know football better than Andy Reid or did more research than Brett Veach.
However, based on what I do know, I believe this was a poor pick. If you do not care about the data-based argument I am about to articulate (or want to remain zealously optimistic), I can’t blame you. Sometimes the amount of nitpicking and negativity on the internet makes me want to bury my phone in the backyard. Maybe Mahomes wanting Clyde Edwards-Helaire is enough for you to be 100% on board. If so, that is great.
However, if you were unsure about this pick or want to briefly learn why all these nerds yell “running backs don’t matter.,” then let’s discuss CEH and how this pick impacts the Chiefs future.
Future Outlook and Team Building
Let’s look ahead to the year 2022. Patrick Mahomes has signed his extension for $40 million a year (or whatever will end up being the monstrous number). Tyreek Hill has one year remaining on his deal and is looking to sign an extension. Travis Kelce is a 32-year old free agent needing a new deal. Eric Fisher is 31 and is also an unrestricted free agent. Mitchell Schwartz is 33, and like these other two, is no longer under contract.
It is uncertain what the cornerback room looks like in 2022 because currently none of our corners have a contract longer than one year. Tyrann Mathieu, our beloved defensive weapon, will be 30 years old and, you probably guessed it, a free agent. The only thing for certain on this defense appears to be Juan Thornhill, on the last year of his rookie deal, and Frank Clark with a cap hit of $27 million. The uncertainty is daunting.
The draft provides optimism. It is a chance to address these future years now, before they become a problem. Extending that even further, the draft has less impact on the current year than it will on any other season in the next four years.
As we all observe, rookies in every area struggle with the speed and intensity of the NFL game, often taking time to adjust to their new surroundings. Luckily, there is data to back that up. An illuminating data study from PFF shows that across all positions rookies increase their production around 75% going into their second year—meaning rookies are usually a shell of their future selves when they first get to the NFL.
Interestingly, the only position that can be expected to produce in year one is running back. This truly lays the trap for fans and NFL GMs alike. Almost any running back drafted is capable of solid production, given the playing time. At first glance that sounds great. Edwards-Helaire can immediately produce on the field. Unfortunately, this is not unique to CEH. Other running backs drafted by the Chiefs would more than likely be productive. Whereas at every other position, only the best players excel in their rookie campaigns.
It may seem like we have plenty of time to plan for the 2022 season but important positions like offensive line, defensive line, wide receiver, and corner take years to develop into solid contributors.—and that’s if they’re not a bust. More than likely, many of these players will fail and it is hard to predict which ones will succeed and which will not. With that in mind, Veach should be targeting harder to fill positions as often as possible.
What makes Edwards-Helaire such a safe pick is ironically what makes it a bad pick. Any talented running back, given touches, will produce enough on the surface to justify their playing time. Continuing the optimism from before, this team does not need anything from this draft to be contenders in 2020 which gives us the luxury to plan for 2021 and beyond rather than fill an immediate need.
Positional Value and Clyde Edward-Helaire’s Impact
Even given the rationale that the Chiefs should be laser-focused on the 2020 Super Bowl, I am not sure CEH is a massive upgrade to the offense many are suggesting. Assuming he is great right away, the absolute maximum value we can expect is something like Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey got the ball 403 (targeted an additional 26 times) and produced 2,392 yards. Including the targets, that is about 5.5 yards per opportunity. In contrast, Damien Williams produced about 4.8 yards per opportunity in 2019.
The difference does not seem that large but consider how this fits within the context of the rest of the offense. Tyreek Hill sits at 9.6 yards per opportunity, Travis Kelce 9.0, Sammy Watkins 7.5, and Mecole Hardman at 13.0. The point here is that even if CEH turns out to be McCaffrey (or Kareem Hunt, whose rookie season earned 5.3 yards per opportunity), the other options on the offense are much better on a per-play basis.
Reid will likely continue to design plays that get these playmakers the ball which leaves our running back as maybe the 5th most efficient/important option. Checkdowns and outlets are important for an NFL offense but the success of those are more dependent on the quarterback’s decision making as well as the defense’s respect of other more dangerous options.
Edwards-Helaire will likely increase the value of our running back carries and targets, but the effect is smaller than most will realize. Just last year, Damien Williams was 4th among RB’s in forced missed tackles per touch (min 100 touches) per PFF. Does that mean Damien was untouchable? Absolutely not. I am glad Veach and Reid are trying to upgrade in every way possible. Going after running backs in this draft was something I wanted the Chiefs to do, just not with pick 32.
For those hoping that CEH will enhance the play-action game, there is significant evidence that he will have little to no effect in this area. This great piece by Ben Baldwin outlines how little running backs impact play action. Essentially, the success of play-action is driven by the players actually executing the play—the QB and his pass-catchers.
Seeking balance through running the ball more is a tired cliche. The Chiefs offense hums when the best player is touching the ball, and they are unstoppable when Mahomes is attacking downfield with his fleet of speed demons. Hopefully, Reid will integrate CEH in a way that does not interfere with this dynamic approach.
At that point, CEH is again relegated to an outlet rather than a weapon. Attempting to use CEH more like another wide receiver would increase his individual value, but if that is what we are seeking why not take an actual talented wide receiver?
Veach and the rest of the organization have plenty of work ahead of them. Once Mahomes receives his extension, the future will become more clear. Maybe the salary cap rises enough to offset the massive pay raise. Maybe both corners taken in the draft end up being solid contributors. Maybe Edwards-Helaire is literally McCaffrey and Reid will continue to pass 60%+ of the time. All of this is possible, but there are other scenarios that are not so rosy.
This draft pick, whoever was selected, might have not helped the future of the franchise. It is always a shot in the dark. But by selecting a running back, the Chiefs decided to marginally upgrade a position, rather than attack future areas of need.