Kareem Hunt’s early success could set up an impossible burden for Clyde Edwards-Helaire.
Kareem Hunt wasn’t even supposed to start for the Kansas City Chiefs. After Week 1, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
After the Chiefs selected Hunt, a running back out of Toledo, in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft, the plan was to partner Hunt in tandem with incumbent starter Spencer Ware, a former undrafted back who had earned the job with his surprising two-way skills in relief of Jamaal Charles. Unfortunately for Ware, a preseason injury to his knee (including a torn PCL) forced him to miss the entire year. Suddenly the Chiefs had a roster hole going into the regular season.
While Hunt was an exciting prospect, no one expected the sort of instant production he provided even after hearing of Ware’s injury. Charcandrick West was still on the roster and had experience as Ware’s tandem partner from the previous season. The hope was for Hunt to step up and fill Ware’s shoes while West saw an increased opportunity to showcase his skills.
If you’ve followed the Chiefs for the last few years, you know the rest of the story. Hunt exploded for 246 yards from scrimmage on national television against the New England Patriots on the road to open the season. He was an instant rookie sensation. He made fantasy owners scramble nationwide and gave Chiefs fans a new favorite player. Suddenly the Chiefs had an embarrassment of riches on offense. The NFL’s fastest player and best tight end could also start running with one of the most dangerous young running backs in the league.
Hunt would go on to win the league’s rushing title with 1,327 yards and he had nearly 1,800 total yards from scrimmage. He scored a total of 11 touchdowns that season and added another rushing touchdown in the team’s postseason loss to the Titans. With his combination of agility, contact balance, hands, and vision, his presence opened up an offense that was already complex and powerful. Nearly one year later, it would all disappear.
This story isn’t about what happened to Hunt, and we all likely know the story anyway of why he is no longer with Chiefs. Rather it’s important to refresh Hunt’s production on the field in our minds because the Chiefs have made a new investment at the position—one at a much more expensive level than before. Instead of a third round pick, they invested their first round selection in LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. And if the idea of being a first round pick doesn’t weigh heavy enough on the expectations, then the comparisons to Kareem Hunt will.
Coming into K.C., the question needs to be asked if fans are going to expect too much of Edwards-Helaire from the outset. If Hunt had 1,300-plus yards rushing and he was a third round pick, then how much better should Edwards-Helaire be? If Hunt caught that many passes from Alex Smith then how much more productive will CEH be with Patrick Mahomes under center? If Hunt was that good with Andy Reid as his head coach, what about a player who Reid said was a “better Brian Westbrook“?
There is no reason to doubt the addition of Clyde Edwards-Helaire to this offense. All parties involved are excited by his addition and swear on his incredible fit for what the Chiefs like to do offensively. The concern here is not about CEH’s productivity or fit or any of that. It’s about the expectations placed on him for this coming season, his rookie campaign.
Let’s not forget that the Chiefs have been vocal about having Edwards-Helaire working alongside Damien Williams in the backfield, just as Hunt was slated to work with Ware. The Chiefs also have Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins, Mecole Hardman and more as players who deserve significant targets. And with Mahomes captaining this ship, the Chiefs are going to remain as pass-heavy as ever in their offensive approach.
All of this is important because only five rookies other than Kareem Hunt have ever led the league in rushing. It just rarely happens. Hunt was thrust into the starting position by necessity and was a more focal part of the offense that had fewer worthy targets to consider. Edwards-Helaire will, instead, be a part-time back who might receive the majority of carries for a pass-heavy offense. There’s little doubt he will be productive, but Edwards-Helaire won’t be putting up bell cow numbers just yet.
Once Williams’ contract runs out at the end of 2020 (or if the Chiefs trade him), it makes sense to place bigger expectations on the shoulders of Edwards-Helaire. For now, however, we need to let CEH grow into his role and make sure the shadow of Kareem Hunt isn’t clouding our judgement of his rookie production.