Almost any team that selected a running back in the first round of the 2020 NFL draft would have been met with a resounding chorus of skepticism. The position’s value has dropped in recent seasons, and the 2020 class didn’t boast a prospect considered to be a transcendent talent. But when the Chiefs selected LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire with the no. 32 pick, the rich simply got richer. A few months later, with Edwards-Helaire in line for lead-back duties, Kansas City’s choice looks even wiser.
Damien Williams, the 2019 Chiefs’ leading rusher, opted out of the 2020 season on Wednesday due to COVID-19 concerns. Players have until Tuesday, August 4, to determine whether they will participate in the upcoming NFL season; at least 30 contracted players have decided to sit out. Williams’s decision will accelerate Edwards-Helaire’s assimilation into one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses.
Last season, Williams played an impactful role in the Chiefs offense, posting the best numbers of his career. He tallied a career-high 711 total yards (498 rushing, 213 receiving) across 11 regular-season appearances (six starts). But where he really shined was in the team’s Super Bowl run. In three playoff games, Williams amassed 196 rushing yards (4.3 yards per carry), 94 receiving yards, and six total touchdowns. Williams has rushed for 100 yards in a regular-season game three times in 85 games during his six-year career; he’s done so twice in six career playoff games, including his 104-yard performance in Kansas City’s championship win against the Niners.
The 28-year-old signed a two-year, $5.1 million extension in 2018. The final year of his contract, which has a base salary of $1.85 million, will toll to 2021 after his decision to opt out. Williams is the second Chiefs player to do so after starting right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, the first NFL player to publicly opt out, announced his decision last week.
“As an organization, we certainly understand and respect Damien’s choice, knowing it was made in the best interest of his family,” Chiefs general manager Brett Veach stated Wednesday. “He means a lot to our football team as a player and a person, and we’re going to miss having him around this season.”
Regardless of one’s stance in the Great Running Back Value Debate, the reigning champions entering the new season without their two leading rushers is noteworthy (LeSean McCoy was no. 2 and is a free agent)—even if Kansas City featured three different starting running backs last season (Williams, six games; McCoy, nine; Spencer Ware, one) and passed on first down at the league’s fourth-highest frequency, per Sharp Football. Williams was the Chiefs’ most versatile backfield option, a capable receiver who fit nicely next to superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes and his elite receiving corps. Kansas City has lacked a go-to running back since the team cut Kareem Hunt in 2018. Now Edwards-Helaire is set to become that player—and he looks perfectly fit for the task.
In 2019 at LSU, Edwards-Helaire rushed for 1,414 yards and 16 touchdowns, averaging 6.6 yards per carry as a junior. He added 55 receptions for 453 yards and one touchdown, helping power the Tigers to a national championship. The 5-foot-7, 207-pound back thrived in offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger’s offense, both as a runner and as a receiver. Edwards-Helaire registered more than half of his rushing yards (782) after contact last season, which ranked 23rd-most per Pro Football Focus. His 71 missed tackles forced ranked 13th and he posted an impressive elusive rating of 115.5.
we gotta get chris berman to narrate clyde edwards-helaire's highlight tape bc there are a LOT of WHOOP! moments pic.twitter.com/WuQxTZY1xO— Danny Kelly (@DannyBKelly) February 17, 2020
Pro comps have ranged for Edwards-Helaire, but one of the most interesting might be Brian Westbrook. The two-time Pro Bowler played under coach Andy Reid for eight seasons as the Eagles’ featured do-it-all back from 2002 to 2009. In 2007, he earned first-team All-Pro honors and led the league in yards from scrimmage (2,104), recording 1,333 rushing and 771 receiving. When Veach told Reid to view Edwards-Helaire’s tape, Reid was so impressed that he asserted the LSU product is better than Westbrook. It wouldn’t be surprising if Reid noticed some of Williams’s game in Edwards-Helaire, too.
Though Williams is a much bigger back (he’s 5-foot-11, 224 pounds), the two share some traits, with the clearest being that both are tremendous receiving options out of the backfield. In LSU’s offense Edwards-Helaire split out wide and featured in the slot throughout the season, and he was also effective crossing the face of box defenders on angle routes and as a safety valve in the flat for Heisman winner and Bengals no. 1 pick, Joe Burrow. In the national championship, Edwards-Helaire turned some catches into big gains. During the Chiefs’ Super Bowl win, Williams had some similar plays, juking out defenders along the boundary.
Edwards-Helaire’s combination of burst, balance, and tenacity is impressive. He ran a 4.61-second 40-yard dash at the combine, so he doesn’t have a great second gear, but his 1.53-second 10-yard split and 39.5-inch vertical jump indicate his explosive ability.
This offseason, Mahomes inked the richest deal in American sports history and became a partial owner of MLB’s Kansas City Royals. But before that, the signal-caller helped persuade Veach and Reid to consider selecting Edwards-Helaire, a move that looks prescient now that the rookie is in line for the starting job. Edwards-Helaire marks the ninth running back to be drafted in the first round since 2015; six of those players have recorded at least one 1,000-yard rushing season. Edwards-Helaire could become the seventh, in an offense that—despite ranking 23rd in rushing last year with 98.1 rush yards per game—should provide him ample opportunity.
There’s little competition for Edwards-Helaire to become the lead back. The Chiefs signed former Raiders backup DeAndre Washington to a one-year deal this offseason, and although he’s also now in line for an increased role, he shouldn’t eat too much into Edwards-Helaire’s touches. Neither should returning backups Darwin Thompson and Darrel Williams.
Edwards-Helaire should greatly benefit from Mahomes’s presence, which leads to less congested boxes at the line of scrimmage. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Williams and McCoy faced boxes with eight defenders or more on a combined 19 percent of their carries, the second-lowest percentage of any pair of teammates last season (Cardinals’ Kenyan Drake and David Johnson, 14.1 percent). Perhaps it’s part of the reason, even before Williams’s decision, Edwards-Helaire expressed so much confidence.
“I’ve only been on the earth for 21 years and I’ve been playing football ever since I was 5, so this is what I do,” he told reporters Saturday. “I can’t wait. … Everything here is perfect for me and I can’t wait.”