It’s a game we play every season. Which young player is going to break out this season and become a star? For this season, I’m feeling pretty good if I’m a Kansas City Chiefs fan because this is Clyde Edwards-Helaire’s year.
The Chiefs drafted Edwards-Helaire with the final pick of the first round in the 2020 draft, and he began the season as their starter when Damien Williams opted out for the year. He had a promising start to his career with a 25-carry, 138-yard performance against the Houston Texans in Week 1. The LSU product continued his high level of production over the next several weeks, adding in some solid receiving numbers out of the backfield as well.
Then, Kansas City signed Le’Veon Bell following his departure from the New York Jets after he had expressed his discontent with the team. Once Bell joined the Chiefs, Edwards-Helaire’s production numbers immediately declined. He went from having no fewer than 10 rushes with as many as 26 each game to three straight appearances with eight rushing attempts or fewer. For the rest of the season, Edwards-Helaire never had another game with 20 rushes or more.
In the back half of the 2020 season, Edwards-Helaire and Bell split carries just about evenly. Bell finished with 63 carries to Edwards-Helaire’s 74. Both players scored four touchdowns in the final 10 games, and each averaged 4.03 yards per carry over those games. Neither had significantly more receptions or targets than the other as a pass-catcher—though, of Bell’s four touchdowns, two were receiving, whereas Edwards-Helaire just had one.
In all, Kansas City’s decision to bring in Bell gave them more depth in the backfield and it allowed them to take pressure off their rookie running back—who they likely would not have started had Williams not opted out of the 2020 season. It also gave Edwards-Helaire the chance to learn from and develop behind Bell, a seven-year veteran running back who was dominant at his peak.
Now that Bell and Williams are gone, the sophomore running back looks to be on the verge of a real breakout season in Kansas City. With only Darrel Williams and Jerick McKinnon on the depth chart behind him, Edwards-Helaire’s carries and production will probably look a lot more like what we saw at the beginning of his rookie year. Before Bell arrived, Edwards-Helaire was averaging 84 yards per game on around 18 carries each week for six weeks. After that, he averaged 42.6 yards per game with a weekly average of 10.6 carries.
Based on his initial performances, Edwards-Helaire was on pace to finish the season with well over 1,000 yards on a little less than 290 carries. As the primary back for Kansas City with no one to share the load, Edwards-Helaire would get more carries and yardage regardless of how the rest of the Chiefs’ offense looked. What makes him an even likelier candidate for a breakout year is the diminished receiver corps in Kansas City.
With the departure of X receiver Sammy Watkins, the Chiefs had to re-sign Demarcus Robinson after a 2020 season that was the best of his career. They also brought in former Colt Daurice Fountain, who spent more of his first two years with Indianapolis’ practice squad than the active roster. Patrick Mahomes is gonna Patrick Mahomes regardless, but it’s significant that the Chiefs didn’t do all that much to re-up at WR2. It’s especially significant for those looking for a breakout season from Edwards-Helaire, as Andy Reid and the Chiefs may begin to lean just a bit more on their run game.
But don’t only look to see Edwards-Helaire contributing on the ground. Hill and Kelce will likely continue to be Mahomes’ primary receiving targets, with Mecole Hardman likely right behind them. After that, we may see a lot more of the sophomore back catching passes out of the backfield. He’s already proven he is a more than capable option, having caught exactly two-thirds of his 54 targets with just three drops in 2020 and finishing his rookie season with 36 receptions for 297 yards and a touchdown.
Any way I look at it, I see a breakout 2021 season on the horizon for the young Chiefs running back. If Kansas City relies on the run more often than last year, Edwards-Helaire will have more carries and yards on the ground, especially without splitting carries. If they continue forward with the passing attack, he still won’t be sharing the backfield with another running back when they do decide to run, and the loss of Watkins means we’ll probably also see more targets for the sophomore running back.
Watch out for Clyde Edwards-Helaire this season, folks.