Why Chiefs rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire is worth the hype

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- As a freshman at LSU in 2017, running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire received most of his playing time in practice against a defense loaded with future NFL players.

He would rush for just 31 yards during games that season, but thriving during those sessions against LSU's star-studded defense showed him he belonged. Over the next two seasons, Edwards-Helaire rushed for 1,916 yards and 24 total touchdowns before being drafted in the first round by the Kansas City Chiefs.

"My freshman year, I had guys across from me like Devin White and Arden Key, NFL-type caliber players on the defensive side of the ball and everything is pretty much live," Edwards-Helaire said. "It tends to just be fast. As far as coming here and making an adjustment, it was no real speed adjustment. The biggest adjustment is understanding what you have to do and what the details are and being a professional."

Edwards-Helaire arrived in Kansas City with plenty of hype. He was a star last season for LSU's national championship team and the first running back selected in the draft. By joining coach Andy Reid, quarterback Patrick Mahomes and one of the NFL's most imaginative and potent offensive teams, expectations on the field and in the world of fantasy football are already high.

In training camp, at least, he's lived up to those expectations. The Chiefs made him the featured back from the first snap of camp, and he looks like a fit. He has showed reliable hands, nifty moves and the ability to stay on his feet after contact.

"He's a hard worker," Mahomes said. "I think that's the first thing you can see from Day 1. He's always wanting to learn more. He's always wanting to get in every single rep they get him in and he's someone that's gotten better every single day, so I'm excited to have him, adapt him and evolve him more and more in the offense. And as he learns more, he'll progress and have more success every single day."

Edwards-Helaire was a significant part of the Chiefs' offensive plans from the moment he was drafted. He became a bigger figure shortly before camp started, when Damien Williams, the Chiefs' leading rusher last season and one of the stars of Super Bowl LIV, opted out of the season because of COVID-19 concerns.

Williams' decision was a significant one for the Chiefs, but the ground did not shift below Edwards-Helaire.

"I've always been a guy that felt like I just needed to be 100 percent tuned in from the beginning," Edwards-Helaire said. "I didn't have to flip a switch and feel like, 'Oh, now is the time.' Since the day I was drafted, I felt like, 'Get this playbook, start rolling and do my job.' There was never really a shell-shocking moment for me."

That doesn't mean Edwards-Helaire doesn't understand what he's walking into with the Chiefs.

"He's very hard on himself, and that can be good and bad," running backs coach Deland McCullough said. "He's somebody who is a perfectionist, who wants to have perfect practices. You know it would be nice to say you're going to have those, but you're not going to have those all the time, so you need to be able to take the good with the bad, but more in his case, take the bad and move forward. That's something we're really working on him with: 'Hey, you just got to play to the next play.'

"But very impressed with his demeanor, his approach to the game, things he does on the field, and he will correct himself even if there's something that goes off the rails. He'll come off and say, 'Man, I was supposed to run this,' or 'I should've looked the other way.' He's somebody who's constantly self-checking himself."

Nowhere is being on point as important as it is in pass protection, where Edwards-Helaire must pick up the blitz to give Mahomes time to throw. There's a lot to know: First comes the technique, then there's recognizing who's coming and from where, and then there's learning the Chiefs' blocking scheme. Reid doesn't always trust rookies with the job, but offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said he's satisfied with Edwards-Helaire's efforts.

"He understands the importance," Bieniemy said. "If you don't protect the quarterback, you can't play."

A preseason game or two could have allowed Edwards-Helaire to prove his ability as a blocker at live speed, but that's not an option in 2020. The last rookie feature back for the Chiefs, Kareem Hunt in 2017, earned regular-season playing time by knocking a pass-rusher off his feet during a preseason game.

"He's a real smart kid, so he's picking it up," Reid said. "He wants to be good, so that's a good combination to have, and he has the talent to go with it. He's strong. He's short, but he's strong. So he gets himself in good position with his quickness and his leverage and does a good job of protection. He has a pretty good base of what's going on with it -- who's coming, who the offensive line has and his responsibility. Reps will continue to help that."