News & Analysis

Kansas City Chiefs running back Damien Williams opts out of the 2020 NFL season, boosting Clyde Edwards-Helaire up fantasy football draft boards

Damien Williams sent shockwaves across the fantasy community on Wednesday by opting out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19. His absence will leave first-round rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire with less competition for touches, and these aren't the everyday variety of touches — these come from the hand of King Midas himself, Andy Reid.

Since 2010, every back in Reid's system who played at least 15 games has turned to fantasy gold with a top-eight finish.

Season 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019
Rank 3 2 16 1 7 51 16 4 12 37
Games 15 15 12 15 15 13 14 16 11 11

Kareem Hunt likely would have added another in 2018 — he was averaging the eighth-most points per game (20.9) before being cut. Williams eclipsed 50% of snaps in seven games in 2019, averaging 17.2 fantasy points per game. It's a small sample but would have ranked 10th-best on the season.

Before the Williams news, Edwards-Helaire already had two ingredients for success: talent and schematic fit. The Chiefs' first-rounder was the fourth-ranked running back in the PFF 2020 NFL Draft Guide, where Mike Renner compared his skill set to Ray Rice.

The only uncertainty was whether CEH would be splitting time with Williams or eased into the primary role. With Williams out of the picture, CEH climbs into my second tier of running backs (RB1 with a path to elite utilization but unproven). He is my sixth-ranked running back.

The following is a dissection of each factor in Edwards-Helaire's updated ranking along with thoughts on the rest of the backfield depth chart.

TALENT

The best finishes in Reid's offenses haven't been completely scheme-driven — he has coached some talented players over that span:

When asked about his new toy in the post-NFL Draft press conference, Reid went with a throwback, comparing CEH to Brian Westbrook.

“Those kind of players like Brian, Brian is one of those future Hall of Fame players that could do everything for you,” Reid said. “Even though they weren't the biggest guys, he just knew how to play the game. That's how we felt about this kid. He just knows how to play the game. He can block for you. He can run routes. He's got tremendous vision and lateral abilities with cuts and route running, all those things.”

Here is how Edwards-Helaire's PFF collegiate data from 2018 to 2019 stacks up with some of the areas Reid addresses:

College RBs 2018-19 (min. 300 rushing attempts/300 receiving snaps/ 100 pass-block snaps)
Category Result Rank
Pass Blocking Grade 64.9 71 of 126
Receiving Grade 67.3 24 of 67
Rushing Grade 92 6 of 59
Missed tackles forced/attempt 0.29 5 of 50
Yards after contact/attempt 3.5 18 of 50
Yards per route run 1.12 21 of 50

Edwards-Helaire was one of the most electric backs in the NCAA on the ground over the past two seasons. His top-six rushing grade and high rankings in missed tackles forced per attempt and yards after contact provide some compelling evidence to support Reid's admiration.

CEH's pass-blocking grade was in the bottom half of qualifiers, which could be an area of concern. None of the remaining backs on the Chief's roster faired well in this category in 2019, so average to below-average might be enough to stay on the field.

Kansas City kept a RB in to block on 14% of dropbacks last season — 3 percentage points below the NFL average. Running routes wasn't an issue for Edwards-Helaire, as only four NCAA backs played more receiving snaps (482) than CEH over the past two seasons. His receiving grade and yards per route run were well above average.

SCHEMATIC FIT

Talent is essential, but equally important is the ability to unleash it.

Back to Reid: “With him, his strengths are his ability to run the zone scheme and the gap scheme that they did at LSU. He has a unique ability to push the line of scrimmage in the run game and make his lateral cut and then accelerate up the field.”

The Chiefs deployed a zone-blocking scheme on 70% of their rushing attempts in 2019, 15 percentage points above the NFL average. In 2019, Edwards-Helaire was the highest-graded zone runner (90.7) in the nation out of 101 players with a minimum of 100 attempts. He was the 10th-best (82.7) out of 114 qualifiers when running behind man and power concepts. 

UTILIZATION

The No. 1 ingredient for fantasy success is volume. During the post-draft presser, Reid remarked on the need to spread some of that volume around, which raised a few eyebrows.

“I think he fits in with the backs we have,” Reid said. “You can't do it with just one guy in today's football, so we've got a whole lot of these guys now. You've got a few things you can draw from.”

Here are Reid's starting running back attempts, attempts inside the 5 and target shares after adjusting for games played:

2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019
Attempts 52% 66% 66% 63% 52% 45% 60% 67% 68% 43%
Inside 5 40% 67% 40% 71% 44% 38% 46% 75% 34% 16%
Targets 16% 12% 14% 19% 11% 8% 9% 11% 8% 9%

In six of the last 10 seasons, Reid's lead back has topped 60% of the team's rushing attempts. The backup never eclipsed the starter target share in any season. Inside the 5-yard line, he has shown a willingness to get an additional back involved. Given Reid's comments and CEH's role at LSU, he is probably a lock for most of the passing-down work, but one of the other backs could poach carries closer to paydirt.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The most substantial risk to Edwards-Helaire's path to volume is pass blocking, but it is slightly minimized because the Chiefs ask backs to block less than other teams. He should be an immediate fit in the zone-run scheme and will get ample matchup opportunities via the air. Expect him to top 60% of attempts, earn 45-50% of attempts inside the 5 and approach a 10% target share. He is a viable first-round pick in all formats and has the headroom to finish as a top-three back.

Darwin Thompson, Darrel Williams, Elijah McGuire and Deandre Washington round out the rest of the backfield. We will have to keep an eye on this situation through camp, but Williams could be the most likely candidate to push for short down-and-distance work. Williams struggled in pass pro in 2019. He is draftable in deep bench leagues and could carry a little extra value in standard leagues.

Washington signed a one-year deal this offseason, but only $137,500 is guaranteed, making him a natural cut candidate. However, he is the best pass blocker of this group with season grades of 77.2, 70.9, 83.8 and 75.4. If he makes the team, it will be noteworthy — it could signal one of CEH or Thompson not being ready.

McGuire also signed this offseason on a one-year $750,000 deal. He was solid in pass pro in 2017 but regressed some in 2018. He is likely battling Washington for a spot and has the upper hand given his contract is fully guaranteed.

Theoretically, Thompson carries the most upside as the handcuff to Edwards-Helaire, but this isn't a lock. The last two times Reid's primary back has gone down during the season, he opted for a committee. Thompson is draftable in all formats as a priority lottery ticket, along with Alexander Mattison, Tony Pollard, Boston Scott, Chase Edmonds and Darrynton Evans.

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