That is what Jerick McKinnon brought on Sunday Night Football against the Steelers. In gaining an impressive 142 total yards on 18 touches, McKinnon was a large contributor on the Kansas City Chiefs offense, turning in possibly the best single-game performance by a running back this year for the team.
He also should have informed general manager Brett Veach of a truth he will have to fix this offseason: The Chiefs need new blood at running back. In facing this truth, Veach will need to acknowledge a tough fact; his only first-round pick so far as the Chiefs' general manager will probably not work out.
In fairness to Veach, even I was wrong about Clyde Edwards-Helaire coming out of the draft. I personally loved his tape as the lead back of a historic LSU offense. His game against Alabama was incredible. His skills as a receiver out of the backfield and split out wide were exceptional for a college running back. When the Chiefs took Edwards-Helaire at pick 32, even I thought that it was a pick that would pay some dividends (even though the value of a running back in the first round is not great). He seemed like a great fit for the Chiefs.
We were both wrong — at least so far.
The Chiefs have not used Edwards-Helaire how LSU used him in college, with his relative non-usage as a receiver being especially baffling. Two years into his career with the Chiefs, it is time for the question to change from, “why are the Chiefs misusing Edwards-Helaire?” to “what is going on in practice and training camp to cause Edwards-Helaire to be invisible in the passing game?”
Andy Reid had no issue fully utilizing Jamaal Charles and Kareem Hunt in the passing game in the past. Heck, Spencer Ware had more receiving yards in 2016 than Clyde Edwards-Helaire has had in his first two years with the Chiefs combined! Players sometimes just do not translate 1:1 when transitioning to the NFL, and maybe Edwards-Helaire is one such case.
Edwards-Helaire’s athletic testing should have also been a bigger red flag. His relative athletic score (or RAS), which is a score that compares prospects testing numbers to historical prospect data at the position, showed he was an average athlete. Remember, this means that out of all running backs that tested at the combine or at their Pro Day since 1987, Edwards-Helaire was just average.
This has shown up on the field already during his career. He does not seem to have the ability to create breakaway runs at the pro level. He had nine runs last year of 15 or more yards, which was tied for 12th in the NFL with running backs such as Devin Singletary and James Conner. Not bad, but not good.
That rate plummeted this year. Edwards-Helaire has only had one game containing rushes of 15 or more yards: Week 4 against the Eagles. There is no explosion from him this year, and it has hurt the Chiefs' offense. To be fair to Edwards-Helaire, the injury he sustained heading into the year might have affected him more than the Chiefs let on, thus leading to this reduction in explosive runs. However, his susceptibility to injury has also been an issue.
The lack of athleticism is not just a knock against Edwards-Helaire. Fellow running back Darrel Williams tested very poorly coming out of college, running a 4.72 40-yard dash and having a RAS of 4.58. Derrick Gore was not much better either, running a 4.63 40 and having a RAS of 4.68. With a score of 5 being the average RAS, both tested at a below-average level.
None of this should be too much of a surprise. While each one of the three aforementioned running backs has had short spurts of quality play, their limitations as athletes have been apparent when watching them play. Whether it be in the open field or on outside zone rushes, it's obvious. These limitations have handicapped a Chiefs rushing offense that should be running the ball with great efficiency.
The Chiefs' offensive line has had an incredible year of run blocking. Pro Football Focus has the Chiefs as the third-best run blocking team overall for the year. ESPN’s Run Block Win Rate also has the Chiefs high on their list. By all accounts, running backs should have plenty of success behind the Chiefs' rebuilt offensive line.
Pairing that with the knowledge that the Chiefs have seen incredibly light boxes this year, there is no reason any running back in the offense should not be incredibly efficient.
With these numbers in mind, the Chiefs’ running backs efficiency numbers for the year look paltry.
- Edwards-Helaire: 4.3 yards yer carry
- Williams: 3.9 YPC
- Gore: 5.0 YPC (4.1 YPC when excluding his 51-yard run against the Raiders)
The efficiency — the juice — is just not there.
Enter Jerick McKinnon. Mckinnon showed a dimension against the Steelers that Chiefs running backs have not shown this year: pure athleticism.
McKinnon is small like Edwards-Helaire, coming in at a generous 5-foot-8. However, his athletic testing was fantastic. Mckinnon was a 9.78 RAS athlete coming out of college and ran a 4.41 40-yard dash with excellent agility drills to boot. Even considering his injuries over the years, it was plain to see on Sunday that he is still a great athlete.
This athleticism is what the Chiefs have been sorely missing this year. The speed to get to the edge, the agility to break tackles and the ability for a running back to make a play on their own rather than just getting just what the offensive line created by blocking. McKinnon brought all of these tools on Sunday, and it provided the Chiefs a new dimension they will very much need going forward in the playoffs.
Speaking of the playoffs, the Chiefs have a pretty clear answer for the running back room going forward. McKinnon should be the featured back as long as he can stay healthy. He knew enough of the playbook that he could play 78% of the snaps against the Steelers, so it seems like that will not be a limiter for him. There is no reason someone like Edwards-Helaire, even when he's back from injury, should supplant McKinnon.
After this season, the performance by Jerick Mckinnon should open the possibility for the Chiefs to add to their running back room. Again, the room needs fresh blood. With that said, the answer is probably not Mckinnon. He will be turning 30 next year and has had a history of injuries. This acquisition should be in the form of a mid-round draft pick (third or fourth round) or a free agent running back signing on the level of what Melvin Gordon was a few years ago when he signed with the Broncos (a two-year/$9.5 million contract).
Overreacting to this problem by trading for someone like Christian McCaffrey or taking another running back in the first round should definitely not be considered, but Veach should be aggressive in finding new legs to add to the running back room. Even if Edwards-Helaire remains the lead back, there should be direct competition to him from someone who is a quality NFL athlete. That means no more running backs with the athletic profile of Darrel Williams.
McKinnon’s performance on Sunday should not only have lasting implications for the rest of the playoffs, but even beyond. He needs to remain the starter for this postseason and then the Chiefs need to take a long, hard look at their running back room thereafter. The group they have right now is far from a disaster, but it has serious room for improvement. The Wild-Card round was a glimpse of what that potential future could look like.