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Without Tyreek Hill, Chiefs receiving load shifting to tight ends and backs

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- One of the reasons the Kansas City Chiefs drafted running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the first round of the 2020 draft was his skill as a receiver. Edwards-Helaire showed good hands, a touch for running routes and a gift for making defenders miss in the open field at LSU, where he caught 55 passes his final season in 2019.

That ability is finally beginning to show with the Chiefs.

"I am 1,010% confident in my hands," Edwards-Helaire said. "I feel like I am one of the best pass-catchers as far as running backs in the league. I will completely stand on that. That's just one of those things that [offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy] and Coach [Andy] Reid are trying to get implemented."

That's the case this season for quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs more than in recent seasons. Edwards-Helaire is one of the beneficiaries as the pass-catching load has shifted through the first four games of the post-Tyreek Hill era from wide receivers to tight ends and running backs.

Tight ends, led by Travis Kelce, and running backs have 54% of the Chiefs' catches, 48% of their yards and 82% of their receiving touchdowns. Those numbers are up from last season, when their backs and tight ends provided 46% of the receptions, 43% of the yards and 46% of the touchdowns.

"That's what we do," Edwards-Helaire said. "We throw the ball to everybody."

The Chiefs are one of three teams this season with less than 20% of their touchdown receptions coming from a wide receiver. No team has finished a season below 20% since the Chiefs infamously had no touchdown catches from a wide receiver in 2014.

The 2004 New York Giants are the only other team since 2000 to finish a season under 20%.

The Chiefs' results aren't a complete surprise given not only that the Chiefs traded Hill (their top wide out in each of the past six seasons) but also watched two other main wide receivers, Byron Pringle and Demarcus Robinson, depart in free agency.

The Chiefs went out in free agency to sign wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling. They also drafted Skyy Moore in the second round.

But it was evident in training camp that the Chiefs' depth in terms of skill players was no longer at wide receiver. At running back, the Chiefs have Edwards-Helaire and Jerick McKinnon, and one of the surprise stars of camp, rookie Isiah Pacheco, a seventh-round draft pick.

At tight end, the Chiefs have not only Kelce but welcomed back Jody Fortson, who missed most of last season with a torn Achilles tendon. Fortson has developed into a reliable red zone target for Mahomes, as both of Fortson's catches this season have gone for touchdowns.

All three of their tight ends scored a touchdown in last week's win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- Noah Gray's touchdown came on a running play after he took the direct snap from center.

The Chiefs use two tight ends on 30% of their snaps, the seventh highest percentage in the league. They use three tight ends on 12% of their plays, more than all but one other team.

"It kind of puts defenses in a predicament," Mahomes said of the Chiefs' three-TE formations. "They want to put their base personnel on the field, they want to put out bigger people because we can run the football like we did [against the Bucs, when the Chiefs ran for 189 yards].

"When they don't, we have to be able to run it, and when they do, we have tight ends that can split out and run routes. I think you saw that with Jody down there on the goal line against a Pro Bowl corner running a slant route and catching it in the end zone. You saw Noah out there making plays. It shows that we have the tight ends, and when we get Blake [Bell] back, we have another guy that can block and still make some catches as well."

Bell hasn't played this season because of a hip injury. He is eligible to return from injured reserve, and when he's back, the Chiefs will have a fourth tight end. Kelce said he would lobby Reid to use all four together at times.

"I'll make sure I talk to coach Reid about that one," said Kelce, who leads the Chiefs with 26 catches and 322 yards. "Shout out the tight end."

Edwards-Helaire is the Chiefs' leading receiver among running backs with 13 catches. He is also tied with Kelce for the team lead in receiving touchdowns with three.

But the Chiefs frequently use their other two backs. The Chiefs like McKinnon on third downs for his ability as a receiver and pass-blocker. Pacheco has forced his way into the lineup with his running ability, though he has yet to catch a pass.

"We know Clyde is good and [McKinnon] can play," Reid said. "These guys are all good, they're all talented.

"It's more of a learning experience with [Pacheco], and the more you see, the more you utilize him and Clyde on the first downs and [McKinnon] on the third downs. He does such a good job there."

Edwards-Helaire is already closing in on the 19 passes he caught last season. He had 36 catches as a rookie.

By all indications, he'll easily pass that number this season.

"It was something that we wanted to do as far as coming out and showing that we can pass the ball around," Edwards-Helaire said. "It wasn't like 'Oh, we're going to go out here and pinpoint one thing and try to get that done.' We know who we have at quarterback, and we know all the weapons that we have as far as receivers and in the running back room."