Isiah Pacheco is Headed for Top-10 Upside in 2024

Jul 09, 2024
Isiah Pacheco is Headed for Top-10 Upside in 2024

More than anything, Isiah Pacheco is known for running like he has serious beef with the grass. But perhaps lost a little in his visually entertaining running style — and the long Kansas City shadows of Patrick Mahomes and Taylor Swift — Pacheco has quickly developed into one of the better running backs in fantasy. He finished as the RB16 last season despite missing three games and then shouldered 81 of 92 running back carries through the team’s Super Bowl run. Now entering his third season, Pacheco may be headed for a true RB1 breakout.

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Opportunity, Opportunity, Opportunity

In real estate, it’s all about location, location, location. In fantasy football, especially at the running back position, it’s all about opportunity. And Pacheco has seen a steady upward trend in his opportunity ever since he was drafted with the 251st overall pick of the 2022 draft — just 11 picks before Mr. Irrelevant Brock Purdy, by the way.

For the first nine weeks of his rookie season, Pacheco played second or third fiddle to a hodge-podge of Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Jerick McKinnon. Then in Week 10 of the 2022 season (the second week out of Kansas City’s bye), Pacheco earned a career-high 16 opportunities and has essentially ruled the backfield ever since. Edwards-Helaire — a former first-round pick — became a healthy scratch from Week 12 on that year, while McKinnon settled into a roughly 60-40 timeshare behind Pacheco.

Since that Week 10 changing of the guard, Pacheco has averaged 17.6 opportunities per game and scored 15 touchdowns in 30 games (including the playoffs). Last year, he had at least 15 opportunities in 15 of the 18 games he played and averaged 23.3 in the postseason. Meanwhile, CEH saw single-digit opportunities in all but three games — two of which Pacheco missed — and McKinnon (now 32 years old) was a healthy scratch for six of the last seven games of the year (activated to play 17 snaps in the Super Bowl).

While the Chiefs did re-sign Edwards-Helaire this offseason (after declining his fifth-year option), it was to a minuscule $1.7 million, one-year deal. And McKinnon was finally allowed to walk in free agency (though he remains unsigned as of early July). The team did not prioritize the position in free agency or the draft, leaving the depth chart stocked with names like Deneric Prince (a 2023 undrafted free agent), Keaontay Ingram (former Cardinal with 70 career touches), and undrafted rookies Emani Bailey and Louis Rees-Zammit.

In other words, this backfield is Pacheco’s entering 2024. It’s tough to project him for any less than 15 carries per game, and there’s upside for closer to 20. Plus, with McKinnon and his three to four targets per game out of the picture, Pacheco could also see a big boost to his receiving upside — he had 23 catches over his last six games of 2023 (including playoffs), five of which McKinnon was inactive. Only seven backs saw 20+ opportunities per game last year and six of those seven finished top-10 in points per game (Rachaad White was 14th). Pacheco has a legitimate shot to join that company this season.

Arrow Up for Chiefs Offense?

Last season, the Chiefs ranked ninth in total offense (351.3 yards per game), 15th in scoring offense (21.8 points per game), and scored just 37 offensive touchdowns (tied with the Vikings, Colts, and Texans for 15th). Unsurprisingly, those were all the worst numbers of the Patrick Mahomes era … by a lot.

Chiefs Offense by Season, Patrick Mahomes Era
Season PPG (NFL Rank) Total YPG (NFL Rank) Off. TDs (NFL Rank)
2023 21.8 (T-15th) 351.3 (9th) 37 (T-15th)
2022 29.2 (1st) 413.6 (1st) 59 (1st)
2021 28.2 (4th) 396.8 (3rd) 53 (5th)
2020 29.6 (6th) 415.8 (1st) 53 (8th)
2019 28.2 (5th) 379.2 (6th) 46 (T-7th)
2018 35.3 (1st) 425.6 (1st) 66 (1st)

The big question, of course, is why? Why did Kansas City rank lower in all three categories than they ever had in any of the categories prior? Was it the departure of offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy? Perhaps the vastly improved defense simply eliminated the need for constant Mahomesian fireworks? Or maybe it was the general incompetence of the receivers, whose 33 drops were third-most in the entire league and whose 72.9 PFF receiving grade ranked 20th?

Most likely, it was a combination of all of the above, to varying degrees. But there is little reason for concern and plenty of hope for positive regression in 2024. The team will now be a year into the (second) Matt Nagy era … and remember that they were a top-10 scoring offense in three of his five seasons with the Alex-Smith-Chiefs back in the mid-2010s. The defense should still be solid, but “best in the NFL” is hard to repeat and we can likely expect a small dip. And the front office addressed the receiver problem by adding Hollywood Brown in free agency and Xavier Worthy with the 28th overall pick. Plus, simply put, if you’re not betting on a Patrick Mahomes offense to bounce back to the top of the table, you’re not betting wisely.

Obviously, this offensive resurgence would matter a ton to Pacheco. Last year, he accounted for 19% of the offense’s yards and 24% of its touchdowns. Let’s say we conservatively project the 2024 Chiefs for 90% of their average offensive production from 2018-2022 — that would be 375 scrimmage yards per game and three touchdowns per game (both improvements over their 2023 marks). If we also conservatively hold Pacheco’s same share percentages, that would translate to more than 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns in a full season, making him a fringe RB1 most years. If we give the offense 100% of their prior averages and bump Pacheco’s shares even a little, you could be looking at a season with 1,500+ yards and 15+ scores.

Why Isiah Pacheco?

Based on the positive trends for both Pacheco’s usage and the Chiefs offense, it feels like fringe-RB1 is very nearly the floor, assuming health. The 25-year-old back is sitting at RB11 in both aggregate ADP and 4for4 rankings, so he’s priced correctly … but is more likely to return value on that investment than to bust or disappoint. The last time a Chiefs RB hit those 1,200 yards and 12-TD markers in a season, it was Kareem Hunt in 2018 … and he finished as the RB11 (on just 207 touches). Pacheco feels far safer than guys like Rachaad White, James Cook, and Alvin Kamara right behind him, while simultaneously offering the rare upside of a bellcow back in an elite offense.

The Bottom Line

  • With the departure of Jerick McKinnon and the general lack of significant depth on the Kansas City depth chart, Isiah Pacheco may be in line for the biggest fantasy opportunity of his career.
  • Given the track record for Patrick Mahomes, Andy Reid, and the Chiefs, this offense is set to bounce back to elite status in 2024, opening up more fantasy points for its lead players … like Pacheco.
  • Pacheco’s average draft price of RB11 is fairly accurate, but closer to his floor than his ceiling — meaning he’s more likely to return value than to depreciate throughout the season.
  • Arguably part of a three-back tier with Travis Etienne and De’Von Achane at the 3-4 turn in drafts, Pacheco offers the best combination of floor and ceiling and would be my preferred pick after the top eight at the position are gone.
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