Depending on when you found out about him, Isiah Pacheco’s “this kid could be special” moment could vary from person to person. For some, it might’ve come from his time as the standout star on an offensively-challenged Rutgers offense where yards sometimes proved difficult to come by. For others, it could’ve been his decision to don the celebrated Kansas City Chiefs No. 10 jersey — admitting no pressure despite knowing exactly who wore it beforehand.
For many — including myself — that moment came during one of Pacheco’s first-ever press conferences, in which he concluded that he was “ready to take another grown man’s job.”
Regardless of when that moment came into fruition, two things are true: by virtue of his play in both training camp and in the Chiefs’ opening preseason frame, the seventh-round talent appears both poised to take a job for his own and also carve out an early role as a day one contributor for this 2022-23 group.
It’s been said throughout the week, but that Pacheco only played eight snaps — including three with the Patrick Mahomes-led first-team — means exponentially more than if he had played, say, 25 snaps. It signifies that head coach Andy Reid and staff know exactly what they have in him. Grooming him towards a sizable role could be on standby. Those with an even more tangible pulse on the Chiefs internally, like The Athletic’s Nate Taylor, view Pacheco’s rise as something that could lead to both Ronald Jones II and Derrick Gore’s releases as the team eventually cuts down to a 53-man roster.
Eight snaps and a heap of praise during training camp shouldn’t be enough to start coronating Pacheco as the guy. That applies especially now that outside observers have a little bit more knowledge of what Clyde Edwards-Helaire has overcome, from the gallbladder surgery to now and finally having his first full, normal offseason as a professional.
The feelings are mutual among Edwards-Helaire's supporters in that something has to give at some point, in terms of him being healthy, putting everything together and returning the value on 2020’s first-round investment. Edwards-Helaire deserves that opportunity. Realistically, though, history deserves to be noted: injuries, all along the same leg have already forced the talented Edwards-Helaire out of the lineup in 14 of a possible 39 games in his young NFL career, including the postseason.
To follow the trends of how the Chiefs’ backfield (and Andy Reid-led backfields) have looked in the past, it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary if Pacheco, at his current trajectory, shifted the room a bit even without an injury. Especially if one of the running backs — be it Edwards-Helaire, Pacheco, Jerick McKinnon, etc. — starts to cash in on those light boxes, incentivizing to trust the run game further.
Pacheco, already drawing comparisons to Kareem Hunt, has the vibes of a player who could take advantage of that with his physical, punishing running style. Reid’s comments about him not shying away from anything felt (personally) unnerving considering Edwards-Helaire had a run on that opening drive where he needed just a yard and didn’t get it. There’s perhaps no correlation nor long-term importance, though it stood out.
Thinking back on Pacheco, analysis of his college play paints the picture of a back who played behind such a fruitless offensive line that he sometimes lacked patience and merely had to get what he could. Playing behind perhaps the NFL’s best interior linemen gives him the opportunity to rewrite that portion of his career arc.
To look back into that history: it wasn’t too long ago that the Chiefs went to the Super Bowl, literally with an undrafted back as their bell-cow in Damien Williams. It wasn’t as though they hid him, either: he averaged 15.3 totes, the third-most of any back that postseason. If more proof is needed that the hot hand is more important than any particular name or draft pick, just consider the Chiefs’ game-for-game rushing attempt leaders.
Across 20 games last year, Edwards-Helaire led the team in eight games, followed by Darrel Williams with five, Patrick Mahomes — yes, the quarterback — with three games and Derrick Gore with one. The postseason leader? None of those guys. McKinnon was tops in rushing attempts in all three games.
Even further back, the trend has crystallized. After not playing a game as a rookie, it was Charcandrick West who was called upon to lead the Chiefs’ running game after Jamaal Charles’ injury despite Knile Davis and Spencer Ware having an experience advantage. In Philadelphia, Reid trusted Correll Buckhalter, a 2001 rookie fourth-rounder, to lead the team in touches after Duce Staley’s injuries despite having other options.
The case in short: if you can run, you can play. If you can run without fumbling, something Pacheco did on average once every 152.5 touches, that's all the more purposeful. As should be the case, the questions of how (or why) a player with this much praise was be a Day Three back deserve some thought, and not every trait was perfect in his debut game.
With that said, the mere fact that Pacheco is generating as much praise as he is — both as a runner, pass catcher and pass protector — from so many respectable Chiefs minds can only serve as a net positive. Four months into his career, one could say that he’s on the right track to not only “take a grown man’s job,” but also to dip into some other grown men’s snap counts as well.