Isiah Pacheco is the starter, but what fantasy value does that carry?
You live in the same world I live in, generally speaking, so I assume you’re familiar with the idea of spam. We are spammed every day, and the kick to every spam trick is that there’s a hook. A Nigerian prince wants to leave you $3 million, or someone wants to buy your house at over asking price, or there are hot singles available in your area.
Anyway, on an unrelated note, here’s what Ian Rapoport revealed to the world on Sunday:
That immediately sent the lot of us to the waiver wire in the morning searching for untold fantasy riches, and instead we got ... eight carries for 43 yards and a 30% snap share. That snap share was not notably higher than he received in (granted a blowout with a lot of game scripting) Week 1.
So we’re all mad online, and we’re here to shout about it. Here’s the thing: The problem in this situation is not Isiah Pacheco. I mean it.
Pacheco has thoroughly outplayed Clyde Edwards-Helaire this season
Edwards-Helaire on the season has produced minus-22 rush yards over expectation per NFL Next Gen Stats, while Pacheco has created 47 in just 39 carries. Pacheco has also done this with a 41.03% eight-in-the-box rate on account of some of his opportunities coming in blowouts. Edwards-Helaire can only count 12.3% of his carries against eight in the box.
Let’s look at the rate stats, where Edwards-Helaire has a -0.4% DVOA and Pacheco is at 7.5%. Edwards-Helaire has, if we’re being honest, never shown us anything special in his three years in the NFL to date. He’s sustaining fantasy value off a He Can’t Keep Getting Away With This level of touchdowns, and once again was gifted one in Week 7. There are plays that NFL players make that stay with you, and for me, Edwards-Helaire’s Week 2 carry to seal the game is stuck in my brain forever.
Folks, nobody was more surprised than Edwards-Helaire when he found actual open space. He didn’t even know what to do with it. A college player who was a passing-game weapon, I was a big fan of the fit in Andy Reid‘s offense when Edwards-Helaire was drafted. But he’s never been a main cog in that, and non-main cogs in the Reid offense just don’t really do much. I can’t tell you that I’ve seen more than flashes, and every empirical indicator that we’ve got of Edwards-Helaire is that, well, he’s a fine NFL running back and that’s about it. There are excuses that can be made for that, and you probably listened to them while trying to find some fantasy upside for him. But he is just a fine NFL running back.
Pacheco, meanwhile, does stuff like this every time he gets an extended opportunity:
He flashed in the preseason in a way that was hard to ignore, taking 16 carries for 66 yards and creating 41 yards after contact per Pro Football Focus. I think about what Dameon Pierce has done this year for the Texans a lot -- he was similarly doubted a bit because of draft value by some models/authors I respect. I don’t think those guys were wrong to doubt what would happen, because Pierce hit his best-case scenario. I’m not saying Pacheco has the same talent as Pierce -- I don’t think he’s all that far off, but he’s clearly not the same kind of back -- but the complicating factor for Pacheco was always going to be the actual competition. One team came into the year with Rex Burkhead as a starting running back, and the other had a former first-round pick and a head coach that is pathologically committed to a running back committee.
Andy Reid is the major factor holding Pacheco back from fantasy relevance
The fantasy discourse has been pure vitriol for Arthur Smith this year as his offense has severely limited the potential of Kyle Pitts and Drake London. He simply refuses to pass, even in games where passing is in the best interest of the team. What Reid does isn’t quite as harmful, but his commitment to committees makes it impossible to even get optimistic about his “starting” backs. Darrel Williams led the Chiefs in carries last year at 144. Edwards-Helaire led the 2020 Chiefs with 181. Let’s keep going back -- how far do I have to go to find a season where an Andy Reid back got to 200 carries? It’s 2017. Kareem Hunt at the peak of his power toted the rock 272 times, in a time when Alex Smith was the starting quarterback and the offense had to be a bit more measured.
Here’s another factor to think about: Edwards-Helaire scored a touchdown last week, if you’ll recall. What set up that touchdown? It was ... Isiah Pacheco. Pacheco took the kickoff 48 yards and got another 15 yards of penalty yardage tacked on. As he was catching his breath on the sideline, the Chiefs scored in just three plays. The primary kick returner is not going to be asked to lead off drives all the time -- particularly after long runs -- and that’s another factor that’s working against him. Combine that with how the Chiefs don’t trust him enough to be a third-down back yet and you’re suddenly in a committee role that has very real bumpers against big games.
If you asked me in a vacuum: Is Pacheco good enough to be a fantasy star? I’d have to tell you yes. The starter tagline helps him, and I don’t think he’s suddenly going to go back to completely ignored in the rotation after getting it. But he’s going to be a rotation back in what looks to be a three-man rotation, and he’s going to be returning kicks.
No matter how good the offense is, it’s hard for a player in that role to be more than a prayer emoji FLEX in standard fantasy leagues. There’s some probability somewhere in the system that Pacheco will become a good fantasy player this year -- injuries could strike the other trusted members of KC’s backfield, or maybe he delivers a couple of big runs that show Reid he’s too good to have off the field in non-third-down situations. But in shallow leagues, I don’t think he’s a must-roster, and I can’t advocate starting him in non-bye week crunch situations unless you’re in a dark place.
It’s not about the player, it’s about the role.