Jerick McKinnon’s return keeps Isiah Pacheco from blossoming for Chiefs
By Jacob Milham
The Kansas City Chiefs are re-signing veteran running back Jerick McKinnon, but his return keeps fans from ever seeing if Pacheco can be a complete back.
“Hey Jacob, why don’t you like McKinnon’s return?”
I love Jerick McKinnon’s role on the Kansas City Chiefs’ 2022 season. He was the constant in the Chiefs’ running back room when then-rookie Isiah Pacheco took over as the bell cow from Clyde Edwards-Helaire. But I cannot look at McKinnon’s return without being concerned—concerned about his durability, concerned about Pacheco’s role, and concerned about the long-term outlook of the position in Kansas City.
McKinnon led the Chiefs with 535 snaps at running back, 204 more than Pacheco did. The 2022 campaign saw McKinnon set several career highs, including 56 catches for 512 yards and 10 touchdowns. It was all capped off with him smiling in Arizona, his first Lombardi Trophy in hand.
McKinnon is a darling to the Chiefs Kingdom, and rightfully so. I haven’t heard a bad word about McKinnon since his arrival. He has not drawn the ire of fans with a poor work ethic, any off-the-field issues, or an inflated ego, despite his important role in another Super Bowl championship. By all accounts, McKinnon is a consummate professional and a great veteran to have on your team.
His reported return to Kansas City has been met positively, details of the deal notwithstanding. But we need to ask a question about what long-term effect his return has on the team’s running back room.
My biggest complaint with having McKinnon back is that Pacheco will not get the opportunity to prove himself as a player who can replace McKinnon in the coming years. Pacheco is far from a tested backfield threat, with only 20 receiving targets and 26 pass-blocking snaps to his credit. That role turned into McKinnon’s and McKinnon’s alone down the stretch. Pacheco’s lack of experience in pass protection and third-down situations could prove costly for the Chiefs. Fans already know what Edwards-Helaire brings to the table in pass protection and on third down. But that might be the Chiefs’ emergency option in 2023 if McKinnon goes down, hardly a confidence-inspiring depth chart.
McKinnon will be 31 years old once training camp begins this summer, making him one of the oldest players in Kansas City. Some concerns about whether he can withstand another season of NFL action are understandable, especially given McKinnon’s history of injuries. (He missed the entire 2018 and 2019 seasons due to knee injuries.) Those injuries turned many suitors away from McKinnon, considering the physical punishment running backs take at their position. That age, injury history, and declining running game juice likely made McKinnon’s return in 2022 and 2023 possible for the Chiefs.
Pacheco is Kansas City’s clear RB1 at this point in the offseason. After Week 11, Pacheco led the league with 526 rushing yards, tied for the league lead with 4 rushing touchdowns, and overall was a dependable back.
Thankfully, McKinnon is not coming in to compete with Pacheco but rather to compliment him. McKinnon was the quintessential third-down back for the Chiefs last season. He had 186 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns on Kansas City’s third-down plays, averaging a whopping 12.4 yards per reception. He had 15 receptions in that situation, and nine times he moved the chains for Kansas City. It was great production from McKinnon last season, but his chances of replicating that in 2023 are suspect.
I would like to see Pacheco at least get a chance at being a do-it-all running back. Any young running back in the coming years is going to have Kareem Hunt as a watermark. Pacheco’s yards per rush match Hunt’s during their rookie campaigns, but Hunt was better in yards per game. That is understandable, considering the Chiefs’ offensive scheme in 2017 utilized the run more. But, the biggest disparity is Hunt’s passing numbers compared to Pacheco’s. Hunt got the chance to be an all-around back, with 53 receptions and 455 receiving yards. Pacheco did not even come close to having the same chance, due to McKinnon’s presence.
Pacheco and McKinnon are different backs, and that is okay. But, Pacheco should have at least a chance to prove he can do what McKinnon does for the Chiefs. Pacheco’s PFF grades in receiving (74.3) and pass blocking (30.6) both exceed McKinnon’s respective grades, for what that is worth.
I am lukewarm overall about McKinnon’s return. I think the Chiefs know how to use him but need to be better about managing his snaps. He will likely feature exclusively on passing downs as a receiver or blocker. There is nothing wrong with that. But Chiefs fans will never see Pacheco as a complete running back as long as McKinnon is healthy and in Kansas City. And that is a shame.