Earlier in the offseason, we broke down who might be the “next Puka Nacua” by analyzing the traits of the wide receivers taken late in the 2024 NFL Draft. Since the offseason is the ultimate time for speculation, we’re applying the same concept to the rookie running backs.

Isiah Pacheco wasn’t quite the “Mr. Irrelevant” of the 2022 NFL Draft class – you likely already know who was – but he wasn’t far off.

Pacheco was taken 251st overall, only 11 picks ahead of Brock Purdy, and he was the 22nd out of 23 running backs off the board that year, ahead of only the Los Angeles Chargers’ Zander Horvath.

All he has done since then is earn the Kansas City Chiefs’ starting job, become the first running back ever to win a Super Bowl as a starter in each of his first two NFL seasons, and secure 1,765 rushing yards on 4.7 yards per carry across his first two regular seasons.

As was the case with our assessment of who could be the next Puka Nacua, there’s no guarantee that anyone from this class will be the next Pacheco. But we’d be remiss if we didn’t try to find out who it could be anyway.

Here are the parameters and who has the best chance of fitting the bill from this year’s rookie RB class.

Rule 1: Day 3 Draft Pick

This is the most straightforward qualification of all. Just like with Nacua, the core premise of the Pacheco story is his success relative to his NFL Draft status. So where do we draw the line? Well, we can’t require our choice to be a seventh-round pick, because there were no running backs taken in the seventh round of the 2024 NFL Draft. 

As such, a proper middle ground is to consider all players picked on the third and final day of the draft – which, for this running back class specifically, entails only the fourth through sixth rounds. There were 15 running backs chosen in the fourth or later, giving us a decent range of names to pick from.

Rule 2: Non-Elite College Counting Stats

While this is pretty conceptually similar to Rule 1, there is a distinction worth mentioning. Like Nacua, Pacheco wasn’t a collegiate All-American who unexpectedly slipped in the draft due to size or character concerns. In contrast, by the sheer “meat and potatoes” stats that fans are used to seeing on TV, he simply wasn’t among the nation’s best. 

While Pacheco did get significant playing time in all four of his seasons at Rutgers, his career high was 729 rushing yards as a sophomore in 2019, and he never had 850+ scrimmage yards or more than eight scrimmage TDs in a single season. In his final season, he had 647 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns across 12 games.

How does this become relevant here? Consider Wisconsin’s Braelon Allen. Though he slipped into the fourth round, he was a stud from Day 1 in Madison, securing 3,494 rushing yards and 35 rushing scores over his three college seasons. He is one of two FBS players to have 3,000+ rushing yards and 35+ rushing touchdowns since 2021, joining 2024 third-round pick Blake Corum.

Putting up those numbers against the quality of competition Wisconsin was facing means that Allen is a name that most casual college football fans are familiar with, differentiating him from where Pacheco stood entering his draft. Similarly, Notre Dame’s Audric Estime was an AP second team All-American last year, even though he fell to the fifth round. As such, when we seek the “next Pacheco,” the search will be limited to players who weren’t necessarily among the biggest names at their position when they were at the college level.

Rule 3: Strong Vision and Trustworthy Hands

As a rusher, one of Pacheco’s vastly useful skills at the professional level has been the ability to get yards even when the play looks like it’s going south. After all, when a player has a nationwide reputation for “running angry,” it’s tough to prevent him from getting at least some yardage on any given play.

On plays with a “run disruption” – when a defender wins his matchup against a specific blocker(s) and is able to defend multiple gaps successfully – Pacheco has averaged 2.85 yards per carry. That ranks eighth among 49 RBs with 200+ total carries since 2022.

As a receiver, Pacheco has provided value to Kansas City by being a reliable safety valve out of the backfield. No one will ever try to argue that Pacheco is a downfield threat the way that Christian McCaffrey or James Cook is. But when it comes to catching screens in Andy Reid’s preposterously creative offense, Pacheco has done what he needs to do, hauling in 57 receptions on his 63 career targets.

Over his career, Pacheco’s “catch rating” – how well a receiver successfully catches throws that are considered catchable on a scale of 0-1 – is 0.963. That ranks third among the aforementioned RBs.

Yards per carry on Run Disruptions and catch rating

Which players in this year’s class excelled in those stats at the college level? The Day 3 picks who were above the FBS average in both yards per carry on run disruptions and catch rating in 2023 included Allen, Troy’s Kimani Vidal, Estime, Kentucky’s Ray Davis, Oregon’s Bucky Irving, Alabama’s Jase McClellan, Tennessee’s Jaylen Wright and Louisville’s Isaac Guerendo. 

Rule 4: Top-End Athleticism

When Pacheco was a draft prospect, one of his defining traits was that his athleticism far outweighed his college production. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats team, Pacheco ranked 35th among running backs in his class in college production, but sixth in the class in overall athleticism.

While the “athleticism over production” philosophy would be an extremely dangerous one at many other positions, it’s sensible that it would lead to a diamond in the rough being found at running back specifically, given how running back production can greatly vary based on teammates’ blocking ability, play-calling, defensive formations faced, and so on.

Who stood out with their athleticism in this year’s class? Among the running backs whose athleticism was superior to their production (sticking to the Next Gen Stats formula) were Wright, Guerendo, Marshall’s Rasheen Ali, Vidal, Texas’ Keilan Robinson, Purdue’s Tyrone Tracy Jr. and Clemson’s Will Shipley.

Rule 5: A Window to Play 

As we established with Nacua, what’s arguably as important to a rookie’s success as his talent is his landing spot. When Pacheco first cracked Kansas City’s roster in 2022, he was competing for snaps with Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Jerick McKinnon. Though Edwards-Helaire was a former first-round pick, neither of those two had been established as bona-fide stars at the position, and as a result, Pacheco was able to become the lead back relatively quickly into his debut season.

And, of course, what has helped Pacheco’s pro production is his opponents’ propensity to protect against the pass. With Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes doing what they do, the Chiefs faced the seventh-lowest percentage of heavy boxes last season. Combining that fact with the Chiefs’ talented offensive line has allowed Pacheco to average 2.84 yards before contact in his career – 10th among the aforementioned 49 RBs.

yards before contact

When looking at this year’s class, many of those players aren’t as blessed as Pacheco was in terms of avoiding a star-studded RB room. Guerendo was picked by the San Francisco 49ers and will share a locker room with McCaffrey. Shipley will be joining the Philadelphia Eagles and Saquon Barkley, while McClellan will head to Bijan Robinson’s Atlanta Falcons. Ali joins Derrick Henry with the Baltimore Ravens, though Henry’s contract is only for two years.

Add all of this up, and what’s the final answer? Our final choice is … 

The “Next Isiah Pacheco”

Tyrone Tracy Jr., who was selected by the New York Giants in the fifth round out of Purdue, is the most likely “Isiah Pacheco” of 2024.

Wright, Irving, Vidal, Ali and Guerendo all provided compelling arguments, and all can still certainly do big things on Sundays. Irving was a particularly alluring choice, as he checks every box from a skill set and athleticism standpoint, not to mention that he was picked by a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team without a highly paid star at the position.

But Irving was more or less disqualified for being too good, like Estime and Allen. Irving had more than 1,000 rushing yards in each of his final two college seasons, and he was a 2023 first team All-Pac-12 selection for the nation’s No. 2 scoring offense. Likewise, Wright had 1,013 rushing yards on 7.4 yards per carry in 2023, and Vidal, though he didn’t play at as big of a school as Irving or Wright, still finished second nationally in rushing yards last fall.

As for Guerendo and Ali, it came down to their NFL situations, as being teammates with McCaffrey or Henry is a tough ask for a rookie who wants to be productive right away.

Tracy, though, shares several similarities to Pacheco beyond their draft status. Both were Big Ten products, with Pacheco playing for Rutgers and Tracy doing so for both Iowa and Purdue. Both were somewhat on the older side of their class, as Pacheco was 23 when he was picked, and Tracy is currently 24. Both had limited collegiate production in terms of counting stats, as Tracy’s college career high of 716 rushing yards was barely short of Pacheco’s of 729.

They have similar builds, with both being listed at 5-foot-11 (though Pacheco is slightly heavier), and they both were NFL Combine standouts despite their lack of elite college numbers. And, most importantly of all, both were drafted in places where they had an immediate opportunity to compete for snaps, with Tracy having been picked by the Giants just after they lost Barkley in free agency.

As was the case with Nacua, there’s no guarantee that Tracy is destined to follow Pacheco’s path. Devin Singletary could very well take off and run with the New York starting job, leaving Tracy to primarily serve as a special teams player (if he makes the roster at all).

But summertime is the time to speculate, and a few core factors indicate that Tracy could be a breakout candidate to watch going forward.

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