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Chiefs by the Numbers: Evaluating the running backs after Week 12

Let’s use advanced analytics to see how Kansas City’s rushing attack working.

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

In this series, we review the Kansas City Chiefs performance primarily using Next Gen Stats (NGS) along with other advanced metrics that turn up during the season. For any questions on the statistics used in this series, please refer to our Football Analytics Glossary and Metrics page.

The Kansas City Chiefs recently signed veteran running back Melvin Gordon to its practice squad. So in this edition of Chiefs by the Numbers, we’ll examine Kansas City’s running backs using advanced analytics to see where each running back fits best.

Next Gen Stats

Let’s start with the NGS running back metrics. (Note: Neither Jerick McKinnon nor Ronald Jones is listed because neither has the required 60 carries this season to be included).

Att Yds
Clyde Edwards- Helaire 3.77 11.27 71 301 -31 -0.46
Isiah Pacheco 3.63 24.74 97 455 94 0.99
Melvin Gordon (DEN) 4.52 15.56 90 318 -65 -0.74

In these metrics, Efficiency (EFF) measures a running back’s tendency to run north and south. Lower numbers are better. Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Isiah Pacheco are almost identical in this statistic, which is likely because of the scheme Kansas City runs. While playing for the Denver Broncos, however, Melvin Gordon ranks third from last among NFL backs.

It’s hard to tell if Gordon’s awful efficiency is because of the Broncos’ current offensive ineptitude or because the 29-year-old running back’s performance is falling off. In 2021, he ranked in the middle of the pack.

The next statistic that is important to pay attention to is Rushing Yards Over Expected (RYOE), which measures how much a running back performs over what should be expected on a given play — so RYOE/Att is that statistic expressed on a per-attempt basis.

Gordon ranks last among the league’s running backs, while Edwards-Helaire ranks fourth from last. But Pacheco is at the other end of the spectrum, ranking eighth.

Based on these NGS numbers, it is clear that Pacheco is currently the team’s best running back. Even when (or if) Edwards-Helaire returns from injury this season, Pacheco should be the lead back the rest of the way.

Football Outsiders DVOA

Football Outsiders does a very good job of evaluating individual players by charting their performances using its Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) statistic, which considers the success of every play to the league average in the same situation. It is then adjusted by opponent and expressed as a percentage. Positive numbers are above average (the higher the better), while negative numbers are below average, with larger negative values representing worse performances.

Under this metric, Pacheco’s rushing is ranked 12th among running backs. He also carries a 54% success rate (which Football Outsiders uses to measure how well a player or team performs in specific down-and-distance situations), which ranks 11th in the league. These numbers paint a similar picture: Pacheco is playing like a top-15 running back.

Before his injury, Edwards-Helaire’s rushing DVOA was calculated to be -1.4%, which would put him just below average. Gordon and McKinnon each measured very poorly at -18.9% and -22.3% respectively.

Both NGS and DVOA numbers suggest Gordon looks washed. He and should be considered as a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option.

Third down

Football Outsiders also measures the performance of running backs in the passing game. By receiving DVOA, Edwards-Helaire is the league’s second-best running back at 39.7%. I personally believe there is still a role that Edwards-Helaire can fill for the Chiefs; they just need to use him in a way that maximizes his skill set.

In receiving DVOA, Gordon and McKinnon are both around average — which is why I believe that Gordon is insurance for McKinnon instead of Pacheco. Should McKinnon get hurt (or Edwards-Helaire doesn’t return this season), Gordon is good enough as a pass-catcher and blocker that he could step in on third downs.

The red zone

During Sunday’s 26-10 victory over the Los Angeles Rams, the Chiefs had their worst red-zone performance of the season, failing to score touchdowns in five of six trips inside the Los Angeles 20-yard line. Coming into the game, Kansas City had converted 72% of its red-zone trips into touchdowns — but of 32 red-zone touchdowns, only five have been scored on running plays by running backs.

By DVIOA, the Chiefs rank 27th in red-zone rushing — but thanks mostly to quarterback Patrick Mahomes and tight end Travis Kelce, they fourth in red-zone passing. Overall, Kansas City ranks 11th in the red zone.

The Chiefs rank no lower than fourth in any other part of the field, so the team’s red-zone performance is the offense’s weakest area — and will be critical issue to improve before the team plays the Cincinnati Bengals this Sunday. The Bengals currently rank sixth in red-zone passing DVOA and 19th in red-zone rushing DVOA.

The bottom line

Overall, Kansas City’s running back room has all the talent it needs to take the team where it wants to go in 2022. Multiple measurements indicate Pacheco is already a top running back. Edwards-Helaire still has a valuable role as a pass-catcher. We just don’t know when he will be able to return.

But if they want to get back to (and win) the Super Bowl, the Chiefs will need to figure out how to run the ball more efficiently in the red zone. Good defenses will focus on taking Kelce away in those situations, forcing the Chiefs to beat them in another way. An efficient running game will go a long toward solving the red-zone issues we’ve seen.

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