4 Low-Key Superb Pass-Catching Running Backs

·9 min read

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It turns out running backs have to be good at route running and pass catching if they’re going to see targets in the NFL -- it’s not just a matter of having a pulse and lining up in the backfield. I’m adjusting my statistical models with this brand new information.

We know the game’s elite pass-catching backs. Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, Austin Ekeler, D’Andre Swift: These guys have time and again demonstrated the ability to command targets as centerpieces of their respective offenses, proving efficient and reliable.

I’m not going to waste your time gushing about the above running backs’ spectacular pass-catching prospects for the coming NFL season. In PPR formats (the only legitimate formats), their opportunity and production is hard to overstate.

Fantasy managers spend far too much time determining which backs will see consistent carries. That only matters insomuch as the back is seeing high-value rushes, not empty-calorie attempts between the 20s -- the difference between James Conner and Chase Edmonds in 2021. In PPR, rushing attempts are tertiary to targets and receptions for running backs. A target, in fact, is worth 2.74 times the value of a carry in PPR leagues, according to Pro Football Focus analysis. In standard leagues, targets -- not catches -- are worth almost 1.4 times a rushing attempt.

The below analysis is largely an exercise in “what if” scenarios. These running backs will probably start the 2022 NFL season with limited opportunity as a rusher or pass catcher. Appealing, I know. But it’s important to know which running backs have commanded targets and produced on those limited pass-catching chances. Knowing this might help us prioritize whom to roster as a bench stash this summer and early in the regular season. We want runners who have shown pass-catching chops, not just guys who have occasionally defaulted into a team’s pass-catching back.

That this exercise involves small sample sizes shouldn’t be a knock on the backs highlighted here. That’s the point: We’re seeking running backs who have excelled as target commanders and productive pass catchers when given the chance, however fleeting.

(Little-Used) Running Backs Who Popped

Michael Carter (NYJ)
Carter acquitted himself well as a professional catcher of the football last year. Limited as a pass catcher at North Carolina -- he topped out with 25 catches for 267 yards and two scores in his final year with the Tarheels -- Carter emerged as a reliable producer for the Jets when Zach Wilson wasn’t under center (you can say this for all Gang Green players).

Carter, bolstered by a surge of targets from Mike White and Josh Johnson from Week 6 to Week 9, finished his rookie season with the sixth-highest targets per route run (30 percent) among backs who ran at least 100 routes (bump that threshold to 150 routes and Carter ranks third). He consistently commanded targets when given a solid complement of snaps and pass routes.

Carter was efficient too. His 1.71 yards per route run was just behind Kamara and Ekeler among backs who logged 150 routes; he ranked tenth overall in YPPR. During his Week 6-9 hot streak, Carter was third in YPRR and led all running backs in targets per route run. Small samples being what they are.

First-round rookie Breece Hall will head into the regular season as the unquestioned early-down back in a (hopefully) revamped New York offense. That the team expended so much draft capital on Hall tells us all we need to know about how the Jets view Carter. But if Hall struggles early or struggles with rookie season injuries, Carter should be next up, possibly slotting in as an every-down back in what should be a run-first offense trying to hide Wilson’s many deficiencies.

There’s also a scenario in which the team deploys Carter as its primary pass-catching back. While Hall is no slouch in the passing game -- he had 60 receptions in his final two years at Iowa State -- we’ve seen NFL teams hedge on giving rookies a massive workload until later in the season.

The Athletic’s Connor Hughes said in June that Hall will be “Batman to Carter’s Robin.” Robin, at last check, doesn’t sit in the Batcave and scroll through Instagram all day.

Kenneth Gainwell (PHI)
You may remember Gainwell from the pre-run heavy 2021 Eagles offense, when Nick Sirriani tried (and failed) to operate a pass-first attack with Jalen Hurts under center. Gainwell saw 19 targets in the season’s first four games, catching 13 balls while the Eagles played catchup nearly every week. Only 11 running backs in the season’s first month had more targets than Gainwell, who ran a route on about 80 percent of the Eagles’ drop backs. Pro Football Focus graded Gainwell as the NFL’s 12th best receiving running back.

Through the first four weeks of 2021, Gainwell ranked third in target per route run (35 percent) among running backs, trailing James White and Cordarrelle Patterson. The rookie posted the seventh-best yards per route run (2.19) over that stretch, serving as Hurts’ main dump-off outlet in negative game script (Philadelphia lost three of its first four games). Gainwell finished 2021 second in expected fantasy points per route run among running backs who had at least 50 targets.

Gainwell was, in a word, good -- not quite a shocking development considering he was fourth among running backs in receptions (51) and first in receiving yardage (610) in his final collegiate season.

The routes and targets mostly dried up around midseason. The Eagles made the ingenious transition to the league’s run-heaviest offense and pounded opposing defenses with a combination of Hurts, Miles Sanders, Jordan Howard, and Boston Scott. Gainwell was essentially a healthy scratch when the Eagles backfield was healthy and the team maintained positive and neutral game script. At season’s end, Gainwell had the 20th highest yards per route run among backs who logged at least 100 routes. He was ninth in targets per route run.

After acquiring alpha WR1 A.J. Brown in a blockbuster trade and giving Hurts another offseason to develop as a passer, it’s far from impossible that Sirianni toys with a more balanced offensive approach in 2022. The limits to the team’s mind-bendingly run-heavy offense were exposed for all the world to see in the Eagles’ postseason drubbing at the hands of the Bucs (and in a humiliating Week 12 loss to Joe Judge’s down-bad Giants). More drop backs for Hurts could mean more opportunities for Gainwell, who remains the team’s best pass-catching back.

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Tony Pollard (DAL)
Everyone’s favorite No. 2 running back has shown time and again that good things happen when the Cowboys throw him the football. I take no pleasure in reporting this has meant almost nothing in recent seasons. The Cowboys are committed to Ezekiel Elliot whether we like it or not (we don’t).

But just to confirm your hardened biases about Pollard: In 2021, he was third in yards per route (2.51) run among running backs and third in targets per route run (34 percent). Only Christian McCaffrey and, weirdly, Ameer Abdullah, posted higher TPRR rates than Pollard last year. Since the start of the 2020 season, Pollard is eighth in RB targets per route run and fifth in expected fantasy points per route run.

He’s been efficient in every conceivable way. If he snatches the passing down role from Zeke in 2022 -- a multiverse sort of scenario -- Pollard should be tremendous in PPR formats.

Rhamondre Stevenson (NE)
There’s not a whole lot with which to work here. Stevenson was trapped in Bill Belichick’s cavernous doghouse for much of the season’s first half after missing one (1) block in the season opener, and he drew a mere 18 targets all season.

But wait, there’s more. Stevenson, a surprisingly adept collegiate pass catcher for his size, posted the 15th highest yards per route run (1.76) on his 70 pass routes in 2021. And now for the nitty gritty: In Stevenson’s only start of his rookie year (Week 10 against the Browns) he saw five targets on seven pass routes, catching four for 14 yards. Branden Bolden, meanwhile, was targeted three times on 11 routes against Cleveland.

The potential return of pass-catching Moses, James White, could make New England’s backfield even more maddening for fantasy purposes. It’s possible, however, that White sits to start the regular season while he recovers from a horrific 2021 hip injury. That could -- maybe -- open up an opportunity for Stevenson to emerge as the Pats’ main pass-catching back. That’s only if electric rookie Pierre Strong, whose all-world blocking prowess should fit well with Patriots Culture, doesn’t seize the passing down role.

Stray Pass-Catching RB Thoughts

-Cordarrelle Patterson has been superb in both commanding targets and being productive with those targets as a pass catcher out of the backfield. C-Patt in 2021 led all running backs with a 2.53 yards per route run, which was higher than Alvin Kamara’s league-leading YPRR in 2020. He ranked third in receiving fantasy points over expected among RBs. Suffice it to say Patterson is demonstrably excellent as a pass-catching running back. More of that and less of the idiotic between-the-tackles stuff for C-Patt and he could be a screaming bargain in PPR leagues this summer.

-I feel obliged to tell you Ameer Abdullah popped again and again in my research for this piece. There’s no way around it: Abdullah, replacing McCaffrey as Carolina’s primary pass-catching running back in 2021, was excellent. His 34 percent targets per route run share was the highest in the league among backs who ran at least 120 routes (CMC’s TPRR was 40 percent). Only seven backs had a higher yards per route run than Abdullah. If the opportunity presents itself in Vegas, Abdullah -- a kick returner by trade -- could be a worthy PPR pickup.

-It comes as a shock to precisely no one that Nyheim Hines jumped off the page in both targets per route run and yards per route run. I wrote here about Hines as a potential pass-catching force in a Matt Ryan-led offense. The term “league winning pick” is more overused than my poor, dull Gillette razor that I refuse to change, but Hines fits the bill as well as any later-round running back pick in 2022 redraft leagues.