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Fantasy Football: Questioning The Importance of Pass-Catching Running Backs

C.D. Carter looks at how pass-catching running backs are changing the fantasy football landscape.

Matt Forte
Matt Forte

Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Running backs have taken on a new and important role in the aerial attacks of NFL teams. The logical conclusion, from the view of the fantasy footballer, would be that drafting the most prolific pass-catching runners would be key in securing fake football hardware in 2014 and beyond.

This makes a lot of sense, but I’d like to put it to the test.

In writing the follow up to “How To Think Like a Fantasy Football Winner,” I’ve studied the habits and advice of the world’s most successful investors. A central tenant in successful investment strategy goes something like this: try to tear down preconceived notions, attempt to destroy consensus thought, and if they stand, they’re true. If they’re false, you’ve found a market inefficiency begging to be exploited.

Let’s do our best to rip apart the popular thought that nabbing pass-catching running backs is a key to fantasy domination.

The rise of targets and receptions

It makes a lot of sense that backs would be more and more involved in an offense’s passing attack as passing plays account for a higher percentage of offensive snaps.

Passing plays as a percentage of overall offensive snaps has climbed steadily since 2008, when teams combined to pass 55.4 percent of the time. That number jumped to 57.6 percent in 2012, and 58.5 percent during the 2013 campaign. Passing plays will surely threaten the 60 percent mark in the next couple years.

The emphasis on pass-catching runners goes beyond pure numbers. We heard a handful of head coaches and offensive coordinators last summer say in no uncertain terms that their running backs would be central parts of their respective pass games — from Andy Reid discussing Jamaal Charles to Jim Schwartz talking up Reggie Bush’s soft hands to Chip Kelly promising a big passing-game role for LeSean McCoy.

Marc Trestman, after landing in Chicago, spoke glowingly of Matt Forte’s route running and sure hands. One of the first things Trestman did as Bears head coach was watch every single reception in Forte’s pro career. That, by itself, drove up Forte’s re-draft fantasy stock in the waning weeks of summer.

I thought it would be instructive to examine what it means to be a highly-targeted back, or a runner who snags a lot of passes. The very statistical definition of a pass-catching tight end has changed over the past decade, so it would make sense if running backs have seen a similar shift.

Year Average targets among 10 most targeted RBs Average receptions among top-10 receiving RBs
2008 66.5 48.6
2009 67.3 54.6
2010 71 58.3
2011 71.8 57.5
2012 67.3 54
2013 78.7 64.9

 

Outside of a strange dip in 2012, we’ve seen a steady increase in what it means to be part of an NFL passing game out of the backfield. Top receiving runners are now catching 16 more footballs per season than they were in 2008 — a significant opportunity bump.

The above numbers confirm the general feeling in fantasy circles that running backs valued as point per reception gems are seeing more targets and catches than ever before. This happened despite less-than-stellar catch rates among a few of 2013’s top pass catching backs.

Charles only caught 74 percent of balls thrown his way, Bush posted a 71 percent catch rate, and Shane Vereen caught 70 percent of his targets. These were all well below the catch rates of guys like Danny Woodhead (92 percent), league leading backfield pass catcher Pierre Thomas (94 percent), and DeMarco Murray (87 percent).

What does it mean for fantasy?

The question remains, after we saw five of fantasy’s top-10 running backs reel in more than 50 catches in 2013, if this seemingly new focus on runners as pass catchers has changed the landscape of elite backs. In other words, do pass-catching running backs compose more of the top tier than ever before?

Below is a chart looking at a cross-section of the 12 runners who caught the most passes each year since 2008 and every season’s top running backs. I used standard scoring since point per reception (PPR) data would be cherry-picking here.

Year Top-12 running backs who were top-12 in receptions
2008 5
2009 6
2010 6
2011 5
2012 5
2013 6

 

The consistency here is quite amazing. Consider that the cross-section was the same in 2009 and 2010 as it was last season and it’s clear that backfield pass catchers aren’t slowly but surely filling up top slots in end-of-year fantasy point totals.

This doesn’t mean that we should shy away from pass-catching backs in standard scoring. They remain more immune to game flow foibles than running backs with little or no involvement in the aerial game, for one, and passing plays as a percentage of overall plays is not going to drop anytime soon.

I’m not sure we’ve torn down the common thinking that running backs who catch a lot of footballs are essential to fantasy success, but we’ve certainly put a gaping hole in it.

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