The Pittsburgh Steelers made a number of unorthodox moves this offseason, including adding a player with a profile they haven’t had in recent memory—a hybrid running back/wide receiver. This player, fifth-round draft pick Chris Rainey, is set to make a real-life impact for the Steelers this year, but is he worth your fantasy time? Let’s take a look at two other hybrid offensive players, the Minnesota Vikings’ Percy Harvin and the Kansas City Chiefs’ Dexter McCluster for clues.
Rainey is likely to get his fair share of playing time if history is any indicator. New Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley brought McCluster onto the Chiefs to perform similar hybrid duties and now he’s got a McCluster clone in Rainey. Granted Rainey is faster than McCluster (he may in fact be the fastest Steeler on their roster, which really says something) but will still have a similar playing profile to the Chief.
Hybrid players like Rainey, McCluster and Harvin are generally smaller and lighter, so their roles become extremely specific. They cannot be used in run blocking or pass protection—they simply don’t have the size—so offenses run the risk of being easy to predict when the hybrid player is on the field. Using these players as both receivers and running backs helps mitigate this predictability, but all the same, it does limit their snaps, thus limiting their potential to be involved in any given play like a traditional running back who is a passing threat (think Ray Rice as a prime example).
Looking at the snap counts for Harvin and McCluster from 2011 helps illustrate this point. Harvin, on the offensively-challenged Vikings, had a total of 621 snaps, and McCluster had 468.
|Dexter McCluster and Percy Harvin Snap Data, 2011|
|Total Snaps||% of All Snaps||Run Snaps||Pass Snaps||Blocking Snaps|
Harvin’s snaps accounted for 58.8 percent of all offensive plays; McCluster’s just 43.1 percent. Harvin did slightly more blocking work than McCluster, with 168 total run- and pass-blocking snaps—McCluster had 113, but the majority of the two’s work came in situations where they could be used either as a running back or receiver.
Harvin was used as a receiver far more often than McCluster, with just 52 of his snaps coming on run plays as compared to McCluster’s 114. As such, he had 87 receptions (on 118 targets) for 975 yards and six scores and only 52 rushes for 345 yards and two touchdowns. McCluster’s numbers were the inverse of Harvin’s, with 47 receptions (on 59 targets—impressive) and one receiving touchdown and 113 carries for 510 yards and one score.
|Dexter McCluster and Percy Harvin Stats, 2011|
|Pass Targets||Receptions||Rec. Yards||Rec. TDs||Rushes||Rush Yards||Rushing TDs|
Rainey’s usage as a member of the Steelers offense should be more like how the Chiefs used McCluster last year than how the Vikings used Harvin. The Steelers have no lack of receiving talent but the run game could use the boost of speed that Rainey provides. But again, that speed will be utilized in very specific situations, which could prevent him from being a legit scoring threat, knocking his fantasy value down some as a result.
Niche players like these hybrid running back/wide receivers do present a true fantasy football risk, but that doesn’t mean they are undraftable. To get the most out of Rainey, you’ll have to do your research. Just as there are some defenses against which McCluster has an advantage, there will be those vulnerable to Rainey’s shiftiness and speed. The Steelers aren’t going to trot Rainey out unless they feel he can eat up some yards, and perhaps even break away for a score. So, look to start him when he’s up against a plodding defensive line or safeties who struggle with their tackling in order to get the most out of him.
Expect Rainey on the field for no more than half of all Steelers offensive snaps. Expect him to get a low number of passes thrown his way, but also expect him to pull down a majority of them. And realize there will be games in which he can easily rack up over 100 rushing yards and others in which he’ll get a minimum of touches and maybe just 30 total yards. McCluster’s rushing numbers benefited last year from Jamaal Charles not being on the field. However, there’s no analogous situation befalling the Steelers at the moment—Rainey is one of five backs who could be seeing action this season—so don’t expect him to get the 113 carries that McCluster put up last year. Depending on opponent, Rainey shouldn’t get more than 10 carries per game, and more often quite a bit less. Though he has a better-than-average chance to make more of those carries than, say, a BenJarvus Green-Ellis, those limited carries could be enough to turn you off from drafting him.
Rainey is a smart later-round draft pick, especially in 14- or 16-team leagues. If utilized properly, he can be your secret weapon. It’ll just take a more accurate diving rod in order to figure out when is the right time to start him.