Metrics that Matter: The league's top receiving backs
(Metrics that Matter is a regular offseason feature that examines some aspect of fantasy through a microscope to dive into the finer details.)
In our last two times in this space, we took an in-depth look at Travis Kelce (here) and Golden Tate (here), focusing on how effective these players were at creating yards on their own once the ball was in their hands. Last season, both players led their respective positions in yards after the catch and missed tackles forced on receptions. Today, I wanted to take a similar approach, but focusing on the running back position and what these numbers mean for fantasy football.
So, I went over to our Premium Stats page, clicked on “By Position,” then clicked on “HB” (for halfback), and then sorted by receiving production (rather than rushing production). This led me here:
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This page is initially sorted by raw overall PFF grade and includes all halfbacks to play at least one snap last season. Alvin Kamara and Todd Gurley both led the league (during the regular season) in raw overall PFF Grade, but also raw PFF Pass Grade. In the latter category, they were followed by (in order) Duke Johnson, Christian McCaffrey, Chris Thompson, and Tarik Cohen. Our focus today, however, will be on yards after the catch and missed tackles forced on receptions. In our last two articles, the single player to highlight was easy. For the running back position, however, there were a few names who stood out.
Kamara led in missed tackles forced (on receptions) with 29, followed by Johnson’s 24. Gurley led in yards after the catch with 807 (which was more than his 788 total receiving yards), followed by Kamara’s 703.
These numbers weren’t just good, they were historically great. Gurley’s 807 yards after the catch was the second-most by any running back in the PFF-Era (2007-2017). Kamara’s total 703 yards after the catch ranks 10th, while Le’Veon Bell‘s 678 ranks 14th. Kamara’s 29 missed tackles forced in 2017 ranks second-most of the PFF-era, while Duke Johnson’s 24 ranks seventh-most, and Theo Riddick and Cohen’s 23 ranks 10th-most.
On a per-reception-basis, many of these players still stand out. Riddick and Cohen’s 2017 seasons rank 11th and 12th, respectively, on missed tackles forced per reception. Gurley’s 2017 season ranks second-best in yards after the catch per reception, while Chris Thompson’s 2017 season ranks fifth-best.
What does this mean for fantasy?
Not only was Kamara one of the league’s most efficient running backs as a receiver, but he was also historically dominant as a runner. Since the NFL merger (1970) there have been 2,173 instances of a running back totaling at least 100 carries in a single season. Of those, Kamara’s 2017 season ranks fourth-best in yards per carry (6.07). I wrote about his historic 2017 season and 2018 fantasy prospects here.
Last season, Gurley posted one of the most impressive fantasy turnarounds in recent memory. One of the major differences for him, was new head coach Sean McVay’s willingness to turn him into an every-down weapon. He totaled 64 receptions in 2017, which is exactly how many receptions he had in his first two years in the league. His total of 788 receiving yards in 2017 was also the 20th-most by any player to total at least 100 carries in a single season. Like Kamara, in addition to being one of the league’s most efficient running backs on the ground, he was equally as dominant and prolific through the air. I see no reason why Los Angeles wouldn’t continue to use him in this capacity moving forward. Though Kamara was just as efficient, Gurley has a massive edge on Kamara in terms of raw volume, and Gurley is firmly in play with the first overall pick in your 2018 drafts.
Thompson was a yards-after-the-catch monster in 2017 and was well on his way toward a fantasy breakout before suffering a broken leg in Week 11 against the Saints. Over this stretch he ranked 11th at the position in fantasy points per game, despite ranking 49th in carries per game and 10th in targets per game. Although he certainly overachieved from a fantasy perspective, his role should be safe in Washington next year. However, his return might be a concern for slot wide receiver Jamison Crowder, who operates in a similar (low average depth of target) role but was far less efficient than Thompson last year. Prior to Thompson’s injury, Crowder saw 58 targets to Thompson’s 51 (both leading the team). Thompson totaled 257 more yards after the catch than Crowder, and Thompson’s passer rating when targeted (125.5) was also far superior to Crowder’s 66.7.
Johnson wasn’t only hyper-efficient last season — he’s been one of our most elusive pass-catching running backs since we started tracking these numbers (2007). Johnson holds three of our 15 best seasons among running backs by missed tackles forced. Saquon Barkley continues to be linked to the Browns in the 2018 draft, but that doesn’t make much sense to me. Although Barkley is well worth a top pick, Cleveland already has a solid tandem in Carlos Hyde and Johnson. Hyde ranks top-six (of 49 qualifying running backs) in yards after contact per rush and missed tackles forced per rush since entering the league. However, he was also our worst-graded running back via the pass last season. Johnson should continue to handle passing-down work, while Hyde serves as the lead-runner. Johnson finished 14th at the position in fantasy points per game last year, and, so long as Barkley doesn’t land in Cleveland, he should again post RB2 numbers in 2018.
Riddick holds two of our 12 best seasons in missed tackles forced per reception, and his 36 missed tackles forced (on receptions) in 2015 is the PFF record by a running back. Like Johnson, he won’t ever do much on the ground, but could still prove to be fantasy viable. Over the past three seasons, he’s finished 34th, eighth, and 24th at the position in fantasy points per game. 2016 was an outlier, benefiting from injuries to other running backs on the team, and I don’t see another RB1 finish for him as a likely outcome, but he is likely a value in 2018 drafts at ADP RB35 in PPR drafts. Again, like Johnson, he’s a low-ceiling, high-floor option in PPR leagues and feels like a good bet to post low-end RB2 numbers (pending the draft). His presence in Detroit also caps the upside for all other running backs on the team.
Cohen is harder to project, but his rookie year was highly impressive. It’s hard to gauge how his usage might change in 2018, under a new offensive scheme, but it was encouraging to hear new head coach Matt Nagy draw similarities between Cohen and Tyreek Hill. In any case, he should be the clear preference over Jordan Howard for work in the passing game. Howard averages a league-worst one drop every 5.5 targets over the past two seasons, while the league-average rate is one every 16.1 targets. Cohen, for perspective, dropped only two passes on 65 targets last year.