Every year, we hear about how pass-catching running backs are the key that can help unlock your fantasy football season, but what does it mean to be a pass-catching running back, and is it true that these players represent an amazing value add every year? Then, we can figure out some pass-catching running backs who can help you in your 2021 fantasy football leagues.
What is a Pass-Catching Running Back?
Tarik Cohen. J.D. McKissic. Christian McCaffrey? What exactly makes a running back specifically a pass-catching running back? Well, like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said about pornography, “I know it when I see it.” That’s sort of how the fantasy football community defines a pass-catching back. We just instinctually know that they fit that category.
But, since I’m a pedantic twit, I need to figure out what exactly defines a “pass-catching” running back instead of a pure all-around back. So, let’s dive into some numbers.
Defining the “Pass-Catching” Running Back
Over the last five seasons, 31 qualifying PPR running back seasons have come with at least 55% of their fantasy production coming through the air. This feels somewhat arbitrary, but also like a decent cutoff because just under the threshold sits Le’Veon Bell, Miles Sanders, Dalvin Cook, Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara seasons. This gives us a dataset we are more used to, with multiple seasons from Austin Ekeler, Alvin Kamara (his rookie year and TD-deficient 2019), James White, Giovani Bernard, Theo Riddick, and Duke Johnson. Also, Tarik Cohen’s one usable fantasy football season. Now we are cooking; this feels more like a pass-catching running back group. But, there are still numerous high-end options here.
But, I think we should refine this a bit more. After all, they are called “pass-catching backs.” The very idea that they catch significantly more balls than they have rushes is sort of built into the name. Unfortunately, only two of these backs caught more balls than they carried, and they were both James White. So, unless we are comfortable calling our dataset “literally just James White” we have to move on. Unfortunately, receiving yards as a percentage of overall yardage gained has the opposite problem; it lets too many randoms in while leaving out quintessential pass-catching running backs like Darren Sproles and Giovani Bernard.
So, this dataset leaves us with a lot of high-end running backs. Nobody is sneakily getting Alvin Kamara or Christian McCaffrey as a bench “pass-catching running back.” But, we can’t do this with pure fantasy points scored.
Instead, let’s get rid of multi-dimensional backs by ditching everyone this dataset with more than 7.5 carries per game. This gives us 18 pass-catching back seasons, and a dataset we can work with.
Time to Examine Some Average Draft Position and Final Results
A cursory look at this set of running backs tells me that we have a lot of guys who came with low draft cost. So, I consulted with our friends over at MyFantasyLeague.com. And by that I mean “googled ‘2020 ADP’ and found a repository of this information.” Please keep in mind that the ADP data comes from redraft PPR leagues (not mock drafts) that took place after August 15. On average, these running backs came off the board at pick 109, as the RB47. So, that’s what we are working with here with pass-catching, upside running backs. This tracks with draft strategy, too. You get two starters, one upside potential starter, and then you fill out your bench with solid contributors—like cheap pass-catching running backs in PPR.
On average, these running backs smashed this draft price. They finished with an average of 12.7 fantasy points per game in PPR. During this five-year dataset (2016-2020), that figure was good enough for RB25, RB18, RB22, RB26, and RB28. That makes the average finish for a “pass-catching” running back RB24… a starting-caliber running back. While this doesn’t unlock the key to fantasy football immortality, getting a starting running back after pick 100 is a great feeling.
Now, haters and losers will tell you that there are three outliers in this data, three running backs that went in the first fifty picks: 2017 Christian McCaffrey (RB11), 2018 Kenyan Drake (RB15), and 2019 David Johnson (RB5). So, let’s strip those outliers and see if the haters and losers got us, there. Without these three guys… the average draft position drops to pick 124, RB55, and… 12.7 PPR fantasy points per game.
So, with that in mind, let’s look toward some of the best pass-catching running backs for your 2021 fantasy football season!
Pass-Catching Running Backs for 2021
Unfortunately, the filters above (going outside pick 50, per FantasyPros Expert Consensus Ranking) filter out some higher-end options, like Myles Gaskin and Chase Edmonds. They should be considered in the Travis Etienne range. Since projections are fallible, I gave myself a little leeway here, 8.5 carries per game (instead of 7.5) and as low as half their production through the air (instead of the 55% threshold), per my projections.
Pass-Catching Running Back Option #1: Travis Etienne, Jacksonville
FantasyPros Average Draft Position: RB26, Pick 62 Overall
This one doesn’t really qualify as a “pass-catching back” since Travis Etienne was the best running back coming out of college this season. Luckily, he fell into a bad situation that he should climb out of pretty quickly. Take advantage of Urban Meyer being a ding-dong with his depth chart and scoop up the extremely talented rookie running back with your late-fourth or early-fifth round pick. We’re more interested in deeper options, but Etienne qualifies for the exercise because I have him starting slow due to Urban Meyer likely being really stupid about things in Jacksonville.
Etienne is, by far, the most talented running back on this list. But, he’s also, by far, the most expensive. Again, he only barely reaches the “outside the top-fifty” criteria. Let’s look closer at some running backs who actually meet the spirit of the exercise.
Pass-Catching Running Back Option #2: Nyheim Hines, Indianapolis
FantasyPros Average Draft Position: RB44, Pick 144 Overall
Nyheim Hines is the cream of the pass-catching running back crop this season, alongside Jamaal Williams. Before I get into Hines, you have to understand something about my philosophy: everyone in the Colts’ 2019 offense gets a pass. Their starting quarterback retired two weeks before the season started, and Jacoby Brissett is not a backup plan.
So, let’s look at Nyheim Hines’ rookie year (2018) and last year (2020… but you knew that). In these two seasons, Hines averaged 87 rush attempts and 78 targets. In 2020, that put him alongside Alvin Kamara and J.D. McKissic as the only backs with at least 75 rush attempts and 75 targets. In 2018, he became one of seven rookies to go for 75/75 in their rookie year since 2000. Of backs with at least 50 targets in 2020, Hines’ 6.3 yards per target ranked fourth, between David Montgomery and D’Andre Swift.
The big question mark for Hines is Jonathan Taylor. Everyone taking Taylor in the first five picks certainly hopes that he takes over the receiving role from Hines. If he does, you gotta cast Hines aside; there isn’t going to be enough there for him. But he’s pick 144 and is extremely cheap. If that makes you itchy, can I interest you in a running back with a more secure role?
Pass-Catching Running Back Option #:3 Jamaal Williams, Detroit
FantasyPros Average Draft Position: RB45, Pick 125 Overall
Jamaal Williams went from the Packers to the Lions this offseason, so things will likely change for him in Detroit compared to sitting behind Aaron Jones in Green Bay. While I don’t buy into the Chicken Little narrative surrounding D’Andre Swift that Jamaal Williams will take over a ton of touches from him and be the lead back, I do believe in Anthony Lynn’s track record of getting two backs touches in his system. Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler thrived in Los Angeles & San Diego under Lynn; there’s no reason to believe that shouldn’t continue with the Lions.
Plus, there’s the D’Andre Swift groin injury which might give Jamaal Williams some boost in the early season. That’s exactly the type of thing you want to lean into.
Let’s get into Jamaal Williams a little bit though, shall we? The Packers didn’t use him a lot last year, as he ranked #29 in running back routes run, #36 in rush attempts, and #33 in goal-line carries (per PlayerProfiler.com). He firmly played as a part-time player for the Packers, but still pulled in 8.8 fantasy points per game as a part-time back, which was good enough for RB42. Now, he’s going to get a bigger role in Detroit, which puts RB42 as his floor. He did it with just three touchdowns, meaning he didn’t get any cheap ranking boost from scores. In fact, he was one of the better backs last season at scoring fantasy points. He ranked eleventh in BRoto.com’s points per opportunity excluding touchdowns metric, between J.K. Dobbins and Chris Carson. His 0.611 PPOxTD was just behind D’Andre Swift’s 0.63, as well.
Pass-Catching Running Back Option #4: J.D. McKissic, Washington
FantasyPros Average Draft Position: RB48, 146 Overall
This is where Football Absurdity’s pass-catching running back acolyte Walker Kelly and I differ. I don’t think that J.D. McKissic is in for a big season this year. Sure, he had 110 targets last year, but how much of that was due to circumstances that no longer exist? I submit that a lot of it came from circumstances that no longer exist. First, let’s take a look at McKissic’s usage before and after Antonio Gibson injured his toe at the beginning of the week thirteen game against the Steelers. Prior to that game, he paced out to 99 targets. That’s nothing to sneeze at, 99 would have ranked second last year (if you remove his league-leading 110 targets from the equation). But, after that point, McKissic paced out for 134 targets, averaging 8.4 targets per game. McKissic had more than 8 targets in a game twice before the toe injury, then averaged more than 8 after the toe injury.
Also, that 99 target pace is extremely skewed by 29 targets in weeks 8 and 9, which account for 43% of his targets with a healthy Antonio Gibson. Both of those games featured Alex Smith under center.
Alex Smith is gone and in steps Ryan Fitzpatrick. Since 2015, Ryan Fitzpatrick has 68 games on his ledger, according to DynastyLeagueFootball.com. Also per DLF, he has just 367 targets to running backs in that timeframe. That comes out to just 5.4 running back targets per game. That’s… not great. That’s fewer targets per game than McKissic had on his own last year. And if there’s an increase in that figure, it will benefit Antonio Gibson. I am not bullish on McKissic’s chances to return value this year.
But look at that cost. Pick 146, around kickers and defenses. If you whiff on Hines and Williams, McKissic is a decent consolation prize to see what happens.
Pass-Catching Running Back Option #5: James White, New England
FantasyPros Average Draft Position: RB52, 165 Overall
I like James White as a dart throw. There aren’t a lot of numbers here, just a lot of… narrative. James White had the worst year of his life last year while in the middle of a pandemic. Early in the season, he lost his father in a car accident that put his mother in critical condition in the hospital. When he returned to the Patriots, they started to circle the drain, losing four straight. Could you blame James White for checking out entirely on a team that couldn’t find a coherent game plan with both hands and a map? Throw in that Cam Newton would run the ball instead of dumping off to James White and you have recipe for disaster.
Yet, through all of that, he still finished as RB47. Now, he goes five running back slots later than that. That doesn’t make much sense when you consider that Mac Jones likely takes over sooner rather than later in New England. That means an offense that looks more like the one that White is used to with Tom Brady at the helm. We saw this last year with White: in the games with Cam Newton, he averaged 4.2 targets for 3.2 receptions and 26 yards. In the one game he played without Cam Newton (who was out with COVID-19)… he received 8 catches that he turned into 7 catches for 38 yards. That’s classic James White value. And he’s not going off the board in ten-team leagues.
Pass-Catching Running Back Option #6: Tarik Cohen, Chicago
FantasyPros Average Draft Position: RB55, 174 Overall
Don’t draft Tarik Cohen. I know this is a pass-catching running back hype piece, but the time has come and gone for Tarik Cohen. First, he’s bad. Second, David Montgomery isn’t. That’s pretty much the long and the short of it, thanks for coming to my TED Talk.
Alright, fine, I’ll give some details. Tarik Cohen’s yards per target over his four-year career: 5.0, 8.0, 4.4, 4.6, while averaging a 76% catch rate. That 8.0 certainly looks like a bit of an outlier, doesn’t it. Now, consider David Montgomery’s yards per target over the last two seasons: 5.3 and 6.4.. with a 76.7% catch rate. David Montgomery is already a better pass-catching running back than Tarik Cohen. This is likely a wasted pick, here.
That doesn’t even get into the fact that Tarik Cohen still isn’t practicing for the Bears, or that Justin Fields is likely to take over sooner rather than later, meaning that dump offs to Cohen dry up. While Tarik Cohen was the poster boy for pass-catching running backs just a couple of seasons ago, we call the NFL “Not For Long” for a reason.
Pass-Catching Running Back Option #6: Giovani Bernard, Tampa Bay
FantasyPros Average Draft Position: RB58, 182 Overall
Look two running backs up on the list. You see James White. Who made James White a household fantasy football name in PPR leagues? Tom Brady. Ever heard of him? He’s Giovani Bernard’s quarterback in Tampa Bay now, and he gives the Buccaneers a pass-catching running back option who is actually good at being a pass-catching running back.
Bernard spent the last four years behind a dual-threat running back in Joe Mixon. In that time, Bernard played 14 games without Mixon, and in those games, he averaged a very nice 69 yards per game on 12 rush attempts and 3.5 catches per game. He’s good in this role, it’s just a matter of giving him the role outright. In Tampa Bay, he gets to split time with Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones. While I like Ronald Jones, and Fournette’s made his case known, neither of them are particularly proficient pass catchers. Fournette ranked #28 in yards per reception among running backs last year, and Ronald Jones ranked #32. Giovani Bernard ranked fifteenth last year after ranking sixteenth in 2019. He’s a great guy in deeper leagues to throw onto the end of your bench because you never know how things might shake out.
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