2013: The Year of the Elite Pass-Catching Running Back?

Is Danny Woodhead a PPR superstar?

I don’t want to say that running backs are like VHS tapes, because they’re still useful. Perhaps they’re more like DVDs: You still use them, but with so many other ways to watch movies nowadays, it’s just not the best and only option anymore.

They’re not extinct, but runners have become less and less involved due to the evolution of the NFL’s passing game. And really, it’s not necessarily because they’re running less – the number of running back carries throughout the NFL hasn’t changed much over the last 10 to 15 years. Offenses are just running more plays nowadays, and quarterbacks are the ones benefiting from it. Running backs, comparatively, are seeing a lower percent of offensive touches.

But with more passes, we’d at least assume running backs have gotten more involved in through the air, or at least kept up with their pace. According to the numbers, however, that’s just not the case. Aside from a few elite players, that is.

Running Back Receptions and Targets Through the Years

Running backs haven’t necessarily seen a decrease in receptions or targets since the turn of the century. Instead, since there’s been an overall shift in more total plays run in the NFL, they’re just seeing a smaller percentage of opportunity through the air. Take a look at the chart below:

YearReceptionsTargetsTargets/QB Drop Backs

What’s interesting here isn’t just that the percentage of total NFL targets has decreased through the years, but the fact that the raw numbers have shown a decline as well. It's continuing this season, too. Unlike tight ends, where everything’s been relative, it appears as though we’re seeing an overall decline – both comparatively and in raw form – in running back usage through the air out of the backfield. In other words, pass attempts are rising, but running back targets are declining. From a cumulative standpoint, at least.

Forte, Charles, Woodhead, Sproles and Thomas

Even though there's less opportunity for running backs as a giant group, we have to recognize that gaining an edge in fantasy football is about having the scarce resource. That’s why fantasy teams with Jimmy Graham are doing well this year, and why those who took a gamble early on with Peyton Manning are as well.

Other players giving fantasy teams an edge, at least in PPR leagues? Danny Woodhead, Matt Forte, Jamaal Charles, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles. These five runners lead the league in receptions, and are on pace to total more receptions than any group of top-5 running backs in recent history.

Take a look at the extrapolated data for 2013 among top-5 running backs compared to the totals of the same category of backs since 2000:

YearReceptionsTargetsRec./Total RB Rec.

As of today, the top-5 running backs in the NFL in terms of receptions are on pace to see 17.8 percent of total running back receptions. Compare that to any other year since 2000, and you see that it’s not even close: This is shaping up to be the year of the elite pass-catching running back.

Why stop at five? Well, there’s a decent gap between Darren Sproles to DeMarco Murray – 4 receptions – which extrapolated becomes much more. And if you look at the proportion of top-5 running back receptions to the number of top-10 running back receptions, 2013 is greatest: top-5 backs in 2013 have the highest percentage of top-10 running back receptions compared any other year.

Now, I understand that this is just “pace” and “extrapolation”, but if we look at the situations each of these top-5 running backs face, it's evident that this is happening for a reason.

Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas

The two Saints runners are on pace for a combined 173 receptions this season. A high number, sure, but one that isn’t extremely far off from what Drew Brees has done in the past. In 2012, Brees completed 141 passes to his running backs. And in 2011, 158 receptions were had by Saints runners.

It’s a higher number than usual, and one that will more than likely decline as the season moves forward. But one thing to keep in mind: The Saints don’t have the same type of viable running backs that they used to, so the split in running back receptions may be between these two runners only as opposed to additional guys.

Jamaal Charles

When you combine a check-down quarterback with a non-vertical offense, you get Jamaal Charles’ 2013 campaign. Chiefs head coach, Andy Reid, is no stranger to running backs seeing receptions in his offense either, as LeSean McCoy hit the 78-reception mark in 2010. Brian Westbrook, Reid’s runner back in the day, had three seasons with over 70 receptions and hit 90 catches in 2007.

Charles can keep up this pace given the conservative offense and quarterbacking. He’s on track for 89.6 catches, which is right in the ball park of a high-end Andy Reid-coached season for a receiving running back.

Matt Forte

When I dissected Marc Trestman’s offense in July, it was obvious that Matt Forte had a great opportunity to catch some balls in 2013. In 2002, Trestman’s running back, Charlie Garner, led all backs in total net expected points (total NEP) with 101.26. This metric shows how many points Charlie Garner effectively added to the Raiders point total that season compared to a runner in a similar situation. This number also came after a season where he, Garner, had a 15.57 total NEP. Trestman was simply Oakland’s quarterbacks coach that season, but didn't make the jump to offensive coordinator until Garner's big year.

Here’s what I said about Forte, for some clarity, and why his reception total so far this season is not a simple anomaly:

Lastly, and most importantly, Trestman’s presence should do wonders for Matt Forte. The Tulane back has already established himself as one of the best pass-catching runners in the league, which is a perfect match for the offensive-minded, running back-friendly Trestman. Garner ranked 16th in total net expected points in 2001, and followed that up with a top rank the next season. Last year, Forte ranked 23rd under the same metric. Could we see the same type of jump?

Forte's current average draft position sits at the beginning of the second round in most 12-team leagues. While the running backs ahead of him are certainly in a tier of their own, the Bears runner has to be considered at the tail-end of the first in PPR leagues with Trestman in town. In a worst case-scenario, barring injury, Forte should be able to finish as at least a high-end RB2 for your 12-team league squads.

Danny Woodhead

Little Danny Boy is moving towards a near 100-reception season, thanks to Philip Rivers’ tendency to throw the ball to his running backs. Chargers running backs caught 123 passes in each of the last two seasons, split amongst plenty of different runners. This season, however, Rivers has already thrown 47 running back completions, including 31 of them to Danny Woodhead. In other words, Rivers is on track to hit his running backs through the air 150 times in 2013.

That’s more than what we’re used to, but again, there’s a reason for it. The Chargers are decimated at wide receiver, and Danny Woodhead is arguably the best pass-catching running back they’ve had since LaDainian Tomlinson. Just last season in New England, Woodhead ranked second in the entire NFL in reception net expected points, only behind Darren Sproles. The only reason Woodhead wasn’t number one on the list was because he saw just 55 targets; of the running backs with 30 or more targets, Woodhead was the most efficient in terms of NEP, a measurement of how many points a player was above or below expectation.

While Woodhead’s production could dip, the opportunity he’s seeing is exactly what was needed in order for him to enter RB2 discussion in PPR leagues. And folks, if Woodhead keeps this up, he could even enter RB1 territory over the course of the season.

The Fantasy Football Impact

We all need to remember that gaining an advantage in fantasy football means having players that are far better than the rest of the guys at their position. It can come in many smaller forms, not just overall fantasy production. And pinpointing those forms – those aspects of the player’s game – can help lead to finding unknown top-notch fantasy talent and potential.

If you’re in a PPR league, these running backs are giving you an edge. Matt Forte and Jamaal Charles, barring injury, should finish as at least top-10 options at running back in such formats, as they see a higher volume of carries compared to the other three aforementioned runners. However, Woodhead, Sproles and even Pierre Thomas have great value in PPR leagues, and this isn’t even because they’re off to a hot start: Their individual circumstances have allowed them to become near-PPR studs.