Revisiting the Year of the Elite Pass-Catching Running Back

Pierre Thomas made a living catching the football this year.

A few months ago, I wrote an article that detailed the elite pass-catching running backs in the NFL and how they were pacing to separate themselves more from their peers than we had ever seen in terms of receptions from the position.

Well that’s a mouthful of words. Basically, after the first month of the season, I noticed that Danny Woodhead, Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles, Jamaal Charles and Matt Forte were really moving towards breaking reception records at the running back position. In PPR leagues, we had to at least take notice.

The first thing I did was look at how running backs, in general, were being targeted in today’s game. The result was pretty surprising, as I found that running backs are seeing about three percent fewer total targets per quarterback drop back compared to what they saw back in the early 2000s.

An updated chart showing 2013 numbers is below.

YearReceptionsTargetsTargets/QB Drop Backs

The percentage of targets that went to a running back was lower than what we saw in 2009 and 2010, but higher than what happened in 2011 and 2012. However, it was still significantly less than the Shaun Alexander days.

So that’s that. Running backs are continuing to have a smaller role in the passing game, which actually makes sense considering the new-age NFL. Quarterbacks are more efficient – perhaps a result of favorable rules (or better coaching) – and in turn, are throwing more down the field. Not to running backs.

Here’s the deal though: If running backs, in general, were seeing fewer targets, but top running backs (reception-wise) were still involved just as much as they’ve ever been, that would result in top running backs being more “elite”. These top running backs would hold more value – especially in a PPR league – because they’re doing something that not many running backs can do.

I needed to see if this was the case, so naturally, I dug into the top-five runners (yes, this is arbitrary, but the study wasn’t to provide hard facts but rather general thought starters. And I was analyzing five 2013 runners, too,) at the position through the years, comparing their running back receptions to the rest of the position.

The Final Results

Originally, the extrapolated data said that the five noted running backs would catch 452 passes this season. Because this was extrapolated data, regression was obvious – the five running backs had separated themselves so dramatically in terms of receptions to start the season, so clearly they were playing a little out of their minds.

The final results, now that the season is over, are below:

YearReceptionsTargetsRec./Total RB Rec.

Receptions above reflect the total receptions of top-five running backs in each season.

First and foremost, this is a perfect example as to why we shouldn’t extrapolate stats. While I was doing it just to test a theory, a lot of folks assume high level of play can continue throughout a season. This is a key reason fantasy owners tend to weigh the beginning of the season more than the end – why folks kept putting Jordan Cameron in their lineup week after week after week, despite his decline in production.

Overall, the running backs caught 83 fewer passes than they were “expected” to at the beginning of October. I’m not that surprised by the drop, but what’s interesting here is that, despite injury woes and two missed games total (Sproles for injury reasons and Jamaal Charles for rest), the top-five runners in 2013 gave us the most “elite” reception season we’ve seen since 2006.

This may not seem like a big deal, and to be honest, it’s not Earth-shattering. But in PPR leagues, I think what this did was provide a much higher floor for these players than we would typically have seen.

Jamaal Charles and Matt Forte would have done well regardless of receptions, but Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Danny Woodhead were completely different fantasy football assets due to their top-notch catching ability.

Consider this: In full-point PPR leagues, Danny Woodhead finished as the 12th-best running back, Thomas the 16th-best one and Sproles the number 24 back. When you move that to standard leagues, Woodhead’s rank drops to 19, Thomas’ to 23 and Sproles to 36. That’s 7 spots for Woodhead and Thomas, and 12 for Sproles.

While this could lead to a much, much bigger discussion (such as running points scored vs. receiving points scored, the disparity in fantasy points when looking at PPR and standard leagues in the past, the fact that five is a random number, etc.), the data presented above may show us that these backs took more advantage of PPR leagues than we’ve seen in years.

And not only did it give those three backs incredibly relevant cumulative totals in PPR leagues, but from a weekly standpoint, it gave them very solid fantasy floors. In PPR leagues, Danny Woodhead had just as many (10) top-24 performances as Marshawn Lynch, Giovani Bernard and Reggie Bush. Pierre Thomas, a player selected in the late rounds of fantasy drafts, had as many top-24 PPR games as Frank Gore (8). And even Darren Sproles, who was a low-end RB2, finished with five start-worthy games, despite missing a contest.

In all, this is nothing more than to show that running back receptions matter – especially as they continue to stay rarer than they were in the heyday. And if you can find the Danny Woodhead or Pierre Thomas of next year’s draft, you’re gaining an edge that some fantasy owners may not be aware of.