5 Running Backs Who Could Be Your Best Friend in PPR Leagues This Year

Many running backs catch passes out of the backfield. But which ones have the potential to catch the most balls in 2014?

Pass-catching. It’s the skill and stat that can turn an otherwise irrelevant running back into a viable starter and integral piece to your fantasy football championship run. It’s also something that can turn a great running back into an elite one. Running backs who can catch out of the backfield and make plays in space are becoming more and more important in today’s NFL, and especially fantasy football.

Let’s compare two similar running backs in Jamaal Charles and Marshawn Lynch, both considered top-notch guys at the position. In 2013, Charles and Lynch had very similar rushing stats; both rushed for 12 touchdowns and just north of 1,200 yards. Neither was necessarily better, right? Well, depending on what type of league you’re in, there was a back that was clearly better.

Charles outscored Lynch by about six points per game in standard PPR scoring leagues. Why was this? Charles had 34 more receptions, 377 more receiving yards and 5 more receiving touchdowns than Lynch. Don't ignore pass-catchers.

Let’s look at some running backs with opportunity to put up big reception numbers, and who you should be targeting in your point-per-reception league.

Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs

Yes, I touched on him already, but I want to go in-depth on what makes Charles so valuable. In Charles’ first year with head coach Andy Reid, he was targeted 104 times, catching 70 balls. This was by far Charles’ best season receiving out of the backfield, and according to our metrics, it was the fourth-best season from a Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) perspective at running back that we've seen since the year 2000. Only Charlie Garner in 2002 and Marshall Faulk in 2000 and 2001 have seen better advanced receiving numbers than Charles' 2013 campaign.

Since 2001, running backs on teams led by Andy Reid have caught an average of 86 passes per year. In years when he had a featured back, (Brian Westbrook in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008; LeSean McCoy in 2010, 2011 and 2012; Jamaal Charles: 2013) that running back finished top three in receptions for running backs in seven out of nine seasons. That's with Westbrook finishing fourth in 2008, and McCoy finishing 10th in 2011.

Featured backs in Andy Reid's offenses have also led the league in targets for a running back in four out of nine eligible years. Seven of those years amount for no less than 87 targets for that running back. Long story short, Andy Reid loves to throw the ball to his running backs.

I see no reason why Jamaal Charles can’t build on what he has done, and replicate Brian Westbrook’s 2007 season of 90 receptions. After all, our projections see him catching well over 80 this season.

Matt Forte, Chicago Bears

Over his six-year career, Matt Forte has averaged 57 receptions on 75 targets per season. Not bad. This past year, however, Forte saw 95 targets, catching 74. Why the big jump? Two words: Marc Trestman.

As you can probably tell, there's a theme already developing: backfield reception production has as much to do with the coach and scheme as it does the player's natural ability.

During Trestman’s time as an offensive coordinator in the NFL, albeit scattered, his backfields averaged 104 receptions per year. Trestman’s most prolific year as an offensive coordinator in terms of running back receptions came in 2002 with the Oakland Raiders. Not only did his backfield catch a combined 147 balls, (no, that is not a typo), but his featured back that year was Charlie Garner, who, as I mentioned before, had the best receiving season at running back over the last 14 years in the NFL.

Forte has proven to be a reliable pass-catcher out of the backfield during his criminally-underrated NFL career. His skills should be even better utilized as he and Trestman begin their second year together. I expect a year no worse than last’s, and wouldn't be surprised at all to see Forte break into the 80-reception range. Our projections have him at 70.

Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals

Earlier in the summer, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that the Bengals planned on using Giovani Bernard not only as a running back, but also lining him up to play receiver as well. This can only bode well as he tries to build on a 2013 rookie season that saw him catch 56 passes on 71 targets in a limited role.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis, at the very least, will see a huge drop in usage this year, due to the emergence of Giovani Bernard and the drafting of LSU rookie, Jeremy Hill.

It’s also no secret that new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is a big advocate of his young running back. In Jackson’s most recent time as a head coach and offensive coordinator for the Oakland Raiders, his backfield caught 90 and 83 receptions in 2010 and 2011, respectively. An article written by fellow numberFire contributor Kenny Cook goes into much more detail about Hue Jackson’s situation in Cincinnati, and shows that the Bengals - though people may think otherwise - may not be much more of a run-heavy team versus what they were under Jay Gruden.

Bernard is a special talent, which obviously his new offensive coach recognizes. He should be able to catch a lot of passes in that offense this year.

Shane Vereen, New England Patriots

Vereen missed eight games last year due to a wrist injury, but when he played he was a monster. In fact, he nearly matched Stevan Ridley’s snap count (276 to 312) in just about half the games. What does this tell me? It tells me that, when available, Bill Belichick is going to use Vereen, and used him a lot. Not to mention LeGarrette Blount’s 252 snaps are off the books and up for grabs. If Vereen stays healthy, it wouldn't surprise me at all if he closes in on 600 snaps in 2014.

But in those eight games last year, Vereen caught 47 passes on 69 targets. Translate that to a full season, and Vereen catches almost 100 balls on 140 targets. Crazy, I know. But I think it’s definitely a reachable number for Vereen. Realistic? Maybe not, but he has the skills, quarterback and coach to do so.

If Rob Gronkowski has another injury-ridden year, and the Patriots’ wide receivers are a letdown, again, look for Tom Brady to search for a reliable threat in Vereen. While this is the only scenario I could see Vereen catching 100 passes this year, 70 to 80 receptions is a very attainable number, even in normal circumstances. Our current projections have him snagging close to 60.

Pierre Thomas, New Orleans Saints

It’s safe to say the only Saints running backs that have been fantasy relevant throughout an entire season, in the Sean Payton era, are those who catch out of the backfield. Pierre Thomas is the poster boy for such. Whether it’s a screen pass or a swing play, Thomas has always been a reliable pass catcher for the Saints. Many running backs have come and gone over the last eight years, such as Darren Sproles, Chris Ivory and Reggie Bush. But the one that remains a constant is Pierre Thomas.

In the Payton era, Saints running backs have averaged a total of 125 receptions per year, with only one year out of eight dipping below the 100 mark. No matter what you hear or read about offensive transitions, one thing remains: the Saints, Drew Brees and Sean Payton love to throw to running backs, regardless of personnel.

Darren Sproles, who averaged 77 receptions per year during his three years with the Saints, is now gone. Of the remaining running backs on the roster, Pierre Thomas is the only solidified, trusted receiving threat out of the backfield. The rest of the backfield, consisting of Mark Ingram, Travaris Cadet and Khiry Robinson, has a grand total of 31 receptions over a combined six years. Those numbers are ugly, or beautiful if you’re looking at it from Thomas’ perspective.

Pierre Thomas caught 77 balls last year, and I see no reason for that number to drop significantly, especially with Sproles gone to Philadelphia. The one thing to note is that he wasn't incredibly efficient on those catches, ranking 15th in Reception NEP, which is a cumulative statistic (measures the number of points added on all receptions). Had he not seen the volume, we may not have seen any relevant production from Thomas.

But considering how much the Saints throw to their backfield, and how inexperienced the rest of that depth chart is, we should expect another high reception year for Thomas.