Can College Running Back Receptions Teach Us Anything About Their NFL Potential?

How difficult is it to predict how a running back catches the football at the NFL level?

Have you ever had the feeling that you've missed your calling? That, if only you had been introduced to the oboe as a four-year-old, perhaps you could be traveling for the London Symphony Orchestra right now! Or curling! You could probably sweep the heck out of that ice, but there wasn't a lot of publicity for that sport where you grew up in South Florida.

Perhaps I'm alone, but there are times when I wonder if there are individuals out there who could have been world class at something, but they simply never were introduced to that specialty. That instead of being a famous photographer, they dedicated their time to bartending because they could never afford a camera.

The question really comes down to the juxtaposition (SAT word, look it up) of talent and opportunity, and how essential they both are for producing excellent results.

In football, we often see this juxtaposition when it comes to statistically projecting a college running back's receiving ability. Does limited college production speak to a players talent or opportunity? Or perhaps it's both?

Many are confident that, because Melvin Gordon only caught 22 passes his entire college career, he projects as just a two-down player.

Forget that Adrian Peterson, the greatest running back of our generation, caught just 24 passes during his entire college career. People are ready to make judgements and excuses based on statistics.

This got me thinking -- do the numbers back up any particular narrative, or do we all need to take advanced scouting courses in order to make personal assessments about incoming rookie running backs?

Crunching the Numbers

My analysis was based on looking at NFL backs from 2012-2014 who excelled as receivers or were underutilized in that role. Excellent receivers were categorized by whether or not their teams targeted them 50 or more times in a season. Underutilized backs were those who received more than 150 carries but had fewer than 20 receptions. Injuries were not taken into account.

I then looked at their best college receiving season to see if I could isolate any specific results, both statistically and according to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which quantifies a player's production relative to league expectation level based on historical performance.

The results, as you would imagine, were all over the place, but there were several interesting narratives.

Over the past three years, only Adrian Peterson, Frank Gore and Ryan Mathews overcame subpar college receiving stats (under 20 receptions in their best season) to post an NFL season with more than 38 targets. The other 12 backs in that category were clearly underutilized in college for a reason, and their prior failings continued during their pro careers.

Here is a quick look at those players, in addition to the metrics from their best NFL season:

Full NameCollege RecNFL TargetsNFL ReceptionsRec NEP/Target
BenJarvus Green-Ellis1530220.08
Alfred Morris1526170.26
Chris Ivory1327180.24
Frank Gore1275520.51
Tre Mason1226160.36
Stevan Ridley111460.13
Ryan Mathews1159500.49
Adrian Peterson1057430.32
Jonathan Dwyer825180.22
Bernard Pierce825200.02
Alfred Blue718150.53
Andre Williams437180.18
LeGarrette Blount225150.11

What is also interesting is that the ability of these players to be successful out of the backfield based on our NEP metrics did not appear to be the justification for their limited NFL workload. Consider for comparison that the two of the top three highest targeted backs in 2014, Matt Forte (128) and Fred Jackson (90), posted Reception NEP per target scores of 0.28 and 0.26, respectively. Those aren't elite scores such as those posted by Le'Veon Bell (0.61) and Eddie Lacy (0.63), but they are more than acceptable for targets coming out of the backfield -- around average.

What this indicates is that a player with stone hands and a lack of instincts in the passing game can still catch a dump off pass and contribute positively to his team's scoring potential, but that doesn't mean the team should continue to target that player out of the backfield. That's a role scouts and coaches will reserve for backs more comfortable playing in space and more natural running routes.

For players with more than 20 receptions in their college careers, there was no definitive correlation between college workload and NFL potential on third downs. The statistics measured players who were immensely successful, such as Ray Rice who, despite only 25 receptions in his best college season, posted five consecutive NFL seasons with more than 50 receptions.

They also measured players who weren't so successful, such as Rashard Mendenhall, who had a respectable 34 in his best college season, but whose best NFL season was just 35 receptions.

Final Thoughts

Unfortunately for those of us who aren't professional scouts, the numbers aren't particularly enlightening. While they do inform us to be extremely wary of backs with under 20 receptions in their best college season, it's evident that college production, in this case, is not an indicator for professional success.

So the next time you see a player like LeGarrette Blount entering the NFL with only four career college receptions, we can pretty much assume that skill will not suddenly emerge as a pro. This is valuable information because of the top 10 running backs in fantasy football last season (standard scoring), Jeremy Hill was the only player to post fewer than 35 receptions on the year (he had 27). That was true in 2013 as well, with only Peterson dipping below 35 receptions for backs in the top 10.

In fact, Hill is the only back to finish in the top 10 (he finished 10th) since 2009 to post under 35 receptions and not have double-digit touchdowns. Conversely, 13 backs were able to finish in the top 10 during that same span without posting double-digit touchdowns, due in large part to their receiving numbers. Receiving ability is very valuable if you are projecting a player to be in the top 10 at the running back position.

As far as evaluation is concerned, however, some college offenses are just not designed to throw to running backs, regardless of a players ability to produce in that setting. The same is true for less talented receiving backs in offenses designed to throw consistently to players out of the backfield.

A player like Mark Ingram was a Heisman-winning running back for the University of Alabama, and had an impressive 32 receptions in that 2009 season. Yet, while he can clearly catch the ball, the New Orleans Saints haven't been very fond of using him in the passing game, with only 53 receptions during his four-year career. The recognition is likely that he simply isn't as effective in space against faster NFL defenders, whereas in college he could be effective in that role against inferior opponents.

Projecting running backs in the passing game is clearly a balance of both talent and opportunity, and it's a determination probably best reserved for scouts. But who are we kidding. With all the YouTube college highlights we've watched, I'm pretty sure we all feel qualified to make those judgments.