Running Backs ... Now Some of the NFL's Best Pass Catchers?

Running Backs ... Now Some of the NFL's Best Pass Catchers?

Running back LeSean McCoy of the Buffalo Bills makes a touchdown reception during the first half against the New York Giants on Aug. 20, 2016, at New Era Field in Orchard Park, New York.

SourceBrett Carlsen/Getty

Why you should care

Because teams are throwing the ball more than ever … but not where you think.

It’s a familiar sight in the NFL to see running backs trot onto the field on third down and catch a pass out of the backfield. These “scatbacks,” who are often smaller and quicker than their more powerful ball-carrying counterparts, have made nice careers for themselves serving this change-of-pace role. But what happens when a team’s most prolific receiver is not a wideout or a tight end, but a running back?

In 2017 we’re seeing just that. After four weeks of play, running backs are the primary pass catchers on seven NFL teams.

The Buffalo Bills’ LeSean McCoy, New England Patriots’ James White, Cleveland Browns’ Duke Johnson, Washington Redskins’ Chris Thompson, Los Angeles Rams’ Todd Gurley, Chicago Bears’ Tarik Cohen and Carolina Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey all lead their teams in receptions after Week 4. Johnson, Thompson and Gurley lead their teams in receiving yards too.

When running backs are also leading their teams in receiving yards, it suggests that something big is happening schematically.

That last point is important. After all, there are lots of reasons for running back receptions. Maybe they’re an escape hatch for quarterbacks facing pressure. Maybe teams holding a lead in the second half aren’t looking to push the ball downfield. But when running backs are also leading their teams in receiving yards, it suggests that something big is happening schematically. Gurley’s 234 yards for the Rams are nearly as much as top NFL wide receivers like Denver’s Demaryius Thomas (247) or Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald (276) have amassed in four weeks.

In short: This isn’t a coincidence. It’s by design.

Rarely have we seen this before. Danny Woodhead led the Chargers in receiving yards in 2015, and Jamaal Charles for the Chiefs in 2013. But in 2017, it’s happening on multiple teams simultaneously, underscoring how NFL offenses are evolving to create favorable matchups.

There are a number of reasons for this development. Let’s start with the personnel. To put it simply, they’re changing. “Running backs coming out of the college game are more experienced route runners, have better hands — just generally have better receiving skills than a lot of backs in earlier generations,” says The Ringer NFL writer Danny Kelly, who calls these players “air backs.”

Pac-12 Network college football analyst and coach Yogi Roth points out that in the Pac-12, Washington State running back James Williams is tied for the lead in receptions (40) among all pass catchers in the conference. The Cougars’ short passing game is devastating opponents, and Williams’ skill set is a linchpin. “There’s an element of getting the ball out in space that exists everywhere,” Roth says, noting the air-raid offense can “skew stats somewhat,” but that overall the spread elements that foster these plays in college are being replicated in the NFL.

Football is a game of matchups, and coaches are consistently looking for ways to get their best players on the field in favorable situations. Increasingly, those players are “quick, explosive running backs like McCaffrey, who draw coverage against a linebacker,” Kelly says. For an offensive play caller, a running back matched up against a less athletic linebacker is almost always preferable to a wideout lining up against a shutdown cornerback. “A few years ago, there were only five to seven running backs under 218 pounds in the whole league,” says pro scout Dan Shonka. “Now, every team has a man- and zone-beater-type back who weighs in at around 200 pounds if not lighter.”

It’s not all about personnel though. Sometimes other factors dictate increased running back involvement. Perhaps the No. 1 pass catcher is injured (like the Patriots’ Julian Edelman), or a team is limited at receiver overall (Buffalo, Chicago). These plays can also take the pressure off young quarterbacks like Cleveland’s DeShone Kizer. Additionally, quarterbacks playing behind banged-up offensive lines try to get the ball out of their hands quickly, and that means hitting scatbacks in the flats, not lobbing long bombs to wide receivers.

Offensive line play is down across the board in 2017, which certainly causes an uptick in checkdowns to running backs. “I do think [offensive-line prospects] have been less talented in recent years, and the college game is so different for an offensive lineman than the pro game, so it’s becoming harder to identify the good linemen and develop them,” says Andy Benoit, NFL analyst for Sports Illustrated and The MMQB.

All the same, a big-picture trend is emerging. “It’s a quicker-strike passing league now than it used to be,” says Benoit. He explains that when the ball comes out quicker, the offense lines up in more spread formations, which forces the defense to spread, and how it does so can reveal its plans for coverage. “All of these things lend themselves to the running back becoming more involved, because he naturally simplifies the [quarterback’s] read,” Benoit says.

To be sure, it’s crucial to differentiate designed plays from what Benoit calls “coincidental dump-offs.” For example, on the Green Bay Packers, one of the league’s most prolific passing offenses, rusher Ty Montgomery’s 18 receptions are second on the team, behind Randall Cobb’s 19 catches. But Montgomery is sixth in yards, suggesting the Packers don’t fit this pattern — that these situations are checkdowns more than intentional usage.

But the seven teams identified above are building these plays into their game plans. “The way these teams line up and motion the running back is a big part of their offense, and that’s something you’re seeing change around the league — how much a running back in motion becomes a part of your passing design,” Benoit says.

Not every team can run this kind of offense. But there’s no question running backs are catching the ball on plays specifically designed for them to do so at a higher rate. In fact, by the end of the 2017 season, we could see running backs finish as leading receivers on multiple teams for the first time in modern NFL history.

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