Pass-catching Backs Score Fantasy Points Too!
We all want the stud running backs who get 25 carries every week and score 12 touchdowns a year. There is a reason why those guys are at the top of most dynasty rankings. But let’s face it…it’s hard to draft or trade for elite running backs like Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott, Saquon Barkley and Melvin Gordon all onto one roster in fantasy. But what if I told you that there was another breed of running back out there that can still make fantasy waves? And what if they were cheap to acquire? It’s time to start focusing on undervalued pass-catching backs in dynasty.
James White is the poster child. He had only 94 carries last year for 425 yards and five touchdowns. But he added 87 catches for 751 yards through the air and seven receiving scores. That was good enough for a top-12 running back season in most fantasy formats, and particularly in points-per-reception (PPR) formats. And he’s continued that play during the postseason. In fact, he’s setting records.
White was, on average, the 42nd running back selected in 2018 fantasy drafts. That is incredible value. He ended up scoring 189.6 points last season in standard formats. And while this was his best season of his five-year career, it certainly didn’t come out of nowhere. White has averaged 60 catches over his last four seasons.
Despite that, the dynasty belle of the ball in the New England backfield continues to be rookie Sony Michel, the team leader in carries. He is no doubt an exciting player, but he only managed 132 fantasy points last season. He’s also had an incredible postseason. In the regular season, Michel had 209 rushes for 931 yards and 6 touchdowns but added only seven catches for 20 yards. And yet, which Patriots running back would you rather have moving forward, Michel or White? The answer for most would still be Michel, with his current ADP at 35th overall despite the fact that he wasn’t nearly as productive as White. Oh, and speaking of White, his current ADP is at 118th overall.
Of course, the argument can be made that Michel’s season totals were lower due to the fact that he missed some games to injury. That is certainly part of the equation, too. Michel is being asked to run between the tackles and is consistently getting hit by men much larger than he is. Alternatively, White is getting the ball in space and has the ability to get down or out of bounds if needed. And when White is being tackled, it usually isn’t from a 300-pound lineman. Pass-catching backs generally don’t take as many punishing hits as bell-cow backs, which helps them stay healthier and on the field.
Dynasty rankings continue to put Michel (age 23) well above White (age 26), and they aren’t wrong to do so. But when we are talking about value, if I can get White for much much cheaper simply because he isn’t the back getting all the carries, you bet that I am going to go out of my way to acquire such an underrated fantasy player.
How Much Does the Number of Total Touches Factor into Fantasy Production?
White had the 26th most touches out of all players in the league last season with 181 but finished 14th in yards from scrimmage (1,176). Michel, despite having 115 more carries on the season, had only 981 total yards from scrimmage, 195 fewer than White. Receptions, on average, go for more yards than rushes. This isn’t rocket science. In 2018, White averaged 8.6 yards per reception, and Michel averaged 4.5 yards per rush.
In Chicago, Tarik Cohen has a similar role in the Bears offense. Cohen was 30th among NFL running backs in total touches in 2018 but still finished 15th in yards from scrimmage with 1,169. While his teammate Jordan Howard outpaced him in total touchdowns with nine compared to Cohen’s eight, Cohen (current ADP of 97) ended up being the more productive fantasy player. It helps that the little guy can catch just about anything.
We love running backs who get a ton of carries. Our fantasy minds have been programmed to think that the guy who touches the ball the most will generate more fantasy points, but pass-catching backs like Cohen and White are proving that there are other ways to be very fantasy-relevant. If you are a savvy dynasty owner, you’ll recognize that. And then you’ll go get these productive players listed below for far cheaper than their “bell-cow” counterparts. Take a look at how White and Cohen compared to more traditional running backs like Derrick Henry, Lamar Miller, and Peyton Barber last season.
In 2018, Henry’s average draft position was RB18. Miller’s was RB21. Barber was RB37, likely due to the addition of Ronald Jones to the backfield. But wouldn’t you have rather had White or Cohen last year? Pass-catching backs can be solid fantasy RB2s for most teams, and you can get them at a discount. They can also be great dynasty assets for bye-week replacements and flex options. And obviously, if you are playing in PPR formats, these types of players are even more valuable for fantasy owners.
Which Pass-catching Backs Should You Target This Offseason?
The Indianapolis Colts know that there is value in pass-catching backs. They drafted running backs in back-to-back rounds of last year’s draft, and while rookie Jordan Wilkins is the more prototypical runner, it was Hines who saw more game action in 2018 as a complement to Marlon Mack. The reason is that Hines is a dynamic receiving back. He finished the year with 85 carries for 314 yards and 63 receptions for 425 yards on 81 targets, averaging almost 5.0 yards from scrimmage per touch (148 touches for 739 total yards). But what is most important to note is that the number of carries and targets per game stayed consistent throughout the year, even when Mack suffered an injury. It’s clear that Indianapolis drafted Hines in the fourth round with a pass-catching role in mind. I would expect the 22 year-old Hines to continue playing a significant role in the Colts offense.
Yes, Oakland is a mess right now on offense. But Richard quietly had the seventh-most receptions among all running backs in 2018. Richard finished the season with a team-leading 68 receptions for 607 yards (8.9 yards per catch) to go along with his 55 carries for 259 yards on the ground. Marshawn Lynch’s future with the Raiders is foggy at best, and the 30-year-old Doug Martin, who led the Raiders in carries this past season with 172, only had 18 catches on the season. If Richard stays in Oakland as a restricted free agent this offseason, it’s fair to project his role increasing even more in 2019. And on the off-chance that Richard signs with a new team this offseason, they will surely utilize such an efficient receiving back similarly.
Yeldon is still only 25 years old and now has a chance to break free from that Jacksonville backfield as an unrestricted free agent this offseason. After being underutilized for for his entire career and watching Leonard Fournette dominate the carries when healthy, Yeldon could finally sign with a team who will give him a heavier workload on the ground. But even if he remains a committee back, one important observation in the four years since Yeldon entered the league is that he can catch the ball. When healthy, he had 55 receptions in 2018 and 50 receptions in 2016, and it’s possible for him to get even more targets and receptions next season. Yeldon is definitely a player that I will be keeping an eye on. With the right landing spot, he could be a steal given the likelihood that he can be acquired for a second-round rookie pick in most leagues.
Just stay healthy! I know that the Baltimore backfield situation is a question mark, but that is what gives Dixon an advantage here. He had 30 catches in 12 games played in 2016, the last season during which he saw major playing time. Dixon has missed time due to injuries and suspensions, but recently-extended head coach John Harbaugh seems to love this kid, and he is still only 25 years old. Dixon’s main competition in Baltimore appears to now be Gus Edwards, who had 137 rushes in 11 games as a rookie this past season but only two receptions during that time. JUST TWO! There is obviously a chance that Baltimore could address the running back position in the draft, but there’s still a decent chance that Harbaugh will want to utilize his third-year back more in 2019. If nothing else, Dixon should have fresh legs and a determination to prove his worth after the Ravens spent a fourth-round pick on him.
Trayveon Williams (2019 Rookie Class)
Williams is entering the 2019 NFL Draft after a very busy season at Texas A&M. He received First Team All-SEC honors and was a Second Team All-American as a 21-year-old. Williams isn’t just a pass-catching back, as evidenced by his 271 rushes for 1,760 yards this past season. However, in addition that his yards on the ground, he finished 19th in the nation with 27 catches for 278 yards (10.3 yards per catch). Of all the running backs in this 2019 class, no other backs had as many catches out of the backfield as Williams did. At 5’9, 200 pounds, I could see his pass-catching ability being a big part of his game at the next level.
So What Now?
It’s simple, really. I’m not saying that you should ignore a running back’s abilities on the ground, as carries and rushing yards are still a big factor in fantasy points scored. These are the cornerstones of every stud fantasy back. However, for your flex spots and bench players, don’t ignore the receiving backs. The ability to catch passes is what makes studs like Christian McCaffrey so special. They can complement their yards and touchdowns on the ground with more through the air. But for the teams that don’t have just one guy who can do it all, they need to mix in backs like White and Cohen to catch passes out of the backfield. Pay attention to these undervalued receiving backs this dynasty offseason, and go out and buy them if the price is right.
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