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Pass-Catching Versatility of NFL Draft RB Prospects

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As the NFL draft approaches, the versatility of how a running back can be used in the passing game is as relevant as ever. The NFL continues to evolve into more of a passing league, and the pass-catching and route-running abilities of running backs have never been more valuable. This past season featured an explosion in targets for RBs in the NFL: the position’s share of all targets increased by 3 percentage points and RBs were targeted 2 percentage points more for each route run.

Running Backs in the Passing Game - NFL
Targets (T) Routes Run (RR) T/RR Target Share
2016 3278 14360 23% 18%
2017 3617 14647 25% 21%

Utilizing Sports Info Solutions charting data, we can break these targets down in more depth to see where the RBs were lining up. During this past season, offensive play callers diversified where RBs were running their routes from and being targeted. Overall, their percentage of routes run from the backfield decreased by 1.6 percentage points, and those extra routes were evenly split between the slot and out wide. The relative change in the target distribution was even more pronounced: targets from the backfield dropped 2.7 percentage points, and they increased by 1.2 percentage points from the slot and 1.4 percentage points from out wide.

NFL RB Target Distribution by Pre-Snap Position
% of RB Routes % of RB Targets
Lined Up 2016 2017 2016 2017
Wide 9% 10% 6% 7%
Slot 8% 9% 8% 9%
TE/Wing 1% 1% 1% 1%
RB 83% 81% 86% 83%

Running backs are being split out more often because doing so has strategic advantages in modern offenses, which are more focused on passing and especially on exploiting matchups in the passing game. By lining up a running back with receiving ability out wide, an offense can dictate the defense’s personnel, force them to declare their coverages, and create mismatches with linebackers being forced to defend open spaces in coverage.

Looking at the RBs target shares from the past two seasons in the upcoming draft class, there is a clear distinction between players who solely operated out of the backfield and those who were targeted across the formation split out wide, slot and tight (W/S/T):

NFL Draft RB Prospects - Target Breakdown (2016-2017 Seasons)
Targets Target Share
Player College All Backfield W/S/T Backfield W/S/T
Nyheim Hines* NCST 96 37 59 39% 61%
Kalen Ballage ASU 84 62 22 74% 26%
Rashaad Penny SDSU 47 31 16 66% 34%
Saquon Barkley Penn State 105 92 13 88% 12%
Kerryon Johnson Auburn 47 38 9 81% 19%
Royce Freeman Oregon 42 34 8 81% 19%
Derrius Guice LSU 37 33 4 89% 11%
Sony Michel Georgia 42 40 2 95% 5%
John Kelly Tennessee 53 52 1 98% 2%
Ronald Jones II USC 33 32 1 97% 3%
Nick Chubb Georgia 12 12 0 100% 0%
*Hines' primary position was a slot receiver in 2016—he transitioned to full time RB in 2017

Hines’ target breakdown is distorted because he was mainly a slot receiver in 2016 (he garnered 83% of his targets in 2017 from the backfield). However, this still serves to highlight his versatility as a weapon. Of the pure RBs, Rashaad Penny and Kalen Ballage had their targets most evenly split across all pre-snap positions. On the other side of the spectrum, John Kelly, Ronald Jones, and both Georgia RBs had minimal, if any, targets that weren’t out of the backfield.

In order to evaluate which of these prospects’ receiving skills will translate most to the next level, we also should look at their overall receiving efficiency. We can get a good idea of overall efficiency by examining yards per target (Y/T) with average depth of target (ADOT) for context of where they were being targeted:

NFL Draft RB Prospects - Receiving Efficiency (2016-2017 Seasons)
Player College Targets Y/T ADOT On-Target Catch Rate Screen %
Nyheim Hines NCST 96 7.1 4.7 87% 25%
Rashaad Penny SDST 47 7.6 4.5 89% 23%
Kalen Ballage ASU 84 6.7 0.2 91% 38%
Kerryon Johnson Auburn 47 6.6 -2.0 98% 58%
Royce Freeman Oregon 42 7.3 -1.3 95% 38%
Saquon Barkley Penn State 105 9.8 2.2 87% 20%
Derrius Guice LSU 37 6.2 0.6 87% 30%
Sony Michel Georgia 42 5.7 0.4 89% 26%
Ronald Jones II USC 33 8.0 2.7 89% 39%
John Kelly Tennessee 53 6.6 -1.1 91% 45%
Nick Chubb Georgia 12 9.7 -1.0 90% 8%

No one was even as close to as efficient on such a high volume as Saquon Barkley, who averaged over two more yards per target than any of the prospects with over 40 targets. Barkley also was targeted at a greater distance past the line of scrimmage than anyone other than the former WR Hines, Penny and Jones. His excellent receiving ability is a big reason he is being considered as a potential top-five pick.

Penny’s ADOT of 4.5 is also impressive and indicates he was running more than just check down and screen routes. Penny was especially explosive when he was split out wide, tight, or in the slot; he led these backs with 11.7 Y/T on non-backfield targets.

Speaking of screen routes, the percentage of a RB’s targets that are screens can give us an idea of how expansive his route tree is. While the percent of RB targets that are screens increased from 20 percent in 2016 to 25 percent in the 2017 NFL season, screens still only represent a quarter of their targets and only seven percent of the routes RBs run.

Therefore, RBs who had screens make up a significantly more than 25 percent of their targets will be limited in what they can contribute in the passing game at the next level. This raises red flags with Kerryon Johnson, as well as Kelly, Royce Freeman, Jones, and Ballage.

These numbers don’t guarantee a RB prospect will be a weapon in the passing game, nor do they doom a prospect to being useless as a receiver in the NFL. But they can give us a good groundwork for what to expect out of players.

In last year’s draft class, Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, Joe Mixon, and Tarik Cohen had the most targets where they lined up not in the backfield, and they all were heavily featured in the passing game during their rookie seasons. But Kareem Hunt saw 43 of his 44 targets from the backfield in his final year of college, and he caught two TDs in his NFL debut including a 76-yard seam route.

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