Are Running Back Targets a QB Stat?

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I won’t be satisfied with the development of machine learning until our buckets-of-bolts overlords can tell us once and for all if running back target share is a quarterback stat.

Forget that the machines are on the verge of making human beings obsolete, that machines know what you’re going to say before you say it, that the apocalyptic SkyNet system may already be up and running. I want to know whether QB tendencies and skills/limitations dictate running back targets.

My priorities? They’re nothing if not sensible.

Last summer I took a look at mobile quarterbacks and found -- to exactly no one’s surprise -- they don’t tend to pepper running backs with targets. It’s intuitive: If a quarterback can run a few yards for a first down, why go through the trouble of dumping it off to a back who might be surrounded by defenders? Lamar Jackson’s running backs are more likely looking to throw a block than to catch a pass if Jackson leaves the pocket on third and short. We don’t need machines to tell us that (please don’t tell the machines I said this).

With summertime approaching, there’s sure to be ample chatter -- as there is every summer -- about running backs getting involved in their team’s passing attack. Backs with demonstrated pass-catching ability, guys with none -- it won’t matter. Coaches and quarterbacks alike will chat up the screen game prospects for any running backs with a pulse, two hands, and at least nine fingers.

Below is a look at quarterbacks’ target history with the running back position. These rates span across a QB’s time in the NFL, in various offenses with various running backs and various play callers who may or may not emphasize the screen game.

Rb target share 2
Rb target share 2

Carr + McDaniels = Lots of RB Screens
Derek Carr’s propensity for the running back dump off should mix quite well with new head coach Josh McDaniel’s longtime commitment to deploying backs as pass catchers. The Patriots under McDaniels had the second-highest running back target share from 2017 to 2021, an approach that led to useful PPR production from James White, among others. White, in case you’ve forgotten, ​​had 159 catches on 218 targets from 2018 to 2019.

McDaniels’ use of the screen game didn’t change all that much with Mac Jones under center in 2021, as you can see in the above chart. The low-volume New England passing offense and its lack of a clearcut backfield pass catcher like White -- who missed most of the season with a hip injury -- led to a smattering of targets for Rhamondre Stevenson (18 targets), Brandon Bolden (49), and Damien Harris (21), largely depending on who was healthy in a given week. The Patriots in 2021 gained ten percent of their passing yards on running back screens, the 11th highest rate in the league. The takeaway headed into 2022 should be that the running back remains a constant in McDaniels’ passing offense.

How the Raiders’ backfield targets will be split up this season is anyone’s guess today. Despite never being an excellent pass catcher, the Jon Gruden-led Raiders shoveled a mountain of cash at Drake last year presumably to do the pass catching in the Vegas offense. Drake, who missed the final month of the 2021 regular season with a broken ankle, commanded a meager 10 percent target share. Josh Jacobs actually had a higher route rate and a higher target per route run rate than Drake before his season-ending injury. Afterward, Jacobs saw his route participation jump from 36 percent to 45 percent and led the Raiders with a 27 percent target per route run rate. He was fantasy’s RB6 from Week 13-18 thanks to the extra pass-catching work.

Fantasy managers should (and will) keep an unblinking eye on how the Vegas backfield shapes up in training camp and preseason. Whoever gets the nod as the team’s primary backfield pass catcher could get a glut of opportunity in a McDaniels offense run by Checkdown Charlie under center.

Matt Ryan, Cement Shoes, and Nyheim Hines
Multiple NFL reporters have confirmed in recent years that Matt Ryan does not, in fact, fill his cleats with cement before kickoff. That’s just how he runs. Be nice.

Ryan, like Philip Rivers before him, profiles as the ultimate pocket passer utterly unable to scurry out of the pocket and scamper for a first down. It’s dump off or bust for the new Colts quarterback. As recently as 2019, Ryan’s running backs combined for a 20 percent target share, led by Devonta Freeman and his 12 percent share in 13 games (70 targets, or 5.39 per game). Suffice it to say, being Ryan’s checkdown option has proven valuable for PPR purposes.

Colts head coach Frank Reich got a head start on the running back pass catching talk in late March when he said Nyheim Hines could (would?) take on a more prominent role with Ryan under center in 2022. Reich likened Hines’ 2022 role to the one he had in 2020 with Rivers shot-putting passes to Indy running backs all season. Hines was second on the team in targets (77) that season, commanding the NFL’s fifth-highest running back target share (15 percent). Pre-workhorse Jonathan Taylor saw 39 targets that year and ran 13.5 routes per game to 16.8 for Hines.

After signing a hefty extension to start the season, Hines was deployed as a pass catcher on just 32.8 percent of the Colts’ drop backs in 2021. Taylor, meanwhile, ran a route on nearly 39 percent of the team’s pass plays. Perhaps he’ll see those roles flip in 2022. It’s impossible to say right now, though it’s clear the Colts want Hines involved in the screen game and Ryan’s presence should be a boon for the PPR prospects of both Colts RBs.

The Athletic’s Stephen Holder, a plugged-in beat writer, seems bullish on Hines’ fantasy upside in 2022, for whatever that’s worth.

Meandering Thoughts on RB Pass Catching
-There are only a few guarantees in life: Death, taxes, my kids inexplicably falling off chairs, my dog needing to pee at midnight, and Tom Brady checking down to his running backs. Leonard Fournette is back in the proverbial saddle as Tampa’s presumed workhorse back a year after seeing an immensely valuable 83 targets (6.38 per game). Brady targeted Uncle Len on 25 percent of the back’s pass routes, the third-highest rate on the team. Only Austin Ekeler and Najee Harris had more expected receiving fantasy points than Lombardi Lenny in 2021. While Fournette probably doesn’t have the overall RB1 in his range of outcomes, it’s close.

-Deshaun Watson has never thrown to running backs. Like any legit mobile signal caller, Watson uses his legs to gain a few yards, having little need for the dump off. Just ask David Johnson, who saw a 10 percent target share (3.2 targets per game) in seven games in Watson’s 2020 Houston offense. This isn’t the best news for Kareem Hunt, who led the Cleveland backfield in 2021 with a 14 percent target share (Nick Chubb had a 4 percent target share) in his eight games. Of course, Kevin Stefanski’s system could force targets to Hunt (and Chubb). This is among the reasons folks are wondering if Watson is a good fit in Stefanski’s offense. Probably he’s not, though it might not matter for fantasy purposes.

-Mitchell Trubisky should be able to keep the Najee Harris target train chugging along this year. Trubisky, in Matt Nagy's offense, targeted his backs often in a system predicated on hiding the mistake-prone quarterback. Harris, a volume-driven player in every way, should once again be among the league leaders in running back pass routes, targets, and receptions. No one ran more routes than Harris in 2021.

-Kansas City’s on-the-fly revamping of their passing offense in 2021 included more screen passes to whoever was that week’s primary pass catcher -- Darrel Williams, Jerick McKinnon, or the oft-injured Clyde Edwards-Helaire. KC backs combined for a hefty 23.3 percent target share in the second half of the 2021 season, and in three postseason games, McKinnon commanded 18 targets. Saying goodbye to Tyreek Hill and signing boring-but-reliable possession receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster would indicate the Chiefs are all in on a dink-and-dunk passing game for 2022. Re-signing McKinnon -- the team’s most effective back last season -- could clarify KC’s screen game beneficiaries for 2022.

-Running back target share in Matthew Stafford’s offenses is a bit deceiving in the context of his lone season in LA. The Rams hardly used their cast of running backs as pass catchers, with Darrell Henderson leading the way with a 10 percent target share in his seven regular season games. Sony Michel saw a grand total of seven targets in his eight games with the Rams. It’s hardly a shock; target blackhole Cooper Kupp takes opportunities away from everyone in the LA offense. And rightfully so. There’s not much indication Rams running backs will be more thoroughly utilized in the team’s productive passing offense in 2022.