Rushing Quarterbacks' Impact on Running Backs

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Fantasy football is hardly immune to the narrative domination of the feeble human mind.

We like narrative. We love stories. We always have. We tell ourselves stories all the time to make sense out of a senseless existence. Slap on some narrative and chaos can be smoothed out nicely.

This extends to our little game, fantasy football, and lately, to the tendencies of the increasingly common dual threat quarterback. Fantasy managers and analysts alike are grappling with a league increasingly dominated by mobile QBs sending touchdown scoring soaring, pouring on fantasy points by the shipful.

One question that’s sat at a low boil in the recesses of my fevered brain: To whom are these dual-threat quarterbacks throwing? It sure feels like they rarely check down to running backs, which makes perfect sense when you consider the ease with which Lamar Jackson can saunter for a five yard gain and a fresh set of downs. It feels like most running QBs aren’t peppering wide receivers with targets. Turns out I have a lot of feelings about quarterbacks who can roast a team with their legs just as easily as they can shred them with their arms.

JJ Zachariason, my lovely Living The Stream cohost and editor-in-chief at FanDuel, recently did a deep dive on which positions rushing quarterbacks target the most. His findings, to put it briefly, are important.

JJ grouped rushing quarterbacks into three buckets: QBs who rush 50-60 times in a season (moderately high), QBs who rush 61-90 times (high), and those who rush more than 90 times (very high). Listen to JJ’s excellent Late Round Podcast for a more thorough rundown of his findings, but for now, let’s focus on how running backs are affected by dual threat QBs.

QB

Pass attempts

RB target share

RB rush share

NFL average QB

559

19.8%

85%

Moderately high rushing

549

19%

82%

High rushing

547

18.7%

79%

Very high rushing

489

17.8%

73%

The above numbers are a tough reality check for fantasy managers who insist a rookie (or free agent) wide receiver landing spot doesn’t matter all that much. Ours is a volume driven game, and if your favorite pass catcher is in an offense throwing 70 fewer passes than the league average, that’s going to matter. I take no pleasure in reporting this.

Running back involvement in offenses quarterbacked by dual-threat signal callers is concerning, though not as dire as the above numbers may indicate. Remember that offenses headed by a QB rushing more than 90 times a year are going to be run-heavy systems. That rushing volume can partially compensate for the low RB rush share in the above table.

Knowing the general contours of how mobile quarterbacks affect running back opportunity, let’s get a little deeper into how all pass catchers are impacted in systems run by these QBs. Below are the eight quarterbacks who have offered ample rushing upside in recent seasons. I’ve included Taysom Hill just in case he stumbles into the Saints’ starting job in 2021.

QB

RB target share

TE target share

WR target share

Lamar Jackson

15.53%

35.12%

49.12%

Kyler Murray

19.07%

11.4%

69.51%

Josh Allen

14.19%

14.04%

71.77%

Dak Prescott

16.57%

19.97%

63.46%

Deshaun Watson

14.01%

18.13%

67.86%

Russell Wilson

21.41%

26.11%

52.5%

Jalen Hurts

13.51%

29.72%

45.94%

Taysom Hill

19.83%

18.18%

57.85%

All this recent chatter about J.K. Dobbins seeing more pass-catching work -- which will surely continue into the summer -- doesn’t square with Jackson’s targeting of running backs. The running back’s role in Greg Roman’s system would have to change dramatically if Dobbins were to see any noticeable gains as a pass catcher in what should remain a run-heavy Baltimore offense. Only Titans backs had fewer receptions in 2020 than Baltimore backs. In 2019, the Ravens were 30th in running back catches. It’s simply not part of their offense, and certainly not a priority for Jackson. Sure, Dobbins led Baltimore’s backfield in pass routes, targets, and receptions. That didn’t mean a whole lot. Barring a wholesale change in the RB’s role, we can’t draft Dobbins with any hope that he can double or triple his catch total (18) from a year ago.

You’ll notice Russell Wilson’s targeting of running backs is not only high among this group of quarterbacks, but well above the league average of 19.8 percent. That the Seahawks’ pass volume has been lower than the NFL average over much of Wilson’s career means that high RB target share doesn’t translate into a whole lot of volume. New Seattle offensive coordinator Shane Waldron could conceivably bring concepts from his former gig with Sean McVay, who peppered Todd Gurley to the tune of 5.79 targets per game in the 2017 and 2018 seasons. That would be a big-time boost for Chris Carson (or perhaps Rashaad Penny).

Taysom Hill’s sample size is far too small for us to make any locked-in assumptions of how New Orleans’ offense might operate with him under center in 2021. He threw a mere 121 passes last year. The above RB target share is a bit misleading -- it includes six targets for Latavius Murray. Alvin Kamara, who struggled with Hill as the team’s QB, commanded a 14.8 percent target share in Taysom’s starts. That’s fine, but it’s well short of the 21 percent target share Kamara has enjoyed since the start of the 2017 season. We might count on Kamara remaining a target magnet if Sean Payton indeed leans on his backs in 2021. A little context for Taysom’s relatively low receivers target share: Michael Thomas gobbled up 29.75 percent of Hill’s attempts in 2020, including a hefty 51.4 percent of the wideout targets. Taysom winning the Saints’ quarterback competition would offer vanishingly little target volume for anyone not named Michael Thomas or Alvin Kamara.

Kyler Murray is right around the NFL average in targeting running backs. That bodes well for Chase Edmonds, who led the Cardinals in routes and targets in 2020 and will see a bump in playing time with Kenyan Drake gone. Maybe the main takeaway from Kyler’s target distribution is that the tight end won’t be a thing in Arizona’s offense. Sorry to the one Darrell Daniel truther reading this.

Miles Sanders commanded a meager 8.7 percent of Jalen Hurts’ 148 pass attempts last year. Fortunately for Sanders, he was treated something like a workhorse runner for most of Hurts’ brief run as Philly’s starter. I’m not sure there’s much pass-catching upside for Sanders in 2021. The new Eagles Offense notwithstanding, Hurts seems very much into his tight ends. Dallas Goedert suffering an injury during one of Hurts’ 2020 starts gave Zach Ertz the target edge, 24 to 19. Ertz, of course, is on his way out of Philadelphia, leaving Goedert to absorb most of the team’s tight end targets. He’s the most overlooked top-end tight end in fantasy football this offseason.

Josh Allen really dislikes checking down to his running backs, it seems. Devin Singletary in 2020 saw a less-than-hateful 52 targets, far more than Zack Moss’ 18 targets. Singletary, however, was targeted on a terribly low 16.35 percent of his pass routes. For contest: Chase Edmonds, who ran 13 fewer pass routes than Singletary, was targets on 21.3 percent of his routes. Only five backs ran more routes than Singletary last season. If Allen were to shift a few more tosses away from his receivers and to his backfield mates, Singletary would have solid PPR appeal.