In the comments from the latest mailbag, we were discussing whether running backs who were struggling -- poor yards per attempt, either due to blocking or scheme or whatnot -- could still be quality fantasy backs, due to volume and/or receiving contributions. Here I'll examine what the odds of success are.
Every team would like to have a back averaging 5.0 yards per attempt, either because he's a great runner, or he's getting great blocking up front. But what about the 3-4 yards and a cloud of dust guys? How often do they wind up as top-level fantasy backs, either because of volume, scoring or receiving contributions. To get a manageable group, I looked at the last decade's worth of high-volume (200-plus carries) running backs.
In the last 10 years there have been 44 backs to have 200-plus carries in a season while averaging under 4.0 yards per carry. Of that group, 25 (nearly 60 percent) have ranked in the top 20 at their position, in PPR scoring. The ones that got there, by and large, did it with their receiving production.
About half of the backs (12) caught over 40 passes. That was key with only a third (8) making it up over 1,000 rushing yards, and only 2 sneaking up to 1,100. Just 3 backs in the group were complete zeroes in the passing game (under 20 catches), sneaking into the top 20 by scoring 8-plus touchdowns on the ground: LeGarrette Blount, Shonn Greene and Jeremy Hill.
Far more often, the backs that weren't involved in the passing game weren't great fantasy option. None of the 9 running backs listed that finished outside the top 25 caught more than 20 passes.
|RUNNING BACKS UNDER 4.0 YARDS PER CARRY, 2011-2020 (200 ATTEMPTS)|
|2014||Matt Forte, Chi.||266||1038||3.9||6||102||808||4||350.6||3|
|2017||Melvin Gordon, LAC||284||1105||3.9||8||58||476||4||288.1||5|
|2016||Melvin Gordon, S.D.||254||997||3.9||10||41||419||2||254.6||7|
|2020||Josh Jacobs, L.V.||273||1065||3.9||12||33||238||0||235.3||8|
|2012||Trent Richardson, Cle.||267||950||3.6||11||51||367||1||254.7||8|
|2017||Carlos Hyde, S.F.||240||938||3.9||8||59||350||0||235.8||8|
|2016||LeGarrette Blount, N.E.||299||1161||3.9||18||7||38||0||234.9||9|
|2013||Chris Johnson, Ten.||279||1077||3.9||6||42||345||4||244.2||9|
|2018||David Johnson, Ariz.||258||940||3.6||7||50||446||3||250.6||9|
|2017||Leonard Fournette, Jac.||268||1040||3.9||9||36||302||1||230.2||10|
|2016||Frank Gore, Ind.||263||1025||3.9||4||38||277||4||216.2||12|
|2011||Michael Bush, Oak.||256||977||3.8||7||37||418||1||224.5||12|
|2014||Joique Bell, Det.||223||860||3.9||7||34||322||1||200.2||13|
|2015||Frank Gore, Ind.||260||967||3.7||6||34||267||1||199.4||14|
|2019||Todd Gurley, LAR||223||857||3.8||12||31||207||2||223.4||14|
|2016||Todd Gurley, LAR||278||885||3.2||6||43||327||0||200.2||15|
|2013||LeVeon Bell, Pitt.||244||860||3.5||8||45||399||0||218.9||15|
|2019||LeVeon Bell, NYJ||245||789||3.2||3||66||461||1||217.0||16|
|2017||Lamar Miller, Hou.||238||888||3.7||3||36||327||3||193.5||16|
|2012||Mikel Leshoure, Det.||215||798||3.7||9||34||214||0||189.2||18|
|2012||Shonn Greene, NYJ||276||1063||3.9||8||19||151||0||188.4||19|
|2013||Maurice Jones-Drew, Jac.||234||803||3.4||5||43||314||0||189.1||19|
|2014||Andre Ellington, Ariz.||201||660||3.3||3||46||395||2||181.5||19|
|2017||Frank Gore, Ind.||261||961||3.7||3||29||245||1||173.6||20|
|2015||Jeremy Hill, Cin.||223||794||3.6||11||15||79||1||176.3||20|
|2012||BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Cin.||278||1094||3.9||6||22||104||0||177.8||21|
|2013||Zac Stacy, St.L.||250||973||3.9||7||26||141||1||185.4||21|
|2018||Jordan Howard, Chi.||250||935||3.7||9||20||145||0||182.0||21|
|2016||Matt Forte, NYJ||218||813||3.7||7||30||263||1||185.6||21|
|2016||Jeremy Hill, Cin.||222||839||3.8||9||21||174||0||176.3||22|
|2012||Michael Turner, Atl.||222||800||3.6||10||19||128||1||177.8||22|
|2013||Ray Rice, Balt.||214||660||3.1||4||58||321||0||182.1||22|
|2019||David Montgomery, Chi.||242||889||3.7||6||25||185||1||174.4||24|
|2017||Latavius Murray, Min.||216||842||3.9||8||15||103||0||157.5||25|
|2012||Darren McFadden, Oak.||216||707||3.3||2||42||258||1||156.5||25|
|2011||Cedric Benson, Cin.||273||1067||3.9||6||15||82||0||165.9||26|
|2016||Jonathan Stewart, Car.||218||824||3.8||9||8||60||0||150.4||27|
|2014||Andre Williams, NYG||217||721||3.3||7||18||130||0||145.1||27|
|2013||Rashard Mendenhall, Ariz.||217||687||3.2||8||18||134||0||150.1||29|
|2019||Sony Michel, N.E.||247||912||3.7||7||12||94||0||154.6||31|
|2018||Peyton Barber, T.B.||234||871||3.7||5||20||92||1||152.3||31|
|2012||Vick Ballard, Ind.||211||814||3.9||2||17||152||1||131.6||33|
|2013||BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Cin.||220||756||3.4||7||4||22||0||123.8||40|
|2015||Alfred Morris, Was.||202||751||3.7||1||10||55||0||96.6||53|
I'm not sure I fully answered the question the reader posed, which was Do dual-threat runners with low yards per carry make up for it with catches? But the last decade does give us plenty of success stories, with Melvin Gordon, LeVeon Bell and Todd Gurley showing up multiple times, and by and large getting there due to their receiving production. Several other guys who made it into the top 10 (Trent Richardson, Carlos Hyde, Maurice Jones-Drew) definitely wouldn't have got there without their involvement in the passing game.
Bottom line for me is if I'm going to draft a guy from a team that seems to have a poor offensive line or will struggle to run the ball, I want him to be involved in the passing game, and preferably a lot. That's probably why I'll consider someone like Joe Mixon this year (and to a lesser extent David Johnson or Najee Harris, although not too favorably), but shy away from backs I don't expect to be involved as receivers (Josh Jacobs leaps to mind).