He’s got soft hands.
He’s a three-down back.
He’s a natural pass catcher.
He’s a third-down back.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN, BASIL?!
One of the big questions that comes up every year with running back prospects is how good are they at catching passes. Oddly, for as many pass-catching metrics as I have at my disposal, I rarely ever bother to deploy them toward the running back position, instead choosing to focus on wide receivers. Nevermore!
With the list of combine invitees now public, I dove deep into this year’s crop to see who are the most accomplished pass-catching running backs. As a reminder, combine invitations are a secret weapon to finding undervalued running back prospects and should probably be the focus of our prospect evaluation efforts.
Before we get into this year’s class, I want to call upon some of the NFL’s most productive pass-catching backs from the 2015 season to establish some baselines. These figures represent their college performance.
|RB||F Rec/G||F RecYd/G||Career Run/Rec||F MSrecYDS|
In general, the NFL’s best pass catchers accumulated more than 1.5 receptions and 15 receiving yards per game in their final college season. They also tended to accumulate at least 10 percent of their team’s receiving yards in their last year. Career runs-per-reception is basically an indicator of usage; the better pass catchers caught about one pass for every nine collegiate carries.
Market Share Performance
To start off, let’s look at this year’s running backs based on their market share of team receiving yards. These numbers are based on their final college season.
|Dan Vitale (H-Back)||Northwestern||74||235||21.2%|
|Kenneth Dixon||Louisiana Tech||70||213||13.2%|
|Tyler Ervin||San Jose State||70||192||11.6%|
|C.J. Prosise||Notre Dame||73||220||11.3%|
|Ezekiel Elliott||Ohio State||72||225||8.4%|
|DeAndre Washington||Texas Tech||68||200||7.6%|
|Brandon Wilds||South Carolina||74||220||7.4%|
|Marshaun Coprich||Illinois State||69||205||6.0%|
|Tra Carson||Texas A&M||72||235||5.5%|
|Wendell Smallwood||West Virginia||71||201||4.9%|
|Glenn Gronkowski (FB)||Kansas State||75||234||4.7%|
|Quayvon Hicks (FB)||Georgia||74||251||3.1%|
|Jonathan Williams '14||Arkansas||71||219||2.7%|
|Andy Janovich (FB)||Nebraska||73||230||2.0%|
|Shad Thornton||NC State||73||218||0.0%|
|Soma Vainuku (FB)||USC||72||255||0.0%|
While Ezekiel Elliott and Derrick Henry get most of the attention in this year’s class, a couple of “second tier” backs show very well here and appear to have the skills to be every-down contributors. Weighing at least 210 pounds and carrying high praise from the scouting community, Devontae Booker, Kenneth Dixon, C.J. Prosise and Kenyan Drake all shouldered a hefty portion of their team’s passing attack. Elliott is a fraction behind the leaders, but is definitely above average for this class.
Tyler Ervin and Josh Ferguson are on the smaller side, but absolutely hold their own as receivers and could be intriguing role-players a la Darren Sproles or Shane Vereen.
Profiling more like two-down bruisers, Derrick Henry, Alex Collins and the forgotten Jonathan Williams all rank among the least involved pass-catchers in this class.
Let’s switch gears and look at the per-game receiving performance of this year’s class in their final college season.
|Kenneth Dixon||Louisiana Tech||1.1||15.3|
|Marshaun Coprich||Illinois State||1.4||13.8|
|Tyler Ervin||San Jose State||1.8||13.2|
|DeAndre Washington||Texas Tech||1.3||12.7|
|Dan Vitale (H-Back)||Northwestern||1.1||11.8|
|C.J. Prosise||Notre Dame||0.9||10.6|
|Ezekiel Elliott||Ohio State||0.9||6.8|
|Tra Carson||Texas A&M||0.9||5.7|
|Wendell Smallwood||West Virginia||0.9||5.7|
|Brandon Wilds||South Carolina||0.6||5.0|
|Jonathan Williams '14||Arkansas||0.8||5.0|
|Glenn Gronkowski (FB)||Kansas State||0.2||2.6|
|Andy Janovich (FB)||Nebraska||0.1||1.9|
|Quayvon Hicks (FB)||Georgia||0.1||1.1|
|Shad Thornton||NC State||0||0|
|Soma Vainuku (FB)||USC||0||0|
Most of the same names as last time – Dixon, Ervin, Booker, Prosise – fare well here too, but a few new names join the fray. In high powered offenses, Texas Tech’s DeAndre Washington and Illinois State’s Marshaun Coprich came up with solid counting stats in their final season. Paul Perkins continues to be solid too.
Near the bottom, the trio of Henry, Collins and Williams continues to underwhelm, and I’m going to put Jordan Howard in that category too.
To be honest, I don’t have a good answer as to whether market share or counting stats matter more, so I’m including both. At the very least, I don’t think that more reps (better counting stats even in the presence of lower market share) could hurt a guy’s case.
Since usage can change throughout a player’s career, I took one last look at the players’ complete résumé. The following table contains career counting stats and one key ratio that I’m going to focus on: carries/reception. For their careers, guys that have a lower ratio will have more balanced usage patters and probably have more potential to be every-down backs. Guys with higher ratios are more likely early-down thumpers who will come off the field in passing situations. Obviously there are some fullbacks and lesser-used runners in here, but you get the idea. Remember: the collegiate usage pattern established at the beginning of the article by the NFL’s best receivers was nine, or fewer, carries per reception.
|Dan Vitale (FB)||NW||6||29||0.6||135||1427||29.7||0.04|
|Glenn Gronkowski (FB)||K St||16||51||2.2||15||369||16.0||1.1|
|Soma Vainuku (FB)||USC||24||148||3.5||17||124||3.0||1.4|
|Quayvon Hicks (FB)||UGA||23||166||8.3||12||132||6.6||1.9|
|Brandon Wilds||S Car||379||1844||45.0||59||540||13.2||6.4|
|Shad Thornton||NC St||513||2572||71.4||61||504||14.0||8.4|
|Andy Janovich (FB)||Neb||45||271||10.8||5||87||3.5||9.0|
|Kenneth Dixon||La Tech||802||4483||95.4||87||969||20.6||9.2|
|Tra Carson||Tx A&M||473||2329||50.6||42||305||6.6||11.3|
|Marshaun Coprich||ILL St||927||5196||99.9||33||233||4.5||28.1|
In summary, I would say that C.J. Prosise, Devontae Booker, Paul Perkins (who I’m a fan of) and Kenneth Dixon all have proven themselves as receivers and could very well be every-down backs in the NFL. Meanwhile, guys like Josh Ferguson, Tyler Ervin and DeAndre Washington profile as potentially intriguing niche players.
I am somewhat concerned about Derrick Henry, Alex Collins and Jordan Howard, from the point of view that they may be forced to come off the field on passing downs. However, their physical style lends itself to plenty of goal line opportunities, which probably offsets their receiving limitations.
Ultimately, this is tricky because actual skill and college usage/production are not necessarily aligned. However, I tend to prefer demonstrated production over hypothetical ability, so, for now, I’m comfortable with this as an exploratory exercise.