Running backs in the NFL don’t have the value they once did. The five highest-paid running backs this season will make 93 percent of what the five highest-paid RBs were paid in 2011, based on their collective salary cap charges each year according to Spotrac. The five highest-paid quarterbacks of 2019, meanwhile, are making 185 percent of their 2011 counterparts.1
But top backs like Le’Veon Bell, who sat out the entire 2018 season over a contract dispute with the Steelers, and current holdout Ezekiel Elliott, who hauled in 77 passes last year, may be hoping to reestablish value at the position with their receiving ability. By leaning into a more pass-happy league, running backs like these two, the Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey (107 receptions in 2018) and the No. 2 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, the New York Giants’ Saquon Barkley (91 receptions), are leading a receiving revolution at the position.
But despite the exploits of the most prolific receiving backs last year, running back targets as a share of all passes are not significantly increasing. Teams are just throwing to everyone more often. Last year, 20.2 percent of passes were targeted at running backs, which is in line with the 2001-to-2017 average of 19.5 percent. The same is true if we look at the market share of passing yards: 18 percent last year compared with 17.5 from 2001 to 2017.
And unless you’re playing fantasy football, judging receiving ability by the number of catches and receiving yards is a poor way to measure this skill. A checkdown to a running back who gains 12 yards on third-and-15 is great for your fantasy team, but it doesn’t do much to improve an actual team’s chances of winning a game.
A more accurate — but still imperfect — gauge of the receiving value of a running back is the added value of the plays in which he is a receiver.2 We can use a team’s success rate on those plays — whether the play resulted in positive expected points added — to see more clearly that not all running back catches and yards are created equal.
Last year, NFL backs registered successful plays on 1,663 of 3,572 receiving targets, a rate of 46.6 percent, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group. Elliott and Barkley were the top two rushers in the league last season, but they were below-average receivers for their position by this metric, posting respective success rates of 36.1 and 40.3 percent on passes thrown to them. The Cowboys and Giants ranked 31st and 26th, respectively, in overall success rates on those plays. When their quarterbacks threw to Elliott and Barkley, they typically weren’t increasing their probability of scoring points — they were worsening it.
Whether it’s scheme, blocking or the ability of the running backs themselves, some teams are just better at this play-call than others. Comparing overall success rates, we can see a wide range of effectiveness across the league in 2018 when throwing to the RBs.
The Chiefs got the most out of the running back pass
NFL teams by success rate of passes to running backs, as measured by positive expected points added, for the 2018 regular season
|Passes to RBs|
No team threw to its RBs more than the Patriots, and it obviously worked out OK for them. But that doesn’t mean the Patriots were the best at it — that honor belongs to the AFC runner-up Kansas City Chiefs, who recorded a success rate of 62.6 percent on these throws. The next best team on passes to running backs, the Panthers, posted a success rate of 54.5 percent. In fact, the difference in success rate, 8.1 percentage points, between the best and second-most effective teams — the Chiefs and Panthers — is the same as the difference between the Panthers and the Packers, the 15th-best team at this play.
Despite their high proficiency on such throws, the Chiefs were just 23rd in the share of passes targeted to running backs, though it’s hard to criticize them for not throwing enough to RBs given that they had one of the most explosive offenses in NFL history. And the Chiefs didn’t rely on any one running back for that success: Targets to each of the Chiefs’ primary backs last season — Kareem Hunt, Spencer Ware and Damien Williams — had a success rate of at least 59.5 percent.
This raises a problem for the star running backs trying to prove their worth this season. Because the expected points added on a given play are owned by everyone involved, it would be hard for a running back to claim success rate on targets as his own.
For example, Melvin Gordon is holding out from the Chargers for a new contract — one that would pay him for being more than just a runner. He would reasonably be able to point to the 50.8 percent play success on his 61 targets in 2018. The trouble is that the other top Charger backs, Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson, were each part of a higher share of successful pass plays than Gordon was, averaging a success rate of 54.2 percent.
Standing out as receivers may be the best chance for running backs trying to get around the depressed salaries at their position. But even with their contributions to the passing game, it still might be a challenge for these RBs to prove that their receiving value also isn’t easily replaced.