EXTRA YARDS – Catching Carriers
In ‘Extra Yards’, we examine players whose teams use them in different ways. Their usage in other offensive areas may have given you the ‘oomph’ you needed to win last season. In this instalment, we examine the pass-catching carriers. Those running backs who got more receiving yards than rushing yards last season. And it won’t surprise you to see who is top of the pile. After all, the role was beginning to get named after him!
AUSTIN EKELER – LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
Heading the list is the Chargers’ firecracker, Austin Ekeler.
For the last few seasons, Ekeler has been firmly pinned behind Melvin Gordon in the pecking order. Gordon took the majority of the rushes, and Ekeler was used as the change-of-pace back. But it was this change of pace that saw his role grow – and his plays for the team in the 2019 season was crucial in moving the team down the field. His vital role in the team was made the clearer through Gordon’s failed holdout. Ekeler effortlessly demonstrated his claim for the lead back role with some blistering performances in the early part of the season. And, for many, it was a shame when Gordon returned and pushed Austin back into the supporting role.
But there was still work to be done in the role he had made for himself – the ‘Ekeler’ role. A Running Back who picked up the majority of the pass catching from movement behind the line. One who was able to make the most of the space from being that extra receiving option. And he truly did make the most of it. He got 993 air yards with 92 receptions off 108 targets (an 85.19% completion rate) and 8 touchdowns. To put that into comparison, if Ekeler was compared to the stats from Wide Receivers in 2019, he equalled the WR4 in touchdowns. Although he saw less targets than the top 25 Wide Receivers, he would have been WR8 in completions. And the 993 yards would have put him 27th on the list.
Not bad for a change of pace!
PASS CATCHING POINTS
But how would this have affected his fantasy stats? Due to his situation, pass catching made up the majority of his stats. In PPR, he scooped up a colossal 239.3 points over the season through his receiving role. That made up 78.2% of his total points (306). Without those, he would have ended up with just 64.7 points – based upon his rushing yards and the three fumbles that happened in the season. That would have seen him finish below other supporting backs like Boston Scott, Tony Pollard and even the Lions’ J.D.McKissic.
Thankfully, Ekeler made his situation unique to himself, and his pass-catching prowess actually put him as RB4 in PPR leagues.
But, now that Melvin Gordon has moved on, how will this affect Ekeler’s production?
TAKING THE LEAD
Fans who have drafted the Chargers’ new lead back this year may worry about those pass-catching points disappearing. After all, his expected increase of volume in the running game will surely arrive at the expense of his established role.
But don’t worry! Even when Ekeler was taking the lead back role during the first four weeks of the season, he still saw pass-catching action. In fact, his completion rate was near perfect in those opening four games – only failing to make a completion on one of 25 targets.
As expected, his average number of targets does rise slightly after Gordon returns to take the carrying duties. However, this is partly due to the wider range in target number. 16 targets against Denver and 12 vs. the Chiefs balance against low targeted games, like 2 against Oakland and 3 against the Bears.
Although a small sample size, Ekeler seemed to find consistency in target numbers when he was seeing carries as well. And it is likely that we can expect this range of targets when Ekeler takes over. If we use the average of those first 4 games – 6.25 – and multiply that by 16, we get 100. Barring wild fluctuations, if Ekeler gets 100 targets as a baseline in addition to his carry volume… he will be competing for a spot in the elite running back category.
In short, you should be lapping him up where you can!
JAMES WHITE – NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Coming in at second on this very exclusive list is James White. The Patriot picked out 645 air yards from 72 targets, with 5 touchdowns.
This number was actually less than the previous year – White only saw 95 targets in 2019 – a drop of around 25% compared to 2018. Those got shared out between the other Running Backs – both Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead saw their target number rise. And, while White’s catch percentage went up in 2019, he saw a drop in around 90 yards for the season.
The offensive line troubles that the Patriots had also affected the rushing game – of the three mentioned Running Backs, only Burkhead saw any rise in efficiency in his stats for this area of the team.
So what could this mean for the 2020 season?
WHITE ON THE WANE
Unlike Austin Ekeler, there may be signs that White’s expected returns will continue to drop compared to previous seasons. And this could come down to one man: Rex Burkhead.
There were many experts, including Michael Fabiano, who saw the effect that Burkhead had on Sony Michel’s rushing stats last season. Burkhead only picked up 8 extra carries compared to the previous year. However, he had only played in 8 games in 2018. That number went up to 13 last season, so those carries got spread out across more games.
The same could be said for Burkhead’s inclusion and White’s receiving stats as well. White snap count dropped by around 100 from 2018 and 2019, whereas Burkhead’s rose by a similar amount. And his involvement in the passing game was minimal – only taking a handful of targets a game. But it was enough to make a difference with them going to Burkhead rather than White. In fact, there are weeks where Burkhead beats White in yardage and targets. So, while White still managed to put up decent numbers from his position – it was likely not what fantasy owners were expecting from him when compared to 2018.
RECEIVING FANTASY STATS – JAMES WHITE
|Snap count||Rec / Tgts||Yards / TDs||Receiving points (PPR)||% of fantasy pts from receiving stats.|
|2018||600 (53%)||87 / 123||751 / 7||204.1||73.7%|
|2019||490 (42%)||72 / 95||645 / 5||166.5||83.5%|
White’s receiving points in PPR dropped by nearly 40 points over the two years. Even so, 2019’s amount still made up a larger percentage of his final points. This was due to the drop in his rushing yards and touchdowns. In the space of one year, White went from 5 rushing touchdowns – to just 1. Burkhead? He virtually doubled his yards (131 to 279), and his seasonal touchdown tally went up from 0 to 3. Another area where Rex is on the rise.
BURKHEAD REX EVERYTHING
Will this situation change? If Burkhead plays as many games for the Patriots as last year, then this could have another direct effect on White’s involvement. The return of much needed offensive linemen will actually help the rushing side of things. But the faltering performance of Michel and the rise of Rex Burkhead could solidify this as a committee – in both rushing and receiving. And, as such, White’s output could see the same plateau this season – and may not offer you the same value that you have gotten the last few seasons!
TARIK COHEN – CHICAGO BEARS
Our third, and final, player on this list is Tarik Cohen. In 2019, the shifty Chicago Running Back caught 79 of his 104 targets, picking up 456 yards in the process. He also secured 3 receiving touchdowns for his team.
This final air yardage was over double that on the ground (hence his inclusion in this group). Cohen only saw 64 carries – an average of 4 per game – and made 213 yards. He did not get any rushing touchdowns.
SLIP IN THE STATS
Like James White, Cohen also saw a drop in output compared to what he had produced in 2018. The Running Back’s sophomore season gave him the best stats so far. His 725 receiving yards and 5 catching touchdowns gave far more points in that area than the following year. 444 rushing yards and 3 ground touchdowns added even more to the haul.
One major influence often considered in a player’s drop in performance is personnel change. And a major change came in the form of David Montgomery.
Montgomery was a third round pick for the Bears in the 2019 draft. The Iowa State man had roles in both sides of the offensive game coming out of college, so his drafting put a dampener on Cohen’s progress in the team. And it was expected when Montgomery took over the majority of the rushing workload.
Thankfully for Cohen, it did not impact on his role in the pass-catching game. Nor was there a major jump in snaps for Montgomery compared to Howard’s number in the previous year. Despite all this, Cohen wasn’t able to produce what he did in his second NFL season.
But he wasn’t alone. Montgomery played the full season, but saw wild inconsistency in his ground game. Although he saw an average 3.7 yards / carry, the high and low points were 5.0 and 1.7 yards per carry – a wide variation of production.
CHANGE IN THE BACK ROOM
This was just one way that the Bears’ offensive struggles became obvious last season. And so, after missing out on the playoffs for the eighth time in nine seasons, staffing changes were announced.
Out went a number of the coaching team – including offensive co-ordinator Mark Helfrich. Several days later, the Bears brought in their replacements. Former Bengals Offensive co-ordinator Bill Lazor took the same role under Matt Nagy.
In his extensive coaching career, Lazor has four years of offensive co-ordinator experience – Cincinnati (from 2017 to 2018) and the Miami Dolphins for the 2014 and 2015 seasons. In that time, both teams saw a boost to their rushing output. This be the reason behind Lazor’s hiring at the Bears. As a result, this could greatly benefit David Montgomery’s form.
However, one thing that will NOT change is that Nagy will continue to call offensive plays. General Manager Ryan Pace’s press conference in February outlined that, although the hires will help a collaborative effort in addressing offensive issues, the ‘blueprint’ will still be very much Nagy’s.
CHANGE IN THE SCHEME
Lazor’s involvement in this collaboration could see improvement in the efficiency of the Bears running game. This means more success for Montgomery and – to a certain extent – Cohen. Indeed, volume and carry share should stay at a similar level, based upon Lazor’s most recent year as offensive co-ordinator, with the Bengals in 2018.
|Lead back carry no.||Backup back carry no.||Carry total||Lead back carry %||Backup carry %|
However, if Lazor is involved in the passing side of the game as well, this could spell trouble for Cohen.
|Lead back targets||Backup back targets||Team Tgts.||RB tgt %||WR tgt %||TE tgt %|
In the years where Lazar was an NFL OC, the target split between the Running Backs is drastically different to Chicago’s 2019 season. Although they still see a portion of targets in Lazor’s scheme, the percentage of targets for Running backs in Lazor’s schemes is, on average, 7% less.
That percentage of target share transfers over to the Tight Ends – so we could expect to see Jimmy Graham and Cole Kmet benefit from the new scheme. Funnily enough, the Wide Receivers see the exact same percentage, and should remain unchanged.
In addition, the average targets for lead and backup Running Backs is much closer than Montgomery and Cohen saw last season. This may suggest that, under a new scheme developed with Lazor’s involvement, it will be Montgomery who may see more pass-catching opportunities. Cohen, in turn, may well see his target share drop.
A RISK IN TARIK
As such, the changes in the Bears’ offensive staff make Montgomery thrive this season. And in return, Cohen may suffer further. He is a player who relies on getting those targets and receptions to be a viable part of a fantasy team. Cohen finished as RB27 last season – a high end RB3. That was based upon 88% of his fantasy points coming from his receiving stats (142.6 points out of 160.9). If that side of his game suffers as a result of these changes, his value may see a significant drop by the end of the season.
And if it does happen, there is a high chance he drops below his predicted finish of RB29 in PPR leagues – and could even become a risky RB4 pick in many leagues!
With that ominous warning…
Until next time, Rush Nation,
-Rob Cowsill @CowsillRob