Recent discourse in the “do running backs matter?” debate involves what to do with backs that play a significant role in their team’s receiving game. Should a player such as Christian McCaffrey be valued like a wide receiver? Does a running back’s receiving value make them less of a replaceable commodity? Well, if we’re going to try to evaluate running backs like receivers, it makes sense to look at what they do when they actually line up like receivers.
Our annual look at slot/wide splits in the passing game continues, thanks to the charting efforts from our friends at Sports Info Solutions. Following our looks at wide receivers and quarterbacks, we finish off our look at offensive skill positions by taking a quick glance at running backs and tight ends.
Slot/tight targets made up 9.9% of running back targets in 2019, basically unchanged from 2018. Those targets had a combined DVOA of 11.0%, compared to 3.0% when backs were lined up out wide or -0.7% when lined up in the backfield. It’s important to remember that these numbers aren’t directly comparable to those for receivers; running backs are compared to other running backs, and opponent adjustments take into account the player’s position on the roster, not on the field. If you were to code even Christian McCaffrey (this year’s running back receiving DYAR leader) as a wide receiver, he’d have a below-average DVOA. Still, it’s clear that running backs can do more damage when lined up at more traditional receiving positions, assuming they can handle the role.
And not all running backs can. Only five of the 50 qualified running backs from a year ago had less than two-thirds of their total targets out of the backfield, and only three — McCaffrey, Tarik Cohen, and Austin Ekeler — would have hit the 25-target threshold on their slot and wide targets alone, with only Cohen even hitting two targets per game. Most running backs who are prolific receiving threats end up with a target outside of the backfield every game or two — see the Alvin Kamaras and James Whites of the world — or are basically backfield-only options, such as Dalvin Cook. For most running backs, the concept of slot/wide splits is more a matter of trivia than something that can be used to draw real conclusions.
Even for the three running backs who line up as a receiver on an occasional basis, the bulk of their work comes on traditional running back routes, which produce significantly fewer yards on average than even the most basic receiver patterns. Each of McCaffrey, Cohen, and Ekeler had over half of his targets come at or behind the line of scrimmage; a heavy diet of swings, screens, and check-and-release plays. That’s not to say that these plays can’t be valuable, or that these players aren’t good at them (or, at least, that McCaffrey and Ekeler weren’t good at them; Cohen had negative DVOA in most of his splits because the Bears’ offense was broken a year ago). And it’s not to say that their receiving chops don’t make them significantly more valuable than their more ground-focused contemporaries. But the arguments that they should be paid like wide receivers tend to fall flat for me as long as their teams aren’t actually using them as wide receivers.
Should their teams be using them as wide receivers? Well, that’s a more complicated question. At the very least, it behooves us to look at the backs who were the most effective when asked to line up as receivers.
Slot/Tight Efficiency, Running Backs, 2019
|Minimum seven slot/tight targets|
Tony Pollard might take home the slot DVOA crown, but 21 of his 36 slot DYAR came on one play against Detroit, a drag route where the Lions opted not to cover him and Tracy Walker’s tackle attempt just bounced off the Memphis rookie. Cut that play out, and Pollard’s DVOA drops to 21.0% and he misses even the very generous seven-target minimum. No, Christian McCaffrey was the best running back out of the slot in 2019 — he had the most DYAR and a very robust 60.1% DVOA that withstands picking and poking away a few highlight-reel plays. He put up those sorts of numbers with Kyle Allen and Will Grier throwing the ball. He didn’t exactly run a full route tree, with most of his targets coming on quick outs, digs, and chips, and he had just one deep target all season long, but what he did run went well. It also was a significant jump up from his performance in 2018, where he had -2 DYAR and -15.8% DVOA on 19 targets. Part of that can be chalked up to McCaffrey improving between Year 2 and Year 3, but a significant portion of it can be chalked up to McCaffrey running more receiver routes and fewer jet sweeps and whips. McCaffrey has shown he can handle more productive routes and his efficiency numbers have improved as he has been given the chance to run them. It’s another data point that indicates that the Panthers should try McCaffrey in the slot more often; those plays might have only made up 15% of his targets, but they were responsible for nearly 25% of his receiving DYAR.
(Remember, though, again: McCaffrey’s 60.1% DVOA here comes from comparing his results to the average pass to a running back. It is not directly comparable to wide receiver DVOA ratings.)
The worst slot receiver for running backs was probably Jaylen Samuels, third-worst in DVOA but bottom of the table in DYAR. His big problem was drops; three of his five incomplete passes out of the slot hit him in the hands. There were only 19 drops in the slot for running backs league-wide, so having three on 15 targets isn’t precisely ideal. Pittsburgh’s quarterbacks had enough trouble in 2019 without their receivers dropping catchable passes. Last in DVOA was Giovani Bernard, who dropped from -6.5% DVOA in 2018 to rock-bottom a year ago; his eight targets did result in six completions, but just 31 yards, one first down, and a lost fumble.
Kyle Juszczyk, David Johnson, and Alvin Kamara all have had positive seasons out of the slot in each of the last two years; Kamara has pulled the feat off three years in a row, while Johnson has done it in his last three healthy seasons. I don’t believe Johnson will be replacing DeAndre Hopkins’ value out of the slot, but the consistency is nice to have. Tarik Cohen, on the other hand, dropped from a 35.3% DVOA in 2018 to a -0.8% total last season, as he became Mitchell Trubisky’s “in case of panic” option, and there was plenty of room to panic. Throw out the 11 screens and Cohen’s DVOA would have been back up to positive numbers, though nowhere near what he did in 2018. Keep that in mind as we go to the wide table.
Wide Efficiency, Running Backs, 2019
|Minimum five slot/tight targets|
Austin Ekeler’s role on the 2020 Chargers will be very interesting. Now that Melvin Gordon is gone, do they keep splitting Ekeler out wide with Justin Jackson or Josh Kelley in the backfield, or do more of Ekeler’s routes come out of the backfield? The Chargers found ways to split Ekeler out wide even during Gordon’s holdout, but not as often as they did when they had a full complement of backs to use. And Ekeler wasn’t just running some quick slants or bubble screens split out wide, either; he was one of only three running backs to have multiple deep targets when split out wide, resulting in 61 of his 113 DYAR.
Bombazo de River a Ekeler de 41 yardaspic.twitter.com/a3V2xe3WGB
— NFL Latino TV (@NFLlatinoTV) October 20, 2019
Ekeler running deep fades against linebackers is advantage Ekeler all day long.
And then you have Tarik Cohen, dead-last in DYAR and DVOA out wide. In 2018, he was also dead-last in DYAR and DVOA out wide. In 2017, he was also dead-last in DYAR and DVOA out wide. Last year, we suggested that Cohen’s inefficiency out wide was likely a fluke of small sample size, but that really does not appear to be the case. This is what we in the business call “a pattern”, and a ton of it is because the Bears keep trying to get him involved on receiver screens.
In his three seasons in the league, the Bears have targeted Tarik Cohen 108 times from wide receiver positions, either in the slot or split out wide. Forty of those targets have been screens, resulting in -24 DYAR. The remaining 68 targets have resulted in 58 DYAR. In 2019, it was a -18 to 31 split between screens and non-screens, and that’s without even considering DYAR lost on running back screens. Even when given a chance, Cohen isn’t as efficient a receiver as McCaffrey or Ekeler, but the Bears are compounding that by putting him in situations which are not helping him out. Stop throwing screens.
Once again, this is the third straight season Alvin Kamara has had a positive DVOA when split out wide, and he’s joined from last year’s list by James White. On the negative side, this is the second straight season with negative DVOA out wide for Christian McCaffrey, though he jumps to the positive side of the ledger if you ignore his three wide screens — not even McCaffrey can turn those into positive plays.
Tight ends spent significantly more time split out as wide receivers than running backs did in 2019. Eighteen tight ends saw at least half of their targets from the slot, and seven more saw at least a tenth of their targets split out wide.
Note that not all of these numbers add up to 100; there were 66 targets to tight ends who were lined up in the backfield, led by the seven of Andrew Beck. The line between tight end, fullback, and H-back is sometimes a blurry one.
Slot Efficiency, Tight Ends, 2019
|Minimum 35 slot/tight targets|
Travis Kelce, Jared Cook, and George Kittle almost went back-to-back as the top three slot tight ends in football, either by DYAR or DVOA. In 2018, Kyle Rudolph knocked Kelce to fourth in DVOA, while Mark Andrews’ volume cut ahead of Kittle on this year’s DYAR leaderboards, but still — those three, in one order or another, are your top big slot players in football. Kelce, Cook, and Andrews are basically wide receivers in the tight end’s locker room, three of the seven tight ends who saw fewer than 30% of their targets come from an inline position. This makes sense; Kelce and Andrews are solid blockers but nothing spectacular, while Cook’s blocking the past couple of seasons has not exactly earned him plaudits. Kittle is, by a wide margin, the best blocker of this group, which goes a long way to explaining why he only had 44 targets in the slot; he’s an integral part of the 49ers’ run-based attack as a blocker, so San Francisco can’t afford to split him out as often as the other names here. Kittle had 115 DYAR on when lined up tight, significantly above Cook’s 40 and Kelce’s 15.
You may be surprised to see Zach Ertz finish with a negative DVOA in the slot. You may be more surprised to learn this is the second year in a row he has been in the negatives, slipping down from 7.4% to -2.3% to -4.3% over the past three seasons. Ertz has struggled more as a receiver recently; he failed to crack the top 20 in receiving DYAR this year for the first time in his career. My gut feeling is that that has more to do with injuries and struggles the Eagles have had at other receiving positions, allowing defenses to focus coverage more on Ertz, than anything else, but it’s worth noting.
At the very bottom of the table, catching 50% of your targets in any split is poor, but at least T.J. Hockenson has the trio of arguments that A) he was a rookie, and rookie tight ends generally don’t do much; B) his average depth of target was 10 yards downfield, so he didn’t have a lot of easy catches; and C) he didn’t have Matthew Stafford to work with for the majority of the season. Excuse A holds up, but excuses B and C fall down when looking at his receiving plus-minus; he simply has to do better in 2020.
We really do have to scrape the bottom of our spreadsheets to find enough tight ends to populate a “wide” leaderboard. Especially notable, I find, is George Kittle’s 1.1-yard average depth of target, hurt by — you guessed it! — three receiver screens, producing -15 of his -24 DYAR out wide. All together now: stop throwing screens.
It’s interesting that Kittle and Kelce both finished with negative DVOAs when split out wide, and that Cook just barely managed to reach positive DYAR, considering how successful they’ve all been in the slot. It’s not just a one-year thing, either; all three had negative DVOAs out wide in 2018. This is almost certainly a combination of “weird splits happen” and small sample sizes; one fumble cost Kelce 30 DYAR, while Cook suffered from a trio of overthrows from his usually very accurate quarterbacks. This is a stat where someone like Zach Ertz can go from -100.4% DVOA in 2018 on six targets to a 2.9% DVOA in 2019; for most players, there’s just not enough signal here to really peak through the noise. In general, however, it seems that splitting tight ends out wide simply does not work; as a position, they had a -19.0% DVOA on 178 targets, compared to 3.5% in the slot and -0.1% lined up tight. If you have a tight end who can make catches, it’s still in your best interest to try to get him lined up against a linebacker or safety rather than going one-on-one against a top cornerback. In the long run, if a tight end could win those sorts of matchups consistently, he likely would have been a wide receiver in the first place.