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The Value of RB Targets in PPR Leagues

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If you have followed my work at all, you know I am all about running backs that can catch passes. If you listen to RotoBaller Radio on SiriusXM (and if you’re not you should be!) you have most definitely heard me talk up running backs that catch passes and knock those who don’t. It's why for years I was constantly the low-guy on Derrick Henry. It’s why I think ranking Nick Chubb anywhere in the top-five is a mistake. I want pass-catching backs! 

This is not about personal preference, it is because in PPR it is a game-changer. Something I say a lot on the radio is that the margin for error is so much smaller for those RBs who do not catch passes. What I mean by that is they have to be so great not just as a runner, but also by scoring a bunch of touchdowns, to make up for it.

I want to dive even deeper and fully explain why I feel that way, which is exactly what I will explain here.

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Why Do RB Targets Matter So Much 

Simply put, RB targets matter because they are nearly three times as valuable as a handoff. Last season RBs as a whole scored 0.65 fantasy points per rushing attempt, compared to 1.51 fantasy points per target. That is on par with previous seasons as well. Think about it like this: in PPR, which is becoming more and more the norm in fantasy, you are rewarded one point per catch. That means before any yards or touchdowns are added on, if your running back catches his target, he has already scored you a fantasy point. Plus, since those RB targets are usually close to the line of scrimmage, they are much easier to convert than a downfield throw.

Last season, running backs as a whole caught 76 percent of their targets. So, on average, for three out of every four targets, a running back would have to rush for 10 yards, just to equate that one catch. Plus, last season, backs as a whole averaged 5.7 yards per target. So now a back needs to rush for 15 yards, just to equate one of those targets. Unfortunately, we know that is not the case. Running backs last season averaged 4.4 yards per carry. Basically, it takes about three to four carries to equate to every catch a running back makes. 

The fact that running backs scored over three times the amount of rushing touchdowns as receiving is what makes it a little closer. Last year RBs scored 385 times on the ground and just 101 through the air. But still, those TDs help to raise the point per carry number to 0.65, still well short of the 1.51 point per target. These numbers cannot be disputed, but there will always be a population of fantasy football players that think the best RBs are the big, burly backs that are not afraid to run through contact. But that can be a mistake. 

The best fantasy RBs are the dual-threat RBs. Any back that can see over 200 carries and over 70 targets are going to be studs for fantasy football. This is why Christian McCaffrey is such a cheat code in fantasy. No one would debate that. But, it's when having to chose between those backs that primarily run vs do more damage in the passing game that it becomes a debate. It’s why for instance, I would draft Austin Ekeler and his TD concerns over Nick Chubb and his pass-catching concerns. You can make the case that Chubb is the safer back of the two, but, his path to finishing as a Top-5 fantasy RB is harder. The path for any RB to find fantasy success with a lack of pass-catching is tough. Or as I like to say, the margin for error is so much smaller.

 

Why the Margin of Error Is Smaller for RBs with Receiving Woes 

The objective in fantasy football is to score as many fantasy points as you possibly can. You really do not care how the points are scored, as long as your team has more than your opponents. So it should not matter if an RB scores a bunch on the ground or through the air, but for some reason it feels like RBs who do so as a traditional runner are viewed as “safer” when in fact, the opposite is true. Backs who do not catch a lot of passes are at a disadvantage. 

Over the last five seasons, the necessary PPR points to finish as an RB1 (Top-12 running back) is 217. Of the backs that have scored 217-plus fantasy points in this span, they have averaged 73 targets, 57 catches, 488 receiving yards and three receiving touchdowns. In that same span, there have only been five backs who reeled in fewer than 30 catches (and three with fewer than 20 receptions). Of those five RB1s with fewer than 30 catches, they averaged 1,314 rushing yards and 16.4 touchdowns per season. Those are fantastic numbers for any running back.

If you draft a running back as your RB1 you are basically saying two things about that back: 1. You are confident they will catch over 30 passes, but more around the average of 54 catches. Or, 2. They are going to rush for about 1,300 yards and 16 touchdowns. One threshold is so much easier to obtain than the other. If you drafted a running back and they put up 1,200 rush yards and 10 touchdowns with 20 catches, that back had a great season. But they still fell way short of the necessary results to be an RB1 in PPR formats. 

Another issue with backs who do not catch a ton of passes is their ceiling is so much lower. If you draft an RB who is going to catch fewer than 30 balls in the Top-5, you are drafting them at their absolute ceiling. Think of it like this: in 2020 Derrick Henry rushed for 2,027 yards, the fifth-most in NFL history and put up 17 touchdowns, tied for the second-most among all running backs, but he still just finished as the RB3. I get that he is one of the safest backs in the league, but understand if you draft him third overall, you are drafting him at his ceiling (but I get paying up for the safety he brings).

For those drafting Nick Chubb as a Top-10 RB, you are drafting him right around his ceiling. Yes, he finished last season as the RB11 despite only playing 12 games, but he scored 12 TD in those games. So this season you are either expecting him to put up 17 touchdowns, or close to it or are banking on him catching more passes even with Kareem Hunt still on the roster. If you do not believe neither of those things will happen, do not draft Chubb inside the Top-10 RBs. 

Want to win in fantasy football? Score the most points. And the easiest path to doing so is by targeting those backs who will be heavily utilized in the passing game, since a target is worth 2.5 carries, on average. 

Make sure to follow Michael on Twitter, @MichaelFFlorio



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