Many of the Week 1 games in the NFL provided ammunition to the opposition side of the Great Running Back Value Debate. Just a few days after Dallas made Ezekiel Elliott the highest-paid back in NFL history, the Cowboys’ quarterback looked like the star of the offense, as Dak Prescott threw for 405 yards and four touchdowns in a blowout win over the Giants. In the Rams’ 30-27 victory over the Panthers, Malcolm Brown—not Todd Gurley—looked like the team’s best back. And with Melvin Gordon still holding out over a contract dispute, the Chargers’ replacement duo of Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson racked up 215 total yards from scrimmage as they ran all over the Colts.
This debate has been raging for years now, and in 2019, bloated running back contracts have never been more difficult to justify. But a couple of players are providing glimmers of hope that the most impactful talents at the position are still worth paying for. Last season, Saints do-it-all back Alvin Kamara and Panthers dual-threat Christian McCaffrey were two of the most productive receiving backs in NFL history. They finished second and fifth, respectively, in Football Outsiders’ DYAR—which measures running back value compared to a replacement-level player—and McCaffrey’s 107 receptions broke the record for most by a running back in a single season.
This year, both players picked up right where they left off in Week 1. The pair combined for 17 receptions and 153 yards receiving in their debuts, with Kamara ranking second and McCaffrey ranking third in DYAR. Both backs have elite receiving ability, but they also benefit from coaching staffs and play-callers who create concepts that tap into those skills. And as coaches and front offices around the league search for clues as to how they can extract value from their backs, the ways that the Saints and Panthers use their pass-catching stars could provide a useful blueprint.
In the past, advocates for paying running backs have pumped up players like Le’Veon Bell and Todd Gurley by referencing their catch totals. The problem with looking solely at receiving volume, though, is that running back receptions tend to be inefficient plays. That starts with third-down checkdowns, which are generally wasted receptions that fall short of the sticks, but as The Athletic’s Ben Baldwin wrote last month, running back receptions on first and second down are also less valuable than passes to receivers and tight ends in the same situations. The explanation for that is fairly simple: Passes to running backs out of the backfield are usually short throws that don’t travel very far in the air, and as a result, don’t provide much big-play upside.
This isn’t to say that teams shouldn’t throw short passes to running backs out of the backfield. Those plays are still more valuable than rushes, and for teams like the Saints and Chargers that are excellent at scheming their backs into space outside the numbers, those throws can be devastating. But to maximize a back’s receiving value, it’s important to create ways for that back to attack the same areas of the field that a wide receiver or tight end would.
Trying to replicate—or exceed—typical receiver production with a running back requires more than just lining them up in the slot or out wide. Since 2017, passes to running backs from the slot produced an average of 0.13 expected points added per play, according to Pro Football Focus, compared with 0.31 for wide receivers and 0.27 for tight ends. And the discrepancy gets even worse out wide. Over that same stretch, throws to backs on the outside have netted 0.11 EPA, which is less than half the value of throws to wideouts (0.26) and still less valuable than passes to tight ends (0.16). Part of that drop-off comes from route depth. Even when teams use their backs as de facto slot guys and wideouts, the throws tend to be shorter than those run by actual receivers. So if a team has a back that can truly mimic a wide receiver, it’s important to use him that way—and that’s where the Saints’ usage of Kamara can be instructive.
Since 2017, Kamara has produced 0.39 EPA per pass when lined up in the slot or out wide. That’s easily the best mark in the league among running backs, and it’s even higher than the numbers produced by many receivers and tight ends. That efficiency is largely a product of head coach Sean Payton unleashing Kamara on real receiver routes, not just ones adapted for a running back. Against the Eagles in Week 11 last season, the Saints faced a fourth-and-6 from Philly’s 37-yard line and came out in an empty set with Kamara split out wide. Matched up against Eagles strong safety Malcolm Jenkins, Kamara executed a release that would make any receiver jealous and ran a straight go-route before hauling in a deep touchdown pass from Drew Brees.
One distinct advantage of using a running back as a receiver is that it typically generates a favorable matchup. When Kamara lines up outside, he’s a difficult enough task for a 200-pound safety—but when 240-pound linebackers have to check him from the slot or the backfield, they stand next to no chance. Since 2017, Kamara has produced 0.25 EPA on passes when lined up as a running back. Unlike most teams, throws to Kamara out of the backfield aren’t an afterthought. Payton designs plays specifically to get him in space against linebackers 5 or more yards down the field. Facing a second-and-9 early in the third quarter against the Texans on Monday night, the Saints lined up in a spread three-receiver set with tight end Jared Cook in the slot to the right. As Cook ran a drag to clear out the middle of the field, Kamara executed an angle route against a hapless Zach Cunningham and took the short pass 41 yards. With defenses around the league playing more man coverage than ever, the Saints have plenty of opportunities to build pass concepts that utilize Kamara in single coverage against a linebacker.
The Panthers have used a similar approach with McCaffrey during his career, and against the Rams on Sunday, he even hit a virtually identical angle concept that netted a 9-yard gain on first-and-10. Since his rookie year in 2017, McCaffrey has been even more dangerous on routes out of the backfield than Kamara. He’s averaged a ridiculous 0.37 EPA on 120 targets on such plays, and his ability to hurt teams underneath has made him the focal point of Carolina’s passing game. Where McCaffrey’s past production has fallen short, though, is when he’s lined up as a receiver in the slot or outside. In those situations, McCaffrey’s targets have produced an average of zero EPA, according to PFF. And that’s why his performance against the Rams was so encouraging.
On four targets as a slot or wide receiver, McCaffrey produced a staggering 0.95 EPA. On a second-and-8 late in the fourth quarter, he motioned from a two-back shotgun and set out wide to the left. When the Rams defense didn’t react to the motion, it signaled to quarterback Cam Newton that he’d likely see a zone defense. At the snap, McCaffrey ran a quick route, found a soft spot behind the linebackers, and hauled in the 9-yard completion. Putting two backs on the field in these scenarios allows the Panthers to use their normal pass protection rules and even add a play fake while McCaffrey plays a true receiver role.
It was only one game, but McCaffrey’s usage against the Rams points to plenty of efficient targets moving forward. Given the success he’s had in past Panthers’ concepts, though, that’s to be expected. The real pleasant surprise in Week 1 was how Arizona deployed its star running back.
David Johnson was the receiving king among backs before McCaffrey and Kamara even came into the league. But after he missed almost all of the 2017 season with a wrist injury and got horribly misused by the Cardinals’ coaching staff last year, it’s easy to forget just how dominant Johnson used to be. Following the 2016 season, PFF named him the best receiver at any position in the NFL. Johnson caught 80 passes for 879 yards that season, but it’s how he caught those passes that’s most relevant here. He was split out as a receiver on a league-leading 26 percent of his routes, and his 487 air yards that year were the most by a running back this decade. When lined up as a receiver or running a wheel route down the field, his average depth of target was 8.2 yards—an absurd figure for a player at his position. Using Johnson like that made him one of the most dangerous offensive players in football, and in his first game under first-year head coach Kliff Kingsbury, it seems like Johnson might be on his way to earning that status once again. On Sunday, Johnson lined up nearly as many times as a receiver (15) as he did during the entire 2018 season (16). His first touchdown reception of the season came on a 27-yard vertical route out of the backfield. After a miserable season in a backward offense, it seems like Johnson is ready to be unlocked again.
That’s great news for the Cardinals, because at $9.8 million, Johnson has the highest cap hit in the NFL among running backs. Justifying that sort of salary at the position would be difficult no matter how productive a player is, but without maximizing his abilities as a receiver, it’d be downright impossible. Johnson has already cashed in, but now Kamara and McCaffrey are trying to show that their receiving skills make them worthy of the types of deals that Johnson, Gurley, and Elliott have earned. After Gordon’s contract situation is resolved, either this fall or when he hits free agency next spring, Kamara (who’ll be a free agent in 2021) and McCaffrey (2022) will be the next star running backs looking for new contracts. Based on what’s transpired over the past year, that may be an uphill fight. But the value that they’ve added to their teams’ passing attacks—and the promise of the value they’ll likely continue to add—might be the best argument in their favor.