NFL teams should value hybrid RBs over WRs; Eagles strike gold
Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:
— Why the Eagles were big winners at the trade deadline.
— What Demaryius Thomas brings to the Texans’ aerial assault.
— Patrick Mahomes isn’t the only AFC West quarterback demanding serious MVP consideration.
But first, a look at a trend that should have NFL teams re-evaluating their draft strategies …
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If I’m a general manager or head coach looking to jump-start my offense in this pass-happy era, I’m grabbing a running back instead of a wide receiver in the first round of the draft.
- LATEST ANALYSIS
▶ Brooks: Value hybrid RBs over WRs
▶ Reporters’ Notes: Rams’ grand plans
▶ Who matters most, Week 9: Conner to stay hot?
▶ Week 9 game picks: Pats top Packers
▶ Super Bowl predictions: Rams have momentum
▶ Ranking QBs 1-32: Brady No. 10
▶ Midseason All-Pro team: Mahomes rolling
▶ Midseason predictions: MVP, ROY, more
Yes, I know my decision will make some draftniks and team builders cringe, but running backs are more valuable than wide receivers in the modern NFL despite the increased emphasis on the passing game. "Hybrid" running backs are spitting out 100-yard games like they’re ATM machines dispensing cash, as evidenced by the scrimmage-yards leaders through eight weeks.
Eleven running backs average 100-plus scrimmage yards per game, with Todd Gurley setting the pace at 143.9. Although the bulk of Gurley’s yardage was accumulated on the ground, there are a few running backs dotting the list with nearly 50 percent of their scrimmage yards amassed on receptions.
Look no further than the numbers produced by Saquon Barkley (64.9 rush yards, 62.1 receiving yards), Alvin Kamara (58.3 rush yards, 56.1 receiving yards) and Christian McCaffrey (60.4 rush yards, 42.9 receiving yards) as proof of the league-wide trend regarding the utilization of running backs as multi-purpose threats out of the backfield.
Remember when everyone snickered as word spread before the 2017 season that Le’Veon Bell felt he should be paid like a RB1/WR2 based on his production and value to the Pittsburgh Steelers? Well, the disgruntled Pro Bowler might’ve been on to something. He’s looking like a truth teller based on how running backs are putting up big numbers as hybrid playmakers on the perimeter.
With that in mind, I believe general managers should reconsider the way they value running backs in the draft. Instead of viewing RBs as second-class citizens, executives and scouts should covet them at a premium, particularly explosive playmakers with dynamic skills in the passing game.
Although the recent shift of the league toward a pass-heavy approach has elevated pass catchers (wide receivers and tight ends), running backs are proving to be the better draft day investment. Since 2015, first-round running backs have accounted for a lot more total touchdowns (143 vs. 86) than first-round wide receivers despite playing in 211 fewer games. Those RBs also average 64 more scrimmage yards per game than the first-round WRs. The eight running backs selected in the first round (Gurley, 2015; Melvin Gordon, 2015; Ezekiel Elliott, 2016; Leonard Fournette, 2017; Christian McCaffrey, 2017; Barkley, 2018; Sony Michel, 2018; Rashaad Penny, 2018) have outperformed the 15 wide receivers taken in the first round during that span. Seven of the eight running backs have a higher scrimmage-yards-per-game average than the leading wide receiver (Amari Cooper, 61.4) from the group of 15.
Now, I know it pains some executives to place a high value on a running back based on the perceived injury risk associated with the position, but I’m convinced elite RB1s, particularly hybrids, impact the game more than wide receivers.
"A blue-chip running back creates more problems for the defense," a former NFL defensive coordinator told me. "You have to commit more defenders to the box when he is a special runner and it is hard to find linebackers who can match up with him in space in the passing game. If he is special as a receiver, it makes it even tougher to bracket and contain him. … The great ones dictate the terms. … That’s scary (for defenses)."
To that point, it’s a lot easier for a running back to make a big impact on the game as a young player when compared to a receiver at the same stage of his career. Running backs can rely on their natural talents and instincts with the ball in their hands to carve up defenses as runners. In addition, it doesn’t take a lot of scheming to get them the ball on swings, screens and option routes out of the backfield.
"These guys are better prepared to contribute to the passing game due to their experience at the lower levels," an AFC running backs coach told me. "Most have played in spread offenses that utilize the backs as receivers. Plus, they’ve grown up playing seven-on-seven football and worked on their skills as pass catchers. The young guys still struggle in pass protection, but you can get them involved quickly as playmakers."
That’s why more teams should ignore those old theories regarding running backs and select blue-chip RBs in the first round — if, and only if, they have the ability to contribute as runners and receivers out of the backfield. The changing nature of the game makes it imperative to have a versatile weapon who can do both.
If the first round is really reserved for difference makers and blue-chip talents, teams shouldn’t be afraid to pull the trigger on a hybrid playmaker out of the backfield. Recent history suggests first-round runners are solid bets, so more teams should push their chips into the middle of the table for RB1s with some WR2 ability.
As for the recent failures of wide receivers selected early in the draft, the transition from the college game to pro ball is challenging due to the route tree and conversions (receivers change routes on the fly based on coverage) used by NFL teams. Most collegiate teams are running spread offenses with simple route concepts that aren’t transferrable to the NFL. Thus, the blue-chip prospects must still learn a completely new set of skills to succeed as pros.
In addition, the hot routes and sight adjustments used in some offenses take time to master, particularly when a receiver hasn’t been asked to read coverage or make adjustments based on a defensive look.
"You never know how long it will take a wide receiver to acclimate to an NFL offense," an NFC national scout told me. "It doesn’t matter if they are a first-rounder or a fifth-rounder — the adjustment is the same based on their inexperience running pro routes and understanding advanced concepts. That’s why you see so many street free agents making teams and contributing early while some top picks are still on the sidelines.
"The transition is tough and the talent can’t come out until the mental part is mastered."
With that in mind, teams should re-think their priorities on draft day when it comes to adding playmakers to the lineup to spark the passing game. Instead of looking for a premier WR1 to add some sizzle to their offensive attack, executives would be better served to find a blue-chip hybrid to drive the offense.
THREE AND OUT: Quick takes on big developments across the league
1) Why Tate deal is golden for Eagles. It is hard for teams to find football players with skills that perfectly match unique schemes. That’s why the football world (and specifically, Eagles executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman) has been raving about Philadelphia’s acquisition of wide receiver Golden Tate from the Lions at the trade deadline.
"We think we have a really good football team and we are adding a really good player. … We are going to keep our foot on the gas and that’s our message," Roseman told reporters after swapping a third-round pick for the receiver on Tuesday. "That’s our message to our fans and that’s our message to our organization. We are not going to sit on our hands.
"When you get an opportunity — it’s hard to find really good players and this is a really good player, who really fits this culture, this community and this city. He’s a hard-working, determined guy with a lot of passion and a lot of energy. What he does with the ball in his hands is special."
While fantasy footballers are salivating over the possibility of Tate becoming a prolific point scorer as a potential WR1 in an offense driven by an MVP-caliber quarterback, I believe the rest of the NFC should be worried about the Eagles adding a catch-and-run specialist with A+ running skills to an offense that features a number of run/pass option concepts designed to put the ball into playmakers’ hands on the perimeter.
Since entering the NFL in 2010, Tate leads the NFL in receptions (142), receiving yards (1,265) and yards after catch (981) on screen plays, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The 5-foot-10, 197-pound receiver is a former high school running back adept at making defenders miss in tight quarters while also flashing enough power to run through arm tackles. Tate routinely finds creases on the perimeter on "now" and bubble screens, resulting in first downs on easy, low-risk completions.
In addition, Tate is dangerous on shallow crossers that enable him to get the ball on the move underneath coverage. With those plays essentially turning into punt returns, the slippery pass-catcher weaves through traffic while gobbling up yards in a hurry — Tate ranks No. 4 among receivers in yards after the catch entering Week 9.
That said, Tate is more than just a gimmick and gadget playmaker on the perimeter. He’s finished with at least 90 catches in each of the past four seasons, with three 1,000-yard campaigns during that span. Although I’m not necessarily convinced he can be a WR1 in a traditional scheme, he certainly adds an element to an Eagles offense that’s been lacking pop in the passing game. As a player with 92 career punt returns, Tate is comfortable running with the ball in traffic, which makes him an ideal player in Doug Pederson’s version of the West Coast offense.
When Doug and I played together in Green Bay in the mid-90s under Mike Holmgren (and Andy Reid, who was an assistant coach on Holmgren’s staff), we watched the team repeatedly stock the WR corps with former punt returners to take advantage of their superior running skills. Holmgren believed punt returners were comfortable with the ball in their hands in traffic, and that they had enough toughness, elusiveness and burst to turn short passes into big gains in the open field.
Considering Tate’s background and YAC totals as a catch-and-run specialist in Detroit (he leads the league in YAC since 2014, with 2,736 yards), the Eagles grabbed the perfect playmaker to add to the lineup.
By the way, trading a third-round pick for Tate was a small price to pay for a difference maker on the perimeter. Third-round picks are viewed as potential developmental players on the grading scale, and they are rarely counted on to make immediate contributions to the team beyond their special teams roles. Although it is possible Tate’s run with the Eagles will only last through the end of the 2018 season (Tate is due to become an unrestricted free agent), Philadelphia could receive a third-round compensatory pick for the 2020 draft if he signs a big-money deal elsewhere in the offseason.
Long story short: The Eagles could make out like bandits if Tate is the impact player the team expects.
2) How Houston should deploy Thomas. The loss of Will Fuller V to a season-ending knee injury robbed the Houston Texans of their most explosive vertical threat, but the arrival of Demaryius Thomas could make the team even more dangerous heading down the stretch. The four-time Pro Bowl pass catcher is no longer one of the elite playmakers at his position, but he is a quality WR2 with the size and catch radius to thrive in Bill O’Brien’s quick-rhythm passing game.
Checking in at 6-foot-3 and 229 pounds, Thomas is at his best running slants, bubble screens, dig routes and shallow crosses. He is a rugged runner with the ball in his hands, which makes him a viable weapon on some of the catch-and-run concepts that are staples of the Texans’ offense. With DeAndre Hopkins commanding double-coverage across the field, Thomas should be able to put up solid numbers working against CB2s on the back side.
Now, I don’t expect Thomas to put up Pro Bowl-like stats as the second option in the passing game, but I do believe the 30-year-old could become a dependable "chain mover" in Houston. Whether he is aligning out wide and running isolation routes outside the numbers or sliding into the slot to overpower nickel corners, Thomas is versatile enough to fill multiple roles in the offense.
Think about that: Watson is already efficient and effective working the middle of the field without a big-bodied pass catcher. His numbers could skyrocket with Thomas coming onboard.
"Nothing’s changing," Watson said, via ESPN, when asked if the offense would be different without Fuller. "We’re doing what we’re doing. Throw it deep, throw it short, throw it across the middle. Everything we were going to do, we’re going to do. Just because we lose Will doesn’t mean the train’s going to stop or we’re going to take a different route."
With Thomas stepping into the lineup as the WR2, the Texans’ offense looks like it could become more potent going forward.
3) Rivers for MVP? Patrick Mahomes leads the MVP race at midseason, but I wouldn’t scribble his name on the ballot in pen just yet. Not when one of Mahomes’ divisional counterparts is quietly enjoying one of the best seasons of his decorated career.
Philip Rivers boasts quite a stat line these days: 69.1 percent completion rate (sixth in NFL), 17 passing touchdowns (tied for third), 9.13 yards per attempt (third) and a 117.8 passer rating (third). With the 36-year-old veteran also keeping his interception rate at the lowest level of his career (1.4 percent), Rivers is certainly worthy of MVP consideration, having guided the Los Angeles Chargers to a 5-2 mark — right behind Mahomes’ 7-1 Chiefs in the AFC West race.
Now, I know Rivers has work to do to beat out the red-hot Mahomes for the NFL’s highest individual honor, but his performance has been outstanding. Studying the Next Gen Stats, No. 17’s efficiency is remarkable, especially considering his penchant for pushing the ball down the field. Unlike some quarterbacks piling up gaudy numbers on a host of bubble screens and quick routes, Rivers is picking apart defenses with quick-rhythm throws at intermediate range (10-to-20 yards), completing nearly 70 percent of these throws (68.5) for 635 passing yards, with a 6:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Those numbers are complemented by Rivers’ efficient performance at deep range (21-plus air yards). The veteran is completing 40 percent of his deep passes with six touchdowns and zero interceptions. Rivers is averaging 16.4 yards per attempt (41.1 yards per completion) on deep throws. For comparison’s sake, Mahomes is completing 40 percent of his deep throws, but only averaging 13.8 yards per attempt and 34.6 yards per completion, with a 7:3 TD-to-INT ratio.
Looking at the All-22 Coaches Film, I believe Rivers is playing the best ball of his career. He is not only displaying his typical accuracy, ball placement and anticipation, but he’s working all areas of the field with a surgeon’s precision. Rivers is taking full advantage of the Chargers’ versatile weaponry, particularly the big-bodied trio at wide receiver: Keenan Allen, Tyrell Williams and Mike Williams. He has fed Allen on an assortment of intermediate routes, while targeting Tyrell Williams (who’s averaging a whopping 21.4 yards per catch) and Mike Williams (18.1 ypc) on a host of vertical routes on the outside. And considering RB Melvin Gordon ranks second on the team with 30 receptions, it is safe to say Rivers is forcing defenders to defend every single blade of grass on the field, from sideline to sideline and end line to end line. Despite his clear willingness to go downfield, he doesn’t mind carving up a defense with paper-cut throws if they’re the best option available.
"We just want to get the ball out, and let’s see if they can tackle," Rivers recently told reporters, via ESPN.com. "That’s what you’ve seen all over, and just keep throwing completions, and we’ve always thought that, especially as an offense. Just keep completing passes, even if they’re for 3, and 4, and 8 (yards) — as a defense, it wears on them because all they know is there is another completion.
So, when opposing defenses guard against Rivers’ outstanding downfield production, the savvy vet happily eats them up underneath.
"Every completion impacts the defense," former NFL quarterback and renowned QB guru Jordan Palmer told me earlier this season. "Defensive coordinators will concede some completions, but defenders tend to get jumpy when they see quarterbacks string together completions. Eventually, they will abandon their areas, leaving voids for bigger gains.
"The great quarterbacks master this cat-and-mouse game and they punish defenses with it."
Rivers has indeed mastered this aspect of quarterbacking, and he’s playing his best ball as a result. The seven-time Pro Bowler has not only developed into a more efficient quarterback, but he has become a more consistent winner, as evidenced by the 14-5 record in his last 19 starts. Rivers has drastically reduced his turnovers over the last two seasons under Anthony Lynn, after leading the NFL with 21 picks in 2016. While some of those 2016 turnovers were desperation throws at the end of games, Rivers’ carelessness with the ball did indeed contribute to Bolts losses at times in the past.
Remember, Rivers initially joined the Chargers in 2014, when Marty Schottenheimer was running the show. The ultra-conservative coach preached the importance of ball security at every turn. He won 200 games as an NFL head coach by teaching his teams how to avoid losing (win the turnover battle, eliminate pre-snap penalties and run the ball). I saw "Marty Ball" work firsthand as a player on the Chiefs — and it worked for the Chargers during Rivers’ first season as a starter, when he guided the team to an NFL-best 14-2 mark in 2006. It’s not a coincidence that Rivers finished that season with fewer than 10 interceptions. But that was Schottenheimer’s last year with the team — and Rivers has only logged one more season of single-digit picks since (2009, when the Chargers went 13-3). Nearly halfway through the 2018 campaign, though, Rivers is on pace for a sparkling 39:7 TD-to-INT ratio. And the Bolts look like one of the toughest teams in the AFC.
With Rivers challenging a number of career-best marks, the wily gunslinger could grab a playoff berth and some shiny hardware at the end of the season.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.
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