​Do Running Back Receptions Translate From College to the NFL?

What can college receiving production tell us about the long-term fantasy potential of NFL running backs?

I did a lot of dumb things when I was younger. I don’t have enough of a word count to describe them all, and I’m sure some of them aren’t fit to print anyway -- but believe me when I tell you I was a reckless teenager and college student. I felt untouchable, unstoppable at points, like no flaw I had really mattered, and I could be and do whatever I wanted.

Eventually, reality hit like a Mack truck. I knew I had limitations, found my strengths and weaknesses, and I learned better how to work to my strengths and support my flaws.

This is an important lesson for how we look at rookie running backs entering the NFL from college, too. Many times, analysts and fans alike see a player’s potential and start dreaming of a three-down star rush-receive combo. We sometimes lose our grounding in their college production and imagine a fantasy ceiling that’s much higher than their realistic upside.

The eternal question about voluminous college rushers who don’t post high receiving numbers -- from Derrick Henry to Nick Chubb, from Ronald Jones to Melvin Gordon -- has been the following: are they not able to, or are they not given the chance? That’s what I want to explore with you today.

Do college receptions translate to the NFL, and do non-receiving college backs become pro pass-catchers?

Dream On

To test my question, I compiled the college receiving production of the 304 Division I running backs to be drafted between the years 2001 and 2018. I then compared this to their NFL production from solely their first three years in the league -- about the average career length of an NFL running back.

Most of the analysis I did also uses per-game or market share (percentage of the team total) rates to help control for both availability and scheme. A running back who is injured will obviously play fewer games, so per-game analysis won’t penalize his low counting stats, and being on a team that hardly throws (like some smaller programs) won’t penalize a player due to using market share.

The first way I broke down the data was by separating out low reception college running backs (fewer than one CFB reception per game) from high-end receivers (two or more CFB receptions per game). I filtered players into these two buckets, then averaged their NFL per-game production and market shares in both targets and receptions.

Below is the comparison between these two groups.

Running Backs Drafted from 2000-2018 NFL Targ/G NFL Rec/G Team Targ % Team Rec %
<1 College Receptions per Game 1.4 1.0 2.8% 3.3%
NFL Average 1.9 1.4 3.7% 4.4%
>2 College Receptions per Game 2.9 2.2 5.6% 6.8%

For a comparative baseline to our study, the average NFL running back over the last three years generated a per-game average of 1.9 targets and 1.4 receptions.

While low usage backs weren’t significantly below the NFL average, high-usage backs were utilized through the air at more than double the rate of their counterparts. This makes logical sense: if we understand that targets in the NFL are far more often earned than given, it stands to reason that CFB targets (and therefore receptions) would also largely be earned. Being a valuable passing-game target, then, isn’t a skill that often goes away just because one enters the NFL. So, a running back who catches more passes in college will often catch more passes in the pros, too.

An even stronger relationship exists between a running back’s college market share and their NFL production. The table below displays the difference between the NFL receiving work for low CFB reception market share (4.5% or less; about 25 receptions in a full average season) and high CFB reception market share (9% or more; about 50 receptions).

Running Backs Drafted from 2000-2018 NFL Tgt/G NFL Rec/G Tgt Mkt Rec Mkt
<4.5% College Team Reception % 1.3 0.9 2.4% 2.8%
NFL Average 1.9 1.4 3.6% 4.4%
>9.0% College Team Reception % 2.9 2.2 6.1% 7.4%

The low-end college receivers here ended up generating less than even one catch per game when they made the pros. The players in this range ended up earning an NFL target market share of less than noted non-receiving backs Sony Michel, Montee Ball, and Andre Brown.

On the flip side, high-end college pass-catchers out of the backfield averaged an NFL target market share around the career rates of players like Aaron Jones, Chubb, and James Conner. What this tells us is that catching a sizable number of passes in college is no guarantee you’ll end up a Christian McCaffrey-esque target vacuum, but there’s a much better chance of becoming a true three-down option.

The difference in eventual NFL fantasy value between these groups isn’t small, either. The average high-volume receiving back from college contributed 5.0 more PPR fantasy points per game than the average low-volume back. That’s the difference between a back-end RB1 -- say Austin Ekeler -- and a middle-to-low RB3 -- like Jeff Wilson -- in weekly scoring. Receiving skill matters for fantasy running backs.

The Kids are Alright

So, what does this mean for the future fantasy potential of recent running back draftees?

There were 34 running backs who played their first NFL snaps in the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Ten of them earned fewer than 1.0 reception per game and less than a 4.5% reception market share in college. They are listed below.

Low Receiving, 2019-20 Draftees NFL Team NFL Targ/G NFL Rec/G CFB School CFB Rec/G CFB Team Rec%
Cullen Gillaspia HTX 0.0 0.0 Texas A&M 0.2 0.5%
Raymond Calais RAM 0.0 0.0 Louisiana 0.3 1.9%
Jordan Scarlett CAR 0.0 0.0 Florida 0.4 1.7%
AJ Dillon GNB 0.2 0.2 Boston College 0.6 3.8%
Dexter Williams GNB 0.0 0.0 Notre Dame 0.6 2.4%
Ryquell Armstead JAX 1.5 0.9 Temple 0.6 2.9%
Ty Johnson DET/NYJ 1.8 1.4 Maryland 0.7 4.3%
Bo Scarbrough DET/SEA 0.6 0.1 Alabama 0.7 2.7%
DeeJay Dallas SEA 1.7 1.4 Miami (FL) 0.8 4.2%
Miles Sanders PHI 4.1 2.8 Penn State 0.9 4.4%

The most notable names here for fantasy purposes are clearly A.J. Dillon and Miles Sanders.

Dillon has been frequently compared to Derrick Henry for his size and being in an offense run by now-Green Bay Packers head coach/then-Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur. The comparisons don’t stop there it seems. Betting on Dillon to become a bell cow like teammate Aaron Jones may be ill-advised, and he will likely need a significant share of the team’s rushing attempts to ever be a top fantasy player.

Sanders was right on the cusp of the market share and receptions per game marks, at 4.4% and 0.9. This, to me, puts him as the most likely among these players to earn a big receiving role in his NFL future if given the chance, but it’s still not likely that skill set emerges down the line. Sanders is likely a solid rushing back who tops out as a fantasy RB2 in most seasons.

Only three running backs met both our high-end CFB thresholds -- David Montgomery, Tony Pollard, and Detroit Lions 2020 fifth-rounder Jason Huntley -- but a few others met one of the two and weren’t far off the other. Those are shown below for receptions per game and reception market share.

High Receiving, 2019-20 Draftees NFL Team NFL Targ/G NFL Rec/G CFB School CFB Rec/G CFB Team Rec%
D'Andre Swift DET 4.4 3.5 Georgia 1.7 10.7%
Trayveon Williams CIN 0.2 0.2 Texas A&M 1.7 8.7%
Clyde Edwards-Helaire KAN 4.2 2.8 LSU 1.8 8.3%
David Montgomery CHI 3.3 2.5 Iowa State 1.9 9.2%
Antonio Gibson WAS 3.1 2.6 Memphis 2.3 8.2%
Tony Pollard DAL 1.9 1.4 Memphis 2.6 12.0%
Jason Huntley PHI 0.4 0.2 New Mexico State 2.9 10.9%

Tarik Cohen's injury in 2020 forced Montgomery into an every-down role, and he proved capable at the receiving aspect. He attained a 79% catch rate and 8.1 yards per reception. As even more credit to him, Montgomery was solidly middle-of-the-pack in numberFire’s Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) among the 40 running backs to see 30 or more targets in 2020. Pollard has also seen some run as the lead back over the last two seasons and has proven a solid receiver when called upon.

We’ve also seen the potential of D'Andre Swift, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and Antonio Gibson already (each of whom saw 44 or more targets in part-time rookie seasons), and they look to be the hub of their teams’ backfields of the future. This should confirm for us their statuses near the top of positional rankings as long as they head the running back depth charts on their teams.

Again, this analysis shouldn’t be seen as confirmation of a running back’s certain pro receiving prowess or denial of their likely lack of passing game value. Rather, such strong trends should be useful to us as guidelines simply to help us guess at potential. Players can always break the mold with things like this, but those probability-transcending players are few and far between. In order to be successful in our fantasy evaluation, we have to be realistic about those players’ skill sets.