Fast Connections, Week 8: Running backs catching on

The top offenses in the NFL incorporate all their skill-position players in the passing game, not just the wide receivers and tight ends. Players like James White and Darren Sproles have made their careers on their pass-catching abilities, becoming key figures of playoff runs in the process.

This week's edition of Fast Connections highlights an emerging star at running back who threatens defenses as much as a receiver as a ball carrier as well as other impressive quarterback-receiver connections.

Aaron Rodgers to Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers


After a slow start to the season, Aaron Rodgers has grown comfortable in the offense installed by Packers head coach Matt LaFleur this offseason. Instead of breaking the play design -- a habit that had become commonplace during the final years of the Mike McCarthy era -- Rodgers has begun trusting the new system to create opportunities down the field and produce intermediate and checkdown options consistently.

Likewise, running back Aaron Jones has become one of the other chief beneficiaries of the new offense. Limited earlier in his career by a coaching staff that didn't trust him in the passing game, Jones has become one of the Packers' top pass catchers. In each of the last two weeks, LaFleur deployed the third-year tailback on vertical routes out the backfield. Though Jones dropped a would-be touchdown on the first of those plays, he hauled in a more difficult pass on the second.

Next Gen Stats says ...

Because Jones can run intermediate and deep routes out the backfield, opposing defenses have trouble covering him. According to Next Gen Stats, he creates at least three yards of separation on 79.4 percent of his targets. Rodgers prioritizes Jones in the passing game as well, targeting the running back on 28.3 percent of his routes. For context, Davante Adams only sees the ball on 27.5 percent of his routes.

Josh Allen to John Brown, Buffalo Bills


Though the defense has carried the Bills so far in 2019, the offense has produced enough plays to give the team a semblance of balance. Many of those have come from John Brown, the speedy wide receiver Buffalo added this offseason via free agency. Brown has a knack for separating from defenders, creating easier throws for second-year quarterback Josh Allen.

The connection between Brown and Allen has consistently produced in their first year together. The duo averages 7.5 targets for 5.5 receptions and 78.8 yards and has not fallen below four catches for 51 yards in any game thus far. Their two best performances came in the season opener against the Jets (a seven-catch, 123-yard effort that also produced a touchdown) and this past week's tilt with the Dolphins (five catches for 83 yards and a score).

Next Gen Stats says ...

Bills wide receivers and tight ends have largely struggled this year. Of those with at least 10 targets, only one has hauled in passes at a clip above his expected catch rate: John Brown (73.3 percent versus 58.2 percent). Brown also leads Buffalo with 636 air yards, more than double the next highest total on the team.

Philip Rivers to Hunter Henry, Los Angeles Chargers


The Chargers offense has fallen off a cliff since the start of October. The running game has failed to produce 40 yards in a single game. Philip Rivers has struggled with turnovers. Keenan Allen went from the NFL's leading receiver over the first month of the season to fourth on his team over the subsequent three weeks. Little has worked well, contributing to the team's current 2-5 record.

However, Rivers has managed to rekindle the magic with tight end Hunter Henry over their last two games. Henry, who missed four weeks with knee fracture, seemed as good as ever since returning, posting career highs in receiving yards (100) and touchdowns (two) in his first game back and followed it up with a strong six-catch, 97-yard performance. The Chargers need more than just Rivers and Henry to right the ship, but that connection provides a solid foundation for the passing game.

Next Gen Stats says ...

Though tight ends typically don't stretch the field vertically, Henry has provided that dimension this season. His 12.3 air yards per target rank fourth on the team among those with at least 10 targets, right behind Travis Benjamin and ahead of Allen.

-- Jason B. Hirschhorn is a fantasy analyst for NFL.com. Follow him on Twitter: @by_JBH