Previously on The Narrative...
This week on The Narrative...
I'm not sure if you noticed but there's a weird thing going on with running backs in the NFL. Fewer of them seem to be running the ball. At least that's the impression you get when you start hearing the plans that various offensive coordinators have for their handsier backs. Every so often we get reports of a pass-catching running back being considered for a gig as a slot receiver and Fantasy Twitter starts buzzing.
More fantasy points!
I'm exaggerating but in the search to find the next great offensive football wrinkle that could lead to big fantasy production, we've turned toward the hybrid running back. And I'm certainly not excluding myself from this narrative. It was just a couple of short years ago that I decided that "hybrid" was the phrase that pays when it came to targeting fantasy running backs.
In plenty of ways, that's still true. As PPR formats gain in popularity, running backs who excel at catching the ball out of the backfield will take on increased value in fantasy drafts. So why wouldn't a back who lines up at a receiver position naturally be the next evolution in fantasy running back technology?
Well, for one .... this.
Running backs lined up in the slot, 2016 data, per NexGenStats
From a sheer volume standpoint, there aren't enough running backs seeing enough snaps at a slot position to really consider them as a game-changing asset. On average, most of these runners are only seeing a couple of snaps from the slot each game. That means you'd have to be one hell of a home run hitter to make a notable fantasy impact.
That's a description that could possibly pertain to Tevin Coleman. After all, he led all rushers with 129 receiving yards from the slot ... on five receptions. That's a darn fine yards per reception average (25.8 to be exact) but it also falls squarely into the category of "small sample size".
So let's find a larger sample size. Let's go back to our friend David Johnson, who seems to be a pretty good example of everything that is right with fantasy running backs nowadays. Johnson caught a total of 11 passes from the slot.
Wait ... 11?
checks numbers again
If the guy who leads the world in this niche stat isn't even averaging one catch per game from the slot, what are we even doing here?
That was fun. Wouldn't you agree? But as plenty of people have pointed out, a running back lining up in the slot against a linebacker -- even one as good as Kuechly -- is likely going to have an advantage. Will that same advantage remain when lining up against defensive backs?
Here's where we play "what do we really know?" in an effort to evaluate what could be. It's a murky world we're entering. Grab some boots and a flashlight.
The evaluation of running backs as pass-catchers frequently isn't much more than a critique of how good their hands are. If having good hands were the only prerequisite to being a quality receiver, Golden Tate might be a top 20 fantasy pick.
If we hear about an actual WIDE RECEIVER working on his route running skills every season, shouldn't we expect that players who aren't receivers by trade to have some of the same route running issues? There will undoubtedly be running backs who have (or can acquire) this skill but will it be a large enough group to actually make #RBsInTheSlot a thing?
Let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Marcas Grant is a fantasy editor and a man who has decided to purge any and all Game of Thrones references from his writing. Though, wouldn't you know it, he had the chance for a really fun one right here in this very column. Tweet him your life resolutions @MarcasG. If you read all of that, congrats. Follow him on Instagram and Snapchat (marcasg9).