The NFL's opening Sunday saw Lamar Miller as the only player to reach 100 rushing yards. While rushing production is down around the league in an increasingly pass-heavy era, the role of pass-catching running backs continues to expand.
Week 1 brought the emergence of Spencer Ware, Tevin Coleman and Ameer Abdullah as prime receiving threats out of the backfield, while established veterans such as Matt Forte, DeMarco Murray and Arian Foster maintained their playmaking ability in the passing game. With those results in mind, it's the perfect time to rank the NFL's premier pass-catching backs.
This list is not intended to glorify running backs feasting off of checkdowns and screen passes. NFL-caliber runners are expected to corral short passes in open spaces. What separates the elite receiving backs from the pedestrian is the ability to run wide-receiver routes and consistently make tacklers miss after the catch.
On to the list:
1. David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals:A wideout when he entered college, the former Northern Iowa star retained all the benefits of the position when he rocked up to 230 pounds and moved to the backfield. By the third game of Johnson's NFL career, Bruce Arians already had his third-round draft pick lining up out wide and in the slot as a third or fourth receiver. As a rookie, he became the first player in 16 years to average more than 12.0 yards per reception while gaining at least 400 rushing yards and 400 receiving yards. He also led all NFL running backs in percentage of receptions (58.3) converted to first downs.
"He's probably as natural a catcher as there is," quarterback Carson Palmer said last December, just before Johnson showed his mismatch potential with 88 yards on three receptions versus Green Bay in Week 16. The Packers started with a linebacker in coverage, switched to a safety and finally capitulated with a dime cornerback by the end of the game. During that blowout victory, NFL Films caught All-Pro cornerback Tyrann Mathieu delighting in the observation that Johnson is a bigger version of Marshall Faulk, a Hall of Famer widely regarded as the greatest receiving back in NFL history.
"His receiving and ball skills are second to none," Cardinals general manager Steve Keim raved this summer. "I mean, probably the best receiving back I've seen."
2. Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers: Even after Eddie Lacy ran away with Offensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2013, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin explained that his preference for Bell was an "easy decision" because of the latter's versatility and playmaking skills as a receiver. Bell went on to shatter the single-season franchise record for receptions by a running back (83) in his second season, earning praise along the way from Faulk and LaDainian Tomlinson as today's gold standard for an all-purpose tailback.
The Steelers have no qualms about lining Bell up out wide or in the slot for matchup advantages. Once he gets his mitts on the ball, he shakes defenders with uncanny patience, vision, balance and lateral agility. When he's not suspended or injured, Bell is as fun to watch as any skill-position player in football.
3. Theo Riddick, Detroit Lions: While Johnson is a runner-receiver hybrid, Riddick is essentially a slot receiver masquerading as a satellite back. From the time Dion Lewis went down with an ACL tear at last year's midseason mark, Riddick became an overlooked story as the NFL's most effective receiving back. The former Notre Dame star set franchise records for receptions (80) and receiving yards (697) by a running back in a lost 2015 Lions season. He has already picked up where he left off, bedeviling the Colts' defense in Week 1.
"Theo is phenomenal . Man, I love how he plays the game," Faulk said this past offseason. " ... He catches the ball without thought. I think he could play slot receiver and catch the same 80 balls. He has those abilities."
4. Danny Woodhead, San Diego Chargers: Perception is not reality. A more complete back than commonly believed, the pint-sized Woodhead can chip block, run between the tackles, lose linebackers on wheel routes and even thrive as a red-zone and short-yardage weapon. Philip Rivers' offense is at its most efficient when Woodhead is on the field, riding sidecar in the shotgun. Since 2013, he's tied with Jamaal Charles for the most receiving touchdowns (13) among running backs.
5. Matt Forte, New York Jets: One of the underappreciated stars of the past decade, Forte set an NFL running back record with 102 receptions in 2014. One of the tell-tale signs of an aging three-down back in decline is a loss of effectiveness as a receiver. Forte will be headed for emeritus status among receiving backs in the next couple of years, but he has yet to show signs of slipping in the passing game. Since he entered the league out of Tulane in 2008, no player has tallied more yards from scrimmage than Forte's 12,873. Tomlinson, Ricky Watters and Hall of Famers Curtis Martin and Barry Sanders are the only other players to total at least 1,200 yards from scrimmage in each of their first eight seasons.
"This is a guy that, to me, over the past eight years has been the best all-around back our league has had," Jets receiver Brandon Marshall said in May. " ... He does it all. He picks up blitzes, he puts his nose in there, he catches the ball out of the backfield. He has amazing vision. He's a leader. He's the type of guy you want in your locker room."
6. Charles Sims, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Billed as a Forte-like all-purpose back coming out of West Virginia in 2014, Sims finally realized his potential in a breakout 2015 season. The Bucs boasted the NFL's most effective backfield, with Doug Martin breaking tackles in the trenches and Sims stretching defenses as a change-of-pace option on the perimeter. That open-field elusiveness was on display last week when he buckled the knees of two Falcons defenders with one move en route to the end zone. Sims is bidding to succeed former Saints back Pierre Thomas as the NFL's most dangerous screen-pass threat.
7. Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons: It's tough to second-guess the Falcons coaching staff after watching Tevin Coleman lead the team with 95 yards on five receptions in Week 1, but Freeman is the more well-rounded back of the two. Whereas Coleman outdashes defenders down the sideline with pure speed, Freeman reliably slips tacklers in tight spaces. Among all running backs last season, he finished behind only Woodhead and Riddick in targets (97), receptions (73) and receiving yards (578).
8. Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals: From Weeks 1 through 17 last year, you could count on one hand the number of running backs who outplayed Bernard: Doug Martin, Adrian Peterson, Todd Gurley and Freeman. With a slow-footed Jeremy Hill stutter-stepping toward the line of scrimmage, Bernard carried Cincinnati's backfield as a dual-threat runner and receiver.
9. Duke Johnson, Cleveland Browns: The former University of Miami star became just the eighth back in league history to record at least 60 catches as a rookie. The game film shows plus lateral agility, excellent vision and a surprisingly physical stiff arm no matter which quarterback orchestrated Cleveland's aerial attack. Analytics site Pro Football Focus credited Johnson with 26 forced missed tackles as a receiver, more than any back save Riddick's 36.
Browns run-game coordinator Kirby Wilson hailed the second-year back as an "ultimate weapon for us," adding: "Duke has a lot of those qualities that a lot of great running backs have, in terms of being a receiver." After one season, it's easy to see why Johnson has inspired comparisons to Bernard as well as former Eagles star Brian Westbrook.
10. Dion Lewis, New England Patriots: It's a testament to the especially elusive jitterbug's unique receiving ability that he earned a spot on this list despite having to spend the first half of the 2016 season on the PUP list. Lewis was a perfect fit in the Patriots' spread attack last year, allowing Tom Brady to exploit mismatches against linebackers in coverage. With Lewis consistently juking would-be tacklers for extra yardage, the Patriots scored in an incredible 31 consecutive quarters to open the 2015 season. New England boasted the NFL's top scoring offense at 35.1 points per game with Lewis in the lineup. After losing Lewis for the season, that averaged dropped to 24.3 points per game, good for 13th in the league.
By the time he tore his ACL at midseason, Pro Football Focus had credited Lewis with 43 forced missed tackles on 85 touches -- good for the highest "Elusive Rating" ever recorded by the analytics site. It was telling that the Patriots coaching staff was already aligning Lewis outside more frequently in his first month with the team than they did with Shane Vereen in his four seasons with New England. Bill Belichick has an uncanny knack for unearthing effective pass-catching backs along the lines of Vereen, Woodhead, James White and Kevin Faulk. For seven games last season, Lewis was easily the most explosive -- and most fun to watch -- of the bunch.
Darren Sproles, Philadelphia Eagles: If this was 2011, Sproles would top the list. In fact, he still has a strong case for the top 10.
Arian Foster, Miami Dolphins: If this was 2011, Foster would be Sproles' chief competition. Durability concerns dropped him out of the top 10.
Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs: If this was 2013, Charles would top the list. It's fair to wonder how his role will change after stand-in Spencer Ware racked up 129 receiving yards in the season opener.
Spencer Ware, Kansas City Chiefs: As impressive as Ware was in the dramatic comeback versus the Chargers, he had managed just five yards on six career receptions entering that game.
Lance Dunbar, Dallas Cowboys: Prior to tearing his own ACL early last season, Dunbar was the nearest Dion Lewis simulator.
Shane Vereen, New York Giants: Vereen's reputation exceeds his performance. What separates his skill set from those of Bilal Powell, James Starks, James White, Jeremy Langford, Jerick McKinnon and Buck Allen?
Ameer Abdullah, Detroit Lions: Will he get a chance to show his receiving chops with Riddick hogging the touches?
Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints: Ingram has come a long way as a receiver over the past few seasons, but he's still a little stiff compared to the smoother pass-catching specialists.
LeSean McCoy, Buffalo Bills: Still a Pro Bowl runner, McCoy's receiving production has waned since his career year in 2013.
Andre Ellington, Arizona Cardinals: Ellington has a top-10 skill set as a receiver, but he's stuck behind David Johnson for the foreseeable future.
C.J. Spiller, free agent: A dynamo with the Bills in 2012, Spiller hasn't been an asset in three years. If he's fully healthy, he'd be fun to watch in an offense such as New England's.
C.J. Prosise, Seattle Seahawks: Similar to Riddick, Prosise is a receiver playing running back. Injuries have prevented him from seizing Seattle's third-down job.