Pass-Catching RBs and Why You Should Draft D'Andre Swift

Zach Crutcher (@ZackyNFL)
The Lateral Contributor

Pass-Catching RBs (and Why You Should Draft D'Andre Swift)
To be a truly game-breaking fantasy football running back, you need to catch passes. Pass catching running backs bring both safety with their floor and championship potential with their ceiling. One of the more inherently advantageous traits for running backs is their ability to catch a large volume of passes. Doing so allows these running backs to consistently receive the scoring bonuses for each reception in PPR formats and also places themselves into situations where they can rack up more yardage and fantasy-friendly opportunities when targeted.

Take the example of Derrick Henry's historic 2020 season where he racked up 2,027 rushing yards on 378 carries for 5.4 yards per carry, along with an additional 19 receptions for 114 yards and 17 rushing touchdowns. Henry netted a total of 333.1 PPR points by being so thoroughly dominant on the ground, breaking down team after team in a war of attrition that only Henry could win. It doesn't matter how you look at it; 2,027 rushing yards is a historic accomplishment. Henry had the fifth-highest rushing yard total for a season in NFL history, and only six players have ever topped the 2,000 rushing yard mark. That showed up in Henry's fantasy production and he scored well above expectation as a result. By comparison, Alvin Kamara had "only" 932 rushing yards in 2020 but still scored a whopping 377.8 points in PPR formats. The discrepancy in scoring between Kamara and Henry comes entirely from the former's pass-catching ability. Kamara caught 83 balls for 756 yards and an additional 5 touchdowns through the air. Kamara and Henry both scored 16 rushing touchdowns, but Kamara's aerial advantage helped him score an additional 44.7 points while playing one fewer game.
When a running back can catch a high volume of passes, it provides an absurdly high ceiling that just can't be matched by rushing production alone. When things go right for running backs in the passing game, they go championship-winning right. It also establishes a very valuable floor as well, J.D. McKissic of the Washington Football Team is a great example from last season. McKissic does not make his living off of inside runs, he's not an all-purpose back, and only had 85 rush attempts for 365 yards in 2020. McKissic still finished as the RB17 in PPR formats entirely because of what he did through the air for Washington, catching a total of 80 passes for 579 yards and 2 touchdowns. Alvin Kamara's 25.2 ppr PPG was 4.4 points per game higher than Derrick Henry's average in 2020, and Henry was just about as perfect as you can get. While there likely won't be another Henry-esque 2,000 yard season, you can bet that there will be a great pass catcher who claims the throne of the best running back overall. In every year from 2016 to 2020, the highest-scoring running back caught at least 60 passes that season.
If pass-catching is a trait for running backs that can help them achieve both a higher floor and ceiling in fantasy football, it is something that we should be actively targeting in the early and late rounds. In the past five seasons, there have been 27 running backs that met or exceeded the 60 reception threshold. Twenty-two of those running backs (81.5%) finished as the RB18 or better for the season, and 18/27 (66.7%) finished as the RB12 or better. If you can identify players with a chance to receive a large target share and approach 60 catch territory, there is a historical 2/3 chance of getting an RB1 for the season on your team. With so much uncertainty, especially when drafting between players feels like splitting hairs, relying on historical hit rates and odds for success can help paint a clearer picture to guide us. Pass-catching running backs have solid data backing up the potential that they can bring to any lineup. Here's an awesome graphic from @P2WFantasy to highlight just how enticing those betting odds are:

One player who projects for a large volume of targets and valuable red-zone work in 2021 is Detroit Lions running back D'Andre Swift. While Swift lived as a rookie in a three-man rotation with Kerryon Johnson and Adrian Peterson, Swift's main competition on the depth chart will be Jamaal Williams. Williams may be a better player than either Johnson or Peterson, but D'Andre Swift will likely command a large share of both the rushing attempts and the receiving work in this barren Lions offense. Swift was already on pace for 60 receptions as a rookie in 2020, even with plenty of obstacles that were in his way. There will be fewer roadblocks in 2021 during his sophomore season, and Swift presents a very appealing case to finish as an RB1 for the year.
Despite a tumultuous rookie season that included a dropped game-winning touchdown and a concussion, Swift showed everyone the potential that he displayed last season whenever he was able to get involved. Per the Rotoviz Game Splits App, in games where Swift had at least 8 rushing attempts (pacing for a mere 136 attempts in a 17-game season), he averaged 18.84 PPR points per game.

Of the players that made at least five appearances in 2020, an average of 18.84 PPR points per game would have been good for the fourth-highest total in the league (RB4 overall). Despite the Lions' abysmal expected record, Swift should have little trouble surpassing the projected 136 rushing attempts. His share of the carries would have to fall below the workload he already handled as a rookie while still dealing with the steep learning curve that the NFL provides for rookies. Projecting Swift for even 10 carries a game, 170 over the season, and a larger target share is entirely within reason and would plant swift firmly in the top-12 range. The level of production that Swift showed while splitting so many carries in the backfield was due to averaging 3.54 receptions per game, a number that is very likely to rise in 2021 given current circumstances.

In a season where things break right, Swift brings the potential of challenging for the spot of RB1 overall. Remember, in both
2018 and 2019, the RB1 overall, Saquon Barkley and Christian McCaffrey respectively, came from 5 win teams. The Detroit Lions being projected for 5 wins is not a death sentence, but it seems to be baked into his ADP already. It could arguably be beneficial if the Lions are forced to pass more while trailing in games, and this results in more targets than projected for Swift. In games where McCaffrey had 10 or more receptions in 2019, the Carolina Panthers went 1-4, and the Giants also lost the only game in which Barkley had at least 10 catches (14 to be exact!) in 2018. If this ceiling is within Swift's range of outcomes, and it certainly seems to be that way, then D'Andre Swift is someone that we should be actively targeting in order to win championships.

A large factor of identifying breakout seasons when looking at the production of rookie running backs is diving deeper into exactly when that production started to occur and how. Later season splits tend to paint a clearer picture of what a rookie running back is capable of compared to very early on in the season. Just ask Jonathan Taylor and his miraculous midseason turnaround when it seemed like the game simply slowed down for him. Jack Miller of Establish The Run recently posted a graphic that details the average production of veteran and rookie running backs over the course of a season.

Rookies take some time to settle themselves into the nuance and physicality of the NFL, and it shows up in their snap shares, production, and overall quality of play. A great barometer for a rookie's production is how they performed prior to their team's bye week and how they fared afterward. The Detroit Lions had their bye very early on in the season in week 5. Using the Rotoviz Player Stat Explorer, we can look at how Swift performed each week and assess the frequency of RB1, RB2, and RB3 or lower finishes over the course of the season.

As you can see, prior to the bye week Swift had three games where he was an RB3 or worse and spent one week as an RB2. After the bye, Swift posted three games as an RB1, four games as an RB2, and only had two weeks where he was an RB3 or worse. Post bye-week Swift was an RB2 or better 77.8% of the time and was an RB1 33.3% of the time. Those spike weeks are the ones that can win you individual weeks or entire leagues, just ask J.D. McKissic managers who saw him post 25.7 and 23.2 PPR points in weeks 15 and 16, respectively. I don't even need to mention Alvin Kamara's Week 16, some of us still aren't quite over it.
D'Andre Swift brings both league-winning upside and a very solid floor to your rosters in 2021, both due in large part to his prowess in the receiving department. Given the very favorable historical hit rates of similar running backs to Swift, he is a potential goldmine with a current FantasyPros ECR of RB15 and a FantasyPros average draft position of RB16. Having established a solid floor and a sky-high ceiling at a very affordable price, D'Andre Swift is a bet you should be making in 2021.

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