Quarterbacks who do (and don’t) target RBs

Discerning exactly what role a quarterback plays in check downs to running backs is the stuff of unending social media exchanges between football fans and fantasy managers who very much want to know if running back targets is, in fact, a quarterback stat.

I’m not going to pretend I have the answers. I don’t. I do, however, have a bunch of data that might prove helpful in identifying which running backs might see consistent pass-game involvement in 2024, and which ones won’t.

The NFL is increasingly becoming a check-down league, as I outlined in February, and in such a passing environment, capable pass-catching running backs could figure prominently. Below is analysis of QB tendencies and what it might mean for their backfield mates in 2024.

QBs Who Frequently Target RBs

Derek Carr (NO)

You knew this was coming. Carr is the unquestioned reigning king of check downs, and the data suggests it’s (usually) his call, not a result of play design.

The Saints last season were fourth in running back target share (23 percent), with Alvin Kamara seeing 86 looks, third most among backs. Carr trailed only Russell Wilson in throws to running backs, but unlike most quarterbacks who frequently look to running backs, Carr’s RB tosses were his choice. A mere 38 percent of Carr’s passes to backs were first-read targets, according to Fantasy Points Data. For context, 62 percent of Tua Tagovoila’s throws to RBs last season were first-read looks.

You don’t need me to tell you what this means, but I will anyway: Whoever is running routes out of Carr’s backfield is going to be peppered with targets, play design be damned.

Jordan Love (GB)

Love’s 79 running back targets were the eighth most in the NFL last season. The Packers, however, had the league’s 12th lowest RB target share because their best backfield pass catcher — Aaron Jones — missed significant time with a hamstring issue. This checks out.

During Jones’ healthiest stretch (Week 6 to Week 9), 60 percent of Love’s throws to RBs were of the first-read variety, according to Fantasy Points Data. That means RB dump offs are largely baked into Green Bay’s offense.

That should be welcomed news for new Packers lead back Josh Jacobs. That Jacobs — trapped in a hideously ineffective offense — managed just 37 receptions on 54 targets last year in Vegas only tells part of the story. Jacobs in 2023 was ninth among backs in yards after contact per reception and top-15 in broken tackle rate on receptions. He should inherit a valuable PPR role in Green Bay.

Jared Goff (DET)

Goff had the sixth most targets to running backs in 2023. He was eighth in 2022. It makes sense in a Detroit offense predicated on getting the ball out quickly to avoid Goff collapsing under even a hint of pressure.

Lions running backs had a 17 percent target share in 2023, hardly an overwhelming number. Thirteen teams had a higher RB target share. Jahmyr Gibbs, after splitting pass-catching duties with David Montgomery for the first couple months of the season, ended up with 68 percent of Detroit’s RB targets.

It’s a nice role to have. Fifty percent of Goff’s throws to running backs were first-read looks, the fifth highest rate in the NFL last season. From Week 12-18, Gibbs averaged 21.3 pass routes per game. Montgomery averaged 13.5 routes.

Assuming Gibbs resumes his role as the route-running, pass-catching back in the Lions offense, he should have a hefty target share baked into his outlook.

Broncos QB (DEN)

Russell Wilson leading all quarterbacks in targets to running backs last season is notable — and predictable, seeing he was playing for screen-loving head coach Sean Payton. Russ, as you may know, has never been one to pelt running backs with targets.

Denver running backs saw a 32 percent target share in 2023; the next closest team was the Jets, with a 26 percent RB target share. Whichever QB is under center for Payton’s Broncos in 2024 is going to throw plenty of check downs to running backs. If the team once again splits up that valuable pass-catching role, it won’t mean much for fantasy. If someone seizes that role for himself, he’ll be a fun little fantasy producer (an aside: Samaje Perine led RBs with more than 20 targets in yards per route run last season; he was third in broken tackle rate on catches).

QBs Who (Mostly) Don’t Throw to RBs

Lamar Jackson (BAL)

Context is crucial here. No, Baltimore backs were not by any means peppered with targets from Jackson in 2023. But in Todd Monken’s offense, Ravens running backs were far more involved than they had been during Jackson’s tenure as starter.

Ravens running backs in 2023 combined for a 16 percent target share (20th most in the league) after having a 13 percent share in 2022 (30th). That Justice Hill led all Baltimore backs with a measly 37 targets suggests this still means the team’s RBs have a firmly-capped pass game role.

Like most hyper-mobile QBs, Jackson isn’t one to check down to a running back when he can simply scamper for a first down. Probably that goes without saying. When the Ravens ran screens in 2023, they worked quite well: No team had a higher net adjusted yards per play on running back targets (9.9).

Derrick Henry should dominate early-down work and, naturally, red zone opportunities. There’s (almost) no hope for Henry to expand his role into a consistent pass catcher though.

Kirk Cousins (MIN)

Cousins’ final few seasons in Minnesota didn’t include a whole lot of dump offs to running backs. The Vikings ranked 30th in RB target share in 2023; 29th in 2022; and 17th in 2021. Some of this can be explained away by Dalvin Cook falling off a proverbial cliff and Justin Jefferson’s emergence as a dominant target-consuming force in the pass-first Minnesota offense.

Alexander Mattison and Ty Chandler combined for just 65 targets last year. It gets bleaker: Minnesota backs were targeted on a mere 11 percent of their routes with Cousins under center last season.

I trust new Falcons offensive coordinator Zac Robinson to center the offense around its best players, a stark departure from the galaxy-brained Arthur Smith. That (probably) includes plenty of involvement for Bijan Robinson in the passing game. Robinson in his rookie campaign saw a target on a solid 20 percent of his routes. It’s a good sign that Bijan is a target commander, not just someone who lucks into dump offs from his QB. Bijan was seventh among running backs in yards after the catch per reception.

Hopefully for Robinson, Cousins’ infrequent targeting of backs in Minnesota was a function of lacking a good pass catcher coming out of the backfield.

Matthew Stafford (LAR)

It’s strange for a pure pocket passer to land in this category, but here we are with Stafford, who in 2023 targeted running backs on just 60 of his 521 attempts. The Rams — who in 2022 ranked 31st in RB target share — were dead last in 2023 (12 percent).

LA’s pass game runs entirely through its receivers. Rams wideouts last season combined for a whopping, league-leading 72 percent target share. Forty-three percent of Stafford’s throws to running backs were deemed first-read looks, according to Fantasy Points data. That ranked 16th among 40 qualifying quarterbacks.

Kyren Williams dominated the team’s RB targets in 2023 and it didn’t matter all that much. He took in 70 percent of targets intended for Rams backs (despite missing five games with an ankle injury), for a grand total of 47 targets over 12 games. With a humble 14.4 percent targets per route run rate, Williams hardly demonstrated an ability to command targets. Stafford wasn’t particularly good on RB throws either, averaging 5.9 net adjusted yards per play, 23rd out of 40 qualifying QBs. The nature of the Rams passing offense should be considered something of a blow to Williams’ fantasy profile in 2024.

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