The running back's first job is in the name of the position: run the football.
But in today's pass-happy NFL, running backs also have to be able to factor into the air attack. Gone are the days of just a few exceptionally talented pass-catching backs, like Marshall Faulk; now, it seems like every back can expect to see some targets.
Who are the best passing-game options known as running backs? It's time to dive into the Next Gen Stats to find the top 10.
If Patterson's emergence as a do-everything weapon was among your preseason predictions, please do us a favor and pass along today's lottery numbers. Patterson already landed on our list of top surprises of 2021, and he got there by doing exactly what earned him the top place here. Falcons coach Arthur Smith hasn't shied from using Patterson in just about every imaginable way, lining him up in the backfield and handing him the ball, sending him out wide to catch passes and mixing the two by throwing it to him out of the backfield. Patterson's experience as a receiver has proven beneficial to the Falcons' passing game, allowing him to run routes downfield out of an unusual alignment. Among running backs, he's gained the most yards (73) on targets of 10-19 air yards, per Next Gen Stats, and he's scored the most receiving touchdowns down the seams (four). As for traditional pre-snap locations, Patterson (who is now officially considered a running back after spending much of his nine-year career as a receiver) is the only player at the position who has caught multiple touchdown passes (two) when aligned wide in 2021. Of backs on this list, only Aaron Jones and Christian McCaffrey have a better catch-rate-above-expectation than Patterson (+4.1%), and his 10.4 yards per reception trail only Jonathan Taylor. It turns out a receiving background can, in fact, help a pass-catching running back.
All it truly takes to understand Kamara's value in the passing game is to rewatch New Orleans' Monday Night Football win over Seattle in Week 7. Kamara was clearly Jameis Winston's best passing option, repeatedly running a choice route to find soft spots in the Seahawks' defense and finishing with a total of 128 receiving yards and a touchdown. It's a bit of a change for Kamara, who did a lot of his damage in the past with Drew Brees by catching swing passes and screens, but it's just as effective. Kamara currently has the seventh-most receiving yards (256) among running backs league-wide, is tied for the second-most receiving touchdowns (four) and is gaining more than 9 yards per reception. All four scores have come on targets of fewer than 10 air yards (tied with Aaron Jones for the most among running backs), but the starting place is the same as it's frequently been -- three of those touchdowns came from backfield alignments. As mentioned above, Kamara is dangerous mainly because he knows precisely how to seek open space. He's tied for the most receiving touchdowns on open targets this season (four) among running backs. Kamara has always been a valuable part of New Orleans' offense, but as the Saints move deeper into the post-Brees era (especially without Michael Thomas available), he's never been more important.
The Week 4 win over the Raiders demonstrated Ekeler's importance to the Chargers, who lacked offensive punch when Ekeler was off the field but regained it as soon as he returned. Ekeler is the engine that powers Los Angeles' rushing attack, and he's just as potent in the air as he is on the ground. Of his 42 targets, Ekeler has caught 33, gaining 9.2 yards per reception and 293 yards after the catch, the fifth-most among running backs. He's tied for the most receiving touchdowns (three) out of the backfield, and he's won on the perimeter, gaining the second-most yards when targeted outside of the numbers (105) among running backs. Ekeler's elusiveness, quick-burst speed and ability to make an impact in both phases of the offensive game make him an essential part of the Chargers' attack -- and he sure helps Justin Herbert as a go-to option out of the backfield.
Jones has done most of his aerial scoring this season in one contest: Green Bay's Week 2 win over Detroit, in which Jones notched three of his four receiving TDs. But even a casual observer will agree that Jones is no one-hit wonder. The back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher has been a threat in the passing game in each of his last two seasons, and he's on pace to exceed his career highs in 2021, with 4.1 catches per game and 7.2 yards per reception. Jones is also rare among running backs in that he occasionally makes unlikely catches, owning a catch rate over expectation of +4.3 percent. Viewers of Jones might see similarities to Alvin Kamara, as both occupy comparable roles in their respective offenses, so it's no surprise they're tied atop the running back leaderboard for receiving touchdowns on targets of fewer than 10 air yards (four, as mentioned in the Kamara blurb) and receiving touchdowns when aligned in the backfield (three). Opponents are well aware of the threat Jones poses anytime he steps on the field -- and he might need to step it up even further if the Packers are to win in Kansas City with Jordan Love taking the place of Aaron Rodgers.
Taylor broke out as a legitimate rusher in the second half of last season, and he's now added another tool to his chest: catching passes. The second-year pro is on pace to smash his rookie receiving totals (36 catches for 299 yards), and he's doing it by ripping off big gains after the catch, averaging 12.6 yards per reception and gaining the most yards after the catch over expectation on average among backs (4.0). It's a welcome development for the Carson Wentz-led Indianapolis offense, which has turned Taylor into a serious weapon out of the backfield. Wentz clearly isn't afraid to throw it to Taylor down the seams; he's gained the most yards per reception (12.2) and yards per target (11.6) on passes down the seams among running backs this season (minimum 15 such targets). Taylor also owns the most yards per reception when aligned in the backfield (13.3). No longer just a downhill runner, Taylor is turning into a complete back.
There are a few silver linings amid the Lions' winless start, including the play of Swift, who is making more of a difference in the passing game than he is on the ground. Detroit has recognized this, throwing to Swift more than any team has to a running back in the entire league. Swift has caught 47 of his 57 targets and is predictably leading NFL running backs in receiving yards with 415 -- he's the only one to break 400 so far. He's also leading the NFL (at all positions) in yards after the catch with 445 (yes, this exceeds his actual yardage total, because of passes caught behind the line of scrimmage), with an average of 2.4 yards after the catch over expectation. Because of Swift's high volume of targets, he's at the front of the pack in terms of targets, receptions and yards in all of these categories: players aligned in the backfield, running backs targeted at fewer than 10 air yards and running backs targeted down the seams. His best achievement has been his total figure in yards after the catch over expectation (113), as well as his two receiving touchdowns. In an offense that lacks legitimate weapons, Swift has carried the aerial load and shined as a pass-catching back, even if it might be out of necessity for Detroit.
Let's get this out of the way: McCaffrey would likely be atop this list if he'd been healthy for the majority of this season. But even though he's played in just two and a half games thus far, we still couldn't leave him off -- he's a rare talent in the NFL, as we saw in his last fully healthy season, the 1,000/1,000 campaign of 2019. Before he suffered a hamstring injury in Week 3 this season, McCaffrey made a dent in the statistics; in roughly 10 quarters of action, he managed to compile enough receiving yards (163) to rank in the top 20 among running backs through Week 8. He averaged 10.2 yards per reception, and he's the only player on this list to post a double-digit catch rate over expected (+10.1%) this season. When he comes back, the Panthers will be incredibly thankful to have him -- and even in the limited amount of time we've seen him this season, he's still made enough of an impact to land among the league's best.
2021 was supposed to be the year of Antonio Gibson, but he has yet to break out as expected. In the meantime, McKissic has filled in the gaps. The veteran currently accounts for the third-most receiving yards among all running backs (332) and is averaging 10.1 yards per catch to go along with one receiving touchdown. Like Swift, McKissic is making a similar difference after the catch, gaining 324 yards after hauling in passes and averaging 2.5 yards after catch over expectation. He's become a trusty target out of the backfield for Taylor Heinicke, who has thrown more passes to McKissic than he has to anyone on Washington's roster outside of Terry McLaurin. But unlike Swift, McKissic is getting split out wide, helping him gain the most receiving yards per reception (13) when aligned wide among backs with more than two such targets; he ranks second in that category in yards per reception (9.8). McKissic also flashed some ability as a downfield threat with a 56-yard reception against the Giants in Week 2. The ideal complement to Gibson, he's further diversified Washington's passing attack.
Drake's usage in the ground game was relatively limited until Week 7 (season-high 14 carries), but Drake has made a difference in the passing game from the jump this season, averaging 10.4 yards on his 18 receptions. His volume of touches isn't as high as some of the others on this list, but he's achieving when he gets his chances in an offense filled with pass-catching options for Derek Carr. Drake leads all running backs in air yards per target (3.6), including three deep targets (20-plus air yards) and one deep reception. Drake has proven he can make a difference; his stats would be more impressive if he saw more opportunities.
Gaskin lands on this list largely because he's caught three TD passes in the first eight weeks of the season. Gaskin's other stats stand up, too, with 31 catches for 165 yards, though his per-reception average (7.6 yards) isn't quite as strong as one would prefer. That's indicative of Miami's season, one that has included significant playing time for Jacoby Brissett in place of Tua Tagovailoa. Gaskin has still made a difference on the perimeter, tying for the most touchdowns among RBs when targeted outside the numbers (two) and the most receiving touchdowns when aligned in the backfield (three). The 1-7 Dolphins just need to get going offensively, and if they do, Gaskin will certainly be an integral part of it.