This PFF data paints a clear picture. Running backs, depending on the offense, only pass block on about 1 in 6 pass attempts, and it’s even less than that when you factor in all of the reps that a running back is in pass protection but doesn’t actually have to block a defender. I don’t have that exact data, but I’d bet that lowers the totals to about 1 in 8 pass attempts that a running back actually has to make a block.
Let’s go through the steps it takes for a running back to fail at pass blocking. First, it has to be a pass. The running back also has to be in the backfield, not split out wide. He has to stay in to block, not run a route. There has to be a defender that has made it through the offensive line and tight ends. The quarterback still has to have the ball when the defender is where the running back is set to make a block. And then the running back has to miss his block. For a running back to lose his job, he also has to miss blocks at a noticeably higher rate than others on the depth chart. That’s a lot of requirements. Not to mention that PFF's studies suggest that pass-blocking grades are noisy year to year, likely because the samples are small.
So what does this mean? Well, I think pass blocking is overrated for running backs, especially when they play for teams at the bottom of the league in RB pass-blocking reps. Very rarely does a back actually lose third-down duties because of pass blocking, so the only time we should really study pass blocking at the position is when discussing rookies because that’s the year where most players get cast into their career-long roles.
With that said, let’s go through what the data says about each rookie and how they’ll fare as pass blockers this upcoming season. Players are ranked by their NFL team’s RB pass-blocking usage. All 2019 college data courtesy of PFF.
Pass Blocking Reps: 43rd out of 349 FBS RB qualifiers
Pass Blocking Grade: 35th out of 349 FBS RB qualifiers
Titans’ RB Pass Blocking Usage: 1st (27% of passes a RB is in pass protection)
Dion Lewis was fifth among running backs in pass-blocking reps last season with 93. If Evans is to carve out a notable role behind Derrick Henry as a rookie, he’ll have to hold up in pass protection. The Titans wouldn’t have drafted him in the third round if they weren’t somewhat comfortable with him in that role, and this PFF data suggests that not only can Evans hold up, but he might be an above-average pass protector despite being an undersized back.
Pass Blocking Reps: 83rd out of 349 FBS RB qualifiers
Pass Blocking Grade: 67th out of 349 FBS RB qualifiers
Buccaneers’ RB Pass Blocking Usage: 3rd (23% of passes a RB is in pass protection)
Peyton Barber leaves behind 45 pass-blocking reps, but the Bucs may view Dare Ogunbowale as their top pass-blocking running back. Ogunbowale was 11th in pass protection reps last season (77) -- Ronald Jones was 23rd (51) -- and he may see more third-down reps than some expect if Vaughn proves to be unreliable in that role. As an older redshirt senior at Vanderbilt, Vaughn was an above-average pass protector behind a truly awful offensive line. This committee potentially could be a three-back nightmare for fantasy.
Pass Blocking Reps: 3rd out of 349 FBS RB qualifiers
Pass Blocking Grade: 99th out of 349 FBS RB qualifiers
Rams’ RB Pass Blocking Usage: 6th (21% of passes a RB is in pass protection)
Todd Gurley led all NFL running backs with 115 pass-blocking reps last season. If Cam Akers is to establish himself as a true workhorse like Gurley was in recent seasons, he’ll have to prove better than Darrell Henderson and Malcolm Brown in pass pro. Akers at least has a big leg up on Henderson, as he was 3rd in the FBS in pass pro reps last season while Henderson only saw six pass pro reps as a rookie. When Henderson came into the league following the 2018 college season, he was 264th among FBS RBs in pass-blocking reps and graded poorly on them. Advantage Akers.
Pass Blocking Reps: 8th out of 349 FBS RB qualifiers
Pass Blocking Grade: 146th out of 349 FBS RB qualifiers
Ravens’ RB Pass Blocking Usage: 8th (20% of passes a RB is in pass protection)
Mark Ingram (19th) and Gus Edwards (22nd) saw their fair share of pass blocking reps last season, and Dobbins should be quite comfortable taking away some of these snaps. He was 8th in the FBS in pass-blocking reps last year while playing in Ohio State’s offense. Dobbins graded out averagely, but even being on the field for those reps is a big plus. I expect Dobbins’ third-down role to expand as the season moves along.
Pass Blocking Reps: 298th out of 349 FBS RB qualifiers
Pass Blocking Grade: 33rd out of 349 FBS RB qualifiers
Lions’ RB Pass Blocking Usage: 9th (20% of passes a RB is in pass protection)
Swift is viewed as a strong three-down running back prospect largely because of his receiving ability -- it’s true. He is good as a receiver -- but it is a tad strange to see Swift’s pass-blocking snaps rank 298th out of 349 FBS running back qualifiers. I expected him to have way more than 29 pass pro snaps last year, although he did handle himself well on them. With the Lions asking their running backs to block at the 9th highest rate in the NFL, Swift’s pass protection is worth monitoring. NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein believes Swift is “willing to step into pass protection duties and has some dog in him” but also “needs to learn to use his hands in pass protection.” Overall, I’m not overly worried.
Pass Blocking Reps: 107th out of 349 FBS RB qualifiers
Pass Blocking Grade: 147th out of 349 FBS RB qualifiers
Bills’ RB Pass Blocking Usage: 16th (17% of passes a RB is in pass protection)
Frank Gore only leaves behind 35 pass-blocking reps and some of them will likely go on Devin Singletary’s plate. Moss is expected to take on more short-yardage duties than third-down reps, and there’s nothing about Moss’ blocking profile to suggest he’s either good or bad at it. We can move on, especially with the Bills ranking right in the middle in RB pass blocking usage.
Pass Blocking Reps: 89th out of 349 FBS RB qualifiers
Pass Blocking Grade: 76th out of 349 FBS RB qualifiers
Packers’ RB Pass Blocking Usage: 20th (16% of passes a RB is in pass protection)
The 247-pound Dillon is destined for a rushing-only role in the NFL a la Derrick Henry (if he can be even half as good as last year’s rushing leader). Aaron Jones will handle most passing-down duties in Green Bay this season, but if Dillon is forced to pass block, he should be more than capable. Dillon cracked the top-100 list in both reps and grade last season.
Pass Blocking Reps: 274th out of 349 FBS RB qualifiers
Pass Blocking Grade: 17th out of 349 FBS RB qualifiers
Colts’ RB Pass Blocking Usage: 24th (14% of passes a RB is in pass protection)
Taylor is unlikely to sit in pass protection often as a rookie. The Colts didn’t ask their running backs to block much last season -- Marlon Mack was 38th among running backs in pass-blocking reps (37) and Nyheim Hines was 58th (26) -- and Philip Rivers’ running backs were asked to block at the lowest rate in the NFL last season. A well-built back with a ton of athleticism, Taylor should prove capable on his limited pass-blocking snaps.
Pass Blocking Reps: 228th out of 349 FBS RB qualifiers
Pass Blocking Grade: 314th out of 349 FBS RB qualifiers
Chiefs’ RB Pass Blocking Usage: 28th (13% of passes a RB is in pass protection)
In another offense, I’d be more concerned with Edwards-Helaire’s poor pass-blocking data (see above), but the Chiefs simply don’t ask their running backs to sit in pass protection. Kansas City either goes empty or has their running backs run routes. That strategy will only be magnified with Edwards-Helaire, a very strong pass-catching back, on the roster. Given the rookie’s strength as a route runner and check-down option, I’m expecting him to handle most third-down reps in 2020. The Chiefs didn’t spend a first-round pick on Edwards-Helaire to sit on the bench. He’ll be playing over Damien Williams in no time.
Pass Blocking Reps: NA
Pass Blocking Grade: NA
Redskins’ RB Pass Blocking Usage: 31st (11% of passes a RB is in pass protection)
Like Edwards-Helaire, Gibson’s lack of experience as a pass-blocker is a concern -- he only had seven reps last season -- but the Redskins simply don’t use running backs in pass pro. Even if they did ask their backs to block a lot, I don’t think it would truly affect Gibson, who is likely destined for a more gadget role rather than the Chris Thompson third-down role. Expect Gibson’s snap share to be held in check as a rookie with the Redskins’ coaching staff likely to put him in situations he’s comfortable being in.
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