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Top Receiving Running Backs

by Josh Norris
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:04 pm ET

Each week I’ll be looking at a group of draft-eligible NFL prospects under certain parameters. I just don’t currently have the time to watch every prospect, so coming out with a top 10 list would be disingenuous. Instead, this allows me to focus on a few players with the goal of finding where they might impact the game.

Top Big Play Running Backs

Top Red Zone Wide Receivers

We all know rookie running backs are making a huge impact this season, but their first-year success in the passing game is an interesting subplot. Christian McCaffrey might break the NFL rookie record for receptions (albeit with half the average yards per catch). Alvin Kamara is fulfilling the Darren Sproles or Reggie Bush role, and then some, for the Saints. And even Tarik Cohen is creating big plays in space.

That got me thinking about future pro prospects and which ones could help in similar areas. Often during the draft process we hear about running backs who can run routes like receivers and be motioned out and targeted in those areas. That rarely comes into fruition, and most ball carriers are targeted out of the backfield. This list is not by skill necessarily. It is by most receptions. Simple.

NC State’s Jaylen Samuels (5’11/223) 56 receptions

The swiss army knife of this list. Samuels is not a true running back. Carrying the ball is secondary, and maybe even tertiary. Samuels frequently lines up in an H-back role, detached tight end or inline. Because of those alignments Samuels actually runs routes beyond the line of scrimmage. The routes aren’t the impressive part, it’s Samuels hands and ability to adjust to off-target throws that stood out. He continually made contested grabs or adjusted for difficult grabs that many others in his position wouldn’t come down with.

The question is if this type of skillset translates with Samuels’ frame. At sub-6-feet tall, Samuels needs an area where he wins, and perhaps dominates, in order to find a role on an NFL team. I’m not sure how many teams prioritize his type, unless they move Samuels to a true fullback-plus position. On the surface his height will hurt him. Perhaps his athletic testing will compensate.

Washington State’s James Williams (5’11/195) 53 receptions

Every reception starts out of the backfield for Williams, specifically swings and slip screens. He sets up the blocks of releasing linemen with slower steps and then cuts off them. Dennis Johnson comes to mind.

Washington State’s Jamal Morrow (5’9/190) 39 receptions

Back to back Washington State Cougars on this list. Let’s dig into that for a moment. The school is known for its offensive spacing and small number of concepts with the goal of making quick decisions and recognizing the appropriate target immediately. Two backs who can make things happen underneath adds balance and extra elements dropping linebackers and defensive backs must account for. Washington State’s timing of swings and screens often puts defenses on their heels.

To Morrow, his straight-line burst, explosion, speed, etc. stands out. The Cougars love the delayed shovel and Morrow often makes the first man miss. Even for his size his balance on high contact was impressive.

Penn State’s Saquon Barkley (5’11/230) 36 receptions

Other than Samuels, Barkley runs the most “routes,” even we are defining that as one on one situations down the field, especially beyond the backfield. Barkley sees time in the slot and outside. One slot snap saw him stem an awaiting linebacker (mismatch), get him on his heels, cut over his face and continue on a vertical route for a score.

In 3rd and long situations the Cardinals use David Johnson on delayed routes underneath, with the other receivers and tight ends blocking downfield, in the hopes of Johnson making one or two defenders miss for a first down. I love the play, it works in situations where the playbook is limited. The catch? Few David Johnsons exist. Saquon Barkley is one, and Penn State uses this same play in 2nd/3rd and long situations.

I mean, just look at this guy…

Typical Saturday for Saquon Barkley pic.twitter.com/oETeWfsHdh

— Josh Norris (@JoshNorris) October 31, 2017

His lateral and upfield explosion is absolutely insane. He creates plays out of nothing.

Josh Norris
Josh Norris is an NFL Draft Analyst for Rotoworld and contributed to the Rams scouting department during training camp of 2010 and the 2011 NFL Draft. He can be found on Twitter .