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Alvin Kamara, Deebo Samuel and the NFL’s best screen-pass threats

Alvin Kamara and Deebo Samuel are great weapons in the short passing game. The Saints and 49ers must find ways to make better use of them.

Alvin Kamara, Deebo Samuel and the NFL's best screen pass threats
Dec 13, 2020; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara (41) catches the ball against the Philadelphia Eagles during the third quarter at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone knows that Alvin Kamara is one of the NFL’s best offensive weapons after catching a short pass in space. But the New Orleans Saints relied on Kamara a little too often in 2020. Most fans are also hip to the fact that Deebo Samuel is one of the most dangerous receivers in the NFL at turning a quick screen or shovel pass into a significant gain. Still, the San Francisco 49ers only had a healthy Deebo Samuel for a handful of games last year.

And while Mike Davis did a fine job in place of Christian McCaffrey, the Carolina Panthers sorely missed McCaffrey’s ability to turn a glorified handoff into a big pass play.

Last week, I looked at the quarterbacks who threw the most passes behind the line of scrimmage (micro-passes, for short) in 2020. Now, let’s examine the running backs and receivers who caught the most micro-passes to determine who was getting the most bang for their buck and who may have been holding their offenses back.

(Unless otherwise noted, all statistics reflect passes listed with zero or fewer air yards by Sports Info Solutions, including screens, shovel passes, quick flares, and so forth).

Alvin Kamara and the most prolific pass-catching RBs

Here are the running backs who caught the most passes behind the line of scrimmage in 2020. All data via Sports Info Solutions:

  1. Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints: 43 receptions
  2. J.D. McKissic, Washington Football Team: 38 receptions
  3. Mike Davis, Carolina Panthers: 34 receptions
  4. James Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars: 34 receptions
  5. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys: 33 receptions
  6. Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers: 33 receptions
  7. Nyheim Hines, Indianapolis Colts: 32 receptions
  8. Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers: 31 receptions
  9. Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings: 30 receptions
  10. Antonio Gibson, Washington Football Team: 30 receptions

To summarize the list above, it starts with the NFL’s best dual-threat running back (Kamara). Then you have a mix of three-down featured backs who catch a lot of screens (Elliott, Jones, Cook).

In addition, you have designated third-down speedster types (Hines, Gibson). Then, there were youngsters who were on the field and often trailing (Robinson, Davis). Lastly, we have running backs trapped in dysfunctional, dink-and-dunk-oriented offenses (Gibson and McKissic, and Alvin Kamara, if we are honest).

The heaviest micro-pass targets

Kamara was targeted behind the line of scrimmage 57 times. He dropped eight of those micro-passes, though the data surely includes a mix of actual drops and “drops” with five defenders converging on him six yards behind the line of scrimmage. There’s an optimal number of times that a team should target a playmaker like Kamara behind the line of scrimmage — 3.5 times per game probably ain’t it.

McKissic and Gibson were targeted a combined 91 times behind the line of scrimmage. As discussed in last week’s article about quarterbacks, what Washington was trying to do with now-departing Alex Smith and their other quarterbacks was not sustainable.

Related | Dynasty Running Back Rankings: Top assets heading into 2021

The Chargers ranked second to Washington with 90 micro-passes to players listed as running backs, even if they did not line up as running backs. Justin Herbert had a phenomenal rookie season, but his high volume of micro-passes likely inflated his statistics to a degree. As a result, there’s potential for a sophomore slump in a new system with higher expectations.

Teams that rarely used the micro-pass

By the way, the teams that threw to running backs behind the line of scrimmage the least were the Baltimore Ravens (29 targets), the Tennessee Titans, and the San Francisco 49ers (32 each). It would be hard to mesh the Lamar Jackson option game with a robust screen game. Furthermore, one hands off to Derrick Henry; one does not throw to Derrick Henry.

The 49ers are the surprise team on the list, but they went through about 30 running backs last year. They also started three quarterbacks, so nothing they did offensively made much sense by the end of the year. In addition, their best weapon behind the line of scrimmage was a wide receiver.

Dalvin Cook and the most efficient pass-catching RBs

Enough about quantity — let’s talk about quality. Here’s a list of the top running backs in the NFL in yards per catch on passes behind the line of scrimmage. The minimum qualifier is 20 targets. Warning: the list is weird.

  1. Gio Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals: 8.3 yards per reception
  2. Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings: 8.2 yards per reception
  3. Myles Gaskin, Miami Dolphins: 7.8 yards per reception
  4. Nyheim Hines, Indianapolis Colts: 7.6 yards per reception
  5. D’Andre Swift, Detroit Lions: 7.3 yards per reception
  6. Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts: 7.1 yards per reception
  7. Kareem Hunt, Cleveland Browns: 7.0 yards per reception
  8. Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers: 6.9 yards per reception
  9. Tony Pollard. Dallas Cowboys: 6.8 yards per reception
  10. Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints: 6.7 yards per reception
  11. James White, New England Patriots: 6.7 yards per reception

The standouts

Bernard belongs in the Bengals’ Ring of Honor. Do the Bengals even have a Ring of Honor? Is it just a bunch of plaques in a laundromat in a Monfort Heights strip mall? Kidding aside, Bernard has had a fine career and did yeoman work in 2020 for a terrible team in his 37th NFL season.

Alvin Kamara’s production works out to just 5.02 yards per target, a lower figure than Gibson, Rex Burkhead, and several others who aren’t on the list above. Both Kamara and the Saints’ offense were coping with a severe case of diminishing returns, particularly late in the season and in the playoffs.

Hines and Taylor offer hope that Carson Wentz can dump off screens and swing passes and enjoy lots of easy production, just as Philip Rivers did much of last year. Unfortunately, anyone who watched the 2020 Eagles (or the 2019 Eagles, really) knows that Wentz would rather try to force a 40-yard interception or scramble himself into danger than dump the ball to a check-down running back for seven yards. Perhaps Frank Reich can reach him.

Cook provided 246 total receiving yards for the Vikings’ offense on passes behind the line of scrimmage, second in the league to Alvin Kamara. With this in mind, insert your snarky remark about Kirk Cousins getting lots of mileage on the easiest possible throws.

A surprising league leader

Gaskin led all NFL running backs in receiving yards on actual screen passes (as marked in Sports Info Solutions) with 162 yards. That’s more than Cook, Kamara, or anyone else. Gaskin was only healthy when Ryan Fitzpatrick was the Dolphins’ quarterback. Their screen game dried up when Tua Tagovailoa took over.

This information says something about Fitzpatrick, Tua, departed offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, Gaskin, and possibly Brian Flores. Although we just aren’t sure what it says yet.

Leonard Fournette and the least efficient pass-catching RBs

So, what about the least efficient running backs on micro-passes? Do you think Leonard Fournette is at the top of the list?

  1. Ronald Jones, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 3.6 yards per reception
  2. Melvin Gordon, Denver Broncos: 3.9 yards per reception
  3. Leonard Fournette, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 4.5 yards per reception
  4. Mike Davis, Carolina Panthers: 4.6 yards per reception
  5. James Conner, Pittsburgh Steelers: 5.0 yards per reception

Surprise! Fournette is third on the list, though he would be first if we increased the minimum target cutoff from 20 to 25. Teammate Jones tops the list, and Jones and Fournette combined for seven dropped micro-passes. While Tom Brady spent the tail end of his Patriots career flinging efficient flare passes to James White and Rex Burkhead, the Buccaneers’ offense wasn’t built for that. Fortunately, it was built for other things.

The cover of Running Backs Drafted Too High That Teams Feel Compelled to Force-Feed the Ball To Magazine (it’s a niche publication) often features Gordon and Fournette.

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Davis was stuck trying to do Christian McCaffrey-type stuff. He played well, but despite what the “Running Backs Don’t Matter” nerd-bullies try to tell you, there is a significant difference between someone like McCaffrey and Davis. However, it just doesn’t jibe with the financial and reputation differences between them.

Conner’s presence allows us to segue smoothly to the wide receivers, where some Steelers will come up a few times.

Deebo Samuel and the top WRs on micro-passes

Here are the wide receivers who caught the most passes behind the line of scrimmage in 2020:

  1. Robert Woods, Los Angeles Rams: 30 receptions
  2. Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers: 30 receptions
  3. JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh Steelers: 24 receptions
  4. Curtis Samuel, Carolina Panthers: 22 receptions
  5. DeAndre Hopkins, Arizona Cardinals: 22 receptions
  6. Keenan Allen, Los Angeles Chargers: 21 receptions
  7. Deebo Samuel, San Francisco 49ers: 21 receptions
  8. Diontae Johnson, Pittsburgh Steelers: 20 receptions
  9. Antonio Brown, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 19 receptions
  10. Cooper Kupp, Los Angeles Rams: 18 receptions
  11. Darnell Mooney, Chicago Bears: 18 receptions

Coaches from the Sean McVay family tree love their wide receiver screens and quick-flat concepts. The presence of Woods, Adams, Kupp, and (really) Deebo Samuel on the list above demonstrates that. Of course, Adams is excellent at just about everything. Woods may be so underrated he’s overrated, but he’s an excellent possession receiver, blocker, and general multi-tool.

Antonio Brown caught a lot of “let’s make sure he’s involved” screens. Kliff Kingsbury ordered lots of screens to Hopkins early in the season. That was before he found out they weren’t working because the defense saw Nuk lined up in a trips-left formation with two likely blockers and said, “Hmmm…” Carolina asked Curtis Samuel to take a little of the McCaffrey heat off Davis.

Deebo Samuel gets top billing because he only played seven games, meaning he caught three passes behind the line of scrimmage per game. In addition, he led all wide receivers with 229 yards on passes behind the line of scrimmage.

Efficiency matters

Here are the top receivers in yards per attempt (minimum 10 attempts):

  1. Jamison Crowder, New York Jets: 11.4 yards per reception
  2. Mecole Hardman, Kansas City Chiefs: 10.9 yards per reception
  3. Deebo Samuel, San Francisco 49ers: 10.9 yards per reception
  4. Chase Claypool, Pittsburgh Steelers: 9.4 yards per reception
  5. Michael Gallup, Dallas Cowboys: 9.3 yards per reception

Crowder is a fine player who happened to take a swing pass 69 yards for a touchdown among his 10 catches behind the line of scrimmage. For this reason, it’s essential to be careful when granulating data down to the 10-sample level.

Related | Dynasty Wide Receiver Rankings: Top assets heading into 2021

We all know what Hardman is capable of in Kansas City’s offense. (Tyreek Hill averaged 7.2 yards per micro-pass on 19 targets). Deebo Samuel was producing about 33 yards per game on Kyle Shanahan’s intricate micro-passing concepts when healthy, which is remarkable.

Here are the least efficient wide receivers on passes behind the line of scrimmage:

  1. Christian Kirk, Arizona Cardinals: 2.8 yards per reception
  2. Greg Ward, Philadelphia Eagles: 2.9 yards per reception
  3. Ray-Ray McCloud, Pittsburgh Steelers: 3.0 yards per reception
  4. Lynn Bowden, Miami Dolphins: 3.2 yards per reception
  5. Cordarrelle Patterson, Chicago Bears: 3.2 yards per reception

Kliff Kingsbury’s micro-passing concepts in Arizona didn’t work correctly last year. Nothing Doug Pederson and Wentz did worked. Bowden and Patterson are “slash” type players who lined up at running back often, as did Curtis Samuel, who averaged 3.4 yards per reception. So much of what we see here is lousy offensive design and dynamic players getting pressed into service in suboptimal ways.

A reason the Steelers slumped to the finish line?

Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers targeted McCloud 18 times. Smith-Schuster ranked seventh on our list with 3.7 yards per micro-pass on 25 targets. Conversely, we can find Claypool on the “nice” list above, but Conner was on the running back “naughty” list.

Diontae Johnson averaged just 5.5 yards per reception (with only one dropped pass) on 25 targets, which isn’t spectacular. The Steelers’ dink-and-dunk offensive approach made good weapons like Smith-Schuster look ordinary, and so-so weapons like McCloud look terrible.

Enjoy another year of Ben Roethlisberger, folks!

Darren Waller and the top tight ends on micro-passes

Here are the most prolific tight ends in the NFL at catching passes behind the line of scrimmage in 2020:

  1. Darren Waller, Las Vegas Raiders: 22 receptions
  2. Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs: 18 receptions
  3. Drew Sample, Cincinnati Bengals: 15 receptions
  4. Robert Tonyan, Green Bay Packers: 13 receptions
  5. T.J. Hockenson, Detroit Lions: 12 receptions

Jon Gruden loves short-and-quick passing concepts, and Waller was the Raiders’ best weapon. Therefore it’s no surprise to see him atop this list.

Kelce averaged just 5.5 yards per reception on micro-passes, and Tonyan hit 5.1. Neither figure is alarming. After all, Kelce screens are just a counterpunch in the Chiefs’ offense, and Tonyan got used often as a safety valve or short RPO target.

Related | Dynasty Tight End Rankings: Top assets heading into 2021

There are a lot of Bengals on these micro-passing lists. That’s because Zac Taylor is from the McVay/Shanahan school. It’s also because he both childproofed the offense for Joe Burrow and was forced into survival mode when Brandon Allen and Ryan Finley took over. Don’t interpret anything you saw today as evidence that the Bengals can get by without significant offensive upgrades around Burrow.

Kyle Juszczyk, Patrick Ricard, and Alec Ingold led all fullbacks with five receptions behind the line of scrimmage.

Final thoughts on micro-passing, beyond Alvin Kamara

Alvin Kamara is a dynamic runner who should get the ball in space behind the line of scrimmage now and then so he can put the moves on defenders. We can say the same of Deebo Samuel, Curtis Samuel, Antonio Gibson, several Pittsburgh Steelers, and many other players on this list.

However, there’s an inflection point at which micro-passing ceases to become a way to attack the defense and instead becomes a way to prop up an aging or inefficient quarterback. Washington blasted past that inflection point last year. The Saints, Steelers, Cardinals, Colts, and a few other teams at least approached it.

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Fantasy football gamers should note the usage patterns above and keep their eyes on running backs and receivers who get lots of easy opportunities.

Fans hoping to attend a Super Bowl parade next February should be a little wary of the teams whose players kept showing up on these lists. When the most dynamic player keeps getting targeted behind the line of scrimmage over and over again, there’s a good chance that something else just isn’t working correctly.

Want more NFL news and analysis beyond Alvin Kamara, Deebo Samuel, and the best screen-pass threats?

Be sure to follow us on Twitter (@PFN365) to stay in the loop on all things around the NFL. Also, continue to visit Pro Football Network for NFL news and in-depth analysis concerning the 2021 season and beyond.

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