One skill we always value when it comes to drafting fantasy potent running backs is the ability to catch the football. Now, you might think a good receiving running back is only valuable in PPR (points per reception leagues) but that is simply not true. While receiving running backs definitely have more value in PPR leagues, they're also highly draftable in redraft leagues.
Of the Top 7 fantasy running backs last year, only one guy didn't have at least three receiving touchdowns. Two out of the top 4 had at least 800 receiving yards while the bottom three of those seven guys had receiving touchdown totals of 4,5, and 4 respectively.
The one guy who failed to register a receiving touchdown happened to be the top fantasy running back in the league, in this case DeMarco Murray. But Murray was an exception to the rule considering he carried the ball over 100 times more than any other running back in the league last year and was also gifted with an outstanding offensive line.
Plus, Murray still compiled a respectable 57 catches for 416 yards, so he was still a potent receiver despite not having a catching touchdown to his name.
Why a good receiving running back is valuable — especially in Dynasty Leagues
One big thing you have to remember is that catching the ball is a skill, not an athletic gift. Skills don't fade, but athletic ability does. We've seen countless running backs keep themselves valuable into their 30s with their ability to catch the ball. Bills running back Fred Jackson is still fantasy relevant and he just turned 34 years old. Jackson caught a career-high 66 passes in 2014 at age 33, totaled 501 receiving yards and caught a touchdown. Eagles running back Darren Sproles caught 40 passes at age 31 last year with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Receiving skills don't go away, and if you're looking to invest in somebody long term for a dynasty league, then these are the skills you should be valuing.
How it helps in other ways
Overall, finding a good receiver for your running back spot can enhance your chances of avoiding dud performances due to the variety of ways in which he can get you points. Anybody can fall victim to what's known as 'gameflow' in fantasy football. An example of gameflow working against you would be something like... if a running back only puts up 30 rushing yards because his team gets down early and they have to pass the ball. On the other hand, a receiver can end up with zero catches if a team scores a lot of points early and just runs the ball to chew up clock late. So, if you have a player that can both catch and run the ball, your chances of falling victim to gameflow decrease drastically.
Plus, with the NFL still being a passing-based league despite many teams eying to replicate the Seattle Seahawks' formula centered around running and defense, it's always good to have a receiving back in general.
Overall, you should be looking for a solid receiving back in your dynasty draft. And if you're looking to find guys who might have the talent to do that, look no further than Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon.
What he did in college
First, let's talk about Yeldon's ability as a rusher since that's always the chief talent that will keep him on the field in the first place. Though Yeldon only ranked 61st among all rushers in 2014, he finished with a respectable 979 yards and more importantly, 11 touchdowns on a solid 5.0 yards per carry. He's not a real physical runner and also runs with his pad level tad high at 6'1. Ball security issues where a huge concern as well, as he fumbled 10 times in 576 carries.
Like most running backs, Yeldon also struggled in pass blocking, opting to throw his shoulders around instead of squaring up to block incoming linebackers and defensive linemen. Those are his biggest weaknesses and what may keep him irrelevant in fantasy despite his catching ability. We'll just assume he works on those flaws and gets better for the sake of argument.
Yeldon, like most Alabama running backs before him, wasn't asked to catch the ball much in Alabama. The Crimson Tide instead relied mostly on Amari Cooper for their receiving needs, as Coop accounted for over 70 percent of the team's total targets, an incredible number when you figure the best wideouts on NFL teams might account for 30-40 percent of total team targets.
Still, even though he didn't catch the ball much, it doesn't mean he doesn't possess the skill. His fellow Crimson Tide teammate, Eddie Lacy, actually wasn't much of a receiver out of college either. Lacy quickly erased any doubt that he could be a valuable pass catcher in the NFL when he finished with 42 catches (13th most among RBs), 427 yards (6th most among RBs) and 4 touchdowns (tied for 4th among RBs) in 2014, which was only his second NFL season. Of course, Lacy benefited from playing with Aaron Rodgers, who's one of the leagues best quarterbacks.
Since we don't know who will be throwing Yeldon the ball just yet, we can only look at his individual catching ability based on his college tape. Lets take a look at some of his receiving examples out of college to see if he actually can catch.
Example No. 1
In this first clip against Mississippi State from 2014, Alabama quarterback Blake Sims looks down the field at his receivers, who are both covered. He then looks to the far sideline and hits Yeldon, who's running up the sideline, on a wheel route. Yeldon makes the catch cleanly and maintains his balance on the sidelines, getting both feet in bounds. Overall, some good awareness of the sideline there. Also, he catches the ball with his hands and keeps it away from his body, which is a good sign his hands are soft.
Example No. 2
This one is probably my favorite examples of Yeldon's catching ability and it's not even a true completion. Sims fakes to Yeldon, who then runs up the sideline and manages to haul in a long pass with a corner draped on him and a safety coming over the top to drill him. Yeldon doesn't complete the catch all the way through, but he still does three things very well. For one, he sheds the defender to create space and get himself open. Two, he has to turn his body around and lean back to adjust to the pass. Lastly, he times the catch perfectly, catching the ball at the peak of his jump. These are the kind of ball awareness skills every good receiver has. Plus at 6'1, Yeldon is a little bigger than most running backs and can use his size on contested balls like that.
Example No. 3
In the last example, you get an idea for what Yeldon can do in the open field. Yeldon makes a simple catch out of the backfield, one nearly every running back can make, and then moves the ball up the field and makes on defender miss before being tackled from behind. He makes the catch at about the opponents 47-yard line before advancing the ball all the way down to the 32. Once he knows he's about to go down, he doesn't fight for extra yardage and instead falls down before a defender can lay a big hit on him.
Overall, Yeldon doesn't look flashy in the open field. He's not super quick and he's also not strong enough to move the pile. Still, a lot can be said about his reliability as a receiver. He will produce in the receiving game when on the field at the NFL level. He just has the right instincts, ball skills and overall reliable hands you'd want out of a quality receiving back.
Regarding how that translates to fantasy football, Yeldon will likely not start in his first year, which makes him undraftable in most redraft leagues unless he's gifted a starting role like Bishop Sankey was with Tennessee last year. But as we all know with running backs, injuries can rear their ugly head at any moment. If Yeldon does get an opportunity, he will be a good flex play because of his catching ability. Expect him to be a good plug and play guy when right opportunity comes about, especially in PPR leagues.