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Playing the Format: Pass-Catching Running Backs

Highlighting the key pass-catching running backs for 2017 in PPR formats

While the crown jewel of fantasy football is the do-it-all running back with strong volume, goal line prowess, and high receiving upside, these foundational backs are difficult to find and typically expensive to acquire. However, finding running backs with a consistent niche as a pass-catcher can be the key to a committee approach in PPR formats, especially in the RB2 and flex spots of a lineup. Here are the key running backs to consider in 2017:

Danny Woodhead, RB27

The last two seasons Danny Woodhead has been healthy (2013, 2015), he has 157 receptions for nearly 1,400 yards and 12 touchdowns. Woodhead enters a wide open Baltimore depth chart for a pass-catching running back, especially with Kenneth Dixon out for the season. Baltimore, outside of New Orleans, is the receiving mecca for running backs. Woodhead has an ideal situation to hit a career-high for targets in 2017, previously set at 107 in 2015 with San Diego.

Theo Riddick, RB36

Without Danny Woodhead healthy for much of 2016, Theo Riddick was the crown jewel of the affordable non-stud PPR backs. Riddick averaged 6.7 targets per game, a year after nearly hitting 100 targets in 16 games. Since emerging to prominence over the past two seasons, Riddick leads all running backs in receptions (133) and has the lowest games played of any back with at least 100 receptions. Only James White has more receiving touchdowns of running backs than Riddick's eight since 2015. 

Duke Johnson, RB37

Of the secondary running backs, Duke Johnson ranks second to Theo Riddick over the past two seasons with 114 receptions. While Isaiah Crowell is a quality receiver in his own right, Johnson has been the preferred option in 2015 and 2016. There is even discussion of Johnson mixing in as a receiver in 2017, where Cleveland lacks depth. 

C.J. Prosise, RB39

Prosise was a shooting star as a rookie, missing most of the season with a shoulder injury. However, when Prosise played he was quite effective. Prosise had two games of at least 80 receiving yards with a highlight game against New England (24 touches, 154 total yards) in Week 10. Neither Eddie Lacy or Thomas Rawls project as more than speed bumps to Prosise being the receiving option of choice for the Seattle backfield. Of the backs listed thus far only Prosise has the size to project as a true lead back in terms of usage upside.

Alvin Kamara, RB44

Kamara is the next Darren Sproles, Travaris Cadet, or Pierre Thomas of the Saints pass-catching role. Kamara, However, has more upside as a dual-threat back. The situation is murky with Mark Ingram and newly-added Adrian Peterson in the short-term. Kamara has more upside in 2018 and beyond than in his rookie season. Kamara has a dual benefit where he can benefit from an injury to Peterson (where Ingram shifts to a bigger interior interior, advancing Kamara's receiving market share), or if Ingram is out and Kamara would be the exclusive receiver of the backfield.

James White, RB42

White was at his best in the Patriots' Super Bowl win, but also had at least four targets in 14-of-16 regular season games. White leads all running backs with nine receiving touchdowns over the past two seasons plus has 100 catches. White had seven games of 10+ PPR points and enjoys the friendly confines of a Tom Brady-optimized offense.

Giovani Bernard, RB53

Bernard was on an 80-target pace last season before missing the final six games of 2016. Bernard has been a lower upside option than elite options like Theo Riddick and Danny Woodhead of late, but has been a consistent 3-4 reception-per-game back over his four-year career. Bernard faces competition in the added rookie Joe Mixon, who offers a three-down skillset and elite receiver potential. Bernard has more appeal early in the season if Mixon is off to a slow start.

Darren Sproles, RB58

By far the oldest of this group, Darren Sproles has continued to churn out PPR production, including 40+ receptions in each of the last eight seasons. While his New Orleans years marked Sproles' career peak, he has maintained viability in three years with the Eagles since. LeGarrette Blount is an added interior option, but Sproles remains the projected pass-catcher of the backfield in 2017. 

Chris Thompson, RB65

Samaje Perine is a mid-round addition of note for the Washington backfield, but neither Perine or incumbent Rob Kelley project as challengers to Chris Thompson's stranglehold on the receiving role. Thompson has been an efficient, but sparsely-used rusher over the past two seasons (averaging around four carries per game), but Thompson's appeal lies in his ADP compared to his finishes as RB62 and RB37 in 2015 and 2016.

Charles Sims, RB64

While Charles Sims has missed 17 games over three seasons, he has averaged more than three catches per game in his career. Sims is the biggest play threat of the list with a hearty 10.0 yards-per-reception career. Sims has also seen time as the Tampa Bay starter when needed with more size than all but C.J. Prosise of above options. There is ambiguity in the Tampa Bay backfield with Doug Martin suspended to start the season and low-pedigree options outside of Sims remaining on the roster. However, Sims was out of place in his cameo role as the lead back in 2016.

Shane Vereen, RB74

Like Charles Sims, Shane Vereen has been an impactful receiving option when healthy in his career. However, Vereen has missed at least half of three of his six seasons. At his peak (2014-15), Vereen totaled nearly 1,000 receiving yards on 112 receptions and seven touchdowns through the air. Paul Perkins is a two-way back, but Vereen is the preferred receiving option of the two in an unsettled Giants running back depth chart in 2017.