The Gut Check No.299: RB and TE Drop Rates

Which TEs and RBs are the best and worst at catching the rock? Be prepared for some of your perceptions to be altered.

In my last column I examined drop rates for wide receivers. This column it's tight ends and running backs. I expected to see lower drop rates from the leading tight ends and backs due to the ease of targets relative to receivers, but this is not the case despite the fact that the target percentages for these leaders are higher than receivers (likely due to easier routes and throws involved).

Tight End Drop Rates

Let's begin with tight ends possessing the lowest three-year drop rates. It's a list stocked with future Hall of Famers, reliable veterans, and a couple of up and comers.

Gates, Gonzalez, and Witten demonstrate high volume, high reliability, and even high percentage of targets caught. Although Kellen Winslow and Ozzie Newsome might have been two of the earlier pioneers of the "move tight end" as a unique variant of the position, Gates, Gonzalez, and Witten did a lot to usher in the era of the joker tight end. Speaking of Winslow, Kellen Winslow II is a minor fantasy football tragedy. Just imagine what the athleticism combined with Winslow's hands and football smarts could have blossomed into if not for his youthful mistake in a mall parking lot.

Greg Olsen, Dennis Pitta, and Owen Daniels offer different flavors at the position, but all three know how to get open and make the reliable play. I believe Olsen's lower target percentage is a reflection of him having more difficult targets than many on this list. It's also notable that quarterback play for Olsen, Dustin Keller, and Anthony Fasano has been less consistent than many of the leaders on this list.

If not for the addition of Steve Smith and Owen Daniels via free agency, Pitta might have been my slam-dunk recommendation as the mid-tier tight end in 2014 fantasy drafts. I'm still buying, because more viable weapons also translates to easier opportunities for Pitta. However if Daniels has enough left in the tank and he establishes a decent rapport with Joe Flacco, it could hinder Pitta's upside.

Jordan Cameron and Julius Thomas lack the same three-year workload of the Gates, Gonzalezes, and Wittens, but their reliability is as promising as their athleticism. Thomas' is another anecdotal reason why I believe target percentage is often a reflection of ease of routes and throws. Seattle's staff scouted the Broncos tight end and knew that at this stage of his career Thomas wilts against physical play and they eliminated his effectiveness at the Super Bowl. However, most teams aren't capable of this tactic and Thomas earns a lot of strong looks thanks to the Peyton Manning and the surrounding receiver talented.

Cameron benefitted from Josh Gordon last year. It will be telling if Gordon misses most of 2014 and Cameron's target percentage drops a significant amount. There could be a similar forecast for Cameron if Johnny Manziel starts for at least half of the season.

It's noteworthy that of the top five fantasy tight ends during the past three seasons where the hybrid tight end phenomenon has become more prevalent, 14 out of 15 players had a teammate that was a top-15 fantasy receiver. If Cleveland doesn't have a top-15 caliber receiver this year or a lot of collective help that elevates Brian Hoyer into a productive spot, Cameron could be a disappointment. At the same time, if Cameron continues to see open passing lanes and makes plays then Andrew Hawkins or another Browns receiver is a reasonable bet as a fantasy surprise.

Zach Miller and Anthony Fasano aren't great athletes, but it's easy to see why they have (or will have) long careers in the NFL. They catch as reliably as they run block. They are embody the traditional use of the position.

The tight ends with the highest three-year drop rates also tend to possess higher target percentages than wide receivers. Not all of them have poor quarterback play, but there are at least four on this list with strong YAC skills. That big-play ability can be a mitigating factor for a team owning a player with a higher than average drop rate.

I added Jimmy Graham as the 13th man on this list because his target volume is in some cases twice the amount of other starters. I also thought many of you would be interested to see where the most productive fantasy tight end in the game stands along this spectrum of high and low drop rates.

It's noteworthy that Brandon Pettigrew, Rob Housler, and Jermaine Gresham are all on the verge of being replaced in their current NFL cities. All three are losing fantasy propositions this year in drafts. I'd much prefer to take my chances on them in free agency after an injury to the players I project to start ahead of them: Eric Ebron, Tyler Eifert, and John Carlson.

I'm interested to see how Jermichael Finley's career unfolds after his career-threatening neck injury. If he earns a shot with a team, will his drop rate increase and will it have something to do with him being leery of difficult targets placed in tight windows or will be able to able to block this from his mind? Ast of Monday, the Packers have still not medically cleared Finley to return.

Buccaneers tight end Tim Wright is full of surprises. A possession receiver at Rutgers, Wright turned in a fine rookie year as a move tight end and had the lowest drop rate among his peers in 2013. Then the Buccaneers drafted Austin Seferian-Jenkins in May and Wright's opportunity to reprise or build on his rookie year is in doubt. 

I'd still keep an eye on Wright, because Seferian-Jenkins might need a full year to make the transition to a reliable pro receiver. It's also possible Seferian-Jenkins earns more time on run downs and the Buccaneers use Wright in the slot as a hybrid receiver-tight end even with the rookie on the field. I'd still consider Wright as a late round pick if Seferian-Jenkins earns the starting role as "tight end," becuase "tight end" could be the traditional definition of the position and not what Wright will be donig. 

Rob Gronkowski had an injury-marred season, but his performance when healthy enough to take the field was spot-on for an All-Pro player. I think Gronkowski's low target percentage is influenced by an offensive line that allowed pressure into the pocket as fast as any unit in the league. Defenses were able to rush Brady's process more in 2013 than in the past and delivering targets with a higher degree of difficulty was a frequent outcome. 

Zach Ertz also delivered a promising rookie year. Primarily a receiver, Ertz's outlook in 2014 is clouded by the addition of Jordan Matthews who will work the slot. If Philadelphia's scheme calls for Matthews to play the Marques Colston role as a big slot receiver and move Ertz around for matchups like Jimmy Graham, the second-year tight end from Stanford could crack the top-10--maybe even the top-five. 

This is the most optimistic scenario for Ertz, but one worth considering with a wide-open offense that may not be "just like" the Saints' unit, but has personnel and plays that maximizes the skill sets of similar players: big slot receiver (Colston-Matthews), running back-receiver-returner hybrid (Brandin Cooks-Darren Sproles), excellent screen receiver at running back (Pierre Thomas-Lesean McCoy), and big, rangy move tight end (Graham-Ertz). 

John Carlson is most likely a nice bye-week option available during the 2014 season on waivers, but if either Larry Fitzgerald or Michael Floyd get hurt (and should we talk rookie-turned-media's-next-T.Y. Hilton, John Brown yet? No, not just yet.) Carlson has delivered as a TE1 as a rookie with the Seahawks. Carlson gets passed over as a starter because he's not an elite athlete for his position, but he can catch the ball and his drop rate shows it. 

For all the talk that Coby Fleener isn't as good of an all-around player as teammate Dwayne Allen (and I'm talkative about this point), Fleener's drop rate paired with his athleticism makes him a strong fit for a role as a seam stretcher. As I mentioned last week with Jason Avant and Brandon Marshall, Avant may have better hands, but Marshall is a better athlete with a more advantageous role. Best hands doesn't always win. It's the total package and how that package fits into the offensive scheme. 

Cook earned an extended chance to be the man in the Rams' passing game. He had some decent moments early on, but he dropped too many passes last year. He'll get another shot and I have to think that privately St. Louis is looking at the passing offense as a "do-over" this year. But I bet Cook will have to be a top-five tight end in the future if he maintains that high drop rate. Despite fine athleticism and the bright and shiny toy optimism from fantasy owners and analysts that often accompanies it, Cook has never been the most focused player.

Jordan Reed and Mychal Rivera offer YAC skills and some field-stretching skill. While 5 percent is somewhat high rate, remember that Jimmy Graham's three-year rate is 5.15 percent. Reed has a chance to see enough Graham-like targets that Washington will be open to suffering through a slightly higher rate of dropped passes. I don't see the same for Rivera, who could earn stiff competition from David Ausberry

Running BAck Drop Rates

Because the sample size of running backs with at least 32 receptions per year (for a minimum of 2 years) is smaller than receivers and tight ends, the three-year rate can fit into one table rather than split into high or low groups. Three of the top four aren't that surprising, but the bottom 3-4 were. 

A runner of Danny Woodhead's stature better be a strong receiver and he does not disappoint, dropping one target in three years. This is the kind of consistency draft analysts had us thinking we'd get from Reggie Bush, who is dead last in his subset of frequently targeted runners. Bush's 9.24 percent three-year drop rate was nearly as bad as rookie receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins last year. 

The fact that Bush's target rate is in the low-70 percent range demonstrates that he's getting used more like a running back than a wide receiver, but it would still be worth examining the type of routes the Lions use with Bush that could potentially be more difficult than other backs heavily involved in passing offenses. It's also worth seeing if Matt Stafford's targets of Bush are as accurate as they should.

When I say "worth examining," I'm talking to the hardest of the hardcore football fan or fantasy writers reading this who enjoy exploring this kind of thing. When it comes to production, Bush is sixth on this list in reception totals among runners. The drops may irk the Lions coaching staff, but the YAC that the runner provides mitigates the situation.

Considering that Joique Bell is also low on this list could also be an indication that the difficulty of the pass patterns and target types could be higher than normal in this scheme. I haven't studied the Lions offense specifically to see, but I do know Matt Stafford can try to squeeze the ball into tight spots or at the last moment and the Lions do throw to the middle screen in such a way that the timing and traffic can be more difficult than more normal fare we see with other schemes in the NFL.

Arian Foster is slated to earn more looks as a receiver in the Texans' offense. Coach Bill O'Brien even compared this specific part of Foster's role to former Patriots runner Kevin Faulk. Here's another indication that Foster's drop rate isn't a major concern because of his potential to generate big plays in space. While not the super agile gamebreaker, Reggie Bush isn't the between the tackles bruiser and still manages to hold his own. Foster "holds his own" in the open field. 

Jamaal Charles is also particularly surprising. At the same time, the change in offenses and different quarterbacks could be a contributing reason for his higher than average drop rate within this group. Note that Charles, Bush, and Chris Johnson are all open-field gamebreakers and all near the bottom of the list. At the same time, the top of the list has to stretch the bounds of of the term "gamebreaker" to accomodate the likes of an older Jones-Drew and Forte. Sproles fits the bill and he's close enough to the top to qualify. But most of the guys at the top of the list are possession oriented receivers.

On the other end of the spectrum, you can see how Matt Forte is tailor-made for Marc Trestman's west coast offense only Darren Sproles and Ray Rice have earned more targets and Forte's third-best drop rate over three years is impressive. I still remember the years when there was a large contingent of fantasy owners and writers that thought Forte was a "Joseph Addai-type of runner," whose ability didn't match his early success. 

Two runners of note with strong receiving skills are Maurice Jones-Drew and Marcel Reece. Both have low target rates (think Jacksonville and Oakland line play and quarterback performances), but respectable drop rates. I for one can't wait to see who earns the third-down role for the Raiders, because both runners are assets in the passing game. 

Dexter McCluster is earning the Danny Woodhead Role in Ken Whisenhunt's new offense in Tennessee. McCluster has earned nearly the same targets as Woodhead, but he has dropped seven more targets in this three-year span. In the scheme of things it's not a huge issue for fantasy owners, but it could spell the difference in the type of targets Whisenhunt might have confidence in giving McCluster compared to Woodhead.

At the same time, McCluster was used more as a slot receiver than running back from the backfield in Todd Haley's offense and the sum of his of targets could be more difficulty than Woodhead's.  Even so, Woodhead demonstrated skill with intermediate routes in San Diego that stretched his range more than what he typically saw in New England. 

Woodhead may be the "hybrid back" in San Diego, but note that Ryan Mathews is pretty good as a pass catcher in his own right. I've been saying this for years and I'll say it again, a healthy, focused, and discipline Mathews has top-10 fantasy potential at his position. 

 

Rashad Jennings stands out here. The Jaguars' former draft pick was once hailed by Jack Del Rio as the best receiver on the team. Buried on the Jacksonville depth chart, we rarely got to see what he meant. His 36 catches in Oakland without a drop is evidence of Del Rio's coments.

I'm not surprised that the Giants acquired Jennings this spring for its west coast system. Although Jennings' age signifies that he is closer to the end of his career than the beginning, I don't beleive Andre Williams is ready (or as good) and David Wilson has a lot to prove (despite his immense talent). As a one-year option for re-draft leagues, I like the possibilities.

Trent Richardson is another potential value. The fantasy world is collectively down on him, but the logic for his initial struggles and a possible rebound is too great to ignore--especially with an offensive line and young/new receivers who might not be as familiar or savvy with the system that Richardson has been studying in the offseason.

Ben Tate and Eddie Lacy are two more big backs that offer all-around fantasy potential for their reliability in the passing game. They may not earn the built of the targets in the passing game, but you can count on them for a 3-5 points a week in PPR leagues as receivers.

But the runner with potential to become the PPR machine of the future is Giovanni Bernard (71 targets, 56 catches, 2 drops). Unless Jeremy Hill displays star power, Bernard could be a top-12 PPR runner if this offense clicks.

A player I have been ignoring on both lists is Jacquizz Rodgers. Clearly a good receiver, Rodgers has failed to impress as a runner. Don't get me wrong he's not bad, but the Falcons don't add Steven Jackson and Devonta Freeman over the past two seasons because it beleives Rodgers is the future lead back. He's worthwhile late round pick, but not one to over value.

The top of his list is misleading. I already broached the higher difficulty of targets that I believe exists with the Lions offense, but if there's a player who is a far better receiver than his poor drop rate suggests, it's Patriots runner Shane Vereen.

Vereen has excellent hands and the Patriots know this enough to target him on fade routes and downfield throws that most runners don't earn. The difficulty of these targets plus Vereen's wrist injury that required a brace the clealry hindered his ability to catch the ball where significant factors that contributed to his seven drops last year.

The addition of Wisconsin rookie James White--a good pass catcher--is mostly likely a sign that New England is preparing for life without Vereen when the veteran's contract expires in 2015. However, if Vereen has to continue to wear a brace because the arm hasn't fully healed, it could continue to hinder his potential as a receiver this year. Keep an eye on that wrist in the preseason.

Le'Veon Bell's drop rate is among the worst in 2013, but the Steelers are excited about his future as an all-around back. Although Dri Archer is technically a runner, his receiving skills aren't so good that I'm concerned he'll become the passing down option. LeGarrette Blount is also more of a two-down back. 

Chris Johnson's drop rate is high enough that I wonder if Rex Ryan will have an itchy trigger finger with his back when Johnson makes mistakes. It has been Ryan's tendency with offensive players in recent seasons. It's another reason why I see Jets players as difficult fantasy investments before the 10th round.

Final Thoughts

Drop rates for tight ends and runners have similar dynamics as receivers. As long as the drop rates aren't egregious, target difficulty and role in the offense are more important. More downfield targets and/or targets with a high degree of difficulty make a higher drop rate more permissible.

What might be most important for fantasy owners looking at these tables is to study target totals and consider that some of the players with lower target percentages also work in offenses that yield bigger plays when those targets connect.