By David Sabino
September 16, 2010
Gridiron 11: Best pass-catching running backs

You've been told for years that running backs' receiving numbers are inconsequential in leagues that don't award points for receptions, but last Sunday Chicago's Matt Forte proved that concept is flawed by gaining 151 yards and scoring two receiving touchdowns. Forte's pass-catching prowess while playing a position once mastered by the great Marshall Faulk, who once had 205 receiving against the Bears in a Mike Martz offense, gives him added value that moves him from the realm of a flex option to a must-start every week. By no means is Forte alone among runners who provide a substantial amount of points through the air. Here are the most likely backs to be the next to break out with big gains in the passing game.

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1 Ray Rice, Ravens
Ray Rice, Ravens
Having Rice on your fantasy team is like being allowed to start an extra player each week. You get credit for his rushing achievements (1,339 yards, 7 touchdowns in 2009), but also his pass-catching numbers, which are akin to that of a third or fourth wide receiver (78 catches, 702 yards in '09). Austin Collie, by comparison, had 60 catches for 676 yards last season while Steve Breaston had 55 for 712.
2 Reggie Bush, Saints
Reggie Bush, Saints
He may no longer have a Heisman Trophy on his mantle, but Bush does still possess many of the skills that earned it for him. A true flex player, Bush is the NFL leader with 265 receptions from a backfield position -- 19 more than Brian Westbrook -- since he entered the NFL in 2006. Often injured, Bush caught 88 passes during his rookie season, the only one in which he managed to answer the bell in the full slate of 16 games. In the current Saints scheme, he could easily top the 60-catch mark should he manage to remain on the field.
3 Steven Jackson, Rams
Steven Jackson, Rams
For the past three-plus seasons Jackson has been the Rams offense, leading the team in rushing and placing second over that span in receptions. Only Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson have averaged more yards from scrimmage per game than Jackson's 113.0 over the same period. Jackson hasn't been much of an asset on the scoreboard as the rest of the team has struggled around him, but now with a competent quarterback in Sam Bradford helping out, touchdowns and more receptions will come.
4 Jamaal Charles, Chiefs
Jamaal Charles, Chiefs
The more Charles is on the field, the more you realize how much he can do for an offense. I hesitate to bring up the name of another former Texas Longhorn when talking about Charles' potential, but I'm often reminded of Priest Holmes, who had both the ability to be a great runner from scrimmage and was a top receiving running back. Already with a 250-yard rushing game and a 100-yard receiving game to his credit during his short career, he's the Chiefs' best offensive weapon and will see his role grow as the season continues.
5 Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars
Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars
Here's a good trivia question for you: Which Fantasy Football writer has caught passes in 52 consecutive NFL games? At 5-foot-7, 208 pounds, you wouldn't think that MoJo would be an easy target in the passing game, but since '06, he has 204 catches on 266 targets, a success rate of 76.7 percent. Although his receiving numbers dropped last season, his first as a full-time starter, he often caught four or five balls per game and topped 50 catches for the second straight year.
6 Frank Gore, 49ers
Frank Gore, 49ers
The struggles of Alex Smith in Week 1 have both San Francisco fans and Gore owners panicked, but everyone should relax. Gore is one of the most reliable and productive backs in recent history and Smith's ineptitude can lead only to Gore shouldering even more of a heavy workload, both as a runner and as a receiver out of the backfield. That, in turn, should simplify the passes the former No. 1 pick must make. Gore has been down this road before: his stats vs. the Seahawks were modest for his high standards, but last week marked the seventh time in his career that Gore gained more yards through the air (45) than on the ground (38).
7 Chris Johnson, Titans
Chris Johnson, Titans
The NFL's fastest man is also the most dangerous whenever the ball's in his hands. Nobody can turn a quick swing pass into an 80-yard touchdown grab quicker than Tennessee's titanic talent, although to this point in his career, his receiving skills have yet to fully blossom. Only once has he topped the 100-yard mark and 19 times in 32 games he's been held under 20 yards. To us, that says he's due for a big game as Jeff Fisher's staff finds new ways to utilize the league's fiercest fantasy weapon.
8 Steve Slaton, Texans
Steve Slaton, Texans
You would think that Arian Foster's explosive arrival would completely deflate Slaton's role on the Texans. However I believe it will have the opposite effect. Slaton's biggest problems in the backfield came from fumbles caused when running into the line after handoffs. Now with Foster carrying the load, Slaton's role is well-defined and it's one he excels in: third down back. Although held without a catch in Week 1, Slaton is an excellent receiver who averaged 37.9 receiving yards per game last season, second only to Rice. His four touchdowns also tied for tops in the league, a somewhat surprising fact since he played in just 10-plus contests before missing the remainder of the season with a shoulder injury.
9 LaDainian Tomlinson, Jets
LaDainian Tomlinson, Jets
The only halfback in NFL history to catch 100 passes in a season (Arizona's fullback Larry Centers caught 101 in 1995), Tomlinson saw his receiving numbers drop significantly last year with San Diego, dropping to a career-low 20. Still, that figure would've led the Jets, who combined for just 36 backfield grabs as a team, including a goose egg in the column for Tomlinson's 2010 backfield mate, Shonn Greene. Tomlinson needs just 44 catches to pass former Eagle, Dolphin, Jet and Patriot, Keith Byars, into third place alltime in receptions for a running back. With his role in the Jets offense growing by the minute, and the explosiveness he's displayed already this season, he has a good chance to get there.
10 Darren McFadden, Raiders
Darren McFadden, Raiders
Michael Bush's expected debut this week against the Rams may dampen the numbers for McFadden, who is coming off his second-best game as a pro in Oakland's 38-13 drubbing at the hands of the Titans. But that should just return McFadden to the role in which he has excelled -- pass-catching back. Since entering the NFL, McFadden has averaged 10.4 yards per grab, second only to San Diego's Darren Sproles. Now it's up to Hue Jackson and Jason Campbell to get the ball into his hands more on plays within which he can succeed.
11 Darren Sproles, Chargers
Darren Sproles, Chargers
The NFL's most dangerous third-down back the last two seasons, Sproles kicked off the 2010 campaign on a bad foot, gaining just five yards on seven touches from scrimmage in a loss to the Chiefs. Talk of rookie Ryan Mathews becoming an every-down back is exaggerated, and by the end of the season Sproles should have similar fantasy appeal as a flex option, much as he has over the past two seasons, when he caught 64 passes for 839 yards and nine touchdowns. As a prolific punt and kickoff return man, Sproles is especially valuable in leagues that award points for return yardage.

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