With my drafting strategy often involving drafting elite wide receivers early, I typically need to find value in the late rounds at running back. They don’t have to be my best players, (often RB2 is my weakest position) but they must help maintain my lead in points. One of the keys for finding value at running back in Points Per Reception (PPR) leagues (like Apex) is predicting which running backs are going to catch passes.

The purpose of this article is get readers acquainted with the type of running back to seek when looking for late round value. Typically, the majority of owners in a fantasy draft will be looking to draft the tailbacks that are most likely to lead their teams in carries. While those running backs do have value, they are typically overvalued in PPR leagues. The ones who are typically left undervalued are the running backs who lead their team in receptions.

While I don’t have a crystal ball (yet) to tell you who those guys will be this year, I can show you examples from last season:

Danny Woodhead, ADP: 9.10, RB39. Final Rank: RB12

With relatively little rushing volume (106 carries), Woodhead was able to provide consistent production through the air. Catching 76 passes for 605 yards and six touchdowns, Woodhead finished as RB12 – 27 spots ahead of where he was selected. Woodhead will continue to play the Sprolesian “passing back” role for the Chargers this season.

Pierre Thomas, ADP: 11.09, RB45. Final Rank: RB16

This one was difficult to predict as Darren Sproles typically had a stranglehold on the Saints backfield receptions. Last season, however, the two combined for 148 receptions, with Pierre Thomas leading the duo in catches for the first time in their three years together. By catching 77 passes for 513 yards, Thomas finished as RB16 – 29 spots ahead of where he was selected. With Sproles out of the picture, Pierre Thomas is locked in as the Saints’ receiving back for this season. Also, keep an eye on youngster Travaris Cadet.

Joique Bell, ADP: 13.01, RB48. Final Rank: RB14

While we didn’t know he was going to earn goal-line carries, we did know Reggie Bush was fragile and that Joique Bell is an adept pass-catcher. With 53 receptions for 547 yards, Bell finished as RB14 last season – 34 spots ahead of where he was selected. After the Lions locked him up in the offseason, it’s likely Bell sees an even bigger role this season.

What Do We Learn?

In PPR leagues, the best way to find late value at the running back position is finding pass-catching backs. It’s not always easy to predict but if two players seem equal, catches is often a way to distinguish between them. For example, Mark Ingram was being drafted ahead of Pierre Thomas in Apex leagues last offseason… you don’t need me to tell you that was a huge mistake.

In today’s NFL, up-tempo passing offenses typically have a mismatch player that comes out of the backfield and catches passes – Darren Sproles, Andre Ellington, and Shane Vereen are a few more examples. When fantasy owners misdiagnose these roles early, players like Woodhead, Thomas, and Bell can be a big source of value – providing you with stability points out of your running back position/s while your wide receivers do the heavy lifting.

Although I’ve just mentioned late-round guys, remember that catches are a critical variable for all running backs. This theory led many of us in the industry to de-value Adrian Peterson last offseason, it also led to Jamaal Charles and Matt Forte producing monster seasons.

In Part II of this series, I will reveal pass-catching running backs that I will be targeting in fantasy drafts this August.