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Matt LaFleur’s history suggests the Packers’ RBs will become bigger receiving factors

Look for more production from Aaron Jones (and possibly Jamaal Williams) in the passing game in 2019.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

In 2018, the Green Bay Packers’ running backs as a whole had a fairly solid season as receivers. The team’s three primary running backs — a group whose numbers dropped to two after Brian Gutekunst traded Ty Montgomery — all had good if unspectacular seasons catching the football, and combined they made for a respectable group.

Each of the three finished the season with over receiving 150 yards as Packers, and the stats break down as follows:

  • Jamaal Williams: 41 targets, 27 receptions (65.9% catch rate), 210 yards (7.8 Y/R), no TDs
  • Aaron Jones: 35 targets, 26 receptions (74.3%), 206 yards (7.9 Y/R), 1 TD
  • Ty Montgomery: 23 targets, 15 receptions (65.2%), 170 yards (11.3 Y/R), no TDs

Green Bay also had two other backs with catches: Kapri Bibbs (three for 13 yards) and fullback Danny Vitale (one for two yards). In total, the team’s backs caught 72 passes for 601 yards, which was good for 8.35 yards per reception and a catch rate of 67.9%.

With Mike McCarthy fired and Matt LaFleur on board as the team’s next head coach, it’s worth a look at LaFleur’s history to see how his offenses have used the running back position as receivers. He has been a quarterbacks coach or offensive coordinator in the NFL since 2010 (excluding a one-year stint as QBs coach at Notre Dame in 2014), and in that time, the signal-callers he has worked with have almost always had great success throwing to their backs, and generally one back has become the go-to player in that role.

Take a look at the 2018 Titans, for example. They are a team that has a somewhat similar running back breakdown to the Packers: both teams have a big, physical runner (Derrick Henry/Jamaal Williams) and a smaller, more elusive and explosive player (Dion Lewis/Aaron Jones). The players’ skill sets are not exact comparisons, of course — Williams is a much better receiver than Henry, Lewis has shown to be a better receiver than Jones so far, and Jones is a more explosive runner than Lewis — but the comparisons are reasonable.

In 2018, Tennessee threw 85 passes to their tailbacks, 21 fewer than the Packers did. However, a large number of those targets — 67 — went to Lewis, who caught 59 of them for 400 yards and one score. Henry picked up the other 18 targets, catching 15 for 99 yards. It was not a huge performance as a team, but a 500-yard receiving season between two players on a team that finished with 2,975 total passing yards is still respectable. In addition, their combined 87% catch rate suggests that LaFleur was scheming to get these players the ball quickly and in space to let them make good things happen in the open field.

However, we can go back a bit further and find truly exceptional receiving numbers from LaFleur’s backfields. The 2017 Rams and the 2015-16 Falcons had more explosive receiving numbers from their backs, although that is also a function of having players of Todd Gurley’s and Devonta Freeman’s caliber. Still, one can see these teams feeding a primary running back the ball frequently out of the backfield. Here are the top receiving back’s numbers from those teams:

  • Todd Gurley (2017 Rams): 87 targets, 64 receptions (73.6% catch rate), 788 yards (12.3 Y/R), 6 TDs
  • Devonta Freeman (2016 Falcons): 65 targets, 54 receptions (83.1%), 462 yards (8.6 Y/R), 2 TDs
  • Freeman (2015): 97 targets, 73 receptions (75.3%), 578 yards (7.9 Y/R), 3 TDs

The 2015 and 2017 teams referenced here had no real secondary targets out of the backfield. However, the 2016 Falcons may provide a good blueprint for the Packers’ potential in 2019. That year, Atlanta had a second excellent receiving back in Tevin Coleman, who caught another 31 balls for 421 yards and three scores. That brought the total up to nearly 900 combined receiving yards between the two players, almost 18 percent of Matt Ryan’s total for that season.

In Washington, the numbers were less impressive, but so were the personnel. Still, Roy Helu proved to be consistent and productive, averaging 50 targets, 40 receptions, and 315 yards in two full seasons as that team’s primary receiving back.

The Packers could be on track for a similar breakdown to that Falcons duo from 2016. Williams has proven to be an adept receiver in multiple ways, picking up big plays on screens, throws in the flat, and wheel routes down field. Jones is on the record saying he wants to improve his receiving abilities for 2019, and those skills were already identified as a strength of his prior to his selection in the 2017 NFL Draft. He did not demonstrate it much as a rookie, but his 2018 showed significant glimpses of his ability, perhaps best illustrated by his lone touchdown through the air:

Using Jones more as a receiver, combined with an even heavier dose of zone-blocking that plays to his great vision and cutback ability, should help him continue to develop into a top-flight starting running back. Meanwhile, Williams’ ability to pass-protect and catch the football, as well as the impressive elusiveness and cutback skills he displayed late in 2018, should make him a very good number two option in LaFleur’s scheme.

In short, it’s a good day to be a Packers running back.