We are gearing up for Week 3 of the NFL season, and there’s been so much that has taken place already through just two weeks. Obviously, the multiple major injuries have been grabbing headlines, but there have also been some surprise players in key roles for teams. One of the more surprising ones through eight quarters is the play of DeMarco Murray as a pass catcher.
Murray, ppr stud? I mean, it sure seems that way through two weeks, doesn’t it? Is it a blip on the radar, or is Murray – if he stays healthy – going to be a Top 10 running back in PPR leagues?
On the year, Murray has 14 targets, catching 12 of them for 91 yards and two touchdowns. Both scores came in the first game of the season. Looking back through his career, Murray has fluctuated with his receptions:
2011: 26 receptions, 35 targets, 183 yards, 0 touchdowns
2012: 34 receptions, 42 targets, 247 yards, 0 touchdowns
2013: 53 receptions, 66 targets, 350 yards, 1 touchdown
2014: 57 receptions, 64 targets, 416 yards, 0 touchdowns
2015: 44 receptions, 14 targets, 91 yards, 2 touchdowns.
OK, so heading into the 2016 season, Murray had two receiving touchdowns to his name. He matched that in four quarters. We know that touchdowns are mostly random, but he’s getting the targets and receptions that could sustain the scoring. He’s currently on a pace of 96 receptions and 112 targets, which would put him six receptions short of Matt Forte’s record of 102 set in 2014 with the Chicago Bears.
Perhaps it’s a team philosophy, as even rookie Derrick Henry – who could take over for Murray at some point this season – has proved that he’s capable of catching the ball, as he has three catches on as many targets for 50 yards through three games.
When you look at the Titans’ offense and the way it’s constructed, it would make sense that the running backs would be used in the passing game. It’s clear that the Titans’ plan is to get the running backs involved as much as possible to lighten the load for second-year quarterback, Marcus Mariota.
Mariota is facing an issue that quarterbacks of the past have faced in Tennessee; there are just no playmakers at the wide receiver position.
Sure, fifth-round pick Tajae Sharpe has looked good so far, and he himself has proven to be a PPR starter for the Titans. But after him, it’s reliable tight end Delanie Walker, newcomer to Tennessee, Rishard Matthews, and eventually Kendall Wright.
Here’s the breakdown of snap counts on the Titans through two weeks of the season per Football Outsiders:
Sharpe – 95.5 percent
Harry Douglas – 55.2 percent
Matthews – 52.2 percent
Andre Johnson – 35.8 percent
Murray – 75 percent
Henry – 31 percent
Walker – 80.6 percent
When Wright returns, Matthews and especially Johnson’s snaps will shrink, with Sharpe, Walker and Murray all maintaining their plus-75 percent usage rate as long as they are healthy. It’s no surprise, then, that Sharpe (18), Murray (14) and Walker (11) lead the team in targets, either.
Let’s shift the focus to Mariota for a second. Mariota, who played at the greatest university in the country, was used to quick reads out of the pistol and shotgun formations. It was all about getting the ball out quickly to your playmakers, and not taking many shots downfield. It’s translated over to his play in the NFL, as he averages 6.9 yards per pass attempt, tying him with Dak Prescott for 25th in the league. Mariota was tied with Tom Brady, Jameis Winston and Jay Cutler last year for the ninth in the league with 7.6 yards on average.
In 2015, Dexter McCluster (41), Antonio Andrews (29), Bishop Sankey (22) and David Cobb (2) accounted for 94 total targets out of the backfield throughout the season. In the four games that Mariota did not start last year, the running backs had 21 receptions on 27 targets. So in the 12 games that Mariota played in, Mariota averaged 5.58 targets to the running backs per game. Through two games this year, he’s averaging 8.5 targets per game to his running backs.
In 41 collegiate games between 2012 and 2014, Oregon’s running backs had 220 receptions. During that stretch, Mariota attempted 1,167 passes, meaning that his running backs caught 18.8 percent of his pass attempts.
Mariota likes his running backs coming out of the backfield, if they have the skill set to be a playmaker with their hands. Mariota’s yards per attempt increased – expectedly – in college, going from 8, to 9.5, to 10 over his three years. So there’s reason to think they could go up in the NFL, too. But the Titans want to handle him with kid’s gloves. It’s shown by them restricting his rushing attempts, which is something he thrived at doing at Oregon.
When the Titans cut McCluster, we assumed that Murray would assume the third-down role no matter what, in addition to his first- and second-down role. But if Henry were to take over, Murray would still be in on passing downs. Murray – I think we can all agree – is the superior back compared to McCluster, Sankey, Andrews and Cobb last year, with all facets of his game.
Murray’s usage as a running back and as a pass catcher are legit. While he won’t sniff Forte’s record, he will provide Fantasy owners with a new career-high in receptions and – health permitting – will finish as a Top 10 back in PPR scoring.