By Alex Kurpeski
In the modern NFL, there are three types of running backs. The first and most popular of these archetypes being the do-it-all back, best exemplified by Alvin Kamara and Dalvin Cook. These running backs are generally the focal point of their offense because they’re equally dangerous as runners and receivers out of the backfield, allowing them to stay on the field for almost any situation, leading to this type of player becoming synonymous with the term three-down back.
Next, we have the bellcow back, a term used to describe high-volume bruisers who do their best work as grinders between the ’20s. Players like Leonard Fournette and even Ezekiel Elliott fit into this category, as their powerful running style sets the tone for the game and wears down a defense. Though there have been increasing cases of these players being relegated to situation roles in recent years, the need for players like this is evident — especially in the cold weather months of the season.
Last but certainly not least we have the passing down back, who is used almost exclusively as a receiver out of the backfield. With the popularity of PPR fantasy football in the last decade or so, third-down backs like James White have gained a ton of value thanks to their relatively one-dimensional skillset. This last category of running back is one I would like to focus on today, as the subject of this article has — unexpectedly — been the best in the league at this role during the 2020 season. I am speaking of course about J.D McKissic of the Washington Football team.
To call McKissic a journeyman may be an understatement. An undrafted free agent coming out of Arkansas State for the 2016 NFL Draft, McKissic’s first role in the NFL came as a member of the Seattle Seahawks, who signed the converted receiver from their practice squad at the tail end of the 2016 regular season. For the first four years of his career, McKissic struggled to hold onto rotational roles in Seattle and later Detroit, while also struggling with injuries. A look into McKissic’s college career paints a clear picture of why he went undrafted.
Coming out of Arkansas State as a fifth-year senior, McKissic stood at 5’10, 180 lbs while running an unimpressive 4.62 forty-yard dash. Though he’d set school records for receptions and receiving yards, NFL teams were lukewarm on McKissic as a prospect due to his mediocre workout numbers, as well as the fact that he had his best season as a college player in 2012 — four years before he entered the draft.
A look at McKissic’s athletic profile below gives us a better look at his overall combine numbers. McKissic’s burst score was in the 77th percentile, but the remainder of his metrics were far below average.
The decision to convert McKissic to a running back puzzles me to this day, as his frame is quite atypical for the position, which generally favors stockier players than himself. During his tenure in Seattle (2016-2018), McKissic was a solid contributor as a pass-catcher for the Seahawks, reeling in 36 passes for 282 yards, with most of his statistics coming during the 2017 season. McKissic earned himself a nice contract in Washington following a productive stretch for the Lions in 2019. Appearing in 16 games and starting three of them, McKissic accumulated 72 total touches for 438 yards, filling in nicely as Theo Riddick’s replacement.
Few could have imagined that the deal signed by McKissic this offseason would lead to the expanded role that we’ve seen him in. However, following the release of Adrian Peterson and Derrius Guice, a clear path to playing time was paved.
Through 13 games, McKissic ranks second in the league in targets at the running back position with 82, second in receptions with 58, and second in fantasy points per-attempt with 2.25. McKissic’s average of 0.93 yards per-opportunity ranks within the top-12 as well. Most impressive of all, the veteran has zero drops this season, despite his high-volume as a receiver. Below is his 16 game pace, a number that could rise depending on how much longer rookie Antonio Gibson is out.
- 893 total yards
- 2 touchdowns
- 72 receptions
- RB24 (PPR)
It’s been a joy to see McKissic’s breakout in year five, especially due to the fact that he’s been able to co-exist with Gibson. Washington’s offense has even managed to use both players at once, with McKissic spending time lined up out wide, channeling his college days. McKissic ranks first among running backs in slot snaps with 64, second in target share with an 18.8% rate, and fourth in routes run with 244. Without McKissic’s receiving skill, moving the chains would be extremely difficult for this offense. I credit a lot of Washington’s play of late to McKissic, who has been a model of consistency.
JD McKissic can’t be covered. pic.twitter.com/NzjBJTb4kE
— Notorious Z (@DCzWall) December 9, 2020
By embracing McKissic’s wide receiver skills, Washington has created a truly dynamic platoon at the running back position. As we see on this clip below, they’ve done a great job blocking for McKissic on screens as well, allowing him to do work after the catch.
This was another nice block by Logan Thomas on a screen to J.D. McKissic. He's improving as a blocker. pic.twitter.com/XZiungrcHh
— Mark Bullock (@MarkBullockNFL) December 9, 2020
McKissic saw a season-high 11 carries for 68 yards this week (also a season-high) looking solid in an expanded role as a runner. McKissic saw the holes created for him by Washington’s offensive line and had some nice runs against a tough 49ers defense — like this one below. The breakout of fellow journeyman Logan Thomas — who coincidentally was waived by the Lions last season so that they could sign McKissic — has been a key factor in McKissic’s breakout, as Thomas’s blocking skills have really opened up the run game.
Hell of a reach block by Logan Thomas to spring the 11 yard run from McKissic pic.twitter.com/q0Tbox35BY
— Nick Akridge (@PFF_NickAkridge) December 13, 2020
With Gibson potentially out this week, McKissic is a must-start for any team in the fantasy football playoffs, as his matchup with his former team — the 32nd ranked pass defense of the Seattle Seahawks — is as good as it gets. While he’s little more than a passing-down back, McKissic may be the RB1 you need this week.