BenJarvus Green-Ellis has never hauled more than 15 receptions in a season in his entire football career. There's very little quantitative evidence out there that suggests Green-Ellis will be a better pass catching running back that Cedric Benson, but the Bengals went ahead and signed Green-Ellis to be a heavy component of Jay Gruden's west coast offense anyway.
The west coast offense is built upon the idea of using high percentage, short passes instead of running plays. Therefore, having a running back who can catch the ball out of the backfield is very important. So, why the heck did they sign Green-Ellis?
Here are Green-Ellis' NFL and college reception statistics. The stats were pulled from Sport-Reference.com and Pro Football Focus. His NFL statistics included the postseason, so as to increase the sample size.
Notice how many routes Green-Ellis ran, and how little the ball was thrown to him. The ratio was so poor that Green-Ellis ranked eighth-lowest in the league in yards per route run in the past three years, as revealed by a Pro Football Focus article published yesterday. But, what does that mean? Does that mean that he was a bad pass catcher? Or just one seldom used?
Green-Ellis's role as a ball carrier in the Patriots offense increased greatly in 2010, but it's clear that he wasn't trusted to catch the ball. He ran about 8 routes per game in both years, but was only targeted by quarterback Tom Brady less than once per game.
One school of thought would be that Brady himself just didn't trust Green-Ellis. If you look at Green-Ellis's targets and drops in 2008 and 2009, Brady threw to him 11 times, and Green-Ellis dropped the ball 5 times. That's pretty bad. Green-Ellis still dealt with drops in his next two years, but much less frequently. Those drops may have tainted Green-Ellis in the eyes of the perfectionist - Tom Brady. And as we learned from Chad Ochocinco's failed season in New England, if you don't have Brady's trust, he won't throw to you.
But, was it really only that? Why would the Patriots even send Green-Ellis on nearly 300 passing routes in the past two years, if they didn't even plan on throwing to him? I looked up the numbers for the other New England running backs, and found an interesting trend.
Recently, Tom Brady simply hasn't thrown to his running backs. Danny Woodhead, known as the team's receiving running back, ran 272 pass routes in 2011, and was targeted only 35 times, while gaining only 208 yards. That miserable yards per routes ran ratio would have landed him fifth worst in the league (worse than Green-Ellis) on Pro Football Focus' list, if extrapolated over three years. Stevan Ridley and Kevin Faulk, the only other Patriots running backs to receive significant snaps in 2011, were only targeted a combined fourteen times in 124 passing routes. Brady just avoided running backs like the plague in 2011. He at least glanced at Danny Woodhead with 50 targets in 2010, and gave Green-Ellis a measly eighteen looks, but didn't throw to anyone else more than ten times in that year.
And while Woodhead's productivity was trending downwards, Green-Ellis's was trending upwards. He managed 15.2 yards/reception last year, which is absurd for a running back. That led the entire league. And it didn't all come from one play either. Take away his longest catch, and his average was still fourth best.
Brady seemed pretty content with only targeting Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, and Rob Gronkowski. These three accounted for a whopping 398 of Brady's 611 throws last year. When you have three Pro Bowlers working the middle of the field, you aren't going to check down to your fourth or fifth option - the running back.
To summarize, Green-Ellis, whether from the lack of individual trust from Tom Brady, or Brady's neglect of running backs in the last few years, wasn't asked to do much as a pass catcher in New England. He made the most of his limited targets last year, but he's never been a good pass catching back historically.
Regardless, he looks a lot better than Benson when the ball is in the air coming towards him. He looks more natural, more smooth. He catches the ball while moving forward and has enough power and lateral agility to make defenders miss. Green-Ellis will probably still have a few drops this year, but I think quarterback Andy Dalton and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden will trust Green-Ellis to catch the ball far more than they did with Cedric Benson.