Is This The James Conner of 2019 Fantasy Football?
Last season, Le’Veon Bell was involved in a highly-publicized holdout after a lengthy battle over his contract status. Many owners (myself included) ignored this as simple negotiating tactics that would be resolved before Week 1. I drafted Bell in the top-three in multiple drafts. Sufficed to say, 2018 was not my most profitable season. In the meantime, James Conner, a second-year running back coming off a 32-touch season, was being drafted in only the deepest of drafts. As of early July, he was going outside the 20th round. As news of Bell’s intentions became more clear, Conner’s stock began to rise.
Still, there was skepticism. Conner’s final ADP was still outside the top-50 running backs. Of course, Bell sat out the entire season, while James Conner posted overall RB7 numbers (RB6 in PPR) even though he missed three games. Conner was a key cog on many winning fantasy teams in 2018.
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This Year’s Le’Veon Bell
Fast forward to 2019. Melvin Gordon has publicly stated his intentions to hold out until he receives a long-term contract extension from the Los Angeles Chargers. Gordon spoke about Bell’s situation last year and said he would follow a similar path if necessary. Well, here we are. There is still time for the two sides to agree on a deal, but early reports state that the two sides are currently $2-3 million apart in annual value. That does not exactly give me the warm and fuzzies.
I drafted Gordon fifth overall in an industry mock back in May but moved him out of the first two rounds in my most recent rankings. Sure, that may be an overreaction from someone who was scarred by Bell. But we live in a “running backs don’t matter” world, and Gordon may be in danger of overplaying his hand.
The Chargers have multiple options available if Gordon does indeed hold out.
The most obvious beneficiary from a Gordon holdout would be Austin Ekeler. Ekeler played in three of the four games Gordon missed last year and averaged 17.3 touches per game. However, his rushing efficiency decreased dramatically when he was given a larger workload. In those three games, Ekeler carried the ball 40 times for 129 yards, an average of 3.23 yards per carry. In his other 11 games, he averaged 6.44 yards per rush. If Gordon remains absent, Ekeler will get enough volume to be a fantasy asset. Fantasy owners are selecting Ekeler as a borderline RB3. I have him as my RB30. He may very well eclipse both of those thresholds.
But if you are looking to swing for the fences, I think Justin Jackson may be the real value in the Chargers’ backfield.
This Year’s James Conner
Justin Jackson was a seventh-round draft pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Understandably buried on the Chargers’ depth chart, he barely played throughout the first couple of months. Jackson saw a total of 12 snaps and seven touches before Week 12. When Gordon got hurt in that game, Jackson entered and carried the ball seven times for 57 yards. In the three subsequent games Gordon missed, Jackson carried the ball 31 times for 133 yards and two touchdowns. He also added six receptions and finished as a top-20 fantasy back in two of those three weeks. Jackson proved that he could be a solid contributor in Gordon’s absence.
Jackson also has a good collegiate track record stemming from his days at Northwestern. He eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark in all four seasons as a Wildcat. In each of his final three years, he averaged over 120 total yards per game and over 25 touches, thus proving he can handle a large workload if necessary. Jackson exhibits the type of short-area quickness that is essential to a running back’s success. His burst score registered in the 86th percentile at the NFL Scouting Combine and his agility score was in the 96th percentile. Jackson also has outstanding vision and footwork. These attributes allow him to avoid big hits and increase his efficiency. Of course, Ekeler has many of these same qualities. Because the Chargers have muliple candidates to help fill Gordon’s shoes, they may be inclined to dig in their heels in their negotiations with their star running back.
If the Chargers and Gordon fail to come to an agreement, Ekeler should benefit the most. And it is Ekeler’s presence that ultimately prohibits me from going all-in and proclaiming Jackson to be this year’s James Conner. But make no mistake – Justin Jackson is going to be a massive value in drafts if Gordon misses time. Jackson’s current ADP on Fantrax is outside the top-250 overall. Even over the last week, Jackson routinely falls past the tenth round in drafts. Sound familiar? If you take Jackson as your RB5 and Gordon reports to camp, then odds are Jackson will not have much value. But you can say that about plenty of picks in that range, and most do not possess Jackson’s upside. Jackson has the potential to be a weekly Flex play in all formats if Gordon does not suit up this year.
Mick Ciallela has been writing for FantraxHQ since July 2017. He has also written for Bleacher Report. He is a lifelong sports fan and has been an avid fantasy sports player for many years. Mick was the Overall Champion of both the 2016 Football Challenge – Roto and 2017 Play 3 Football contests hosted by CDM Sports. Mick was born and raised in Mount Vernon, New York and currently resides in New London, Connecticut.
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