There’s been something of a renaissance at the running back position in recent NFL drafts. Over four straight years from 2015 to 2018, a tailback was taken in the first 10 picks—culminating in Saquon Barkley going No. 2 overall to the New York Giants last year.
Each of those highly drafted tailbacks also had great fantasy success as a rookie. Todd Gurley was ninth in PPR fantasy points in 2015, Ezekiel Elliott finished second the following season. Leonard Fournette was 10th in 2017 and a year ago Barkley was fantasy football’s top-scoring RB in formats that award a point for receptions.
However, there was no running back drafted inside the top-10 in 2019. As a matter of fact, no running backs were selected in the top-20 and just one was chosen in Round 1—Alabama’s Josh Jacobs, who was the second of Oakland’s three first-round picks at No. 24 overall.
Jacobs may not have been drafted as early as the likes of Elliott or Barkley, but the 5’10”, 220-pounder is a talented, well-rounded young runner who will be counted on for a prominent role in the Raiders’ offense as a rookie.
Given that, is it possible that Jacobs—despite being drafted later in the round—might crash the party and become the fifth straight tailback drafted first in a given year who finishes his first NFL season as a fantasy RB1?
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The Talent is there with Josh Jacobs
Josh Jacobs wasn’t especially productive at Alabama—after an injury-marred 2017 season, he split time with Damien Harris in 2018, managing just 640 yards on 120 carries. But as Liz Loza wrote for Yahoo Sports, there was little question in the eyes of most draftniks that he was the best tailback prospect in the Class of 2019.
“The hands-down best running back in this year’s class,” Loza said, “Jacobs has the physical and mental tools to be a premier player at the next level. In possession of a sturdy and compact build (5-foot-10 and 220 pounds), Jacobs is a hard-to-take-down power-runner of the one-cut variety. While the Oklahoma native has the speed and explosiveness to get to the edge, he also has the patience to let blocks develop, and the vision to spot holes. With expert decisiveness, Jacobs attacks all levels of the field, breaking tackles and knocking defenders off balance.”
Raiders head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock certainly thought so. As John Newby reported for 247 Sports, Gruden made it no secret that he coveted Jacobs this year.
“I told everybody that,” Gruden said. “No disrespect. I loved the performance that this young man had when he got an opportunity to play. I mean, a couple of years ago, he won the starting job at Alabama, he got hurt at training camp, and he lost out on the season. Credit Damien Harris for playing great. This year, Damien Harris obviously won a starting role because of his performance a year before, and Josh Jacobs quietly waited for his turn. And when they put him in the game, it was pretty obvious to me, and Mike, and everybody else that we talked to that this was the best back in the draft.”
In fact, per Peter King of the MMQB, when the Philadelphia Eagles moved up to the No. 22 pick in Round 1, it sent Gruden into a rage—he was sure that the Eagles traded up to snipe Jacobs out from under the Raiders.
“The coach,” King wrote, “who’d irascibly told Mayock he’d better not screw up the Raiders’ three-pick first round, jumped out of his chair, seething. ‘There goes our running back,’ Gruden said. Coach and GM knew the Eagles loved the same player they did, Alabama running back Josh Jacobs, and now, moving up from 25 in trade, the Eagles would be in position to steal the guy Gruden had his heart set on making one of the three cornerstone players in his offense.”
It was a false alarm—the Eagles moved up to select Washington State tackle Andre Dillard, and Gruden got his “cornerstone” tailback.
The question now is what he plans to do with him.
The touches should be there too
The original plan in Oakland appeared to be to bring Jacobs along with a measure of caution. Despite that first-round status and “cornerstone” buzz, Gruden told Ryan Wilson of CBS Sports there were no plans to throw Jacobs into the deep end of the proverbial pool off the get.
“I think he’s going to be a centerpiece at some point,” Gruden said. “I’m not going to put any pressure on him, he’s got a lot to learn. But we do have a good offensive line, we’ve got an experienced quarterback in our system now, we’ve got a couple of receivers that if you want to double them, perhaps this running back can do some damage. So we’re excited at this addition to our team.”
However, that plan may have changed…abruptly.
As Wilson reported, Gruden’s comments were made before five-year veteran Isaiah Crowell, who was signed in the offseason to be Oakland’s nominal lead back, suffered a season-ending Achilles tear.
The Raiders brought back 2018 leading rusher Doug Martin, who gained 723 yards on the ground for the team a year ago, after Crowell got hurt. But the 30-year-old played so well for the Raiders in 2018 that the team let him go. And while passing-down back Jalen Richard will see some work as well, the 25-year-old’s 123 touches in 2018 were a career-high.
With Crowell going down, there’s now very little question that Jacobs will lead Oakland tailbacks in touches in 2019—by a sizable margin.
Josh Jacobs’ Situation is Neither Great nor Awful
At first glance, the Oakland ground game was about as good as the rest of the team last year—which is to say it wasn’t very good at all. The Raiders were 25th in the NFL in rushing at 101.8 yards per game, 21st in yards per carry at 4.2 a pop and 27th in rushing touchdowns with nine.
Yuk and double-yuk.
However, those pedestrian numbers had as much to do with the team’s tailbacks and lack of offensive balance as it did the blockers opening holes. The analysts at Football Outsiders ranked the Raiders O-line 13th in run blocking, and while Pro Football Focus slotted the team several spots lower (20th), the Oakland line was at least OK.
With the addition of free agent left tackle Trent Brown, that Oakland offensive line should be improved—especially where run blocking is concerned. The ground game is also going to benefit from improved offensive balance afforded by the arrival of wide receivers Antonio Brown and Tyrell Williams. It’s a safe bet that Oakland should be able to do better in 2019 than last year’s 18th-place ranking in passing offense.
In short, while Jacobs doesn’t find himself in an ideal situation by any stretch, the Oakland offense looks better now than it did at this point a year ago. And it’s no worse than the hot mess of an offense Barkley found himself in in 2018.
The Final Verdict
For the record, I’m not comparing Josh Jacobs and Saquon Barkley—that would be kooky talk. And frankly, counting on Jacobs to finish the year as a top-10 fantasy tailback is more likely than not setting ones self up to be disappointed. Too many things will have to fall just so—a quick acclimation to the pros by Jacobs and an improved Raiders team that stays in more games and isn’t forced to abandon the run chief among them.
But it also wouldn’t be a cosmos-shattering shock if Jacobs wound up at least flirting with RB1 status as a rookie. He’s a talented player with an every-down skill-set that his head coach has made no secret of his affinity for. The Raiders aren’t going to be a playoff contender in 2019, but the Silver and Black should be better than last year’s 4-12 dumpster fire. And with Crowell now out for the season, Jacobs is going to be thrust into a prominent role ready or not—all those touches are opportunities for Jacobs to produce for fantasy owners.
At the end of the day, drafting Josh Jacobs as a fantasy RB1 in redrafts in 2019 is reaching, and even in dynasties you’d be paying retail (plus)—drafting Jacobs at his ceiling. That’s a fantasy no-no. But if you can get Jacobs outside the top 20 in either format or in the RB15-RB20 range in dynasties you’ll be fulfilling one of the mantras of successful fantasy drafting—taking a young player with upside in a spot where he has a real shot at outperforming his asking price.
Also, check out the rest of our extensive 2019 NFL Draft coverage!
A member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and Pro Football Writers of America who resides in Columbus, Ohio, Gary Davenport has been featured on a number of fantasy websites and in nationally circulated publications, including the USA Today Fantasy Football Preview and the magazines distributed by Fantasy Sports Publications Inc., for whom Gary is both a contributing author and associate editor. Gary is an eight-time FSWA Award finalist and two-time winner who has been a finalist for that organization’s Fantasy Football Writer of the Year award each of the last three years. He won the honor in 2017. Gary also appears regularly on Sirius XM Radio (including live from Radio Row at Super Bowl XLIX) and over-the-air stations across the country. He knows football. Or so he’s heard.
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