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The Great Debate: Josh Jacobs (2021 Fantasy Football)

Aug 3, 2021

Fantasy football draft season is officially here, and the time has come to refine your stance on players. What better way to do that than a good, old-fashioned debate! We’re rolling out our debate series where one writer higher on a given player will take on another that’s lower than our expert consensus rankings.

Up next, we have TJ Horgan and Josh Shepardson debating Las Vegas Raiders running back Josh Jacobs.

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The Debate

Let me be clear: I am not worried about Kenyan Drake. The 27 year-old journeyman has done nothing to make anyone believe he’s a legitimate contender to unseat Jacobs, a 23 year-old workhorse RB, who, in two NFL seasons, has accrued more than 2,600 yards from scrimmage and 19 touchdowns, fumbling just 3 times.

In 2020, Josh Jacobs touched the ball 306 times and finished as the RB8. His backup, now-Giant Devontae Booker, touched the ball 110 times. For every 4 Raiders RB touches (roughly) Jacobs took 3 and Booker took 1. That’s how I expect the offense to run this year, too. Jacobs profiles as a three-down back who is a beast in the red zone and as a pass-catcher. The Raiders also lack offensive weapons. His ceiling is sky-high and he’s being drafted as the RB20. It makes no sense, and I may draft Josh Jacobs in 100% of my leagues this year.

Thanks for jumping off this debate, TJ. Understandably, you addressed the elephant in the room, Kenyan Drake. Sure, he’s a journeyman. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but I don’t disagree with your implied sentiment that Drake is JAG (just a guy). However, it doesn’t matter what we think. Instead, it’s essential what head coach Jon Gruden believes.

I won’t even dive into any coach-speak quotes. They’re often fool’s gold. So instead, I’ll focus on what they told us in free agency. The NFL league year began on March 17, and the club signed Drake on March 18. Further, according to Spotrac, they made Drake the highest-paid back in free agency.

Additionally, this isn’t a quirky deal loaded with non-guaranteed money. On the contrary, the Raiders guaranteed the entire $11 million spanning two years, with $8.5 million guaranteed at signing. Drake was a priority signing for them, period.

Even though he’s nothing special, he’s likely an upgrade over the ho-hum collection of Devontae Booker and Jalen Richard, who backed up Jacobs last year. Further, even with the underwhelming duo of Booker and Richard behind Jacobs, the team targeted Jacobs an underwhelming 45 times. Also, Jacobs played 61% of the team’s snaps last year, ranking 14th at the position, per the FantasyPros snap counts tool. Accounting for an improvement at backup running back who the team prioritized signing and is capable of siphoning early-down work, I’m wary of Jacobs duplicating his playing time percentage.

Further elaborating on siphoning early-down work, are we sure Drake isn’t a better runner than Jacobs? Out of 47 running backs who carried the ball a minimum of 100 times in 2020, Jacobs ranked 43 in Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR) and 39th in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA), per Football Outsiders. Comparatively, Drake ranked 28th in DYAR and 29th in DVOA.
Pro Football Focus graded Jacobs’ running considerably more favorably than Drake’s. Still, the differing viewpoints are concerning for Jacobs’ retaining a stranglehold on early-down work. Also, Jacobs’ numbers regressed across the board in his sophomore seasons, including erosion to his yards per rush attempt, yards per reception, yards per target, yards after contact per rush attempt, attempts per broken tackle, and yards after contact per reception, per Pro-Football-Reference.

Finally, before allowing you a chance to rebut, I have to voice my game-script concerns. Graham Barfield of Fantasy Points declared Jacobs the most game-script-dependent running back in fantasy, with the numbers to back it up.

Piggybacking on Barfield’s tweet, I’m not expecting the Raiders to be in many neutral or favorable game scripts this year. FanDuel sportsbook lists the Raiders with a team win total of 6.5 wins. Yuck. Last year, the Raiders had a negative-44 point differential, and they ranked 28th in DVOA on defense. So, given the lack of substantial roster upgrades, it’s understandable why their win total is low despite winning eight games last year in a 16-game season and the league moving to a 17-game season this year.

To be clear, I have Jacobs ranked ahead of Drake. However, I like Drake better at cost. And I can’t imagine drafting Jacobs at his ADP. Of course, the debate doesn’t end here, though. So let’s hear more of your reasons for optimism regarding Jacobs’ 2021 outlook.

Just because a burger is my best takeout option doesn’t make it better than the prime rib I already have at home.

I commend the Raiders for filling the void Devontae Booker’s departure left. That void, however, is the backup running back spot. Backup RBs are often signed to quality contracts because of the high-impact nature of the RB position, making them exceptionally susceptible to injury. For example, the New Orleans Saints signed Latavius Murray for $14 million.

Josh Jacobs is, at worst, the second-best weapon on the Raiders, and I expect him to be fed as such.

Jacobs has proven talent, is durable, and will lead the 2021 Raiders in touches by far. I’ve often been mock drafting him as my RB3. If you can manage to get him there, take him and don’t think twice, because you just walked out of the Louvre with the Mona Lisa.

This sandwich I’m eating for lunch isn’t cutting it with thoughts of a burger and prime rib dancing in my head. Thanks for that, TJ. Anyway, I digress.

Murray’s a great name to bring up. The Saints aren’t paying him to be merely an onlooker. He toted the rock 146 times to Alvin Kamara’s 187 carries in 2020. Some of the other backup running backs receiving notable average annual value contracts are Kareem Hunt, Tarik Cohen, Gus Edwards, Drake, and fellow Raider Jalen Richard, per Spotrac. Each of those backs is utilized in a meaningful way by their respective clubs.

While Murray’s presence hasn’t prevented Kamara from thriving, Kamara’s in a different class of running back than Jacobs. Namely, Kamara’s an elite receiving back, and Jacobs wasn’t able to command a sizable workload when the underwhelming combo of Booker and Richard was his primary competition for passing-game work.

Beyond the Jacobs’ already unexciting passing-game workload facing a threat to take a step back this year, there’s a real chance the Raiders recognize the diminishing returns they received, pounding him between the tackles more often last year. Jacobs slipped from 1,150 rushing yards on 242 carries in 2019 to 1,065 on 31 more carries, 273 carries in total last year.

Ultimately, Jacobs’ fantasy value relies on continuing to be force-fed the ball, despite inefficiency, and scoring touchdowns at a high rate.
Unfortunately, touchdowns are incredibly inconsistent, as regression could bite him in the rear in various ways. Derek Carr could see an uptick in passing touchdowns instead. Aaron Rodgers’ touchdown surge at the expense of Aaron Jones in 2020 is a perfect example.

Further, Drake isn’t a slouch in scoring territory. In fact, according to the FantasyPros red zone data, Drake scored nine touchdowns on 22 attempts inside the five-yard line compared to only six rushing touchdowns on 21 attempts for Jacobs last year.

Jacobs looks like a two-down back to me. While elite outliers like Derrick Henry and Nick Chubb can make it work, Jacobs isn’t in the same runner class. I view Jacobs closer to the flex tier than the locked-in RB2 class, so I’ll be fading him anywhere near his average draft position.

The Analysts

I remember last year when Jacobs was going as a late first-round pick, though I wanted nothing to do with him at that price due to his lack of involvement in the passing game the previous season. Nothing changed except they added more pass catchers. He did get a slight bump in targets (45), though nothing you could rely upon every week. What’s changed this offseason? The Raiders decided to pay Kenyan Drake a good chunk of money to come in and share the workload with Jacobs, forcing his fantasy stock to plummet. Drake was essentially the same running back as Jacobs last year, though we’ve seen him produce in the passing game before. Did the addition of Drake drop Jacobs’ price too far, or is this a backfield to avoid if possible? I believe he’s fallen enough to consider a value as a low-end RB2 who should see be in line for 250-plus touches. The expectations were out of control last year, but if you can get him in the fifth round this year, I’m buying.
– Mike Tagliere

There may not be a player who’s experienced as dramatic of a fall in value as Jacobs over the course of this off-season. After seeing his entire offensive line dismantled, Jacobs watched the Raiders front office bring in another RB to this backfield on a pricy deal via free agency. With Drake in this backfield now, all hope for Jacobs’ increased involvement as a receiver came crashing down. While Jacobs should remain heavily involved as a runner, the path for upside is now capped with the state of the offense around him. He’s going to have to score 10+ rushing touchdowns to crack the top-12 at the position, and that’s not a bet I’m willing to make with this team. As a low-end RB2, he’s a fine option for your lineup, but it’s hard to hold out hope that he can be anything more than that.
– Kyle Yates

There were certainly positives from Jacobs’ 2020 season, including that he scored 12 touchdowns and carried the ball 273 times, each third-most in the NFL among running backs. But ask any fantasy manager who rostered him, and he or she will tell you that it never felt comfortable, even if Jacobs did finish as an RB1 in fantasy. Preseason chatter of a massively increased role in the passing game was pure fluff (he received just 45 targets on the year), and there was, of course, his Instagram hoax about not playing in Week 14. Now, he’ll share running back work with Kenyan Drake, and the best-case scenario is that Jacobs handles the rushing down work while Drake comes on for passing downs, as Jon Gruden has suggested. That should leave Jacobs as a weak RB2 in half-PPR formats, one who needs consistent work around the goal-line to have significant value.
– Dan Harris

The Public

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