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2018 NFL Draft: Chargers Get a Steal in Justin Jackson

Justin Jackson finished his career at Northwestern ranked 11th in yards rushing and 10th in yards from scrimmage in college football history. Despite this prolific statistical resume, Jackson stayed under the radar for the majority of draft season. Now a member of the Los Angeles Chargers, selected with the 251st overall pick, should we be targeting Jackson as a later-round rookie pick?

PRODUCTION

When discussing raw counting stats, Jackson has little competition among the 2018 class of running backs.

YEARCLASSGAMESRUSHruYDSruTDSRECreYDSreTDS
2014FR.12245118710222011
2015SO.1331214185211620
2016JR.13298152415352190
2017SR.13287131111442760

Four consecutive seasons of at least 1,300 total yards for any RB is an incredible feat. His production not only speaks to his abilities as a runner and receiver but also highlights his durability across a career with over 1,250 total touches. Jackson averaged 2.4 receptions per game over his career which is yet another positive attribute to consider.

Shawn Siegele also had good things to say regarding Jackson’s statistical profile:

Jackson doesn’t make the top-15 RBs in the RSI, which is crazy when you consider his elite agility and four consecutive seasons with at least 1,350 yards from scrimmage. His final age takes him out of consideration for a similar score to LeSean McCoy, but remember that breakout age is crucial. Jackson ripped off 22 catches, 11 TDs, and 1,388 yards from scrimmage as a freshman. Jackson’s first-year Workhorse Score (0.69) bested Saquon Barkley’s (0.61) and trailed only two players in the class (one of whom was the aforementioned Freeman).

ADVANCED STATS

According to the RotoViz Prospect Lab, an app that grades prospects on a scale of 100 based on age, athleticism, and production, Jackson’s score of 52 falls between Ronald Jones (59) and Nyheim Hines (48). He finished higher than both Nick Chubb (43) and Sony Michel (23). Jackson’s career-long production also bears itself out in his career Workhorse Score, third-best in the class behind only Larry Rose III (78.95) and Saquon Barkley (78.63).

One downside here could be Jackson’s age. Blair Andrews found that only 29 percent of RBs that were 22-year-old rookies have gone on to notch at least one top-24 PPR season. However, Jackson’s breakout age (20.7) should ease some of this concern. RBs that have recorded breakout seasons before turning 21 have gone on to notch a 200-point PPR season within their first three NFL years about 44 percent of the time.

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By historical standards, Jackson is neither big nor fast. But his college production is unquestioned — both early on and as a whole. This leaves us with a bit of a conundrum. Jackson’s draft position, and resulting opportunity, should tell us a lot.

OPPORTUNITY
rbopportunity

Based on Cort Smith’s pre-draft RB Opportunity chart, the Chargers are a middling landing spot with 46 available opportunities (carries plus targets) coming into 2018. Melvin Gordon is the team’s unquestioned workhorse, averaging 16.7 carries and 4.1 targets per game since entering the league in 2015. However, Gordon has dealt with his fair share of injuries, missing five games over that same three-season span. Banking on a starting RB getting injured is a faulty strategy, but, in theory, Jackson could find earlier opportunity in the event Gordon does go down.

The list of RBs behind Gordon should inspire little confidence:

  • Austin Ekeler
  • Russell Hansbrough

Ekeler was the team’s second-leading rusher last season averaging 5.5 yards per carry. He represents the toughest competition for Jackson. Hansbrough has yet to record an NFL touch. So while an immediate path to opportunity may not be available for Jackson, assuming the Chargers don’t sign any big-name free agents (DeMarco Murray, for instance), this landing spot is better than it appears.

FANTASY OUTLOOK

For redraft purposes, Justin Jackson is nothing more than a long-shot, late-round pick for owners looking to handcuff Gordon in the event of an injury. Even then, we should assume that Ekeler will see touches, likely ahead of Jackson. In dynasty, Jackson’s outlook is also somewhat uncertain. Gordon is currently under contract through the 2019 season. Assuming he remains healthy, Jackson will be hard pressed to become fantasy relevant. Jackson’s draft position is another reason for concern, although studies have shown that even though a higher pick is likely to perform better than a lower pick, in general NFL teams do a very poor job of evaluating RBs during the draft process.

I love Jackson’s production, both cumulative and age-adjusted. He’s an plus pass-catcher and has shown durability through four college seasons. He could rise to second on the Chargers’ depth chart as early as this season and if Gordon gets hurt, he could see a substantial touch total. For these reasons, I’m cautiously optimistic about his prospects and would be willing to draft him in the third or fourth round of rookie drafts.

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