Josh Jacobs leads Alabama’s three-headed running back monster into an Orange Bowl and semifinal matchup against the Oklahoma Sooners. Although Jacobs has eligibility remaining, many draft experts project him among the top 2019 RBs, with some now moving him to No. 1.
And that’s the tricky element with Jacobs. I say “leads” but Jacobs trails teammates Damien Harris and Najee Harris in both rushing attempts and yards per carry. With Alabama backs always difficult to evaluate due to the depth on their roster, Jacobs remains an enigma and yet has fashioned himself into the most intriguing draft-eligible RB in college football.
Jacobs joined Alabama as a late-rising recruit out of Oklahoma and immediately earned a role in a backfield attempting to replace almost 3,000 yards from scrimmage with the departures of Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake. Damien Harris gained over 1,000 yards as the starter, Bo Scarbrough notched double-digit TDs (11) as the goal line back, and Jacobs logged 99 touches as the all-purpose backup.
Jacobs took a step back the following season, missing a couple of early games with a hamstring injury and carrying only 46 times for a backfield that added the No. 1 overall recruit in Najee Harris.
He then “emerged” in 2018, creating this resume as he enters the CFB playoffs.
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The Red Flags
Jacobs hasn’t reached even 750 yards from scrimmage in any of his three seasons. It’s tempting to say that this is due to the competition at Alabama, but three counterarguments quickly arise: 1) the competition may not be that tough, 2) the production still pales compared to previous players to which this argument was applied, 3) this thesis hasn’t proven itself very effective with previous Crimson Tide backs.
While it’s always problematic to compare a prospect to a single player, examining Jacobs next to T.J. Yeldon provides an opportunity to simplify the argument. We know that breakout age is a key component for RB evaluation, and we know that runners with strong First-Year Workhorse Scores tend to outperform. Of course, breaking out early is much more difficult at Alabama than almost anywhere else.
Yeldon exploded on the scene for Alabama with over 1,200 yards from scrimmage and 13 total TDs despite the presence of Eddie Lacy. He then solidified his resume with two more double-digit TD seasons, gaining at least 1,100 yards from scrimmage in each. He battled through nagging injuries to accomplish the feat and held off serious competition from Henry and Drake.
By contrast, Jacobs has generally taken a backseat, even to relative non-prospects like Scarbrough. Even this year, the lack of true star power in the RB room has opened the door. During a down year, Damien Harris is in the mix to be the first RB taken in the upcoming draft – and as Jordan Hoover pointed out yesterday, his combination of volume and efficiency places him in an elite group – but he fails to impress in many of the categories that predict NFL success. Najee Harris still may end up as the best NFL prospect from this trio,1 but the former star recruit has been a disappointment through two seasons.
Most of the Alabama stars of the past – many of whom have been NFL disappointments – put up bigger numbers while competing with better prospects. If Jacobs were truly the best back in the draft, you would expect him to be the RB version of Tua Tagovailoa (QB) or Jerry Jeudy (WR). But it’s even worse than that. Jacobs doesn’t just trail his RB teammates and Jeudy in yards from scrimmage, he also trails receivers Jaylen Waddle and Henry Ruggs III, while barely leading elite TE prospect Irv Smith Jr.
Why He Still May Be the Top RB
Most past arguments in favor of Alabama RBs have fallen flat. The prospects have been overdrafted by NFL teams, received the touches their draft positions required, and then eventually fell out of favor when the team could no longer afford not to admit the draft mistake. But Jacobs deserves to be evaluated on his own merits, and there are some strong points in his favor.
On a team with plenty of pressure to play either Harris, Jacobs worked his way into an almost even share, and he frequently took the most important looks as a fixture in Alabama’s red zone package. His 13 TDs bested the combined total of Harris and Harris (11).2
He was trusted in the high-leverage areas due to his hybrid abilities. At 5-10 and 215 pounds, Jacobs mixes plus agility, strong tackle-breaking ability, and impressive receiving skills. While not a huge part of the Alabama passing game, he finished his career with 49 receptions. The return game offers a further example of his multi-faceted skill set. He returned 12 kicks for 378 yards and a score in 2018. In the early days of RotoViz, Jon Moore established special teams as a key area for RB evaluation, and Anthony Amico backed that up last year, showing that all-purpose yards are a better indicator of NFL success than simple scrimmage yards.
Beyond the numbers, when you followed Alabama in 2018, you got the strong impression that they thought Jacobs was their best runner. Watching as a Najee Harris devy owner, I always found myself more impressed by Jacobs’ combination of speed, agility, and toughness. While he may ultimately end up as a Yeldon type at the NFL level – a committee member suited to the role of big receiving back – he’s got the hybrid talents that are so coveted in the contemporary NFL. And if he’s drafted early, he should provide strong initial returns for his fantasy owners. Jacobs will be 21 during the 2019 season, and young backs outperform early in their professional careers.