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Josh Jacobs, The Box Score Scout, and Trying to Avoid a Replay of 2014

When I first wrote about Josh Jacobs as part of our prospect series, he was getting ready to lead Alabama’s three-headed running back monster into an Orange Bowl matchup with the Oklahoma Sooners.

After starring against Oklahoma and disappearing against Clemson, he declared for the NFL draft where he’s a trendy pick to be among the first backs of the board. He remained No. 1 in the post-combine RotoViz Scouting Index,1 although Jacobs waited until his pro day to run. He’s now run for scouts on two separate occasions, once logging times between 4.6 and 4.66 and subsequently improving to the 4.52 to 4.56 range. Although the rest of his workouts went well, the pedestrian times only add to what was already a tricky draft evaluation.2 Does Jacobs project as an NFL starter and priority dynasty selection for owners who have fallen off the pace at RB? We turn to the new Box Score Scout to find out.

Jacobs’ story is one that could only really happen at Alabama. The top back in the committee, Jacobs nevertheless trailed teammates Damien Harris and Najee Harris in both rushing attempts and yards per carry. It’s possible that Jacobs spent the 2018 season competing with two future NFL starters, but Damien Harris earned a shockingly low grade in the RB Prospect Lab after a mediocre combine left him with poor athletic comps.

The Box Score Scout

Our new BSS provides the opportunity to look at raw and advanced stats for prospects on the career, single season, and individual game level. It also provides Sim Scores and player comps. With the draft still ahead of us, we can explore different potential draft slots and see how it influences the results.

When we look at Jacobs in the BSS, it reinforces just how difficult this evaluation is. I experimented with draft positions between 30 and 45. These were the names who consistently popped up as his closest comps.

100Josh JacobsAlabama40640200.200.12220
96Kenyan DrakeAlabama73408290.190.124.457.04210
94C.J. ProsiseNotre Dame901032260.270.174.48220
92Kalen BallageArizona State131669200.290.144.466.91228
90Matt JonesFlorida95817110.350.184.61231
88Knile DavisArkansas96377110.380.144.376.96227
84Devonta FreemanFlorida State1031016220.370.174.587.11206
82Eddie LacyAlabama611322220.320.194.55231
  • Although a few players shared either his athleticism or his production, the average of his comps is both more athletic and more productive than Jacobs, yet all of them except T.J. Yeldon were drafted later. It’s unusual for a player with this combination of production and measurables to be drafted in the first 100 picks. Among players in his production range, we find names like Matt Jones, Kalen Ballage, and Karlos Williams.
  • The Box Score Scout is currently restricted to combine numbers to provide apples-to-apples comparisons, but I’ve added pro day times for Jacobs and Jordan Wilkins. While none of Jacobs’ comps are particularly enticing, the slower members of the group aren’t good company; Alfred Blue joins Yeldon and Jones. This isn’t a surprise, as speed is one of the top indicators of RB success.
  • Three Crimson Tide backs make the list in Eddie Lacy, Kenyan Drake, and Yeldon. While each of these players have flashed at times – and Lacy even had several good fantasy seasons – these aren’t the Alabama names you’re hoping to see. Even when we make the “Alabama adjustment,” Jacobs doesn’t compare well to past Crimson Tide stars. Perusing the market share numbers, you can see that he wasn’t nearly as big a part of the offense as Lacy or Yeldon. Jacobs also doesn’t compare well to former Georgia committee stars, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, as Dave Caban explained in an RSI RB breakdown.

Is Jacobs as unappealing as his comps suggest, or should we believe the enthusiastic comparisons to another “slow” back in Kareem Hunt? As is often the case, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.3

The Context

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, generating enthusiasm as the best all-around back on the roster.

The Red Flags

While it’s always problematic to compare a prospect to a single player, examining Jacobs next to Yeldon provides an opportunity to simplify the Alabama 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 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 has argued, 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,4 but the former star recruit has been a disappointment through two seasons.

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 14 scrimmage TDs bested the combined total of D. Harris and N. Harris (13).

He was trusted in the high-leverage areas due to his hybrid abilities. At 5-10 and 220 pounds, Jacobs mixes tackle-breaking ability with impressive receiving skills. The return game offers a further example of his multi-faceted skill set. He returned 14 kicks for 428 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.

The Outlook

Beyond the numbers, when you followed Alabama in 2018, you got the strong impression that they thought Jacobs was their best runner. 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. Jacobs will be 21 during the 2019 season, and young backs outperform early in their professional careers.

The last time we had a draft that looked this bad at RB, Bishop Sankey, Jeremy Hill, and Carlos Hyde were the first backs off the board as 2014 second-rounders.5 If the 2019 class has a chance to best those performances from an early-round back, it will likely need to be Jacobs. And if he’s selected into a good offense at the end of the first round, Jacobs should provide strong initial returns for his fantasy owners.

For a look at the Box Score Scout results for more of the top runners, check out Curtis Patrick’s Advanced Stats, Sim Scores, and Top Comps for 2019 RBs.

  1. Jacobs also remains a clear No. 1 in yesterday’s release of RSI 3.0.  (back)
  2. Based on what we know about pro day 40 inflation, his times probably fall in the high 4.5s to low 4.6s.  (back)
  3. Some portions of the rest of the article were originally published on December 29, 2018.  (back)
  4. He led the group in yards per carry and is the most imposing of the backs.  (back)
  5. It could have been worse, of course. Hill and Hyde have enjoyed some fleeting success, and backs like Devonta Freeman and James White eventually redeemed the class as early Day 3 success stories.  (back)

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