Ronald Jones Was Beyond Awful in 2018, But He Wouldn’t Be the First Elite RB Prospect to Bomb and Then Emerge
Image Credit: Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Ronald Jones.

Ronald Jones’ rookie season was not good. It’s hard to express just how bad it wa … Oops, no I’ve got it. His rookie season was worse than the final season of Game of Thrones. It was worse than the series finale of Dexter. It was worse than those final 30 minutes of Battlestar Galactica. It was worse than that last scene in Lost . . . Just kidding, it wasn’t that bad, but it’s hard to put a good spin on 23 carries for 44 yards.

In 2019, Jones will hope to flash sideways into an alternate universe and not merely see his career vanish into the ether.

The good news? This type of emergence has happened before.

What Information Do We Need to Consider Jones at ADP?

With the coaching change to Bruce Arians, the outlook within the organization has changed as well. Over the summer, the drip of positive information has turned into, well, a trickle. But that trickle has been enough for Jones to once again distance his backfield competition in ADP.

Both players have benefited significantly from the decision not to add talent in free agency or the draft. Peyton Barber went from release candidate to incumbent starter, and he’s an intriguing play in his own right.

In order to select Jones around pick 100, we would need to believe several things: 1) That he was an elite prospect. 2) That elite prospects occasionally perform poorly as rookies before emerging. 3) That opportunity exists within the offense, and 4) That the offense can support an RB1/RB2 performer.

Jones The Prospect

Jones was a bit of a polarizing prospect a season ago, but there were plenty of reasons the Bucs selected him three picks after Nick Chubb and five picks before Kerryon Johnson.

The USC product was a star for the Trojans, going over 1,000 yards in all three collegiate seasons, culminating in a true junior season with 1,757 yards from scrimmage and 20 total TDs. That profile gave him impressive comps in the Box Score Scout even when we use his injury-slowed 40 time.1

Let me draw your attention to his adjusted market shares both of rushing yards (0.50) and total yards (0.21). Jones led his comp group by a wide margin in the first category and was in line with their contributions in the second. Jones wasn’t utilized much in the receiving game, but Southern Cal’s offense didn’t emphasize passing to RBs. This helps explain why Jones was fourth in Backfield Dominator Rating for the 2018 class. (This positioned him ahead of the rest of the elite prospects but behind breakout star Phillip Lindsay and Ito Smith, our favorite 2019 handcuff.)

Jones’ performance is especially impressive within the context of age. We know from work by Blair Andrews and Anthony Amico that a RB’s draft age and breakout age can each give us important information about a back’s likelihood for success. The Wrong Read No. 30 demonstrates the gulf between 21-year-old rookies and the other age cohorts.

Jones was the youngest back in a class with a bevy of young stars that also included Derrius Guice, Saquon Barkley, and Kerryon Johnson.

Moreover, he wasn’t a one-year wonder. Jones grabbed the USC starting position as a true freshman and immediately produced. Breaking out early more than doubles an RB’s NFL hit rate.

Star Prospects Who Failed Before They Succeeded

In a recent stroll through memory lane, I stumbled across a couple of relevant articles by the Fantasy Douche. Opportunity Knocks Twice for NFL RBs discusses the necessity GM’s feel to make their picks look good. “Draft position was actually more explanatory for an RB’s second year carries than it was for his first year carries. There might be both buy low and sell high opportunities that come from this information. An example like Zac Stacy comes to mind.” This was right before Stacy fell of the map. A year later, he developed that thesis in Hit On a Sleeper? You May Want to Sell While You Can.

We can see this dynamic playing out in the Tampa ADPs. If this wasn’t at least partly intuitive, then we wouldn’t see Jones going ahead of a back who outscored him by 130 points last season. It explains why even though Phillip Lindsay’s ADP looks a little weird compared to Royce Freeman’s, it may still be aggressive.2

A GM’s need to validate his picks can have negative consequences in cases like that of Trent Richardson, but it’s also turned out positively on numerous occasions. Since 2000, 68 backs have been drafted in the first 100 picks and gained fewer than 400 rushing yards as a rookie. Six of them gained more than 1,000 rushing yards the following year, and 13 of them scored 150 or more fantasy points.

These are a few of the highest-profile breakouts:

To be clear, these are cherry-picked results with some other apples-to-oranges elements. Deuce McAllister gained fewer than 100 yards rushing as a rookie but played behind Ricky Williams. Shaun Alexander didn’t do a lot to foreshadow a second season that would begin a stretch of five consecutive campaigns with at least 1,600 yards from scrimmage and 15 TDs, but he was playing behind Ricky Watters. Larry Johnson played behind Priest Holmes. Jamaal Charles played behind Johnson.

Despite better excuses than what Jones has available, all of them were crazy draft values heading into Year 2.

 Pos ADP Before BreakoutPos ADP After Breakout
Shaun Alexander383
Deuce McAllister136
Brian Westbrook4317
Larry Johnson5530
Rashard Mendenhall428
Jamaal Charles5314
C.J. Spiller3732
Tevin Coleman4121

With the exception of C.J. Spiller, all of these backs made big ADP jumps the following year. Spiller and Johnson, the two still going in the 30s, each finished RB6 or better in Year 3, giving them secondary breakouts with huge fantasy value.

While the McAllister, Alexander, and Brian Westbrook breakouts occurred before I started playing fantasy seriously, the Charles and Mendenhall explosions hold personal significance. After winning a 2008 NFFC satellite league and having tested Zero RB in hundreds of smaller online leagues, I began playing more seriously in 2009 with a handful of NFFC Online Championship entries. Charles and Mendenhall turned those Zero RB squads into juggernauts, including two top-five regular season finishes in the contest overall. I discuss these early Zero RB selections in more detail in Zero RB, Breakout Stars, and Having More Fun Drafting.

A few items to keep in mind:

  • Of the 20 backs selected in the top-50 picks that fit our rookie criterion, 14 of them scored at least 100 points as sophomores. The worst player with a similarly strong college resume was J.J. Arrington.
  • Not all breakouts occur in a player’s second season. Thomas Jones was selected No. 7 overall by the Arizona Cardinals but was on his fifth season and third team before he hit 1,000 yards from scrimmage for the first time. From there, he was off to the races with six consecutive seasons with at least 1,300 yards from scrimmage.3
  • The Charles, Spiller, and Coleman inclusions are probably the most interesting as Jones has drawn comparisons to those players from a size/speed/production perspective.4

Opportunity Within An Explosive Offense

You can tell from the ADPs of our former breakout backs that, with the exception of McAllister, they entered their second seasons as handcuffs or the lesser members of committees. Barber provides less of an obstacle than many of them faced. For example, Mendenhall eventually displaced Fast Willie Parker. If Jones can demonstrate his collegiate skillset, there’s little impediment to playing time.

But is he worth a pick in the late single-digit rounds even if he emerges as the 1a in a timeshare? Last year Tampa Bay ranked No. 30 in expected fantasy points at the RB position. They then underperformed that by 36 points, which left them with a dead last 264 points to their RBs. The decision to go away from Jones didn’t work out well for Dirk Koetter. His team couldn’t run the ball, and he was forced to find new employment.

Bruce Arians to the Rescue?

If we use the RotoViz Screener, we can pull up the Team RB numbers for Arians’ teams and compare them to the 2018 Bucs.

As you can see, the Bucs scored fewer Team RB points than all but one of the Arians teams going back to 2007, but it’s actually pretty shocking that any of them were worse. This also acts as a reminder that David Johnson probably made Bruce Arians more than the other way around. Johnson’s breakout rookie season and his epic follow-up campaign were easily the highlights for Arians’ career as a RB playcaller. They outscored the rest of his seasons by more than 60 PPR points and were the only two seasons with ruFPOE above 10.

Arians’ teams have been wildly inefficient in the running game, and they were extremely low-volume in the passing game until his philosophy appeared to change at the end of his tenure in Arizona. Arians did ride Mendenhall to a strong three-season stretch from 2009-2011, but even during those seasons the overall RB pie was fairly small. Gambling on Arians to redeem Ronald Jones may be a bad bet.5

On the other hand … Arians is a weird dude who is simultaneously a forward-thinking innovator and a throwback. He led that Colts team to the playoffs with a rookie QB in Andrew Luck, he won a Super Bowl as coordinator for the Steelers, and he pulled the Cardinals out of a doldrums that instantly returned upon his exit. When we’re criticizing that 2012 RB campaign, it’s fair to point out that the starter was Vick Ballard. Arians will get production out of his pieces, but his offense isn’t as straightforwardly positive for RBs as say Andy Reid’s. Even if Jones improves, we shouldn’t expect him to immediately pull a Damien Williams.6

The Fit In Tampa

With Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and O.J. Howard, it’s fair to expect the more spartan approach to RB receptions that Arians displayed in Pittsburgh and Indianapolis. However, with passing weapons that perfectly fit his aggressive mentality, the Bucs project as one of the higher-scoring teams in football, a blessing for whichever back wins the job. Double-digit rushing TD upside makes Jones and Barber each appealing at their respective ADPs.

Image Credit: Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Ronald Jones.

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  1. Track times going back to high school suggest Jones isn’t quite at the Tyreek Hill and Marquise Goodwin level, but he probably fits in the next group of speedsters.  (back)
  2. FD’s articles help to explain why I’ve been selling Lindsay and buying Freeman heading into 2019 even though I love Lindsay as a player.  (back)
  3. Ronald Jones was not a top-10 pick and was so bad as a rookie that he’ll have to show more than Jones to stay in the league that long.  (back)
  4. Spiller was a more accomplished receiving back but a less accomplished runner.  (back)
  5. And betting on David Johnson in any offense other than what the Cardinals ran in 2018 is probably a good one.  (back)
  6. Dream of it, yes.  (back)

Shawn Siegele

Author of the original Zero RB article and 2013 NFFC Primetime Grand Champion. 11-time main event league winner. 2015, 2017, 2018 titles in MFL10 of Death.
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