Things move quickly at the running back position. Values shift in an instant. While elite wide receivers can actually benefit from the presence of other star WRs on the roster, backs need more of the spotlight to themselves in order to run up those dual-threat snap counts. This is what makes the two positions so fundamentally different in fantasy. It’s this tendency for the big volume shift at RB that allows our Zero RB lists to crush every year. It’s what allows our Phillip Lindsay, Nick Chubb, and James Conner recommendations to blow up.
It’s one of the main reasons Zero RB had a 13.1% win rate in BestBall10s last year.
But picking Zero RB breakout stars isn’t just about chasing changes in volume. Talent matters. Which is why we spend so much time with our prospect tools and devote so many words every year to helping you find the big-time studs buried on depth charts.
This year won’t be any different, and we’ve already got an interesting mid-summer play. A back who looks a lot like last year’s breakout runners but also shares a startling similarity to mega-stud Christian McCaffrey.
The McCaffrey Connection
While athleticism isn’t as important as production in projecting the WR position to the NFL, the two elements go hand-in-hand for RBs. Being an elite NFL ball carrier is all about explosion and agility.
If we wanted to find the next McCaffrey – or a discount McCaffrey to add to the end of our benches – we might go to the Combine Explorer and look for the closest physical comps.
This obviously catches the eye with Melvin Gordon suddenly threatening a holdout. I was working on a Jackson blurb for the 2019 edition of my Top 10 Sleepers article, but the Gordon news sent Jackson’s ADP screaming into a different tier entirely. Curtis Patrick breaks down the fallout and how it affects the Chargers backfield situation. And I agree with his assessment that Fantasy Owners Aren’t Playing It Correctly.
But we can also see why drafters might be drawn to Jackson. When we jump over to Jackson’s combine page, we find that McCaffrey is also his second-closest athletic comp. The former Northwestern star’s 4.52 forty is only slightly above average, but his 38.5-inch vertical and 6.81 three-cone put him in the 90th percentile for both explosion and agility.
The Phillip Lindsay Connection
A season ago, Lindsay signed as an undrafted free agent with the Denver Broncos. No NFL team wanted to burn a pick on a back with a 4.39 forty, despite the fact that he also led his class in Backfield Dominator Rating by a margin the size of the Grand Canyon. He wasn’t even invited to the Scouting Combine, which offers a bleak reminder that scouting is utterly meaningless at the RB position. If you don’t like a freakishly athletic back who’s also one of the most productive backs in memory, you better be 100% sure he can’t play in the NFL.
That’s, ahem, not what happened.
I mention Lindsay, of course, because Jackson is also a fantastic athlete, and he was, well, also pretty darn good in college. When we pull up his totals in the Box Score Scout, the totals jump out in every category.
Jackson went over 1,000 yards rushing in every season, starting as a freshman. But that’s just the beginning. He also caught 122 passes for 858 receiving yards. The Northwestern star gained 6,298 career yards from scrimmage and crested 1,350 every year.
These are wildly impressive numbers through any lens. The totals are crazy, the final year numbers are crazy, and the early breakout is impressive.2 While Lindsay led in final-year Workhorse Score, Jackson’s first-year Workhorse Score of 69 slid in right between Royce Freeman (76) and Saquon Barkley (61). Jackson was also third in the class in career Workhorse Score, right behind Barkley.
The Aaron Jones Connection
Jackson didn’t slide all the way out of the draft like Lindsay. And it’s certainly not a situation where his draft position of 251 doesn’t matter. It placed him at the edge of the Chargers depth chart, well behind Gordon and Austin Ekeler and fighting with Detrez Newsome for a spot on the team.
It also doesn’t mean he can’t play. If we want to see Jackson’s closest comp when we look at the whole package – draft position, production, size/athleticism – we can find those in the Box Score Scout as well. In this case, it spits out a familiar RotoViz recommendation.
We championed Jones even before he was the second back selected by the Green Bay Packers in the 2017 NFL draft, and we’ve been watching those dynasty shares grow in value through the years.
Any Gordon holdout that leads to a Le’Veon Bell situation would send Jackson’s dynasty ADP soaring in similar fashion. And that brings us to Conner.
The James Conner Connection
We’re very early in the Gordon saga. I expect it to be much ado about nothing. It just makes too much sense for both the Chargers and Gordon to work things out. But I also expected things to work out last year with the Steelers and Bell.
Despite that expectation, Conner made my list of Handcuffs Who Could Emerge as RB1s. He made the list both because he was a solid prospect ready to emerge in his second season, but also because the Steelers offered a positive environment for RB scoring.
The Chargers could be even better. Last season they ranked No. 8 in total expected points (rushing and receiving) to the RB position, and No. 1 in points over expectation. The expected points numbers were juiced by a No. 4 ranking on the receiving side, the more important of the two when projecting points for the following year. That fits in well with Ekeler, one of eight “breather” backs I recommended drafting for explosive upside, but it’s also a fit for Jackson, a runner who lassoed 122 passes in college.
Make sure to read Patrick’s breakdown of the Chargers backfield, where he uses the Game Splits app to help you understand how they’re likely to deploy the backs in the absence of Gordon. It could help you be this year’s Zero RB league winner.
Image Credit: Lawrence Iles/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Aaron Jones.
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- A former RotoViz sleeper who has been surprisingly resilient in navigating Philadelphia’s depth chart and is still a deep stash behind Jordan Howard and Miles Sanders. (back)
- Breakout age is much more important for RB prospects than final age. (back)