Before the 2018 season, nabbing a rookie running back in the first round of a fantasy football draft was unheard of. Surefire first-round choices for 2019, such as Todd Gurley, Le’Veon Bell, and Alvin Kamara, didn’t even crack the top 5 rounds headed into their rookie seasons. In general, rookies are risky picks for fantasy. No analyst can accurately forecast how the talents of a first-year player will translate to playing in a professional atmosphere. They are unpredictable, volatile, and usually begin the season low on the depth chart, behind veterans and more accomplished starters.
Remember a decade ago when the idea of drafting a player other than a running back in the first was considered complete lunacy? Well, I do and it did not come without reason. Even starting ball carriers were so unpredictable that only a handful could be counted on for consistent weekly production. Rookies at the position were simply an afterthought, a dice roll one could gamble on in the late rounds with minimal consequences.
And then Saquon Barkley changed everything.
Everybody knows Barkley was an athletic crackerjack when he played for Penn State. It became obvious that Barkley was a generational talent that would enjoy a successful career in the NFL from his very first college season. After all, he didn’t accumulate over 5,000 yards from scrimmage and 51 total touchdowns over three years because he was lucky. His highlight tapes and combine performance had the Giants sold. Instead of electing to take a quarterback in one of the most depth-heavy drafts for the position in years, New York opted to go with the 21-year old with thighs bigger than Eli Manning’s waist with the second overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.
By August, Saquon Barkley had become a familiar face in the first round of fantasy football drafts. I, for one, was so confident in his abilities that I selected him no. 6 overall in one of my leagues. Placing complete trust in a rookie back? It could have been a death knell decision not just for me, but for many owners across the country. And yet, it wasn’t. In his first NFL season, Barkley averaged 5.0 yards per carry, became the third rookie running back to eclipse 2,000 yards from scrimmage, and scored 15 touchdowns. According to fantasydata.com, that’s 385 total fantasy points in PPR (points per reception) format.
And here’s the kicker: Barkley achieved all of that on a team that finished the season with a 5-11 record, good enough for dead last in the NFC East.
So, now you understand why Barkley is largely regarded as the no. 1 overall pick for fantasy football in 2019. But what does that mean for another first-round running back, drafted 24th overall this year by the Oakland Raiders?
Everything. No, really, I’m completely serious: Josh Jacobs has the best chance out of any rookie running back drafted in 2019 to repeat Barkley’s success.
While Jacobs didn’t have quite the same college success as Barkley stat-wise due to Alabama’s long list of mouths to feed at the running back position, the star power was evident in the carries he did receive. Jacobs was an absolute bully of a runner for the Crimson Tide. He punished defenders with hard hits and hardly ever went down at first contact. At 5’10” and 216 pounds, Jacobs churns out extra yards with his size and physicality. Most importantly, he got the majority of Alabama’s goal-line carries. In 2018, he scored 11 touchdowns in 15 games and his two-touchdown, 85-yard rushing performance in the 2018 SEC Championship Game was rewarded with the MVP award.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Jacobs’ game is his soft hands and natural pass-catching ability. In his final season at Alabama, Jacobs recorded 247 receiving yards. That number sounds even more impressive when you consider that he averaged 12.4 yards per catch on just 20 receptions. Barkley was a good rusher, but what set him apart from the other fantasy talent at his position was his receiving ability. I see the potential for Jacobs to grow in Oakland’s passing game, which will elevate his fantasy production.
The endless list of stats and honors is exceptional, but all are inferior to this one factor: Jacobs managed to become the consensus top running back prospect with just a single start to his name.
Compared to Barkley, Jacobs’ current ADP is a bit cheaper at 3.09, or the ninth pick of the third round. Of course, that number may deviate from the average by a few picks based on what scoring format your league plays under. Regardless, if Raiders head coach Jon Gruden decides to make his new versatile playmaker a focal point of the offense, Jacobs could be a steal for those that decide to take a chance on him in drafts this summer.
However, risk never comes without reward. Jacobs will have to compete against veterans like Doug Martin and Jalen Richard for the starting role. But, as evidenced by his playing days at Alabama, it’s a challenge that is all too familiar to him. Assuming there are no training camp hiccups or preseason injuries, I believe the fresh-legged Jacobs is gifted enough to become the no. 1 rushing option for the Raiders by Week 1.
“I’m definitely eager to prove not only to myself but to everyone else that I can be a three-down back,” Jacobs said in his introductory press conference back in April. “I think it was a blessing how it played out. I feel like everything plays out how it’s supposed to. With me not having so much tread off the tires or whatever, being so fresh, I think it’s going to be huge, especially for my position.”
Let me know what you guys think. Where are you comfortable drafting Jacobs? Send me your answers on Twitter under the handle @HamAnalysis and I might even reply back.
Cole Topham is a 17-year old sportswriter from Salt Lake City, UT. He is the lead editor and founder of snacktimefantasy.com. Besides journalism, his passions include fantasy rankings, drinking chai lattes, rock climbing, and absurd amounts of hair paste.