Fantasy Football

Fantasy Football Rorschach Test: Raiders RB Josh Jacobs

You watch football with your heart. You play fantasy with your head. That can lead to some interesting internal battles when it comes to player evaluations. Sometimes, you see what you want to see from a player. Welcome to the first in an occasional series on Fantasy Rorschach Tests.

"I live my life free of compromise, and step into the shadows without complaint or regret." -- Rorschach

When I originally thought of the idea for Fantasy Rorschach Tests, Alan Moore's iconic Watchmen character didn't immediately come to mind, though it didn't take long before Walter Kovacs popped into the ol' frontal lobe. Then I remembered he was meant to be an irredeemable anarchic character meant sow discord, so maybe don't compare him to guys who play football for a living.

Anyway … Josh Jacobs.

Near the end of last season, the Raiders running back became an agent of chaos by posting on Instagram that he wasn't playing despite being listed as active. As with most things on Twitter, the response was swift, furious, and unforgiving. Though after Jacobs posted a paltry 10.4 points against the Colts, plenty of managers probably wished they hadn't played him.

We fantasy types can be sensitive souls with long memories. That alone might knock Jacobs down some 2021 draft boards. But for those who can get out of their feelings and look at the Raider runner a little more objectively, there's a lot to consider -- and everyone may end up seeing what they want to see. In that case, let's see what's there.

Opportunity

The two most intriguing things about Josh Jacobs' fantasy football outlook are his talent and his opportunity. But since the former means squat without the latter, I won't waste a lot of time telling you that he's good at football, especially relative to a lot of his peers. There's a reason he was a late first-round pick.

What attracts fantasy managers is a lack of competition in the Raiders' backfield. Jacobs played in 15 games last season. He was on the field for 50 percent or more of the snaps in 14 of them. The only game in which he missed the mark was the infamous Indianapolis game mentioned above. Nine times, Jacobs inhaled at least 60 percent of the snaps.

It's one thing to be on the field. It's another thing to get the ball. Thankfully, Jon Gruden believed in putting his young back to work. Jacobs earned 37 percent of Las Vegas' offensive touches in 2020. The next closest player was Devontae Booker but nearly 30 percent of his touches came in two games -- a Week 10 blowout against the Broncos in which Jacobs sat most of the fourth quarter and the Week 13 win over the Jets when Jacobs was out with an ankle injury. There are a lot of running back rotations in the NFL. This ain't one of them.

Fit and Usage

No one is going to confuse the Raiders for the Ravens, but Las Vegas was one of the run-heavier outfits in the league last year and ran the ball more than league average on first down. That's good news for a running back who isn't sharing the ball a lot.

If only that was enough for us greedy fantasy types. In his first two seasons, Jacobs keeps applying to be one of the top-tier running backs but doesn't quite have the resume to get into the club. What's missing? Receptions. Eight of the top 10 running backs from last season logged at least 35 catches. The two exceptions were Jacobs (33) and Derrick Henry (19). Henry makes up for it by being a real-life version of Juggernaut with the football in his hands.

Jacobs is in a more precarious situation. His top 10 fantasy status was buoyed in 2020 by his 12 rushing touchdowns. If you're confident that he can repeat (or better) that number in 2021, I invite you to teach a course on the power of positive thinking. If you don't, then you might want to pin your hopes on Jacobs becoming a bigger part of the Raiders' passing game.

Things seemed headed in the right direction in Week 1, when the second-year back set career-highs in targets (6), receptions (4), and receiving yards (46). None of those numbers were eye-popping but, y'know, baby steps. As the season progressed, that game became more of an outlier.

Alas, it's time to wonder if this is just how life will be for Jacobs. His 2020 campaign was the 14th best among Jon Gruden running backs in receptions. Gruden's head coaching tenure has featured just four seasons in which a back has caught 50 or more balls -- two of them were by Michael Pittman in Tampa. (Pittman has five of the top 10 Gruden RB receiving seasons.) Only nine seasons have seen RBs top 50 targets, four by Pittman.

Simply put, you can't expect the running back to be a big part of the aerial attack. Josh Jacobs may not have hit his ceiling as a pass-catcher in this offense, but he's quickly running out of headroom. Unless he morphs into a full-fledged road grader -- or tricks his head coach into believing he's Michael Pittman, Sr. -- Jacobs might be peaking as a fantasy back.

Draft Value

Optimism is a necessary but not exclusive condition for progress. Our collective belief that Jacobs was ready to make the leap between Year 1 and Year 2 pushed him to the end of the first round in many a fantasy draft. Based solely on his finish as a top eight running back, it might seem like a wise choice. But for anyone who took the ride last season, it was anything but easy.

Early returns suggest Jacobs draft value has dipped to the middle part of the second round, though that's not likely to ease anyone's apprehension on draft day. Especially if game-changing tight ends like George Kittle or Darren Waller are still available. Or maybe you'd prefer Calvin Ridley, Michael Thomas, or Keenan Allen?

Does the upside of a semi-workhorse running back in a run-first offense outweigh the potential of a mostly one-dimensional back potentially nearing his ceiling in a middle-of-the-road offense? It all depends on what you think you're looking at.

Marcas Grant is a fantasy analyst for NFL.com and a man who is regretting his decision to take a break from drinking coffee. Send him your minor addiction issues or fantasy football questions on Twitter @MarcasG or Instagram at MarcasG.

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