Josh Jacobs' Expected Role in Oakland Creates an Elite Fantasy Football Ceiling
In each of the last four seasons, at least one rookie has ranked among the five highest-scoring running backs in fantasy football. Most recently, Saquon Barkley finished standard-scoring RB2 a season ago, with Kareem Hunt, Alvin Kamara, Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley preceding him as top-five rookies in previous seasons.
It's always hard to bet on a rookie reaching that level of success, because there's so much we don't know about them until they take the field in the NFL. If someone from this year's draft class is going to keep that streak alive, however, Oakland Raiders first-round pick Josh Jacobs is a good bet.
Coming from Alabama, where he split carries with New England Patriots third-round pick Damien Harris and others, Jacobs has yet to prove he can excel as the workhorse in an offense. In three years with the Crimson Tide, he racked up just 299 touches, so it's fair to reserve some skepticism until we've seen him in action. That said, the Raiders likely didn't invest a first-round pick in a player they hope to use strictly as a change-of-pace back.
Can Gruden Produce an Elite Running Back?
Jon Gruden's offenses typically don't produce strong fantasy seasons for running backs. In his 12 years as a head coach, his highest-scoring running back has finished outside the top 20 seven times.
Here's the full list of Gruden's running backs (the top one each season), with the back's PPR rank at the position each year.
Amazingly, Earnest Graham is Gruden's only running back to crack the top 10.
Looking at the names on the list, however, you might notice another trend: Gruden hasn't exactly been provided a strong backfield in his previous stops. Warrick Dunn obviously had a great career, but Gruden coached him in only Dunn's final year at age 33. And Gruden overlapped with Charlie Garner for just one season in Oakland.
So is this really a Gruden issue?
If we go back to Gruden's days as the offensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles, there's some evidence that he can help produce elite running backs. Here's a continuation of the previous table from his Eagles career.
So can Jacobs be Gruden's next Ricky Watters? It wouldn't be fair to put that expectation on Jacobs as a rookie, but it is realistic to believe he'll be closer to Watters than to Tyrone Wheatley.
Will Jacobs Get Enough Touches?
Due to the lack of elite fantasy success of Gruden's running backs, you might assume he doesn't commit to giving any single ball carrier enough touches. Surprisingly, that usually is not case.
During Gruden's 15 seasons as a head coach and offensive coordinator, he's produced only four 300-touch season (Watters three times, Cadillac Williams once). But he's had a total nine seasons in which his primary running back averaged at least 18 touches per game, which put them on pace for at least 288 touches. Some of those players ended up falling short of that number due to injuries, but when healthy, Gruden leaned on them heavily.
According to numberFire's projections, Jacobs is expected to reach 274 touches (223.5 carries, 50.3 receptions) -- an average of 17.1 per game, which would rank 11th all-time among Gruden's running backs. That's actually a pretty modest expectation, and one that could easily be exceeded if Jacobs proves he's worthy of a bigger workload.
If Jacobs does hit that projection, we can expect a top-10 season from him. Over the past five seasons, there have been 22 running backs with at least 275 touches, including at least 50 receptions -- all 22 ranked in the top 10 among running backs in that respective season.
Will Jacobs Get Goal Line Carries?
Regardless of how many touches he ends up with, Jacobs could boost his stock if he emerges as the goal line running back for Oakland.
In 2018, Doug Martin led the Raiders with 17 carries inside the 10-yard line, but he converted just three of those attempts into touchdowns. Martin is still on the roster, so maybe he'll return in that role. His lack of success, however, should give Jacobs a realistic shot at winning the goal line job.
According to Sports Info Solutions, Jacobs scored on nine of his 22 attempts inside the 10-yard line at Alabama in 2018. That includes five touchdowns on eight attempts inside the two-yard line.
Obviously, collegiate success doesn't always translate to the pros, but those numbers certainly bode well for Jacobs emerging as the go-to ball carrier near the goal line.
Projecting the workload for rookies is always difficult, because even the coaching staff might not know exactly how they want to use everyone until they see some reps during the preseason. That said, early projections for Jacobs are exciting.
As previously mentioned, we project 274 touches for Jacobs. Vic Tafur, who covers the Raiders for The Athletic, made an even more aggressive estimate, projecting Gruden to use Jacobs "close to as much as he used Cadillac Williams" during his rookie campaign in 2005. Williams finished with 310 touches in just 14 games that year.
Even if Jacobs falls short of both projections, landing somewhere around 250 touches -- which would likely include roughly 40 to 50 receptions -- should easily put Jacobs among the top 15 ball carriers.
According to Fantasy Football Calculator, Jacobs currently has an average draft position (ADP) as the 19th running back off the board. At that ADP, even conservative projections expect Jacobs to outperform his draft slot.
If you're wary of Jacobs simply due to the unpredictable nature of rookies, there's no need. His role in Oakland makes him a safe bet to live up to his current draft expectations, and it also gives him a ceiling that could make him one of the steals of this year's fantasy season.