News & Analysis

Fantasy Football: Is it officially J.K. Dobbins RB1 szn?

Nov 1, 2020; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Baltimore Ravens running back J.K. Dobbins (27) runs the ball against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first quarter at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mitchell Layton-USA TODAY Sports

We’re in the thick of the NFL offseason and it’s officially time to start fantasy football prep. I’ll be answering the biggest questions heading into the 2021 season. Click here to read the series of questions answered so far.

It was hard not to be impressed by J.K. Dobbins during his 2020 NFL debut. The Ravens clearly thought enough of him to use the No. 55 overall pick to acquire his services, but even the rookie’s biggest fans would’ve been hard pressed to imagine he’d be so good in Year 1. Overall, the 2020 version of Dobbins now joins 2012 C.J. Spiller, 2012 Adrian Peterson, 2017 Alvin Kamara and 2010 Jamaal Charles as the only RBs to average at least 6.0 yards per rush in a single regular season since 2010 (min. 100 carries).

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Of course, there was more than just one effective rusher in Baltimore last season. Each of Lamar Jackson (159 carries-1005 rush yards-7 rush TDs), Gus Edwards (144-723-6) and Dobbins (134-805-9) largely had their respective ways with front sevens of all shapes and sizes throughout the season. This largely produced consistently great results for the Ravens’ seventh-ranked scoring offense; the “problem” was neither Dobbins (PPR RB27) nor Edwards (RB37) saw enough volume to function as high-end fantasy RBs.

What follows is a breakdown on what makes this Ravens rushing attack so efficient and whether or not we should expect the RBs involved to put up more fantasy-friendly numbers in 2021.

*Both* Dobbins and Edwards are talented football players

The Ravens didn’t give Dobbins even 10 touches in a game until Week 6 last season, but he was involved enough to reach that threshold in all but one contest the rest of the way. It was clear Dobbins possessed the sort of high-end open-field elusiveness to warrant more usage, and he ultimately found himself near the top of most of his position’s leaderboards (including playoffs):

  • PFF rush grade: 81.5 (No. 9 among 48 qualified RBs)
  • Missed tackles forced per rush: 0.18 (No. 18)
  • Yards per carry: 5.8 (No. 1)
  • Yards after contact per carry: 3.4 (No. 7)
  • % of carries to result in a first down or TD: 28.8% (No. 7)

Here’s the thing: The artist known as “Gus the Bus” ranked No. 5, No. 29, No. 6, No. 9 and No. 1 in those same categories. I doubt many children are begging their parents to buy them an Edwards jersey; just realize the Ravens’ less-heralded RB made plenty of great plays in his own right last season.

I would select Dobbins over Edwards 10 times out of 10 in terms of pure talent; that doesn’t mean the three-year veteran isn’t a more than solid RB himself. The former is generally viewed as the superior option in the passing game, although Edwards deserves credit for converting his 13 targets into a stellar 9-129-0 line — a yardage mark that Dobbins (18-120-0) failed to reach despite getting an additional nine targets.

It’s always been tough to properly discern differences between RBs. This is as true as ever in Baltimore, as so much of the success from everyone involved is derived from the (wait for it) generational dual-threat ability of the 2019 NFL MVP.

Lamar is the straw that stirs the drink that is the Ravens offense

The Ravens have produced six single-season instances of a player averaging 5.0 yards per carry over the past two seasons; the rest of the AFC combined has just seven such campaigns. Turns out life for RBs can be fairly efficient with one of the most electric athletes the QB position has ever seen.

Seriously, we almost take for granted the absurd heights Jackson is capable of reaching as a rusher.

Jackson is also a far better passer than the public generally gives him credit for, but we all realize that his objectively best feature is this rushing upside. His speed has 1) made the entire offense better, and 2) been a nightmare for defenses to deal with. Since 2019, the Ravens have averaged 6.6 yards per carry on read option looks. This is the second-highest mark in the league even though their 411 such plays are in another stratosphere ahead of the second place Cardinals (236) and third place Seahawks (184).

In the year 2021 we often chastise any offense that doesn’t throw the hell out of the ball, but the Ravens are the exception to the rule because of how damn good they’ve been on the ground. Overall, Baltimore (+0.064 EPA/run play) joins Arizona (+0.012) and Tennessee (+0.008) as the only three offenses to actually post a positive EPA/play on the ground over the past two seasons. This former mark is better than 15 passing games can attest to, while only the Chiefs (+0.273) and Packers (+0.202) have been more efficient than the Ravens (+0.199) when choosing to throw.

We see the Ravens fall to 15th in this passing efficiency metric in 2020: I realize there was some regression from Jackson and company following their spectacular 2019 campaign. Still, the rushing attack again led the league and appears poised to do so for a while as long as their dual-threat magician under center can remain healthy.

Add it all together and …

Chase volume over talent in fantasy land

The Ravens have led the league in rush attempts *and* yards per carry in each of the past two seasons. Their dynamic rushing attack has been the identity of the entire team during the Lamar era; the only “issue” with this has been a general lack of opportunity for the backfield. Baltimore might’ve had the NFL’s most run-heavy offense, although their RBs ranked just 12th in total rush attempts and ninth from inside the 5-yard line last season. Opportunity was even tougher to come by through the air: The Ravens (47) joined the Titans (44) as the only teams that targeted their RBs fewer than 50 times on the season.

Both Dobbins and Edwards are at worst good RBs and at best great ones. However, this was already the case in 2020, and we simply didn’t see any sort of consistent high-end fantasy success despite Mark Ingram not playing more than 20 snaps in a game after Week 2. The Ravens’ highest-scoring fantasy RB by week was as follows in 2020:

  • Week 1: Dobbins PPR RB19
  • Week 2: Dobbins RB27
  • Week 3: Dobbins RB33
  • Week 4: Edwards RB43
  • Week 5: Edwards RB44
  • Week 6: Edwards RB28
  • Week 8: Edwards RB13, Dobbins RB17
  • Week 9: Edwards RB19
  • Week 10: Dobbins RB38
  • Week 11: Dobbins RB9
  • Week 12: Edwards RB33
  • Week 13: Dobbins RB18
  • Week 14: Dobbins RB22
  • Week 15: Dobbins RB20
  • Week 16: Edwards RB19, Dobbins RB21
  • Week 17: Dobbins RB6

The fact we saw 11 total top-24 finishes from the duo isn’t awful, but just two top-12 weeks demonstrates the sort of underwhelming ceiling that we’re chasing in Baltimore. Credit to Ingram for functioning as the season-long PPR RB11 in 2019; just realize it took a combined 15 rushing and receiving TDs to get there inside of a much better overall offense than what we saw in 2020.

Dual-threat QBs can help the efficiency of their offense’s rushing attack thanks to defenders needing to account for an extra number in the run game. But generally they don’t produce fantasy-friendly RBs due to their tendency to 1) scramble instead of checking the ball down, and 2) take off on their own near the goal line.

Dobbins might be a special enough talent to make the most out of this unideal workload; just realize there are many more RBs with a more fantasy-friendly touch ceiling ahead of 2021. He’s in my Tier 4 “There’s upside, but with notable risk” of RBs at the time of this writing. My overall PPR RB18, I’m just barely lower than Dobbins compared to his Underdog ADP as the RB17. 

Meanwhile, Edwards offers far more value at the moment thanks to his RB40 ADP; just realize it’d make sense if the Ravens (continue) to widen the discrepancy in touches between their two backs considering Dobbins had as many or more touches than Edwards in all but two of his last 11 games. The ceiling is the roof for either back if an injury occurs, although Justice Hill would likely obtain some level of role to prevent a complete takeover from happening.

To answer the question posed in the title of this article: No, I don’t believe 2021 will be Dobbins RB1 szn. However, we have enough demonstrated talent on hand, along with the potential for a slightly more concentrated workload, to comfortably project him as an RB2 that should particularly be prioritized in non-PPR formats.

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