The 2020 Jacksonville Jaguars have been a train wreck. Gardner Minshew managed to outduel Philip Rivers in Week 1 and captured a 27-20 win over the Colts, but since then they’ve dropped six straight games and haven’t been overly competitive in pretty much any of them.
The offense ranks 26th in points per game, while the defense comes in at 28th. There’s hardly one player to blame for this demise; the Jaguars boast the league’s thinnest, youngest roster and have traded or released nearly every good player to find their way to Jacksonville over the past half decade.
There’s truly only been one consistent bright spot: rookie RB James Robinson. I’m contractually obligated to state that “running backs don’t matter” before any discussion surrounding the position, but either way Robinson has certainly outperformed most of his peers both in terms of total numbers as well as per-touch efficiency.
- PFF Rushing Grade: 79.1 (No. 7 among 69 qualified RBs)
- Rushing yards: 481 (No. 7)
- Rushing TDs: 4 (tied for No. 7)
- Yards per carry: 4.5 (tied for No. 25)
- Yards after contact per carry: 3.1 (tied for No. 21)
- PFF Receiving Grade: 60.8 (No. 30 among 55 qualified RBs)
- Yards per route run: 1.73 (No. 10)
- Yards after the catch per reception: 9.4 (No. 10)
- Total forced missed tackles: 24 (tied for No. 11)
- Forced missed tackles per rush: 0.18 (No. 35 among 75 qualified backs)
Rushing, receiving, picking up extra yards: Robinson has been at worst an above-average back in every facet of the game, and at-best a true top-10 player at the position.
The fact that Robinson actually deserves to be mentioned in any conversation surrounding 2020’s top-10 RBs both in real life and fantasy is absolutely crazy considering the lack of precedent there’s been for high-performing undrafted free agent (UDFA) rookies.
There have been 26 rookie RBs to finish among their position’s top-24 PPR performers from 2010-2019. Eighty percent of these first-year talents were selected inside of the draft’s top three rounds. Literally only five rookie RBs were drafted outside of the first three rounds and still managed to post top-24 production at their position: Roy Helu (Round 4), Zac Stacy (Round 5), Jordan Howard (Round 5), Alfred Morris (Round 6) and Phillip Lindsay (UDFA). All of their circumstances were fairly unique:
- Helu was thrust into a starter-caliber role more weeks than not with primary RBs Tim Hightower (torn ACL) and Ryan Torain (hamstring) combining to miss 19 games due to injury.
- Stacy fell into a starting role after incumbent backups Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead failed to impress after the Rams parted ways with Steven Jackson during the offseason.
- Howard was working behind Jeremy Langford to start his rookie season before seizing the starting role after Langford badly sprained his ankle in Week 3. This was the first year after Matt Forte took his talents to the Jets.
- Morris is pretty much the only back to command a dominant starting role as early as Week 1 without the benefit of injuries. The Shanahan family truly is something special when it comes to developing running backs.
- Lindsay pretty much served as the 1A to Royce Freeman’s 1B with both rookie backs attempting to replace C.J. Anderson. The UDFA averaged a robust 5.6 yards per touch on the season.
Every rookie RB to post top-24 production at the position who was drafted outside of the top four rounds got to his position of success because he 1) benefited from key injuries at the position, 2) was on a depth chart with plenty of available opportunity after a longtime veteran departed, and/or 3) played in an offense coached by the Shanahan family.
Robinson also benefited from plenty of factors that were out of his control:
- A workhorse RB from 2017-2019, Leonard Fournette was released on the first day of September.
- Incumbent backup RB Ryquell Armstead (covid, IR) hasn’t been available all season.
- Incumbent backup-backup RB Devine Ozigbo (hamstring, IR) hasn’t been healthy enough to play a snap on offense all season.
- The team’s only other additions to the RB room were Chris Thompson and Dare Ogunbowale, who are basically the walking definitions of true scat-backs who won’t see much, if any, early-down work.
It’s unfair to call Robinson a bad prospect; he racked up 5,218 all-purpose yards and scored 44 rushing TDs at Illinois State. Lack of high-level competition concerns were obvious, but there was some reason to believe he possessed underrated ability considering his high college dominator (97th percentile) and SPARQ-x (89th percentile) scores (Player Profiler). Coach Doug Marrone said before the season that the gap between Robinson and Fournette was “smaller than expected.”
All Robinson has done with his three-down role is ball the hell out. He’s surpassed 100 total yards on four separate occasions and has at least four receptions in five consecutive weeks. Concerns about Robinson’s straight-line speed (4.64-second 40-yard dash) have basically been a non-issue thanks to his elusive one-cut style and willingness to put his head down in order to pick up additional yards.
The Jaguars have treated Robinson as a true workhorse back all year and he’s managed to exceed anybody’s expectations despite working behind PFF’s 21st-ranked offensive line in yards before contact per rush. The man has truly been fun to watch.
90 seconds of international superstar James Robinson making plays pic.twitter.com/Y8JVtESVS1
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) October 29, 2020
Robinson enters the Jaguars’ Week 8 bye as the overall PPR RB3 behind only Alvin Kamara and Ezekiel Elliott. Only Kamara (28.4 PPR per game), Christian McCaffrey (26.7), Aaron Jones (23), Dalvin Cook (22.7) and Derrick Henry (21.1) have racked up more production on a per-game basis than Robinson (19.1).
It’s unlikely that Robinson’s fantasy value is ever higher. There is potential for even fewer scoring opportunities if Mike Glennon is forced to take over for Minshew (thumb). Matchups are up and down through championship Sunday with the Jaguars going up against the Texans (No. 29 in PPR points per game allowed to RBs), Packers (No. 32), Steelers (No. 1), Browns (No. 13), Vikings (No. 19), Titans (No. 18), Ravens (No. 6) and Bears (No. 11).
Some might be looking to sell high on Robinson. It’s certainly crossed my mind over the past few weeks. And yet, what exactly would we be hoping to gain from trading Robinson in fantasy land for anything short of a king’s ransom? He’s a #good RB that flirts with 20 touches on a weekly basis and has proven capable of balling independent of game script.
Yes, it’s crazy that we live in a world where Robinson is a better rest-of-the-season asset than pretty much every RB other than Alvin Kamara, Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook and Derrick Henry. Also yes, it’s truly tough to think of five RBs you’d rather have over the rest of the season when considering present injuries and projected workloads.
It’s unlikely the Jaguars drop out of the race for 2021’s No. 1 overall pick anytime soon, but nothing we’ve seen from Robinson or the coaching staff would indicate that he’ll stop being the engine of this offense in 2020. After all, the rookie has more than exceeded expectations throughout the season, and there’s no reason to believe the Jaguars will add another RB to the mix after declining to do so for the last two months despite overwhelming injuries and turnover at the position.
James RB1son is here to stay, at least for 2020. I understand the Jaguars aren’t exactly must-watch TV these days, but don’t be afraid to put some true respect on the rookie’s name in conversations surrounding the game’s best backs in real life and fantasy football alike. Robinson has earned this treatment, and even if things slow down in the production department, he’s already provided us with one of the better underdog stories of the year.