Fantasy Court: The Case Against J.K. Dobbins in 2021
The J.K. Dobbins hype is officially out of control. After all, it was a predictable rise to fantasy stardom for the young running back. Baltimore invested the 55th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft just one year after Mark Ingram finished 2019 as the RB8 overall in fantasy, then phased the veteran out of the offensive scheme quicker than you can say “touchdown.”
In 2020 as a rookie, Dobbins was awesome for fantasy football. He finished with six straight top 20 weeks down the final stretch of the season when he was officially given the starting RB role. In fact, from Week 8 on, Dobbins was fantasy’s RB9 in total points. Some fantasy analysts, including my opponent in this fantasy court case, Jeff Greenwood, would call Dobbins a league winner in 2020. I can’t argue any of these points, and to be honest, I thought Dobbins looked good on tape.
But here’s the reality with Dobbins – He’s being over-drafted, his ADP is on the rise, and he won’t return fantasy value based on his draft position. Below, I present to you, the judge in this fantasy court, the case against J’Kaylin Dobbins for the 2021 season.
The Numbers are Flawed
I just mentioned that the Ravens rookie RB in 2020 finished the season as the RB9, so on the surface, it may seem like his current RB17 average draft position is silly. However, using that sample size from Week 8-17, Dobbins was tied with or worse than the following RBs on a points per game basis:
Points per game is a more reliable metric when examining fantasy performance because it allows you to remove the bias from the “He finished as the RB__” argument because, in that sample, that particular running back may have just had good luck from an injury perspective. Simply put, if you’re a running back and you play without getting injured, you finish inside the top 15 at the position by sheer volume alone.
Running Back By Committee? No, Full Backfield By Committee
Speaking of volume – I’m not all that sure J.K. Dobbins is going to get enough of it to finish as a top 15 option at the position. Last season, Dobbins only surpassed 50% of the team’s RB rush attempts in a given week a total of four times…no, that is not a typo. Guess who else had four games of 50+% of the team’s RB rush attempts? None other than the Gus Bus himself, Gus Edwards.
The reality of J.K. Dobbins is that he’s at best the 1A in this backfield at the running back position, as it doesn’t appear to be 1-2 punch. Rather, it looks like it’s going to be a full-blown committee with Gus Edwards nipping at the heels of Dobbins’ fantasy value all season long. Gus Edwards entered the NFL in 2018 as an undrafted free agent. Now, just three years later, he’ll make more money than the following backs:
Now look, I get it. The names listed above are all young backs who are playing on a rookie deal, so this is a bit of a cherry-picked argument, but the point remains – the Baltimore Ravens have big plans for Gus Edwards in 2021. After being an unrestricted free agent making $750,000 just one year ago, in a league where running backs aren’t valued by NFL franchises, the Baltimore Ravens gave Edwards a 2nd round tender, a massive commitment to a player who wasn’t drafted a few years ago. He’s now under contract for a few seasons after signing 2-year extension for $9 million.
So now that we know the team is committed to Gus, shall we look at how they utilized the former undrafted back in his third NFL season?
Okay, okay – so Gus will take some work. No big deal, right? After all, it is just one player with which to share the backfield.
*Lamar Jackson has entered the chat.*
Are we forgetting just how dominant Lamar Jackson can be when running the football? It sort of feels like we’ve taken Lamar’s greatness for granted. The reality here is that Jackson is the Ravens’ RB1. No other QB in NFL history has accomplished back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons, and that’s exactly what Lamar has done in his two years as the Ravens starter.
Not only does Lamar pile up yards in a hurry, Jackson ran for 14 total regular-season touchdowns in his two years as a starter, and there’s reason to believe he could break his current single season-high of 7 rushing TDs in 2021. Lamar ranked third among all QBs in 2020 with 16 rush attempts from inside the 10-yard line, yet he scored on just three of those attempts. For reference, Cam Newton and Taysom Hill, the two QBs with more rush attempts in close scored on 35% and 44% of their 10-zone carries. Meanwhile, Lamar scored on just 18.7% of his. Assuming he finds the right side of TD variance in 2021 and his carries close to the goal line go up or at worst, remain the same, he’ll find the end zone more often via the ground game, and that’s bad news for Baltimore’s running backs.
Without Receiving Work, There’s No Upside
Let’s address the elephant in the room. Running backs who don’t catch the football, aren’t league winners in fantasy football. Well, I should rephrase that – running backs not named Derrick Henry who don’t catch passes don’t have the upside we’re looking for to win our fantasy leagues, especially in today’s fantasy scoring which is almost exclusively half PPR or full PPR scoring. I’m not saying that J.K. Dobbins can’t finish the year as an RB2 for fantasy, in fact, I think he will. But when we’re taking a running back with top three-round ADP capital, we can’t be wrong. We can’t miss our third-round selection, or we’re left scrambling to replace points in our starting lineup later in the season.
Without a pass-catching role, Dobbins is unlikely to finish inside the top 12 at the position, and I hate investing top-three round draft capital into a back who’s being drafted close to his ceiling. But just how bad is it for the Baltimore running backs in terms of their piece of the passing game pie? In 2020, the Ravens targeted their running back position group at a 16% rate, the 7th lowest in the NFL. However, that doesn’t tell the whole story as target share simply looks at a percentage of a team’s targets rather than raw targets, which is what we care about when discussing whether or not Dobbins is going to see passing volume. The Ravens threw the ball to their backfield a grand total of 62 times…in 16 games…all year. That’s a season-long average of less than 4 targets per game to the entire backfield. And when I say entire backfield, I mean the entire backfield as Pat Ricard even saw 12 of those 62 targets.
Now, I will say it’s possible we see Baltimore throw more in 2021 than we’ve seen in two seasons with Lamar as the starter. After all, they did draft rookie WR Rashod Bateman in the first round of the NFL Draft, added another rookie WR in round four in Tylan Wallace, and they even brought in Sammy Watkins via free agency. If we follow these transactions, one thing is clear: the Ravens were set on upgrading their pass-catching core to supplement Marquise Brown and Mark Andrews. If they throw even a little bit more, I suppose that could be good for the backfield, but don’t you think we’d see Lamar target these new weapons before targeting his running backs? That’s what his track record tells us, anyway. Look, if you’re happy with drafting the RB14 at an RB16 price tag, be my guest, but I’m not trying to finish fourth in my fantasy league.
The Running Back Dead Zone
If you want to get J.K. Dobbins on your roster this season, you’re going to have to draft him at the beginning of the third round based on current ADP at the 3.04 spot thanks to our friends over at Sleeper. He’s currently being drafted as the RB16 in half PPR scoring and the RB14 (FOURTEEN?!) in full PPR scoring at the 2.09. Yes, a running back who isn’t going to catch the football is being drafted in the second round of a full PPR league. Please see the section above for my thoughts on this matter.
Okay, okay. So he’s being drafted above some other pass-catching backs. Maybe that isn’t that egregious (except it is), but what’s awful about Dobbins at his ADP is that you are missing out on rock-solid WR1 or WR2 caliber players, and we know based on data that fantasy managers who selected wide receivers in this range of ADP tend to have higher win rates than teams who selected running backs here, especially in PPR leagues. Another analyst over at Establish The Run, Jack Miller, has written about the concept of the RB dead zone in detail. Check that out here.
Here are the highlight’s from Jack’s work, which looks at data going back to 2015:
- WRs picked in Rounds 3-6 have averaged an above-expectation win rate in six consecutive seasons. RBs picked in that area have been below-expectation for six straight years.
- The average win rate for RBs selected in these rounds is about 8.02%. Meanwhile, the average win rate for WRs selected in these rounds is about 9.05%.
Here are some notable wide receivers being selected after Dobbins in full PPR leagues:
You get the idea. The opportunity cost of selecting a running back even with pass-catching upside in this range is not something that will help us win in fantasy. To make matters worse, the opportunity cost of selecting a running back without pass-catching upside is simply a losing strategy.
J.K. Dobbins can be good for fantasy. No one is arguing that, but can he be great for fantasy? Can he win you your league? Can he be a difference-maker in your lineup each and every week? The answer, my friends, is no. Dobbins is being drafted far too early to pay off his price tag, and in order to get this one-dimensional back on your roster, you have to pass on some of the best wide receivers in fantasy. If you want some exposure to the Ravens’ backfield, why not draft Gus Edwards a full nine rounds later? You’re essentially getting the same player at a much cheaper price tag.
I’ll close with this: I do believe J.K. Dobbins can finish as a back-end RB2 in fantasy, and if you like wasting a second-round fantasy draft pick on back-end RB2’s then J.K. Dobbins is your guy. But, if you like winning in fantasy football, why not draft a pass-catching back who actually as the upside to finish inside the top 5 at the position, or better yet, why not take a proven wide receiver who will absolutely smash Dobbins in PPR scoring? Simply put, Dobbins is not going to return value based on the reasons outlined above, and as they say, in the fantasy court, the case is closed.