The 2nd Year Running Back Comparison
By Alex French
It's finally here! The 2021 NFL season is officially underway. The draft is about a month away. Those not-so-free agents are able to sign with teams, and it's time to dig into our research to decide which players to target, as well as avoid during draft season. Considering the perceived scarcity at running back, I think it’s only appropriate we discuss a few. With draft season in full swing, I’ll be focused on some rookies from the last draft class. More specifically, I want to focus on D’Andre Swift and JK Dobbins. Just for good measure, I’m going to include another who has been quite polarizing of late, James Robinson.
D’Andre Swift; Detroit Lions
Selected with the 3rd overall pick of the second round in the 2020 NFL draft, Swift perhaps didn’t have the most exciting landing spot. However, a case can be made that he made his presence known right away. In his first game, he was on the field for over 40% of the team’s plays. That number isn’t eye-popping, however, he saw immediate usage in the red zone with 2 opportunities. That is uncommon for rookies. Swift had only 6 games where he was on the field for more than 50% of the Lions offensive plays. Yet, in his limited work, he managed to get 26 red zone opportunities, converting on 10 of them. That’s good for a %38.5 conversion rate. Perhaps equally as important, Swift was heavily used in the passing game. Over the season, he was targeted 57 times, catching 46 of them.
As a team, the Lions scored 45 touchdowns last season, which was 16th best in the league. In the offseason, they traded Matthew Stafford to the Rams for Jared Goff. The Lions also let Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones sign with other teams. With this in mind, it's reasonable to project less touchdown opportunities for the Lions. The change to Goff should still mean targets for Swift though. In 2019, Todd Gurley had 49 targets from Goff, showing his willingness to check it down to his running back. With the losses at receiver, Swift also may be asked to move into the slot on occasion. Should that happen, his 1.11 fantasy points per touch should rise even higher in 2021. That mark was the highest of the players I looked at for this exercise.
160 carries, 804 rush yards, 55 receptions, 253 rec yards, and 9 total touchdowns
JK Dobbins; Baltimore Ravens
Like Swift, Dobbins was selected in the second round of the NFL draft. Also like Swift, Dobbins had just 6 games where he was on the field for more than 50% of plays. Unlike Swift though, Dobbins was hardly used in the passing game, seeing just 24 targets. However, Dobbins managed to make the most of his opportunities. Dobbins averaged 6 yards per touch and evaded 47 tackles. He led the league in percentage of runs over 10 yards, as well as true yards per carry, which factors in the offensive line. Dobbins accounted for 9 total touchdowns last season on 28 red zone opportunities.
Looking at opportunity and production, Swift outperformed Dobbins in the touchdown efficiency department. A case can be made that Swift’s use in the passing game is the reason. However, to illustrate the efficiency Dobbins had running the ball, he averaged just .07 points per touch less than Swift with 1.04 on the season. Yet, it cannot go without saying that Dobbins has a quarterback who also takes away red zone touches. Lamar Jackson ran the ball 159 times last season adding 7 touchdowns. The Ravens also decided to let Mark Ingram leave for Houston, which could mean slightly more carries for Dobbins. However, a lack of targets means he will have to have Derrick Henry type usage, which is unlike the Ravens. That being said, Dobbins should still provide value due to his efficiency.
155 carries, 965 rush yards, 20 receptions, 130 rec yards, and 10 total touchdowns
James Robinson; Jacksonville Jaguars
Unlike Swift and Dobbins, Robinson had quite a different path to the NFL. As an undrafted free agent, Robinson forced his way onto the field and ran away with the job. Commanding 85% of the team’s opportunities, he made his presence felt. Out of this list, Robinson is the only player with more than 200 touches. He had 289. Robinson averaged 0.83 points per touch, which is impressive considering most of it came as rushing attempts. He accounted for 10 total touchdowns last season, more than a third of the team total.
With the Jaguars expected to improve in all phases of the game this year, they should see a touchdown increase, as well as increase the number of rush attempts from the 5th fewest in the NFL. In free agency, the Jaguars added Carlos Hyde as a veteran presence. If Healthy, he should help make Robinson even more efficient. Robinson managed to evade 79 tackles, which was 5th best in the league. The offensive line should improve with another year together to provide more optimism heading into 2021 for Robinson. Given the current situation in Jacksonville, I like Robinson heading into next year.
255 carries, 1163 rush yards, 50 receptions, 239 rec yards, and 10 total touchdowns
Looking at these numbers and projections, it appears James Robinson is my favorite of the three. I am actually surprised at this myself. With Jamaal Williams joining Swift in the Detroit backfield, Swift could lose some of the passing game work that provides such upside. As an example of the value of receptions, here’s two players. Player 1 had 264 total touches for 1092 yards and 10 touchdowns. Player 2 had 152 touches for 862 yards and 7 touchdowns. Player 1 is Kenyon Drake. In general, most would say he underwhelmed last season. Player 2 was Nyheim Hines. In PPR leagues, Hines outscored Drake by 1 point. 193.2-192.2. With this in mind, Dobbins would need 13 to 18 carries with nearly all the goal line work to offer similar upside to Swift and Robinson. With how the Ravens have played since Lamar Jackson became the starter, no single running back has had more than 230 touches in a season (Mark Ingram 2019). Swift will now likely share passing down work with Jamaal Williams, hurting his value. Of course the Jaguars can still add competition for Robinson in the draft, but as things currently lie, I’ll take Robinson followed by Swift then Dobbins.
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