A question I didn't think I'd be asking at the end of the 2020 NFL season: Is Jaguars' running back James Robinson a fantasy sleeper?
The undrafted rookie carried countless managers to fantasy glory in 2020 (including myself, almost). Robinson racked up 1,414 total yards, eight touchdowns, and 49 catches. He finished the season as the RB8, averaging 14.4 points per game in standard scoring.
So why is J-Rob's expert consensus ranking all the way down at RB32 and 84 overall (according to Fantasy Pros) heading into the 2021 NFL season?
Two words: Travis Etienne
The Jaguars, under the direction of new head coach Urban Meyer, selected running back Travis Etienne with the 25th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Etienne was a dynamic playmaker at Clemson, setting the ACC record for career touchdowns. He has excellent contact balance, long speed, and is tough to tackle in the open field.
Why would Urban Meyer take a running back so high with James Robinson still in the fold? Because he doesn't envision the two offensive weapons having the same role.
I'm here to tell you why I believe both James Robinson will have a big enough role to help your fantasy team in 2021. And if I had to pick one or the other in a redraft league, I'd be letting someone else take Travis Etienne and landing Robinson a full round or two later.
Volume is key when it comes to fantasy football. Regardless of how efficient or explosive a given player is, they're going to produce for fantasy if they get a high volume of work. In 2020, Robinson carried the ball 240 times and was targeted 60 times through the air. He accounted for 71% of the Jaguars' rushing attempts and nearly 10% of their passing game.
I'm not going to pretend that the presence of Travis Etienne won't eat into Robinson's share of the offense. No, instead, I'm here to remind you that as a team, the Jaguars rushed the ball a league-low 337 times in 2020. That number is likely to regress closer to the middle of the pack or perhaps even higher.
Urban Meyer believes in balance on offense. He's shared that his idea of a perfect offensive performance is 250 yards rushing and 250 yards passing. While the Jaguars might not be able to be quite as balanced as Meyer would like, they should be able to run the ball a good bit more in 2021. With better coaching, Trevor Lawrence under center, and a revamped defense, I'm predicting the Jaguars to be in much more competitive contests on a weekly basis, allowing them to get closer to league average in rushing attempts.
If you factor in the extra ball game and figure the Jaguars run the ball around the league average — which is about 25 times a game on the conservative end — you get a total of 425 rushing attempts.
You might take the stance that Travis Etienne will get the bulk of those carries or that he'll be the lead back by season's end. I'd caution against that line of thinking.
Urban Meyer has described Travis Etienne's role in the Jaguars' offense as a Percy Harvin-esque. A "slash" player that splits his time lined up as a receiver and in the backfield.
Meyer hasn't been bashful about his feelings for the second year running back. "James Robinson is one of my favorite guys," said Meyer. "I can't name a harder worker right now on our team, and that started in January all the way through June now. So, I love that guy."
That doesn't sound like a coach who's ready to replace his starting running back. Sure, it could be coach speak. But what's not to love about James Robinson? He's humble and hardworking, has fantastic vision, contact balance, strong hands, and is an excellent pass protector. He doesn't possess legit breakaway speed, but he gives you everything else you could want out of a starting running back.
Etienne will be more of a big-play threat, and it's possible that he plays so well that Meyer and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell get to the point where they feel they can't take him off the field.
But I can't help but coming back to the point that Meyer wants Etienne to move around the offensive formation and have a versatile role. Robinson and Etienne could very well be on the field at the same time a good bit. This leads me to believe Robinson will wind up with about 45-50% of the carries in 2021. His role as a receiving back will undoubtedly be impacted by Etienne's presence. But if Robinson finishes the season with around a 45% rush share (26% lower than 2020) on 425 rushing attempts, you're looking at somewhere around 190 carries for Robinson. There's no reason to believe his efficiency will suffer in this offense. The entire O-line is back, and the pieces around him, namely Trevor Lawrence, constitute a significant upgrade. Again, this is on the low end of my projection. But with those numbers, you've got a guy who racks up 855 rushing yards, six rushing touchdowns, 20 catches for 140 yards, and an additional score, which would be good for 161.5 fantasy points in standard scoring. If Robinson gets 50% of the rush share, those numbers balloon to 958 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns. That combined with the receiving work would give him a total of 177 points in standard scoring.
Touchdowns are incredibly hard to predict year-to-year, but I'd wager they'll be easier to come by for the 2021 Jaguars than they were last season.
The bottom line is that if you're giving me a running back that has the potential to touch the ball over 200 times in an offense led by Trevor Lawrence and coached by Urban Meyer and Darrell Bevell, I'm in. The numbers I provided above are all on the conservative end. There's a legitimate chance that Robinson goes over 1,000 yards on the ground again and gets close to double digits in total touchdowns. On the other hand, there's also the possibility of Travis Etienne taking over the majority of the workload by season's end.
But I expect Robinson to be the primary early-down running back in a much-improved offense. And I don't think his role on third down will slip away entirely. What he has shown in pass pro and as a receiver is undeniable.
All this to say, I do believe Robinson is being undervalued. Based on my projections, on the low end, he'll be a decent flex play week to week; on the high end, he could finish as a reliable RB2. If you have that combination of floor and ceiling, you're looking at an ideal flyer in the sixth or seventh round. I'll certainly have him ranked higher than his ECR of 84 overall.
I understand the skepticism, and on the surface level, Etienne's presence is frightening. But with Robinson's complete game, Meyer's affection for him, and the expected "slash" role for Travis Etienne in 2021, I'll be taking James Robinson in the sixth round of many fantasy drafts.
What do you think? Let me know on Twitter!
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