Fantasy Debate: Josh Jacobs vs. Nick Chubb
Josh Jacobs and Nick Chubb are currently going off the board as the 13th and 14th picks, respectively, in FFPC leagues. In this debate, Andrew Fleischer will make his case for Chubb over Jacobs while Eric Moody takes the Jacobs side.
The Case for Nick Chubb
Andrew: These two running backs carry ADPs right next to one another at 14th overall (Jacobs) and 15th overall (Chubb), so drafters with a late-round pick will regularly be faced with a choice between the two. I lean toward the Chubb side of this duo, and here I'll lay out why.
The Cleveland Browns drafted Nick Chubb with the second pick of the second round in the 2018 draft. Chubb took a backseat to Carlos Hyde through Week 6 of his rookie season when Hyde was traded to the Jaguars, and in Week 7 his opportunity arrived. Chubb's 44 snaps more than quadrupled his previous single-game snap total of 10, and he grabbed the reigns and never let go. He was the most elusive running back of the 2018 season with at least 150 attempts (per PFF), and finished as fantasy's RB15 overall in PPR scoring formats.
Chubb then followed up a superb 2018 with an equally impressive 2019 season as the second-most elusive running back for the year, playing in all 16 games and seeing 731 snaps, the eighth-most. Chubb also maintained his proficiency at breaking long runs of 15 yards or more. In 2018, 47% of his total yardage came from rushing attempts that earned 15-plus yards, the third-highest figure, and his 38.4% breakaway percentage in 2019 paced all running backs (per PFF). Chubb took another step forward for fantasy purposes with an RB10 finish in PPR formats.
I'm using PPR scoring to frame Chubb's overall fantasy rankings not just because it's FFPC's default setting, but because one of the bigger knocks on Chubb as a top-tier running back is his lack of production as a receiver. Over the final eight games of the season that represent Kareem Hunt's return from suspension, Chubb was out-targeted by Hunt 18 to 45, and Hunt reduced Chubb's overall snap share somewhat over the final half of the season. Cleveland also lost six of their final eight games and despite the less-than-ideal circumstances surrounding him, Chubb still ranked as the PPR RB15 from Week 10 through Week 17.
Relying on touchdown totals alone from previous seasons is a fairly poor method to predict future fantasy scoring for running backs, but looking at a player's usage in the red zone can certainly inform the likelihood of an elite touchdown total. Chubb had the fourth-most red zone rushing attempts in 2019 with 50, and when the Browns were within 10 yards of the end zone, they handed the ball to Chubb 32 times, tied for the most among all running backs. Every other running back with a top-five touch total at or inside the 10-yard line scored double-digit touchdowns, while Chubb only scored six times. That abnormally low result has to be at least partially tied to the run-blocking struggles of Cleveland's offensive line.
Fortunately for Chubb, the Browns addressed their offensive line this offseason by drafting tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. in the first round of the 2020 draft, and signing tackle Jack Conklin as a free agent. If Wills can step into a starting role as a rookie and Conklin has fully recovered from injuries that derailed his 2018 season, the Browns' offensive line should see significant improvement. Conklin was particularly efficient blocking in a wide-zone rushing scheme in Tennessee, which is exactly the scheme that new Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski and offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt will install.
Speaking of the coaching changes in Cleveland, Kevin Stefanski was Minnesota's offensive coordinator in 2019 prior to being hired as the Browns' head coach, and the Vikings ran the ball at the third-highest rate in the league through 16 games. By comparison, the Browns ran the ball on a league-average 40% of plays in 2019. When the Vikings were within 20 yards of the opponent's end zone, they ran the ball 60% of the time, the highest rate in the league, while the Browns finished 16th with a 45% rushing rate in the red zone. Minnesota's Dalvin Cook happened to be one of the two running backs to tie Chubb's 32 carries at or within the 10-yard line. Despite the potential disadvantage of an entirely new coaching staff implementing their system in an abnormally-shortened pre-season, it's easy to get excited about Chubb's upside in Stefanski's outsize-zone run-heavy scheme.
The Browns faced one of the more difficult slates of rushing defenses in the NFL last year, with playcalling that didn't favor the running backs, a struggling offensive line, and Chubb still finished as the RB10 overall. It would be a mistake to put an inordinate amount of weight on strength-of-schedule projections given how much team defense fluctuates year-to-year, but using 4for4's Schedule-Adjusted Fantasy Points Allowed metric as a final layer, Cleveland projects to face the 10th-easiest schedule of run-defending defenses in 2020.
I think there's a misconception that Josh Jacobs is already a three-down running back, or that target volume elevates his floor. While Jacobs is certainly capable as a receiver when given the opportunity, that opportunity certainly isn't guaranteed. Jacobs was targeted just 27 times in 2019, and despite quotes from John Gruden suggesting an increased role for Jacobs in the passing game in 2020, Jalen Richard is still on the roster, and remains a threat to Jacobs' receiving workload. Jacobs is a talented back who's just as proficient in breaking or avoiding tackles as Chubb is, and ranked sixth with a 32.3 breakaway percentage to Chubb's league-leading 38.4%. The Raiders also boasted the eighth-most run-heavy offense in 2019 behind an excellent offensive line. There's a reason that these two players are drafted so close to one another. Looking at projected strength of schedule might be the biggest divergence between the two. While the Browns project to have one of the easier schedules of defenses to face against the run, the Raiders project to face the ninth most difficult slate of run defenses in the league in 2020.
The Case for Josh Jacobs
Eric: Jacobs was drafted by the Raiders in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft and exceeded their expectations. He emerged as the leader in Oakland’s running back by committee and started 13 games. Jacobs averaged 20.8 opportunities and 14.1 half-point PPR points per game. He finished as an RB2 or better in 61% of his games. Jacobs battled a fractured shoulder for most of the season, missing three games, but was still very effective. He finished with positive fantasy points over expectation and averaged an impressive three yards after contact per attempt on 242 rushing attempts according to Sports Info Solutions.
The Raiders had limited receiving options for quarterback Derek Carr and opposing defenses loaded the box. The only other running backs who averaged a higher number of rushing yards per game against boxes with seven men or more than Jacobs were Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook, and Leonard Fournette. It would be nice to see Jacobs be used more as a receiver out of the backfield in 2020 after averaging only 2.2 targets per game. Jacobs finished last season with a disappointing 20 receptions for 166 receiving yards and no touchdowns. Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington both saw more targets than him in 2019. With Jacobs' ability to make defenders miss it would be prudent that the Raiders keep him on the football field as much as possible.
— sportsthread (@sportsthread) June 8, 2020
The Raiders offensive line played well last season. They finished the season ranked sixth in adjusted line yards while the team’s running backs ranked 22nd in open field yards according to Football Outsiders. A team with a high ranking in ALY, but a low ranking in OFYs is heavily dependent on its offensive line to make the running game work. The Raiders moved up in a trade with the Lions to overall pick No. 109 and selected Clemson lineman John Simpson. Las Vegas’ offensive line should continue to be an asset in 2020.
— Bill Williamson (@BWilliamsonNFL) June 9, 2020
The Raiders offense is difficult to predict given head coach Jon Gruden’s ever-evolving playbook, but the additions of Henry Ruggs, Bryan Edwards, and Nelson Agholor imply that the team plans to throw the football more in 2020 by attacking the intermediate and deep levels fo the field. This would open things up even more for a healthy Jacobs as a runner while providing him additional opportunities to be used as a receiver out of the backfield. It remains to be seen how the presence of Jalen Richard and Lynn Bowden could limit his targets. On the other hand, the Raiders’ offensive shift could also result in him having more success in the red zone in 2020. Did you know he ranked in the top-five last season for red-zone touches per game? The risk of Jacobs not seeing additional targets as a receiver out of the backfield is a legitimate concern.
The irony is that Nick Chubb finds himself in a worse situation with Kareem Hunt. Chubb averaged 18.1 fantasy points per game in half-point PPR during the first eight games while Hunt served his suspension. This decreased to 12.3 fantasy points per game once Hunt returned. Hunt has a pedigree of success prior to his off the field troubles that caused him to end up in Cleveland in 2019. He averaged 18 fantasy points per game in half-point PPR and finished as an RB1 in 67% of his games from 2017 to 2018. It is not out of the realm of possibility that Hunt takes control of the Browns backfield. There’s a low probability of that happening in Las Vegas with Richard and Bowden. A healthy Jacobs has a legitimate chance to outperform Chubb in 2020.