James Robinson – Real Deal or Replaceable?

The Journey

Flashback to April 27, 2020, when the Jacksonville Jaguars signed James Robinson as an undrafted free agent. Although the small school out of Illinois State checked all the boxes with his college production – over 3200 yards rushing and 31 touchdowns over his final two years – and weighing in at 220 pounds, his subpar combine left NFL scouts wanting more. The odds were against the rookie as Jacksonville running back’s Leonard Fournette, Devine Ozigbo, and Ryquell Armstead towered over him on the depth chart.  
Photo Courtesy of Player Profiler
  Fast-forward to August 31st, when Jacksonville releases their former #4 overall pick Leonard Fournette. Robinson remains seemingly buried on the depth chart at the time. Just days later, Ryquell Armstead is placed back on the COVID-19 list, but Robinson’s path to touches still seems unclear with the aforementioned Ozigbo and the pass-catching savant Chris Thompson who was also signed in the offseason, in the fold.  However, Robinson handled 50/58 snaps in Week 1 in route to 17 touches and 90 total yards. This performance would be a springboard to an impressive rookie season to date. As you can see below, Robinson’s dynasty value has continued to climb.  
Robinson’s value early on shows many were hedging their bets that his production wouldn’t last
As we near the end of the season, Robinson’s value has skyrocketed

The Impressive Stats

Against all odds, James Robinson has produced impressive numbers. He has managed 1170 yards of total offense and sits third in the league in rushing yards through Week 12. Just how rare is it for a rookie back to notch 1100 total yards in their first 11 games? In the past 50 years, only 29 have achieved that feat! Robinson’s involvement in both the rushing and receiving out of the backfield, and he joins even more rarified air. The list of running backs that have snagged at least 35 receptions and amassed 850 or more rushing yards in their first 11 games is as follows (sorted by most receptions):     James Robinson has been producing week in and week out, with only two games under 75 total yards. Surely this means Robinson is locked in as a top-5 running back in dynasty, right?

The Concern

There is really ONLY one legitimate concern with James Robinson’s outlook, and that is his draft capital (or lack thereof). Since 1970, 66 different backs have racked up 1,000+ yards of total offense as rookies. Only three (4.5%) were undrafted: Dominic Rhodes, Phillip Lindsay, and LeGarrette Blount, with James Robinson now joining that list at the conclusion of this season. Since 2000, there are 482 instances of running backs accounting for 1,000 yards from scrimmage. Only 48 of those instances came from undrafted free agents, with 12 undrafted free agents producing multiple 1000 YFS seasons.  The concern with an undrafted free agent is whether they are generally on a ‘shorter leash’ than their more highly-drafted counterparts since the team has little resources (or pride) wrapped up in them. Would a team with five picks in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft pass up a solid running back prospect?  Robinson could prove to be a different beast than we have seen in the past. However, if the team brings in any competition this offseason, his margin of error could decrease dramatically. If Robinson goes down with a multi-week injury in 2021, could he be at higher-risk of losing his job permanently?  In some sense, we saw this scenario recently with Phillip Lindsay. While Lindsay did actually beat out fellow rookie and third round pick Royce Freeman in 2018, and surpassed 1200 yards from scrimmage in his first two years, the Broncos still signed Melvin Gordon to a contract in 2020 and have proceeded to consistently give him more touches than Lindsay. The same fate could await James Robinson, if not next season than in 2022.

The Valuation

I can certainly understand the draft capital concern and the risks therein. However, I believe the production we have seen from Robinson has stretched beyond ‘serviceable’ and is truly great. Consider, if James Robinson maintains his pace for the final quarter of the season, he would join the ranks of Edgerrin James, Kareem Hunt, Saquon Barkley, and Marshall Faulk as the only rookie running backs in the last 50 years to run for at least 1280 yards and catch at least 52 passes. Yes, those stats seem random/arbitrary, but it shows his versatility to be used as both a rusher and a receiver. Jacksonville has a number of holes to fill on that team, including quarterback, wide receiver, and at numerous defensive positions. Couple the glaring needs elsewhere with a weak free agent running back class, and James Robinson could continue onward as the undisputed number one back in Jacksonville.

The Key Considerations

A couple of important reminders as we consider Robinson’s dynasty value:
  1. Added competition would not be a nail in the coffin for his future production. Through 3/4 of the 2020 season, there are only five running backs that have seen at least 70% opportunity share. James Robinson actually paces the league at 82.8%, according to Dave Wright’s amazing data sheet. Most backs today are already in fact in some sort of committee. Unless the added competition immediately steals the majority of the work from Robinson, he’ll continue to have a key role in the Jaguars offense.
  2. High-end running back production is a short-lived bet in fantasy. From 2010-2019, there have been 63 different running backs that have produced a top-12 fantasy season. Of that group, 46 (or 73%) only return one or two RB1 seasons. Robinson will already be joining this list in 2020 as an RB1, and even in a committee in 2021 could produce another. Banking on more than a couple top-12 finishes is risky business, so you should temper your expectations on any running back, including Robinson. I am not valuing Robinson as a top-12 running back for the next five seasons. I am banking on him producing at least one more in 2021 and then I can trade him thereafter.
Currently, I have Robinson sitting at RB12 in my dynasty rankings. Depending on how the season ends, he very well could slide into my top-10. I would be willing to trade a mid-late first round rookie pick for him in 1QB leagues, and a late-first in SuperFlex leagues.   To learn more about Taylor, including where to find him on the Twitterspheres, click here.

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