James Robinson, the 2020 rookie sensation who took the fantasy community by storm as an undrafted free agent, has been hard to value this dynasty offseason. On one hand, his upside as Jacksonville’s bell-cow is tantalizing and his RB7 finish in PPR scoring supports that. However, based on internal changes within Jacksonville, the team’s draft picks, and willingness to move on from UDFAs, the perfect storm exists for Robinson to see his dynasty value crater. In this article, I’ll dig into how to handle Robinson in dynasty leagues.
2021 Outlook and Long-Term
Opportunities in 2020 and What to Expect in the Future
Finding productive UDFA players is difficult at any position and finding one who contributes as a rookie is rare. Robinson, the Illinois State product, took the reigns in camp and never looked back. Finishing the season with an impressive 1,414 yards from scrimmage, Robinson shined as a rookie. An exceptionally productive year for any running-back, Robinson’s RB7 finish (in 14 games) paints a bright future in the league. His 74.3% (7th) snap-share and 85.2% (1st in the league) opportunity-share are likely unsustainable year-over-year.
The year-over-year decline in running back usage and production is significant when looking at players with high-end opportunity numbers. For example, players with at least 289 touches (Robinson’s 2020 mark) see a 109–touch drop (32%) and 553-yard drop (32%) the next season. The key to this is that it is unusual for running backs to see that kind of volume. Between 2015 and 2019, only 24 different running backs have had more than 289 touches. Among those, only 7 of those did it more than once. Rarely do multiple running backs repeat in back-to-back seasons due to shifting team dynamics, falling opportunity share, and inabilities to stay healthy. Robinson is a likely regression candidate in terms of raw opportunities and a falling opportunity share.
Advanced Metrics Beyond Raw Opportunity
While opportunity drives fantasy points for running back scoring by year, it’s important to look at the efficiency metrics to determine whether high-end production is sustainable or is solely a result of volume. For example, being a compiler with heavy usage can lead to production in a season but long-term will likely be replaced by a more efficient running back who can perform the same or even better with fewer touches. This is particularly important in the case of James Robinson where he will likely see fewer opportunities. Assuming that is the likely outcome, his efficiency may make up for it.
To start – Robinson is a very good athlete. A 90th percentile SPARQ-x score with a 93rd percentile burst puts him in a special class of athlete. At 220lbs, he is bell-cow size with the year one production to back it up. The one knock on his athletic testing is a 4.64 40-time (44th percentile speed score). His lack of speed is evidenced in his breakaway run rate of 2.9% (48th in the league) and his true Yards Per Carry (which discounts runs over 10 yards) of 4.3YPC (32nd in the league). While his raw totals popped, his below-average speed may limit his upside with fewer carries. His lack of big plays is highlighted as well by his fantasy points per opportunity (fantasy points / (carries + targets)) which ranked 73rd in the league at 0.83 points.
Although pedestrian in breakaway runs, Robinson was 6th-best league-wide in yards created with 423 yards. This number is important because it isolates his abilities outside of the Jaguar’s underwhelming offensive line play. Combined with a 27.3% juke rate, we get an idea of who Robinson the player is. Ultimately, he is a running back with excellent burst but lacks the long speed to outrun the defensive backs. A valuable asset, but potentially a player who may not see a rise in efficiency in a lower-touch role.
The Trevor Lawrence Factor
One thing everyone can agree on – Jake Luton was not the answer. The musical chairs of the Jaguars quarterback room left much to be desired from a fantasy perspective. Offensive inefficiency and defensive struggles tanked any positive game-script and neutered scoring potential. Adding Trevor Lawrence could be the game-changer.
Regardless of Robinson’s efficiency, the addition of Lawrence can only be a net-positive to the offense. In 2020, Robinson had the worst game-script in the entire league, resulting in only 3 goal-line touches. Given his opportunity share, Robinson’s complete lack of goal-line opportunity could swing in the other direction. Additionally, the draft pick of Lawrence may increase the value of each opportunity, even if we see an efficiency decline. Even if his efficiency doesn’t drastically improve, the value of an opportunity might.
Changing Regime…Kind of
The previous regime has changed and headed for a new direction in 2021; well, sort of. David Caldwell who served as General Manager since 2013 was replaced by Director of Player Personnel Trent Baalke. While continuity with an internal candidate is positive, it could mean that Baalke wants to personalize the roster. In addition to change at the top of the organization, adding HC Urban Meyer could spell trouble. Meyer, who is notoriously hands-on, may push to select his favorite running back in this year’s class. This scenario is more feasible with little investment from a monetary or draft capital standpoint with Robinson.
In early March, Baalke also noted, “We have to add some explosive to that room as well and we have to be able to take some of the carries off of James.” Whether that means recently signed Carlos Hyde or another option, Baalke entered the offseason looking to add. If the addition of Hyde is what the Jaguars envisioned, it should be wheels up for Robinson in 2021. However, he doesn’t exactly fit the “explosive” that Baalke seems to be looking for. In any case, all eyes turn to the draft.
The NFL Draft
Based on all the factors laid out in the article above, the biggest risk to James Robinson is the Jaguar’s 2021 NFL draft strategy. Entering the draft, Jacksonville has excess draft capital where the top running backs should be going. With picks 25, 33, and 45, the Jaguars could ultimately select one of Najee Harris, Travis Etienne, or Javonte Williams as this range is where most running backs have been drafted over the last few years. Four picks in the first two rounds could give them the idea that they can afford a luxury selection and may view one of the running backs as such.
Historically, teams don’t hold onto their UDFA gems like one would expect. Although some teams may view Robinson as found money, there is not a substantial track record for UDFA running backs. Arian Foster is the most recent example of extended success with his prime over a decade ago. Since then, we’ve seen CJ Anderson and Phillip Lindsay flame out, each recording a top 12 season their rookie years, but only one other in the top 24. Even when UDFAs do hit, teams are willing to move on if they see a better option.
Dynasty ADP and Trade Value
Finally, you can make a case that James Robinson is a hold based on his success last season on a putrid Jaguars team and him essentially being “found money”. I might agree with that approach if his ADP was not so high. Currently RB21 (62nd overall) in Dynasty League Football Super-flex ADP, that should be too high for a player with his risk profile heading into 2021.
Currently, Robinson is going ahead of Javonte Williams, Brandon Aiyuk, Allen Robinson, Keenan Allen, Mike Evans, Chase Claypool, and Amari Cooper. I would take Williams and all of the wide receivers over him based on their locked-in 2021 outlooks. The value in fading James Robinson at his current ADP is reducing the risk in holding and based on his ADP, it’s an easy decision.
In addition to being over-drafted at his dynasty ADP, Robinson’s current trade value is one worth capitalizing on. According to the DLF Trade Analyzer he is currently valued between the 1.06 and 1.07 in Super-flex leagues. Given current valuations, this pick secures one of the top 5 quarterbacks, one of the big 3 running backs or receiver Ja’Marr Chase. Given the likely draft capital of each player, any of those options represent a safer investment than Robinson.
The decision for fantasy gamers with James Robinson is a dilemma in risk/reward. The risk is that Robinson’s dynasty value craters with the selection of a running back in the first two rounds by Jacksonville. The reward is you get a high-end running back at RB19 in startups. However, given the potential for a reduced workload and the lack of hyper-efficiency, Robinson may not pose the ceiling he drafters are looking for. Combining that with the risk of being overtaken by a draft pick, Robinson is a fade in start-ups and a likely trade candidate for those who wish to take the safer option.