Raiders

Josh Jacobs' rookie season shows path to greatness for Raiders star

Raiders

Josh Jacobs was everything the Raiders hoped he would be when they selected him with the No. 24 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

The Alabama product was a tough runner with the elusiveness and agility to make people miss and the strength and determination to run others over. Jacobs' first 10 games saw him have the highest Pro Football Focus grade for a rookie since 2007 when Adrian Peterson lit the NFL on fire. A shoulder injury eventually sidelined Jacobs toward the end of the year, but he still put up a brilliant rookie campaign that should have saw him take home Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. But with Jacobs missing three of the Raiders' last four games and the Silver and Black plummeting out of playoff contention, Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray stole the award at the buzzer.

The biggest theft since Amil Dinsio robbed the United California Bank Vault in 1972. (Only half kidding).

While Jacobs' rookie season didn't end with accolades and a playoff berth for the Silver and Black, his introduction to the NFL saw him put himself in elite company.

In 13 games, Jacobs carried the ball 242 times for 1,150 yards, scored seven touchdowns and averaged 4.8 yards per carry. Jacobs had five 100-plus yard games and only averaged less than four yards per carry in three of the 13 games he played in. Jacobs' production naturally drew comparisons to Marcus Allen, whose Raiders records Jacobs obliterated. But Allen only played in nine games during his strike-shortened rookie season, rushing for 697 yards and 11 touchdowns.

 

When looking at recent NFL history, Jacobs' rookie season compares favorably to two big names in particular: Todd Gurley and Marshawn Lynch.

Both Gurley and Lynch played in 13 games their rookie season, giving them the same baseline as Jacobs. In 2007, Lynch rushed for 1,115 yards and seven touchdowns while averaging four yards per carry. In 2015, Gurley rushed for 1,106 yards, 10 touchdowns and averaged 4.8 yards per carry.

Jacobs also got a lot of comparisons to Emmitt Smith during his rookie season, but the Raiders' back out-performed the Dallas Cowboys legend. In one more carry and three fewer games, Jacobs rushed for 225 more yards and gained almost a yard more per carry. Smith rushed for four more touchdowns, though.

Now one season doesn't make a comparison but it's a good starting point to predict where Jacobs' career could go.

It's impossible to compare anyone to Lynch. Even if you take his one-of-a-kind personality out of the equation, and his rolling-ball-of-knives running style, he's one of the most unique backs in NFL history. Lynch has rushed for 10,413 yards and 85 touchdowns in his career and could be bound for a gold jacket. But he didn't see an immediate jump in his production from his rookie season to the next. Lynch rushed for 1,036 yards in Year 2 but then didn't eclipse the 1,000-yard mark again until his fifth season, his first with the Seattle Seahawks. He then reeled off four straight seasons of over 1,200 yards rushing.

The Gurley comparison might be more apt. Neither Gurley or Jacobs was used much in the passing game during their first season, but Gurley's career really took off once Sean McVay took over the Rams in 2017. After a drop in production in his second season, Gurley found stardom in 2017, rushing for 1,305 yards and racking up 788 through the air. That performance and his 21-touchdown encore in 2018 earned him a massive contract, but knee injuries have derailed his career and the Rams cut him this offseason.

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Health and receiving output are the biggest things standing between Jacobs and elite status in the NFL. It's apparent how dangerous Jacobs is on the ground. He was the second-most elusive back in the NFL last season behind Dallas Cowboys rookie Tony Pollard. But he isn't talked about in the same light as Christian McCaffrey, Ezekiel Elliott, Alvin Kamara, Saquon Barkley and the like.

Why is that?

In today's NFL, running back versatility is of paramount importance. Jacobs had more rushing yards than Kamara and Barkley last season and was more elusive when it comes to missed tackles forced. But all four of those backs had at least 400 yards receiving, with McCaffrey breaking the 1,000-yard mark in both rushing and receiving. Jacobs, meanwhile, only caught 20 passes for 166 yards.

It's not an issue of skill when it comes to being a receiver. We saw Jacobs thrive as a duel-threat back during his time in Tuscaloosa, Ala. He has the ability to be a true do-everything back like McCaffrey or Barkley and be a matchup problem out wide.

 

The Raiders only lined Jacobs up outside or in the slot on 20 of his 460 snaps, so it will be put on Jon Gruden to get his star back more involved in the passing game.

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Defenses started to key in on Jacobs and the Raiders' rushing attack during the second part of the season. With the passing game not posing much of a threat outside of tight end Darren Waller and slot receiver Hunter Renfrow, teams stacked the box and loaded up to stop the Raiders' best offensive weapon.

That should change in 2020. The Raiders got more dynamic on offense by drafting wide receivers Henry Ruggs and Bryan Edwards. They also drafted Kentucky athlete Lynn Bowden Jr. in the third round to back up Jacobs. With Tyrell Williams healthy and Ruggs and Edwards adding more game-changing ability to help Derek Carr and the passing game, defenses shouldn't be able to just key in on stopping Jacobs all game. The resulting effect should, in theory, help Jacobs see less stacked boxes and bigger holes to hit.

In 13 games last season, Jacobs showed he was the feature back the Raiders hoped he would be. The shoulder injury shortened his season and the Raiders' lack of aerial threats curbed his production.

He still put up similar numbers to Gurley and Lynch. He rushed for more yards than Emmitt Smith in his rookie season and might have matched Barry Sanders had he played a full 16-game season.

The future is bright for Jacobs, and the Gurley comparison is one to look at. If the Raiders can get Jacobs involved in the passing game the way McVay did with Gurley, the sky truly is the limit.