A running back? In the first round? In this economy?
It was yes to all of three of those questions from then-Oakland Raiders general manager, Mike Mayock, who selected Alabama running back Josh Jacobs at No. 24 overall of the 2019 NFL Draft.
Looking back on it one year later, it’s hard to believe Jacobs is viewed as anything less than exactly what they hoped he would be.
Prior to the 2019 season, the Raiders' franchise rookie rushing record was 697 yards, held by Marcus Allen. In his rookie campaign, Jacobs shattered that record with 1,150 rushing yards. In fact, he surpassed Allen’s record in just eight games, becoming just the 20th player in NFL history to eclipse 700 rushing yards in the first eight games of their career. Jacobs also set franchise rookie records for games started (13), rushing attempts (242), rushing yards per attempt (4.7), and rushing yards per game (88.5).
Oh, and Jacobs did all this while playing in just 13 games.
According to the fine folks over at Pro Football Focus, no player in the NFL forced more missed tackles last season than Jacobs (69) despite missing those three games. Jacobs finished as PFF’s second-highest graded running back in 2019 (87.1) behind only Nick Chubb (88.7).
But when it comes to achieving the value of a first-round pick, many will tell you—certainly those who are against taking a running back in round one—that unless you affect the passing game in a positive manner, both with and without the ball, the ceiling in which your presence can benefit an offense is capped.
For Jacobs, this is likely why he was the first running back taken in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Jacobs was in a crowded running back room during his time in Tuscaloosa. Damien Harris was the early-down starter and veteran, and Najee Harris was the through-the-roof, 5-star recruit who some were already clamoring for to get playing time even as a true freshman. When it came to the power of public perception, Jacobs didn’t have that built-in fan base behind him.
So he made one.
During Jacobs’ early years, he was a special teams player. His efforts in crushing blocks and attention to detail gained the trust of the coaching staff. That led to third-down opportunities, which gave way for Jacobs to once again take the souls of defenders via big-time blocks, as well as reliable hands and dynamic receiving ability as a pass-catcher. That made it not only impossible for Jacobs to ignore, but, for the coaching staff, impossible for them not to give him even more work. That’s when we really saw Jacobs become a three-down running back with carries as the last component.
For Jacobs, his bread was first buttered, not through what he could do with the ball as a backfield ball carrier, but what he could do without it as a blocker, a route runner, and a pass catcher.
For as great as Jacobs was as a rookie, those areas of his game were lacking in 2019. Jacobs only caught 20 passes for 166 receiving yards. He saw 27 targets during the season, and his 2.07 targets-per-game ranked him 46th in the NFL, just in the category of running backs.
Jacobs’ 20 receptions tied his career-high at Alabama in a season (his junior season), but what he was able to do with those receptions in college was much more dynamic. Jacobs just did not seem as confident in the receiving game as a rookie, as was evident by his lower yards-per-reception average, as well as his three drops on the season.
This is the area where Jacobs can really take his impact to the next, first-round worthy, level. When you watch what Jacobs was able to do and the confidence he had as a receiver at Alabama, it’s easy to believe Jacobs’ first year in the NFL was just scratching the surface.
In order for a running back to achieve potential first-round value, they have to impact the game in ways that go beyond just carrying the ball. They have to enhance the passing game, both with blocks and receptions, they have to be durable and available, and they also have to elevate their teammates around them.
This can come by play, but also by attitude, work ethic, and natural leadership. When asked about Jacobs early last season, Raiders tight end Darren Waller said he’s already all-in.
“That dude is incredible,” Waller said. “With his energy out there, the way he’s running the ball, it’s like, OK, I’ve got to match that…I’m trying to make plays with him…let him be featured because that dude is the real deal.”
That part matters, too. And that, as much as anything else, is why it’s easy to believe in Jacobs.