At the close of his rookie season, most regarded Jacksonville’s T.J. Yeldon as a solid second running back in fantasy circles. Perhaps not a week-to-week stud, but a solid, dependable young back. Someone you’d target in, say, the fourth or fifth round.
But the events of free agency have caused some to sour on the Jaguars rusher. In the offseason, Jacksonville inked a five-year, $32 million deal with Chris Ivory. Given that the former New York Jet made the Pro Bowl in 2015, ran for over 1,000 yards and got such a hefty deal, most presumed he’d be Jacksonville’s bell cow back.
Where both are going in fantasy drafts serves to reflect that. In 12-team drafts, per Fantasy Football Calculator, Ivory is typically an early sixth-round pick. Yeldon isn’t necessarily an afterthought, but at his present slot near the back of the eighth round, is seen as a clear second fiddle.
As noted, Ivory’s past successes and big contract are what have many fantasy owners thinking he’s the preferred back in Jacksonville. While he will cede some carries to Yeldon, it’s Ivory’s work as a short-yardage and goal-line back that has him going two rounds higher than his running mate.
With 15 scores in the past two seasons, Ivory proved he has a propensity for converting in goal-to-go opportunities.
But not everybody’s of the mind to take Ivory with his or her sixth-rounder. Some just don’t want to spend that sort of draft capital on a running back in a committee, whereas others think Yeldon’s a far better value given his draft slot and could be set to produce at a rate close, if not equal, to Ivory.
There are a multitude of reasons to side with those in the latter camp, including a few knocks on Ivory. For one, the Jaguars had more cap space than they knew what to do with last season. Is Ivory compensated handsomely? Of course, but Jacksonville put some big-time resources – like a second-round pick – into Yeldon as well. If he’s outperforming the vet, he’ll likely out-touch him.
But the bigger knock on Ivory is his tendency to break down as seasons wear along. His final numbers in ’15 look good, but he slumped down the stretch – finishing at or below 3.5 yards per carry in five of his final 10 fantasy-relevant games. Not to mention he’s played a full 16-game season just once in six years.
If only to protect its investment in Ivory, Jacksonville will need to get Yeldon involved.
But it goes deeper than just flaws with Ivory. Just like Yeldon isn’t the preferred goal-line runner just cause Ivory’s so strong there, there are aspects of Yeldon’s game that Ivory can’t match.
Yeldon’s an adept receiver, as evidenced by the 36 receptions and 279 receiving yards he managed in 12 games last season. Ivory, on the other hand, has never caught more than 30 balls in a year. Yeldon also has a shiftier, more patient running style that Jacksonville will want to utilize to contrast with Ivory and keep defenses on their toes.
In offseason interviews, Jaguars coach Gus Bradley admitted he wasn’t sure which of the backs would start. The way he put it made it seem like Bradley wasn’t concerned with which back would get the first snap or carry. The Jaguars seem to like switching the two runners in and out and that’s been on display in their first few preseason outings.
In two exhibition games, Ivory’s gotten 12 carries and hauled in one pass. Yeldon, meanwhile, has rushed the ball six times and caught two passes as well. Each back has scored once. It’s admittedly a small sample size, but the fact that the two backs have been rotating in and out when Jacksonville’s playing with (most of) its starters speaks volumes.
Ivory will still outscore Yeldon in some weeks. Those taking him above the second-year back think he’ll do so more often than not. But Yeldon will out-produce Ivory now and then as well. With his burst and receiving ability, that’s just a given. Jacksonville still likes Yeldon as its back of the future and should look him to get him at least 10 touches a game more often than not.
With Yeldon’s talent, that workload makes him well worth an eighth-round pick.