Player Spotlight: T.J. Yeldon

A detailed examination of T.J. Yeldon's fantasy prospects for the 2015 season.

The Tide's Rollin' Down to Florida

T.J. Yeldon is the latest in a long line of highly regarded tailbacks to come out of Nick Saban's Alabama program. Yeldon was a 3-year contributor at Alabama, sharing the backfield with Eddie Lacy and Derrick Henry. In three years, Yeldon amassed:

  • 576 carries
  • 3,322 yards
  • 5.8 yards per rush
  • 37 rushing touchdowns
  • 46 receptions
  • 494 receiving yards
  • 2 receiving touchdowns

The Jaguars selected Yeldon in the 2nd round of the NFL draft and immediately inserted him into the lead back role in OTAs and camp.

A Clear Need

The Jaguars have struggled offensively for years:

  • 2008 -- 24th in points, 20th in yards
  • 2009 -- 24th in points, 18th in yards
  • 2010 -- 18th in points, 15th in yards
  • 2011 -- 28th in points, 32nd in yards
  • 2012 -- 30th in points, 29th in yards
  • 2013 -- 32nd in points, 31st in yards
  • 2014 -- 32nd in points, 31st in yards

It's been four years since the Jaguars had a 1,000-yard rusher (Maurice Jones-Drew rushed for 1,606 yards in 2011). Since then the team's lead backs have been fantasy afterthoughts:

  • 2012 -- Jones-Drew (500 yards from scrimmage, 2 touchdowns) -- RB52
  • 2013 -- Jones-Drew (1,117 yards from scrimmage, 5 touchdowns) -- RB20
  • 2014 -- Robinson (706 yards from scrimmage, 4 touchdowns) -- RB35

Coaching/Scheme

Jedd Fisch was an abject failure in two years as the Jaguars play-caller; so it stands to reason that Greg Olson will bring about improvement. Olson is an experienced coordinator, but his resume is hardly pristine:

YearTeamYardsPointsRusAttsRuYdsRuTDsYPR
2005 DET 27 28 23 26 22 25
2006 STL 6 10 23 17 14 10
2007 STL 24 28 24 25 32 25
2009 TAM 28 30 25 23 31 25
2010 TAM 19 20 13 8 24 6
2011 TAM 21 27 32 30 23 16
2013 OAK 23 24 16 12 7 6
2014 OAK 32 31 32 32 32 27
  Average 23 25 24 22 23 18

In eight prior seasons, Olson only managed a top 10 offense once. On average, his teams have ranked 23rd in yards and 25th in points. His rushing offense has been no better (24th in rushing attempts, 22nd in rushing yards, 23rd in rushing touchdowns). But we have to look deeper. In most of these situations, Olson was dealt a raw deal in terms of the talent he had to work with.

  • 2005 Detroit -- QB Joey Harrington, RB Kevin Jones, WR Roy Williams
  • 2006 St. Louis -- QB Marc Bulger, RB Steven Jackson, WR Torry Holt (note: the one Top 10 offense in Olson's career)
  • 2007 St. Louis -- QB Marc Bulger, RB Steven Jackson, WR Torry Holt
  • 2009 Tampa Bay -- QB Josh Freeman, RB Cadillac Williams, WR Antonio Bryant
  • 2010 Tampa Bay -- QB Josh Freeman, RB LeGarrette Blount, WR Mike Williams
  • 2011 Tampa Bay -- QB Josh Freeman, RB LeGarrette Blount, WR Mike Williams
  • 2013 Oakland -- QBs Terrelle Pryor & Mike McGloin, RB Rashad Jennings, WR Rod Streater
  • 2014 Oakland -- QB Derek Carr, RB Darren McFadden, WR James Jones

We can't say with certainty Greg Olson isn't a good offensive coach. We can say he's not had sustained success. We can say he's been dealt some rough hands. But the jury is still out on a) whether he can work wonders with better personnel and b) if the Jaguars roster should be viewed as an improvement on his typical roster?

Offensive Line

Our own Matt Bitonti ranks the Jaguars line 22nd, but notes the run-blocking as a particular concern.

 

22 (t). Jacksonville

2015 rank: 22nd.  Difference from final 2014 rank: +12.

Overall: C Run: C- Pass: B+.

Right guard Brandon Linder leads this unit, and some believe him to be the best player on the entire roster. Linder played at a borderline Pro Bowl level as a rookie, and still has the youth to improve his game. Left tackle Luke Joeckel needs to have a bounce back season.  Entering his third season, Joeckel wasn't just unsteady, he was outright bad. Zane Beadles was a steady performer at left guard but the team may have drafted his replacement in third rounder A.J. Gunn. Right tackle Jermey Parnell arrived via free agency and the team is eager to get this nasty player in the lineup. Parnell was the swing tackle with his previous team the Cowboys, but he did fill in admirably in spot starts.  Center Luke Bowanko started last year well but hit some rough patches as teams targetted the rookie. It is likely the team will turn to Stefan Wisniewski, who arrived via free agency to start at center instead. Overall this is generally a young line and if Joekel can play up to his draft standing, this line can vastly improve.

The Defense

The other component of Yeldon's success hinges on whether head coach Gus Bradley can turn the defense around. Ideally, the Jaguars would have an attacking defense that would allow the offense to run a balanced, ball-control scheme. Our staff ranks the Jaguars DST 22nd, in part because rookie savior Dante Fowler tore his ACL in mini-camp. Per our Team Report:

The Jaguars defense came in very low in yards and points allowed in 2014, and they tied for a league-low six interceptions. They did still manage to be among the top 10 in sacks, and put up five solid games to merit streamer consideration going into this season. Unfortunately, the team has already lost #3 overall pick Dante Fowler to a torn ACL in rookie minicamp, which will put disappointing 2012 second-round pick Andre Branch on the spot. The Jags are also changing identities on offense to more of a "bullyball" power-running team, so game scripts could start to benefit this defense more often. Jacksonville's D/ST shouldn't be drafted or put atop the streamer/DFS lists in most weeks, but they have occasional outbursts and could improve this year.

The Opportunity

What the Jaguars may lack in ideal supporting cast, they make up for in opportunity. Denard Robinson returns but was ill-suited for a major workload; he's no threat to Yeldon's carries. As long as Yeldon is healthy and can prove capable of pass protection, he should see at least 240 touches this season -- with upside well into the 320-330 touch range. As to the matter of pass protection, so far, so good. Yeldon has repeatedly handled blitz pickup drills in camp, but will need to show that same kind of awareness in preseason games to full win the coaches' trust.

The Schedule

The Jaguars have a good-but-not-great projected strength of schedule versus rush defenses, but fantasy owners should take note -- Jacksonville projects to have one of the EASIEST schedules in the key playoff weeks (14 through 16).

Positives

  • Yeldon is a talented runner with good vision, patience, and the ability to move the pile
  • New OC Greg Olson wants to build a balanced offense to take pressure of Blake Bortles
  • Yeldon should have a clear path to a major workload, and projects as a 3-down contributor

Negatives

  • The Jaguars offensive line ranks 22nd (below average) with particularly poor grades for run blocking
  • Greg Olson has been up-and-down as an NFL play caller
  • Blake Bortles must take a big step forward in order to keep defenses from stacking the box

Projections

YEAR GRSHYDTDTARGRECYDTDFumL
2015 PROJ-Dodds 16 225 923 7   26 187 1 1
2015 PROJ-Henry 16 210 870 7   30 240 1 0
2015 PROJ-Wood 16 245 1040 6   25 170 1 1
2015 PROJ-Tremblay 16 189 788 6   34 250 1 2

Final Thoughts

Yeldon currently ranks 20th in my rankings. Is that too optimistic? It wasn't long ago that the ONLY rookies worth using in a fantasy redraft league were running backs. A few years ago that mantra got turned on its head and now it seems rookie receivers and even a few quarterbacks are more likely to drive fantasy upside than running backs. But I like this class, and I think ultimately you have to evaluate a player based on Ability + Opportunity. Yeldon has ability, and he has opportunity. What we're not sure about is whether his supporting cast can make Yeldon's upside a reality. The offensive line projects as a below average unit, the quarterback is unproven, and Greg Olson's career as an NFL play-caller has been up and down. Based on where Yeldon is falling in drafts, you can select him as your RB3 -- that works for me, but ONLY if you've got two stud runners and at least two receivers already on your roster. BY NO MEANS should you draft Yeldon as your RB2, but if you can roster him as RB3/RB4, I think his sheer volume of work will justify the value even if his per touch metrics aren't eye-popping. Draft accordingly.


Thoughts from Around the Web

Christopher Harris of ESPN.com isn't enamored with Yeldon:

Yeldon inspires diverging opinions. Some observers look at him as an Arian Foster clone. Others, myself included, see a collegiate fumbler who doesn't run like a 226-pounder, but rather cuts and slashes sometimes unnecessarily. He lands in a fine place for volume: This spells the end of Toby Gerhart as a possible feature back, and Denard Robinson is probably best suited to be a change-of-pace runner. Of course, it's the Jags, and things would really have to turn around quickly for Blake Bortles to suddenly be at the helm of an offensive juggernaut. I'm wary of endorsing situations instead of players, so I'm not going to go crazy with my personal rank of Yeldon.

CBS Sports' Dave Richard also thinks we should avoid Yeldon:

This isn't about Yeldon's skill set, it's about where he was drafted. You can get excited about his potential workload but it's not like Jacksonville has been a hot bed for running back sensations lately. Combined, the Jags running backs have scored 20 touchdowns and notched 12 games with over 100 total yards over the last three years! That's not a lot. Jacksonville's new offensive coordinator has a cold track record with running backs and the offense has a lot to prove before being considered great. It's not a lock that he'll be the Jags' best back since MJD's best days but he should definitely do better than Toby Gerhart and Denard Robinson last season. That doesn't mean he's worth reaching for in Round 3 or 4.


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