As the NFL continues to become more creative in its playcalling, offensive draft prospects who can do a bit of everything become more valuable to teams. One of the most versatile weapons this year is Alabama running back Josh Jacobs, whom the Oakland Raiders picked 24th overall in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Jacobs produced everywhere for Alabama, whether it was standard handoffs, wildcat running plays, blocking, or receiving. He was able to perform as the Crimson Tide’s battering ram when they needed a yard or two, and he was a graceful receiver down the field when Alabama asked him to line up there.
There’s more that should excite NFL teams than just that, though. He can be a threat to throw the ball, and Julio Jones taught him about some of the intricacies of running routes. Jacobs broke it all down for SB Nation during the NFL Combine.
The wildcat is just one way Jacobs brings flexibility to an offense
When Alabama got into short-yardage situations, it liked to use Jacobs as a wildcat quarterback. As a former high school quarterback, Jacobs already had experience with taking direct snaps from the center.
Here’s an example of Jacobs as Alabama’s wildcat quarterback on a third-and-1 against Mississippi State last season. He gets the snap, finds a small crease, and then breaks a tackle for the first down.
There’s an inherent difficulty with running these plays because the defense pretty much knows that the offense is going to run the ball. Running backs typically don’t get a chance to throw the ball, which eliminates a lot of the guesswork for the defense.
“Everybody knows that 80 percent of the time it’s going to be a run,” Jacobs told SB Nation. “They’re expecting the run. The thought of the type of physicality you gotta have before the play, knowing that they’re probably going to blitz. That’s probably the biggest difference.”
This play from Alabama’s College Football Playoff National Championship loss against Clemson is a perfect example of what Jacobs was talking about. Clemson has six defenders on the line of scrimmage and the Tigers linebackers are flowing downhill hard toward the running back. It’s fourth-and-1 and Alabama is in its wildcat formation — there is no secret about what the Tide’s intentions are on the play.
Yet, Jacobs was able to convert the first down.
Jacobs never threw the ball at Alabama, but he did confirm those plays were drawn up for him, just in case.
“We actually had a lot of pass plays from that formation that we didn’t show,” Jacobs said. “As far as looking forward, I don’t know how that will work in the league, but we’ll see how it goes.”
Jacobs’ ability to pick up first downs and be a productive player when the defense knows what’s coming will serve him well in the NFL. The advanced stats supports how good he is at moving the chains as a runner as well.
According to SB Nation’s Bill Connelly, Jacobs had the highest success rate of the 27 draft-eligible running backs that he has data on this year. Jacobs had “successful” rushes on 56.6 percent of his carries, which is three percentage points higher than the next best back in the class.
One caveat with the data is Jacobs only ran the ball 251 times in college, but when he got the ball, he was producing plays that kept Alabama out of long down-and-distance situations.
Outside of Jacobs’ versatility as a running back and wildcat quarterback, he was an electric performer as a receiver as well.
Julio Jones helped mold Jacobs into a deadly receiving back
Jacobs’ ability to catch the ball really separates him from other backs in the class. Along with leading the 27 running backs in rushing success rate, he also finished second in the class in receiving success rate with a mark of 57.6 percent.
As a former high school quarterback, Jacobs had to learn how to run routes and catch the ball down the field on the fly in college. Jacobs credited current Atlanta Falcons wide receiver and former Alabama star Julio Jones with his development as a receiver.
“He comes back all the time, he works out with us,” Jacobs said about Jones. “He gives me tips on running routes, all of that.”
There’s no better teacher than arguably the best receiver in the NFL, who passed some of that knowledge down onto the Alabama’s star running back.
“Just learning how to stem. When a player gets on you and you stack him and you break off using you leverage and stuff like that. He basically taught me all of that,” Jacobs said.
Stacking a defender is when a receiver gets a step on the defender in coverage and runs in front of them, which shields the defender from making a play on the ball.
That skill was on display during a big catch in the Iron Bowl. Jacobs starts off in the backfield, runs directly at the linebacker that’s supposed to covering him, gets behind him, and then creates just enough space for the quarterback to find him down the field.
Jacobs can also make things happen out of the backfield as a receiver. One of his signature plays during his time at Alabama came in the College Football Playoff semifinal against Oklahoma.
This is just a simple route to the flat, which Oklahoma has vacated. Jacobs takes in the easy catch, picks up steam, and then demolishes and Oklahoma defender in the open field.
Obviously, it won’t be as easy to run over defensive backs in the NFL, but it shows that Jacobs can be an effective runner after the catch.
Jacobs did everything well for the Crimson Tide and his game should translate to the NFL. The big concern with Jacobs is he didn’t really touch that ball all that much in college, but it’s a little hard to gauge how that will affect him in the league.
In three seasons at Alabama, Jacobs only had 299 touches. For reference, his teammate Damien Harris had 319 touches in the last two seasons combined. However, Jacobs did become a bigger piece of Alabama’s offense as the season went on. Jacobs didn’t have more than nine carries in a game for the first seven games of the season, but had at least 10 carries in four of the last eight games.
Even with the increased workload, Jacobs still remained an efficient force for Alabama. No one in this draft class comes even close to matching his overall efficiency.
No matter how you value the position in today’s NFL, Jacobs is exactly what teams should be looking for in a running back.