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Why TJ Yeldon (RB, Jacksonville Jaguars) is Undervalued
TJ Yeldon enters the 2015 season as the feature back on a young, but rebuilding Jacksonville Jaguars team.
Expectations are high for the Alabama standout, and he has seemingly risen to the challenge. Yeldon is projected to be the team’s starting RB, beating out a skeleton backfield consisting of Toby Gerhart and Denard Robinson.
The Jaguars drafted Yeldon with the 36th overall pick (3rd running back taken) in last year’s draft. Amongst rookies, TJ Yeldon and Melvin Gordon are the only two running backs expected to shoulder RB1 duties for their respective teams this year.
Based on opportunity alone, Yeldon should be getting attention as a high-upside running back in fantasy leagues, especially given his relative draft value. If stars align, Yeldon has the potential to crack top 15–20 in RB production for the year.
Yeldon will be thrust into an offense where he will be relied on early and often to provide an immediate spark. The Jaguars abysmal offense only ran the ball 360 times last year, for an average of 22.5 rush attempts per game (28th in the league). A major reason being an inability to keep drives alive with a young, inexperienced nucleus on the offensive end (Jaguars only converted 31.9% of 3rd down opportunities).
With a rookie quarterback (Bortles) and three rookie receivers (Hurns, Robinson, Lee) comprising the Jaguar’s aerial attack, opposing defenses often stacked against the run. Despite this, the Jaguars surprisingly averaged 4.5 yards per attempt (tied for 6th in the league). Despite mediocre runners in Gerhart and Robinson dividing carries, the Jaguar’s ground game showed flashes of efficacy when given the opportunity. This is a promising sign going into 2015 for Yeldon, contingent on the offense being able to stay on the field.
As the clear starter out of the backfield, Yeldon is projected to shoulder at least 55–65% of the workload this year, translating to 200–230 carries on the season. Assuming no improvement in efficacy on last year’s average of 4.5 yards per carry, Yeldon would be projected to tally 900–1,035 yards on the ground if he stays healthy. Assuming the Jaguars somehow figure out how to keep a few more drives alive, Yeldon could easily out-perform those projections.
Bortles has shown signs of improvement going into his second year, and has had a whole off-season to find chemistry with the returning trio of young receivers. This should take some pressure off the run game. Meahwhile, Yeldon will be a massive upgrade relative to Gerhart and Robinson.
At Alabama, Yeldon rushed for 3,332 career yards on 576 attempts during a 3-year collegiate career. He averaged over 1,000 yards per season, while plowing for 5.8 yards per attempt. Yeldon’s stats are compelling in isolation, but even more impressive in the context that he was putting up these numbers against formidable SEC defenses. Yeldon honed his craft at storied Alabama, a prospect factory that churned out Eddie Lacy as Yeldon’s immediate predecessor.
Yeldon’s utility is not limited to a North-South vertical run game. He is also an excellent blocker on passing downs, and a potential option for Bortles out of the backfield in short passing situations, providing fantasy owners with additional upside in PPR leagues. The Jaguars have been known to mix it up with short passes out of the backfield — Gerhart and Robinson combined for 43 receptions for 310 yards last year. Yeldon should see the bulk of those opportunities shift to him as well, now that he has 3-down duties in the Jaguars offensive set. Yeldon reeled in 46 career receptions for an average of 10.7 yards per grab at Alabama, so he is clearly comfortable sliding into a pass catching role as needed.
There’s a lot to like about TJ Yeldon’s prospects for the upcoming year. The combination of a steady, predictable workload as the featured 3-down back, combined with red zone responsibilities should make him an intriguing pick up as a high-upside RB3 that can realistically put up RB2 type numbers. His value will obviously be highly correlated to the consistency of the Jaguars team offense, but his unique combination of size (6'1 225 pounds), speed (4.5 40-yard) and offensive tools (ability to run, block, catch) should ensure that he is an indispensable part of the Jaguars offense, and keep competition (Gerhart and Robinson) at bay. Yeldon is likely to end the season with 1,000 yards rushing and 6–8 TDs, but will be surely overlooked by most because he is an unproven rookie playing on a small-market team with limited exposure. While Gurley and Gordon will be getting most of the hype this draft season, Yeldon will be quietly churning out fantasy points. Get him while you still can.