Josh Jacobs Is Next in Line

He's widely expected to be a first-round pick. But his limited role at Alabama has scouts scratching their heads. How high can Jacobs go? Just look at his body of work.
photo of Brad GagnonBrad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistApril 23, 2019

The game tape on former Alabama running back Josh Jacobs is not extensive, but there's little doubt about his skill set. At 5'10", 220 pounds, he isn't a speed demon, but he has tremendous vision, a unique combination of power and elusiveness, magnificent receiving skills. He's even a talented blocker.

Dan Hatman, a former Eagles, Jets and Giants scout who now serves as director of scouting development at the Scouting Academy, compares Jacobs to Marshawn Lynch, calling him a "violent runner."

"When you see him play he's going to remind people of running backs that they grew up with," Hatman says. "He's certainly not backing down from contact, and his profile of size and explosion and athletic ability allows him to win most of those contests. So, I don't think he scares many [with a lack of game tape]. I imagine he's going to be an attractive piece to a lot of clubs."

Former NFL pro scouting director Michael McCartney says of Jacobs, "He does seem like he's got the traits that you want to play at a high level.

"You can't help but like his toughness. He's more than a willing blocker—he looks like he's a good blocker. And he finishes runs. He seems like he's got a lot going for him."

Jacobs is widely expected to be a first-round pick on Thursday night, despite the fact that the 21-year-old fell short of 700 rushing yards in each of his three seasons with the Crimson Tide. Bleacher Report draft guru Matt Miller has Jacobs ranked ninth in 2019, but that's not because he's offered up ample opportunities to be evaluated. Jacobs is one of the few potential first-round picks in the 2019 draft class who will give scouts and team executives headaches regarding the sample size he's offering. He was part of a deep running back platoon throughout his tenure at Alabama and only managed to separate himself from the pack during the second half of his final season in the SEC.

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Evaluators are left weighing the quality of his game tape against a lack of quantity of game tape available.

Because Jacobs is a running back, the small body of work could give him an advantage in the NFL. Mileage matters, Hatman says. Running backs typically have the shortest shelf lives among NFL players, which is why some college football programs use smaller workloads as a recruiting tool for potential backs, as opposed to setting them up to break into the league with a lot of tire tread.

"You're never going to be the guy that we hand the ball to 300 times in a year," Hatman says programs tell potential recruits. "So we're going to get you good tape and get you drafted, but get you drafted with mileage still to go."

The logic, Hatman adds, is sound.

"If I was advising a running back and their tape spoke to them being an NFL player," he says, "I'd want them to get out and start playing football in the NFL."

Another scout adds, anonymously, that the nature of Alabama's notoriously tough practices is another reason players like Jacobs are better off escaping relatively unscathed.

"So many Alabama players come into the league beat up because they get the crap beat out of them in practice," he says. "So for Jacobs to come into the league with less game wear-and-tear from that program is an advantage."

SANTA CLARA, CA - JANUARY 07:  Josh Jacobs #8 of the Alabama Crimson Tide is wrapped up by Tre Lamar #57 of the Clemson Tigers Tidein the CFP National Championship presented by AT&T at Levi's Stadium on January 7, 2019 in Santa Clara, California.  (Photo
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Jacobs may have gotten limited exposure on Saturdays, but, when he did play, he was facing the best of the best. "The carries that he has are in the SEC," says Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy, who served as an NFL scout for 18 years. "Best conference in football, most physical conference in football. He's coming from a program that's prepared guys for the league. So, to me, he's one of the cleaner prospects in this year's draft in the sense that you'd feel really good drafting him."

The obvious downside to Jacobs not getting as many snaps is that nobody has a strong read on his durability. He's never played enough for anyone to know for sure that his body can hold up at any level.

"You don't know what he can do because he hasn't carried the ball enough," says Dan Shonka, a former Eagles, Redskins and Chiefs scout and active NFL team personnel consultant. "We already know he can't run fast. We know that much. He showed up pretty good in the playoffs, but you don't know the full book on the guy and you won't know until he's in the league. And by then, it may be too late. He may be good for a year, but then you don't know about his durability. Can he take hits? Can the guy take the rigors of the NFL?"

Jacobs has had his share of injuries. He was limited by a shoulder injury as a junior in high school; ankle and hamstring issues held him back as a sophomore at Alabama in 2017.

Most rookies drafted early are asked to take on a double-digit carry load on a weekly basis, but Jacobs carried the ball 10-plus times in only four of his last 33 college games.

McCartney admits that's a valid concern.

"Everybody's built differently and everybody handles contact differently," he says. "Some guys have six good years in them, other guys can have eight, 10, 12 good years in them. You're not going to really know as you consider them all in the draft process, but you can certainly look at their injury history, and you can look at their durability. Typically, when guys are durable in college they will be durable in the pros."

Though Jacobs essentially backed up Damien Harris during all three of his seasons at Alabama, he is getting the lion's share of the predraft attention at the running back position. But Ourlads Scouting Services lists Harris, not Jacobs, as the top running back prospect in this class.

"Here's a guy who played sparingly," Shonka, who runs Ourlads, says of Jacobs. "If he was the best guy, he'd be playing [more]. Any time you have a one-year guy, there are a lot of questions without answers."

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 01: Running backs Damien Harris (left) and Josh Jacobs (right) of Alabama look on during day two of the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on March 1, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Jacobs wasn't exactly a "one-year guy," and the fact that he didn't find success as an every-down back doesn't mean he can't find it when he gets to the league. New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara never led his college team in rushing yards. Like Jacobs, he never carried the ball more than 120 times in a season. And like Jacobs, Kamara couldn't find his way to the top of Alabama's depth chart.

In fact, Kamara didn't cut it at all in Tuscaloosa. He had one tumultuous season in Nick Saban's program before transferring and winding up at Tennessee, where he excelled in a part-time role. As a result of all that, he wasn't drafted until Round 3, but it didn't take long before he caused a lot of teams to regret that.

"I think a lot of teams learned their lesson by passing on Kamara because he played behind Jalen Hurd," Nagy says. "That was a red flag for a lot of teams—they just couldn't get past that Alvin was a backup. Well, he should have went in the first round. Now after that scenario, I don't think teams are going to make that same mistake."

Jacobs and Kamara are different players. While both are good pass-catchers, the latter was a much more active presence in the receiving game at Tennessee, and he might be a little quicker than Jacobs. In the pros, "a little quicker" can be the difference between superstar and change-of-pace back. So just because one college backup became something special in the NFL doesn't mean the next one will, too.

Jacobs didn't participate at the NFL Scouting Combine as he recovered from a groin injury, and when he did finally run the 40-yard dash at Alabama's pro day, he failed to break the 4.60-second mark. Even if speed isn't his game, the lack thereof could be seen as problematic to some teams—especially considering the recent devaluation of the running back position in an increasingly pass-happy league. That Jacobs has not shown himself to be the complete package during the predraft process will make it harder for teams to justify using a first-round pick on him. "Too many mistakes can be made if you don't fully know what a guy can do," Shonka says.

He believes that Jacobs could use another year in college to overcome potential concerns about his measurables and his sample. Right now, he says, Jacobs is a strong potential rotational back. But "you don't take those guys in the first round."

Is it fair to use Jacobs' limited role at Alabama against him?

At Alabama, he splits carries with two of the nation's elite runners this season: Damien Harris, the 247Sports composite's No. 1 running back in the class of 2015, and Najee Harris, the composite's No. 1 running back in the class of 2017. Jacobs was merely a 3-star recruit; he was hardly in demand coming out of a little-known high school in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In a stirring fall profile, Jacobs told Bleacher Report's Adam Kramer: "I got my three stars when Alabama offered. But before then, I didn't have any stars."

Nagy suspects politics might have played a role in the Jacobs' playing-time conundrum. "I'm not saying this is the case with Josh, but a lot of times in college football, other things have an impact on why certain players play," he says. "Whether it's a 5-star kid that's entitled and they're just trying to keep him happy, so he's the starter and you've got the lesser-rated guy that the staff didn't have to make a lot of promises to coming off the bench. So, there are just different dynamics in play."

He adds, "In many years Alabama's got a better backfield depth chart than a lot of NFL teams, so I don't think you can knock Josh for that."

McCartney, who now works as a player agent but does not represent Jacobs, thinks Jacobs' situation at Alabama is good for his cause. "I think it's going to be a positive in his case that he shared time," he says, "because the reason he shared time is they have a lot of talent in that backfield. There are probably programs where if a guy is sharing time and the other guys aren't as talented, that would raise a red flag. But in this case it's kind of obvious why he hasn't touched the ball as much as some other backs in this draft."

In many years Alabama's got a better backfield depth chart than a lot of NFL teams, so I don't think you can knock Josh [Jacobs] for that. — Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy

The majority of the scouts with whom we spoke agreed that they didn't need to see more of Jacobs to make a sufficient evaluation of his ability as a running back. Asked if he then thought Jacobs made the right decision to forgo his senior season at Alabama, Hatman says he has all he needed to determine what Jacobs has to offer.

"I don't know what else you'd want to see him go back and work on," he says. "There's certainly players at the position where you say, if he could refine this, show me that, improve this, I'd feel more confident that he's a higher pick. But I think you see a pretty clear picture of what Josh is."

Every NFL front office will have to make a calculation involving the risk and the reward, Hatman adds.

"With every player you're buying risk," he says. "With some players the risk is very minimal, like last year with a Quenton Nelson or a Saquon Barkley, but there's still some. They're not 100 percent guaranteed [to succeed], but they're players that you can go home, put your head on the pillow and feel really good [about]. With other players you might be buying a lot of risk. It might be a coin flip. It might be a one-in-a-million chance.”

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow @Brad_Gagnon