Justin Jackson was not expected to be much more than a handcuff in fantasy football in 2019. However, Melvin Gordon‘s holdout looks to affect the regular season, and so Jackson will be thrust into a more significant role. The Los Angeles Chargers backup running back’s fantasy football value is increasing with every day Gordon remains training in Florida.
At this point, #Chargers RB Melvin Gordon’s holdout is expected to continue into the season, sources say. Contract talks have not progressed as he hoped, and he’ll continue to train in Florida for the foreseeable future.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) August 21, 2019
Gordon’s absence from the team gives fantasy players a conundrum over whether to still select him early on. It has also led to a debate over whether Jackson or Austin Ekeler is the better fantasy option if Gordon remains off the field.
There has been some talk of a 50-50 split in workload between the two, but Ekeler is currently going an average of five rounds earlier than Jackson in drafts. Before the recent news broke, Jackson was a 12th-round average draft position in fantasy football, according to Heath Cummings of CBS Sports.
Ekeler’s record as a receiving back is likely the reason for that disparity, but it is a gap in ADP that does a disservice to Jackson’s all-round skill set.
Jackson can take advantage of the Gordon situation and carve out a significant role in the backfield. Given the traits he displayed as a rookie, Jackson’s hype train is worthy of much more steam.
Speed & Burst
Jackson boasts an athletic profile ideally suited for the modern-day NFL. Defenses are getting faster, and zone running concepts are becoming more prevalent.
He is a decisive runner who hits the hole with great burst and has enough speed to access the second level of the defense in a hurry.
On this run against the Arizona Cardinals, Jackson rips off a significant gain on a pitch to the outside. He attacks the running lane. With his speed, along with two quickfire changes of direction and an impressive display of contact balance, allows him to easily avoid a pair of diving tacklers as he reaches the secondary.
This run came in garbage time against arguably the worst team in the NFL. However, Jackson produced similar plays in much more meaningful situations. Take the Chargers’ win over the Pittsburgh Steelers for instance.
Jackson was excellent in that victory and had numerous huge plays, including this 18-yard fourth-quarter run. He again bursts very quickly through the hole and into the secondary and then showcases his agility to make a defender miss and pick up extra yardage.
On each of these plays, Jackson’s elusiveness came to the fore, as it did throughout his rookie year.
Elusiveness & vision
Jackson has an innate ability to elude defenders, which he combines with excellent vision. A below-average running back can spot the holes when they are gaping. Jackson has demonstrated he can wait for them to develop and spot the small creases.
His patience was on full display against the Steelers on this 11-yard run. Jackson sees the running lane ahead of him is immediately filled by a defender. Instead of running straight into it for minimal gain, he plants his foot, gets the defender to hesitate and instead, heads for the chasm that has developed to his left. In doing so, he takes out five defenders and picks up crucial yardage on a game-winning drive.
Though the cutback lane was obvious, Jackson has proven he can identify gaps that are anything but that.
This run from the Cardinals game was a masterclass in how to read blocks. Jackson is faced with a clogged lane ahead of him as the defensive tackle and defensive end come off their blocks. However, Jackson understands that the tight end coming across to occupy the unblocked left defensive end will open a lane to his right. He showcases superb lateral movement to shift into that lane as it develops and bursts upfield and into the secondary.
Such plays have Jackson already looking like a steal for the Chargers in the seventh round. His skillset gives him upside that could turn him into a mid to late-round gem for fantasy owners. Of course, you’d have to be willing to bet on his talent and Melvin Gordon’s continued absence.
Fantasy Football Upside
While Jackson had only 206 rushing yards and 135 receiving yards in 2018, he made the most of limited chances to impress.
He averaged 5.2 yards per touch and 9 yards per reception. With an aptitude for evading defenders, Jackson was able to make big plays in both the run and passing game.
There was nothing overly flashy about this checkdown versus the Steelers. Jackson reaches the first-down marker with little effort but then gets the Chargers inside the Pittsburgh 30 by slicing through two defenders for extra yardage.
Jackson’s speed and proclivity for making defenders miss in the open field should make him a viable option in fantasy football PPR leagues as long as Gordon is away. Of more considerable intrigue than his passing-game upside, though, is what he can do in the red zone.
Both of Jackson’s touchdowns came on red-zone runs that he should have little difficulty reproducing regularly.
On this touchdown against the Steelers, Jackson once again showcased excellent burst through the hole and took out two defenders with his cutback before hitting the gas again to surge into the endzone.
On his second score of the season in a win over the Kansas City Chiefs, Jackson used his lateral movement to follow the blocking of the tight end effectively. Once in the running lane, Jackson burst upfield and showed off his power by lowering his shoulder and barreling his way across the plane.
Jackson had a limited role for the Chargers as a rookie but proved he is deserving of playing a more prominent part in the offense.
Through Gordon’s impasse with the Chargers, the opportunity for increased playing time looks to be coming his way. The prospective split in workload between Ekeler and Jackson is a mystery. However, if he continues to perform like he did last year, Jackson should eat into any advantage Ekeler has over him in snaps.
A consistent threat to pick up large chunks of yardage, Jackson brings touchdown upside and will expect to improve markedly on his total of two from a year ago.
Gordon returning to the fray would relegate Jackson back to fantasy football irrelevance. However, with no sign of the two-time Pro Bowler ending his exile, Jackson merits serious consideration as a cheap back who has the talent to defy his ADP and become a big-time contributor.
Nicholas McGee writes for Pro Football Network’s Film Room. Follow him on Twitter @nicholasmcgee24.