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Buckeyes in the NFL: 2023 Fantasy Football Preview — J.K. Dobbins

Supremely talented and highly productive when healthy, Dobbins is looking to ball out and stay on the field in a contract year. If he achieves both, the former Buckeye has RB1 potential.

Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The Baltimore Ravens have historically loved running the football. Even in recent seasons, they have remained committed to pounding the rock while many other teams have chosen to air it out early, often, and without hesitation. Fully committed to the bit, Baltimore led the NFL in rushing attempts per game for three straight seasons (2018-2020), before dropping to third (2021) and then sixth (2022).

But if mobile quarterback Lamar Jackson had been fully healthy in ‘21 and ‘22, the Ravens likely would have made it five-straight seasons leading the league in totes. So love(d) might be an understatement.

Sounds like the perfect situation and/or environment for both J.K. Dobbins and his fantasy football owners, right? Because not only does Baltimore love to run the ball, but the front office also invested heavily (pick No. 55 in the 2020 NFL Draft) in JK2K, presumably hoping the former Buckeye would become a genuine workhorse — something they had not done since taking Ray Rice No. 55 overall in 2008. And for what it’s worth, Dobbins is and has been the team’s most talented running back since the day he was drafted.

Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

But wait, there’s more! Despite having a perpetually banged-up franchise QB and depth issues at RB, the Ravens did not really address their backfield this past offseason. Sure, they signed Keaton Mitchell as an undrafted free agent, but the rookie runner out of East Carolina is not a needle mover. So in addition to being his team’s most talented RB, Dobbins also faces very little competition on paper.

Why then, given Dobbins’ undeniable talent and all of the information above, is Ohio State’s only 2,000-yard rusher a risky fantasy football target? Why is he not even inside the top-10 of most RB rankings?

Well, for starters, Dobbins has not been the most durable guy in Baltimore. Far from it, actually. He suffered a gruesome knee injury prior to the 2021 season, which has unfortunately limited him to just eight games since his stellar rookie season (2020). 23, as in the number of games played by Dobbins across three seasons, is a huge red flag for fantasy owners and a massive bummer for both Dobbins and the Ravens. But it is also a very real and very concerning number that must be factored into his overall value — in fantasy and/or real life, both of which are implied moving forward.

Also working against Dobbins is or has been the fact that Baltimore loves to run the football... with Jackson, that is. And every other RB they can find. The Ravens do not discriminate when handing the ball off, but Jackson keeping it has been the biggest blow to Dobbins’ perceived value.

The freshly-minted quarter-billionaire (Jackson) has rushed for over 2,500 yards since the latter entered the league, eliminating any need for a three-down workhorse. While Dobbins is clearly the most talented running back in Charm City, Jackson has an argument as its most talented runner.

50/50 shot Jackson kept this ball
Set Number: x164204 TK1

The last knock against Dobbins that I want to bring up in this piece is pass-catching. Or lack thereof. He does not have hands of stone, but I would never refer to him as a Christian McCaffery-type either. And even if the Ravens’ RB did have CMC’s skillset, it likely wouldn’t matter a lick. Because Baltimore has not thrown the ball a ton with Jackson at QB, and one or the other (team or QB) seems to hate receivers out of the backfield.

Dobbins only has 25 receptions in 23 regular season games, cratering his value in the eyes of some. If you are Kyle Shanahan or a fantasy football player looking for a PPR stud, the former Buckeye is likely not your guy. But more on this later...

So if Dobbins’ volume fluctuates and even disappears at times, and he has proven to be unreliable in an offense that does feature backs as pass catchers, why in the heck should you or I draft him in fantasy football? The answer to that question is pretty simple and straightforward: Because Dobbins is a wildly efficient scoring machine when he does play, and we should be very motivated to not only play but play well as he seeks a new contract. Also, he’s a Buckeye and he’s awesome. But you likely want stats and all that jazz, and I get that.

As a rookie in 2020, Dobbins found paydirt seven times in the eight regular season games during which he received 11 or more carries. He also added two 2PT conversions. However, once the Ravens reached the postseason, handcuffs were placed back on Dobbins, and he totaled just 19 carries in the team’s two playoff games combined. He did, however, add two more TDs.

That adds up to Dobbins producing 11 total TD on 175 touches as a rookie, scoring at a higher rate than all players not named Jalen Hurts last season (and Taysom Hill, but he doesn’t count). Sample size, regression factor, blah blah blah... I get it. The now fourth-year RB is not likely to replicate his rookie-season scoring efficiency, but evidence of elite production exists. And keep in mind: despite appearing in 15 regular season games in 2020, Dobbins scored these TD primarily as a backup!

Starts may have been ceremonial in Baltimore, but he was only credited with one, according to PFF. He played on just 46 percent of the Ravens’ offensive snaps as a rookie, suggesting a much (much) higher ceiling if he were to start something like 12, 14, even 17 games.

After missing all of 2021 due to injury, Dobbins returned in Week 3 of the 2022 season and was clearly a shell of himself. He played parts of four games before going back on the shelf, only to return again in Week 14. Seemingly healthy for the first time in nearly two years, the former Buckeye by way of Texas then went on a four-game tear of sorts. Dobbins rarely found the endzone during this month-long stretch (a single TD) but he was arguably as explosive as ever. He averaged a robust 6.9 yards per carry (go ahead, say it) in December and helped Baltimore reach the playoff without their franchise QB.

Each of Dobbins’ two healthy-ish seasons provides a different glimmer of hope that he can develop into a consistent ‘star’ for both the Ravens and fantasy football players. Another reason that I am somewhat bullish on his future fantasy potential in particular is something I hinted at or alluded to earlier...

Baltimore recently dumped Greg Roman as the team’s offensive coordinator and hired Former Georgia OC Todd Monken to take his place. Monken, a bit of a coaching nomad, has been hit-or-miss as a playcaller, so success is not guaranteed. But he likes to throw the ball, and he did wonders for the boys in Athens. More importantly, Monken acknowledges that a QB with wheels is not required by some football law to use them frequently.

So it’s possible that Jackson runs less in 2023 (and beyond) and instead hands the ball off more, while also targeting his guys out of the backfield with regularity. This would be a huge boost to Dobbins’ value.

“Hey Lamar, can you pull it down and run this time!?”
Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The case for targeting Dobbins early and often in fantasy drafts is not a strong one. He hasn’t been able to stay on the field, and until we see proof of concept, why should we believe that Jackson is not going to pilfer 800+ yards and 6+ TD from the Ravens’ backfield? But I am not encouraging anybody to take Dobbins in the first round. Hell, I wouldn’t touch him in round two or round three either. I would, however, start to look at JK2K in the fourth round. At that point he becomes a potential steal and/or league-winner.

Not to sound crazy or like too much of a homer, but imagine if Dobbins averages 5.3 YPC on 15 carries per game. That is a 10% drop-off from his career YPC average and right in line with how often he carried the ball last December. Those averages would give him over 1,300 rushing yards for a full season (Saquon Barkley finished fourth in 2022 with 1,312). 15 carries per game for 16 or 17 games would also put him at 240-255 carries for a full season. And since we know that Dobbins only needed 175 total touches to rack up 11 TD as a rookie, one could reasonably expect Dobbins to find the endzone 12+ times with a full workload.

Even factoring in regression. All of this would amount to a heck of a real-life and fantasy stat line, without a single pass being caught in the revamped Baltimore offense! Hose me down, because this former Buckeye is starting to look like a first-rounder.

In all likelihood, Dobbins will see his usual volume and perhaps even miss a few games. Such is life. But he will definitely be chasing a second contract, which should serve as extra motivation to ball out and be available (not that he could be blamed for a knee injury). There is obvious risk in drafting Dobbins... There is also plenty of upside. His early ADP is right around No. 50 overall (RB15-25) but I’m just not seeing it. I will be targeting him in the 35-40 range, and I would encourage others to do the same.