NFL Analysis

Why J.K. Dobbins is a Top Comeback Player of the Year Candidate in 2022

Dobbins

J.K. Dobbins’ health and potential availability for Week one of the 2022 season played a surprisingly large role in the NFL news cycle this week, as the third-year running back prepares for a campaign in which he will be pivotal to the Baltimore Ravens’ hopes of success.

Dobbins disputed a report from NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, which claimed it was not certain if he would be ready for the season opener. The Ravens were robbed of Dobbins’ services last season after he tore his ACL in a preseason game.

Regardless of whether it is Dobbins or Rapoport who is providing an accurate assessment of his Week one chances, it is clear the 2020 second-round pick is a player the Ravens will likely need on the field to maximize their prospects of returning to their 2019 form.

Dobbins’ rookie season in 2020 flew under the radar. However, he was an extremely efficient runner in his first year, quickly demonstrating why the Ravens picked him in the second round.

Whenever he returns to the lineup, he will almost certainly do so as the lead runner – not counting quarterback Lamar Jackson – even in a Ravens’ backfield that provides Baltimore with several options after the franchise committed more resources to the run game in the offseason.

The potential number of opportunities Dobbins will have, combined with the importance of the ground attack to Baltimore’s offense and a roster that looks in an excellent position to rebound after missing the playoffs in 2021, is a recipe for the former Buckeye to emerge as a surprise Comeback Player of the Year candidate this season should he build on his impressive 2020.

Dobbins’ efficient rookie campaign

Dobbins finished the 2020 regular season with 805 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. He added 120 receiving yards on 18 catches. Those numbers illustrate his effectiveness as a rookie somewhat, but they do not tell the full story of how efficient he was running the ball.

He ended 2020 first in Football Outsiders DVOA, which measures per play value. Dobbins was sixth in DYAR, a metric that quantifies total value, and fourth in Success Rate, used to gauge consistency.

In other words, Dobbins was one of the most consistent backs in the NFL – with 59 percent of his runs deemed successful – and regularly provided value when he carried the ball.

Dobbins did so thanks to a well-rounded skill set, the primary ingredients of which are his excellent burst and his contact balance.

Exemplifying those two qualities are Dobbins’ yards before and after contact numbers. Per Pro Football Reference, Dobbins was fourth in yards before contact per attempt with an average of 3.1.

That was topped by only one running back, Raheem Mostert, then of the San Francisco 49ers. The two other players ahead of him on the list were quarterbacks – Kyler Murray (5.2) and teammate Jackson (5.0).

Just one player, Ronald Jones (3.0) averaged more yards after contact per rush than Dobbins (2.9). That YAC clip saw Dobbins tied with Aaron Jones and Devin Singletary and ahead of the likes of Derrick Henry (2.8) and Nick Chubb (2.7).

Dobbins used his burst to consistently get to the second level and regularly succeeded in staying on his feet through contact to gain extra yardage. The value of his proficiency in both of those aspects of the run game was encapsulated by how the Ravens performed when he was not on the field.

Taking it to the next level

The Ravens still had a top-five rushing offense in 2021. Baltimore averaged 4.79 yards per carry last season, good enough for fifth in the NFL. However, that was down from a league-leading 5.53 in 2020.

Several factors beyond the play of the running back go into a team’s rushing performance, particularly on a Ravens team that uses the quarterback as an integral part of their ground game.

The offensive line plays just as much of a role as the ball carrier in rushing success. Yet the absence of Dobbins’ ability to create additional yardage at the second level and in the open field evidently played a substantial role in the Ravens’ slight drop-off.

In 2020, the Ravens ranked ninth in second-level yards and first in open field yards, according to Football Outsiders. Last season, they ended the year 27th in second-level yards and 13th in open field yards.

While the Ravens’ tally of 15 runs of 20 yards or more was still good enough for sixth in the NFL in 2021, it was way down on the league-leading 31 they produced in 2020, when Dobbins accounted for eight.

Jackson’s struggles to stay on the field were also key to that decline. Still, the Ravens’ run game is a much more daunting proposition with a back who accounted for over a quarter of their most explosive runs in his rookie season.

If he and Jackson are both healthy this season, they will be in an excellent situation to propel the Baltimore rushing game back to the league’s summit.

A potentially perfect marriage

Dobbins’ blend of burst, elusiveness and contact balance makes him an excellent fit for a ground attack that is one of the most diverse in the NFL when Jackson is healthy.

Through his patience, vision and fluid change of direction, Dobbins can pick his way through traffic on inside runs on which his consistency in bouncing off contact is an obvious advantage.

His acceleration allows Dobbins to serve as a threat to get around the edge consistently and take advantage of the hesitation Jackson can cause among linebackers with delayed hand-offs because of the danger he poses as a runner.

Having both Jackson and Dobbins in the backfield should open the full menu of rushing options to the Ravens, giving them the freedom to attack defenses with the gap scheme runs that are a staple of their offense and read-option and option pitch plays that have proved devastatingly effective when Jackson has been at his best.

The decision to draft a zone-blocking center in Tyler Linderbaum may see the Ravens add to their ground game with a higher number of plays more typical of the Shanahan offenses that have proliferated around the NFL.

Baltimore solidified the right side of its offensive line with the free-agent signing of Morgan Moses. The strides that could bring in pass protection also has potential benefits for Dobbins.

The Ravens’ O-Line struggled to hold up in pass protection last season with Ronnie Stanley out injured and Alejandro Villanueva proving a liability on the right side.

If Stanley’s return, the selection of Linderbaum and Moses’ arrival facilitate a turnaround, Jackson will have more time to attack downfield.

Jackson was a much-improved downfield passer in 2021 and, per NextGen Stats, had a passer rating above the average on throws outside the numbers between 10 and 20 yards and over 20 yards. Further strides as a downfield passer could theoretically offer Dobbins the opportunity to run against lighter boxes as defenses adjust to threat of the deep ball, presenting him with an easier path to the open field.

Dobbins enjoying a career year is contingent on a plethora of factors. It relies on Jackson being healthy and excelling as a runner and a passer, the offensive line holding up and his own injury fully healing in time for Week 1.

Yet if all those stars align, then Dobbins will be in a perfect marriage of skill set and situation. Jackson is what makes the Ravens’ running game go. However, should Dobbins return to his 2020 efficiency and crack the 1,000-yard mark for a successful Ravens team, he will have a compelling case for the most subjective of regular-season awards.

Read More: Do Rushing Yards After Contact Translate to Wins?

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