The Jaguars thought they found their next feature running back when they took TJ Yeldon in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft. And while Yeldon’s rookie season wasn’t particularly bad, it wasn’t strong enough to stop the Jags from spending $32 million on a 28-year-old back to share the workload.
Chris Ivory cashed in on the career highs he posted across the board, leaving the run-heavy Jets for a payday with the up-and-coming Jacksonville offense. Presumably the Jags aren’t paying Ivory $10 mil guaranteed and an average of $6.4 million a year—potentially $20 million of it after he hits the RB over-the-cliff age of 30—to mentor Yeldon. Ivory has also been the more effective back, so it makes sense to give him the larger workload.
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The fantasy concerns for Ivory Jacksonville are two-fold: how specifically the touches will be split, and what exactly that volume might be on a team that’s loaded in the passing game and finished last in the NFL in running back fantasy points under first-year coordinator Greg Olsen in 2015.
Recent reports out of Jacksonville’s OTAs are already speaking to the former, praising Yeldon’s improved pass blocking and positioning him as the team’s third down/change of pace back. Even as Ivory posted career bests in the passing game last year (30 catches, 217 yards and a touchdown), Yeldon was still more productive, with 36 catches for 279 yards and a score. Expect the second-year player to maintain his 60-plus percent share of the backfield catches, and with the total number of pass-catching opportunities available for backs significantly smaller in Jacksonville—125 targets for Jets backs last year compared to 89 for Jaguar RBs—the reception portion of Ivory’s productivity will take a big hit.
Fortunately, Ivory excels in other areas where Yeldon has yet to display acumen—specifically in short-yardage and the red zone. For his career Ivory has turned 73% of his carries with three yards or less to go into first downs or touchdowns; even his stumble last season to a 61% conversion rate was significantly better than Yeldon’s career 50% mark. Ivory is also money in the red zone as well, turning 37% of his touches into first downs or scores—including a whopping 48.8% conversion rate last year. Yeldon, on a third fewer touches last year, tallied first downs or touchdowns on just 28% of his red zone touches.
Ivory accounted for almost 70% of the Jets’ 386 RB rushing attempts last season, a number that should translate to his Jacksonville workload as well as last year Yeldon saw more than two-thirds of the Jags’ RB carries. However, Ivory’s share will be drawn from a significantly smaller pool as the Jets ran the ball 88 fewer times—a difference of more than five rushing attempts per game.
Between the lower volume of carries and reduced opportunities in the passing game, Ivory’s touch level might hover closer to his first two seasons in New York—when he averaged 200 touches per season, 13 per game—than last year’s 287 touches, or 19 per game. It took that volume to make Ivory a top-10 fantasy back last year, but even with fewer carries and limited passing game work he was a top-20 back in 2014. Ivory’s success in short yardage, combined with Jacksonville’s burgeoning offense, should offset the lower volume enough to keep him fantasy relevant, though not nearly the surprise helper he turned out to be in New York last year.