Each week throughout the season, I’ll cover at least two rookies in the Rookie Report Card and try to always include the biggest performers from that particular week. On top of reviewing my expectations for each player coming into the league and covering how he’s performed at the NFL level to this point, I’ll actually give him a grade in three categories. Those categories are performance to date, 2018 potential and long term upside.
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Justin Jackson, RB LAC
Week 15 Stats: 16 carries, 58 yards, one touchdown, three catches, 27 receiving yards (four targets)
I watched more of Justin Jackson than nearly any other prospect over the last four years and always appreciated his game. In his four-year career at Northwestern, Jackson carried 1,142 times for 5,440 yards (4.8 YPC) and 41 touchdowns on the ground while hauling in 122 passes for 858 yards and another score.
Possessing a quality burst at the line of scrimmage and enough change of direction ability to hit a hole running downhill, I was always impressed how he’s able to get through the first wave of tacklers. And his hard-nosed running style and never quit effort made him easy to watch while at Northwestern.
Following his freshman season with the Wildcats, I was so captivated by Jackson that I actually drafted him in a semi-deep devy league. After all, a freshman coming off a 1,388 yard, 11 touchdown season was something to get dynasty owners’ attention. He appeared to have very high upside.
Though he continued to put up impressive numbers through the next three season, it didn’t appear that he took another step towards being the great fantasy runner on Sunday’s that I thought he’d develop into – particularly due to his lack of balance and inability at times to break tackles which makes so many pro backs great. Tall and thin (6’-0’, 195 pounds) for a between the tackles runner, and stuck behind both Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler after landing in Los Angeles, he fell into the fourth round of my draft board – and off my (and others’) radar in most leagues either because of having small roster sizes, only three rounds of rookie drafts, or other players falling down the draft. A quality dart throw, many of us missed on him.
Since injuries have struck the Chargers’ backfield, Jackson has filled in nicely at times for the Bolts. Carrying 38 times for 190 yards and two touchdowns along with contributing six catches for 69 yards through the air over the last four games, he kept LA’s running game going and been a nice flex player for dynasty owners – particularly in week 15.
The aggressive running style and downhill running he showed at Northwestern has translated nicely to Sundays and his insistence to not go down easily has been impressive. In the small sample size we’ve seen from Jackson he’s been explosive, powerful and a quality outlet when needed for Philip Rivers out of the backfield.
While it’s unlikely Jackson will make much more of an impact in 2018 due to the impending return of Gordon and Ekeler, the rookie should have at the very least given his owners some confidence that he’s worth a roster spot as a developmental tailback with excellent handcuff appeal and mid-to-low RB2 upside when given the chance to lead a backfield.
Kalen Ballage, RB MIA
Week 15 Stats: 12 carries, 123 yards, one touchdown, one catch, -2 yards (one target)
For those of you that listen to the DLF Dynasty Podcast, you know that I have have never been able to get on board with the hype surrounding Ballage coming out of Arizona State. I tried, multiple times. But each time I saw the well-rounded player that could move from running back, to slot receiver, to wildcat quarterback that his supporters loved to mention, I couldn’t help but see the missed rushing lanes and big hits he took due to his upright running style. And when I watched the big runs and eight touchdown performance, I also saw him go down too easily at times for a guy his size (6’-2”, 228 pounds) and a player that was very inconsistent, breaking a big gain on one play only to run into a blocker’s back and struggle to gain yardage on the next despite running room.
When Ballage landed in Miami – one of the top landing spots for a running back – in the fourth round on draft weekend, I tried to move him up from the first few picks of the fourth round of my rookie rankings but barely got him into the top-36. And when the glowing reports were coming out of Miami in training camp, I wondered if I missed something.
Fast forward through the inactive weeks early on in the regular season and eight carries for 11 yards in the next nine games and it’s not difficult to see why nobody has said much about Ballage all year.
Until Week 15.
Ballage exploded for 123 rushing yards and a score on 12 carries against the Vikings following an ankle injury to Frank Gore. While most of his production came on a 75-yard score to open the third quarter, it was enough to open the eyes of even the biggest Ballage critic as the stretch play off right tackle featured quick decision making (which was a problem at times in college), a sharp cut and good burst to blast through the hole before turning on his 4.4 speed and taking it to the house.
Even without that run, Ballage averaged 4.4 yards per carry and flashed quickness throughout the game. He looked fresh, changing direction with ease with jump cuts and getting as much as possible on nearly every opportunity.
All things told, I was impressed with Ballage in his first real chance in the NFL. But while that won’t move the needle on how I feel about his long-term upside, dynasty owners that drafted him and believe in his talent should feel good about what they saw and feel better about their investment after that performance.
Personally, I feel like Ballage has the upside of a part-time tailback that could fill in as a starter for short periods but would struggle if asked to do more than that consistently. Unfortunately for his dynasty owners however, a role like that wouldn’t translate well for fantasy.
Find Dan on Twitter at @dmeylor22
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