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Tale of the Tape: Miles Sanders vs. J.K. Dobbins

By Kirk Hollis | 8/16/23

One of the most difficult tasks in drafting a fantasy football team is trying to decide between two players you think have identical value. Knowing how to break a tie is important, as often a pick comes down to a dilemma between Player A and Player B. The purpose of this article is to not only identify pairs of players that are considered of nearly equal value in 2023, but also take a look at the process of solving those dilemmas.

Our final installment in this three-part series focuses on running backs. In this case, we’ll examine two runners who have been breakout candidates every year they’ve been in the league.

Drafted in 2020, J.K. Dobbins was projected as a top 10-15 RB in fantasy for years to come and after his first season, those projections seemed on point. But a devastating knee injury eliminated his 2021 campaign and had a lingering impact on his 2022 season. This offseason, the Ravens didnít add anyone substantial to their backfield which indicates theyíre willing to give Dobbins another chance at lead-back status.

Miles Sanders, on the other hand, made the jump last season. That is, he ďbroke outĒ with over 1,300 yards and double-digit touchdowns. Sanders was drafted a year before Dobbins and like J.K., was more of a fantasy tease than an asset during his first three seasons. Now, Sanders will get a full workload, but on a team with less firepower than the Eagles.

Miles Sanders & J.K. Dobbins

The Strengths

Sanders averages 5 yards per carry. Thatís not over the course of one game or even one season - that is his average throughout his entire four-year professional career. To put it mildly, he is an explosive runner with the ability to take it to the house. And, because 2022 was only the second year in which Sanders played more than 12 games, heís only accumulated 739 carries to date. Just to put that in context, Derrick Henry has played in only three more seasons than Sanders, but over 1,000 more carries. Translation: Sanders still has plenty of tread on his tires. And in Carolina, he isnít likely to be part of a running back by committee. Instead, look for Sanders to get at least the 279 touches he got last seasonÖ and at 5 yards a rush, thatís a productive fantasy season. Also consider that since he wonít have Jalen Hurts around to vulture goal line TDs, his scoring prospects donít take quite the hit that you might think despite the obvious downgrade in offense.

If you think a career YPC of 5.0 yards a carry is good (and it is), how do you feel about a career YPC of 5.9 yards on over 200 carries? Thatís what J.K. Dobbins has done and like Sanders, Dobbins benefits from having a quarterback that is so dangerous running the football that defenses canít key in on him despite his past success. In todayís NFL, few RBs eclipse the 5.5 yards per carry mark even on a limited number of attempts. Dobbins is also staring at a contract season in which he knows his performance in the months to come will determine his eligibility for renewal this next offseason. The situation is reminiscent of where Saquon Barkley was prior to 2022 when he was facing the end of an existing contract. Barkley had his best/healthiest season since his rookie year and the result was him exceeding his draft cost. Dobbins looks and feels like this yearís Barkley, but on a team with a better offensive line. All of this suggests Dobbins is set up for success even as he competes for carries amongst several other RBs currently on the roster.

The Weaknesses

While Sanders has proven he can handle a high volume of touches, Dobbins has yet run the ball more than 134 times in a season. Sure, all signs point to Dobbins finally being able to fulfill that role in Baltimore, but he’s also got more competition for carries than Sanders does. And, can we say definitively that Dobbins is capable of getting through a season without breaking down physically? The answer is - no, we cannot. And, therein lies the problem. Sanders is more of a proven commodity while Dobbins still has some question marks. In addition, Dobbins appears to be miffed about his current contract. Yes, contract players often play their best for reasons already noted, but they can also spend the season distracted and disgruntled if they feel they are not appreciated. Are any of these red flags for Dobbins? Probably not… but, yellow flags for sure.

Let’s be honest. Sanders is not going to enjoy the running lanes in Carolina that he used to get in Philadelphia. Further, he’ll be playing with a rookie QB and will need to be proficient in pass protection to remain on the field. However, when a running back is in pass protection mode, he obviously isn’t running routes and Sanders was already averaging less than 25 receptions a year over the past three seasons, so there’s not a great deal of upside unless you think he’ll be more involved in the passing game. Baltimore should spend quite a bit of time playing from ahead and that means game script should favor Dobbins more than Sanders.

The Verdict

Itís decision time. Youíve already drafted your lead runner and now you want a quality, high upside RB2. There is confidence in fantasy circles that Sanders is going to receive more touches as the undisputed lead runner in Carolina. His YPC is likely going to tumble on a lesser offense, but the increased volume should compensate for that. Sanders scored more TDs in 2022 than his three previous years combined, and while thatís a positive, it also points to some TD regression on a team that will have fewer trips to the red zone. The bottom line is that Sanders probably saw his peak as a fantasy producer last season, but could stay at that peak for another season, making him a high-floor selection in the fourth round.

Dobbinsí floor is much lower with his inability to stay healthy a real concern. He has Gus Edwards, Justice Hill, and Lamar Jackson all competing for rushing attempts, and he is a complete non-factor in the passing game. Sounds like the decision is made, right? Not so fast. Dobbins is also in a better offense, is highly motivated, and should run for 1 to 1.5 more yards per carry than Sanders based on projections.

I donít think thereís much chance of Sanders cracking the top ten this season at the RB position, even in non-PPR formats. But, Dobbins has that chance. Hence, the modestly higher ceiling. If youíve taken a zero-RB approach through three rounds, I think taking Sanders over Dobbins is a must. Heís safer and his volume is much more guaranteed. But, if youíre looking for a guy whoís primed for a breakout, Dobbins is worth a look as a RB2. Do you value security? Or are you willing to gamble on potential?

Projected 2022 Statistics:

Miles Sanders - 1,180 rushing yards; 29 receptions, 200 receiving yards, 8 total TDs

J.K. Dobbins - 1,090 rushing yards; 22 receptions, 150 receiving yards, 12 total TDs

Best of luck in your upcoming drafts!

Next up: Tale of the Tape - Quarterbacks

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