In the 2020 NFL Draft, with the 55th pick, deep into the second round, the Baltimore Ravens added to their lethal offense by grabbing a running back in J.K. Dobbins. While the title of ‘steal of the draft’ can go to a bevy of different players, Dobbins can most certainly stake his claim. Four years ago, in the 2016 NFL Draft, fellow Ohio State running back alumnus Ezekiel Elliot tore up the Big 10 and college football, and he was rewarded by being taken with the fourth overall pick by the Dallas Cowboys, where he has developed into one of the best backs in the NFL. So it makes sense that when a player at the same position, with better stats, from the same program, emerges four years later, he would also be a prized first round pick. Yet Dobbins slipped a stunning 51 slots past where the Baltimore Ravens happily snared the Ohio State product.
So what caused Dobbins to slip so far, where he became one of the best second-round value picks, and one of the best selections of the draft overall? There’s a few reasons, but we can start by thanking Kirby Smart of Georgia. This may be a strange place to start, but there’s a good reason for it. Kirby Smart landed a talented quarterback recruit in Jacob Eason, who was impressive in his freshman year, although the Bulldogs struggled through a disappointing 8-5 season. When Eason went down with an injury in the opening game of his sophomore season, true freshman Jake Fromm took the reins. He beat Notre Dame on the road – the last team to beat the Irish in South Bend to this date – in his first career start, and he led Georgia to the national championship game, where they suffered a heartbreaking loss to Alabama. Fromm’s success led to Kirby Smart naming him the starter, and Eason transferring to Washington.
As Fromm began his sophomore campaign, he was pressured for the starting job by star freshman recruit Justin Fields. Despite the jaw-dropping talent and athleticism Fields brought to the table, Smart kept Jake Fromm as his quarterback, despite Fromm having eclipsed 200 passing yards just five times in fifteen game his freshman year. While Fromm had a good career with Georgia, he was rarely more than a game manager, as the Bulldogs’ ground-and-pound style took most of the pressure off his shoulders. He led Georgia to an 11-3 record, again only breaking the 200-yard mark five times, never making an impact in the ground game, and losing their biggest games of the year against LSU, Alabama, and Texas. In the process, Fromm fell to 0-4 in his collegiate career in games where he attempted more than 30 passes. He finished his career at Georgia 0-6 in such contests. Despite exhibiting the signs of a decent quarterback who could never carry a team, Smart continually stuck with Fromm, forcing Fields out of Athens. Fields transferred to Ohio State, where he instantly became a star.
Despite the extremely talented Dobbins being a major part of the offense, it was Fields who ran the show in Columbus. Whereas Fromm rarely did much to carry Georgia, Fields eclipsed that 200-yard mark 10 times, and he also contributed to the rushing attack. In six games against ranked opponents, Fields garnered 300 all-purpose yards three times, and put up at least 260 yards five times. While Fields garnered all the headlines, Dobbins chugged away out of the backfield, putting up ridiculous numbers and going relatively unnoticed. With their rookie darling quarterback making all the headlines, Dobbins quietly torched opposing defenses. He kicked off the season with a pedestrian 91-yard performance, but he quickly turned it up a notch, with at least 120 rushing yards in six of his next seven contests. In all seven of those games, he averaged at least 6.5 yards per carry.
Ohio State’s last four games came against highly ranked opponents in Penn State, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Clemson. In those four contests, Dobbins pounded out 157, 211, 172, and then 174 yards against some of the best run defenses in the country. With the lights at their brightest and the competition at its best, Dobbins elevated his game to a whole different level. While he was regarded as one of the better running backs in this year’s draft class, Dobbins never gained the pre-draft hype that Elliot did back in 2016. But his stats, across the board, were superior to the current Dallas star. Dobbins had nearly 200 more rushing yards, averaged more yards per game, and yards per carry. They were equal with 23 touchdowns, and that was with Dobbins being far from the focal piece of the offense. Elliot had quarterback Cardale Jones, an eventual fourth round pick who has yet to gain a permanent foothold in the NFL, leading the way, while Dobbins had a potential #1 overall pick in next year’s draft taking away from his stats. Meanwhile, fellow running backs Jonathan Taylor, who was the workhorse at Wisconsin, De’Andre Swift, the feature back in Athens who kept the pressure off of Jake Fromm, Cam Akers, who dealt with a horrific offensive line at Florida State, and Clyde Edwards-Hillaire out of LSU all were drafted ahead of Dobbins, who nearly slipped all the way into the third round.
It was an absolute steal for the Ravens to pick up Dobbins, and Baltimore wasn’t even supposed to be searching for a running back. With dual-threat quarterback Lamar Jackson and Mark Ingram leading the ground game, the Ravens had little reason to add Dobbins to the offense, other than the fact that it was utterly ridiculous he was on the board still late. There’s such a thing as addressing needs to a fault, or overthinking a draft pick. A lot of teams showed that by passing up on a clear first-round talent in Dobbins. While I can see one, maybe two of the aforementioned backs going ahead of Dobbins, that four teams decided they needed a running back and didn’t go with an absolute stud out of one of the premier programs in the country is insane, and there’s going to be a lot of regretful teams when Dobbins becomes a star in Baltimore.
So the Ravens will thank all the teams that passed on Dobbins, and by extension, they’ll thank Kirby Smart, the man who forced Justin Fields out of town and into Columbus, where he overshadowed the biggest steal of the 2020 NFL Draft.