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2020 NFL Draft Prospects Preview: Running Backs

The 2020 class of draft-eligible running backs in many ways reflects the mindset most evaluators and fantasy players have towards the position. And that is that running backs don’t matter. There are a lot of decent running backs in this class, many of whom are projected to have a role on Sundays. However, there is not a back among them who would likely be considered a franchise player in the NFL. This year’s class features players who have carried the ball 300-plus times throughout a season and some who have fewer than 300 touches throughout their entire collegiate careers. In today’s NFL, many backs are utilized in specific roles rather than blindly being given 20 or 25 touches in a game. From that angle, most of these backs will have some fantasy relevance. To what extent remains to be seen.

Most of these running backs project to be involved in some sort of committee at the next level. Because of that, I am not particularly bullish on any of these players for 2020 redraft leagues. However, there are a lot of solid backs in this class, and plenty have dynasty appeal. Running back is the skill position that usually needs the most context to project their fantasy value. I would trust the same running back infinitely more on the Kansas City Chiefs than I would on the New York Jets, for example. That obvious caveat aside, here are some of the running backs in this year’s draft class whom I believe will make the biggest fantasy impact in 2020 and beyond.

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2020 NFL Draft Prospects – Running Backs

D’Andre Swift, Georgia

D’Andre Swift had just 440 carries in 43 games with the Bulldogs. But make no mistake – he has the tools to make an impact at the pro level. Swift is a compact back at 5’8” and 212 pounds. He averaged at least six yards per carry in each of his three seasons in Athens while eclipsing 1,000 yards on the ground in each of the past two years. Swift should be an excellent fit in the NFL because of his ability to catch the football. Swift caught 73 of 76 catchable passes in college and averaged over nine yards per reception throughout his collegiate career. He ran routes from multiple positions on the field including the slot and can be a matchup nightmare for opposing linebackers out of the backfield.

Swift excels outside the tackles. He averaged 8.15 yards per carry on 82 outside runs last season. He is not a bell-cow back, but he does not need to be, to be successful, especially from a fantasy perspective. We have seen several backs put up RB1 numbers in recent seasons without approaching 200 carries. I would not put Swift in that category right away. However, the potential is certainly there if winds up with a coaching staff who can effectively highlight his prowess out of the backfield. I am not sure if D’Andre Swift will be the first running back off the board next week. But he is the running back I would be most willing to bet on from a fantasy standpoint, all things being equal.

J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State

J.K. Dobbins hit the ground running in the Big 10. Dobbins ran for 1,400 yards as a true freshman, adding 22 receptions for good measure. After failing to take the next step as a sophomore, Dobbins bounced back in a big way last season. He carried the ball 301 times and surpassed the 2,000-yard mark on the ground. Dobbins hit paydirt 23 times as a junior and led the country with 31 carries of at least 15 yards. He has a one-cut running style that translates well to the NFL game and does a good job of reading blocks. Dobbins exhibits great burst and is a solid receiving threat out of the backfield. He caught at least 20 passes in all three seasons and averaged over 10 yards per catch in each of the past two.

With so many variables, it is difficult to say how valuable Dobbins will be in fantasy leagues. However, I have seen multiple mock drafts where he is taken by Tampa Bay in Round 2. That is an ideal fit for the 21-year-old. The Bucs are in desperate need of an upgrade at the position. They are coached by an offensive mind and have plenty of receiving threats that could allow a talent like Dobbins to face a relatively low number of stacked fronts. Rumor has it they also have a new quarterback this season. I don’t know too much about him, but I’ve heard good things. If Dobbins does end up in Tampa, he will be a valuable fantasy commodity as early as this fall.

Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin

Jonathan Taylor has a near-perfect combination of size and speed at the running back position. He stands at 5’10” and weighed in at the NFL Combine at 226 pounds. Taylor became the first running back in NCAA history to surpass 6,000 rushing yards in just three seasons. Taylor is a workhorse who averaged at least 21 carries in each season and scored 50 total touchdowns on the ground. He forced 87 missed tackles and ran for 1,257 yards after contact last season. Both marks were third in the nation. Taylor put up solid Combine numbers in the three-cone drill and the 20-yard shuttle, and his 40-yard dash and 10-yard split times are elite, at 4.39 and 1.46 seconds, respectively. He is difficult to bring down in the open field and displays excellent vision. Taylor should be an effective NFL running back right from the get-go.

However, he does have an Achilles heel. It’s not actually his heel, but rather his hands. Taylor caught just 42 passes in three collegiate seasons. If that were not bad enough, he had eight drops. In other words, he dropped 16 percent of catchable passes thrown his way. He also had some fumbling issues in college. Taylor coughed the football up 17 times in 41 collegiate games. His lack of chops in the receiving game is likely to earn him a mere two-down role, and NFL coaches have little patience for rookies who fumble the ball. From that standpoint, Taylor is a tad riskier than his rushing numbers would lead one to believe. It is difficult to project Taylor’s 2020 fantasy value without the context of knowing where he lands, but he should be an effective early-down back who holds more value in Standard formats than PPR leagues.

Zack Moss, Utah

Zack Moss has been one of the country’s best running backs over the last three years. His PFF rushing grade has ranked within the top-15 at the position in each season. He  Like Edwards-Helaire, Moss makes up for a lack of straightaway speed with top-notch elusiveness. Moss displays good vision and good leg drive, finishing runs with authority. He also knows how to set up defenders in space. Moss utilizes quick cuts to elude tackles in both the running and passing game. Since 2017, he has averaged 0.33 broken tackles per rush and 0.50 broken tackles per reception. Both numbers are among the very best at the running back position. He is not a home run threat, but he consistently manages to produce chunk plays out of the backfield.

The 22-year old ran primarily in a zone scheme throughout his college career. And despite his pedestrian speed, he did most of his damage outside the tackles. I do not expect him to have the same success on the outside in the NFL as he did in Utah. Pro defenders are too quick to set the edge, and Moss will not be able to get to the perimeter consistently. But he is an above-average pass protector, which could endear him to NFL coaches. Moss is an intriguing player from a fantasy standpoint. I believe that he will initially be utilized as a third-down back, which will limit his upside. However, he has the skillset to offer more if circumstances warrant and he is granted an opportunity.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire, LSU

Clyde Edwards-Helaire touched the ball just 12 times as a freshman in 2017. He earned a bigger role in 2018 but honestly did not look like anything special. He averaged just 4.5 yards per b carry and did not display elite playmaking ability. That all changed last season, however. Edwards-Helaire exhibited a knack for making defenders miss. He forced 71 missed tackles on just 269 touches. His low center of gravity makes him difficult to bring down, and he is elusive in the open field. He seems to constantly make the first man miss with a variety of jukes and spin moves. The 5’7”, 207-pound back runs what Mike Renner at Pro Football Focus describes as a devastating angle route due to his penchant for leaving linebackers guessing in coverage. He earned PFF’s second-highest rushing grade last year and led all backs in wins above average.

Despite his small stature, Edwards-Helaire is a physical back. He averaged 7.33 yards per run between the tackles last season, including 7.8 yards between the guards. If there is an area he needs work on, it is pass protection. He needs to gain some upper-body strength and do a better job of keeping rushing defenders engaged and away from the quarterback. His deficiency in this area may prohibit him from earning full-time reps at the professional level. Between that and his relative lack of breakaway speed (4.60 40-yard dash at the Combine), I do not believe he will earn a full-time gig upon his arrival in the NFL. However, his hard-nosed running style and prowess out of the backfield make him someone to keep an eye on, particularly in PPR leagues.

Cam Akers, Florida State

In 2017, Cam Akers was one of the most sought after recruits in the country. It may seem disappointing then that he averaged fewer than 1,000 rushing yards per season at Florida State. Those numbers do not tell the whole story, however. Akers ran behind one of the worst offensive lines in all of college football in Tallahassee. He faced contact at or behind the line of scrimmage at the highest rate of any FBS running back over the past two seasons. Many times, a running back is at the mercy of his offensive line. (2019 Le’Veon Bell, anyone?) Beyond the poor stats, Akers developed some bad habits at Florida State. He bounced runs outside way too often and became an East-West runner at times. He will need to kick that habit quickly if he wants to maintain success at the NFL level.

He has the physical tools to do so. Akers stands at 5’10” and weighs 217, with a solid frame and strong legs. He runs well between the tackles and shows good lateral quickness in and out of cuts. Akers is an adept pass blocker, but I would not classify him as a three-down back. He dropped nearly 12 percent of his career targets. Akers should settle into the NFL as a complimentary back initially. Time will tell if he can become a lead running back. Perhaps more so than any other back in this class, his success in the NFL will be extremely dependent on where he lands. Akers has the potential to be a top-five running back among the 2020 class. But he must improve his vision and correct some of the bad habits he picked up in college.

Antonio Gibson, Memphis

Antonio Gibson may qualify at wide receiver in some leagues, so pay attention to your league’s settings when considering him. The 228-pound senior toted the rock just 33 times during his time in Memphis, so he is far from a traditional back. But he proved to be one of the most elusive and dynamic playmakers in the country in his limited touches a season ago. Gibson turned 71 touches into 1,104 yards. Lest you think all of that damage was done via the pass, he averaged 11.2 yards on his 33 carries. Most of these carries were sweeps, so keep that in mind. Gibson broke 16 tackles on 33 rushes and 17 tackles on 38 receptions in 2019. That type of elusiveness combined with his 4.39 speed will make Gibson a hot commodity in the NFL.

Player Profiler lists Joe Mixon as Gibson’s closest comp based on his physical tools. I do not think Gibson will be given the workload that will allow him to see 20-plus touches per game. But he does have the kind of game-breaking speed and playmaking ability that is always in high demand in the league. Gibson can do more with 8-10 touches per game than many can do with twice that amount. His game against SMU showed the type of upside he has with the ball in his hands. In that game, Gibson ran for a 78-yard touchdown where he bounced off of multiple tackles near the line of scrimmage, caught a 50-yard score, and returned a kickoff for a touchdown. That potential will make him an attractive pick at the end of fantasy drafts.

Ke’Shaun Vaughn, Vanderbilt

Ke’Shaun Vaughn struggled in two seasons at Illinois before transferring to Vanderbilt, where he experienced some success after sitting out the 2017 season. He exceeded 1,000 rushing yards in both seasons at Vanderbilt and is back on the NFL radar. Vaughn is a one-cut runner who can get upfield quickly and exhibits tremendous vision. He has an attacking running style and uses his powerful legs to finish runs with authority. Vaughn is the type of back who always seems to get what is blocked and then some, which is a trait that will translate well at the professional level. He caught 28 passes last season, but I do not see him as a consistent receiving threat in the NFL. A zone scheme would be an ideal fit for the 5’10”, 214 Vaughn.

Vaughn will need to improve his pass protection to stay on the field. He will most likely enter the league as a depth option for a team with an established back. Combined with his age (he will turn 23 next month), he is not the safest Dynasty bet in terms of fantasy. But he is the type of back who can be a solid contributor in a committee. He could be a matchup play down the road depending on how things shake out. Ultimately, I envision him as a better real-life player than a fantasy contributor in the NFL.

Best of the Rest

  • Eno Benjamin, Arizona State
  • AJ Dillon, Boston College
  • Joshua Kelley, UCLA
  • J.J. Taylor, Arizona
  • Deejay Dallas, Miami
  • Darrynton Evans, Appalachian State
  • Anthony McFarland, Maryland
  • Jamycal Hasty, Baylor

Check back later this week when Mick continues his look at the top NFL Draft Prospects of 2020.

Also check out Gary Davenport’s 2020 Pre-Draft NFL Rookie Rankings.

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