2020 Draft Class: Running Backs

The running back position is possibly the most mysterious position group in this years NFL draft. None of them will be taken in the top 15, maybe even 20 picks as the position as a whole holds an increasingly low value because A: The NFL is now a pass-first league B: A “good” (not elite/high end) running back is easy to replace and C: An increasing number of late-round talents (3rd +) are able to contribute effectively even as rookies. This allows general managers to use their top picks on other positions in demand like quarterback and offensive tackle. The overall effect of this attitude in the league is that there are always hidden gems in later rounds – however, if you watch the film and pay attention, they might not be as hidden as you think.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire is one of these players. Whilst he has been mentioned as a 3rd-round back by a lot of NFL draft analysts, one can’t help but feel that he may be the best back in this class. His outstanding vision and lateral speed blows the competition away every time people watch his tape. The speed at which he can stop and start again is unbelievable – he makes would-be tacklers look plain silly. Another feature that makes Edwards-Helaire special is his work rate and effort level that he puts into every play. He never stops driving his legs until the whistle blows and nearly always seems to fall forwards for extra yardage. This combination of lateral speed, agility and vision gives you the slipperiest and most elusive back in the class. The two red-flags from GMs are his size and speed. His size is not a factor that has held him back at all, he still has the strength and power to break arm tackles and pass block however his speed has prevented him from taking some of his bigger plays to the endzone. Overall, despite these drawbacks, he’s still a top-2 RB in this class.

You cant have had a conversation about college football running backs this past three years without mentioning or hearing the name Jonathan Taylor. The former 3-star recruit has done nothing but produce during his time with the Wisconsin Badgers putting up over 6100 yards in his 3 years in Madison. His 4.39 speed, strength and ability to read blocks paired perfectly with the notoriously powerful Badgers o-line. Their effective power-based run scheme allowed Taylor to penetrate the gaping wide holes with his elite breakaway speed for significant gains each and every year he played in college. Here, however, lies an issue. How much of JT’s success should we account to his linemen who straight-up bully opposing defensive front 7s? There are a large portion of plays where Taylor doesn’t get so much as a finger laid on him until he reaches the open field! But that doesn’t mean to say he isn’t a talented runner; rather that his o-line helped him pad his stats. As for concerns towards Taylor, there are a few things that stop him from being a high pick: his ball security being one of them (he fumbled once every 54 carries on average). Another worry is his lack of a quality jump-cut move that other backs can use in the second level to evade defenders. Unfortunately, Taylor slows his feet after contact, struggling to gain those extra 2 yards and “push the pile”. The last thing to be said about Taylor is that he carried the ball an insane amount – over 930 times in his 3 years – durability may be an issue in the long run and surely will affect the age he can play until.

“J.K. All day!” was the cry from Gus Johnson as Dobbins crossed the white line to help Ohio State bolster their lead over the Michigan Wolverines. J.K Dobbins dominated Big 10 football in 2019 putting up an astounding 2003 yards from 301 carries (6.7 ypc). The fact he was nearly always the fastest player on the field played a massive part in this. How fast? Unfortunately, we don’t know as he opted out of running the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine preferring to run one back in Columbus, Ohio at his pro day. However, this was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic reaching America. My guess? Sub 4.42 (he ran a 4.4 coming out of high school). Another forte of Dobbins’ is his vision when he reaches the open field, this along with his racehorse speed enables him to rip off devastating gains play after play if he can read his immediate blocks at the line of scrimmage, which he does struggle with from time to time. Like Taylor, J.K was blessed with a big, well-drilled offensive line who were unafraid to dominate and shame the opposing d-line. The Buckeyes’ line was maybe even better than the Badgers. This brings me onto my doubts for Dobbins, his patience being one of them. Now I’m not suggesting every back needs Le’veon Bell-like attributes when it comes to this but J.K definitely has room to improve here. He also needs to develop his lateral speed and stop-start speed to increase his “slipperiness” and elusiveness. Route running is another weakness of his.

Perhaps the most underused back in the country, Cam Akers of Florida State University rushed for 1144 yards from 231 carries (5 ypc) in 2019. These numbers may not jump off the page as impressive considering FSU play in the relatively weak ACC however stats can be deceiving whereas film isn’t. I invite you to watch Cam Akers’ best moments from his junior year and notice how he jumps off the screen as the best player on the field by far nine times out of ten. Willie Taggart, the FSU head coach at the time, and the Seminoles offence passed the ball way too often for a team with a stud running back like Akers in the backfield. They paid for this and went 6-7 in 2019 (of course Akers’ underuse was not the only factor in this). As Cam looks to leave his college life behind him and the NFL beckons, GMs should definitely think about drafting him if they need a feature back for their offence. Akers offers a Mark Ingram-like blend of power, nasty jump-cut moves and explosiveness whilst also having the ability to run a variety of routes out of the backfield. His elite lateral quickness allows him to bounce outside of the holes close up between in the interior of the line helping him to turn a broken play into positive yards. He also shrugs off weak tackles like its nothing, leaving defenders in the dust. To improve his chance at becoming the every-down NFL back he was destined to be, Akers must improve his ball security and learn to trust his o-line (mind you that was incredibly difficult at FSU).

There is no doubt in my mind that D’Andre Swift has all the tools in his belt to become an elite NFL running back, with his devastating trademark one-cut move he can humiliate defenders with ease. The former Georgia Bulldog is a balanced running back, he can run with power and elusiveness, catch passes well out of the backfield and pass block with confidence. Swift also has 20/20 vision when it comes to reading gaps – even in close quarters. His lateral quickness, agility and bounce ability make him dangerous in all situations, especially when he has space to move into. To complement this agility comes strong legs enabling him to break weak tackles and fall forwards for extra yardage. This skillset of his means will be high on GMs’ draft boards come draft day. However, he does lack the breakaway speed possessed by Taylor and Dobbins and the aggression when running needed to push the pile forwards. But don’t let this put you off, Swift is the safest pick in this position group due to his versatility and skillset

Overall rankings:

  1. Swift (A-) Pro ready, can start if needed.
  2. Edwards-Helaire (A-) With the right scheme, could be the best RB in this class by a long shot.
  3. Jonathan Taylor (B+) Ability to feature in a limited role day 1 (MUST improve ball security).
  4. Cam Akers (B+) Harder to evaluate due to his bad college offence but has the potential to be a feature back if his team realise the talent they have in him.
  5. J.K Dobbins (B-) Will need to learn patience, lateral speed and a more efficient jump cut to be an effective runner at the NFL level.