Patriots

2020 NFL Draft player rankings: Top 10 running backs available

2020 NFL Draft player rankings: Top 10 running backs available

We'll be blunt: This isn't exactly the Golden Age of running backs.

Only one running back (Josh Jacobs) was a top-50 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, and it's very likely that trend will continue in 2020.

Teams are more wary than ever of spending premium draft capital at a position with such injury risk, especially with a host of talented wide receivers and tight ends on the 2020 NFL Draft board.

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And yet: The running back position still is a great place to find value.

Just ask the Buffalo Bills, whose 2019 third-round selection, Devin Singletary, is now a high-upside starter. Or the New Orleans Saints, who snagged superstar Alvin Kamara in the third round of the 2017 draft.

The New England Patriots have taken a running back in back-to-back drafts -- Sony Michel in 2018 and Damien Harris in 2019 -- to complement James White, Rex Burkhead and Brandon Bolden, so they don't necessarily have a backfield need.

But have you known Bill Belichick to pass up value? Let's check out the top 10 running back prospects in the 2020 NFL Draft.

1. D'Andre Swift

College: Georgia
Class: Junior
2019 stats: 196 carries, 1,218 yards, seven touchdowns (24 receptions, 216 yards, one touchdown)

The latest workhorse back to come out of Georgia, Swift is the most well-rounded runner of the 2020 class. He boasts top-end speed (4.48-second 40-yard dash) and a strong frame (5-foot-9, 215 pounds) but more importantly possesses patience and vision that should help make him a successful three-down back for whatever running back-needy team scoops him up.

Projected Round: First

2. Jonathan Taylor

College: Wisconsin
Class: Junior
2019 stats: 320 carries, 2,003 yards, 21 touchdowns (26 receptions, 252 yards, five touchdowns)

Taylor put up monster numbers at Wisconsin, leading the Big Ten in rushing in three straight years and winning two Doak Walker Awards as the best running back in college football. His heavy workload (926 carries over three seasons) might make some teams wary, but Taylor has the tools to be a starting NFL running back out of the gate.

Projected Round: First or Second

3. J.K. Dobbins

College: Ohio State
Class: Junior
2019 stats: 301 carries, 2,003 yards, 21 touchdowns (23 receptions, 247 yards, two touchdowns)

Dobbins averaged 6.7 yards per carry in 2019 and broke Ohio State's single-season rushing record held by Eddie George with 2,003 yards. He's no George or Ezekiel Elliott, though, and will have to prove those numbers weren't just the byproduct of an explosive Buckeye offense as he tries to compete for a starting NFL job in 2020.

Projected Round: Second

4. Clyde Edwards-Helaire

College: LSU
Class: Junior
2019 stats: 215 carries, 1,414 yards, 16 touchdowns (55 receptions, 453 yards, one touchdown)

What Edwards-Helaire lacks in height (5-foot-8), he makes up for with exceptional balance and explosiveness, as evidenced by his 6.9 yards per touch for the national champion Tigers. His receiving ability (3.7 receptions per game in 2019) also should appeal to a club looking for a boost on offense, although there's a good chance he slips to the third round with so many elite wideouts on the board.

Projected Round: Second or Third

5. Cam Akers

College: Florida State
Class: Junior
2019 stats: 231 carries, 1,144 yards, 14 touchdowns (30 receptions, 225 yards, four touchdowns)

A highly-touted recruit out of high school, Akers broke Dalvin Cook's freshman rushing record in 2017 and put up three seasons of solid production for an otherwise disappointing Seminoles team. Ball security is an issue (10 fumbles in three seasons), but Akers represents solid value in this second tier of backs.

Projected Round: Second or Third

6. Zack Moss

College: Utah
Class: Senior
2019 stats: 235 carries, 1,416 yards, 15 touchdowns (28 receptions, 388 yards, two touchdowns)

The cousin of former NFL wide receivers Santana and Sinorice Moss, Zack Moss is a bruiser whose physical running style could translate well to the NFL. Moss turns 23 in December and his 2018 knee injury is a potential red flag, but he has the potential to be a solid sleeper pick.

Projected Round: Third

7. Eno Benjamin

College: Arizona State
Class: Junior
2019 stats: 253 carries, 1,083 yards, 10 touchdowns (42 receptions, 347 yards, two touchdowns)

Benjamin's production actually dipped last season after a 300-rush, 1,642-yard campaign for the Sun Devils in 2018. The Texas native has top-end elusiveness, though, and could be a serviceable change-of-pace back for an NFL team after averaging 8.3 yards per reception in 2019.

Projected Round: Fourth

8. Anthony McFarland

College: Maryland
Class: Sophomore
2019 stats: 114 carries, 614 yards, eight touchdowns (17 receptions, 126 yards, one touchdown)

McFarland is one of the fastest running backs in the 2020 draft (4.44-second 40-yard dash) but has been dogged by injuries, including a high ankle sprain that limited his production in 2019. If an NFL team is convinced he can get healthy, he's an enticing mid-round flyer.

Projected Round: Fourth

9. A.J. Dillon

College: Boston College
Class: Junior
2019 stats: 318 carries, 1,685 yards, 14 touchdowns (13 receptions, 195 yards, one touchdown)

Boston College's bell-cow back amassed 845 carries over three seasons, boasting impressive athleticism for someone with his 6-foot, 250-pound frame. Dillon doesn't have any standout traits, though, and likely will begin his NFL career as a backup.

Projected Round: Fourth or Fifth

10. Ke'Shawn Vaughn

College: Vanderbilt (via Illinois)
Class: Senior
2019 stats: 198 carries, 1,028 yards, nine touchdowns (28 receptions, 270 yards, one touchdown)

Vaughn's best college season came in 2018, when he averaged 7.9 yards per carry (1,244 yards on 157 attempts) after transferring from Illinois to Vanderbilt. A regression in 2019 impacted his draft stock, but he still should go in the middle rounds after a decent showing at the Senior Bowl.

Projected Round: Fourth or Fifth

Next Pats Podcast: Matthew Slater reflects on social unrest within U.S. and NFL

Next Pats Podcast: Matthew Slater reflects on social unrest within U.S. and NFL

As much as we'd love to talk football, it has taken a back seat to the conversations that need to be had about George Floyd's murder and the racial injustices that remain prevalent in the United States.

The "Black Lives Matter" movement has spread across the country with protests advocating for justice and racial equality. It has impacted the world of sports, with countless athletes using their platforms to let their voices be heard. NFL players even sent a strong message to the league with a video stating what they wanted to hear it say regarding the oppression of African Americans.

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On a brand new episode of the Next Pats Podcast, New England Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater joined Phil Perry to discuss the state of the nation.

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Slater covered a variety of important topics in the episode. But one that particularly stood out was his explanation of how if the country operated like an NFL locker room, it would be a more inclusive place.

"It is a very unique place. A locker room setting -- you know, if our country operated and moved like a locker room, man it would be a beautiful thing," Slater said. "I'm not saying it's perfect, I'm not saying we've got it all figured out, but what a unique space where people from all different walks of life, different belief systems and things of that nature to work toward a common goal.

"And there's automatic respect that comes with the fact that you have a jersey and a helmet, and you're one of us. So I'm appreciative of that and I think now is a time for us to maybe forge those bonds even deeper. Guys that maybe hear personal stories and maybe experience this from their teammates have a different appreciation for why that guy is the way he is, why he does the things that he does. And I think ultimately that's going to lead to deeper and more fruitful relationships."

If anyone knows what a healthy, inclusive locker room environment looks like, it's Slater. The 34-year-old has been a captain for the Patriots for nearly a decade and has been an admirable leader throughout his stellar NFL career.

Slater also discussed how head coach Bill Belichick has been involved in the team's discussions about recent events, his experiences living as a black man in America, and much more.

Check out more of the Next Pats Podcast on the NBC Sports Boston Podcast Network or watch on YouTube below:

Patriots Roster Reset: Rookie tight ends offer optimism after 2019 drought

Patriots Roster Reset: Rookie tight ends offer optimism after 2019 drought

What if? What if Rob Gronkowski had announced his retirement just a few days sooner, allowing the Patriots to make a legitimate play for free agent Jared Cook? 

By the time the man who is arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history decided to hang 'em up (briefly), Cook was already making plans to join the Saints. He ended up eighth among tight ends with 705 receiving yards and second with nine touchdowns.

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Meanwhile the Patriots were left to piece together that spot with the likes of Matt LaCosse, Ben Watson and Ryan Izzo.

Reluctant to invest in young players at the position since taking Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in 2010 — since then they'd only drafted Izzo (2018, seventh round), Lee Smith (2011, fifth round) and A.J. Derby (2015, sixth round) — the Patriots had arguably the least-productive tight end group in the NFL last season: 37 catches for 419 yards and two touchdowns.

They've attempted to remedy that situation. In this year's draft, they traded up to land two intriguing talents in the third round.

UCLA's Devin Asiasi is a do-it-all player with the size to move people on the line of scrimmage and the body control to draw comparisons to some of the game's elites at that position. Dalton Keene is an athletic option with experience playing out of the backfield at Virginia Tech who could be the key to unlocking snap-to-snap unpredictability for Josh McDaniels' personnel packages.

Do they enter the equation as the immediate No. 1 and 2 options there? Let's reset the depth chart.

LOCK ‘EM IN

Asiasi. Keene. That's it. Those are the locks. Given the output, it should come as no surprise that there's not a player from last year's roster who comes into this season guaranteed to have a regular-season role. 

ON THE BUBBLE

LaCosse makes sense here. He could potentially end up on the roster as a 2020 version of Alge Crumpler — a veteran who can help guide two promising rookies — because his experience level dwarfs that of others on the depth chart.

However, his experience level isn't exactly overwhelming (33 career games). If he can't stay healthy, as was the case last season, or can't win a job, he'd save the Patriots $1.3 million on the salary cap if released in camp.

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LONG SHOTS

Izzo will have to open eyes in camp or become a special teams staple in order to have a chance to make an impact. Though he showed flashes of being a capable receiver last season, that part of his game was lacking consistency. As a blocker? It was there that he was thought to be a potential contributor when drafted out of Florida State two years ago. But according to Pro Football Focus, his 44.9 run-blocking grade was second-lowest among all players at the position in 2019.

Undrafted rookies Jake Burt from Boston College and Rashod Berry from Ohio State also have to be considered in this category. Burt looks like an in-line option at 6-foot-3, 260 pounds. Berry actually played both on the defensive line and at tight end as a senior. He finished his career with 17 receptions. 

NEWCOMER TO WATCH

In what was considered a tight end class short on game-changing talent, Asiasi might've been the most gifted. Notre Dame's Cole Kmet was the first tight end taken in the draft, going off the board in the second round as the "safest" of this year's tight end crop, according to several evaluators. But when it comes to physical ability? Asiasi can "do it all," one tight ends coach told me.

Some questions about Asiasi's makeup lingered into draft weekend, helping him stay undrafted through almost three full rounds, but the Patriots may have found themselves a steal if Asiasi can make good on his on-the-field promise. Asiasi's trainer Dave Spitz, who has also worked with Browns tight end Austin Hooper and Eagles tight end Zach Ertz, spoke to NBC Sports Boston earlier this offseason.

"He has the catch radius of Austin," Spitz said. "He has the body control and awareness of Zach. And he, I think, has more bend, more wiggle, than both of them. He's a beautiful combination."

X-FACTOR

Asiasi might be the most talented addition the Patriots have made at this position in years, but Keene's versatility makes him an interesting queen-on-the-chess-board piece for Bill Belichick and McDaniels. He has enough size (6-foot-4, 253 pounds) to play in-line as a "Y" tight end. He has the movement skills to serve as more of an "F" option. He's played in the backfield before. He's served as a lead-blocker like a fullback. There are a variety of ways in which he can be deployed.

Why does that matter? Perhaps the Patriots want to use their 12-personnel package with one back and two tight ends. Perhaps, because tight ends are oftentimes glorified receivers these days, a defense will respond to that two-tight end set by matching it with an extra safety instead of a linebacker. If that's the case, Keene could flex in as a fullback and the Patriots could run a 21-personnel look at a lighter defense for an advantage. If the defense keeps linebackers on the field to check Asiasi and/or Keene, the Patriots could use them in the passing game where their athleticism should give them an advantage over a traditional second-level defender. Options.

That's what Keene provides, making him an X-factor in the truest sense if he can handle a wide range of alignments and responsibilities early in his career.