Loading scores...
Evaluations

Thor's Running Back Rankings

by Thor Nystrom
Updated On: April 21, 2020, 1:58 pm ET

My first entry in this scouting series examined the quarterback class. Spiderweb graphs sourced from mockdraftable.com, SPARQ scores from Three Sigma Athlete, adjusted SPARQ from Rotoworld's Hayden Winks and RAS from Kent Lee Platte


1. Jonathan Taylor (Wisconsin) | 5'10/226

taylor

SPARQ: 89.9

ADJ SPQ: .89

RAS: 9.55

Comp: Leonard Fournette (Lindy’s)

If it’s possible for a running back who averaged over 2,000 rushing yards per season in college to be under-appreciated, Taylor is. Ludicrously productive from the moment he stepped off the plane after signing out of the New Jersey prep ranks, Taylor is also an incredible athlete. This is not a Ron Dayne situation.

Bruce Feldman’s No. 5 freak last year, Taylor confirmed his 4.3s speed in Indy. The rest of his testing was similarly sterling, and he has a 605-pound squat and 305-pound power clean to his name. Taylor gets knocked for three things: Fumbles, passing-game contributions and extreme usage.

He coughed the ball up 16 times over the past three years. On the receiving side, he caught 26 balls last season (five TD) after recording only 16 receptions total over his first two years in Madison. It’s fair to note that Wisconsin fed him the ball like crazy on first and second down and then basically rested him on third down early in his career. Per the Devy Watch, Taylor touched the ball on only 21-of-345 third-down plays (6.1%) his first two years on campus.

I wouldn’t totally throw the book in on him as a receiver yet. If he’d played in a different offense, that part of his game assuredly would be a bit further along. But with four drops in 2019 (and eight on 50 career catchable targets, per PFF) and limited experience running routes, it’s clear that he’s still got work to do in that area.

The special sauce here is Taylor’s running ability. And I do mean special. You’re talking about a world-class athlete who is country strong, a tackle-breaking machine who can run away from anyone. Per PFF, Taylor ranked No. 3 in the country last year with 87 forced missed tackles and No. 2 with carries of 15+ yards. Keep in mind that Big Ten defenses were always geared to stop him – Taylor was Wisconsin’s offense.

Watching Badgers games the past three years with the Taylor-heavy ethos felt like football from my childhood in the late 80's. Taylor keeps his shoulders back and his head on a swivel. And when it’s time to get low, he gets low. Unless a hole opens immediately, he’s a glider behind the line who doesn’t panic, a perfect zone-scheme fit.

Taylor is very clever with his feet, setting up linebackers by getting low through the hole and doing a little tap-dance to get them unsteady in the feet and unsure in the mind. If they lose their angle or Taylor runs through their arm tackle, it’s about be Headache City for the poor deep safety. If they overcommit and get sucked into the mosh pit of bodies, Taylor bounces outside and leaves them there.

Taylor had 986 touches from scrimmage over his three years, heavy usage for sure. I’d just note that I draft running backs for their first contract and never consider their hypothetical second, because I categorically wouldn’t give out expensive second RB contracts -- not part of my thinking when evaluating.

I obviously like Taylor more than some others do – I’ve seen him ranked as low as RB4 around the industry. Between the lack of third-down contributions and the fumbling issues, I understand the thinking. But don’t lose the forest from the trees. D’Andre Swift and JK Dobbins both have issues, too. Of the three, gun to my head, career on the line, I want the sure thing. Taylor is the surest.


2. D'Andre Swift (Georgia) | 5'8/212

swift

SPARQ: 59.8

ADJ SPQ: .63

RAS: 8.22

Comp: Dalvin Cook (Bejamin Solak)

Swift isn’t the athlete Taylor is, and he isn’t the same caliber of runner, but he’s got him beat by miles as a receiver. A hallmark of Swift’s profile is his feel, and you see this in the passing game. As the quarterback drops back, he makes sure to chip before working around to make himself available as a check-down.

He runs solid routes, he can be used in the slot, and he’ll give you good effort if you ask him to stay back and block. Per PFF, Swift dropped only three balls on 76 career catchable targets.

A sawed-off, muscular runner whose game is more predicated on playing angles and making you miss than athletic explosion, Swift tested as “only” a slightly-above average athlete in Indy. His game has elements of Josh Jacobs, Alvin Kamara and Sony Michel.

Swift’s footwork is sublime. Similarly to Taylor, he likes to set up linebackers early. And like Taylor, if they overcommit and get sucked into traffic, Swift is going to bounce outside into space. But going back to the athletic limitations: Swift doesn’t have the juice to consistently get around the corner.

He needs a runway to get to full gear, and he doesn’t change directions at high speeds as crisply as you’d like. But boy does Swift makes defenders look silly with his jump-cut in the hole. He’s very, very slippery in the open field, challenging defenders with the threat of contact before shaking them.

Swift comes equipped with sonar-radar vision, seemingly aware of even what’s going on behind him. He’s no power back, but Swift is a difficult proposition to wrestle down because of his exceptional balance and fluidity.

I have a few concerns about the UGA standout that keep him off my RB1 line. First, he’s only an average-ish athlete for a smaller back, and he doesn’t break off the explosive plays you’d like for a runner you’ll spend a top-40 pick on.

Second, he found himself injured in two of three seasons at Georgia despite the fact that he never once played 500 snaps in a campaign, a lingering concern, especially since he runs high and leaves himself open to big shots. Lastly, he doesn’t break many tackles.

Swift is a complete back. But perhaps not a perfect one.


3. Clyde Edwards-Helaire (LSU) | 5'7/207

CEH

SPARQ: 68.4

ADJ SPQ: .6

RAS: 5.56

Comp: Maurice Jones-Drew 

One of the most dynamic multi-faceted offensive weapons in the nation last year, Edwards-Helaire was a chupacabra presence for linebackers and safeties in Joe Brady’s RPO-heavy system.

Whether as a decoy, whether motioning out wide, whether taking a swing pass out of the backfield, whether lining up in the slot for a peekaboo red zone TD when the defense lost track of him, Edwards-Helaire was the guy who had opponents ripping their hair out when they had the temerity to focus their attention on the Joe Burrow-Ja’Marr Chase-Justin Jefferson-Terrace Marshall-Thaddeus Moss foursome.

Edwards-Helaire averaged 6.6 YPC on his 1,414 rushing yards in 2019, but it’s his 55-453-1 receiving line on 64 targets that should really have NFL fans perking up – and the fact that most of it was piled up late, when LSU’s offense really blew up. Once LSU truly weaponized Edwards-Helaire as a receiver – once they committed to five-man protection concepts almost exclusively – the Tigers could not be stopped.

Last year, Edwards-Helaire was the most valuable running back in the entire nation, according to PFF’s wins above average (WAA) metric, and the third-most valuable non-quarterback. He ranked No. 2 in the nation in pure rushing grade.

What’s crazy about all that is Edwards-Helaire entered the fall campaign as a pretty pedestrian committee back. We all talk about Joe Burrow’s rapid ascension – Edwards-Helaire’s game leveled up almost as dramatically.

He’s a sawed-off 5-foot-7 dynamo who keeps his shoulder pads low and tosses a deep bag of tricks at defenders on the attack. Blessed with swivel hips, loose joints and diamond-cutter feet, Edwards-Helaire is impossible to square up.

Endlessly creative and equipped with exceptional spatial awareness and a hustler’s mandate to manipulate, he baits defenders by slowing down or making a false step, and then he breaks their ankles by cutting or spinning the other way.

He isn’t big, but he deals with contact in the backfield well because he's difficult to hit square and possesses joystick agility and speed-of-sound acceleration. He matadored many defenders last year, who fell to the turf not believing they were grasping but air. If you get a free shot at him, Edwards-Helaire better not see you coming. If he does, he’s just as apt to make you look silly as you are of blasting him.

He’s additionally a fabulous receiver, the best receiving back in this class. His routes out of the backfield are beautiful, particularly his angle routes, which were flat unfair for college linebackers to have to cover – nobody at the second level could match CEH’s agility in the open field. Edwards-Helaire can also line up out of the slot.

There are really only two knocks on Edwards-Helaire. He’s slow – with 4.6 speed – and he’s small. He’ll get chased down from behind in the NFL. The reason I’m not concerned by that is that he’s just so danged skilled. I know he’s going to be able to catch the ball at volume from Day 1, and I know NFL defenders are going to have a heck of a time trying to get their hands on him.


4. Cam Akers (Florida State) | 5'10/217

akers

SPARQ: 54.1

ADJ SPQ: .71

RAS: 9.31

Comp: Mark Ingram (Joe Marino)

A top-three overall recruit coming out of Mississippi, Akers – a dual-threat high school quarterback earmarked to play RB at the next level – was committed to Alabama alongside fellow five-star Najee Harris for seven months. Can you imagine if Saban had closed the deal? The 2018 team that lost to Clemson in the title game would have had to split carries between Joshua Jacobs, Damien Harris, Akers and Najee. Oofta!

Akers ultimately flipped to Florida State. For one year under Jimbo Fisher, that looked like a great decision. Akers broke Dalvin Cook's program freshman rushing record with 1,015 yards in 2017. Jimbo resigned at the end of that season. Willie Taggart and his exotic blocking schemes were headed to Tallahassee. Akers was about to go ballistic for two more seasons, and then head to the NFL, perhaps as a first-round pick.

That’s when things went south for both Akers himself and the program in general.

A nagging ankle injury suffered in camp hampered Akers the entire 2018 campaign. And the offensive line, which tanked badly for Fisher in 2017, remained shockingly putrid. In 2017 and 2018, FSU ranked Nos. 130 and 121, respectively, in Football Outsiders’ line yards per carry stat. Last year, FSU ranked No. 127 in PFF’s run-blocking grades.

Of all the top backs to enter the league over the last decade, Akers has a legitimate argument that he played behind the worst offensive lines in his career. Shocking, consider how much talent his school had access to.

Not only were his offensive lines a joke, but Akers played for as many head coaches and offensive coordinators in his three years at FSU as some eight-year NFL vets do in their entire careers. Head coaches: Jimbo, Willie Taggart, (and for six games on an interim basis) Odell Haggins. Offensive coordinators: Lawrence Dawsey/Randy Sanders, Walt Bell, Kendal Briles. His quarterbacks (Deondre Francois, James Blackman, Alex Hornibrook) actively encouraged defenses to key on him, in addition.

Why all the context? Because it’s simply crucial when considering Akers’ NFL evaluation – his situation was horrible.

Yes: he turned into an indecisive dancer at times these past two years. But he was running behind a high school offensive line and often had bodies crashing down on him as he was taking the ball. Some of the indecisiveness was contextual – you, too, are indecisive in situations where there is no right answer, are you not? The question becomes: Has it turned habitual?

In other words, can he kick the bad habits in the pros? If he can, his NFL franchise is going to find a potential steal. Because Akers can catch, he’s a really good pass blocker, and he’s a natural runner with quick feet, good vision, plus athleticism and finishing power.

Akers breaks a lot of tackles because of his thicc lower half. Between his torque power down there and his nifty fit, Akers’ cuts and spins are violent, crisp and beautiful.

He’s a strong receiver who can run actual routes and make plays on the ball in the air. And as a sort of bonus, you’ve got trick play potential here because of Akers’ history behind center.

Akers must become more decisive behind the line of scrimmage at the next level. I see no reason why he can’t. In addition, he needs to cut down on fumbling. One out of every 65.5 touches in college isn’t disqualifying, but that ratio needs to improve.


5. J.K. Dobbins (Ohio St) | 5'9/209

dobbins

SPARQ: N/A

ADJ SPQ: N/A

RAS: N/A

Comp: Clinton Portis (Matt Waldman)

Dobbins is built how you want a runner to be built, low to the ground and sturdy, with tree-trunk, turbine-like legs that don’t quit. He’s a skilled grinder who doesn’t screw around, a hard-charger looking to chew turf upfield.

Dobbins doesn’t break ankles with his agility or torch defenses by beating defenders around the edge. But he’ll get what’s blocked for him and at least a little more every play – sometimes a lot more. The sturdy speedster ranked No. 1 in the country last year with 31 carries of 15+ yards.

He didn’t test at the NFL Combine, but we already know that Dobbins is a great athlete. Coming out of high school, he ran in the mid-4.4s with a 43-inch vertical.

He gets credit, along with Swift, for being a top-notch receiver, but I tend to find Dobbins overrated in this area. Would you believe than Jon Taylor had more receptions last year? And would you believe that Dobbins’ highest receiving grade, per PFF, was his 63.3 mark as a freshman? That’s a pretty low bar. To be fair, Dobbins, unlike most other guys in this class (Swift being an exception), is perfectly comfortable lining up out wide.

Dobbins ranked a mere No. 71 among RBs in yards run per route last year, which tells you Ohio State was mostly using him as a dump-off guy. He doesn’t seem to be terribly natural after the catch either – he broke a tackle on less than one out of every 10 career catches, per PFF. His forced tackle rate is much, much higher as a runner (No. 12 in the country, per PFF).

Dobbins is seen by some as RB1. I have more concerns with his game. He’s a skilled player who should have utterly dominated with the surrounding talent he played with at Ohio State. He ran lazy in 2018.

Last year was a big improvement. But he didn’t show me more in college than Swift and Taylor did. And it’s fair to say that Dobbins was playing in the most ideal situation of the three last year, alongside Justin Fields in a spread, up-tempo system.

The NFL is going to constrict the space he has to work with quite a bit. He’s a good player, but I’d let some other team take him, considering that it appears that Dobbins will be a top-40 pick. I just don’t see the upside that others are seeing.


6. Zack Moss (Utah) | 5'9/223

moss

SPARQ: 27.6

ADJ SPQ: .3

RAS: 3.17

Comp: Kareem Hunt/Marshawn Lynch mashup

Prior to the NFL Combine, I would have had Moss RB5, maybe even RB4. But in conjunction with his medical history, his poor testing numbers give pause. For me, enough of one to drop him below Cam Akers and J.K. Dobbins.

Still love the package. Moss draws ubiquitous Hunt/Lynch comps because his game is built on evasion, physicality and contact balance, not speed. For a big back, Moss is ridiculously agile, running low to the ground and snapping hard angles. His feet keep churning until they physically can’t. Moss manages to maintain speed while changing directions and while absorbing contact better than any back in this class.

I say this every spring: The most valuable trait of running backs is one that the NFL Scouting Combine cannot chart. How difficult is it to get you onto the ground? Moss forced 87 missed tackles last year, the third-highest per-attempt single-season broken attempt average of any running back PFF has ever charted.

But he lacks speed. This issue prohibits him from breaking off home runs – he’ll get chased down from behind in the NFL – but isn’t close to disqualifying. Moss’ skillset plays without it, a versatile bowling ball with wicked spin action.

His drafting team will need to be comfortable with his medicals. In 2018, Moss’ knee locked up getting out of bed, knocking him out for the final five games of the season. Moss also has a shoulder separation and right ankle injury in his recent past.


7. AJ Dillon (Boston College) | 6'0/247

dillon

SPARQ: 96.7

ADJ SPQ: .97

RAS: 9.84

Comp: Brandon Jacobs (Renner)

In my NFL Combine preview, I pointed at Dillon as needing a big combine, specifically in the 3-cone and broad jump. He aced the latter, ranking No. 1 in his position group, answering questions about his burst. And he didn’t embarrass himself in the former for a 247-pounder. Outside of that, Dillon basically dominated every other test to the tune of 97th percentile athleticism, with a 4.53 forty and a 41-inch vertical.

Under-recruited as a three-star recruit out of high school, perhaps because of a senior year injury, Dillon wound up becoming one of the best players in Boston College history.

A freight train runner with wheels, Dillon is no doubt pitching himself to teams in the vain of Derrick Henry and Leonard Fournette. Brandon Jacobs and James Conner are two popular comps. Qualitatively, I see Dillon as existing between those groups. I’m reasonably high on him – I know his game will translate.

A decisive sledgehammer, Dillon has a 100-mph fastball but doesn’t throw much else – he’s always barreling full-steam-ahead towards the goal line. If you get in the way, he’s going to flick the right joystick into your chinstrap. He ranked No. 6 in the country in forced missed tackles last year, per PFF.

Dillon's game isn’t about making guys miss. He’s not terribly agile (nor is he terribly interested in avoiding contact). He also isn’t going to pitch in much in the receiving game (22 career catches), the primary reason I couldn’t rank him higher even though I’m a huge fan (to be fair: we questioned Fournette's receiving coming out of LSU... last year, he had 76 receptions in 15 games for the Jags after recording 41 in 32 games at LSU).

Because Henry’s game translated so smoothly, and because Dillon obliterated the NFL Combine after dominating for three years as a marked man at Boston College, I think he’s got a strong chance of going on Day 2.


8. Eno Benjamin (Arizona State) | 5'9 /207

benjamin

SPARQ: 72.3

ADJ SPQ: .62

RAS: 6.28

Comp: Devin Singletary

A small, tasmanian devil workhorse who handles heavy volume, breaks a crap-ton of tackles with his whirling dervish style and hurts you in a variety of ways, Eno evokes my heartthrob from last year’s class, Devin Singletary.

Like Motor, Eno is a boxer who parries together combinations at high speeds in the open field and stays upright like the spinning top in Inception even when rocked. While diminutive, Benjamin has shown he can handle heavy usage, ala Motor.

Benjamin runs fearless. His agility in close quarters hinders the ability of defenders to square him up properly, and it messes with the angles of those pursuing him from distance. He doesn’t offer the opposition much jersey to hit flush. And since he’s also blessed with very good contact balance and coffee grinder feet, Benjamin is able to burst through desperate off-angle tackle attempts.

Runners this size who play with no regard for personal well-being generally visit the trainer’s room quite often. But Benjamin has proven he can handle absurd volume while staying healthy.

He’s a dangerous one-cut runner in the zone game. He gets claustrophobic and his brain shuts down when he can’t cut into creases, so it’d probably be best to keep him running zone concepts in the pros as much as possible. 

Eno is a very strong receiver, with only six drops on 88 career catchable targets, per PFF. He snatches balls out of the air and seamlessly turns upfield without wasted momentum, and is, you’re aware at this point, very tough to size up when slicing through open space.

Eno’s athleticism was questioned heading into the NFL Combine, including by yours truly. His 4.57-second 40-yard dash didn’t impress (not surprising, as we saw larger defenders chase him down from behind in college), but Benjamin had a very nice week in Indianapolis outside of that run, finishing No. 2 among running backs in the 3-cone drill and No. 4 in the vertical jump.

Eno’s numbers fell off in 2019, in part because he was working behind a shoddy offensive line and next to a true freshman quarterback. In a zone scheme with a decent offensive line, I think he’ll return value on what will assuredly be a depressed mid-round price tag on draft day amid a deep running back class. But he does need to cut down on the fumbling.


9. Antonio Gibson (Memphis) | 6'0/228

gibson

SPARQ: 83.3

ADJ SPQ: .89

RAS: 9.45

Comp: Ty Montgomery (PFF)

Meet this year’s mystery box among the skill guys. I’m ranking Gibson as a top-10 running back despite the fact that he A) didn’t play running back in college, 2) took a grand total of 307 snaps at the FBS level, with a mere 77 touches.

But frankly, it’s hard to rank him any lower. Athletic upside alone demands it. Gibson is sort of a freak.

He only spent two years at Memphis after starting off at JUCO, and he barely played in 2018. Once Darrell Henderson and Tony Pollard left for the NFL, Gibson got his shot, playing the Pollard H-back role, a hybrid RB/WR position in the Tigers’ offense (Gibson spent most of his time in the slot).

The former high school sprinter has 4.39 wheels and is hell to deal with as a ball carrier, a violent-running 228-pounder at that velocity. Per PFF, Gibson broke 17 tackles on 38 catches last year.

Frankly, he’s not much of a receiver. He doesn’t really run routes, and he doesn’t pluck the ball naturally, away from his body. But when the ball is in his hands, special things can happen. So let’s facilitate the explosion as much as possible.

Gibson is going to need a ton of work. He’s never been a traditional running back. Total ball of clay. But he’s already a really good special teamer, which will justify the roster spot while you teach him the ropes. He’s going to need to be built from the ground up. But his no-nonsense running style should translate.

If Gibson hits as a running back, you’ve got an ROI bonanza on your hands. For those reasons, I had to rank him ahead of safer backs who are probably superior players right this second, such as…


10. Darrynton Evans (Appalachian State) | 5'10/203

evans

SPARQ: 84.0

ADJ SPQ: .58

RAS: 9.75

Comp: Justice Hill

This year’s small-school gem. A small back who runs smaller while boasting explosion and evasion, Evans can really hurt you outside the tackles. Appalachian State often ushered him there in its outside zone scheme, wherein Evans learned patience and vision. A similar pro system would suit him well.

Evans is also a solid receiver, a willing and tough blocker in pass-pro, and a good kick returner. If he finds space, watch out – home run speed all day.

And talk about reliability. Over his final 482 career touches, Evans never fumbled the ball once.

Evans’ game is all about speed and athleticism. It’s bereft of power. The tiny back drops on contact and is tentative running through the tackles in a way he absolutely isn’t outside of them.

He feels very similar to Justice Hill to me, and athletically, they’re almost identical. Hill went 4.113 to the Ravens last year. I’d expect Evans to go off the board somewhere right around there as well.

Thor Nystrom

Thor Nystrom is Rotoworld’s lead CFB writer. The 2018 FSWA College Sports Writer of the Year, Nystrom’s writing has also been honored by Rolling Stone magazine and The Best American Essays series. Say hi to him on Twitter @thorku!