Early NFL Draft RB Rankings (Analytics)
For modeling running back prospects, we can’t have a complete projection until we are through the Combine because athletic testing holds some predictive value. In the meantime, we’ll check out each running back’s college production, which is a lot more predictive than athleticism anyways. I’ll share each NFL Combine invitee’s historical ranking in predictive on-field metrics, write up what I see on film with some statistical evidence to back up my opinions, and post the results of my pre-Combine model.
In terms of projected NFL production, there is a big difference between the top seven running backs and the rest of the 2020 RB class. J.K. Dobbins, Jonathan Taylor, D’Andre Swift, and Clyde Edwards-Helaire are in the top tier as very likely Day 1 or Day 2 picks. Zack Moss, Cam Akers, and Eno Benjamin round out the top of the class and have the most to gain/lose during the underwear olympics at the end of the month. The rest of the class can largely be ignored for now until we get athletic test results because they aren’t profiling as probable starters or notable committee backs right now.
If you’re curious about what goes into this model, it’s a combination of age-adjusted production, career production and efficiency, receiving ability, strength of college team and schedule, and draft capital, which is a decent way to factor in a film grade. You’ll see how each prospect turned out in some of these categories below:[[ad:athena]]
2020 RB Prospects
Predicted Overall Draft Pick: 36th
J.K. Dobbins (5’10/217) is a probable three-down bellcow with an ability to run inside and catch passes out of the backfield. His elite vision, paired with his speed and power, make him a strong inside runner. He can work in space with decisive elusiveness, too, particularly using a great jump cut and spin move. He led college football in both rushing yards (1,526) and rushing touchdowns (16) against FBS teams with a winning record thanks to his explosive running style. The junior finished with the most 20+ yard rushes (20) in the draft class. More importantly, he finished in the 99th percentile in my predictive adjusted production metric that accounts for age, strength of schedule, and other things like receiving. Speaking of that, two different Ohio State coaching staffs featured him as a pass-catcher, totaling at least 22 receptions in each of his three college seasons. If Ohio State wasn’t busy winning by 100 points each week, then Dobbins would’ve tested better in the receiving production metric above.
1st Down % on 1st Down: 17% (10th out of 29 Combine invitees)
1st Down % on 3rd Down: 61% (8th)
Predicted Overall Draft Pick: 43rd
Jonathan Taylor (5’11/219) is a probable two-down back with above-average strength, speed, and vision. He eclipsed 1,975 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns in each of his three seasons at Wisconsin, but totaled 926 carries. His elite rushing production stems from his urgency to find a hole and his strength to break tackles or at least fall forward. He’ll be an asset in short-yardage situations, as evidenced by his college leading 97 first downs last season. A former New Jersey 100 meter high school champion and a proud member of Bruce Feldman’s “Freak’s List” for his work in the weight room, it’s safe to say that Taylor has high-end weight-adjusted speed. He easily had the most 10+ yard runs (61) last year. His two primary weaknesses are fumbles -- his six fumbles were tied for the most among FBS running backs --and as a receiver out of the backfield. PFF credits him with 8 drops on 50 career targets and he wasn’t asked to pass protect often. Perhaps he can develop on third downs because of his athleticism but receptions are somewhat sticky from college to the NFL.
1st Down % on 1st Down: 23% (1st)
1st Down % on 3rd Down: 53% (17th)
Predicted Overall Draft Pick: 33rd
D’Andre Swift (5’9/215) is a probable three-down back with three years of efficient rushing and receiving against SEC competition. He runs with great vision and patience before making decisive, sudden movements at the line of scrimmage. He has plus weight-adjusted speed and wiggle when he gets in space, which happens often. He picked up at least 10 yards on 20% of his runs, the most of the Combine invitees this season. He is also not afraid of running with power inside. Making him an inside runner would be a waste of his talent, however. His best attribute is his pass-catching ability. He only dropped three passes in three seasons per PFF, despite catching 73 total balls. Georgia moved him all over the formation to utilize his versatility and that’s what we should expect in the NFL.
1st Down % on 1st Down: 21% (2nd)
1st Down % on 3rd Down: 57% (14th)
Predicted Overall Draft Pick: 72nd
Clyde Edwards-Helaire (5’8/209) is an unconventional two- or potentially three-down prospect. He is undersized but definitely more than strong enough to be productive in the NFL. His leg strength and quick feet allow him to plow through defenders when running between the tackles, which led to an elite 70% first down rate on third down carries. He also plays with burst and moderate speed in the open field, as evidenced by his 8.2 YPC on his 122 first down carries. He is at his best as a pass-catcher out of the backfield. He has natural hands, is smooth out of his breaks, and is one of the best at avoiding tackles in one-on-one situations. He caught 55-of-64 targets for 453 yards and PFF credited him with just three drops. In total, his adjusted production score placed him in the top 5th percentile among running back prospects since 2005. It’s possible that he’ll become an Austin Ekeler-type talent in the NFL.
1st Down % on 1st Down: 19% (6th)
1st Down % on 3rd Down: 70% (3rd)
Predicted Overall Draft Pick: 81st
Zack Moss (5’10/222) is a productive, tackle breaker with some three-down potential but has a semi-serious medical history. Between the tackles, he runs with power and aggression. However, his best trait is contact balance, as his stocky frame and footwork make him a very difficult back to tackle one-on-one. He wants to win with power moves but also forced missed tackles in space as a runner and receiver with solid agility. Per PFF, he had the third-highest single-season broken tackle per attempt rate of any back since at least 2014. He also caught 28 and 29 passes in his two fully healthy seasons and can be used as an occasional pass-catcher in the NFL. His lack of top-end speed and history of leg injuries likely limit his career ceiling, but he can be a rookie contract starter with a Day 2 pick. Moss figures to be on the Jay Ajayi/Kareem Hunt spectrum as an NFL player.
1st Down % on 1st Down: 16% (15th)
1st Down % on 3rd Down: 57% (13th)
Predicted Overall Draft Pick: 92nd
Cam Akers (5’11/212) is a boom-or-bust back with three-down potential, particularly if he can be more consistent in the passing game. His inconsistent play, however, can be attributed to his struggling Florida State offense and his youth (age-21 rookie), but those things make him an underrated prospect. His impressive contact balance, play strength, and cutting ability played into his solid short-yardage conversion and yards after contact numbers. Per PFF, 3.9 of his 4.9 yards per carry came after contact last season. His primary weakness as a runner is his vision but it’s not a fatal flaw at all, especially since he is a high-end tackle breaker. As a receiver out of the backfield, he’s a tad above average, although he did compile (a very nice) 69 receptions in three college seasons. His versatility gives him three-down upside even if it takes a couple of developmental seasons for him to reach his potential.
1st Down % on 1st Down: 17% (11th)
1st Down % on 3rd Down: 60% (9th)
Predicted Overall Draft Pick: 116th
Eno Benjamin (5’9/195) is likely too small to handle more than a dozen or so touches per game in the NFL, but he was an elusive, three-down bellcow at Arizona State. In the open field, he can break tackles with wiggle (particularly jump cuts) and with occasional power if a defender slows down because of the threat of his agility. Per PFF, he broke 0.28 tackles per carry in 2018 and 0.25 tackles per carry last season, both really strong numbers. His size and troubles with fumbles -- his six fumbles were tied for the most among FBS running backs -- make his transition to the NFL as an inside runner tricky. His strong receiving profile does translate, however. He caught 35 and 42 passes in his two seasons as a starter, which landed him in the top 13th percentile among running back prospects since 2005. Ultimately, Benjamin profiles as a versatile committee back like Giovani Bernard.
1st Down % on 1st Down: 11% (22nd)
1st Down % on 3rd Down: 51% (18th)
Page 2 has the rest of the RB profiles.