4) Create my personal rankings using steps two and three. This is where we are today:
Jonathan Taylor (5’10/226) is the best pure runner in the class. His 96th percentile Adjusted SPARQ athleticism pops on tape, as he’s able to get skinny between holes, break through arm tackles, and has 4.39 speed to take long runs to the house. At Wisconsin, he eclipsed 1,975 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns in each of his three seasons. He easily led college football in first downs (97) and 10+ yard runs (61) in 2019, but tied for the lead in fumbles (6), too. Holding onto the ball is his primary weakness, as PFF also credits him with dropping 8-of-50 career targets. However, he did more than triple his reception total going from his sophomore (8) to junior season (26). His three-down potential (and actual value to an NFL team) hinges on this pass-catching growth continuing, but if it does, Taylor should be among the Rookie of the Year finalists.
J.K. Dobbins (5’9/209) is a probable three-down bell cow 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. He would’ve competed for my top spot if he would’ve tested really well at the NFL Combine.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire (5’7/207) is an unconventional two- or potentially three-down prospect. He is undersized but is definitely strong enough to be productive in the NFL. His low center of gravity and quick feet allow him to plow through defenders between the tackles, which led to an elite 70% first down rate on third down carries. He also plays with agility and burst in the open field, as evidenced by his 8.2 YPC on his 122 first down attempts, but he’s at his best as a pass-catcher. He has natural hands, is smooth out of his breaks, and is one of the best open-field tackle breakers. He caught 55-of-64 targets for 453 yards last season, 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, especially since he’ll only be a 21-year-old rookie.
Cam Akers (5’10/217) entered Florida State as a dual-threat quarterback, but successfully transferred his 71st percentile Adjusted SPARQ athleticism to the running back position. Despite being limited by the Seminoles’ painful offense, Akers had three seasons with at least 840 total yards and eight touchdowns. His best year by far came last season as a junior, finishing with 1,114 rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns. Per PFF, 3.9 of his 4.9 yards per carry came after contact, too. On top of being an impressive runner, he showed promise as a pass-catcher. Akers compiled a very nice 69 receptions across his three seasons, including 30 in his final year. Given the position change and the offense that was around him, it’s possible that Akers makes another leap in the NFL, especially since he will only be a 21-year-old rookie. Akers has three-down upside in the right system.
D’Andre Swift (5’8/212) was an accomplished two-year starter at Georgia. His vision, patience, and 63rd percentile Adjusted SPARQ athleticism made him an efficient runner. He averaged 6.6 yards over 440 career carries, rushed for over 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns in each of the last two years, and led the draft class in 10+ yard run percentage (20%) last season. Even though he’s a plus-level runner, Swift is best-suited for passing downs. Georgia moved him all over the formation, including as a receiver out wide, to get him in space. He caught 73 career passes and only dropped three targets per PFF. His versatile skill set plays in any offense, making him a good bet of becoming a producer as a rookie.
Winks: RB5 (but I still like him!!!)
Eno Benjamin (5’9/207) compiled at least 1,000 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns in each of his two seasons as Arizona State’s three-down workhorse. Thanks to his impressive wiggle and low center of gravity, he broke a healthy 0.25 tackles per carry last season according to PFF. However, it’s more likely that Benjamin slides into a committee role as a passing-down specialist in the NFL because of his small frame, fumble concerns, and 62nd percentile Adjusted SPARQ athleticism (4.57 forty). Luckily, he showcased comfort as a receiver out of the backfield at ASU by catching 35 and 42 passes over his last two seasons. In the right offense, Benjamin can be a complimentary piece, especially on third downs, making him a rookie to monitor throughout offseason workouts.
A.J. Dillon (6’0/247) is a productive power back with 97th percentile Adjusted SPARQ athleticism. He had a 4.53-second forty and 41-inch vertical jump at the NFL Combine, but this level of athleticism was hit and miss on tape. He would wear down opponents with his running style — he led college football with 23 rushing first downs in the fourth quarter — but rarely broke off big runs and was limited to just 21 career receptions. Still, his overall body of work at Boston College is intriguing, as he averaged at least 110 rushing yards and 1.0 touchdowns per game in each of his three collegiate seasons. In the NFL, Dillon profiles as a potential two-down committee back with a lot more straight-line athleticism than other power runners, but he will likely be subbed out on passing downs for a more reliable pass catcher.
Zack Moss (5’9/223) was a three-time 1,000-yard rusher at Utah, leaving as the university’s all-time leading rusher and scorer. On his way to 1,416 rushing yards and 15 rushing touchdowns as a senior last year, Moss had PFF’s third-highest broken tackle per carry rate over the last six seasons, and also chipped in 28-388-2 as a receiver — this all while coming off a knee surgery the year prior. When healthy, Moss has quality contact balance and can pack a punch when running between the tackles, think Kareem Hunt, but his injury history makes him a boom-or-bust mid-round selection. Running a 4.65-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine certainly didn’t quiet those injury concerns.
Darrynton Evans (5’10/203) evolved from being a pure home-run hitter to a three-down player in his two seasons as an Appalachian State starter. He averaged 6.6 yards per carry on his way to 1,187 rushing yards as a sophomore before setting career highs in rushing yards (1,480), touchdowns (18), and receptions (21) last season. Despite having success as the Mountaineers’ short-yardage back, Evans profiles as a quality change-of-pace back in the NFL because of his smaller frame. In that role, he’ll be able to maximize his 4.41 speed, especially in an outside zone scheme where he can make one cut and get up field. He also looked natural on all of his receiving reps and was credited with just three drops on 55 career targets per PFF. Only 21.8 years old, Evans checks most boxes as a running back sleeper.
Analytics Top 300 Model: RB12
After sitting out a season while transferring from Illinois, Ke’Shawn Vaughn (5’10/214) posted back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons as Vanderbilt’s starter over the last two seasons. His 1,244 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in 2018 put him on the NFL map, but Vaughn’s rushing production was constricted by the Commodore’s 125th ranked offense last season. On tape, he makes defenders miss while running downhill, showcasing nice vision with just enough wiggle to set up broken tackles as a physical runner. He set a new career-high with 28 receptions as a redshirt senior and is good enough to play on passing downs, although he profiles best as a complementary runner in the NFL. Vaughn’s primary knocks are his age — he’ll be a 23-year-old rookie — and 41st percentile Adjusted SPARQ athleticism.
Analytics Top 300 Model: RB10
Anthony McFarland Jr. (5’8/208) was a four-star recruit and two-year Maryland starter who specialized as a big-play runner. As a redshirt freshman, he averaged 7.9 yards per carry and compiled 1,034 rushing yards — 298 of which came in a breakout game against Ohio State. His production (614 yards) and efficiency (5.4 YPC) dropped due to a high-ankle sprain last season, but he has 4.44 speed whenever healthy. In the NFL, he will have to prove he can hold up where he’s at his best — as a cut-and-go runner — because he only handled 245 carries and 24 receptions in his collegiate career. McFarland profiles as a change-of-pace committee back who needs more reps and development before competing for a starting job.
Analytics Top 300 Model: RB14
Antonio Gibson (6’0/228) was underutilized at Memphis but was arguably the most efficient player in the entire country. PFF credits him with 16 broken tackles on 33 carries and 17 broken tackles on 38 receptions. Because of his lack of total production (77 career offensive touches), it’s impossible to have a firm grasp of his projection to the NFL. He did run with a lot of power and was elusive with the ball in his hands, but he is raw. Gibson’s vision is a potential concern as a running back, and he didn’t look like a natural receiver when he lined up in the slot, but his 4.39 speed makes him an intriguing, versatile depth option who has special teams experience. He averaged an elite 28.0 yards on his 23 kickoff returns.
Joshua Kelley (5’11/212) posted back-to-back 1,000+ yard seasons as UCLA’s workhorse runner after transferring from UC Davis. More of a north-south than east-west player, he will pick up the yards in front of him on inside carries where he can utilize his physicality and stocky build but lacks the open-field moves to break tackles. Per PFF, Kelley only averaged 2.8 yards after contact. He also only caught 11 passes for 71 receiving yards as a redshirt senior, although he did look like a capable pass catcher on limited reps. A 64th percentile Adjusted SPARQ athlete with 4.49 speed, Kelley figures to compete for a complementary running role in the NFL as a 23-year-old rookie prospect.
Analytics Top 300 Model: RB13
Lamical Perine (5’11/211) is a physical inside runner with some experience as a pass-catcher, but his athletic limitations likely limit his overall upside in the NFL. Perine dropped weight last season, which allowed him to set career highs in receiving categories (40-262-5) and total touchdowns (11), but the weight loss did not appear to make him much faster or shiftier. His 0.17 broken tackles per carry rate was below-average for an FBS running back, particularly for an older player. His versatility does give him some value, but I’ll take my chances with younger and more athletic Day 3 dart throws. Perine was a 24th Adjusted SPARQ athlete.
Analytics Top 300 Model: RB11
Analytics Top 300 Model
There were eight prospects this year who passed my “Minimum Threshold” line, but I think there’s a notable dropoff after the top-five prospects (Jonathan Taylor, J.K. Dobbins, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, D’Andre Swift, and Cam Akers). Most of the second and third tier backs have clear-cut strengths and weaknesses, giving them reasonable chances of finding committee work in the NFL. Overall, this 2020 class is quite deep, especially on Day 2.
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