In the 2020 NFL draft there were six running backs taken before the end of the second round. None of them are guaranteed to start the season at number one on the depth chart, but that situation is likely to change as the season progresses. Which one of these rookies is most likely to have success this season and is there a later draft pick that will upstage them all?
The likely duo
All early signs are pointing towards one of Clyde Edwards-Helaire or Jonathan Taylor as being the most successful rookie running back in 2020.
Edwards-Helaire, drafted by the Chiefs with the last pick of the first round, has instant potential to thrive in Andy Reid’s offensively minded game plan and be the focal point of a high scoring and productive offence. Current back Damien Williams has shown flashes of brilliance, but tends to save his best performances for the post season (including 2 touchdowns and 133 all-purpose yards in Superbowl LIV). Of course no one expects Edwards-Helaire to take away all of Williams’s carries straight away, but there is a reason he was drafted in the first round, and it wasn’t to sit on the bench. The more likely option is that the Chiefs use Edwards-Helaire in a similar way to how the Cleveland Browns use Kareem Hunt – a change of pace option who can be utilised in both the rushing and passing game. Reid’s game plan will include plenty of touches for them both, especially considering Edwards-Helaire’s added ability as a pass catcher.
Jonathan Taylor became the first Colts running back drafted before the fourth round since General Manager Chris Ballard has been in charge. In fact, they actually traded up to grab Taylor with the 41st overall pick – only the third time Ballard has traded up! The fact they wanted to do this shows exactly how much they loved Taylor’s potential and how much he is going to be handed the ball.
The Colts currently have both Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines on the roster so there is a good chance Taylor will open the season in some type of committee (suggested by manager Frank Reich in a recent interview) but like with Edwards-Helaire, he wasn’t drafted this high to stay on the bench. At some point early in the season he will replace Mack as the lead back with Hines being utilised more as a pass catcher, and behind the Colts’ stellar offensive line (which finished 2019 ranked third in PFF’s offensive line rankings) he will surely flourish. It’s also worth noting that the five starters will all be returning to the offensive line in 2020.
Both players excelled in college, and both rank highly in yards after tackle. Edwards-Helaire possessed an SEC best 782 yards after contact in 2019 to go with an also SEC best 71 broken tackles, whilst Taylor’s 3,921 yards after contact since 2017 are the most in college football over that time period. The only thing that might work against Edwards-Helaire is the quality of the Chiefs’ offensive line, which ranked 16th in 2019, but it’s scary to think how great Andy Reid’s offence can be with Edwards-Helaire lining up with Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, and of course Patrick Mahomes. At this stage it is hard to separate them but both will have the volume of work and the right head coach to make a huge impact in 2020.
D’Andre Swift, taken by the Lions with the 35th overall pick in the draft, should have no issues with workload. Kerryon Johnson has suffered multiple knee injuries and when he has been able to take the field, his production has been limited at best. The Lions clearly think that it is already time to move on from Johnson and it would be no surprise to see Swift suit up as their lead back when they face the Bears in week one.
Swift had an excellent last two years with the Georgia Bulldogs, rushing for over 2,000 yards and 17 touchdowns, and despite concerns about his relative lack of touches (only had eight games with more than 16 carries), it has kept him fresh in a league where burnout is an ever-increasing issue. In 2019 the Lions were a top 10 run-blocking team, and with a hugely talented supporting cast in quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiving duo Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones, Swift could be the last piece in the offensive puzzle to get the Lions into the post season.
The Rams’ pre-draft running back depth chart showed little talent and depth. Todd Gurley has joined the Falcons, and Darrell Henderson and Malcolm Brown did nothing in 2019 to suggest that they were ready to step up to becoming the Rams’ lead back. Enter Cam Akers! Drafted with the 52nd overall pick, Akers has an immediate opportunity to win the starting role job. It wasn’t so long ago that the Rams were excellent at running the ball, and there should be enough volume for Akers to be productive. There are concerns that last season’s 31st ranked offensive line will be a stumbling block to success, but Akers has been in this position before. At Florida State he ran behind the fourth-lowest graded run-blocking line in the Power-5 and still finished the 2019 season with 1,144 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns in 11 games. Akers has great upside potential, and the talent to make a huge impact in 2020.
If this article was based on who is most likely to have the biggest impact in their NFL career, then J.K. Dobbins would probably be at the top. Widely thought of as the best running back in the draft, Dobbins was selected with the 55th overall pick by the Ravens; a run heavy offence lead by current MVP Lamar Jackson and a trio of supporting running backs. Dobbins has elite speed, vision and a running style to scare opposition defences, and his 4,459 rushing yards at Ohio State are second only to two-time Heisman winner Archie Griffin (Dobbins also finished his college career with nearly 500 more rushing yards than Ezekiel Elliott). But in 2020, Dobbins is going to start off in a deep committee. Current lead back Mark Ingram and quarterback Jackson combined for 2,224 rushing yards in 2019 and whilst there will be more than enough touches to go around (the Ravens had 527 designed runs last season!) there is a good chance that Dobbins will not be fully utilised from week one. Add in some limited workload for Justice Hill and Gus Edwards, the likelihood is that Dobbins’ early season work will be limited, but as the season progresses and he impresses, the starting role will be his for years to come.
Sometimes a player comes from nowhere to beat out the competition and make a huge impact in the NFL. Ke’Shawn Vaughn, drafted by the Buccaneers with the 76th overall pick, is in the best spot to do just that. The former Vanderbilt star led the SEC over the past two seasons with an average of 4.4 yards per rush after contact, and finds himself on a roster with no established starting running back. Ronald Jones, who struggled to edge out Peyton Barber over the past two season, has yet to show that he is worthy of being a lead back and Vaughn should at the very minimum be eating into his touches. Vaughn has plenty of upside in this new-look Buccaneers offence and his receiving skills could also match well with Tom Brady’s short passing game.
Whilst they all have potential and will see playing time throughout 2020, it’s hard to know how much impact AJ Dillon and Zack Moss are going have. Dillon (drafted by the Packers with the 62nd overall pick) and Moss (drafted by the Bills with the 86th overall pick) will be battling to become the RB2 within their respective team and will have to make the most of every snap early on to establish themselves within the offence. Dillon, with a frame to resemble Derrick Henry, is the more likely to make an impact but proving he is a better option than Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams could be tough in 2020.
Lastly, there is the wildcard in the group – Antonio Gibson. Drafted by the Redskins with the 66th overall pick, Gibson is actually classed as a RB/WR but is likely to be used predominantly as a running back in Ron Rivera’s offence. In his 2019 college season at Memphis, Gibson averaged 11.2 yards per carry, rushing for 369 yards and 4 touchdowns whilst posting 38 catches for 735 yards and 8 receiving touchdowns – a small sample size but enough to convince many that he is ready for the step up. Gibson is an explosive player with home-run hitting ability and a very high ceiling and one that could be the surprise rookie running back package.