2020 NFL Draft running back rankings: D’Andre Swift, Jonathan Taylor lead a deep class

Seven of the NFL’s 10 leading rushers were on teams that did not compete beyond the regular season. However, the story of the NFL Playoffs could not be told without the invaluable contributions of Titans running back Derrick Henry or 49ers running back Raheem Mostert. Those two players combined earned less than $5 million this season. It is a case that will certainly not assist the argument against the devaluation of the position. Nonetheless, several teams have a running back need and those needs are likely to be filled via the 2020 NFL Draft. When CBS Sports released offseason draft outlooks for each team, 19 of the league’s 32 teams were labeled as having either a primary or secondary need at the position. 

CBS Sports updated the composite rankings recently, which means there is a big picture view of the prospects available at the running back position. The backs will be broken down into four tiers for the sake of this article. Tier 1 will be the fringe first-round picks that have flashed elite potential. Tier 2 is reserved for the next grouping that should be selected on Day 2. Tier 3 will be those fourth and fifth-round picks. Finally, Tier 4 is comprised of possible late-round additions or undrafted free agents. There are several players that would fall into the latter category, so the focus will be on a handful. The remaining list of running back prospects can be found in the aforementioned composite rankings. 

Tier 1

D’Andre Swift, Georgia

Swift went wire to wire as my personal favorite running back prospect. He is agile as well as fast. His vision allows him to bounce into open spaces and his toughness allows him to fight through contact. The most impressive part of his game is how quickly he gets up to speed and how he does not lose speed when changing directions. The Philadelphia native is a well-rounded back capable of catching the ball out of the backfield as well as staying home in pass protection. He will carry a first-round grade. 

With three first-round picks, the Dolphins make sense as a team that could jump on a running back early. 

Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin

Taylor has always been an impressive, productive running back. He really impressed the most with his commitment to catching passes ahead of his final season in Madison though. The New Jersey native elevated a weakness into a strength by simply working day after day on it. His patience is reminiscent of Le’Veon Bell. He is agile and changes directions effortlessly but does not get back up to speed as quickly as Swift. Taylor is physical and does a good job shrinking his strike zone against oncoming defenders. 

One area of concern is his workload. Over the past three years, he has accumulated 926 carries. By comparison, Swift had 440 career carries.

Tier 2 

J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State

Dobbins improved his stock as much as anyone by taking his game to the next level. He shows tremendous balance and good lateral quickness. The Texas native found a lot of success on stretch plays behind a zone-blocking scheme. He does a good job catching passes out of the backfield but is no more than average in pass protection. If he wants to stay on the field and be a three-down back, then he will need to improve that area in his game. 

Dobbins finished second on the Buckeyes’ all-time rushing list behind the great Archie Griffin; college football’s sole two-time Heisman Trophy winner.

Zack Moss, Utah

The Hialeah Gardens, Florida native initially committed to Miami but fell to the Utes late in the process. He showed the Hurricanes and other college football programs what they were missing over the course of four seasons. NFL teams will have some concerns with his injury history so the medical check at the NFL Combine will be very important. His game film will show a running back with great balance and power. He is patient and bursts once into gaps. Moss is not the most elusive running back, and his pass-catching production has been inconsistent, but he should firmly land on Day 2. His contact balance will test off the charts. 

Cam Akers, Florida State

Akers was on a bad team this year. The quarterback play did nothing to help him. If it were not for his fumbling tendencies, he would be receiving more praise. The Mississippi native is a great pass-catcher and more than capable in pass protection. Akers is compactly built and physical. He displays patience and the ability to change directions without losing speed, similar to the top draft-eligible running back — Swift. It would not be a surprise if he ended up having a long and prosperous career. 

Tier 3 

Anthony McFarland Jr., Maryland

McFarland is the only sophomore of the group. He joined the Terrapins program as a highly regarded recruit and almost immediately contributed. As a redshirt freshman, he hit the ground running and nearly single-handedly sprung an upset over Ohio State. In terms of burst and straight-line speed, there may not be another running back prospect capable of matching him. The Maryland native is on the smaller side but does not allow that to leak into his play. He is an average to below-average pass protector and will never be confused for a short-yardage option. 

His statistics faced a stark decline between his freshman and sophomore seasons. However, the film shows that he is not solely to blame. McFarland has never caught a lot of passes but the offense was more of an option, misdirection style look that probably took him out of the passing game in a lot of ways. When he received opportunities to catch the ball, he looked fairly comfortable in doing so.

Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Vanderbilt

Vaughn is the biggest boom or bust prospect among this draft class. He is just as likely to be stopped in the backfield for a loss as breaking off a long run. The Illinois transfer became a father in September of 2019 so that undoubtedly impacted his focus. Vaughn, a native of Nashville, shows good balance and lateral quickness. He is good at using his blocks and bursting forth. Anyone in search of his potential would not have to look beyond his game against Baylor. There are inconsistencies all over his game and he will have to answer that when he gets in front of NFL talent evaluators. 

Clyde Edwards-Helaire, LSU

Edwards-Helaire is a true underdog story. He openly talks about being overlooked his entire life as a smaller running back but he continues to produce. Joe Burrow and the Tigers’ high-octane passing attack received a lot of the praise for their National Championship run but Edwards-Helaire deserves as much. When his team needed him the most, he delivered. The Louisiana native is focused and aware. His strong lower body allowed him to fight through contact for additional yardage. He displays good balance and rarely took a loss. He did not show much as a pass catcher so that may be an emphasis for him during the pre-NFL Draft process.

Eno Benjamin, Arizona State

Benjamin is a very gifted runner with the versatility to catch the ball out of the backfield. He has good body control and does well to break down his footwork so that the defender must commit before exploding in another direction. There are concerns about his vision. The fumbles and dropped passes will not help him either. He is also average in pass protection. From a sheer explosiveness perspective, few can top Benjamin but there are other wrinkles in his game that must be ironed out. 

Lamical Perine, Florida

Perine had more receptions as a senior than he did in the prior three years combined. Florida split him out wide on occasion. He has good, not great speed and fights through contact. The Alabama native is also good in pass protection. He will land on a roster somewhere because of his effectiveness on passing downs. 

Tier 4

There were 254 picks in the 2019 NFL Draft so let’s assume that remains constant. Eleven other running backs fall between Tier 3 and what would be considered a draftable grade: Appalachian State’s Darrynton Evans, Washington’s Salvon Ahmed, Maryland’s Javon Leake, UCLA’s Joshua Kelley, Western Michigan’s Levante Bellamy, Boston College’s A.J. Dillon, Cincinnati’s Michael Warren II, TCU’s Darius ‘Jet’ Anderson, Louisiana’s Raymond Calais, Arizona’s J.J. Taylor and Memphis’ Patrick Taylor Jr. 

There is some good talent among that group. Ahmed, Leake and Kelley jump out as running back prospects not only capable of making a team but making an impact in the NFL. At the beginning of this article, it was mentioned that 19 teams have either a primary or secondary need for at least one running back. There were 21 running backs mentioned in this article so there are plenty of opportunities available for all.

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