The 10: Grading the Running Backs of the 2020 NFL Draft

The NFL Draft is now just over a week away, and draft season has upped its game with more smokescreens and gossip with each passing day. In preparation for the draft, we’re going to be looking at this year’s running back class. While not necessarily front-loaded, Jonathan Taylor and D’Andre Swift looking probably like the two most likely first round candidates, there are a ton of truly talented backs in this class that I think are more going to step in and immediately contribute on the big stage.

So, let’s start this list in style with the record-breaking Badger running back Jonathan Taylor.

No. 1: Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin 

5’10″, 226 lbs. 

2019 stats (14 games): 320 carries, 2,003 rushing yards, 21 rushing touchdowns, 26 receptions, 252 receiving yards, 5 touchdown catches 

Tape Watched: Purdue, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State

Analysis: Jonathan Taylor is coming into this draft class with easily the most impressive resume from a statistical standpoint. With 926 carries and over 6,000 rushing yards to his name, he’s leaving a school known for producing NFL running backs as arguably the school’s most impressive one. That says a lot. If there was one word to describe Taylor, it’d be “balanced.” He’s so good at so many different things as a runner that I don’t think I could describe him as anything else. Need a running back who can fight for yards up the middle and bounce it to the outside? Taylor’s your guy. 

Need a home-run hitter who can turn any play into a highlight-reel run? Taylor’s your guy.

Need a patient runner who can trust the line and follow the gaps that open up for him? You get the point.

Perhaps my favorite thing about Taylor is his durability. He was an absolute workhorse in his three years as a Badger, and he’s coming into the NFL with zero injury concerns. 

If there were a flaw to his game, it’d be how he carries the ball. Too many times does he leave the ball open for a punch-out when he puts his head down or commits to a stiff-arm on one defender. Taylor is leaving college with 18 career fumbles, with six of those coming this past season. That’s something he’ll have to work on, but overall, I don’t think that issue outweighs the impact he has as a runner too much. Taylor to me is easily the best running back in this class, and I’d be surprised if he fell out of the top-20 in this draft. It doesn’t sound outlandish to me to think that he could be a solid No. 1 back for 8+ years in the NFL. 

No. 2: Clyde Edwards-Helaire, LSU

5’7”, 207 lbs. 

2019 stats (15 games): 215 carries, 1,414 rushing yards, 16 rushing touchdowns, 55 receptions, 453 receiving yards, 1 touchdown 

Tape Watched: Alabama, Auburn, Georgia 

Analysis: Despite being on an LSU offense stacked with NFL prospects, Clyde Edwards-Helaire manages to stick out as one of the best among them. While not getting much of the same hype as a couple other running backs in this class, I think Edwards-Helaire has the chance to be one of the most impactful among them. I loved watching Edwards-Helaire’s tape, especially against Alabama, where he had a phenomenal performance and was one of the reasons LSU was able to hold off Alabama during its second-half comeback. Plays like this are what draw me to Edwards-Helaire, who demonstrates elite lateral quickness and anticipation as fellow soon-to-be draftee Xavier McKinney whiffs on what should have been an easy stop inside the red zone:

While Edwards-Helaire lacks the straight-line speed of guys like D’Andre Swift, Jonathan Taylor and J.K. Dobbins, he possesses arguably the best cutting ability of the bunch, and his vision and patience as he cuts towards open gaps shows me a player with the skillset to thrive in a zone or gap scheme.

I also love his ability as a pass-catcher. With 55 catches to his name this past season, Edwards-Helaire acted as a sort of safety valve for Joe Burrow. He’s already a polished route-runner, and I think with that ability he should fit into a third-down back role just fine at the next level.

Does he have the size to be an every-down back? Maybe not, but the production and tape shows me a dynamic player that has the potential to be a massive steal on Day 2 of the draft. Analyst Lance Zierlein compared him to prime Devonte Freeman, and I don’t think I could come up with a better comparison myself. If he can develop into a player like Freeman, I think that’s easily worth the investment in the second round.

No. 3: D’Andre Swift, Georgia 

5’8”, 212 lbs. 

2019 stats (14 games): 196 carries, 1,218 rushing yards, 7 rushing touchdowns, 24 receptions, 216 receiving yards, 1 touchdown catch 

Tape Watched: Auburn, Notre Dame, South Carolina, Florida 

Analysis: Following behind Georgia legends like Sony Michel, Nick Chubb and Todd Gurley, D’Andre Swift has proven like those guys that he is worthy of being considered a top-of-the-line running back in his own right, though compared to those guys I see him being a little less enticing as an all-around running back. With two years of quality production in the SEC on his belt, Swift certainly looks the part of an every-down back at the next level, though I see a few flaws in his game that make me feel like he’s better suited in a committee approach early on. 

Perhaps Swift’s most exciting trait is his ability to pick up steam on the outside. He is an electric runner in open space, and his deadly cutting ability is a joy to watch. This clip against Auburn perfectly showcases how hard he plants his feet before accelerating past the defender:

He’s also shown to be fine running up the middle, though he isn’t fantastic running through contact despite having a strong, compact build. Regardless, it shouldn’t kill his stock too much since his outside rushing ability is definitely worth investing in early in the draft.

I think where Swift struggles is in pass protection and as a receiver. His tape as a sophomore shows more hope for him as a receiver than his junior tape, but he really doesn’t look all that comfortable as a route-runner. As far as pass protection goes, he’s more often than not fine, but he has a bad habit of committing to a sort of chop block too early in the play, and at the next level, I just don’t see that working much. He has the strength and build to hold up fine if he commits to blocking, but as of right now, that area of his game is definitely a work in progress.

Swift, to me, holds more of an early to mid-second round grade. I think the potential is there for him to be a solid running back in the league, but he needs to clean up a few aspects of his game before I feel confident in him as an every-down player.

No. 4: J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State 

5’9, 209 lbs. 

2019 stats (14 games): 301 carries, 2,003 rushing yards, 21 rushing touchdowns, 23 receptions, 247 receiving yards, 2 touchdowns 

Tape Watched: Michigan State, Clemson, Wisconsin (second game)

Analysis: After a rather lackluster sophomore campaign, Dobbins came out and absolutely dominated in his junior year, bumping his yards per attempt up from 4.6 to 6.7 and rushing for almost 1,000 more yards in just 71 more carries compared to his sophomore year. Needless to say, Dobbins proved a lot this season. With the kind of jaw-dropping home-run speed that teams crave in a third-down back, Dobbins is looking at the possibility of being a high Day 2 draft pick. When he gets out into open space, his top gear is almost unmatched, and his ability to hit the hole and put space between him and any other defender reminds me a lot of 49ers running back Tevin Coleman when he came out of Indiana.

But like Coleman, I see Dobbins as more of a change-of-pace, third-down back than an every down workhorse. And that’s not a bad thing, but Dobbins doesn’t really have a lot to his game beyond that dynamic big-play ability. He doesn’t play through contact all that well due to his size, and though he has the potential to improve, he’s still not much of a threat as a receiver in the backfield. Despite this, when you look at what he can do with just a little bit of open field, it’s clear that Dobbins’ talents could definitely be useful for a team looking for a complimentary back.

The one thing that truly stands out to me as a weakness is his pass protection. Specifically in the Big 10 Championship against Wisconsin, Dobbins was pretty much bullied on each and every play when he had to guard a pass-rushing assignment. He simply gets thrown aside way too easily, and I could see it being a pretty major issue for him at the next level.

Dobbins should fall somewhere in the second round, and I expect him to contribute immediately wherever he goes.

No. 5: Zack Moss, Utah

5’9, 223 lbs.

2019 stats (13 games): 235 carries, 1,416 rushing yards, 15 rushing touchdowns, 28 receptions, 388 receiving yards, 2 touchdown catches 

Tape Watched:  BYU, Oregon, Washington

Analysis: Zack Moss is one tough nut. Despite not displaying superb speed (he ran just a 4.65 at the combine) or excelling as a one-cut runner, Moss is just a tough-as-nails runner who rarely gives up after initial contact with a defender. This guy seriously does not go down easy. It’s not just his ability to put his head down and just grind forward, he’s slippery too, with the unique ability to push the play outside even when it looks like it should be dead. Perhaps the best example of this is this play against Oregon, which fittingly is my favorite run of his:

While I see shades of a young David Johnson in his style of play, I think a more accurate comparison would be with Jay Ajayi. This long run against BYU is one that definitely gives off Ajayi vibes:

Better yet, Moss has proven to be an excellent blocker who can pick up extra blitzers with the same tenacity he shows as a ball carrier. He’s just pure toughness, and while I don’t necessarily think he’ll get a starting job immediately, I think he’ll eventually find himself becoming a primary ball carrier sooner rather than later. He looks like a guy who always plays with a chip on his shoulder, and I could easily see a coach falling in love with him as a late second or early third-round prospect. I’ve said all I needed to say, but here’s another example of his toughness just so drive home the point: 

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