Since 2010, each year exactly 2.3 players from the incoming rookie class have produced top 24 running backs (see the chart below for a breakdown year by year). Only two years in the last decade has a rookie class produced four running backs in the top-24 while three of those seasons produced only one. While this 2020 rookie running back class certainly has the firepower to stack up with any other in terms of talent, college production, and landing spots giving it a legitimate shot at having four or five top-24 rookie running backs, based on the last decade it is more likely only two of the many high-profile rookie running backs are going to break that glass ceiling of top 24. So which ones have the best shot? You are in luck because we are about to break down my top five of this class and then some sprinkled in long shots.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire (CEH): Hailing from Louisiana State University and checking in at 5’10”, 210 lbs. and posting a 4.6 40-yard dash CEH was drafted 32nd overall. While he is not my top dynasty running back prospect, CEH is projected to be this year’s top rookie running back. The knocks against him where quickly silenced on draft night when the Kansas City Chiefs selected the LSU product with the last pick in the first round. The draft capitol alone demands attention, but it is the landing spot that really hits home. Clyde was considered a product of a system at LSU, loaded with talent around him highlighted by the number one overall pick Joe Burrow, which forced attention elsewhere and opening up space and opportunity. Landing in KC, CEH can be a product of this system as well and still put up huge fantasy numbers. And while his athleticism leaves you yearning for more, his opportunity in the high-powered Chiefs offense dismisses any of those concerns this year. While CEH athletic profile closely compares to Chase Edmonds (playerprofiler.com), he has enough juice to do what is going to be asked of him by his team. The most realistic projections for CEH are a floor of 60 receptions and 160 carries. Assuming any sort of efficiency on CEH’s end it should be a breeze breaking into the top-24. The biggest issues with CEH are that at his current ADP make acquiring him a risky bet as you are having to pass on players that have established NFL production. If CEH is as good as he is billed as, only injury should keep him out of the top 24.
Jonathan Taylor (JT): Hailing from Wisconsin University and checking in at 5’10”, 227 lbs. and posting a 4.39 40-yard dash JT was drafted 41st overall. Taylor walks in touted as one of the most athletic backs to enter the draft since Barkley came strolling through in 2018. While Taylor lacks the overall profile as Barkley, he is not a slouch. Taylor rushed for more than 6000 yards over the past three college seasons, a feat which puts him in tier of his own as far as college production is concerned. Taylor landed behind one of the best NFL offensive lines in Indianapolis with the Colts and should be the lead back sooner rather than later. The biggest detractor from Taylor is the ever-annoying presence of the existing running backs on the Colts. All camp Reich has been calling this a one – one punch between Mack and Taylor, with Nyheim Hines pass catching chops that may eat into his third down usage. While talent always rises to the top, and he is not guaranteed the full workload week one, it does not mean it is going to take a month or so to get there. Herein lies the problem with Taylor, much like CEH Taylor finds himself in an ADP zone of well-established players. His current ADP of 31 has him going around other running backs, like Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, Le’veon Bell, who would be able to be started week 1 without the worries JT has in terms of workload. His main concern is not if he will produce but when he will produce. The other big question mark for Taylor is whether or not he can become a capable pass catcher out of the backfield or not. If I am being honest those concerns are over blown. Multiple backs have come out of Wisconsin and quickly acclimated to the passing game. Melvin Gordon and James White come to mind. Jonathan Taylor is a strong bet to finish top 24 in 2020, even if it takes a little time to solidify his workload.
D’Andre Swift: Hailing from The University Of Georgia and checking in at 5‘9”, 212 lbs. and posting a 4.48 40-yard dash Swift was selected 35th overall by the Detroit Lions. When DeAndre Swift landed on the Lions most of the fantasy community had a communal groan. The Detroit Lions have infamously been a place where running backs go to die. We thought we had out knight in shining armor when Kerryon Johnson was drafted with similar draft capitol in 2018 but we have seen that play out. A combination of inefficiencies due to horrendous offensive line play and injuries has led to Detroit drafting his replacement. In walks Swift. With plus athleticism and a great college career at Georgia where he finished 7th all-time in rushing and 1st all-time in yards per carry. It is important to note that Georgia plays in the SEC, a conference widely recognized as the best in college football, but it is also important to note that Georgia turns out offensive lineman like very few schools in history have. The most interesting part of this situation is Kerryon Johnson. Swift is battling Kerryon for the lead role and prior to Swifts injury, Swift had won the receiving down role for the Lions. Unfortunately, Swift has been sidelined for two weeks and reports are indicating his projected week 1 snaps will reflect this missed time. The whole offseason Kerryon has been basically relegating himself being the back half of a committee. However, this missed time coupled with the offensive line will limit the upside to Swift in the first part of the season1. The silver lining is the current ADP that Swift has. He is currently going 63rd overall sandwiched between our next two contestants in Dobbins and Akers. Unless you go wide receiver here Swift is a solid pick, but the floor is shaky at best. Swift has the talent to surpass Kerryon Johnson this season, however with these obstacles present the opportunity of a top-24 finish is unlikely. If Kerryon has a role in this offense, Swifts upside will continue to be limited.
Cam Akers: Hailing from Florida State University and checking in at 5’10”, 216 lb. and posting a 4.47 40-yard dash Akers was selected 52nd overall by the Los Angeles Rams. Coming into the 2020 draft, Cam Akers was a bit of a dark horse. Playing in the ACC against subpar competition and lacking the true elite number Akers college career was a bit of a mirage. On the surface it was unimpressive but after putting on the film the truth came out. Akers was very impressive behind a quite literally a bottom of the barrel offensive line at Florida State. He was able to boast a 5.0 yards per carry2, accumulating 1,144 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground, while adding 30 receptions and another 4 touchdowns through the air, but this was widely discounted by the competition he played against in the ACC (see footnote). Then he was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams. A team with an aging and struggling offensive line, without being addressed in the offseason, but with a clear path to playing time after the departure of Todd Gurley. From a seasonal standpoint Akers perspective is rather uninspiring. He has a bottom tier offensive line, a very tough strength of schedule, and was in a full-blown running back by committee. However, once Darrell Henderson came down with his soft tissue injury (a strained hamstring) a steady heartbeat resembling that of an ever-growing drumbeat has risen from the depths for the Akers hype train. Sean McVay and the Rams will certainly score points and use the running back position to do it. The prospect of him getting 18+ carries a game gives his outlook some sparkle. While Akers has a projected exceedingly difficult schedule this year, and his role as a workhorse is not solidified. His ADP makes him a very intriguing stash though Akers may be on the outside looking in on top-24 running back.
J.K. Dobbins: Hailing from Ohio State University and checking in at 5’10”, 212 lbs. J.K. Dobbins was selected 55th overall by the Baltimore Ravens. Similarly, to CEH Dobbins was often knocked for being a product of the system run at Ohio State. System built for running back production framed around a dual threat quarterback that is generally not used in the NFL. It is however unitized by one particular team, The Baltimore Ravens. This is why J.K. Dobbins landed in a position that every fantasy player dreams of. An elite offense with an aging running back that can be usurped in Mark Ingram Jr. and a dual threat Quarterback the likes of which the NFL has never seen in Lamar Jackson. From the perspective of a seasonal league Dobbins is a tough sell when it comes to drafting him at his current ADP of 68 overall. This once again is a position that Akers and Swift both fall to. With the upside of a top 10 running back, and at this point in the draft, Dobbins could be a steal. That being said Dobbins still needs to earn the lead role and Mark Ingram Jr. Is a fantastic pro the team loves that will not simply concede defeat. The last we have heard from the Ravens camp, Ingram’s role as the lead back is solidified and Dobbins will be eating into Edwards rushing work. The shining light in this dichotomy is that this season is expected to have an abnormal number of players out due to the pandemic which favors Dobbins. Given how talented he is and if Ingram for some reason is out for any amount of time. The door would swing open for Dobbins to solidify a strong role with Ravens as a rusher. I would have ranked Dobbins higher if I had expected his touches to be more than 5-8 a game. Dobbins with 15+ rushes could very easily find his way as a top-24 running back. As things are though this could be yet another example of why there are only 2.3 top 24 running backs coming out of each rookie class. This one is loaded but it is a tall order to succeed in the NFL.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire is the starting running back for the high scoring offense of the Kansas City Chiefs. He can easily be a product of the system and finish towards the top of the position. CEH feels like a like for a top-24 finish in his rookie year. D’Andre Swift looks like he will lead the Detroit Lions running back room in the end of the season, however it is the Detroit Lions and he has missed some time due to injury in training camp. With no preseason it is tough to call Swift a lock for top-24 but the possibility is there. Akers also has a clear path to playing time with the Los Angeles Rams. This offense run by Sean McVay lends plenty of upside for Akers considering the incredible workload that has been made available by the departure of Todd Gurley but the offensive line woes and rumblings of a running back by committee could cap the upside. Akers is another candidate for top-24 honors, but it is far from a lock. Next up we have Johnathan Taylor and J.K. Dobbins. Two elite backs on great teams with an offensive line and scheme to make the most of their opportunities. Taylor needs to beat out returning starter Marlon Mack where as J.K. Dobbins needs to take Mark Ingram’s job. The Latter seems less likely but the opportunity for a top-24 finish looms with both of them. On the surface this looks like a draft class that will be looked on upon as one of the best of all time however in the first year there may be less top-24 finishes than expected.
First Off The Stage Contestants
Zach Moss gets the first nod in this category. Moss has been drumming up some hype in the Bills camp. Drafted to be a secondary running back behind Devin Singletary in this year’s draft it seems Moss is aligned to receive Gores role as a goal line and short yardage back. However, if Moss is also able to receive all the receiving down work, he could be nicely set up to have a potentially top-24 season. Reports in camp make this out to be more of an opportunity than originally expected.
Antonio Gibson is our next up. You can read the “Fight Night: Washington Running backs” article for my feelings about Gibson. Explosiveness opened up opportunity, and a strong camp makes him an intriguing player. He has his fair share of red flags, but the Washington Football Team did list him as the second back of their depth chart. With the departure of Derrius Guice and Adrian Peterson opening up an opportunity Antonio Gibson is worthy of a later round pick, but top-24 is not an easy feat.
Last up the long shot: Joshua Kelley. After the departure of Melvin Gordon III and his 17 vacated touches per game The Los Angeles Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn has already spoken of the significant role Justin Jackson will have on this offense. But injuries have often plagued Jackson and Kelly has risen the ranks to get some first team reps. Drafted in the 4th round he isn’t promised any touches but given he is the largest back on the roster and sheer touches vacated he can earn some time fairly easily. If he can retain that thunder role next to Ekeler he could find a way to sneak into the top 24. It would probably be on the back of touchdowns, but they still count, and the potential is there.