Rookie running backs are certainly volatile and we're always dealing with the unknown aspect of how a player's game will translate to the big show. How rookies make the transition will be even more imperative this season as players and teams deal with a more limited training camp and zero preseason games. However, every single year we see at least one rookie running back crush his ADP and provide immense value for fantasy managers.
We'll take a look at the 2020 class and see if anything stands out from a value standpoint heading into a season that is sure to be full of uncertainty and surprises. The backs are listed in order of my personal rankings, which I will keep updated periodically via Twitter.
Note: This analysis is done using half-PPR scoring and ADPs are pulled from nfc.sghn (current as of 8/24/20)
Here's a quick look at a few RB's who have excelled as rookies in the past few years:
2019 wasn't a great year for rookie rushers as only Miles Sanders greatly outperformed his ADP, but you can see that 2018 had a ton of useful rookie backs and 2017 brought us Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt at low ADP. Those two were definitively league-winners that year. Who will be that player in 2020?
The Master Class
1. Clyde Edwards-Helaire (KC) - 24th OVR, RB14
CEH, at this ADP, is an instant-buy and belongs in a class all of his own in this piece. His ADP will continue to rise as we approach the season and should settle somewhere in the last-first round range (RB7). Incumbent "starter" and Super Bowl MVP snub Damien Williams has chosen to opt-out, leaving the former LSU Tiger competing with the uninspiring trio of Darwin Thompson, DeAndre Washington, and Darrel Williams vying for the usage at the position.
CEH rushed for 6.6 yards per carry and 1,414 yards in his final year in college, amassing 16 rushing touchdowns and adding 55 receptions for 270 yards. He has natural receiving skills, shiftiness, and quick burst at a small 5'7" frame, which are all skills that translate to the NFL.
Why is Mr. Potato Head on his shoulder in that playerprofiler.com picture?! Did I miss something?
He doesn't possess breakaway speed as he ran a 4.60 40-yard dash, but that shouldn't deter you as Kareem Hunt and Jordan Howard are recent examples of why that metric is a bit outdated and overrated.
The Chiefs could rotate backs as an RBBC, at least to start the season, as CEH gets acclimated to the offense and the speed of the pro game. However, this is a case where a player's talent far outweighs his competition, and he should be able to swiftly snag a feature-back role in what profiles as the best offense in the league once again. The Chiefs spread the field with Mahomes' cannon and plenty of speedy weapons, leaving rushing lanes and the middle of the field free for the rookie to do what he does best.
ADP Evaluation: Snag every share of CEH that you can at this ADP. He still looks to be a safe bet to provide value at a middle-to-late first-round ADP, which is where he'll end up. Don't try to get cute here with the low-floors of Leonard Fournette or Todd Gurley; eat the slight risk and enjoy that upside.
2. D'Andre Swift (DET) - 51st OVR, RB26
Swift has the best chance of the remaining rookie backs to overtake CEH for the top spot in the 2020 class. He spent three years at Georgia, amassing 2,885 rushing yards and 20 rushing touchdowns in his career as a Bulldog. His career 6.6 yards per carry ranks ninth in SEC history. He comps to Miles Sanders as a smaller, shifty back who's above-average in the receiving game. He caught 73-of-89 (82%) targets for 666 yards and five touchdowns through the air and that skill should easily translate to the pros.
WalterFootball.com has Swift as the top back in the class, mentioning phrases such as "future three-down back with Pro Bowl potential" and "some teams think Swift could be used like Alvin Kamara in the NFL." He enters a bit of an uncertain situation in Detroit as the Lions have oft-injured and unproven Kerryon Johnson slated to begin the year as the two-down starter.
Swift should have a role as the third-down back right away, but this is another situation where it's likely that Swift's talent wins out and he claims the starting role for himself sooner rather than later. Johnson's yards per carry dropped from 5.4 in 2018 to a putrid 3.6 in 2019 and the Lions are clearly eager to get Swift involved as they selected him with the third pick in the second round.
ADP Evaluation: Swift's RB26 draft price seems more than reasonable as the (eventual) lead back on a productive offense with Matthew Stafford now healthy. There's more risk involved as his role isn't as clearly defined as CEH's out of the gate, but Swift has the talent and upside to stick right with him as the top rookie back if things fall into place.
3. Cam Akers (LAR) - 56th OVR, RB28
On the surface, the Rams backfield situation
is was shaping up to be a full-blown committee with Darrell Henderson, Malcolm Brown, and John Kelly competing with the rookie Akers for touches. Coach Sean McVay suggested as much on June 21st, but Henderson's training camp leg injury and Akers' involvement with the first-team offense is certainly noteworthy.
Akers, drafted in the second round at 52nd overall, flashed pro-level running and receiving ability at Florida State. Despite running behind a terrible offensive line, he averaged 4.9 yards per carry and tallied 69 receptions for 486 yards over his three years as a Seminole. His 40-yard dash (4.47) and Speed Score (108.7) both ranked in the 87th percentile or better at the combine. Akers has the build and the talent to take over the lead back role in this offense, and it could be as early as Week 1.
ADP Evaluation: It's far too early to tell, but this is no longer shaping up to be as murky of an RBBC situation as we originally thought with the recent injury to Darrell Henderson. It remains a distinct possibility that career-backup Malcolm Brown, John Kelly, and a returning Henderson caps Akers' upside, but that's already baked into his ADP. He's a talented back who has the potential to steal the featured role outright and run with it, which is apparent with where the Rams drafted him. He's a medium-risk/high-reward RB3 to take a chance on as he's in a range of backs with similarly ambiguous roles such as Kareem Hunt, J.K. Dobbins, and Marlon Mack.
4. Jonathan Taylor (IND) - 33rd OVR, RB18
This looks like another situation where the rookie coming in seems to clearly posses more upside than the backfield he's joining, much like CEH and Swift. Taylor won the Doak Walker Award (most outstanding running back) and was a Consensus All-American in each of the past two seasons. He rushed for over 1,976 yards in each of his three years as a Wisconsin Badger, averaging 6.7 yards per carry and scoring a total of 55 touchdowns. He crushed at the combine, too, for what that's worth. The red flags in his profile are his lack of receiving production (42 total receptions in three seasons) and the massive workload he saw in college (926 carries).
Comparing him with CEH and Swift, Taylor looks to have a steeper hill to climb in order to take over the lead back duties and provide value at this ADP. Coach Frank Reich has previously confirmed that Marlon Mack will be the team's starting running back, but that the Colts will "ride the hot hand" at the position. This could be viewed as positive news for Taylor, but the Colts also concerningly have recent draftees in Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins still lurking in the backfield.
ADP Evaluation: While Taylor is a great prospect and profiles as a feature back in the NFL, there's too much uncertainty with the Colts' backfield situation and the fact that he doesn't appear ready to take on third-down responsibilities right away. His ADP is way too high for the red flags here. Marlon Mack, the starter, is unsexy but is being selected at 87th OVR (RB32).
5. J.K. Dobbins (BAL) - 66th OVR, RB30
Dobbins is being drafted right behind Cam Akers at RB30, but he also has workload concerns as he projects to start the year behind Mark Ingram and maybe even Gus Edwards on the depth chart. Ingram had one of the best seasons of his career in 2019, amassing 1,018 yards (5.0 yards per carry) and 10 touchdowns on the ground and adding 26 receptions for 247 yards and five touchdowns through the air.
Dobbins was a very productive workhorse back for three years at Ohio State, gaining over 2,000 yards and adding 21 rushing touchdowns in his final season as a Buckeye. He displayed impressive receiving ability and clearly has the size and quickness to succeed as a three-down starter in the NFL. The Ravens drafted him at 55th overall in the second round, so they clearly envision him as a future stalwart in their backfield. However, it's tough to see them transitioning to the rookie with Ingram and Edwards already established at the position, especially considering they led the league in rushing last season.
ADP Evaluation: Dobbins doesn't project to see enough touches to justify his ADP at the moment, but he certainly has the skillset to lead this backfield in the coming years. The Ravens are likely to ride Mark Ingram to the ground in his contract year as he remains a productive back.
6. Zack Moss (BUF) - 122nd OVR, RB46
Moss is quite the intriguing sleeper to consider this deep in the running back rankings. He's a 5'9" 230 lb back who averaged 5.7 yards per carry and totaled 41 touchdowns in college. The Bills featured 2019 third-round pick Devin Singletary down the stretch last season and he performed OK, averaging 5.1 yards per carry with four total touchdowns on the year. He enters 2020 as the prohibitive favorite to receive the majority of the workload for the Bills, but there could be some wrinkles to this situation that we need to monitor.
Reports out of camp are that the Bills ideally want an RBBC, which would likely thrust the third-round rookie out of Utah into a potentially prominent role as they have just T.J. Yeldon and Taiwan Jones backing him up. Even if they don't go full-RBBC, Moss should step into the Frank Gore role of rotating in every few series and vulturing goal-line opportunities. Singletary also notably missed four games last year due to a hamstring injury.
ADP Evaluation: Moss is a low-risk, high-upside rookie back to take a flyer on at this point in the draft. He has been the early "hype all-star" in Bills training camp, according to The Athletic. His floor projects to be in the Frank Gore-lite role as the team's second option and goal-line back, while his ceiling is as a featured back with the unimposing Singletary in front of him.
7. A.J. Dillon (GB) - 156th OVR, RB53
The rookie out of Boston College is a beast at 6' and 247 lbs, and a snapshot of his "massive legs" (coach Matt LaFleur's words) went viral early in training camp. He rushed for 5.2 yards per carry and totaled 40 touchdowns in college, leading the ACC with 1,685 rushing yards in his final season. His path to fantasy-relevant playing time hinges on his ability to cut into either A) Jamaal Williams' snaps because he simply hasn't shown that he deserves the touches he gets at a putrid career average of 3.9 yards per carry, or B) cut into starter Aaron Jones' goal-line looks, as Jones had a league-high 16 rushing touchdowns and that's obviously due for a regression to the mean.
ADP Evaluation: Whether or not you want to take a flier on Dillon will depend on how much of a bite you think he takes out of the Jamaal Williams and goal-line roles. He's an intriguing back for the future with Aaron Jones' contract situation up in the air, but working as a third-cog, even in a rush-heavy offense, isn't too appealing from a fantasy standpoint. The ADP is at a spot where you can easily take a shot-in-the-dark here, though, and he's a worthwhile handcuff for Jones owners.
8. Ke'Shawn Vaughn (TB) - 104th OVR, RB40
Vaughn put up some impressive numbers as a two-year starter at Vanderbilt. He rushed for 1,244 yards (7.9 yards per carry) and 12 touchdowns as a junior, and 1,028 yards (5.2 yards per carry) and nine touchdowns as a senior. He's also an adept receiver with 28 catches for 270 yards (9.6 yards per reception) in his final season. Despite his 5'10," 214-pound frame, Vaughn has a unique blend of power and quickness - his best comparable player is Dalvin Cook, via playerprofiler.com. Vaughn enters a great situation offensively as the Bucs are loaded and should put up plenty of points, but he finds himself firmly behind the incumbent starter Ronald Jones and figures to stay there for the time being.
ADP Evaluation: Vaughn, who actually spent two weeks away from the team due to being on the reserve/COVID-19 list, is behind on the depth chart and far down the fantasy rankings. He's a gifted, multi-purpose back with a real future in the NFL, but he isn't going to get enough looks to warrant fantasy consideration, barring injuries. He's OK as a flier at RB40, but there are still more established backs (Phillip Lindsay, Tevin Coleman, Matt Breida) being drafted behind him.
Hit me up on Twitter if you have any questions or comments about the article and good luck in your upcoming fantasy football drafts!
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