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Taylor, Swift Lead Race (for Now) to Be the Top RB in the 2020 NFL Draft

PASADENA, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 01: Jonathan Taylor #23 of the Wisconsin Badgers runs for a 10 yard gain during the second quarter of the game against the Oregon Ducks at the Rose Bowl on January 01, 2020 in Pasadena, California. The Oregon Ducks topped the Wisconsin Badgers, 28-27. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

Alika Jenner/Getty Images

When it comes to selecting the top running back in the NFL draft, it’s all about immediate impact.

No one cares how a running back will help a team in five years, because, sadly, few running backs end up helping their teams much after five years. The top running back on any draft board must be ready to play a role right away. He must also be capable of more than just churning out rushing yards, because sixth-round picks and veteran journeymen can churn out rushing yards. That means he must be:

Explosive: Big-play capability is what separates Ezekiel Elliott or the 2015-18 version of Todd Gurley II from your standard-issue rusher.

Versatile: No team has two years to wait for a college bruiser to learn how to be a useful receiver and/or pass protector or can offer much of a role in the offense to a guy who does nothing but run off tackle.

Red-flag free: Fumblers and guys with injury concerns go straight to the back of the line, no matter how many yards they rushed for in college. And guys who gained too many yards (and therefore may already be worn down) may get shunted toward the back as well.

This year, the race for the top of the running back draft board appears to be down to Georgia’s D’Andre Swift versus Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor. But there are quite a few dark horses in the field as well. Let’s see how all the top rushing prospects stack up against one another to determine who might be worthy of a first-round pick, as well as who could have the greatest instant impact on the next football season.


Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin

In a nutshell: Taylor is your typical Wisconsin workhorse, similar to some successful NFL rushers (Melvin Gordon, James White) and not-as-successful ones (Montee Ball, Ron Dayne)

Explosiveness: Taylor ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash at the combine at 226 pounds. Football Outsiders uses the BackCAST projection system to mix workout results with college production to predict the NFL potential of running backs, and Taylor received the highest score ever.

If Taylor didn’t appear fast or explosive when you watched him, it’s because Wisconsin still lines up in the I-formation frequently, and Taylor dove between the tackles about 20 to 25 times per game. It’s hard to look like a burner when you’re being used as a battering ram every Saturday.

Versatility: Taylor caught just 42 career passes, but he appears to have the skills to do more. He may never be a third-down weapon like White, but he can develop into an every-down back like Gordon.

Red flags: Taylor carried the ball a whopping 926 times in three seasons with the Badgers, so he’ll come to the end of his manufacturer’s 100,000-mile warranty sooner than later. But that will be a bigger problem for the team that signs him in five years than the team that drafts him.

Bottom line: Taylor is the most likely back in this class to have a Gurley/Elliott-like instant impact. That means he has a great chance to be the first running back drafted, though all those carries (and the low total of catches) will make a few teams wary.


D’Andre Swift, Georgia

John Amis/Associated Press

In a nutshell: The latest model off the Georgia running back assembly line. Think of Swift as a sleeker Nick Chubb, a turbocharged Sony Michel or a Todd Gurley with fewer luxury features.

Explosiveness: Georgia guard Solomon Kindley, who blocked for most of the rushers listed above, said it best at the combine: “Blocking for D’Andre Smith was very exciting because as he gets past me, I know it’s gonna be a show. I’m ready for him to get past me to see what he’s gonna do.”

Per Expand the Boxscore, 13 percent of Swift’s touches netted 14 or more yards in 2019. That’s a very high percentage, so Kindley had plenty of opportunities to stop and stare as Swift combined sudden open-field acceleration with some nifty jump cuts.

Versatility: Swift caught 73 career passes. He’s strictly a screens-and-flats target, but a capable one. He’s also a rugged pass protector.

Red flags: None. Swift spent his career in committees with Chubb, Michel and Elijah Holyfield before taking over as the lead back in his final season at Georgia, so he has lower mileage than most top college prospects.

Bottom line: With more receiving experience and less wear and tear, Swift may climb past Taylor to the top of the running back draft board, especially since teams picking late in the first round (Saints, Chiefs, etc.) may prefer a committee back to a workhorse. Chubb’s success as a combination bruiser/breakaway threat for the Browns has probably helped Swift’s draft stock.


J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State

GLENDALE, ARIZONA - DECEMBER 28:  J.K. Dobbins #2 of the Ohio State Buckeyes runs the ball for 68-yard a touchdown against the Clemson Tigers in the first half during the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stad

Ralph Freso/Getty Images

In a nutshell: Dobbins was a three-year starter for the Ohio State Buckeyes and rushed for 2,003 yards and 21 touchdowns last season. In olden times (say, 25 years ago), he would have been a surefire first-round pick.

Explosiveness: Dobbins creates his share of big plays, but he lacks the speed-burst-moves profile of some of the other backs on this list. His Fiesta Bowl rushing performance against Clemson illustrates the difference between “very good” and “outstanding” big-play capability: He ripped off a 68-yard touchdown but also got chased down from behind at the end of another long run. The NFL is full of defensive backs who can chase down rushers like Dobbins.

Versatility: Dobbins caught 71 career passes and is a reliable pass protector, but he’s remembered more for dropping a screen pass and failing to hold on to a touchdown catch in the Fiesta Bowl than for his overall production—another illustration of the difference between “very good” and “outstanding.”

Red flags: None really, unless you watch the not-quite-touchdown over and over again and talk yourself into thinking Dobbins will break your heart.

Bottom line: Dobbins is the type of back smart teams draft in the second or third round. He’ll be productive at the NFL level, but he doesn’t quite have the special tools needed to push past Taylor and Swift at the top of the board.


Clyde Edwards-Helaire, LSU

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - JANUARY 13: Clyde Edwards-Helaire #22 of the LSU Tigers gives Nolan Turner #24 of the Clemson Tigers a stiff arm during the fourth quarter of the College Football Playoff National Championship game at the Mercedes Benz Superdome o

Alika Jenner/Getty Images

In a nutshell: Joe Burrow called Edwards-Helaire the best athlete on the Tigers last season in an interview with Dan Patrick and the “heart and soul” of LSU’s offense before the national championship game. Those are some impressive testimonials.

Explosiveness: Edwards-Helaire has a nasty spin move and appears to travel through a wormhole when he jump-cuts. That said, a 4.6-second combine 40-yard dash indicates Edwards-Helaire is more quick than fast.

Versatility: Edwards-Helaire is the most refined all-purpose back in this class. He caught 55 passes for the national champions last year, has experience operating out of the slot, can do much more than haul in screen passes and (as mentioned above) is dangerous when stringing together open-field moves. He’s also an experienced kickoff returner, which will be useful on those rare occasions when an NFL kickoff is returnable.

Red flags: Edwards-Helaire struggles as a pass-blocker. That may not sound like a big deal for a player who can catch 55 passes per year, but if an NFL coach can’t trust a back to pick up a blitz on 3rd-and-long, he’s unlikely to put him on the field on 3rd-and-long.

Bottom line: Edwards-Helaire projects as an Alvin Kamara-like contributor. If we reselected the 2017 draft class, Kamara would be a top-10 pick, so there’s a chance he creeps past Swift and Taylor if a team like the Chiefs is looking for a pure dual threat out of the backfield. But many NFL teams still think of all-purpose backs as role players, and they set their draft boards accordingly.


Cam Akers, Florida State

TALLAHASSEE, FL - SEPTEMBER 7: Runningback Cam Akers #3 of the Florida State Seminoles goes over Defensive Back Nick Ingram #23 of the Louisiana Monroe Warhawks in overtime for the winning score during the game at Doak Campbell Stadium on Bobby Bowden Fie

Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

In a nutshell: Have you ever reached an impossible level in a video game, where no matter how much you buff your character’s sprinting, leaping and fighting abilities, he’s still immediately surrounded and slaughtered by enemies? That’s what Akers’ Florida State tape looks like.

Explosiveness: Akers used more jukes and moves to get back to the line of scrimmage last season behind Florida State’s offensive line than most major-conference backs use to break off a dozen 25-yard runs. He ran a 4.47-second 40-yard dash at the combine, so he’ll be able to outsprint most defenders in the open field. 

Versatility: Akers caught 30 passes last season and 69 in his Seminoles career. He has plenty of pass-protection experience, though much of it involves seeing three defenders burst through the line at once and trying to determine which one to block.

Red flags: As you might have guessed from all the wisecracks, Florida State’s offense has been brutal the past few years. Projecting Akers into the NFL requires giving him a lot of benefit of the doubt for the things he might be capable of doing once he’s not playing behind an offensive line that looks like it’s wearing roller skates. Those sorts of projections are safer in the third or fourth round than the first.

Bottom line: There’s a chance Akers ends up as the most productive running back of the 2020 class. But it’s highly unlikely Akers ends up as the first back selected in the 2020 class. 

If I had to guess the order in which these backs will be drafted, it would be Taylor, Swift, Dobbins, Edwards-Helaire and Akers. But if I were stacking a real draft board, the order would be Edwards-Helaire, Taylor, Swift, Dobbins and Akers. Expect the unexpected on draft weekend, but remember: in their first few seasons at least, these running backs are going to matter.


Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.

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