NFL Draft 2020 running back rankings: Breaking down the skills of top RBs, from elusiveness to contact balance

The 2020 NFL Draft is less than a month away. The first round will not see many, if any, running backs taken. However, it is a deep group that should provide value into Day 3. 

I've ranked each of my top seven running backs in some of the qualities directly correlated to becoming an effective running back in the NFL (listed in order of importance). In addition to those seven running backs, I pinpointed a sleeper that would test highly in each category.

Elusiveness

1. D'Andre Swift, Georgia
2. J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State
3. Cam Akers, Florida State
4. Clyde Edwards-Helaire, LSU
5. Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin
6. Joshua Kelley, UCLA
7. Zack Moss, Utah

Swift lives up to his name. He is difficult to wrangle in space. Dobbins is similar. He has a low strike zone and is slippery on contact. Akers did not look elusive last season because Florida State's offensive line did not do a good job blocking for him. He could surprise a lot of people at the next level. Edwards-Helaire is a balanced player who would fit in almost every scenario. 

Sleeper: J.J. Taylor, Arizona

Taylor has drawn comparisons to Darren Sproles. He is small, but shifty. Arizona looked for ways to get him the ball in space because they knew what he was capable of doing any given moment.

Contact Balance

  1. Moss
  2. Edwards-Helaire
  3. Akers
  4. Swift
  5. Taylor
  6. Kelley
  7. Dobbins

Moss was always the prototype of contact balance. There was a moment against BYU when his play defied physics. With that being said, Edwards-Helaire was a lot closer to Moss than initially expected. His lower center of gravity makes him difficult to get on the ground. Akers was hit a lot this past year, but when he was given a chance to extend the play, he generally did.

Sleeper: Ke'Shawn Vaughn, Vanderbilt

Vaughn was a bit of a boom-or-bust prospect in 2019. His breakaway speed is comparable to anyone in this class. He compiled a healthy yards-after-contact total. 

Vision

  1. Swift
  2. Dobbins
  3. Edwards-Helaire
  4. Kelley
  5. Moss
  6. Akers
  7. Taylor

Swift's vision is special. He could be approaching the play-designed gap, notice an opportunity outside and bounce out quickly. He is strong in pass protection and is a really well-balanced player. Dobbins is known for his vision and burst. He creates opportunities for himself and then explodes downfield. Edwards-Helaire is similar in the way that he can hop outside and extend a play.

Sleeper: Lamical Perine, Florida

Perine is a savvy player who could start in the NFL one day. His vision is pretty good in the way that he is able to regulate his speed and plant to facilitate a sharp cut. 

Burst/Long Speed

  1. Dobbins
  2. Swift
  3. Taylor
  4. Edwards-Helaire
  5. Akers
  6. Kelley
  7. Moss

As noted in the previous explanation, Dobbins has great breakaway speed. He impacted the College Football Playoff against Clemson early. Swift has similar capabilities. Those two are so talented in the way that they get up to speed. Taylor ran the fastest (4.39 seconds) 40-yard dash of any running back at the NFL combine. His top end speed is impossible for anyone else in this class to match.

Sleeper: Anthony McFarland, Maryland

McFarland's play does not necessarily equal his production from this past season. Statistically, he looks like a boom-or-bust prospect with highs and lows. However, his film shows a pretty consistent player. His straight line speed is dynamite and offers home run level threat on any given play.

Power

  1. Edwards-Helaire
  2. Moss
  3. Akers
  4. Taylor
  5. Swift
  6. Kelley
  7. Dobbins

The smallest running back in this group also happens to be the most powerful. Edwards-Helaire's thighs are so strong, which allows him to get behind his body and drive forward. Moss is always looking to initiate contact. He has a defensive mentality playing the running back position. Akers had no choice but to be physical last season with how often defenders met him in the backfield.

Sleeper: Darrynton Evans, Appalachian State

Evans is one of the first prospects left off the top-7 list. He is really well-balanced. He had some power elements to his game and showed good vision, but the 4.41 second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine was a pleasant surprise.

Pass-Catching Ability

  1. Edwards-Helaire
  2. Swift
  3. Akers
  4. Dobbins
  5. Kelley
  6. Moss
  7. Taylor

Edwards-Helaire looks so natural catching passes out of the backfield. Joe Burrow threw every pass to him with confidence. There is no second guessing how he was able to accumulate 55 receptions in 2019. Swift is smooth, as well. The opportunity to get him in space is tough to pass up because of his agility. 

Sleeper: Gerold Bright, Utah State

Bright is a former wide receiver, so he better be able to catch passes out of the backfield. He was not featured in that Aggies offense, which is a concern. He has also made some questionable off-field decisions. There is a lot of raw in him.

Scheme Fits 

Zone

  1. Swift
  2. Dobbins
  3. Akers
  4. Edwards-Helaire
  5. Taylor
  6. Kelley
  7. Moss

Swift and Dobbins display great vision with the ball. They are patient in allowing blocks to set up before bursting through running lanes. Ohio State used Dobbins in stretch plays a lot last season, which led to significant success. Akers and Edwards-Helaire are easy fits as well. They are both springy players able to move gap to gap. 

Sleeper: Eno Benjamin, Arizona State

Benjamin has all the characteristics that make Akers so special. However, he struggles with dropped passes and fumbling. Benjamin has great burst and should be able to get wide with ease. 

Power/Gap

  1. Moss
  2. Kelley
  3. Taylor
  4. Edwards-Helaire
  5. Swift
  6. Akers
  7. Dobbins

Moss is a power back with great contact balance so his skill set would best be used in this scheme. Kelley has feature back potential as well. Taylor and Edwards-Helaire could also translate to a zone-blocking scheme, but they are versatile at the next level. When a prospect's game is scheme-proof, it opens up a lot more opportunities.

Sleeper: A.J. Dillon, Boston College

Dillon is admittedly not my favorite running back. He has great size and is difficult to bring down for that reason. However, he goes down easier than a player of his size and stature should. There is no arguing with his production. He will leave BC as arguably the most accomplished running back in the school's history.

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