Summer Scouting: 2020 Running Back Rankings
In my first article leading up to the 2020 Draft, I’ll give you my thoughts on the upcoming running back class. One of the things I took away from this early process is running backs are one of the more enjoyable positions to scout. Each has their own skill set and this can translate to some type of role on NFL teams. While most may not make a roster or carve out a large role, each may be able to thrive if given the right opportunity.
This year’s class is particularly strong, and I mean really strong, especially coming off last year’s mediocre class. It features multiple players with first-round potential. Josh Jacobs was one of my favorite players he may not have been in the top five of this class. The class is not just top heavy either, it features many players I see as potential risers or guys who have the talent to show out in larger roles this year. If a running back you know of isn’t featured on this list comment on Twitter and I’ll try to watch to give you my thoughts. As always comments and feedback are much appreciated.
1- D'Andre Swift, Georgia (3rd Year Junior)
When watching Jake Fromm one thing that stands out is not Jake Fromm but his running back D’Andre Swift. Swift as of now is an elite NFL prospect. His short area quickness and burst are head and shoulders above this class. His contact balance and how he can slide off of tackles is unmatched. Swift also works very well in space, once he gets to the second level he uses a combination of speed and quickness to obliterate linebackers and safeties. Not only is he an elite runner, but he also has above average hands, he was used as a pass-catcher during his time as a backup as he has caught 49 passes over his two years at Georgia. He is able to pair all these positives with a stocky, sturdy frame. The main issue with Swift is he needs to improve is his vision, while I think it most likely stems from a lack of experience, he will try to hit holes to quickly when I would like to see him be a little more patient and wait for his blocks to set up. Overall Swift is a first rounder and potential Top 10 talent.
2- Travis Etienne, Clemson (3rd Year Junior)
Let’s get one thing out of the way first, Etienne is lighting in a bottle, he is insanely fast. He is the definition of angle buster. Once he gets into the second level you can forget about tackling him because safeties or linebackers who aren’t smart about it have no chance. Etienne while not on Swift’s level still has elite burst and can make defenders miss. While Etienne is a speed back on the surface, his ability to put his head down and grind out some tough yards is also impressive. If you are looking at pure running ability then Etienne is probably the best runners in the class but he lacks the pass-catching ability of some of the recent elite running back prospects. If he can improve upon that or teams feel he has untapped potential there, he may end up as the number one running back in the class.
3- Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin (3rd Year Junior)
Jonathan Taylor has had insane production in his first two years at Wisconsin. This type of production has also created some negatives in his evaluation. He has already carried the ball a staggering 606 times in two years which puts him on track for over 900 carries coming into the NFL. This may cause his body to break down earlier than most. Taylor also has a fumbling issue that he has yet to correct (fumbled four times last year). These are pretty much the extent of his negatives. Taylor has one of the best short area speed and power combinations in the class. The ability to either make a defender miss or go through them helps to make him an elite prospect. Taylor keeps a low center of gravity which makes it easy to power through defenders. He is also not the type of player that can only run inside, he is able to thrive on outside runs where he can accelerate to the edge. Taylor is the prototype workhorse back that you can give the ball to 25-30 times per game.
4- JK Dobbins, Ohio State (3rd Year Junior)
Dobbins showed promise as a freshman, posting a robust 7.2 yards per carry, last year though as a sophomore that average plummeted to 4.6 yards per carry. He will look to rebound with Justin Fields as his QB. Fields will add a running threat to their offense and Ryan Day will most likely look to integrate some read option and RPO elements which should benefit Dobbins. Dobbins as an NFL prospect looks very promising. His stop-start ability is the biggest elements that jumped out to me while watching him, he can change direction with ease. Dobbins also has innate contact balance, some runs make your jaw drop as he is able to stay up. He projects as a high end lead back right now, he hasn’t done a ton of work in the passing game and he thrives more as an inside runner. His vision outside the tackles was lacking at times and I would love to see him make strides in that area this year.
5- Eno Benjamin, Arizona State (3rd Year Junior)
If anyone so far deserves to be ranking higher it’s Benjamin. He can fill almost any role in an offense. He is a power back that knows how to grind out tough yards, has good vision and patience to find holes and then explode through them. Benjamin’s contact balance is also noteworthy, he is a YAC monster which will force teams to give him carries in the NFL. Benjamin is also an impressive pass catcher out of the backfield, he runs clean routes and caught 35 passes later year alone. However, Benjamin does lack that top end speed or extra gear, he’s not overly quick and doesn’t have the same twitch as some of the players on this list. To me, Benjamin like the others ahead of him projects as a lead back and in the right situation would thrive in a workhorse role.
6- Ke'Shawn Vaughn, Vanderbilt (5th Year Senior)
Vaughn is the first senior that I have ranked so far, Vaughn as a prospect is very special and a key piece to a potentially dangerous Vanderbilt offense (a sentence I’d never thought I’d type). Vaughn has wheels, he had multiple runs especially in their game against Baylor where he is able to speed past defenders that have no chance at catching him. Another trait that flashes on film is his ability to fight through contact and stay on his feet. The main thing I would like to see him improve on is becoming a more complete back, gaining those tough yards, I know that he can thrive on speed, but to firmly cement himself as a Round One back showing that he can produce game in and game out as well as in the passing game could benefit him in terms of his stock.
7- Najee Harris, Alabama (3rd Year Junior)
Harris was one of my favorite players to watch so far. I think he has a legitimate shot at becoming the best of Alabama’s running backs last year (Others being Josh Jacobs and Damien Harris). Harris moves very gracefully for a runner of his size, he has a rare size/speed/power blend. He runs angry and isn’t afraid of contact, but he is not just a power runner. His cuts and drive get upfield is impressive. The issue with Harris will be lack of experience, he should start for Alabama this year and will need to show that he can develop his vision. If he can take a leap in that department we could be talking about him entering the top five at his position discussion assuming he declares.
8- AJ Dillon, Boston College (3rd Year Junior)
Dillon is an interesting prospect, he is a very solid player and has been productive for Boston College. At this point though I’m not buying the first or second round hype. Dillon comes in at 6’0” 245 and runs like it, he feasts on short yardage situations where he is asked to pick up 3-5 yards. He is the prototypical north-south runner that wants to go through you, not around you. Dillon has suffered from a plethora of issues at Boston College. He hasn’t had great QB play in his time which has allowed teams to key on him running the ball and the play calling was not very creative. Dillon also suffered an ankle injury midseason that some speculated lingered even though he was able to play through it. Overall Dillon is a spectacular power runner and there is a role for him in the NFL, but I don’t think at this point the role that he will play is worth an early pick.
9- Cam Akers, Florida State (3rd Year Junior)
Akers tape was hard to watch, it is obvious that he has the talent and could be a star but he was held back tremendously by his offensive line and those struggles make it hard to rank him much higher. One of the critiques I had with him was that he’s almost too patient with the ball in his hands. It was known how bad FSU’s offensive line was and I wanted to see Akers not be picky and hit holes to pick up needed yardage. This flaw leads to negative runs that may in some circumstances be avoided by getting upfield with more urgency. He is not all bad though, in fact, he is far from it. Akers has a lot to like, he has elite burst and lateral movement skills, his knack for making guys miss is what will earn him a job in the NFL. Akers will also flash power from time to time and leads me to believe that if he can make strides his draft stock could soar come April.
10- Zack Moss, Utah (4th Year Senior)
Moss’ tape is not as enjoyable to watch as some of the other guys above him but he does what is asked of him. He can pick up yards up the middle or stay in on passing downs to block (this was one of my favorite parts of his film was how well he was as a lead blocker or how he was able to excel on passing downs). He has a stocky build for a 5’9” running back but has the acceleration to turn the corner and work upfield. Moss will not go down from arm tackles, he has the balance and upper body strength to shrug off those types of tackles. He does, however, run upright and it allows defenders to go lower and take him down. Moss also lacks top end speed and will never be a guy that can run by you. It is hard to see Moss taking a huge step in many areas this year because he is who he is at this point. Most likely a Day 2 running back next April.
11- Ty Chandler, Tennessee (3rd Year Junior)
This will probably be the highest you see Chandler show up in early rankings. I was unaware of his as a player until I noticed his explosiveness and receiving ability while watching Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano. While Chandler only caught 19 passes this past season, in the games I watched Tennessee split him out as a receiver or put him in the slot, this helps to show how refined he is in that area. Chandler is not just a pass-catcher, he has great lower body power that allows him to shrug off tacklers, I also noted that he is quick on his feet and is able to keep low to the ground. Chandler does, however, have some areas where he will struggle, he was not noteworthy in pass protection and to be a true third-down back he will need to improve there, Chandler also has a very punishing running style and for a running back that is barely over 200 pounds I don’t know that he could hold up in the NFL.
12- Kylin Hill, Mississippi State (3rd Year Junior)
In my opinion, Hill was limited last year and we may not see the true Kylin Hill until this year. Hill dealt with some injuries (possibly due to his power running style) and was in a backfield that featured fellow quarterback (running back), Nick Fitzgerald. Forcing Hill to work with a quarterback who couldn’t push the ball downfield and relied on his legs caused defenses to key on the run which may have limited Hill. Hill does show promise, he has good short area quickness but he should not be mistaken for having speed. He thrives between the tackles and is not afraid to put his head down and initiate contact. This can also be his undoing, Hill tends to seek out contact at the expense of trusting his eyes and looking for the open lanes. I don’t think that Mississippi utilized him to the fullest either, they used him on sweeps or outside runs and that is not his strength, I would love to see the coaching staff tailor his usage more towards these strengths.
13- Reggie Corbin, Syracuse (4th Year Senior)
Corbin is so much fun to watch, his speed is right up there at the top of this class. He is a true home run hitter who could take it to the house on any play. Corbin averaged a staggering 8.5 yards per carry last season. His ability to get into the second level and break off 10-20 yard gains keeps you dialed into his every carry. In the NFL though, I think he will be relegated to being to a change of pace role as he does not really stand out in other areas. He is not a between the tackles runner, he thrives more on outside runs where he can use his speed, he is not a good pass blocker mostly due to his size and lack of upper body strength. Corbin is definitely worth a pick based on his speed but as of now, he is a late Day 2 type player.
14- Scottie Phillips, Ole Miss (4th Year Senior)
Scottie Phillips is a runner that is really hard to figure out, he doesn’t fit the mold of the small speed back, he isn’t a power type runner by any stretch and he hasn’t made an impact in the passing game. Phillips is a very fluid runner though, he looks natural with the ball in his hands. His burst allows him to force missed tackles at will. While he is not a powerful back he is slippery and will shed some tacklers. The other big criticism that showed up was his poor vision, he hesitates on multiple instances behind the line and leads to lost yardage. I don’t really know where he projects at this point because he really doesn’t have a big strength or enticing trait that makes him a stand out player.
15- JJ Taylor, Arizona (4th Year Junior)
Taylor has potential, but his draft stock may be capped due to his size, he is listed at 5’6” and the only other successful running backs in the NFL right now at that size are Tarik Cohen and Darren Sproles. Those two are both different types of players than JJ Taylor. Both are or were some of the best pass-catchers at their position, Taylor as of now is not, he will most likely need to develop in that area to carve out a role on a team. He is however very quick on his feet and knows how to make guys miss. His size does, however, allow him through small holes when running inside and he is not afraid to be a between the tackles runner. I have him pegged as late Day 2 player as of now and I don’t see him making a huge leap unless he produces more as a receiver.
16- Kennedy Brooks, Oklahoma (3rd Year Junior)
Brooks was the better of the two Oklahoma running backs in my opinion. What Brooks lacks in speed and explosiveness he makes up for with power, contact balance, and impressive vision. Brooks while not explosive is able to set defenders up and find holes to get upfield. While he did split time with Trey Sermon he can handle the workhorse role as he did well when asked to handle a high volume of carries. Brooks also has above average strength that contributes to his ability to shed tackles and make big plays. As mentioned earlier teams will ding him for his lack of athleticism but he could carve out an early-down role in the NFL.
17- Clyde Edwards-Helaire, LSU (3rd Year Junior)
The first thing that shows up when you watch Edwards-Helaire is his explosiveness and quick lateral movement. His ability to make defenders miss is spectacular, he can come to a full stop and change direction with ease. Outside of that though there is not a lot that I think makes him an enticing prospect. While he is explosive he tries to do too much behind the line as well as in the open field. He may be able to improve this with experience but at this point, it is really holding his play and evaluation back. Edwards-Helaire has the top end speed I just don’t see it in his plays speed, he looks slower in the open-field than his 4.47 40 yard high school time would suggest. He is a late Day two or Day three type player as of right now.
18- Trey Sermon, Oklahoma (3rd Year Junior)
I’m lower on Sermon than most as I see him as locked into a power running back role. Like his backfield counterpart Kennedy Brooks, Sermon lacks explosiveness and speed. Sermon is at his best when he is asked to run between the tackles and pick up 4-6 yard gains. Sermon is tall, well-built, and has a strong upper body. Sermon will in some instances try to do too much instead of picking up the yards that are there for him. It may be a product of the Oklahoma offense but from what I watched most of Sermon’s runs were well blocked and he didn’t have to find open holes. Oklahoma had him run a variety of routes which makes me think he could have some potential in that area, but he only caught 12 passes last year. If he could show improvements in that area this year he could surpass Brooks, otherwise, there is not a ton to get excited about with Sermon.
19- Michael Warren, Cincinnati (3rd Year Junior)
Michael Warren is a name that not many people have heard as he plays for Cincinnati. Warren has been one of the stars of the Cincinnati offense in what was a resurgent year for the team. He was highly productive scoring 20 touchdowns and going over 1,500 all-purpose yards. As power backs go he is probably one of the better ones in the class, he finds holes and puts his head down to pick up yards. He won’t blow anyone away with speed and he doesn’t have elite explosiveness or lateral movement skills. However, he is not just a one trick pony. Warren is also an above average pass-catcher. Cincinnati deployed him in the slot and out wide in some of their formations. Warren also caught 25 passes showing he is a key cog for their offense. Warren will most likely not test very well, meaning he will most likely be a Day 3 or UDFA type player.
20- Patrick Taylor Jr., Memphis (4th Year Senior)
Taylor is one of the larger running backs in the class at 6’2” and 220 pounds but he does not play up to his size. He moves very fluidly for a player of his size and wants to make you miss rather than go through you like most big backs. Taylor is also a very solid pass-blocker, he knows how to use his large frame to slow down incoming rushers. However, if he is going to be successful in the NFL, I would prefer to see him embrace more of power running back role and pick up those tough yards between the tackles. This is not to say he isn’t good at what he does not. Taylor has surprising quickness and can make defenders miss in the open field, but this quickness may be negated by faster and more athletic defenders in the NFL which is why I want to see him improve on the power aspect of his running style.
For the next section of these rankings, I will throw out some of the other players that didn’t make the top 20 or some that I liked but didn’t feel comfortable ranking at this point in the summer. Each player will have some quick notes on what I liked or didn’t like.
Anthony McFarland Jr., Maryland- McFarland is only a redshirt sophomore and only gained the starting job last year, so I didn’t want to rank him as the most likely will not come out this year. But if he does come out there is a solid chance that he could get drafted. McFarland has great top end speed and is very quick on his feet in the second and third levels. McFarland struggles behind the line, his poor vision leads to negative plays where he should have just taken 3 yards instead of trying to get the ball to the outside.
CJ Verdell, Oregon- Verdell is also another redshirt sophomore that most likely won’t come out this year. He took over the starting job for the Ducks last year and never looked back. He is built well for a smaller running back and uses his frame to bounce off contact and power his way for extra yards. Verdell is also a very solid pass-catcher, he runs very crisp routes and caught 27 passes last year. Verdell for smaller running back is not shifty, he doesn’t rely on his lateral movement or cuts to pick up yards. The other big concern that I have is his vision, at this point due to how the Oregon offense runs he doesn’t have to find holes they are all wide open and there for him. It is hard to figure that part of his game out right now. Verdell could be a riser if he can make strides in some of the areas that I laid out.
Larry Rountree, Missouri- Rountree was highly productive as a sophomore for Missouri and will look to continue that for a team that is lost many of its starters. Rountree is very quick on his feet and moves well for a player of his size. He really struggles with his vision and finding holes. In the games, I watched him frequently missed holes or run into his own blockers instead of being patient and allowing his blocks to set up. He has the frame and some enticing traits but he needs to improve to get drafted.
Greg McCrae, USF- McCrae is one of the twitchier backs in the class, but it is what you would expect from a sub-six foot, 175 pound running back. There is not a lot to get excited about besides that though, he was not a high volume pass-catcher (although I do think he’s a solid route runner), he lacks top-end speed and has below average vision. He’s very indecisive when trying to find a hole and frequently hesitates. At this point, I don’t think he is draftable unless he can improve in a scatback type role.
DeeJay Dallas, Miami- The only game that I watched of Dallas was their game against Toledo so it was hard to gauge versus lower competition. However, I was able to note some of the things that I liked about his game. Dallas is a very strong runner, he is able to shed tacklers and will fight for extra yards. Dallas has a lot to improve if he wants to be more than just a power runner. He looked like a non-factor in the passing game and wasn’t asked to pass-block. Dallas also has poor short area quickness and has little to no ability to make players miss in the open field. I will revisit him when I can get access to games against ACC competition.
Joshua Kelley, UCLA- Kelley is a very uninspiring but solid player all-around, he is a very cerebral runner who uses above average vision and patience to grind out tough yards or to hit the holes and break off long runs. Kelley knows that when he is going down he needs to fall forward or just get the yards that he can. The fact that he knows what to do in most circumstances and doesn’t cost his team yards may allow him to stick on a roster as a backup but the lack of impressive physical tools may hold him back from shooting up boards. Kelley lacks that extra gear and isn’t overly explosive or shifty in open space. Look for Kelley to have another solid year at UCLA and either be taken with a late pick or latch onto a team as a free agent.
Tavien Feaster, Undecided- Feaster is not currently part of a team as he is still trying to figure out where he will transfer after losing his job to Travis Etienne. The concerns I have with Feaster are deep-rooted. He tested insanely well coming out of high school (4.34 40 yard dash and 4.06 shuttle), but he lacks the polish and refinement to be able to show that speed. He struggles to get into the open field and has little to no ability to create his own yards. He relies on his speed but simply can’t use his lateral quickness to make defenders miss. He is very frustrating to watch as it is clear he has talent but he hasn’t developed as a runner between the ears.
Brian Robinson Jr., Alabama- Robinson has been buried on an ultra-deep Alabama running back depth chart. Last year he sat behind Josh Jacobs, Damien Harris, and Najee Harris and rarely saw carries. This year he will sit behind Najee Harris (RB7) in terms of the pecking order for running back touches. He is not without talent though, he moves very well for a bigger back as every move he makes looks very fluid and natural. He will be very attractive to an NFL team based on his size and explosiveness. Despite his obvious talent, he has never been able to carve out a role in the Alabama offense, this has not allowed him to gain valuable experience that would help him improve his vision and smarts as a runner. He may benefit from staying another year if Najee Harris declares after the season.
Stephen Carr, USC- Carr has had some serious injury problems during his time at USC that have held him back from living up to his five-star recruit status. He may be labeled with the injury-prone tag and that will scare a majority of teams away from drafting him as they need running backs that can stay healthy. Carr does have good explosiveness and has good long speed. He may benefit from some added weight or bulk but he has the frame of an NFL running back. I worry about his poor vision but I’m not ready to ding him heavily on that because he has had a hard time staying on the field to gain experience and develop that part of his game.
Lamical Perine, Florida- Perine was a very disappointing watch. He doesn’t possess many of the important traits of a starting caliber running back in the NFL. Perine lacks long speed and isn’t able to accelerate once he gets into the open field. He also didn’t strike me as a player that will make an impact on third down. Perine does have some intriguing qualities, he has decent contact balance and is a patient runner. Those positives did not outweigh the negatives for me and as of now, he is an undrafted free agent.
Salvon Ahmed, Washington (3rd Year Junior)- Ahmed could be one of the biggest risers this season. He has been stuck behind workhorse Myles Gaskin for the entirety of his career and he is now ready to break out. Ahmed has elite speed (4.32 40 yard dash coming out of high school) and it shows on the field, his ability to find a hole and accelerate are scary, but the most impressive note about Ahmed is how fluid he is, every motion looks natural and the way he can stop and make guys miss makes your jaw drop to the floor. Even being stuck behind Myles Gaskin, Ahmed still caught 21 passes which shows he may be able to thrive on third downs as well. Ahmed has some issues with ball security, in the game I watched he had a pretty lazy fumble. He is also on the smaller side which is not a deal-breaker but could limit his role in the NFL. Right now it is hard to peg where Ahmed could go but with a solid year, he could be a high Day 2 player.
Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State (3rd Year Sophomore)- Hubbard is another redshirt sophomore meaning it is unlikely that he declares this year. In the NFL Hubbard at worst will be third down back, playing in the Oklahoma State offense Hubbard has been able to develop his route running to pair with his ability to make defenders miss in open space, this makes him a very dangerous weapon out of the backfield. He has so much more potential than just a pass-catcher, Hubbard is quick on his feet and thrives as an outside runner. He displays long speed that allows him to blow by linebackers and get into open space. Hubbard’s limitations come in that he is not a developed inside runner, he struggles to gain consistent yardage if large holes aren’t there for him. While Hubbard is a slippery runner he is a far cry from being called a power back. Right now he is a mid-round type player but if he improves his all-around game this year or in the next two years he could be a riser.