Scouting and ranking running backs is something that I struggle with almost every draft season. There is a huge debate about whether or not the position is even valuable anymore. If you ask some of the people who focus only on the analytics they will tell you that running ball is futile unless you score a touchdown every time. I don’t agree with those numbers or theories because I think a good running game makes everything easier on offense and that’s valuable to me.
Not only do I have to deal with the question “How valuable are running backs in today’s NFL?”, but I also must ask the question “Which style of running back is most valuable in today’s NFL?”. That is where I start to fight with myself while making rankings which is why this article is slightly late. It’s a lot like picking ice cream because there are so many different “flavors” of running backs. You have pure speed backs, receiving backs, one-cut backs, and power backs. You have shifty backs, stiff backs, and a lot of players who are somewhere in between. Figuring out which style a running back is and if it’s valuable or not is a long process.
The 2020 class is filled with high upside talent at the running back position after what I would consider to be a down year in 2019. I scouted 13 players for this summer preview and have 4 left over that I either didn’t get to or didn’t find enough tape on to feel good about ranking them. Full disclosure, I generally like all 13 running backs that I have ranked, so if you feel like your favorite guy is too far down the list just remember I don’t think they are bad. It’s a stacked class so some talented backs are further down the list.
As always if you have any comments or suggestions on some players I am missing feel free to hit me up on Twitter @DanteCollinelli.
D’andre Swift, Junior, Georgia
During last season’s SEC championship game I tweeted out that I wish Swift was draft eligible for 2019 because he would have been RB 1 for me. Well, that was before I put Swift’s tape under the microscope and oh boy I was impressed when I finally did. The two best words to describe Swift are dynamic and versatile. His ability to make people miss in the open field and in tight quarters is intoxicating to watch. He’s versatile as a runner because he poesses quickness, power, and long speed all bundled together. Swift will use them all on runs sometimes and it just makes you think “What can’t this guy do?. His ability to be a legit receiver out of the backfield adds another layer to his versatility. I struggled to find things that I think Swift is “bad” at. Is he better at some things than others? Yes. Does he have any glaring weaknesses though? I honestly don’t think that he does. Remember how I was talking about ice cream earlier? Well, Swift is if all the flavors were combined and it still tasted good. He’s truly a unique player, and I can’t wait to watch him more this season.
Travis Etienne, Junior, Clemson
Etienne is known for his world-class long speed that he used it to burn defenders during the entire 2018 season. People, the young man can scoot! Etienne might end up being the fastest running back that I’ve scouted in my young career. He breaks down the angles of would-be tacklers so easily and it’s a pleasure to watch. In scouting, we talk about running backs having a “third gear” which refers to there max speed. Etienne is one of the few guys who has a “fourth gear” that he can get to. What makes his speed so effective is the great acceleration he has when hitting the hole. In short, it doesn’t take him very long to hit that “fourth gear” he’s so blessed with. Etienne surprised me with how good his contact balance is and how often he would break tackles in the weeds of the defense. He played with more power and urgency than some of the bigger running backs in this class. My only real complaints with Etienne are that he doesn’t have great usage in the passing game, and I wish he had a little more “shake” in his game. Etienne is a true homerun hitter which is where the NFL is trending at the running back position.
Jonathan Taylor, Junior, Wisconsin
It feels like I’ve been watching Jonathan Taylor forever at the University of Wisconsin, but he’s just a junior. Taylor has spent the last two seasons making up about 85% of Wisconsin’s offense since they are allergic to good quarterback play. Taylor’s best trait is the way he blends both speed and power. Taylor does a great a job hammering away at the defense picking up 5-7 yards every play by running between the tackles. What surprised me was how many times he used his long speed to break away from defenders and create long touchdown runs. I was worried that Taylor would be a little one-dimensional, however, I could not have been more wrong. He even showed that he could run out of the shotgun later in the season when they switched quarterbacks (See Miami game). The two things I worry about with Taylor is milage and strength of his offensive line. Taylor is used as a workhorse for Wisconsin, so it’s hard not to wonder if he has used up some of his prime years already. Wisconsin’s offense line produces NFL talent every single season, and on tape, you can see them making Taylor’s job quite easy. The question for Taylor will be: Can he create for himself when things breakdown?
Ke’Shawn Vaughn, RS Senior, Vanderbilt
Vaughn was an unknown to me heading into this scouting series. Despite seeing some things on Twitter about him, I was in the dark for the most part. Vaughn’s ability to break big-time runs jumped out to me right away. I encourage you to go watch his performance against Baylor in last years bowl game. He broke a couple of long touchdowns in that game all of which showed his amazing burst and long speed. Vaughn displayed some pretty nice contact balance allowing him to pick up a lot of extra yards after initial contact. He did a great job staying patient allowing his blockers to set up in front of him too. Vaughn carries enough shake in his game to make people miss in the open field, but he prefers to run them over most of the time. Vaughn is one of the few senior running backs in this class with some national media attention, so he’s got a unique opportunity to make himself the best running back of the senior class. However, he needs to get more involved in the passing game and be a little more decisive at the mesh point before he can claim that crown.
Zach Moss, Senior, Utah
Moss is the other senior running back who has an early chance to be the best of the 4-year players. Like Vaughn, Moss wasn’t on my radar until I started working on this summer scouting series. I love running backs who hit the hole hard and Moss does that all the time so he quickly moved up my rankings. I thought his speed at the second level was great and pointed to him being a homerun hitter. If you haven’t noticed, that has been a common theme with all of these running backs so far. Moss posses solid contact balance and always fell forward for extra yardage which is another trait that I love to see in my running backs. One of the most frustrating things about Moss’s tape is that Utah lined him up as a wide receiver often but never threw him the ball. He would line up wide and in the slot only to be used as a decoy or as a blocker. When given a chance he looked natural catching the ball, but I need to see more of it. I have some questions about his vision as well. He can sometimes just miss holes entirely or just not wait long enough for them to open up. If Moss can make his vision more consistent and continue to be explosive he will shoot up boards during draft season when everyone catches on.
Number 6: AJ Dillion, Junior, Boston College
Number 7: JK Dobbins, Junior, Ohio State
Number 8: Anthony Mcfarland, RS Sophomore, Maryland
Number 9: Reggie Corbin, Junior, Illinois
Number 10: Najee Harris, Junior, Alabama
Number 11: Eno Benjamin, Junior, Arizona State
Number 12: Cam Akers, Junior, Florida State
Number 13: Kylin Hill, Junior, Mississippi State
Players I still have to watch/ need more tape on
Number 1: JJ Taylor, RS Junior, Arizona
Number 2: Darryton Evans, Junior, Appalachian State
Number 3: Greg Mccare, Junior, Central Florida
Number 4: Micheal Warren II, Junior, Cincinnati