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Predicting Rookie Running Back Success Post-NFL Draft (2020 Fantasy Football)

by David Zach | @DavidZach16 | Featured Writer
Apr 29, 2020

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Draft capital and landing spots have long been guiding lights for dynasty owners in rookie drafts. But there are many other stats that show strong predictability for future fantasy success such as Speed Score, college production, combine metrics, film analysis, etc — but getting too attached to just one metric will leave us with blinders on. Instead, a good projection incorporates a holistic view.

What if there was a place that combined all the relevant stats that have correlated to fantasy points over the years? That’s exactly what the Fantasy Z-Score (named after Zäch Score) aims to accomplish. By looking at all stats that have translated to successful running backs, it creates a final projected three-year PPG outlook for all rookie running backs selected between Rounds 1 and 4 of the NFL Draft.

The best part? If you don’t want to include a category, you don’t have to. Each prospect is given a letter grade ranging from A+ to F on topics like “Draft Capital,” “College Production Adjusted For Competition,” “Athleticism Score,” and more. The final Fantasy Z-Score projection incorporates every category with varying weights as it pertains to how strong the correlation to PPG is, but you are free to weigh them however you please.

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The Method Behind the Madness

Let’s get to it. This part may feel a bit long for some, so feel free to skip to the rankings later in the article if the process doesn’t interest you.

While no one stat is perfect, the combination of all gives us the best analytical chance at finding successful players. The following six categories were inspired by a combination of myself and some leading minds in the fantasy industry. Together they make up a player’s Fantasy Z-Score. 

Draft Capital

  • Pick placement.

Lack of Backfield Fantasy Competition (Landing Spot)

  • How many PPG are being scored by existing team RBs?
  • How deep is their backfield?
  • Weaker competition translates into more touches for incoming rookies.

Athleticism Score

  • Harvard Combine Metric (uses all available combine results).
  • College ability as a dual-threat in rushing and receiving.
  • Broken Tackle Percentage.

Yards Created by Graham Barfield

  • Graham’s tape review of how many yards a running back creates on their own.

College Production Adjusted For Competition in Final Season

  • Fantasy Points Per Game.
  • Team SRS (Simple Rating System).
  • Team SOS (Strength Of Schedule).
  • Receiving Yards Per Game.

Offensive Line Ranking

  • Uses a combination of Football Outsiders Adjusted Line Ranking from the year prior along with offseason transactions and draft acquisitions.

Each final letter grade is representative of what echelon of PPG that player falls into. (e.g. a 95% or better Athleticism Score as an A+). Please follow the Twitter links below for more detailed explanations of each category.

By breaking down each category, we can understand its usefulness. Draft capital is self-explanatory: the higher the selection, the better the player likely is, and the more investment from the team to ensure they succeed.

Next is fantasy competition, a crucial addition to the Fantasy Z-Score. It can show us who has an immediate chance for success in their rookie year and early in their career. For example, a running back drafted to the Buccaneers to compete with Ronald Jones is going to have far more opportunity than one drafted to the Panthers or Giants, where McCaffrey and Barkley control the backfield.

The next three involve the production and measurables of a player. Athleticism Score is what I defined as football athleticism as it relates to fantasy production. This consists of the Harvard Combine Metric, broken tackle percentage (courtesy of SportsInfoSolutions), and their ability to work in both the rushing and receiving game in college as a dual-threat. All of these correlate strongly to fantasy success, and as a whole, are toe-to-toe with draft capital for relevance.

Yards Created by Graham Barfield is a film breakdown of each running back’s ability to create yards on their own. If you know Graham as a fantasy analyst, you know the incredible amount of work and accuracy he pours into his Yards Created profiles. While he has his personal rankings that can vary from a player’s exact Yards Created values, this category only uses the exact values, not his final rankings. You can find him on twitter @GrahamBarfield, and you can read his FantasyPoints article here

College Production Adjusted For Competition was an idea first brought to my attention by Rotoworld analyst Hayden Winks. It adjusts a player’s production for the strengths and weaknesses of their teammates and opponents. While his model is calculated using some different variables and weights than mine (you can find his method here), I used a multiple linear regression model involving the four variables I found to carry the highest significance (low P-values) to fantasy, which consisted of college FPPG, receiving yards per game, and SportsReference metrics SRS (Simple Rating System) and SOS (Strength of Schedule). You can find Hayden on twitter @HaydenWinks for some great analytic threads on the incoming rookies.

What makes all of the aforementioned stats important enough to include? They all have correlated strongly to PPG over the last five years. Draft capital itself has a historical R-squared of 0.41 to three-year PPG.

The Fantasy Z-score sits at 0.62; a massive improvement. To better visualize this difference, study the charts below. Check for the line of fit, R-squared, and outliers. Which would you trust more to predict rookie success, draft capital alone or the Fantasy Z-Score?

A beautiful fit, but there are a few outliers. On the low end, the biggest two are Darrell Henderson and Rashaad Penny, two backs I fully expect to bounce back into their projections, and who we saw glimpses of potential from in 2019. The two biggest outliers on the higher side are Alvin Kamara and James Conner. Kamara is set in stone as an elite back, whereas James Conner struggled last year with injuries and was trending down in production. Other than those four points, it fits incredibly well with the rest of the data, especially compared to draft capital alone.

Now let’s see where the 2020 class stacks up.

2020 Dynasty Running Back Rankings and Predictions

The 2020 draft class is one for the ages. While not many check in as top-tier elite backs like Barkley or Elliott, that’s offset by the number of players who are well above average.

Below you will find each player’s Fantasy Z-Score rating, a snapshot of their profile grades, and their current consensus FantasyPros ECR. A full summary of the 2020 class all in one chart is included here for your viewing pleasure:

Tier 1

1. Clyde Edwards-Helaire (KC)
Projected PPG: 14.8
FantasyPros Rookie ECR: RB1

Landing in first is none other than the Chiefs’ newest back, Clyde Edwards-Helaire. A dream landing spot for a receiving back, he’ll only have 28-year-old Damien Williams left to compete for touches with. While Williams has been very serviceable in his time with the Chiefs, the career arc for running backs dips hard as they age. Moreover, Williams has only one year left on his contract. The opportunity is ripe for the taking.

Edwards-Helaire led the rookie class in broken tackle percentage (34%!) and in receiving yards per game (30), two of the more predictive stats included in the Z-score. He churned out impressive production his final year with LSU, highlighted by his work in the passing game. LSU had the second-highest combined SRS and SOS rating in the last five years, making all his work even more impressive.

His speed score (92.5) left much to be desired and is the only reason his Athleticism Score fell to a “B.” Other shortcomings include his Yards Created number coming in around average (although Graham himself ranks CEH very highly in his personal rankings) and the Chiefs’ run blocking being ranked in the lower half of the NFL last year.

There is little to fear in Edwards-Helaire’s profile. He has draft capital, receiving prowess, and the immediate opportunity to succeed in one of the league’s highest-scoring offenses. He should be your slight favorite for the 1.01 in single quarterback rookie drafts this year along with the next player on our list.

2. Jonathan Taylor (IND)
Projected PPG: 14.7
FantasyPros Rookie ECR: RB2

Taylor comes in with the second-highest Fantasy Z-Score in the class and a very attractive all-around profile. “A” grades are very difficult to achieve, and yet he reaches that mark in both Athleticism Score and College Production. These two categories bolster his projections as the running back with the safest floor in the class. 

The Colts traded up to acquire Taylor, and he’ll presumably lead their backfield for years to come. But in the short term, he’ll have a few bodies to compete with for touches. Overall, this is terrible news for Marlon Mack, but it should affect Nyheim Hines slightly less, as he can stay involved in the passing game. 

In the end, Taylor is a physical specimen with some of the best college production in recent history. He lands in a spot with an incredible offensive line but a few backs who may compete for some touches in 2020. He projects similar to an upgraded version of Derrick Henry with respect to collegiate profile, but with even better upside due to his athleticism.

Tier 2

3. Cam Akers (LAR)
Projected PPG: 14.0
FantasyPros Rookie ECR: RB5

Akers goes from an awful offensive line in college to an awful offensive line in the NFL, as the Rams chose to neglect their offensive trenches in the draft or offseason despite some pretty poor grades. Despite this, he has an immediate opportunity to succeed due to the heavy workload left open by Todd Gurley’s departure. Gurley had 1,064 all-purpose yards, 49 targets, and 14 touchdowns just last year. 

When compared to Darrell Henderson, his main competition, Akers slightly edges him out in a couple of categories, as he is bigger (217 lbs vs 208), faster (4.47 seconds vs 4.49), had a better Harvard Combine Metric, and broke tackles at a slightly higher rate (26% vs 25%). The glaring shortcoming is Graham’s Yards Created. Henderson achieved 6.44 yards created per carry, while Akers had 4.37, a massive differential between one of the top marks in the last four years versus one well below average. Now their differences in college lines were drastic, but Yards Created is supposed to account for blocking, which makes their upcoming competition all the more interesting behind a poor Rams’ line. 

Akers’ lower range of outcomes is sitting in a timeshare, although he’d still be the favorite for goal line touches as the heavier back. His best-case scenario is taking over the backfield completely. Not too shabby either way it unfolds.

4. Antonio Gibson (WAS)
Projected PPG: 14.0
FantasyPros Rookie ECR: RB9

A massive surprise to even myself, Gibson ranks fourth in expected points per game. Once the Redskins announced the dual-threat RB/WR hybrid as a running back, he jumped up the board in the model.

Gibson has unprecedented athleticism and was one of only three backs to ever achieve an “A+” in Athleticism Score, joining the ranks of Saquon Barkley and David Johnson. He also logged a 123 SpeedScore. The only other two backs to do so in the last five years were Barkley and fellow rookie Jonathan Taylor. That’s some outstanding company to be in.

The biggest question remains: will the Redskins treat him as a back who can contribute on a high snap basis, or will he be more of a gadget player considering his college profile? Well, that question was answered when head coach Ron Rivera said they want to use Gibson like they used McCaffrey:

Let’s stay on planet Earth, however, and realize that CMC is a generational player, and filling those expectations would be a near miracle. It also begs considering that the Redskins have rostered a plethora of backs this year which include Guice, Love, Peterson, Barber, and a few others. While the role is there for the taking, picking which one will step up to take the lead is like trying to build a 1,000 piece puzzle… with no pictorial guide… and only seeing the backside of the pieces. He might have the widest range of possible outcomes out of any player on this list.

5. J.K. Dobbins (BAL)
Projected PPG: 13.7
FantasyPros Rookie ECR: RB4

When looking strictly at final year production, no one had a better season than Dobbins. Ohio State had the highest combined SRS and SOS of any college team since 2015, and Dobbins led the charge. Historical players that had similar upper-echelon production adjusted for competition include Dalvin Cook, Saquon Barkley, Melvin Gordon, and Derrick Henry

Dobbins missed the combine and didn’t get the chance to perform at a pro day, significantly hurting his Athleticism Score. Highly touted as one of fastest backs in the class, many gauge him in the 4.4 area for speed, which would have boosted his metrics. He also led the big five rookie backs in Yards Created coming in at 5.04 per carry. Landing with one of the best offensive lines in the league in the Ravens will only add to what he can produce.

The biggest drawback in Dobbins’ profile is competition, both in the form of Mark Ingram and Lamar Jackson. These two are red-zone monsters, combining for 17 total rushing touchdowns together. Where does that leave him for scoring chances in the short term? Likely on the outside looking in.

The person who drafts Dobbins will need to be patient. So long as Ingram is still with the Ravens, his upside will be limited.

Tier 3

6. D’Andre Swift (DET)
Projected PPG: 12.7
FantasyPros Rookie ECR: RB3

The second running back drafted finds himself all the way down at number six in the model projections. Many will argue that his film tells far more than the analytics, and they are correct. His college production was mediocre, he came in with an average athleticism score and found himself right in the middle of the pack in Yards Created. 

But when you put on the tape, it becomes clear that he’s a jack of all trades. He can catch, he can make guys miss, he has acceleration, and he has good vision. What we will need to see at the next level is if he can pull all these traits together consistently enough to become more than just a committee back like he was in college. Time will tell, but know the amount of risk baked into his analytic profile.

7. Ke’Shawn Vaughn (TB)
Projected PPG: 12.5
FantasyPros Rookie ECR: RB6

The whole world was waiting to see who the Bucs would take at running back. They kept us on the edge of our seats until the third round when they finally pounced on Vaughn. The Yards Created standout landed in one of the most desirable spots as far as fantasy is concerned, joining forces with Tom Brady and one the most high-powered offenses in the league.

Vaughn is alarmingly old as far as rookies are concerned. He’ll enter the league this fall at 23 years old. In fact, he’s currently the same age as teammate Ronald Jones, a guy who has been in the league for two years already. Jones saw an uptick in production last year, but the writing was already on the wall Tampa Bay they needed significantly more help. Add in Peyton Barber’s departure, and Vaughn will start producing as early as anyone on this list.

8. AJ Dillon (GB)
Projected PPG: 12.4
FantasyPros Rookie ECR: RB8

Green Bay shocked the football community by first trading up to select Jordan Love, and then by drafting Dillon in the second. Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams were one of the highest-scoring running back duos from a fantasy perspective last year, and running back was seemingly the last need for a competitive team like the Packers.

Dillon scored the highest Harvard Combine Metric seen in the last six years — that’s how well he tested in Indianapolis. The fact that he accomplished all of this while weighing in at 247 pounds is simply jaw-dropping. 

A physical freak stuck behind Jones and possibly Williams, you’ll have to be patient if you punch your ticket with Dillon.

9. Zack Moss (BUF)
Projected PPG: 12.2
FantasyPros Rookie ECR: RB7

One of my favorite sleepers in this class besides Gibson is Zack Moss. A nice landing spot with the Bills, he and Singletary will immediately create a formidable one-two punch for opposing defenses. The Bills GM even stated that Moss has the potential to be their first and second-down back all season long.

What makes Moss particularly attractive in this class is that he comes with the second-highest broken tackle rate of 32%, The average points per game of backs with a broken tackle rate above 30%? 14.2 PPG. He also led the class with an outstanding 4.1 yards after contact per attempt. With immediate opportunity available and every chance to secure the early-down role, Moss at number eight is a testament of how deep this 2020 class truly is.

The remaining backs can be found in the overall chart listed above. They are all a solid tier below these top nine, and their projections can give you an idea of what to expect.

I hope this breakdown was helpful for you to find the stats that matter most when researching your rookie running backs for the upcoming season. Stay tuned next week where I dive into wide receivers with a similar process. 

Thanks for reading and stay golden! If you like what you learned, follow me @DavidZach16 for more interesting stats and tidbits throughout the year.

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David Zach is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from David, check out his archive and follow him @DavidZach16.

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