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On the final weekend of April, the NFL went forward with the draft despite incredible uncertainty surrounding the nature and existence of the upcoming season. Whether a season occurs — or in what capacity it does — remains to be seen. In the meantime, we have a bunch of new players entering the league with opportunities to make an immediate impact.
A solid 10 running backs went in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft. Since the focus here is on fantasy impact, this list will primarily include running backs from the first two days of the draft as day three picks are extremely unlikely to matter, especially as rookies, barring some sort of injury or unforeseen event.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire (RB – KC)
This should come as no surprise to fantasy gamers. When evaluating running backs in fantasy football, situation plus opportunity outweigh talent. Do I believe Clyde Edwards-Helaire is the most talented running back in this class? No. Is there any other running back with a better situation and opportunity? No.
When it comes to talent, all a running back needs is enough of it to excel if given the right circumstances. There are some running backs so devoid of talent that they wouldn’t be fantasy-relevant even on the Chiefs, but those are few and far between. Most running backs are good enough to be great if the situation and opportunity are there. CEH — and every day two running back — meet this standard. There is no David Montgomery in the 2020 class.
The moment CEH was drafted, many analysts tweeted out that he was immediately the 1.01 in rookie drafts and the most valuable rookie running back for redraft purposes. CEH was the only running back selected in the first round, and he went to the defending Super Bowl champions featuring the league’s best quarterback running the league’s most explosive offense. CEH is the best receiving back in this class. He had a 10.2% college target share, buoyed mostly by 55 receptions on 58 targets in his final collegiate season. While he lacks straight-line speed, the Chiefs run primarily out of the shotgun, and CEH’s 89th percentile burst will allow him to get through holes and into space quickly.
With his only competition a 28-year-old UDFA that has never seen more touches in a single season than his 141 in 2019, who also has a checkered past when it comes to injury, the stage is set for CEH to see around a 60% opportunity share on the best offense in the NFL. CEH will likely settle around a mid to late second-round pick in redraft leagues and will be worth every penny.
Jonathan Taylor (RB – IND)
While it would have been great if Jonathan Taylor had gone to a team without a true incumbent such as Tampa Bay, San Francisco, or Houston, there’s not much reason to worry about Taylor not seeing enough work. The Colts traded up to draft him in the early second round. That matters. In fact, the Colts’ running back situation is a thesis in the importance of draft capital. By no means is Marlon Mack a bad running back. He’s quite good. But he was a fourth-round pick, which means the Colts had no allegiance to him. Mack is good. Taylor is excellent. Taylor is one of the best prospects of all time.
The reason Mack is dead is that, despite Mack’s receiving ability, the Colts believe him to be just a two-down grinder. Taylor is not coming off the field for Mack. And if Taylor does get pulled in passing situations, it will be for Nyheim Hines. If Mack isn’t released or traded, he may see fewer than 50 touches on the entire season.
As for Taylor, as the great LeGarrette Blount once said, “You don’t sign me to sit me.” The Colts did not draft Taylor to have him form a committee with Mack. Taylor is going to dominate carries and be the primary goal-line back. He will do it behind one of the best offensive lines in the league, anchored by the best run-blocking guard, Quenton Nelson. Football Outsiders graded the Colts’ power run blocking performance as the seventh-best in 2019, and they are only improving.
Even though he had a 10.2% college target share, Taylor may not contribute as much as fantasy owners would like in the receiving department, but that will be baked into Taylor’s value. What makes Taylor so tantalizing is the potential that the Colts do use him more in the passing game than we expect. Even if they don’t, Taylor should, at a minimum, see around a 65% opportunity share. I would gladly take him in the third round of a redraft league.
J.K. Dobbins (RB – BAL)
CEH and Taylor are both obvious first-year contributors. When it comes to J.K. Dobbins, it’s really important to understand why this landing spot is both great and problematic for 2020. The Ravens know what they are doing. They’ve proven that over the past 20 years. They drafted Dobbins to be their primary back of the future. However, Mark Ingram is still there, and for now, he’s not going anywhere.
Once Dobbins takes over the primary role, his situation in Baltimore is phenomenal. They have an elite offensive line, and Lamar Jackson’s lethal mobility allows running backs to consistently reach the second level. While I have zero doubts about Dobbins’ ability to be a fantasy RB1 once he becomes Baltimore’s RB1, I’m unsure when that’ll happen.
Whenever the 2020 season starts, Ingram is going to be the primary back. By the end of the season, I expect Dobbins to take over fully, but it’s difficult to properly value a running back in redraft that will be unstartable for an unknown portion of the season. If given 16 games, Dobbins will be the guy by the fantasy playoffs, probably sooner. Unfortunately, I think it’s extremely unlikely that the NFL plays 16 games this season. If the season ends up cut in half, that will not be enough time for Dobbins to usurp Ingram, thus rendering him completely useless for fantasy.
In keeper and dynasty formats, gobble up Dobbins because Ingram will not be on the Ravens in 2021. In redraft, Dobbins is the ideal late-round target because of his immense upside in the event he overtakes Ingram. Just be aware of the possibility it doesn’t happen this season.
Ke’Shawn Vaughn (RB – TB)
Fantasy gamers largely wanted one of the top-five running backs to land in Tampa Bay. That didn’t happen. The Bucs smartly bolstered their offensive line and defense instead of prioritizing a replaceable position. I have never been on the Ronald Jones train. He was a bad prospect, and he’s a bad NFL running back.
Third-round draft capital matters. Ke’Shawn Vaughn is going to play immediately. He will never see workhorse usage, but he doesn’t need to. Vaughn is now playing with Tom Brady, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Rob Gronkowski. The Bucs are set up to be one of the league’s best offenses. I don’t think Jones just goes away, but, mercifully, Peyton Barber is gone. This paves the way for Vaughn and Jones to form a committee that should tip ever so slightly in Vaughn’s favor. Vaughn had a 10% college target share, so he can be used in the passing game. He’s certainly better than Jones in that department, and we know Brady will throw to his running backs.
Vaughn is 23 years old, which is old for a rookie, but that only impacts his dynasty stock. For redraft purposes, Vaughn should come at a reasonable price given his third-round draft status and the presence of Jones. He is the perfect mid to late single-digit round target at running back — a guy in an ambiguous backfield on a very good offense that should come with at least some role plus the opportunity for upward mobility.