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Impact Rookie Running Backs (2020 Fantasy Football)

by Raju Byfield | @FantasyContext | Featured Writer
Jun 11, 2020

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Every season fantasy owners scramble to ascertain who the next top rookie running backs will be. More than perhaps any other position, rookie running backs make sizable fantasy impacts in their first season. Much like this year, there are often the obvious candidates, but being able to identify the top options who may be available in the mid-to-late rounds is often just as important as knowing which rookie running backs may be drafted in the first few rounds. With that in mind, we will take a look at nine running backs poised to make an impact in their rookie season. For the purposes of this discussion, an impact will be defined as RB3-level value in a 12-team redraft league. Let’s get started. 

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Jonathan Taylor (RB – IND)
Vacated carries: 58

Jonathan Taylor may have found the perfect landing spot for his skill set. He joins a Indianapolis Colts team that has just Marlon Mack to beat out for the starting job. While there are only 58 carries vacated by Jonathan Williams, Taylor is expected to eclipse the 200-carry mark this season. The Colts had 471 rushing attempts last season. Marlon Mack had 247. Even if we were to believe that Mack is talented enough to keep a 1a or 1b role, there could still be enough carries for both of these runners to pass the 200 carry threshold. The rushing attempt mark should be closer to 500 this season.

Much has been made about Taylor landing behind one of the best offensive lines in the league, but it is worth repeating here, as it lends itself to a major correlative factor in projecting his rookie season success. Taylor will have every opportunity to realize his RB1 potential as a rookie, and only pass protection woes should keep him from doing so. Taylor, who had more targets per route run than D’Andre Swift and J.K. Dobbins, should be more heavily involved in the passing game than Mack was at any point of his career. He has soft hands and has the open-field skills and speed to dazzle when he has the ball. Taylor is currently ranked RB20 in ECR and being drafted as RB22 in ADP. 

Clyde Edwards-Helaire (RB – KC)
Vacated carries: 124

The Kansas City Chiefs have finally found their Kareem Hunt replacement, and his name is Clyde Edwards-Helaire. While Edwards-Helaire is expected to be in some sort of timeshare, the smart money is on CEH quickly emerging as the top back. Kansas City was excited enough about the running back to select him in the first round, draft capital that suggests that he will be given every opportunity to operate as the team’s lead back in 2020. Damien Williams has shined in spurts, but has never offered the type of consistency to pose any sort of legitimate threat to CEH’s projected spot as the number one running back. 

LeSean McCoy’s departure leaves 124 carries available, but CEH is expected to break the 200-carry barrier. 200 plus carries with at least 50 receptions should put him right on the RB1 periphery in 2020. Currently ranked RB15 in ECR and being drafted RB16 in ADP, he is going to cost a pretty penny on draft day as the redraft community is already very bullish on his prospects for this upcoming season. With that being said, there still may be value to be had here as Clyde Edwards-Helaire has relatively easy-to-reach RB1 upside as a rookie.

D’Andre Swift (RB – DET)
Vacated carries: 88 

With Kerryon Johnson seemingly always nursing some sort of injury, the Detroit Lions finally decided enough was enough. Enter D’Andre Swift. Widely regarded as the top running back and the potential lone first-round running back to be selected in the first round heading into the 2020 NFL Draft, Swift serendipitously fell to the Detroit Lions at the top of the second round. At the very least Swift is expected to operate as the 1a to Kerryon’s 1b. While Johnson is a talented running back in his own right, there is a distinct talent gulf between what he offers, and what D’Andre Swift brings to the table. With that being said, Kerryon is expected to be involved enough to keep Swift down to RB2 range as a rookie. There is no denying that Swift was drafted to be the lead back in Detroit, but to think that Kerryon will not see heavy touches when healthy may be unwise. The Lions ran the ball just 407 times last season but should be closer to the 420 mark this season. If Swift leads the committee with something like a 60/40 split, and we give 30 carries to wide receivers and Matthew Stafford, that should mean about 234 carries. 

Currently going off the board as the 31st running back in redraft leagues, our expert consensus ranking (RB27) suggests that there is value to be had based on his current draft position. He has immense upside, but the aforementioned presence of Johnson is going to be a rather pesky thorn in the side of Swift realizing his potential. With that being said, something in the range of the 234 carries suggested above should make him an RB2. When we add in 40+ receptions, Swift should have produced at a comfortable RB2 level when the seasons fantasy points are added up. The Detroit Lions offense is going to be one to watch now that they have an explosive and – more importantly – reliable run game.

J.K. Dobbins (RB – BAL)
Vacated carries: 0

One of the most talented running backs from the 2020 NFL Draft class, J.K. Dobbins is going to have to scratch and claw for his role in the explosive Baltimore Ravens offense. He is a perfect fit for their system and is already well acquainted with RPO concepts. An explosive back who can create in space, but also grind between the tackles, Dobbins enters a backfield returning all three of their top backs from 2019. There are exactly zero vacated carries, which means Dobbins is going to have to pass Gus Edwards and Justice Hill in short order to make a rookie season impact. He has the talent and draft capital to suggest that he will be given every opportunity to climb to number two on the depth chart, and may even be viewed as a 1b by the time the playoffs roll around. Gus Edwards saw 140 touches as the Ravens number two running back in 2019, a number that should be Dobbins’ floor for this season. 

Currently going off the board as the RB42 based on ADP, our ECR suggests that he may be an ADP value as he is currently ranked RB39 and should continue to rise throughout the summer. The Ravens backfield ran the ball 420 times last season. We can comfortably project Mark Ingram to receive about 220 carries this season, which means there will be at least 200 carries for Dobbins, Edwards, and Hill. There is likely to be an organizational push to get Dobbins on the field over impending free agent Gus Edwards, which means we can project 120-140 carries for Dobbins. That would likely put him in the RB3 range. Whether or not he can ascend to RB2 status will be dependent on him winning the receiving back role. Justice Hill will be his main competition, but is the inferior talent in both the running and passing games. Arguably the number one handcuff in the league, he also has standalone value. Dobbins is poised to make a sneaky rookie year impact, and should be on radars as a potential third or fourth back for your fantasy teams. 

Cam Akers (RB – LAR)
Vacated carries: 234

Cam Akers was drafted to assume the starting running back job in Los Angeles. Todd Gurley‘s release leaves 234 carries vacated, as well as 49 targets. Provided Jared Goff can help keep the Rams competitive, Akers should be expected to assume most, if not all of that workload. Sophomore running back Darrell Henderson is going to have something to say about Akers reaching true workhorse status as a rookie, but he may figure more heavily into the gameplan as a change of pace back who sees an increase in usage on third downs. Henderson is the better receiver, but Akers is the more special overall talent. Sean McVay knows full well that having strict third down backs and early down runners tip your opponents off, so expect both backs to see well over 100 touches this season. Akers may struggle a bit in the yards per carry department as a rookie, but has the potential to make a massive, volume based rookie impact. 

Akers projects as an RB2 with RB1 upside but should be closer to the RB2 side of things due to the poor state of the Rams offensive line. The loss of Brandin Cooks will not help matters, as the Rams have lost their one true field-stretcher. With that being said, if there was any rookie running back who has inspired confidence regarding his ability to still have success behind a putrid offensive line it is Cam Akers. He ran behind one of the worst offensive lines in the country at Florida State, and still managed to be the fourth running back drafted, ahead of the likes of J.K. Dobbins and Zack Moss. Another telling, and promising stat: his 3.7 yards per carry after contact ranks him above D’Andre Swift, J.K. Dobbins, and Clyde Edwards-Helaire. The RB29 in ECR but RB28 in ADP, it would be a major surprise if Akers is not ranked in the top-24 by the time the preseason starts. 

Ke’Shawn Vaughn (RB – TB)
Vacated carries: 215

While the debate rages on as to whether Ke’Shawn Vaughn or Ronald Jones will be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (and by extension) Tom Brady‘s starting running back, one thing is certain: whoever wins the job is going to be a valuable fantasy commodity. Bruce Arians has a well-documented history of leaning on a workhorse when he has one available, and his comments regarding Vaughn rarely having to come off the field at Vanderbilt suggests that he envisions Vaughn as that back in his offense. The departure of Jameis Winston, and the below replacement level Peyton Barber opens up 215 carries and 24 targets. Ronald Jones had 172 carries and 40 targets last season, and may be able to maintain that workload even if Vaughn leads the team with 200 plus carries and 40 targets of his own. Until proven otherwise, this is not an either or situation. 

Ronald Jones is being drafted before Vaughn based on average ADP (36 to 41 respectively), but it is Vaughn who is well ahead of Jones in terms of our expert consensus rankings (40 to 33). This suggests that there is massive potential value for redraft owners who are of the mindset that Vaughn will indeed lead the Buccaneers backfield. Vaughn is a talented running back with an every down skill set who should be able to shine as an RB2 in this offense. The aforementioned workload would easily put him in the RB2 discussion, and he profiles as being able to produce at a RB1 level more than a few times during his rookie season. A potential starter being drafted after backups like Darrell Henderson, Phillip Lindsay, Kerryon Johnson, Marlon Mack, and Damien Williams, Vaughn should prove to be a massive steal on draft day. You wouldn’t forget him in a dynasty league, so be sure not to write him off in redraft leagues after the top 20-22 running backs are off the board. 

Joshua Kelley (RB – LAC)
Vacated carries : 191

Joshua Kelley is criminally undervalued. I will admit I was not the biggest fan of Kelley heading into the pre-draft process, but that had more to do with me viewing him as a committee back than his talent. A talented jack of all trades, master of none type of running back, Kelley would be perfectly capable of being effective as a spot starter who received workhorse touches. In Los Angeles he will be functioning in the committee many feared he would end up in, but with the diminutive Austin Ekeler ahead of him, Kelley should see an appreciable number of touches on a weekly basis. He walks into an offense with 191 unaccounted for carries, a number that would be even higher had Melvin Gordon not held out the first few games of the 2019 season. While this is not to say that Kelley is anywhere close to the same talent level as Gordon, he could and should very easily surpass his 2019 totals of 3.8 yards per carry on 162 attempts. 

Austin Ekeler will remain the lead back in name, and probably snap percentage, but the bulk of his value comes from his contributions in the passing game (92 receptions for 993 yards and eight touchdowns in 2019) versus his work as a runner (4.2 yards per carry and three touchdowns on 132 attempts). Justin Jackson seems to be the major reason people are writing off Kelley as a redraft contributor, but Jackson proved once again that he cannot provide the level of consistency needed to be the 1b to Ekeler’s 1a. Ekeler shines in the passing game but needs a strong, physical between-the-tackles runner to keep him fresh enough to be at his explosive best. Currently the RB66 in ECR, and drafted as RB70 in ADP, there is perhaps no better value proposition in all of fantasy football. A zero-risk addition late in your redraft leagues, Kelley should be stashed on rosters in every non-shallow league. 

A.J. Dillon (RB – GB)
Vacated carries: 8

Just the name A.J. Dillon is sure to make some Green Bay Packers fans cringe, but the Cheeseheads and fantasy football managers should all be very excited about the massive power back from Boston College. I won’t rehash his 2020 NFL Combine numbers in which he tested better than Derrick Henry at the same size, but it is important to note that former Tennessee Titans assistant coach and current Green Bay Packers head man Matt LaFleur likely had Henry in mind when deciding to draft an early-round running back for a team that already housed 2019 fantasy superstar Aaron Jones. My love for Jones goes all the way back to when I first saw his UTEP tape, but the addition of Dillon is simply impossible to ignore. When you add the fact that you can acquire Dillon for a relative pittance in redraft leagues (ECR RB57, ADP RB59), he should be on every fantasy owner’s late-round sleepers list. 

While there are only eight vacated carries in the Green Bay backfield, it is important to dig a little deeper into the numbers that may provide some context as to Dillon’s true upside as a rookie. Aaron Jones saw 236 carries last season. Jamaal Williams saw 107. According to Playerprofiler, Jones saw 44 red zone touches, and Williams saw 20. Finally, Jones saw 62.6 percent of the snaps while Williams saw 39.7. If Dillon was indeed drafted to be the number-two running back on early downs we can conclude that he may soak up at least the 107 carries Williams saw in 2019, with Williams moving to more of a strict passing down role (block or run routes). They almost assuredly did not draft a 245-lbs running back to make him sit on the sidelines in the red zone, so Williams’ 20 red zone touches may be Dillon’s floor. Williams will still get his looks, but make no mistake, this is going to be the Jones and Dillon show. While he should be more of a flex option on a week-to-week basis, his weekly threat to score multiple times is going to boost him to RB3 level numbers when the season is said and done. Think of him as the Brandon Jacobs to Tiki Barber, who will quickly make the dynamic more of what we saw with Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw. 

Zack Moss (RB – BUF)
Vacated carries: 169

I almost left Zack Moss off the list, but his rookie season upside is simply too palpable to ignore. He is walking right into a backfield with 169 vacated carries and will be playing for a coaching staff that simply does not believe in the talented Devin Singletary as a workhorse type of runner. As pointed out by our own Mike Tagliere here, Frank Gore averaged 12.5 carries per game through week 12. That should be about Moss’ average this season too. He may have some games with only 8-10 carries, but there will be others when he sees 15-18. Devin Singletary is going to open the season as the lead back, but don’t be surprised to see the talented and exciting Moss to force an even timeshare as the season wears on. With that being said, the Buffalo Bills will ride the hot hand when possible. 

A physical runner who can grind between the tackles but with enough burst to take it to the outside, Zack Moss seeks out and relishes contact. He has exceptional contact balance, and will provide quite the complement to the more shifty, 5’7 Devin Singletary. Singletary remains the back to own in the Bills backfield, but Moss at his consensus ADP of 54th overall is the much better value. He should produce at an RB3 level but is somehow still being treated as an RB5 despite the very clear path to assuming most of, if not all of Frank Gore’s workload in an improved Buffalo Bills offense. There is very little not to like here and very little risk associated with drafting him. A value just based on ECR vs. ADP alone (ECR RB48, ADP RB54), Moss is set to make enough of a rookie season impact to warrant being at the top of mind for redraft fantasy owners in round nine and beyond. 

Missed the cut: Darrynton Evans, Anthony McFarland, Eno Benjamin, DeeJay Dallas 

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Raju Byfield is a featured writer for FantasyPros. For more from Raju, check out his archive and follow him @FantasyContext.

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