It is an understatement to say teams approach the running back position differently than they once did.
In 1938 and 1941, there were 10 teams in the NFL -- and nine running backs were drafted in the first round in each of those years. When I was working with the Dallas Cowboys, we drafted a running back in the first round three times in a four-draft span (in 1969, 1970 and '72), landing one (Calvin Hill) who was Offensive Rookie of the Year in '69 and another (Duane Thomas in '70) who led the NFL in yards per attempt (5.3) in Year 1.
Since then, of course, the passing game has exploded, and the humbler ball-carrier has taken a hit in prominence. From 2010 to '19, just 16 running backs were taken in the first round, with only one (Josh Jacobs) going in the first round last year, one going in the first round in '16 (Ezekiel Elliott) and zero going in the first round in '13 and '14.
So we might not see many of my top six running back prospects go on Day 1 of the 2020 NFL Draft. But that doesn't mean they won't be productive.
Before we dive into the pro comparisons for the prospects listed below, here's a quick refresher on the traits that are required to be successful at the running back position:
1) Quickness and balance.
2) Vision and ability to change directions.
3) Strong instincts.
4) Ability to catch passes.
5) Ability to pass protect.
And now, here are the pro comps for my top six running back prospects in the 2020 NFL Draft:
Pro comparison: Melvin Gordon (211.8 carries per year, 848 rushing yards per year, 7.2 rushing TDs per year, 44.8 catches per year, 374.6 receiving yards per year, 2.2 receiving TDs per year, 4.8 yards per touch, 2015-19).
Taylor deserves brownie points for doing everything asked of him at the NFL Scouting Combine. Showing off the balance and vision you want in a runner, Taylor racked up 6,174 rushing yards and 50 rushing TDs on 926 carries in three years at Wisconsin, reaching the 5,000-yard career mark faster than anyone in FBS history; he's also the only player in FBS history to top 1,900 rushing yards in three consecutive years. With 15 fumbles on his ledger over that span, Taylor needs to protect the ball better, but his 9 1/2-inch hands are a good sign that he'll be able to shore up that weakness. He also needs to improve as a pass-catcher coming out of the backfield, though he is adequate receiving the ball on screen passes.
If he were playing 25 years ago, Taylor would have had a shot at going first overall in the draft, given that he was able to gain 915 more yards in three years than the great Herschel Walker. Even with Taylor today slotted as a likely late-first or second-round choice, he should go on to become a very good NFL running back, following in the footsteps of Gordon, the last Badger back picked in Round 1 (in 2015).
Pro comparison: Shane Vereen (50.9 carries per year, 212.7 rushing yards per year, 1.1 rushing TDs per year, 31.6 catches per year, 266.4 receiving yards per year, 1.6 receiving TDs per year, 5.8 yards per touch, 2011-17).
The former backup to Nick Chubb and Sony Michel emerged as a prolific ball-carrier in his own right, piling up 2,267 rushing yards over the past two seasons and leaving Georgia with the best yards-per-carry mark (6.6) in school history. Swift tracks the ball well without breaking stride and is good in pass protection for a smaller guy (5-foot-8, 212 pounds). He also excels at keeping himself from being tackled, logging 77 missed tackles and 1,334 yards after first contact over the past two seasons, per Pro Football Focus. Swift does everything well -- other than a history of nagging injuries, he has no real weaknesses (though I wish he were a little taller) and should start and contribute in the NFL. Don't be thrown by the comparison to Vereen, who might not have put up mind-blowing career numbers but did make his mark as a productive committee member for the Patriots, especially in 2013 and '14, when he averaged 736.5 scrimmage yards (6.2 per touch). Swift projects as a more productive version of Vereen, who has a similar body type and logged similar combine numbers (4.48 40, 35.5-inch vertical jump, 10-1 broad jump for Swift; 4.5 40, 34-inch vertical, 10-7 broad jump for Vereen).
Pro comparison: Jonathan Stewart (155 carries per year, 666.8 rushing yards per year, 4.6 rushing TDs per year, 14.7 catches per year, 117.7 receiving yards per year, 0.6 receiving TDs per year, 4.6 yards per touch, 2008-2018).
Dobbins became the only player in Buckeyes history to run for 1,000-plus yards in each of his freshman, sophomore and junior seasons, demonstrating outstanding vision and exceptional elusiveness in the open field. He's not a great pass blocker, but he is a strong receiver out of the backfield; his 71 career catches in college are especially impressive because Ohio State didn't throw the ball that much in two of his three seasons. Built similarly to Stewart, Dobbins is tough to bring down, having recorded 1,208 yards after contact and 73 missed tackles in 2019, per PFF. Coming off a season in which he rushed for 2,003 yards (despite suffering an ankle injury in the College Football Playoff), Dobbins should be able to step in as the primary ball-carrier for an RB-needy team as an NFL starter.
Pro comparison: Maurice Jones-Drew (205.2 carries per year, 907.4 rushing yards per year, 7.6 rushing TDs per year, 38.4 catches per year, 327.1 receiving yards per year, 1.2 receiving TDs per year, 5.1 yards per touch, 2006-2014).
Edwards-Helaire is a very strong runner with great balance; he's quicker than fast. In 2019, his first year as the starter at LSU, he put up 1,414 rushing yards (6.6 yards per carry) with 16 touchdowns and 55 catches, with one particular highlight being a four-score outing against Alabama. Edwards-Helaire put up 782 yards after contact and induced an SEC-best 71 missed tackles in 2019, per PFF. He's also able to split out wide and run routes, and he can return kicks. If he were 2 inches taller (he checked in at 5-7 at the combine), Edwards-Helaire would be a first-rounder. While I wouldn't necessarily expect him to produce like MJD, I see him as being similar in style of play and body build. Even if he ends up being a spot player who comes in on third downs to run draws and screens, Edwards-Helaire is likely to become a crowd favorite because of his diminutive size and strong work ethic.
Pro comparison: Chris Carson (191.3 carries per year, 863 rushing yards per year, 5.3 rushing TDs per year, 21.3 catches per year, 162.7 receiving yards per year, 1 receiving TD per year, 4.8 yards per touch, 2017-19).
Moss was a key to Utah's success, running for 4,067 yards and 38 touchdowns in four years. Thanks to his pass-catching (66 catches) and pass-blocking abilities, Moss can stay on the field all three downs. He's a complete player with great balance, the kind of back that Seattle -- which, of course, hit on Carson in the seventh round of the 2017 NFL Draft -- likes. The Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year in 2019 is also very strong in the hips. He forced 89 missed tackles in 2019, second-most in FBS among running backs, per PFF. Moss needs to keep his weight to 220 pounds, but I see him becoming a solid starter, even if he might not have a ton of upside.
Pro comparison: Doug Martin (188.9 carries per year, 765.1 rushing yards per year, 4.3 rushing TDs per year, 21.1 catches per year, 172.4 receiving yards per year, 0.3 receiving TDs per year, 4.5 yards per touch, 2012-18).
Stuck on a team with an average quarterback and below-average offensive line the past three years, Akers ran for 2,875 yards and 27 touchdowns in that span. He doesn't have great vision as a runner, but he's very explosive, carrying a frame (5-10, 217) that is similar to Martin's (5-9, 223). He's also smart and hard-working. Akers also did not stand out as a very good pass protector, but it's not because he didn't try -- he simply lacked the proper technique. With coaching, he should be able to improve that part of his game. When Akers came out of high school, it was as a legendary player in Mississippi, the Michael Jordan of Mississippi high school football, and he was considered one of the top five players in the country. It will be interesting to see how Akers performs in the NFL; he has enough talent that I could see him really turning into something down the road. Moss might be a better player than Akers right now, making Moss the safer immediate bet, but Akers has more upside.