Game Theory

NFL rookie running backs: Who'll be most productive in 2020? My top 7

It's June. Too early to project rookie running back output?

Nope! Definitely not.

Working with my models and exploring which rushers could be most productive in Year 1, I realized something: The hierarchy is less clear than in any season I can remember. I will not be surprised if the pecking order below is flipped on its head by season's end. So, in your fantasy scheming, take these rankings to be the median projection for each guy, not the ceiling.

Using contextualized play-calling data from each team and factoring in every rookie RB's skill set, my model believes the following seven newbies will provide the biggest returns in 2020:

1) Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs

Drafted: Round 1, No. 32 overall
College: LSU

Between Edwards-Helaire's knack for earning yards after contact last season (SEE: an SEC-best 782 yards, per Pro Football Focus) and his top-level ability to break tackles in both the running (71, most in the SEC) and passing games (14, third-most of draft-eligible backs), he displays key attributes that project for success at the next level. Based on his past play-calling tendencies, Andy Reid's game plan likely includes plenty of touches for both Damien Williams and Edwards-Helaire, who has a lot of upside as a pass catcher. The Chiefs' personnel continuity from last season could also help pave a shorter path to Edwards-Helaire being a very productive contributor -- the more experience the other offensive pieces have, the more focus and time can be spent on the rookie back's role. My PPR model currently rates CEH as the No. 16 overall running back in fantasy football.

2) Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts

Drafted: Round 2, No. 41 overall
College: Wisconsin

Yep, I'm going right back to the yards-after-contact well because it really is an extremely helpful data signal in modeling rookie running back production. Since 2017, according to PFF, Taylor's 3,921 yards after contact are the most in college football -- by 941 yards! Add in that he's playing behind my model's second-best O-line (one that has great continuity, which my models are all tuned into even more this year, given the abbreviated offseason) and his real -- and fantasy -- value appears quite enticing. Despite being in a time share with Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines, Taylor is my model's No. 25 overall fantasy running back.

3) D'Andre Swift, Detroit Lions

Drafted: Round 2, No. 35 overall
College: Georgia

You know the yards-after-contact note is coming ... With the second-most such yards in the SEC since 2018 (1,334, per PFF), Swift was my model's top pick at the running back position prior to the draft. Breaking tackles and yards after contact are necessarily linked, so it makes sense that he had 77 missed tackles on rushes since 2018. In the passing game, Swift's college resume shows that he aligned in the slot or out wide on nine percent of his total Georgia snaps, according to PFF. Swift could easily end up as the top-producing back of 2020, depending on Kerryon Johnson's ability to contribute effectively. As of now, Swift ranks as my No. 27 overall fantasy running back.

4) Ke'Shawn Vaughn, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Drafted: Round 3, No. 76 overall
College: Vanderbilt

Another back with enough upside to potentially lead this list by season's end, Vaughn is currently my No. 28 overall RB in terms of PPR fantasy projections. Over the past two seasons, Vaughn led the SEC with an average of 4.4 yards per rush after contact (min. 100 rushes, per PFF). Vaughn's receiving skills and Tom Brady's short passing game (155 targets to backs in 2019 -- second-most among NFL QBs, according to PFF) match well. Should Vaughn be able to eat into enough of Ronald Jones II's snaps, he could end up as the surprise star of this running back class.

5) J.K. Dobbins, Baltimore Ravens

Drafted: Round 2, No. 55 overall
College: Ohio State

With the third-most yards after contact in the FBS since 2017 (2,652, per PFF) and the third-most last season alone (1,208), it makes sense that Dobbins had 31 rushes of 15-plus yards in 2019 (most in FBS) and forced 73 missed tackles on rushes. Sixteen of those came in the 2019 Big Ten title game win over Wisconsin -- the third-most missed tackles forced by any player in a single 2019 game, per PFF. But for Mark Ingram and Lamar Jackson, who combined for 2,224 rushing yards last season, Dobbins' projection would have been quite a bit higher than No. 30, where he ranks among running backs in my PPR projections.

6) Cam Akers, Los Angeles Rams

Drafted: Round 2, No. 52 overall
College: Florida State

At RB36 in my PPR projections, Akers' 74 forced missed tackles on rushes last season at Florida State (tied for ninth-most in FBS, per PFF) are a relevant resume point to dive deeper into. Every year, I use a set of computer vision measurements to "bucket" all Power Five schools' offensive lines into one of five categories (elite, above average, average, below average and well below average) as an initial way of comparing them across seasons. This also provides great context in terms of illustrating the conditions surrounding a team's quarterback and skill players. FSU's O-line fell into the below average category -- nearly well below. So, yeah, Akers was operating (and valiantly produced) in very difficult conditions. The Rams' RB depth chart suggests immediate opportunity for Akers, and his resume maps to great upside potential, even behind an NFL O-line with well-documented issues.

7) Zack Moss, Buffalo Bills

Drafted: Round 3, No. 86 overall
College: Utah

With 88 forced missed tackles on rushes in 2019 (second-most in FBS, per PFF), Moss helps fortify the Bills' ground attack. The Utah back's production in 2018 and '19 show both consistency and upside, as well as pass-catching proficiency. Buffalo's strong O-line is also one with continuity from last season, which adds to the potential here and nets out in Moss being my No. 45 overall running back in PPR projections.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter @cfrelund.

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