Two years ago, Saquon Barkley was universally revered as the best running back prospect to enter the NFL draft in years. BackCAST, Football Outsiders' metric for projecting the likelihood of success for running backs, agreed -- it gave Barkley the second-highest projection of all time.
This year, no prospect has come close to matching the hype of Barkley. BackCAST, however, thinks there is one prospect that should be similarly hyped. In fact, BackCAST rates this prospect more highly than Barkley, or anyone else for that matter, as he has the highest BackCAST projection ever.
BackCAST projects NFL running back success based on statistics that have correlated with success in the past. Historically, a college running back who has a good size-speed combination, gained a high average yards per carry, and represented a large percentage of his college team's running attack is more likely to succeed at the NFL level. BackCAST considers these factors and projects the degree to which the running back will exceed the NFL production of an "average" drafted running back during his first five years in the NFL. For example, a running back with a +50% BackCAST is projected to gain 50% more yards than the "average" drafted running back. BackCAST also projects whether each running back is likely to be heavily involved in the receiving game or is more of a "ground-and-pound" back.
BackCAST is based on a statistical analysis of all of the Division I halfbacks drafted between 1998 and 2018, and measures the following:
- The prospect's weight at the NFL combine.
- The prospect's 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. If he did not run at the combine, BackCAST uses his pro day time.
- The prospect's collegiate yards per attempt, with an adjustment for running backs who had fewer career carries than an average drafted running back.
- The prospect's "AOEPS," which measures how much, on average, the prospect's team used him in the running game during his career relative to the usage of an average drafted running back during the same year of eligibility.
- The prospect's receiving yards per game in his college career.
Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin
BackCAST Score: +196.9%
Similar Historical Prospects: Saquon Barkley, LaDainian Tomlinson
Jonathan Taylor excels in every metric that BackCAST measures. First, the obvious: Taylor is big and fast. Taylor is a big back at 226 pounds who somehow managed to run the 40-yard dash in a blistering 4.39 seconds. Taylor's performance at the combine is roughly equivalent to that of Barkley, who ran a 4.40-second 40-yard dash at 233 pounds.
Where Taylor edges Barkley is in the production department. Like Barkley, Taylor grabbed a stranglehold on his team's backfield and never looked back. While Taylor was in the lineup, Wisconsin fed over 50% of its carries to him. Barkley also soaked up a large number of Penn State's carries, although not quite to the extent that Taylor did at Wisconsin. However, where Taylor really beats Barkley is in yards per attempt. The weak point of Barkley's projection was that he "only" averaged 5.7 yards per attempt in college. Taylor averaged nearly 6.7 yards per carry. It's rare for a prospect to produce so much on a per-play basis while carrying a workload like Taylor's, and no prospect in BackCAST's database has done it as well as Taylor. It's an incredible feat.
Some might hesitate on Taylor because of the draft history of Wisconsin running backs. Ron Dayne, for example (who BackCAST missed on), was a failure despite big numbers at Wisconsin. It's questionable whether NFL decision-makers should put much weight on the failure of a running back who was drafted two decades ago. For what it's worth, Dayne was a highly unusual prospect. Dayne weighed 259 pounds and was not fast in an absolute sense (he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.65 seconds). Taylor is a much more conventional prospect in terms of size.
Of course, the best reason to doubt Taylor's prospects is that he is simply not rated as a top prospect by the draftnik community. ESPN's Scouts, Inc., for example, has Taylor rated as a late first-, early second-round pick. BackCAST is not the be-all-end-all of running back evaluation, and it's absolutely legitimate to question whether the scouts may have picked up problems with Taylor's game that are not identified by Taylor's combine measureables and college production. However, the possibility that the numbers might be right about Taylor makes him an intriguing option for any team that could use an upgrade at the running back position.
AJ Dillon, Boston College
BackCAST Score: +111.4%
Similar Historical Prospects: Steven Jackson, LenDale White
AJ Dillon could be the perfect fit for a team that is looking for a bargain-basement running back pick with upside. Like Taylor, Dillon has a good size-speed combination -- his 4.53-second 40-yard time is impressive given his 247-pound size. Dillon also consistently dominated his backfield at Boston College, although not to quite the extent that Taylor dominated Wisconsin's.
Dillon's only "bad" metric is his low (for a drafted running back) 5.2 yards per attempt. It would have been better if Dillon had been more productive on a per-play basis, but there is also precedent for running backs with lower yards per attempt finding success in the NFL. Steven Jackson, for example, averaged only 4.9 yards per attempt at Oregon State, and had a strong BackCAST projection and a good career in the NFL.
J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State
BackCAST Score: +67.5%
Similar Historical Prospects: Le'Veon Bell, Rashard Mendenhall
J.K. Dobbins scores well for his workload in the Ohio State backfield, and he also recorded a strong 6.2 yards per attempt. The only problem with Dobbins is that his speed is a mystery. Dobbins did not run the 40-yard dash at the combine and his pro day was cancelled.
D'Andre Swift, Georgia
BackCAST Score: +53.7%
Similar Historical Prospects: Larry Johnson, Felix Jones
At least before the combine, D'Andre Swift was widely recognized as the top running back available in the NFL draft. BackCAST, however, rates Swift as only the fourth-best back available.
Nonetheless, Swift's projection is not horrible. The average first-round pick has a BackCAST score of approximately +67%, so Swift is just a bit off of where he should be, given his likely draft position.
BackCAST's biggest knock on Swift is his workload in college. Swift had a lighter workload than the average drafted running back. To be fair, Swift had to compete with NFL talents Nick Chubb and Sony Michel as a freshman. As a sophomore, however, Swift split carries almost evenly with Elijah Holyfield, who went undrafted and has yet to record an NFL carry. Swift did record over 40% of his team's carries as a junior, but that only gets him up to about average for a drafted running back.
It could be that Swift's coaches did not recognize his talent and failed to give him as many carries as they should have. (This has happened before, most notably with Alvin Kamara.) Indeed, Swift had an excellent 6.6 yards per carry, which is one piece of evidence that he may be better than his college workload suggests. However, it's equally possible that Swift had an average workload because he is not a special talent.
Swift's combine also does not move the needle. Swift is a bit lighter and somewhat faster than the average drafted running back.
Swift could very well be a successful running back, but the price for him is a bit high, given the low value of the running back position and his uncertain projection.
Cam Akers, Florida State
BackCAST Score: +51.7%
Similar Historical Prospects: William Green, Anthony Thomas
Akers has a similar projection to Swift, and the two are like opposite sides of the same coin. Unlike Swift, Akers had a heavy workload in college, recording a significantly larger slice of his backfield's carries than the average drafted running back. However, while Swift was super productive on a per-play basis, Akers was not. Akers averaged only 4.9 yards per carry. Swift and Akers had similar combines as well. Akers is 5 pounds heavier and ran the 40-yard dash a hundredth of a second faster.
Akers, however, may be a better value prospect than Swift from a value perspective. A +50% prospect may not present value in the first round, but is definitely a value pick in the fourth round.
Anthony McFarland, Maryland
BackCAST Score: +39.1%
Similar Historical Prospects: Clinton Portis, Chris Brown
McFarland is a solid but not spectacular prospect. He soaked up carries at a slightly higher rate than the average drafted running back, averaged roughly a half a yard per carry more than the average drafted running back, and he ran a fast 4.44-second 40-yard dash. However, he was a little light at 208 pounds. McFarland would be a grossly overrated prospect as a first-round pick, but he is clearly not -- he's likely to go somewhere in the late third or early fourth round, where he could be a great value play.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire, LSU
BackCAST Score: -36.1%
Similar Historical Prospects: Ahmad Bradshaw, Christine Michael
Edwards-Helaire is the 2020 NFL draft's most overrated running back according to BackCAST. First, Edwards-Helaire has similar workload issues as Swift, except somewhat more severe. Edwards-Helaire was a complete non-factor as a freshman and played clear second fiddle to Nick Brossette, who would become an undrafted free agent, as a sophomore. Edwards-Helaire earned much more action as a junior, but even then LSU chose to give 140 carries to an assortment of freshman running backs. Moreover, when Edwards-Helaire did get the ball, he was only somewhat productive on a per play basis, averaging just under 5.6 yards per carry. To be fair, Edwards-Helaire was productive as a receiver, which could translate to receiving production in the NFL.
However, the real problem with Edwards-Helaire's projection is his size-speed combination, or lack thereof. Edwards-Helaire is only 207 pounds, which makes him one of the ten lightest backs invited to the combine. Despite his relatively small size, however, Edwards-Helaire recorded a slow 4.60-second 40-yard dash. The best drafted running back under 210 pounds that recorded a 40-yard dash of 4.60 seconds or worse is probably Ahmad Bradshaw, who had a couple of nice seasons with the Giants. The rest of the list is far less appealing: Ameer Abdullah, Mark Walton, Travis Stephens, Javon Ringer, Dee Brown, Kevin Taylor, Storm Johnson, and Shyrone Stith. None of those running backs made a sizeable impact in the NFL.
A second round pick -- where Edwards-Helaire is currently rated -- is a high price to pay for a running back, and it is an especially high price to pay for a running back without the historical markers of success, at least as a pure rusher. The question for NFL decision-makers on Edwards-Helaire is whether there is something great enough on his tape to offset the statistical evidence against his success.
|BackCAST Projections, 2020 NFL Draft Running Back Prospects|
|AJ Dillon||Boston College||247||4.53||18.5%||5.19||6.7||111.4%||-0.51|
|J.K. Dobbins||Ohio State||209||4.53e||12.2%||6.15||15.4||67.5%||0.16|
|Cam Akers||Florida State||217||4.47||17.0%||4.91||13.5||51.7%||0.01|
|Darrynton Evans||Appalachian State||203||4.41||0.7%||5.94||8.2||25.7%||-0.08|
|Eno Benjamin||Arizona State||207||4.57||13.1%||4.98||18.4||1.5%||0.29|
|LeVante Bellamy||Western Michigan||192||4.50||-3.1%||6.01||8.1||-31.3%||0.01|
|Rico Dowdle||South Carolina||213||4.54||-6.5%||5.11||12.4||-43.5%||0.00|
|Scottie Phillips||Ole Miss||209||4.56||-8.0%||5.32||9.1||-57.6%||-0.10|
|Tony Jones||Notre Dame||220||4.68||-17.6%||5.41||7.4||-93.8%||-0.26|
|Forty-yard dash numbers with an "e" are estimated.|
Portions of this article originally appeared on ESPN+.