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Don’t Sleep on This Year’s Rookie Running Back Class

Though the NFL’s much-hyped new group of wide receivers has made headlines, the first-year runners are also finding success. From first-rounders like Clyde Edwards-Helaire to undrafted free agents like James Robinson, this year’s class has something for everyone.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The 2020 rookie wide receiver class is already living up to the hype and more this season, with breakout performances from future stars like CeeDee Lamb, Justin Jefferson, and Chase Claypool. This year’s rookie running back group can’t quite say the same, but a handful of stars—plus a few lesser-known prospects—are making early impacts for their respective teams. Here’s a look at what we’ve seen from the rookie class of running backs through the first six weeks, plus what we can expect from each the rest of the season.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Chiefs

The Chiefs made Edwards-Helaire a surprise first-rounder over a couple of more highly touted prospects in Jonathan Taylor, D’Andre Swift, and J.K. Dobbins, but the former LSU Tigers’ star has settled in nicely as a marquee player on one of the best offenses in football. The Chiefs offense has been surprisingly run-centric at times (including 46 rushing attempts last week, the most from an Andy Reid–coached team ever), and Edwards-Helaire has shown off all the traits that he displayed for LSU’s national championship team last year. He combines toughness and determination as a between-the-tackles runner with open-field elusiveness and natural talent as a downfield pass catcher, and he has been the most impressive running back from this class through the first six weeks.

Edwards-Helaire trails only Derrick Henry in yards after contact this year (346). His combined 29 tackles avoided on both runs and catches ranks first among all backs thus far, per Pro Football Focus, and his 13 rushes of 10-plus yards is tied for third, behind only Dalvin Cook and Nick Chubb (both with 14). This dude might be small, especially compared to Henry, but he’s damn tough to tackle.

Edwards-Helaire is still just scratching the surface as a pass catcher for the Chiefs, too. He’s caught 21 passes for 177 yards so far, but has flashed potential to do a whole lot more as a downfield route runner.

In any case, Edwards-Helaire’s career has gotten off to a quick start. He’s currently second to Derrick Henry in rushing yards (505) on the year, and leads the entire NFL in yards from scrimmage (682) through six weeks. Both Henry (134.4) and Alvin Kamara (135.2) have averaged more scrimmage yards per game, but each has played only five games to CEH’s six. The only thing that’s really been missing from Edwards-Helaire’s performance is his ability to get into the end zone. He’s notched just one touchdown in six games―a number that’s likely due more to variance than anything else: He had a handful of TDs called back to penalty and has been stuffed at the goal line a few times, too.

I expect that despite the Chiefs signing Le’Veon Bell, CEH will remain the lead back for the team going forward. Even if he’s forced to share more of the workload (Bell could cut into some of Edward-Helaire’s passing down and goal-line work), the touchdowns are coming―and don’t be surprised if they come in bunches.

Jonathan Taylor, Colts

Marlon Mack’s Week 1 Achilles injury opened up a massive opportunity for Taylor, who stepped into the lead-back role for the Colts and hasn’t looked back. The Colts’ second-rounder has yet to produce a signature game this year―he’s still working his way into the team’s offense and has appeared a bit tentative in both reading and setting up blocks at times―but the speed and burst he’s flashed on a few plays portend a big breakout performance.

Taylor has also been involved in the Colts passing game, a welcome surprise after his receiving ability was questioned in the draft process. After catching just 42 passes for 407 yards in three years for the Badgers, he’s tallied 16 receptions for 162 yards in his first six games as a pro. He grabbed six balls for 67 yards in Week 1 alone, including these two big gains.

Taylor has shown toughness and dependability as a runner for the Colts in the early going this year. After coming into the season with concerns around drops and fumbles from his time in college, the explosive rookie has yet to miss a pass or put the ball on the turf. Taylor has struggled a bit thus far to create yards on his own, averaging just 2.17 yards after contact per carry (56th among 65 RBs with 20-plus carries), per PFF, with just 11 avoided tackles on 105 touches. But he’s shown flashes of the traits that made him the 41st overall pick: With a combination of size with incredible speed (he ran a 4.39 at the combine), Taylor has all the tools to flourish behind the Colts’ top-tier offensive line. I expect Taylor to produce plenty of big plays and have a few breakout games in the second half of the season.

James Robinson, Jaguars

Robinson is easily the most surprising early-season standout in this rookie group. He’s an unheralded small-school back who went undrafted out of Illinois State. The little-known runner impressed the Jaguars enough in training camp for the team to release presumptive starter Leonard Fournette before the year, therefore clearing a path for Robinson to pick up a heavy workload early in the season (an injury to Devine Ozigbo contributed to a bigger role, too). Robinson took that lead-back job and ran away with it: Through six games, he’s tallied 362 yards and three touchdowns on 85 totes while adding 23 catches for 207 yards and another score through the air.

As the first undrafted running back to start a Week 1 game since 1990, Robinson won’t wow you with extraordinary speed or agility, but he’s very decisive and aggressive as a runner. He’s at his best when he’s playing his “one cut and go” style; he gets downhill in a flash and always seems to pick up positive yardage.

Robinson is a proven playmaker in the passing game, too.

The Jags seem to have found a diamond in the rough in Robinson, whose north-south running style gives the team’s running game an explosive element it was missing in the past couple years.

Antonio Gibson, Washington

Gibson is one of the most intriguing players in the entire 2020 draft class. The hybrid playmaker spent most of his college snaps at receiver, logging just 33 carries in two seasons at Memphis before making the switch to running back at the Senior Bowl. That move, along with the ridiculous 4.39 40-yard dash he registered at the combine, was apparently enough to convince Washington to take Gibson in the third round and install him as one of the focal points of their offense to start the season.

There are moments when it’s pretty clear Gibson is still learning the position; he dances a bit too much behind the line of scrimmage at times, and still needs to develop a better feel for picking gaps and getting tough yards between the tackles. But there are other moments when it’s obvious the 6-foot, 220-pound playmaker is destined for stardom, too. Gibson has rare quickness and explosiveness for a player his size, and boasts twitchy acceleration and the ability to change direction on a dime.

His experience as a receiver makes him a natural fit in the team’s passing game, too, and he’s shown a feel for running routes and picking up yards after the catch. He’s especially effective on screens, where his high-end top speed gives him the ability to blow past defenders.

In a timeshare with J.D. McKissic, Gibson has run the ball 64 times, gaining 243 yards and three touchdowns while adding 19 catches for 147 yards through the air this year. It’s been tough at times to gauge just how good he can be while he plays in a dysfunctional offense like Washington’s, but there are enough flashes to believe he could be the real deal at his new position. The Football Team is sure to continue to expand Gibson’s workload as he becomes more experienced in the backfield.

D’Andre Swift, Lions

After Swift missed time during training camp with a hip injury, the Lions took their time integrating their rookie runner into the offense. The 35th overall pick out of Georgia got off to an inauspicious start in Detroit by dropping what should’ve been the game-winning touchdown against the Bears in Week 1, but he bounced back from that mistake and has flashed when given opportunities in the offense in the past few weeks. Swift’s breakout performance came last Sunday in the Lions’ win against the Jaguars: The dynamic rookie back rushed for 116 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries, showing off the type of vision and speed that helped make him such a premium pick for the team.

One of Swift’s biggest strengths is his ability as a pass catcher. The Lions have experimented with different ways to deploy Swift in the passing game. They’ve lined him up both in the backfield and in the slot, and he’s shown a natural ability to run routes and catch passes over the middle of the field.

Swift has totaled 26 carries for 158 yards and three touchdowns on the ground thus far, adding 16 receptions for 131 yards and a score through the air. He’s still averaging only around 35 percent of the team’s offensive snaps and is rotating in with Adrian Peterson and Kerryon Johnson, but I won’t be surprised if the rookie playmaker’s snap share starts to gradually increase as the season goes along. It’s always dangerous to assume coaches will do the logical thing, but as Swift showed in Week 6, he’s too good and too dynamic to be kept on the shelf for such long stretches of the game.

J.K. Dobbins, Ravens

Like Swift, Dobbins has been stuck playing in a three-man rotation, averaging around 30 to 40 percent of the Ravens’ snaps per game in the first six weeks. But while he’s yet to post any one big breakout game, he’s made the most of his limited opportunities, breaking tackles and creating big plays just about every time he touches the ball (he’s rushed for 154 yards on 25 carries and two touchdowns with 11 receptions for 74 yards on the year). Among running backs with at least 20 rushes, Dobbins ranks second in PFF’s elusive rating (114.4), is tied for third in yards after contact per attempt (4.12), and has avoided 10 tackles on just 36 touches. A look at the tape tells you how he’s managed to post such strong numbers: The former Ohio State star is a tough, physical runner with excellent body control and a knack for keeping himself upright through contact.

His 6.2 yards per carry average results in part to a small sample of runs, but it’s also not surprising―Dobbins is a perfect fit for the Ravens’ run game because he’s such a decisive north-south runner. He explodes downhill when he gets the chance and picks up chunks of yards in the blink of an eye.

After Mark Ingram suffered an ankle sprain last week, Dobbins could find himself in line for a bigger role when the team comes back off its bye this week. That would be a good thing for the Ravens, in my opinion.

Joshua Kelley, Chargers

Kelley didn’t get a ton of hype coming out of UCLA, but the fourth-rounder has already established himself as a solid rotational runner in the Chargers’ backfield. The 5-foot-11, 212-pound back brings a no-nonsense, physical style and has shown off the ability to run between the tackles and contribute in the passing game.

Kelley filled in nicely after the team lost Austin Ekeler to a multi-week hamstring injury, but a pair of lost fumbles may have contributed to the team’s decision to give Justin Jackson a bigger piece of the backfield pie recently. Kelley, who’s netted 203 yards and a touchdown on 63 rushes while adding 93 yards on eight catches, is still going to get plenty of work in L.A.’s run-first offense, though, and with a combination of speed and size, he brings a physical element to the table that neither Jackson nor Ekeler do.

Cam Akers, Rams

Akers’s career has gotten off to a much slower start than expected. The former Seminoles star looked a bit tentative in his first game as a pro, managing just 39 yards on 14 carries for the Rams in Week 1, and then suffered a rib injury in Week 2 that forced him to miss the next two games. Now healthy, though, the second-rounder is mired in a three-man committee and the injury has pushed him further down the pecking order, well behind starter Darrell Henderson and backup Malcolm Brown. Akers has had a handful of very promising moments this season, including this impressive 46-yard run against Washington:

But the elusive rookie runner has some work to do to earn a bigger piece of the offensive pie for the Rams in the next few weeks. Akers saw just one snap and zero carries in the team’s Week 6 loss to the 49ers, and with Henderson running well, head coach Sean McVay may stick with the more experienced back for the foreseeable future. I’m very bullish on Akers in the long term, but the team seems content to stay patient with their talented rookie runner.

A few others who could earn bigger roles this season ...

As injuries mount and as teams make changes to established depth charts, a handful of other rookie backs could earn bigger roles as the season rolls along. The Jets’ decision to drop Le’Veon Bell could be a boon for former Florida running back La’Mical Perine, who’s flashed at moments for a god-awful New York offense. It’s tough to separate what Perine has done thus far (83 yards on 22 carries, 3.8 YPC) from the overall ineptitude of the team’s offense and Adam Gase’s play-calling, but I’m optimistic that Perine could capitalize if given more opportunities to carry the rock.

I’d say the same for a handful of other rookie running backs, including Green Bay’s AJ Dillon (13 rushes, 65 yards), Buffalo’s Zack Moss (22 rushes, 58 yards), Pittsburgh’s Anthony McFarland Jr. (12 rushes, 50 yards), New England’s J.J. Taylor (16 rushes, 70 yards), and San Francisco’s JaMycal Hasty, just to name a few. None of those five have worked their way into starting roles with their respective teams just yet, but I’ve liked what I’ve seen from each when they’ve gotten chances to make plays.