Yards Created is back.
If this is your first time reading this project, welcome! Now in my fifth year, Yards Created is a statistic that I derive from charting college running backs. Offensive line play and scheme are vital for a running back’s success, but the best runners always find ways to create yardage on their own. Yards Created is simply the average number of yards a running back creates on their own after the offensive line does (or doesn’t) do its job.
While Yards Created is the main offering, I convert what we see on the field into other statistics, too. I chart how much yardage the offensive line is accountable for. I watch and record how running backs force their missed tackles -- either by speed, power, or elusiveness. I also study every passing down snap and record every pass protection attempt. Understanding how these running backs produced and where they win as players is vital in determining their future success in fantasy football.
The 2020 RB draft class is absolutely loaded at the top. Jonathan Taylor, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, J.K. Dobbins, Cam Akers, and D’Andre Swift form the second-best group of backs to enter the NFL over the past five years. Only the 2017 class looked better on paper.
After spending the last three months charting and studying the class, one overarching theme has emerged. There isn’t a clear-cut way to rank the top-5 backs in this year’s crop. Instead, I value all five of the top running backs almost equally and believe all five are worthy of top-50 selections in the NFL Draft. Because the top of this class forms one giant first tier and each profile as tremendous talents, landing spot and draft capital will ultimately determine how to value each running back in fantasy. My top-5 running back ranks are completely fluid. If any of these backs end up in Kansas City, it’s easy to envision a scenario where they end up being the most productive back.
Let’s get to it.
Tier 1 - The Big Five
Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin (4.82 yards created per attempt; 4th in class) - In-Depth Breakdown
A monster producer that broke the college football record for most yards from scrimmage per season in a career (2,139), Taylor has everything you look for in a featured running back. Taylor’s vision, understanding of where blocks are set up, and athleticism are a lethal combination.
While Taylor certainly benefited from Wisconsin’s mauling offensive line and diverse scheme, Yards Created revealed a highly instinctive runner. Taylor ranks 3rd in the class in yards created per attempt out of shotgun (5.48) and he’s 1st in YC/A when the quarterback was under center (4.36).
Taylor’s ability to quickly identify holes and excellent footwork in confined space is what makes him the most skilled interior runner in the class. A class-high 87% of Taylor’s carries went up the middle and when he makes it to the second level of the defense on those carries, few backs make defenders attack angles look worse. Both Nick Chubb (0.47 missed tackles forced per attempt) and Ezekiel Elliott (0.38) were more elusive runners than Taylor (0.30), but Taylor is on a similar talent spectrum as both Chubb and Zeke.
As a big back (5-11, 226lbs) with excellent burst -- his 4.39 forty yard-dash time earned him the 10th-fastest weight-adjusted speed score in NFL Combine history -- Taylor profiles as a three-down back in the NFL. Taylor had a few bad drops last season and he needs to continue working on running his routes a little more crisply, but his tape still showed an improved ability in the passing game. Only Zack Moss (2.4) averaged more receiving yards per route than Taylor (2.3) in the 2020 class. Taylor won’t ever threaten to catch 60 balls per year, but he is certainly capable of being effective on screens and angle routes immediately in the NFL.
Bottom line: Taylor’s elite production, athleticism, and a strong showing in yards created give him the slight edge as my pre-draft RB1.
D’Andre Swift, Georgia (4.73 YC/A; 5th in class) - In-Depth Breakdown
Everything Swift does on the field is smooth. An effortless glider with fantastic suddenness even when running full speed, D’Andre Swift has everything we look for in a future stud running back in fantasy. Not only is Swift a sustaining runner with featured back qualities but he is also a natural pass catcher and is the best pass protector in the class, by far. Swift’s 90% execution rate in pass protection is the top mark in the class and is tied for the 4th-best rate over the last five college seasons.
Georgia’s mauling offensive line ranked No. 2 in yards blocked per attempt in the class, but make no mistake: Swift is a highly creative back. He created at least five yards on a class-high 34% of his carries and that level of efficiency puts him in the conversation among some of the most talented running backs to enter the NFL Draft in recent years. Joe Mixon (41%), Sony Michel (39%), Josh Jacobs (37%), Saquon Barkley (37%), Alvin Kamara (36%), Kareem Hunt (35%), and Royce Freeman (35%) are the only backs that created five or more yards more often than Swift did in college.
What’s more, Swift found consistent success on the ground despite seeing the most defensive attention out of any back in the class. Swift ran into a loaded box -- where there was at least one unblocked defender -- on a class-high 47% of his carries. Swift saw a lot of one-on-one moments with a defender and often came out as the winner. Only Clyde Edwards-Helaire (0.42) and Zack Moss (0.40) forced more missed tackles per rush than Swift (0.39) in 2019.
Swift’s ultimate calling card comes in the passing game, though. Swift has ball-tracking skills like a wide receiver, is a fluid route runner, and was occasionally motioned out wide as a mismatch nightmare for linebackers. Alvin Kamara was a slightly more versatile and explosive passing game weapon coming out of college, but Swift is a similar style of back. In fact, Swift (75 receptions, 666 yards, 5 TDs) and Kamara (76/694/7) had nearly identical career receiving stats on the same amount of volume. Swift saw 92 targets while Kamara got 94 in his two seasons at Tennessee.
Bottom line: Swift’s ability as a receiver and pass protector gives him the highest floor in the 2020 class. Would not argue with anyone who has him at RB1 on their board.
J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State (5.04 YC/A; 3rd in class) - In-Depth Breakdown
With at least 1,000 yards and 20 receptions in all three seasons at Ohio State, J.K. Dobbins is already a pro-ready, workhorse back. Dobbins handled a heavy load last year, joining Cam Akers, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Eno Benjamin, and Ke’Shawn Vaughn as the only draft-eligible running backs to play on at least two-thirds of their team’s snaps in 2019. Not only is Dobbins an elite producer capable of carrying a rushing attack, but he dominated yards created.
Dobbins leads 2020’s Big 5 in yards created per attempt (5.04) and is one of two backs in the class that ranks out significantly above-average in my database at creating yards on both inside (4.48 YC/A) and off-tackle (6.98 YC/A) carries. Dobbins’ vision, anticipation, and footwork is some of the best I have studied over the past five years. Ohio State’s blocking and spread scheme laid an excellent foundation, but Dobbins’ ability to isolate gaps, burst into the second-level, and make defenders miss with his one-cut ability are skills that every NFL team is looking for. Jonathan Taylor is the best interior runner in the class, but Dobbins is a very, very close second.
What impresses me most about Dobbins is how balanced his game is. A nearly even amount of Dobbins’ evaded tackles came through elusiveness (38%), power (35%), and speed (27%). Dobbins doesn’t have the start/stop shiftiness that Edwards-Helaire has, but he has rare burst and acceleration that will suit any scheme at the next level.
Dobbins isn’t as natural of a receiver as Swift or Edwards-Helaire, but he showed a consistent ability to catch the ball away from his body and get open at will. Dobbins showed innate separation skills when he was asked to run more nuanced routes and was unguardable in man coverage against linebackers. With the right coaching and scheme, I could see Dobbins becoming a dynamic weapon in the passing game in the NFL.
Dobbins only has one red flag in his profile and it’s in pass protection. He was highly inconsistent as a pass blocker at Ohio State and was downright overmatched when he tried to protect Justin Fields against Wisconsin this past year. Dobbins allowed pressure on 53% of his charted pass protection attempts, which was second-worst in the class behind Eno Benjamin (57%). To be fair, most running backs struggle in pass protection when they are coming up from the college ranks.
Bottom line: If he can take a few more steps to improve as a receiver and pass protector, Dobbins easily has enough talent as a runner to become the most productive back in the class.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire, LSU (4.50 YC/A; 6th in class) - In-Depth Breakdown
Even though Edwards-Helaire was a one-year starter at LSU while playing behind some talented backs, last season proved that he’s worthy of being in the same talent conversation as Taylor, Swift, and Dobbins. After finishing second among all college running backs in targets (65) and receptions (55) last year, Edwards-Helaire is the best receiving back to enter the draft since Christian McCaffrey.
In today’s pass-first NFL, Edwards-Helaire will prove to be a nightmare for linebackers to cover. Edwards-Helaire has refined ability to manipulate space, create separation, and make defenders miss when the ball is in his hands. That skill is why LSU lined him up as a wide receiver on a class-high 26% of his routes last year. In the right offense, I could see Edwards-Helaire pushing 65-75 receptions as a rookie.
Edwards-Helaire doesn’t have home-run speed, but his ability to reach his top gear in an instant and make cuts in a flash is what makes him such a unique weapon. Just think of it this way: In an offense that was commanded by Joe Burrow, run by now-Panthers OC Joe Brady, and had unbelievable surrounding talent in Justin Jefferson, Ja’Marr Chase, and Thad Moss -- Edwards-Helaire earned a massive role in LSU’s passing attack. The only other running backs in this class that saw at least 10% of their team’s targets were Lamical Perine, Eno Benjamin, and Jonathan Taylor. Each of those RBs played on teams with significantly worse surrounding talent. Because he wins so effortlessly against linebackers, Edwards-Helaire constantly made throws easy for Burrow and he was rewarded with workhorse usage.
LSU used a mixture of zone and man blocking last year with a lot of success. The Tigers offensive line consistently paved open holes for Edwards-Helaire to burst through and their spread-based attack helped take attention away from the ground game. Because defenses were so afraid of Burrow and their weapons out wide, Edwards-Helaire only faced 8 or more defenders in the box on 6% of his carries. That was the second-lowest rate in the class behind Cam Akers (5%). Edwards-Helaire is a highly creative and elusive runner -- he led the class in missed tackles forced per carry (0.42) -- but there is no doubt that he benefited from his surrounding talent and good coaching on the ground.
Bottom line: Edwards-Helaire projects as a future PPR stud in fantasy football and has a pathway to be the RB1 in this class if he ends up in an offense that will feed him targets and let him work his magic in man to man coverage. Bet he goes earlier in the draft than most expect.
Cam Akers, FSU (4.37 YC/A; 8th in class) - In-Depth Breakdown
In my five years of studying college running backs, no running back has suffered from a poor offensive line quite like Cam Akers did this past season. The Seminoles run blocking repeatedly collapsed around Akers, resulting in extremely tough sledding for the talented back. FSU’s line allowed Akers to be hit at or behind the line of scrimmage on a class-high 31% of his runs and opened up a class-low 0.57 yards blocked per rush. Despite being repeatedly let down by his blocking, Akers still balled out.
Even though running in between the tackles is a fairly replaceable skill in the NFL, it is worth noting Akers is the worst inside runner of the Big 5. Taylor (4.52), Dobbins (4.48), Edwards-Helaire (4.04), and Swift (3.98) all created more yards on their carries in between the tackles than Akers (3.24). Of course, Akers did deal with brutal interior blocking. FSU’s 0.38 yards blocked on interior runs ranks second from last since 2016 (out of 58 charted offensive lines).
Akers constantly had to create for himself, but he played a little too “fast” at times on his between-the-tackles carries and would benefit from being a little more patient when he does have good blocking. Akers is incredibly dynamic on outside-zone carries, though. When he gets to the corner and beats defenders to the edge… look out. Akers has incredible instincts when he reaches the second level of the defense and it’s why his 8.15 yards created on off-tackle runs was easily the best clip in the class.
As a receiver, Akers is poised, fluid, and explosive after the catch. In an effort to get him in space, FSU fed Akers in the screen game and kept him busy as a receiver. Only Eno Benjamin (5.2) and Clyde Edwards-Helaire (4.3) saw more targets per game in the 2020 class than Akers (3.5). Akers is a willing pass protector, too, and arguably had too much on his plate when he was asked to keep the quarterback clean. Because FSU’s line repeatedly failed and their quarterback repeatedly held on to the ball too long, Akers was often left to pick up the slack. Just like most backs coming out of college, Akers will have to work to be a little more consistent protecting the passer, but his tape showed a clear understanding of how to square up to oncoming blitzers.
Bottom line: Akers attacking running style reminds me of a cross between Marshawn Lynch and Dalvin Cook. If he can work on seeing rushing lanes as clearly as those two backs do, the sky's the limit.
Tier 2 - Steep Drop From the Top
RB6 - Zack Moss (4.20 YC/A; 9th in class)
After ripping off three-straight seasons of 1,000 or more yards and double-digit TDs on the ground, Moss enters the 2020 draft as the easy pick for the best back after the Big 5. Moss was an easy evaluation in the sense that where he wins was apparent after a few games. He doesn’t have home-run speed, but Moss possesses excellent contact balance and change of direction ability. Only Edwards-Helaire (0.42) forced more missed tackles than Moss (0.40) in the class.
While Moss exhibited fantastic vision and clear ability to evade defenders, my concern is that, like David Montgomery, Moss does not have NFL-caliber short-area burst and acceleration. When the defense was attacking downhill on carries in between the tackles, Moss’ lack of speed and burst was apparent in tight quarters. Taylor (4.52), Dobbins (4.48), Edwards-Helaire (4.04), and Swift (3.98) all created significantly more yards on their carries in between the tackles than Moss (2.96) did last year.
There is still plenty to like in Moss’ game, though. He’s a willing pass protector, trailing only D’Andre Swift (90%) for the class lead in pass protection execution rate (88%). Moss is a natural receiver, too, and he leads the 2020 class in receiving yards per route run (2.4) over Taylor (2.3) and Edwards-Helaire (1.6). I think Edwards-Helaire, Swift, and Akers have better separation and YAC skills, but Moss is a very efficient route runner and has sturdy hands.
Bottom line: Moss’ play speed, poor combine performance, and injury history are the red flags. At the very least, Moss profiles as a hard-nosed grinder with plus skills in the passing game. The issue is that NFL linebackers and safeties will be just as fast (or faster) at the second-level, which means that Moss will have to win with elite contact balance and tackle-breaking power. Compares perfectly to Jamaal Williams.
RB7 - Anthony McFarland (5.89 YC/A; 1st in class)
A shifty runner with excellent acceleration, Anthony McFarland will be an interesting name to monitor in Rounds 3-5 of the NFL Draft. A few big runs helped aid this, but McFarland joined J.K. Dobbins as the only other back to post above-average figures in yards created on inside and off-tackle runs. McFarland has a ton of juice and speed in the open field and it was no surprise that he blazed a 4.44 forty at 208lbs at the Combine.
McFarland wasn’t asked to be an inside runner often, but I felt that he understood how to maneuver in tight space and accelerate through gaps. Maryland did use McFarland in a bit of a niche role and found ways to get him in open space in the run game. A class-high 41.4% of McFarland’s carries went off-tackle in his yards created sample.
Along with leading the class in yards created per rush, McFarland ranks 4th in the class in missed tackles forced per rush (0.34) just barely ahead of Cam Akers (0.33). McFarland only caught 17 balls this past year, but he was explosive after the catch in open space and his speed and short area-quickness make him a tough cover in man-to-man. McFarland did struggle in pass protection, though.
Bottom line: Is he a centerpiece or change of pace back? That is the question. McFarland split touches (131 to 111) with Javon Leake at Maryland this past year, who is a top-20 RB prospect in the NFL Draft. After leading the class in yards created per carry, there is no doubt McFarland is an explosive runner. He’s a natural receiver, too, but it will take a team using him in a specific, specialized role (like Austin Ekeler) for him to reach his ceiling.
RB8 - Darrynton Evans (4.49 YC/A; 7th in class)
If Evans weren’t under-sized, he would be getting way more buzz in this class. Evans constantly looked like the most talented player on the field against sub-par competition at App State, and his production showed it. Evans dropped 255/1,480/18 on the ground this past year and added 21/198/5 as a receiver. Evans is a jitterbug with a shifty running style, but I am concerned that teams will not view him as a featured back. However, yards created revealed that Evans is an underrated inside runner -- his 4.76 YC/A on carries in between the tackles ranked 3rd best in the class -- but Evans still isn’t an overly physical grinder like Zack Moss. Instead, Evans wins with speed and elusiveness. In fact, Evans ranks last in the class in missed tackles forced by power (0.07) on his carries.
Bottom line: At 5-10, 203lbs Evans has 4.4 speed but likely profiles as a high-energy change of pace back in the NFL.
RB9 - Ke’Shawn Vaughn (5.41 YC/A; 2nd in class) - In-Depth Breakdown
Vaughn is a boom-or-bust, straight-line speedster with an attacking running style. Vaughn may have ranked 2nd in the class in yards created per attempt, but he’s certainly not a consistently creative back. Vaughn created 5 or more yards on just 21% of his carries, tying Darrynton Evans for the lowest rate in the class. Vaughn is a home-run hitter when he’s given a lane, but he lacks wiggle in open space. 84% of Vaughn’s missed tackles came by speeding past a defender or making them miss with power.
Bottom line: Shades of Tevin Coleman to Vaughn’s game. Very fast and violent when moving straight. Ran 4.5 at 214lbs at the Combine.
Tier 3 - Upside in Late-Rounds?
RB10 - Eno Benjamin (3.48 YC/A; last in class)
Benjamin finished last in the class in yards created per attempt, but his offensive line did him zero favors. Arizona State opened up just 1.09 yards blocked per carry and finished second from last ahead of only FSU (0.57) in the class. Even though his blocking wasn’t great, Benjamin showed inconsistent vision and decision-making at the line of scrimmage and ranked second from last in yards created on both inside and off-tackle carries. Benjamin is a highly competitive runner and rarely goes down without a fight on first contact, but his lack of make-you-miss elusiveness or long speed limits his ceiling. Only A.J. Dillon (0.25) forced fewer missed tackles per carry than Benjamin (0.27).
Bottom line: While Benjamin doesn’t project well as an inside runner in the NFL, he is arguably the third-best pass catcher in the class behind Clyde Edwards-Helaire and D’Andre Swift. Zack Moss is also in that conversation. Benjamin led the class in targets and routes run per game and his ceiling is somewhere on the James White/Duke Johnson/Theo Riddick spectrum of satellite backs. He could end up being very useful in PPR leagues on an offense that features RBs in the passing game.
RB11 - Antonio Gibson
Gibson only carried the ball 33 times at Memphis this past year, but they were impactful. Unfortunately, because Gibson saw so few carries in college I wasn’t able to derive a meaningful assessment of his game. Still, the limited tape and numbers are more than enough to paint a picture. Gibson averaged an absurd 11.2 yards per carry in 2019 and turned his 71 total touches (38 receptions and 33 carries) into 12 touchdowns. He also finished 12th in college football in kickoff return yards (28.0 on average). Gibson looked like an all-world athlete in space, threatening house calls on nearly every touch. Gibson is an incredibly sudden mover and can change direction without losing speed, giving him incredible make-you-miss ability. On his 33 carries, Gibson forced an absurd 0.48 missed tackles forced per rush. That figure would have led the 2020 class if he had enough carries to qualify. Gibson is clearly a gifted athlete with the rock in his hands and often looked like the best player on the field, but he only ran zone and power rushing plays designed to get him in space.
Bottom line: Even though the sample is limited, Gibson is one of the most exciting prospects in the class. Some have drawn comparisons to David Johnson because he’s an RB-WR hybrid but I see that as a slight disservice to D.J. after he carried Northern Iowa’s run offense in college. Gibson was more of a rarely used size-speed cheat code. Size and run style-wise, Gibson compares to backs like Joe Mixon and DeMarco Murray.
RB12 - A.J. Dillon
Got some buzz (and Derrick Henry comparisons) for running 4.53 at 247lbs at the Combine, but his yards created profile is extremely lacking. Even though Dillon ran fast over a long distance, he has slow build up speed and just routinely earned yards that were blocked. Boston College’s offensive line helped generate most of Dillon’s yards as he saw a class-best 1.90 yards blocked per play. Dillon’s 0.25 missed tackles forced per carry ranks last in the class.
Bottom line: Dillon was a monster producer in college -- he went over 1,000 yards and scored 10+ TDs on the ground all three years -- but tape study revealed an inconsistent ability to create on his own. Dillon ran into his own blockers far too often and he has the worst lateral agility in the class. 80% of Dillon’s missed tackles were from either power or speed. Dillon was also the least-involved receiver in the class, earning just under 1.5 passing targets per game.
Tier 4 - Best of the Rest
RB13 - Joshua Kelly
Downhill, no-nonsense powerhouse. Ran for over 1,000 yards and had 12 TDs in both 2018 and 2019 at UCLA. Sneakily a good receiver. Doesn’t have any standout traits but feel comfortable saying he’s the most talented back in this tier.
RB14 - DeeJay Dallas
Like Dallas as a super late sleeper. Competitive runner. Always fights through contact. Good to almost great contact balance but doesn’t have a ton of burst. Wasn’t asked to catch many passes but looked fluid when doing so. He’s discount Zack Moss.
RB15 - Lamical Perine
Physical, tight-hipped runner who doesn’t force many missed tackles. Ran 4.62 at the Combine. Did catch 40 balls in 13 games in his final season at UF.
RB16 - Javon Leake
Split carries with Anthony McFarland in his final season but is far less explosive than his former Maryland counterpart. Leake showed some tackle-evading ability but ran a 4.62 at the Combine. McFarland has 4.4 jets. Upright runner and basically wasn’t involved in the passing game.
RB17 - Michael Warren
Big, inside grinder. Ran for 2,594 yards and 33 TDs (on 505 carries) in his final two seasons at Cincinnati. Yards after contact is his game. Not a very explosive athlete and isn’t a make-you-miss runner.
RB18 - James Robinson
Led the Missouri Valley in rushing in back-to-back years at Illinois State, but like Warren, Robinson is a grinder. Ran 4.64 at 219lbs at the Combine.
RB19 - JaMycal Hasty
Always played in a limited role at Baylor but Hasty has some burst and acceleration in the open field. Popped on tape a few times as a receiver. Likely a change-of-pace back.
RB20 - J.J. Taylor
Taylor is fun to watch. Pint-sized space back at 5-5,185lbs. Even though he’s built like Tarik Cohen, Taylor is a physical, competitive runner. Led the Pac-12 in average return yards (24.1). It’ll take the right role for him to flourish in the NFL.