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Re-Evaluating the Rookie Running Back Class of 2020

We're six weeks into the 2020 NFL season and are starting to get some good ideas of what usage patterns are looking like.

Which means we probably have enough data now to start to re-evaluate where certain players stand in relation to other players. For example, we've got a better idea of how this year's rookie running backs are performing as rookies and what their 2020 value is for the rest of the season.

So, let's do that by ranking the top rookie running backs for fantasy re-draft leagues for the rest of 2020, then breaking down why the players rank where they do.

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Rookie Running Back Redraft Rankings

I've put a lot of thought into the various nuances here and this is what I've ended up with as my ROS rankings in PPR leagues for the rookie backs.

  1. Jonathan Taylor - Indianapolis Colts
  2. James Robinson - Jacksonville Jaguars
  3. Clyde Edwards-Helaire - Kansas City Chiefs
  4. D'Andre Swift - Detroit Lions
  5. Antonio Gibson - Washington Football Team
  6. Joshua Kelley - Los Angeles Chargers
  7. J.K. Dobbins - Baltimore Ravens
  8. Zack Moss - Buffalo Bills
  9. Cam Akers - Los Angeles Rams
  10. La'Mical Perine - New York Jets

Apologies to the handful of guys who are not ranked, especially Darrynton Evans, who would leap up this list in the event of a Derrick Henry injury upon return from IR.

Now, let's talk about why these 10 guys rank where they do.

 

Re-Evaluating Rookie RBs - The Top Tier

Let's start with the player who is No. 1 in these re-rankings: Jonathan Taylor.

Yeah, yeah, yeah -- everyone told us for months that Taylor was the rookie RB1 and we just didn't believe it, which is how I ended up with so much Clyde Edwards-Helaire in dynasty and not enough Taylor.

But there was definite reason to not have Taylor as your redraft RB1. The main reason: his path to carries was crowded by the existence of Marlon Mack, while CEH had no competition.

Well, Mack's done for the season, and since Week 2, Taylor is eighth among running backs in red zone attempts with 16. This week, he saw 80 percent of Indy's carries, the second-highest percentage in the league behind Derrick Henry. Take out quarterback carries, and this past week paints a very clear picture of this backfield. Per Add More Funds:

image taken from AddMoreFunds

This is Taylor's spot moving forward, which makes him one of two rookie running backs with a very clear grip on a No. 1, workhorse-type role. Taylor is 100 percent the top rookie.

Second is someone who was on no one's radar until just before the season kicked off: Jacksonville's James Robinson.

When Jacksonville let Leonard Fournette go, things opened up with the Jags. Ryquell Armstead, Chris Thompson, and Devine Ozigbo were expected to compete for the lead role.

But nope, it was none of them who emerged. Instead, undrafted rookie James Robinson became the lead back.

Over the last three games, Robinson is ninth among running backs in snap rate, and he's second to David Montgomery in positional attempt rate at 95.45 percent, as Jacksonville's other most-used back by snap rate, Chris Thompson, is exclusively a receiving option and has two carries in the last three games to Robinson's 42.

Robinson isn't as talented and doesn't run behind as good of an offensive line as Taylor, but his usage on the ground and in the passing game makes him the clear No. 2 rookie running back for fantasy right now.

Next is where things start to get a little dicier.

I have Clyde Edwards-Helaire third for now, with D'Andre Swift fourth. But this was the decision that perturbed me the most as I was working on this piece. It ultimately came down to going with the player in the better offense, but it was close.

See, CEH is about to be in a timeshare with Le'Veon Bell. I'd guess the split breakdown with Bell goes more to Edwards-Helaire's side -- and that we see a good bit of Bell split out at receiver with Edwards-Helaire in the backfield. It's not like Bell is in his prime at this point, but he's still a capable back provided Adam Gase didn't permanently ruin him. He'll get opportunities, which cuts too much into Edwards-Helaire's workload.

D'Andre Swift almost earned the third spot in my ROS rankings, but I was worried that I was buying into recency bias just a little too much. See, Swift is coming off by far the best game of his young career, rushing 14 times for 116 yards and two touchdowns while catching three passes for seven yards. But while his touches and production rose, he still saw action on just 38 percent of snaps, plus Adrian Peterson received 15 carries and also found the end zone. This team won't be as efficient each week, which ultimately lowers Swift's floor. He's a clearly talented back, but I don't trust the opportunities as much as I do with CEH, even with the Bell addition factored in.

Fifth is Antonio Gibson, who suffers from "bad offense" syndrome. The Washington team plays from behind a lot, which is part of why they average just 23.4 run plays per game. Gibson's 55 carries rank 26th at the position, and the Washington offensive line ranks 28th in adjusted line yards per game. So while Gibson is his team's primary back -- he's had 64.71 percent of their running back carries over the last three games -- he's also limited by a terrible supporting cast, which has helped contribute to him not running for more than 55 yards in a game yet, though his three touchdowns this season has boosted his value.

 

Re-Evaluating Rookie RBs - Lower Tier

Sixth, we have Joshua Kelley. The Austin Ekeler injury is giving Kelley a short-term boost, and he'd probably drop below J.K. Dobbins if I did this exercise a month from now. But the short term matters when ranking rest of season value, as does the importance of his bye week being behind him. Kelley has lost some touches to Justin Jackson, but it's always good to follow where these touches come from. Kelley does have a team-high 10 red zone carries, while Jackson has none.

J.K. Dobbins is seventh and I'm probably undervaluing him a little, but the Ravens remain a tough team to project. Over the last three games, here are some attempt numbers for the team:

image taken from AddMoreFunds

Dobbins has trailed Gus Edwards and Mark Ingram in carries, even while surpassing Ingram in snaps. And with Lamar Jackson siphoning off 19.35 percent of the carries over that span, it's hard to love Dobbins right now, even after a season-high nine carries in Week 6. A Week 7 bye week also helps keep him under Kelley in my rankings, as does the fact that while he's the best receiving back on this team, there's still not a lot of running back receptions coming in this Ravens offense.

The final three ranked players come with a good bit of a gap between them and the first seven.

At eight is Zack Moss, who just played his first game since Week 2, getting five carries for 10 yards. Moss is barely playable in fantasy, but he does have one advantage: in Weeks 1 and 2, Moss had seven red zone attempts to Devin Singeltary's three. He's got touchdown upside, even if it's not a lot of upside.

Ninth is Cam Akers. I like Akers. I'm sure we all like Akers. But a seemingly healthy Cam Akers played just one offensive snap against the 49ers, despite rushing for 6.78 yards per carry in Week 5. If he gets opportunities, he has flex appeal, but he's ninth right now because we can't guarantee anything at all when it comes to chances, thanks to Sean McVay's unpredictable usage.

Rounding out the top 10 for now: La'mical Perine. Sure, he gets more touches than Akers, but his low ceiling makes it tough to justify him on your fantasy roster right now. He's backing up Frank Gore in an Adam Gase offense. There's nothing at all good about that, even if he had seven carries and two catches this week, and this team has a very tough upcoming schedule that will lead to pass-heavy game scripts.



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