It’s always a fun exercise to compare positional groups from different draft classes. We’re coming off the heels of a brilliant 2020 group, which had 18 running backs selected. Clyde Edwards-Helaire was the lone first-rounder being taken by the Kansas City Chiefs with the 32nd pick of the 2020 NFL Draft. In the second round, we saw five running backs selected. It’s been quite some time since we’ve seen such a talented group, but the 2021 running back class might have something to say about that.
The headliner of the 2021 group is Clemson’s electrifying Travis Etienne. It was a surprise to many that Etienne opted to return to school, rather than declare for the 2020 Draft, but it says a lot about his commitment to finishing what he started.
Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard was nothing short of sensational in 2019, as his spectacular season put him on the map as one of the best running backs in college football. Other running backs worth monitoring in the 2021 class include Alabama’s Najee Harris, Kansas’ Pooka Williams, and Louisville’s Javian Hawkins.
One of the hottest debates when it comes to the NFL is the value of the running back position. We’ve seen questions as to whether or not spending a first-round pick on a running back is a wise decision. Also, it’s debated whether it’s worth giving a running back a big-time payday.
Recently, we’ve seen the Los Angeles Rams give Todd Gurley a lucrative extension, only to release him less than two years later. We saw the same with Devonta Freeman in Atlanta and David Johnson in Arizona. In 2018, the New York Giants opted to select Penn State running back Saquon Barkley with the second pick of the draft despite having a major need at quarterback, with the likes of Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, and Lamar Jackson available.
Bottom line: Running backs are paramount to the success of NFL offenses, but teams must be careful with the draft compensation and financial resources used to secure them.
We can talk value of the running back position until we are blue in the face, but let’s discuss what we came here for. Which is the better running back class — 2020 or 2021?
Comparing the 2020 and 2021 running back class
2020 running back class
The 2020 running back group has a chance to be something special. If I had to describe the group in one word, the word would be productive. Let’s take a look at the five prospects that give this running back class a chance to be historic.
Clyde Edwards Helaire (5’7″, 207 pounds)
When you watch film of Edwards-Helaire, you immediately think of former Jacksonville Jaguars’ great Maurice Jones-Drew. He is thick and compact but also possesses extraordinary quickness. In 2019, Edwards-Helaire carried the ball 215 times for 1,414 yards and 16 touchdowns, while averaging 6.6 yards per carry. A bonus with Edwards-Helaire is his ability to help an offense as a pass-catcher. Last season, he caught 55 passes for 453 yards and a touchdown.
He is going to thrive at the next level, playing in the high-octane Kansas City Chiefs offense. It was a bit of a shock to me that he was the first running back taken in the 2020 NFL Draft, as I thought that title would be won by D’Andre Swift. With that said, it is safe to assume an immediate impact from the talented runner from LSU.
D’Andre Swift (5’8″, 212 pounds)
D’Andre Swift has been on the radar of the draft community for quite some time and for good reason. He is an explosive game-changer, who has elite footwork and impressive balance. In 2019, he had 196 carries for 1,218 yards and seven touchdowns, while averaging 6.2 yards per carry. Believe it or not, these stats indicate a down year for Swift.
It’s about time the Lions gave Matthew Stafford an electric play-maker in the backfield. It won’t be long before Swift assumes the starting running back role over Kerryon Johnson, and once he does, watch out.
For my money, Swift was the best running back in the 2020 draft. When I watch film on him, I am reminded of former Baltimore Ravens standout Ray Rice. When it comes to the 2020 season, Swift should be the most productive rookie running back in the league.
Jonathan Taylor (5’10”, 226 pounds)
Make no mistake about it, there are serious concerns with Jonathan Taylor’s “fumblitus”. Simply put, he puts the ball on the ground too much; however, he has been the most productive running back in college football over the past three seasons.
In 2019, Taylor carried the ball a staggering 320 times for 2,003 yards and 21 touchdowns, while averaging 6.3 yards per carry. During his career at Wisconsin, Taylor scored an impressive 50 touchdowns in 41 games. When it comes to Jonathan Taylor, there is a lot of “wear and tear”, but his quickness and production are insane.
The Indianapolis Colts are an intriguing fit for Taylor, as their current starter, Marlon Mack, seemed to be getting the job done at a high level, but you can’t pass up great players because you have a good player. Taylor’s immediate production will be minimized a bit because he will be splitting carries, but for a player that comes with a bunch of mileage, that is a good thing.
Cam Akers (5’10’, 217 pounds)
Despite playing on a very bad Florida State offense, Cam Akers was brilliant in 2019. He finished fourth in the ACC in rushing, accumulating 1,144 yards and 14 touchdowns on 231 carries. Akers was able to overcome a poor Seminoles offensive line by utilizing his shiftiness in the open field and his tremendous burst. He is a good receiver out of the backfield and possesses the ability to make defenders miss in the open field.
He will replace Gurley as the Los Angeles Rams’ starting running back, which means he will immediately face high expectations. Akers has the look and feel of one of those players that is a better pro than collegiate player. The Rams will need Akers to be as good as advertised to be competitive in 2020.
J.K. Dobbins (5’9″, 209 pounds)
One of the biggest steals of the 2020 draft was the Baltimore Ravens’ selection of J.K. Dobbins with the 55th pick. Since arriving in Columbus, Dobbins has been a stud. In 2019, Dobbins accumulated 2,003 yards and 21 touchdowns on 301 carries. His best trait is his elite contact balance, followed by his ability to play his best football under the brightest lights.
Dobbins lands on a Baltimore Ravens team that is absolutely loaded. He might not get a chance to be the “bellcow” right away, as the Ravens have a pretty good running back named Mark Ingram, but it won’t be long before Dobbins is one of the most productive runners in the league.