Yesterday, we explored the top objective statistical comparisons for top-five wide receivers from this upcoming draft class. Taking the same approach as we did with the wideouts, we’re taking a look at the top-five running backs from my pre-draft rankings

Circling back on the methodology we used in that opening post, we’re using Z-scores from running backs selected in the NFL draft over the previous 10 seasons stemming from percentiles in age, final season and career production adjusted for age and physical profile adjusted for size to generate the top-five comparable prospects for these incoming rookies.

The goal here isn’t to directly say “this is what the player will become” and throw out whatever subjective comparisons you have for player traits, but to provide further clarity on the objective archetype of player and where similar prospects were valued by the league. 

What matters most for the running back position at the next level for fantasy is opportunity, which is why draft capital is bar none the most important element for predicting future fantasy success since initial investment is so tethered to initial opportunities. Draft capital also is inherently baking in a lot of the other elements such as athleticism, production, and the significance of being able to enter the league with collegiate eligibility remaining. With that in mind, let’s jump into the top of this class and their statistical doppelgangers.

Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin

PlayerCollegeYearRY AgeHtWtPhysicalFY Prod.CarProdDraft
Jonathan TaylorWisconsin202021.67022697.10%98.20%96.90%TBD
Saquon BarkleyPenn State201821.67223398.40%88.80%93.40%2
Jay AjayiBoise State201522.27222172.10%97.20%91.80%149
Ezekiel ElliottOhio State201621.47222578.20%96.90%86.40%4
Trent RichardsonAlabama201222.16922884.20%94.90%83.80%3
Le'Veon BellMichigan State201321.97323084.80%93.20%82.90%48

Taylor turned in one of the most decorated collegiate careers on the field, posting three consecutive seasons with over 2,000 yards from scrimmage at Wisconsin. He then followed that up by proving to a great measurable athlete at a prototypical workhorse size. Being hyper-productive and a great athlete is a pocket pair of Aces and puts Taylor in strong company.

We immediately have three other backs that were selected within the top-five overall draft picks of their respective classes in Barkley, Elliott, and Richardson with a second-round pick in Bell. If it weren’t for a pre-draft bone-on-bone knee issue for Ajayi, he would’ve had more draft investment after a pair of stellar, precocious seasons at Boise State. He did give us glimpses of what could have been in stretches during his early career, but inevitably injuries caught up to him. 

Richardson has become a bit of a punching bag, but he was a clean prospect entering the draft and turned in a 1,317-yard, 12 touchdown rookie season in the league. Barkley, Elliott, and Bell have combined for 11 RB1-level scoring seasons per game in PPR formats. That will be where Taylor will have to prove himself next level to reach elite status after averaging 1.1 receptions per game over his collegiate career, the fewest of this group. That said, he’s keeping some elite company. For whatever it is worth, if we had any workout metrics from Todd Gurley, he surely would’ve also made the group here as well.  

J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State

PlayerCollegeYearRY AgeHtWtFY Prod.CarProdDraft
J.K. DobbinsOhio State202021.76920987.00%85.70%TBD
Bishop SankeyWashington2014226920986.50%83.30%54
Dalvin CookFlorida State201722.47021088.80%93.80%41
Ryan WilliamsVirginia Tech201122.46921288.50%89.20%38
Aaron JonesTexas-El Paso201723.16920885.00%88.50%182
Duke JohnsonMiami201522.36920776.00%84.60%77

We don’t have workout metrics from Dobbins, which narrows our comparisons down to collegiate output on the field and size. We have an inkling that he would’ve tested well based on his background, but no official additions can be accounted for here, just as was the case for Gurley above. 

The most interesting part of the measurables that we did get from Dobbins, however, was his size. That places in the company of some tweener profiles. There are a couple of backs here that have proven to be high-touch players in Cook and Jones, but his overall build places him in a bucket that has more fragility to the wrong coaching staff in becoming a bell-cow than it does for someone such as Taylor.

Aaron Jones is the only player here that was selected on the third day. He had some injury history leaving UTEP while also not playing at a high profile program, but has overcome his lower-end probability in terms of draft investment to turn in back-to-back top-20 scoring seasons per game the past two years. 

Bishop Sankey is our first strong example of how we treat the perception of players in the NFL versus their perception as prospects since we have so much influence from hindsight. Sankey was a high-caliber athlete with strong production that was drafted in the second round, but never was able to develop into a productive NFL player or take over a backfield. 

Like many, I will always support the notion that Duke Johnson is one of the most misused players in the NFL, but this where tweener-size can work against you at the next level. Johnson has given us no reason to believe he couldn’t handle more touches in the running game, yet still has just 382 carries through five NFL seasons after handling 526 carries over three seasons at Miami. 

Pour one out for Ryan Williams, who unfortunately appeared in just five NFL games after suffering patella and shoulder injuries during his first two seasons in the league and never recovered. 

D’Andre Swift, Georgia

PlayerCollegeYearRY AgeHtWtPhysicalFY Prod.CarProdDraft
D'Andre SwiftGeorgia202021.66821256.30%48.80%41.60%TBD
Alvin KamaraTennessee201722.47021453.20%46.70%61.40%67
Miles SandersPenn State201922.87021177.10%50.20%20.50%51
Wendell SmallwoodWest Virginia201622.96820868.40%57.80%39.40%153
Shane VereenCalifornia201122.37021055.20%61.10%68.80%56
Mike WeberOhio State201922.46921135.90%38.50%40.70%218

Here’s where things start to get interesting. Swift also doesn’t have that prototypical alpha-back build from your father’s NFL while he also had a pedestrian production profile. That stemmed from sharing a backfield at times with high draft picks in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, but also a player in Elijah Holyfield that he was head and shoulders above. Because of that usage, Swift topped out with a high season of 220 touches, never stacking the production of some of the other top backs in this class.

That gives us a unique list of comparables, but the one that jumps out in terms of having to wait in line to get opportunity behind another NFL-level player is Miles Sanders. Sanders had just 64 touches over two seasons behind Saquon Barkley and then 244 over his final season. 

Swift also has a better production profile than last year’s number one running back in Josh Jacobs, who had a season-best of just 140 touches at Alabama over his collegiate career, but was a first-round draft pick. 

Given Swift’s tweener-profile physically, we get another group of comps that have gone in each direction in terms of NFL usage, but Kamara and Sanders are backs that are in that hybrid-class of lead backs such as a Dalvin Cook and Aaron Jones mentioned previously. Shane Vereen never was able to escape the third-down archetype, but did come with high draft investment. 

Cam Akers, Florida State

PlayerCollegeYearAgeHtWtPhysicalFY Prod.CarProdDraft
Cam AkersFlorida State202021.27021762.90%87.90%78.70%TBD
Kerryon JohnsonAuburn201821.67121362.50%90.50%67.70%43
Marlon MackSouth Florida201721.87121357.60%71.00%87.20%143
Ryan WilliamsVirginia Tech201122.46921258.70%88.50%89.20%38
Ryan MathewsFresno State201022.97221889.90%81.10%77.60%12
Robert TurbinUtah State201222.97022282.60%64.90%74.70%106

Akers was the youngest running back invited to the combine and checked in a little bigger than both Dobbins and Swift, which will surely be something that a few coaching staffs value. He also proved to be an above average athlete. 

His comparables spit out three backs taken at pick 43 or higher with the most comparable player being Kerryon Johnson. Ryan Williams makes another return here and we get a top-15 pick in Ryan Mathews. The day three selections were smaller school picks in Mack and Turbin, but Turbin is on the fringe of hits here. Mack has been an RB2 in points per game the past two years despite his collegiate receiving use not carrying over to the NFL. Mack caught 65 passes in 36 college games while he’s caught 52 passes in 40 NFL games so far. 

Clyde Edwards-Helaire, LSU

PlayerCollegeYearAgeHtWtPhysicalFY Prod.CarProdDraft
Clyde Edwards-HelaireLSU202021.46720728.20%73.60%35.70%TBD
James WhiteWisconsin201422.66920423.20%74.30%62.20%130
Wendell SmallwoodWest Virginia201622.96820868.40%57.80%39.40%153
DeAndre WashingtonTexas Tech201623.96820444.20%74.10%54.60%143
Devonta FreemanFlorida State201422.56820621.20%42.50%40.50%103
Darrell HendersonMemphis201922.56820840.10%85.30%71.90%70

Since Edwards-Helaire has such a unique blend of age, size, subpar physical profile, and one extremely strong season of production making up his career output, finding comparables was no easy task. In fact, I took the liberty of opening the door up to non-early declares in a similar fashion that we took with Henry Ruggs in the receiver outlook. Those non-early declares here are James White and DeAndre Washington. Even then, Edwards-Helaire still is far younger than everyone here. 

White is the closest hit for Edwards-Helaire letting everyone in the door, but had a stronger full-body of work over his collegiate career. Everyone here outside of Devonta Freeman had at least two seasons reaching 1,000 yards from scrimmage in college. But from an NFL stance, Freeman was the most successful for fantasy purposes, turning in an RB1 overall scoring season in 2015 and three other top-20 scoring years.

When you have backs with a tweener-size, you can see comparisons skew up and down. We saw Ryan Williams skew up just a player ago after popping up for J.K. Dobbins earlier, while Wendell Smallwood skews down here after appearing on D’Andre Swift’s list. Smallwood is the lone back here to have a physical profile over the base rate, but also had the lowest draft investment from the NFL.

From a draft investment perspective, the top four backs here all were selected at pick 100 or later and the top three backs tilted towards being passing-game only assets at the next level. That’s the fragility that you have here with Edwards-Helaire. He has a top-rung comparison here in Freeman, but a number of compartmentalized committee backs here as well, with the story on Henderson still yet to be completely written.