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Travis Etienne
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Evaluations

Top-15 2020 NFL Draft RB Rankings

by Thor Nystrom
Updated On: June 26, 2019, 6:03 pm ET

This is the second of seven columns coming in my 2020 NFL Draft summer scouting series. Quarterbacks dropped last week, and receivers are coming next week. I’ll be cooking up a TE/OL combo platter for you shortly after that before we move to the defenders.

I hope you enjoy these as much as I enjoyed researching and writing them!

2020 NFL Draft at a glance

Better in 2020: QB, RB, WR, OT, CB, S

Worse in 2020: TE, OG, C, DL, EDGE, LB

 

Top-15 RBs

1. Travis Etienne (Clemson)

2. Jonathan Taylor (Wisconsin)

3. D'Andre Swift (Georgia)

4. Eno Benjamin (Arizona State)

5. Ke'Shawn Vaughn (Vanderbilt

6. Cam Akers (Florida State)

7. A.J. Dillon (Boston College)

8. J.K. Dobbins (Ohio State)

9. Trey Sermon (Oklahoma)

10. Najee Harris (Alabama)

11. Zack Moss (Utah)

12. Kylin Hill (Mississippi State)

13. Chuba Hubbard (Oklahoma State)

14. Joshua Kelley (UCLA)

15. Anthony McFarland Jr. (Maryland)

 

Potential risers: Salvon Ahmed (Washington), Ty Chandler (Tennessee), Patrick Taylor Jr. (Memphis), Clyde Edwards-Helaire (LSU), Reggie Corbin (Illinois), Kennedy Brooks (Oklahoma)

Needs a leap: Stephen Carr (USC)

Deep sleeper: Trey Ragas (Louisiana-Lafayette)

2020 prospect to monitor: Jermar Jefferson (Oregon State)


1. Travis Etienne (Clemson) | 5'10/215

Travis Etienne’s emergence as a legitimate superstar and potential Round 1 prospect snuck up on me. Two years ago, heading into the 2017 season, I only had eyes for Tavien Feaster, a top-30 overall recruit entering his sophomore season who I expected to have his national coming out party. Coming out of the prep ranks, Feaster ran a 4.34 forty at 220 pounds for a historically absurd speed score for his age of 124.02.

Etienne had a much quieter arrival on campus. He was a top-150 national recruit in 2017, but on the lower-end of that list. With multiple experienced runners above him vying for Wayne Gallman’s vacated post, it made sense that Clemson would redshirt Etienne.

Instead, Etienne won an equal timeshare with Feaster (I mean to the carry – each had 107). Etienne averaged nearly one more yard per carry and scored six more TD. By the end of the year, it was clear who Clemson’s running back of the future would be.

Feaster made the mistake of sticking around for his junior year, only to see his carry-load plummet. Etienne received 216 total touches, Feaster 89. Feaster is currently in the transfer portal (South Carolina and Virginia Tech are sniffing around).

Having conquered all his foes for playing time, Etienne would enter his junior season a candidate for 2,000 ground yards if Clemson wasn’t so dang good throwing the ball. Etienne’s most breathtaking trait is explosion. When he sees a hole, Etienne evokes Dominic Toretto in the Fast and the Furious yelling “NOS!” and punching the red button.

He’s a verifiable angle-eraser. ACC defensive linemen and linebackers are not prepared for just how quickly Etienne can travel from five yards behind the line of scrimmage to five yards beyond it. You’re talking world-class acceleration – they’ve never seen it before, certainly had no means of preparing for it. It’s like when college hitters step into the batter’s box against a guy who can throw 101.

In part because he’s a no-nonsense gamer, and in part because of his sleek build – outfitted with enough muscle to remain sturdy but not so much as to make movement more cumbersome – Etienne’s is very difficult to get on the ground.

He isn’t in David Montgomery’s class in terms of contact balance, but there aren’t many other backs who've come out the past few years who can get hit with as much force and remain upright. Etienne forced a missed tackle every 3.5 carries last year, per Pro Football Focus. He led the ACC by margin in elusive rating – nobody was even close.

And once Etienne is in the open field, you’re in real trouble. He’s a sprinter who plays with more power and agility-at-high-speeds than your typical burner.*

*(Take Darrell Henderson from the last class, right? Henderson was stupidly explosive, and, like Etienne, he ran with more power than you’d expect for a player of his type. But Henderson is a straight-line burner – his goal was always to find a runway to take off from. Downfield, Henderson wasn’t trying to juke you – he was trying to outrun you. Etienne can do both.).

The only part of this profile that garners trepidation is in the passing game – which is not a small-potatoes thing in the modern NFL. Etienne has caught only 17 balls for 135 yards and two scores over two seasons (28 games) – a drop in the bucket. To his credit, Etienne has turned into a decent-enough pass blocker.

He had a couple rough reps last season – PFF slapped Etienne with two sacks allowed -- but his overall pass-pro grade of 72.2 from PFF is actually above-average if you ranked every runner on this list. Etienne isn’t a matador blocker, he likes to scrap. But it’d be nice if he took to the art blocking with the verve he took to the art of open-field running. His job is not to road grade or to lift linebackers off their feet – it’s merely to get fully in their way on the path to Lawrence.

He needs to improve at reading defenses pre-snap just as Lawrence does to get clues as to where a free rusher may gain direct access into the backfield, and he must work on absorbing contact when he’s not the aggressor in a situation. Etienne has the work-ethic, toughness and athleticism to greatly improve in this area – and he’s already made strides.

But especially if the receiving thing never takes, he simply must become a standout pass blocker so as not to get yanked off the field on passing downs. That would really hurt his NFL value. Lack of development in the passing game is the only reason Etienne did not appear in my too-early 2020 first-round mock draft last month.

A developmental jump as a receiver along with further refinement as a pass blocker would solidify Etienne as worthy of a late-Round 1 call. If his development stalls in both categories, I wouldn’t take him until Round 2. The NFL passes too much, and rushing production is too replaceable.


2. Jonathan Taylor (Wisconsin) | 5'11/221

Taylor has rushed for over 2,000 yards per season over his first two years on campus (4,171 yards and 29 TD on 6.9 career YPA). He has dominated with a proprietary blend of special ability and innate feel.

His fit in Wisconsin’s run-first, run-second scheme is perfect – as a college football guy, you give the kid credit for picking an ideal circumstance coming out of high school. Boy do the Badgers feed him. Taylor’s market share (percentage of team’s yards) of 39.9% led the nation last year by almost three full percentage points. His breakout age of 18.7 mirrors Etienne’s.  

Taylor is a natural running back. Watching Badgers games with Taylor running wild feels like football from my childhood in the late 80's. He’s almost too polished to be “flashy.” Taylor keeps his shoulders back and his head on a swivel. And when it’s time to get low, he gets low.

Unless a hole opens immediately, he’s a glider behind the line who doesn’t panic. Taylor uses his feet cleverly when approaching and driving through the hole, setting up linebackers by getting low and doing a little tap-dance to get them unsteady in the feet and unsure in the mind.

If they lose their angle or Taylor runs through their arm tackle, it’s about be Headache City for the poor deep safety. If they overcommit and get sucked into the mosh pit of bodies, Taylor bounces outside and leaves them there. Probably because he plays for Wisconsin, he doesn’t receive enough credit for his high-octane athleticism.

Etienne receives the athleticism compliment all the time. You rarely hear it as effusively attached to Taylor, despite ample evidence that Taylor is also a freaky athlete, and despite Taylor’s big-play game (he led the country with 61 carries that went 10 yards or more last year).

Taylor ran a 4.42 at 221 pounds coming out of high school for a speed score of 115.8 (which ranks behind only Feaster and one other runner you’ll read about below among draft-eligible backs in this class). He won two 100-meter dash state titles during his prep days in New Jersey.

Taylor runs with more thunder than Etienne (and, frankly, any of the runners in the top-six of this list). He’s also physical at high speeds. You’ll see a safety try to tackle him high, and Taylor will break the kid’s jaw with a stiff arm and keep on truckin'.

And I’ll just say it: Jonathan Taylor Tailback (shout-out to the Solid Verbal) is the best pure runner in the class. Taylor was Pro Football Focus' highest-graded running back in 2018.

But despite all that, I was forced to rank Taylor behind Etienne. It’s an extremely close call for me. Taylor’s fumbling issues being, as it were, a sort of tiebreaker. He’s already fumbled 12 times in college, with Wisconsin losing 10 of those balls. He’s fumbled once every 52 touches, basically. To Taylor’s credit, he cut the fumbles from eight as a freshman to four as a sophomore (in one less game), so we’re moving in the right direction. But this area remains troubling.

One last similarity with Etienne: Taylor has shown very little in the passing game in college. In Taylor’s case, he’s showed even less – a barely-there 16-155-0 line over two years. And because his pass pro is at a similar stage as Etienne’s – passable, needs improvement – Taylor at this point has very little use on passing downs. He’s a little knock-kneed and unnatural when Wisconsin gives him the chance, odd for a guy who is so natural when he’s running with the ball.

For Wisconsin, Taylor has been an afterthought on third downs. Per the Devy Watch, Taylor has touched the ball on only 21-of-345 third-down plays in college (6.1%), with writer Kyle Francis referring to Taylor as “Jordan Howard on steroids.” Because of all this, Pro Football Network’s Matthew Valdovinos believes Taylor may be destined to be a Mark Ingram-type platooning with an Alvin Kamara-type.

Taylor can pass Etienne this fall by beginning to contribute as a receiver, taking steps with pass protection, and cutting the fumbles in half again. He’s also at risk of falling behind three or four of the guys behind him if he continues to be unplayable on third downs and keeps fumbling.

That’s a heck of a lot of variance for a prospect whose game is seemingly so deliciously straightforward, isn't it? But thems the breaks when your two weaknesses are passing-game contributions and fumbling. 


3. D'Andre Swift (Georgia) | 5'9/215

There is a ton of excitement surrounding Swift right now. I can’t quite get there in ranking him among the top-two backs in the class. Not yet. But he’s nipping very, very closely at Taylor and Etienne’s heels.

The biggest reason Swift closed the distance on that duo last year is his awesome pass-catching ability out of the backfield. Even if Swift never developed beyond where he’s at now, he’d be playable as a third-down back in the NFL for years.

Swift posted a 32-297-3 receiving line last fall amid an extremely crowded backfield rotation. This year, Elijah Holyfield isn’t around to steal touches (though Georgia, as is their custom, returns absurd talent in the backfield). Swift’s carries are about to go up, and I think there’s a chance he’ll catch more balls as well.

That’s a boon for Jake Fromm. You have to put Swift’s receiving ability up with the top backs in that metric who’ve entered the NFL the past few years. His game has elements of Josh Jacobs, Alvin Kamara and Sony Michel (though Swift is the smallest of the four; he’s closest to the 5-foot-10, 215-pound Kamara... that's also the closest stylistic comp).

Swift reaches the line of scrimmage in a blur, exploding towards the hole and accelerating out of it with authority. His footwork is sublime. Similarly to Taylor, he likes to set up linebackers early. And like Taylor, if they overcommit and get sucked into traffic, Swift is going to bounce outside into space.

He’s very, very slippery in the open field, and he comes equipped with sonar-radar vision, seemingly aware of even what’s going on behind him. Swift is no power back, but he’s got enough horsepower in his trunk to steal extra yards on most touches. Do not make the mistake of thinking he’s a pure finesse back because of his skill and fluidity.

Swift finished No. 16 in the country in breakaway % last year – right behind Devin Singletary – and was No. 8 among all returning runners in elusive rating (which tries to isolate the success of ball-carriers from their offensive lines using a formula that includes broken tackles and yards after contact).

Swift could easily be the first RB off the board in the spring. I think his pass blocking is overrated, but I could care less about that. When my team is throwing the ball, I’m not ever asking Swift to block. He got 195 touches last year. Let’s see how much he can produce with over 250.


4. Eno Benjamin (Arizona State) | 5'9/201

Benjamin decommitted from Iowa late in the 2017 cycle to play for ASU HC Todd Graham, who was summarily dismissed following Benjamin’s freshman year. In came Herm Edwards, under whom Benjamin blossomed into a star as a sophomore while absolutely abusing defenses who became too pre-occupied with N’Keal Harry.

Despite his diminutive fun-sized frame, Benjamin packs a real punch. He runs with a sort of fearless ferocity. Runners this size who play with no regard for personal well-being generally visit the trainer’s room quite often. But Benjamin has proven he can handle absurd volume while staying healthy.

That’s key to his evaluation, along with his receiving skill. Benjamin isn’t only a starting-caliber NFL runner – he’s also going to greatly help the passing attack of his pro team. Of all runners listed in this column, Benjamin led the field in dominator rating last year (percentage of team’s yards and touchdowns) with 37.35%. Keep in mind that Harry was around gobbling up targets on that team.

And despite his frame, Benjamin is very tough to tackle. His agility in close quarters hinders the ability of defenders to square him up properly, and it messes with the angles of those pursuing him from distance. In short: Eno doesn’t offer defenders much jersey to hit flush. And since he’s also blessed with very good contact balance, Benjamin is able to burst through desperate off-angle tackle attempts.

You know how I loved David Montgomery and Devin Singletary in the last class? Do you remember my taek about why you had to take their combine showings with a grain of salt because the combine couldn’t test the singular most important running back trait – how difficult it was to tackle the guy? Eno led all returning RBs in the nation with 82 tackles avoided on runs last year, per PFF. You wanna guess which two guys finished ahead of him on that list? Monty Pylon had 99, Motor Singletary had 96.

Benjamin’s game is predicated on movement and skill. He was blessed with the first, and he worked for the second. God blessed him with coffee grinder feet. Benjamin worked for the vision, sped up his calculations. That must be worked toward through watching the game and taking thousands of live reps.

God blessed him with good hands. Benjamin worked for the feel of when to leak out of the backfield, for how to set up a linebacker, for how to locate the soft spot in a zone. For how to snatch the ball out of the air and seamlessly turn upfield without wasted momentum.

And while I think he could stand to improve in pass pro, I’d rarely ever ask Benjamin to perform that task instead of running a route out of the backfield. My buddy Kyle Francis, king of the comps, has a deliciously cross-racial comp for Benjamin, believing him to be closer to Christian McCaffrey than he’s being given credit for. C-Mac is the last undersized Pac-12 running back to handle this kind of volume with this kind of aplomb.


5. Ke'Shawn Vaughn (Vanderbilt) | 5'9/215

Vaughn is probably the most underrated top-10 back in the class right now. This isn’t a surprise – he started at Illinois before transferring to Vanderbilt. It was a homecoming for Vaughn, who’s from Nashville.

Vaughn broke out as one of the nation’s top backs immediately after escaping Lovie Smith’s stale offense. But I feel like this is important to note (especially since Vaughn isn't yet a household name): Vaughn's breakout age of 18.5 is the second-youngest breakout age in this class -- his freshman year for the Illini was strong enough to qualify. And then the Illini let him get away.

On the field, Vaughn is stupidly explosive, and he’s very hard to tackle. Dangerous combo. He averaged 7.9 yards per carry last year – 5.28 of those yards came after contact (2.62 before).

He finished No. 3 in the SEC in forced missed tackles per touch. Vaughn was in a different league than the guys around him in the RB room, averaging 2.9 more YPC than his teammates, the highest number in the country (minimum 150 carries).

He had 32 carries that went for more than 10 yards, 11 that went more than 40, and seven that went more than 60. In the SEC, the next-highest total of 40-yard runs was five. Vaughn had two more 60-yard runs than anybody else in the conference had 40-yard runs!

 Like a lot of other top draft-eligible backs, he doesn’t embarrass himself in pass pro but needs to improve in that metric. That’s more true for Vaughn than for Swift.

That’s because Vaughn is a mediocre receiver at present time. You can tell he desperately wants to make big plays in that phase of the game just like he does as a runner, but Vaughn simply doesn’t have the natural skill for it that a guy like Swift does. I

Vaughn’s receptions in college have mostly come in the screen game. He doesn’t always catch the ball cleanly. It’s almost as though that part of the transaction is an imposition to him before he can turn his attention to doing what he does best, which is picking through traffic at high speeds. If Vaughn never develops a feel for receiving, he’s going to have to become a reliable blocker to remain on the field in passing situations.

Last month, Bleacher Report’s Connor Rogers reported that Vaughn could've been a Round 2 pick had he declared for the 2019 draft. Rogers passed that note along during an interview with the Senior Bowl’s Jim Nagy, who went on to effusively praise Vaughn. Nagy's got an eye for this stuff, and Vaughn's caught it.

Closing note: Make a point to watch Vandy this year! No, seriously! Vaughn is a legitimate superstar, WR Kalija Lipscomb and TE Jared Pinkney are both Day 2 prospects, and Ball State grad transfer QB Riley Neal could get drafted as well.

Thor Nystrom

Thor Nystrom is Rotoworld’s lead CFB writer. The 2018 FSWA College Sports Writer of the Year, Nystrom’s writing has also been honored by Rolling Stone magazine and The Best American Essays series. Say hi to him on Twitter @thorku!