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Jonathan Taylor, Travis Etienne, And The Pass-Catching Upside Of The 2020 RB Class, Part 2

The 2020 draft class of RBs has been billed as a potentially historic group. And while it’s generally wise to temper expectations about rookie classes, it’s easy to fall in love with this class. Rotoworld’s Hayden Winks predicts seven RBs could be selected in the first two days of next year’s Draft.

Thanks to recent work from Ryan Collingsworth, we know that the way in which elite NFL RBs score fantasy points is changing. When Collingsworth looked specifically at predicting college RBs transitioning to the next level, the importance of receiving ability became very apparent:

“Receptions per game, receiving yards per game and college PPR rec. % all produced correlational coefficients of r=0.40 or higher related to NFL PPR receiving percentage. Essentially, this means that if a running back was an elite receiver in college, he’s also more likely to be an elite receiver in the NFL.”

Blair Andrews added more context to the subject by explaining that raw counting stats are sometimes misleading, With this information in mind, let’s turn back to the vaunted 2020 class. If there’s one mark on the class it’s that several top prospects have poor receiving profiles. They’ve been wildly productive on the ground but seemingly lack the overall makeup of the truly elite RB1-types we currently see in the NFL.

What follows will be my attempt to gauge a realistic range of outcomes for the 2020 class of RBs. With their final seasons yet to come, this is obviously an imperfect science. But in devy formats, being ahead of the curve can pay massive dividends.

A few disclaimers before we start:

  • We’ll be working with the most recent season on record for these prospects. Their final seasons (we assume to be 2019) will tell us more about how we should value them moving forward.
  • Draft capital is crucial, especially for RBs. I’ll do my best to fairly estimate draft position as an input in the Box Score Scout to generate reasonable comparables.
Kylin Hill21.81166.721614.639.5%61.1%
Ty Chandler82.31157.31.716.612.938.9%52.8%
Deon Jackson1365.2219.514.633.3%89.7%
Chuba Hubbard23.41356.91.717.613.332.9%52.4%
D'Andre Swift1.51474.92.321.217.532.6%60.4%
Cam Akers5.21258.81.912.11331.7%56.1%
CJ Verdell87.61378.
Andrew Clair1163.81.79.312.929.1%38.0%
J.K. Dobbins10.41475.21.918.816.428.0%45.6%
Jatarvious Whitlow63.81360.51.213.312.227.9%27.8%
Salvon Ahmed59.61443.41.512.110.127.0%46.7%
Trey Ragas1484.41.816.416.126.5%46.3%
Sewo Olonilua117.91348.
DeAndre Torrey1375.21.915.818.923.5%51.0%
Mekhi Sargent1357.31.31212.923.1%27.9%
Lamical Perine113.61363.5113.112.422.4%41.9%
Eno Benjamin10.913126.32.720.225.722.0%74.5%
Joshua Kelley114.3111132.517.522.119.1%60.0%
Patrick Taylor Jr.1131480.
Tavien Feaster119.31529.
Michael Warren II81.312110.82.119.325.118.0%71.4%
Ke'Shawn Vaughn5612103.
Stephen Carr69.4942.
Reggie Corbin1290.41.314.716.317.1%53.3%
Scottie Phillips116.81184.40.99.517.916.5%45.4%
Clyde Edwards-Helaire119.31350.
Trey Sermon23.31467.60.912.914.514.8%44.4%
Darrynton Evans120.31391.30.96.714.414.2%0.0%
J.J. Taylor12119.51.311.117.414.0%80.0%
Anthony McFarland48.61286.
Zack Moss47.49121.80.95.621.69.8%47.1%
Juwan Washington91111.
Larry Rountree III96.31393.51.14.8169.7%36.8%
AJ Dillon20.510110.
Travis Etienne3.315110.
Kennedy Brooks68.411960.
Spencer Brown91.61487.60.61.416.86.8%42.1%
Najee Harris19.31552.
Jonathan Taylor4.413168.80.64.625.34.3%20.5%
Mohamed Ibrahim83.1101160.42.617.73.7%30.8%
Brian Robinson Jr.103.4930.2004.40.0%0.0%

Tier 2

Tier 2 prospects generally have strong rushing production but lack a defined pass-catching role. Draft position may buoy their outlooks but they could present a lower floor than we realize.

Travis Etienne, Clemson

Etienne is one of the most explosive RBs we’ve seen this century. But for all his positive traits he simply hasn’t produced much in the receiving game. His comments on the subject only furthered this narrative, but it’s worth revisiting how Clemson deployed their RBs last season. Thanks to an elite WR corps1 the team’s RBs were targeted just 31 times all season. Etienne accounted for 55% of those targets, showing that he wasn’t necessarily the liability some might assume. His athleticism and likely draft position keep his floor relatively high. But if we don’t see more production as a receiver this season, we may need to temper our expectations about him morphing into a certified fantasy RB1 at the next level.

Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin

Taylor is one of the most prolific runners we’ve seen in some time. He also has a breakout season at age 18 on his resume. But like Etienne, Taylor doesn’t have the receiving numbers we prefer. What’s most shocking is that he wasn’t even the primary pass-catching RB on Wisconsin’s roster last season2. I fully expect him to post monstrous numbers on the ground again in 2019 and his athleticism will likely keep his draft stock relatively high. His comp list exhibits a high range of outcomes, including Ezekiel Elliott and Melvin Gordon. But without a jump in pass-game involvement, there’s certainly risk for those expecting an alpha role at the next level.

AJ Dillon, Boston College

Despite a nagging ankle injury last season, Dillon posted his second-straight season with at least 1,100 yards rushing and 10 TDs. He also has elite size-adjusted speed. But his receiving production has been nearly non-existent as he’s logged 527 carries in 23 games. The 250-pound junior had just 29% of his team’s RB receptions last season with just 10% of his PPR total coming as a receiver. As a freshman in 2017, he didn’t catch a single pass3 I’m still hopeful we see a healthy Dillon utilized more as a receiver this season. But right now he conjures visions of a bigger, faster Jordan Howard with similar limitations.

Najee Harris, Alabama

As a former five-star recruit with limited college touches, Harris is a prototypical modern-day Alabama RB. In his first two seasons he’s had to compete for touches with Josh Jacobs and Damien Harris but now has access to a heaping amount of vacated opportunity. With 54 RB targets up for grabs following the departure of Jacobs and Harris, there’s room for growth. But thanks to Alabama’s elite WR group, there’s no real need to force targets to their RBs. Harris’ comp list is full of potholes, even assuming third-round draft position.

Spencer Brown, UAB

Brown is another wildly-productive runner with terrific age-adjusted production. Yet just 7% of his PPR production from last season came as a receiver. That’s bad news based on the premise of this study. But a deeper look reveals important context. UAB targeted their RBs just 23 times last season with Brown accounting for 42% of his team’s RB receptions. In essence, I’m not yet willing to write him off as a receiver. At his current ADP (91.6), he’s a low risk option. But it’s worth noting that his career counting stats and likely draft position produce a rather uninspiring set of comps.

Stay Tuned for Part 3 where we examine the Tier 3 RB devy prospects for 2020.

Image Credit: Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Najee Harris.

  1. Most of which returns this season.  (back)
  2. Taylor had just 29% of Wisconsin’s RB targets and 20% of the Badgers’ RB receptions in 2018  (back)
  3. Although it’s worth noting that Dillon is one of just two college RBs (Andre Williams being the other) since 2000 with zero receptions in a season with at least 300 carries. Both were coached at Boston College by current head coach Steve Addazio.  (back)

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