The “Generational” RB – Are there any from the 2020 draft?

by Rob Grimwood – @FFBritBaller

First things first, the term “generational player” seems to get some people’s backs up. If you take the term at it’s literal meaning, then sure, it’s extremely rare to find one, and, almost impossible to predict one to have a hall of fame career. But, if you accept that this overused term is used to describe a player that could end up being in the top tier of elite talents for the majority of their careers, then we can explore the possibility of seeing a potential “generational” player from this years’ draft.

Over the last few decades, we’ve seen many running backs progress through the collegiate ranks and create a buzz within the NFL community when the draft rolls round. Some players have lived up to the hype, Emmitt Smith, Eric Dickerson, Barry Sanders, Adrian Peterson and Saquon Barkley to name just a few, and some have developed into upper echelon elite backs when not so hyped coming out of college – Le’veon Bell and Frank Gore come to mind. But, of course there have been those that have failed to progress to the pro-level and have proved complete busts, please stand up Trent Richardson, Ki-Jana Carter and Darren McFadden, with an honourable mention to Leonard Fournette who “some” considered a “generational” talent.

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Lennox McLendon

What constitutes a “generational running back” label?

NFL analysts/journalists/reporters or whatever title you want to give someone that discusses this sport with an audience generally speak about their opinion which in most cases is backed up with some kind of statistical data. To me, that’s how a player with this label comes about. It’s a blend of stats from their collegiate careers mixed with what NFL scouts and professional analysts portray their talent level’s to be.

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For me, I think that to be considered “generational”, the player must have a productive college career. I put that number at 1,000 rushing yards season average, and in more recent times, some proven receiving ability. I know that’s not a water-tight system, but when you look at “generational talents” that have had elite-level careers, they all had this level of productiveness at the collegiate level.

It’s only very recent that the new breed of “generational running back” ‘must’ be productive in the passing game as well as on the ground.

Previous “generational” running backs

So by using that logic, I’ve devised a list of former players since the year 2000 that have seen that level of collegiate productiveness, hyped by the media as generational talents, and drafted within the top 50 (indicating NFL scouts also believe in the talent). Productiveness is seen here by using the players’ rush yards, receiving yards and touchdowns per season averages whilst at college.

These 11 players drafted over the last 20 years have had the “generational player” tag linked with them coming out of college football. Judging by the season average stats, you get a good indication of what’s required in order to be projected a great future.

Current potential “generational” running backs

From this year’s prospects, it’s apparent to see that one player fulfills the criteria of being a “generational talent”; Jonathan Taylor. In fact, his rushing yards and TDs per season average are miles ahead of any other running back out of college in the last 20 years.

J.K Dobbins isn’t far behind statistically although he doesn’t meet my particular criteria as he was drafted outside of the top 50. Statistically though, Dobbins too could be considered a generational level player.

D’Andre Swift comes in third and not a million miles away from hitting the criteria having been the most productive in the receiving game out of these selected players.

Cam Akers needed to be more productive in the ground game, whereas ironically, the first RB off the board in this years’ draft Clyde Edwards-Helaire is someway off what I would deem as a “generational” player.

Photo Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Predicting their futures

Of course now these players have been drafted into the NFL, lot’s of new variables come into play to determine whether or not they can translate their college production into a pro-level. What’s their new offensive line like? Are they a part of a committee? Do they have proven veterans ahead of them? Are they a part of a run-friendly scheme? Does their new Head Coach like to run the ball frequently? Are they playing in a similar scheme to what they did in college?

You’d like to think the NFL teams and their scouts have done their homework before drafting the players onto their rosters in order to get the best out of their high-capital picks, but some times that doesn’t always work out.

Let’s look at those previously mentioned players and how their NFL careers progressed (some of course are still active) and whether their “generational player” tag rang true in their pro-careers.

It’s been quite a mix bag of success. From the HOF careers of LT and Adrian Peterson to the bust and near bust careers of Ron Dayne and T-Rich.

In Conclusion

Predicting just how the careers of the Class of 2020 is almost impossible, but judging by historical data and recency bias, these prospects will unlikely be busts in their careers.

It’s hard not to love Jonathan Taylor after seeing what he’s done in his college career and ending up behind one of the best offensive lines currently in the NFL with Indianapolis.

D’Andre Swift could potentially see a path to a majority backfield after the Lions clearly signaled that Kerryon Johnson by himself is not the answer, and J.K Dobbins is in a ripe running spot with a run-first team in Baltimore. However, Dobbins may have to wait for Mark Ingram to move on before claiming the backfield for himself.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire has landed on a team coached by a run-favouring HC in Andy Reid and is the most talented RB on that roster, and despite Cam Akers running behind an ageing o-line, Todd Gurley had a very successful rookie contract for the Rams when he was healthy.

Final Opinion and Career projection

Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts – A “Generational talent” who is in the right spot to produce elite numbers over his career

J.K Dobbins, Baltimore Ravens – Borderline “Generational talent” who is on a team that could lead him to produce elite numbers over his career

D’Andre Swift, Detroit Lions – Elite college talent that could be elite in the NFL if the right team is built around him and he’s used as a swiss army knife.

Cam Akers, Los Angeles Rams – Elite college talent but is likely to put up average numbers unless drastic changes in the future help him progress to the next level.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs – Good college talent helped by one outstanding season. Is in the right spot to be very productive, but will likely only return good, not elite production.

“The Million Dollar Cam”: Mississippi’s new star

By Alex Lewis (@alexlewis226)

Florida State University has managed to produce a solid set of running backs over the last 30 years including Devonta Freeman, Warrick Dunn and Chris Thompson and following the conclusion of the 2020 NFL combine, another one could be about to smash the league apart.

Cam Akers, who hails from Clinton, Mississippi, put on an exceptional display in Indianapolis to put himself firmly within that elite top three of draft running backs – or at least so I think.

Now this revolution of FSU running backs hasn’t just returned, the Minnesota Viking’s running back, Dalvin Cook, slipped to the second round of the draft in 2016 and has gone on to prove a lot of teams wrong by becoming an RB1 in just three years.

The physical comparison between Cook and Akers is incredibly similar, but what skills the two backs bring to the field are a bit more different.

What will be the same however, is there dominance on a Sunday afternoon.

Cook, who left for the NFL before Akers arrived at FSU, had enough time with his successor to realise what it was possible for Akers to achieve.

In speaking with OrlandoSportsBlog on YouTube in 2017, Cook said of Akers: “he’s ready to learn, ready to see what the older guys could teach, I think it’s another version of what I went through, high recruit but still ready to learn”

“I think he’s got some greatness in him.”

Cam vs Cook – an apt comparison  

The similarities between the two Seminoles, at least physically is an extensive list.

Both standing at 5”10 and around 210 pounds, it would be a challenge to separate their tape had they worn the same number.

It doesn’t help matters that when you try to compare the combine scores and times of Akers, it becomes possible to conceive that Cook may have just competed for a second time in Indianapolis.

In actual fact the draft capital of Akers took a huge upswing following his performance on Thursday.

As you can see, the similarities in the combine performances of Akers and Cook are striking.

Not only did Akers numbers trump (marginally) those of former Seminole, Cook, but if anything, the speed and explosiveness that the scores suggest is far more important to Akers draft day potential than it was to Cook.

For an explanation of why that is so can be found in the tape study of both of these players college careers.

Dalvin Cooks ability to take five-yard toss plays and make it a 50-yard house call was just about unparalleled in his class but when forcing him inside between the tackles, it’s a totally different story.

With a mixture of an upright running style and a consistent desire to bounce runs outside, rather than plant and go downhill, it came as no surprise to many that his combine performance was an impressive one.

For Akers however, who’s main criticism has been an inability to take big long runs and hit his head on the goalpost, an impressive amount of athletic explosion has the potential to boost his eventual draft position far more than it did Cook.

Now for Cook, a suspicion that there was some off-field issues eventually dropped him to the second round and the 41st overall pick, and although Akers doesn’t have those same concerns, a feeling that his hands are less natural than Cooks will likely leave him on the board until a similar range.

Mock draft riser

Outside of the stats and numbers that Akers was able to post in the workouts at Lucas Oil Stadium, his performance in the drills caught the eyes of far more General Managers and analysts.

The brand new Duce Staley drill was dominated by Akers, who demonstrated quick feet and smooth hips to navigate what is fresh territory for the talent scouts of the NFL.

The same themes followed him throughout the more standard off-tackle drill which Akers successfully displayed to pretty much perfection, which will go a long way to convince some that despite entering the draft as a junior, he has the gap-reading maturity of some of his fellow class-mates.

Akers also impressed at the stand when addressing the media before his on-field display later in the week.

Coming across with that same level of maturity that he managed to display in the drills, he supported Dalvin Cooks revelation that he was willing to listen and take guidance from those that has come before him.

Asked by what sort of running back he is, Akers said:

“Just an all-around running back,

“Somebody’s who’s, of course, able to run the ball but another important aspect of running back is being able to block also. I just think I’m a complete back from catching to blocking to running.”

Instead of being pre-draft rhetoric, its possible to believe that following the combine, Akers has a point.

A one-handed grab on a swing pass drill may help to alter the narrative that he struggles to make catches outside his frame, as did a smooth participation of the new “Texas” route drill.

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Hang on a second

Despite all of the above-mentioned successes and improvements for Akers at the combine, the original tape concerns still warrant some thought before he flies up the relevant draft boards.

His 4.4 speed will assist concerns about his chunk play ability, that he hasn’t demonstrated in high volume in his three years of Seminole football and will also address how well he can bounce plays to the outside.

During college Akers has been excellent inside the tackles, and falling forwards for small gains on first down, but the question as to whether he can do the same against the bigger bodies of the NFL will need to be considered.

He also faces questions in the passing game, which despite a strong combine showing, will still be something to consider when thinking about drafting him as high as FSU compatriot Dalvin Cook.

Akers can be comfortable in the fact that he is a far more advanced blocker than Cook was coming into their respective drafts, giving him an extra upside as the league moves further into a pass happy style.

Where will he go?

In totality, Cam Akers combine show-off was about as beneficial to draft stock as any single player this year.

Showing off in the areas that he had failed to dominate at in college, his 4.4 speed and soft hands will go some way to convincing teams that Akers really is a three down back.

Pre-combine mock drafts listed Akers as a 3rd round talent but following all of the above combine boosts, I would not be surprised to see him in that early to mid-second round range.

Partially because you should never question the power of combine hype, but also because there is some teams in that area who really need a running back and have Dalvin Cook as a case study to prove Akers could make it as a RB1.

Any of the Atlanta Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers or the Houston Texans should be considered strong contenders should they move up to in and around that area of the upper second round.

Whoever ends up with Akers on their roster, they should consider themselves very lucky to have a stud, and likely at a discounted price.