Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs
Lead back in an Andy Reid system with Patrick Mahomes at QB is as good as it gets, and that’s now CEH’s role after the Chiefs spent a first-round pick on him. Damien Williams could’ve put up big numbers himself, but he now becomes nothing more than the backup with the most fantasy upside, as Reid referred to Edwards-Helaire as a better version of Brian Westbrook who’s about to be “unleashed in our offense.” CEH is the only RB in SEC history with 1,000 rushing yards and 50-plus catches in a season and has been called the best route-running back to enter the the league since Christian McCaffrey.
As a member of the Chiefs, Williams has been a top-three fantasy back during the 16 games in which he’s reached the modest threshold of playing half the snaps (h/t Mike Clay) despite PFF grading him negatively as a receiver and blocker last season. Kansas City is now replacing him with a much younger version in which his team is heavily invested. Edwards-Helaire hit the jackpot with his landing spot, and he has the talent to immediately be worth a first-round fantasy pick even if he’s not a true workhorse. He’s a top-10 overall player on my board.
Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts
Taylor is arguably the best RB from the draft and also enters an extremely favorable fantasy situation on a team with one of the league’s best run-blocking units that’s getting a huge upgrade at QB. The rookie also has little competition ahead of him on the depth chart, as Marlon Mack is about to become a free agent in 2021, and PFF graded him 56th out of 57 running backs in blocking last season (and as one of the worst receiving RBs). Taylor has a notable fumbling history and still needs to work on his hands, but his impressive yards per route run hints at a three-down future, and this is a back who’s easily the all-time leader in yards from scrimmage and is the 10th-fastest (weight-adjusted) RB in Combine history.
Nyheim Hines is going to catch a bunch of passes out of the backfield from Philip Rivers, but Taylor should quickly unseat Mack as Indy’s clear lead back and is already accustomed to running behind a terrific o-line coming from Wisconsin. There’s big touchdown upside, and I have Taylor ranked worthy of a late first-round fantasy pick (he won’t cost near that). Taylor vs. Clyde Edwards-Helaire is a good debate as the top pick in dynasty leagues (throw Joe Burrow in there in Superflex formats).
Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals
He’s a late bloomer with average arm strength coming from a system tailored to his skills, but Burrow’s season last year was beyond impressive regardless. Burrow is PFF’s highest-graded prospect ever and just posted a silly 60:6 TD:INT ratio. To get a better idea of just how impressive Burrow was in 2019 (and how bright his future looks), take a look at his performance on first downs (in first halves) compared to other first-round QBs, when he got 13.9 YPA with an 82.1 completion%, 12.9 TD% and 0.7 INT%.
In fantasy terms, he landed in a pretty terrific spot (and not just for the Tiger King jokes), as Burrow will have A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd, John Ross, Auden Tate and No. 33 pick Tee Higgins as weapons. Joe Mixon (and Gio Bernard) are capable pass-catchers out of the backfield, last year’s first-round pick Jonah Williams will be returning from injury to play left tackle, and this is the team’s projected No. 5 wide receiver. While facing the Ravens and Steelers 25% of their schedule may not seem ideal, the “defenses doesn’t matter” argument would counter offenses dictate game script most, and those matchups sure look like shootouts to me (same with the Browns). Since he can also run some, I have Burrow as a borderline top-15 QB right away even at a loaded position, although paying up for the unknown factor makes more sense in non-Superflex leagues. The Bengals are easily my favorite long shot bet this year.
Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys
He was a fantasy monster last year throwing for nearly 5,000 yards and 30 touchdowns while getting 8.2 YPA, and Dallas added arguably the best playmaker in this year’s draft when CeeDee Lamb unexpectedly fell to them at No. 17. Blake Jarwin replacing Jason Witten is another upgrade for Prescott, who also dealt with a badly hobbled Amari Cooper over the second half of last season. Michael Gallup finished top-10 in yards per route run as a sophomore last year, while Tony Pollard is another mismatch at Prescott’s disposal. The Cowboys also provide one of the league’s best offensive lines, and Prescott has added 21 rushing scores over the first four seasons of his career. The addition of Lamb gives him a comical number of weapons, making Prescott an MVP candidate and my QB3 with easy No. 1 upside.
Matt Breida, Miami Dolphins
While leaving Kyle Shanahan’s system would usually be viewed as a negative, Breida was traded from an extremely crowded 49ers backfield to a Dolphins one that has only Jordan Howard as competition. It’s also a Miami offense that drafted two tackles early (and a guard later) as well as a potential star at QB in Tua Tagovailoa (and has a perfectly capable backup in Ryan Fitzpatrick should Tua get hurt or flop) with rising weapons DeVante Parker and Mike Gesicki, so it’s quietly a sneaky favorable situation.
Howard is the goal-line favorite, but he’s a pedestrian runner and horrific as a receiver (although a terrific blocker), while Breida is the NFL’s fastest running back with a SPARQ-x in the 89th percentile who got the seventh-most yards-per-touch among backs in 2018 and owns a career 5.0 YPC mark. He has a long injury history and briefly battled fumbling issues last year that resulted in him being lost in SF’s shuffle, but Breida has good skills and is suddenly looking at a major opportunity on an improving team, making him a top-30 fantasy back.
Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
PFF graded Ronald Jones negatively last season as a receiver and most importantly, as one of the worst backs in pass protection, which matters most with Tom Brady now in Tampa Bay (Bruce Arians has also outright stated his desire for a three-down back). While the Bucs surprisingly didn’t spend an earlier pick addressing running back, they astutely waited and grabbed Vaughn, who excelled at blocking in college, when he also dominated Jones in Yards Created, revealing the clear superior prospect and option for TB’s backfield in 2020.
It’s not super hard to envision a world in which the rookie is incredibly productive as the lead back (with Peyton Barber also gone) in an offense (that added a tackle early in the draft) featuring the GOAT at quarterback throwing to Chris Godwin, Mike Evans and Rob Gronkowski. Tampa Bay’s emerging defense should also help the game script for the team’s back, so assuming the 43-year-old Tom Brady isn’t done (not a guarantee after he got 5.9 YPA over last season’s second half), Vaughn joins a few other rookies with legitimate top-10 overall fantasy upside right away.
James Conner, Pittsburgh Steelers
He’s still just 24 years old and is one season removed from scoring 13 touchdowns while totaling 1,375 yards from scrimmage over 12 starts, and Conner’s stock is on the rise after Pittsburgh waited to draft a running back. While Anthony McFarland led this year’s RB class in Yards Created per attempt and becomes one of the backup RBs with the most fantasy upside, he shouldn’t pose an immediate threat to Conner as the team’s lead back. Conner was a bust last year, but he was being drafted in the first round of some fantasy leagues for a reason as Le’Veon Bell’s replacement, and the return of Ben Roethlisberger will make a huge difference. Conner is a major durability concern, but he’s a three-down capable back on a team with arguably the NFL’s best defense and a strong o-line, so his value is shooting up.
Cam Akers, Los Angeles Rams
Despite plenty of other positions that could’ve been addressed, the Rams spent the No. 52 pick on Akers, ruining all hope for backers of Darrell Henderson like myself. The rookie immediately becomes the favorite to take over as the Rams’ lead back (in something of a committee) with Todd Gurley departing. It’s a role that produced 54 touchdowns over the past three seasons from Gurley, including 14 scores over 15 games last year despite a degenerative knee that clearly hobbled him (his offensive line certainly played a part, but Gurley also ranked last in yards per route run by a mile among RBs) against a tough schedule and with Jared Goff regressing in a big way. In other words, it’s a conducive spot to be Sean McVay’s lead back, and Akers immediately shoots atop the team’s depth chart after Henderson flopped so badly as a rookie (Akers, meanwhile, is accustomed to running behind shaky offensive lines). Given the McVay factor, a likely Rams bounce back and Gurley gone, Akers is a top-25 RB on my board.
Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks
It’s been an unexpectedly favorable offseason for Carson, as Seattle waited until the 144th pick (DeeJay Dallas) to address running back in the draft. Rashaad Penny suffered “more than just a normal ACL tear” in Week 14, so Carson remains the heavy favorite for carries on a Seattle team that averaged the third-most rushes per game last season and has arguably the NFL’s best player at quarterback (with an emerging beast at wideout). Carson’s injury didn’t require surgery, he’s still just 25 years old and is second in the NFL in broken tackles over the last two seasons despite missing three games and splitting work. It’s big news to his fantasy value that the Seahawks barely addressed RB during the draft (but remains curious why they don’t use more capital on o-linemen), as it’s assumed he’ll be ready sooner than Penny.
Derrius Guice, Washington Redskins
Washington was one of the first teams expected to draft a running back but instead didn’t select any, although they did take Antonio Gibson in Round 3. So with Chris Thompson likely leaving in free agency, there’s only 35-year-old(!) Adrian Peterson (3,000+ career carries!) and physically compromised Bryce Love fighting for carries in Washington’s backfield with the seriously talented Guice. Of course, Guice is an extreme long shot to stay healthy at this point, but given his path to carries, he should be moving up draft boards.