Expectations were high for the rookie running back class coming into the 2020 NFL season, and I'm happy to say the group as a whole did not disappoint. The biggest surprise of the season was Jacksonville Jaguars newbie James Robinson, an undrafted free agent who ran his way to a top-five rushing performance despite missing the final two games of the season.
He wasn't the only one who splashed in Year 1. Kansas City's Clyde Edwards-Helaire, the first running back taken last April, added another potent element to the Chiefs' already-explosive offense, while Indianapolis' Jonathan Taylor went on an absolute tear down the stretch to finish third in the NFL in rushing yards. Meanwhile, D'Andre Swift, Cam Akers, J.K. Dobbins, AJ Dillon, Antonio Gibson and Zack Moss all earned significant or starting roles for their respective teams.
Overall, this group's stock is up after Year 1. The next question: What will these guys do next season? Which of these players will build off their 2020 production? Who won't?
Looking past the rookie class, I'd like to identify some running backs who exceeded or fell short of expectations. Below are four RBs whos stock rose in 2020 and five backs whose stock fell.
The Packers had a deep backfield this season, but no back on the roster was as explosive as Jones, as evidenced by his success on inside runs. He gained the third-most rush yards over expected on runs inside the tackles (+167) in 2020, per Next Gen Stats, and that's a result of Jones' vision and ability to burst through a hole at the line of scrimmage. The fourth-year pro has been exceptional over the last two seasons, hitting the 1,000-yard mark in each and totaling 25 rushing touchdowns. The pending free agent has proven to be one of the premier runners in the NFL, and there isn't anyone like him in this year's draft class. That's why he should be the highest-paid back of the offseason.
After a disappointing regular season for the former No. 4 overall pick, Fournette's stock shot up in Tampa Bay's Super Bowl run. "Playoff Lenny" amassed 448 scrimmage yards in four postseason games to lead all players and capped it all off with a season-high 135 scrimmage yards in Super Bowl LV. He was one of the game's X-factors, just like I said he'd be. Though Fournette could be in line for another one-year, prove-it deal, there's a real chance he makes a splash in free agency after leaving no doubt that he's still a physical, explosive force.
In a year when Christian McCaffrey was sidelined for all but three games, Davis stepped up in a big way and proved he has what it takes to be an every-down back who can help a team win. Davis, who turns 28 years old next week, logged 1,015 scrimmage yards and eight touchdowns for the Panthers in 2020. He could provide a team with backfield depth or a player who could earn a starting role. Either way, Davis should have some suitors in free agency.
Carson is a great player who has added an explosive element to the Seahawks' rushing attack, averaging 4.6 rush yards per carry during his four seasons in Seattle. He's a playmaker running the football between and outside the tackles, as well as a viable checkdown option in the passing game. Bottom line: Carson is a running back who ranks in the top half of the league when right. Staying healthy hasn't been the easiest thing for the hard-charging Carson to do over his career, as he has yet to play a full 16-game slate. The free agent-to-be is worth paying, but it's a gamble.
The Steelers had the worst rushing attack in the NFL this season, which in turn hampered the offense down the stretch as they struggled to get any play-action going. I believe that the Steelers had the potential to go deeper in the playoffs if they had a run game that was up to snuff. Injuries have plagued Conner (he was also on the COVID-19 list this season), so it's going to be tough to justify investing in him. This could be a prove-it-deal situation. He must show that he can stay on the field for a full season -- something he has yet to do.
When Clyde Edwards-Helaire went down with an injury late in the regular season, we all thought (myself included) that Bell would take advantage of the opportunity and solidify himself as the Chiefs' bell cow until the rookie returned. Well, that never happened. Bell, who's set to hit free agency next month, never quite gelled in the Chiefs' offense, evidenced by the fact that he had just two touches during the entire postseason. Furthermore, Bell played in just one playoff game, the Divisional Round against Cleveland in which he had 6 rush yards on two totes. With Bell failing to assume the role we envisioned when he signed with the Chiefs midway through the season, it's hard to know what's next for the soon-to-be 29-year-old.
Lindsay could've been paid by the Broncos last offseason. Instead, they threw money at Melvin Gordon, who finished as the team's leading rusher in 2020. Lindsay is coming off the worst season in his three years with the Broncos, as he had just 502 rush yards after surpassing 1,000-yard measuring stick in each of his first two campaigns. While he is averaging 4.8 rush yards per carry for his career, the thing really hampering Lindsay's value is his injury history. Lindsay has played one full 16-game slate in three seasons. Now he's set to become a restricted free agent next month. If the Broncos don't bring back the hometown kid, he should generate some interest from others.
Drake's stock skyrocketed when he first arrived in Arizona midway through the 2019 season, and he remained the focal point of the Cardinals' run game early this past season. But as the year progressed, Drake's touch count decreased, with Kyler Murray getting more leeway to run the ball and Chase Edmonds (who has one year remaining on his rookie contract) becoming a bigger part of the offense with his catching ability. Yes, Drake did lead the Cardinals in rushing yards (955 yards, 10 rush TDs), but you have to wonder if his limitations as a pass catcher will be a factor when he hits the market.
Ingram's days in Baltimore have come to an end. This didn't come as much of a surprise, considering the veteran never had more than 11 carries in a game this season, passing the torch down to Gus Edwards, whom I'd expect the Ravens will try to retain this offseason, and rookie J.K. Dobbins. The 31-year-old isn't the explosive back he once was, but can still be a complementary back and leader for teams needing to fill these roles.