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Making the Grade: Rookie RB Report Card

Handing out grades for the rookie running back class at the halfway point of the season.

We surpassed the midpoint of the NFL season in Week 9, which means it’s a good time to grade out the rookie running back performances thus far and provide you all with a report card for the top rookie running backs.

James Robinson

Going undrafted in the NFL draft, and many fantasy drafts for that matter, James Robinson has exploded onto the scene in the first nine weeks of his NFL career. Robinson has tallied 580 rushing yards and five touchdowns on the ground, adding 225 yards and two touchdowns through the air. His 580 rushing yards are good for sixth in the NFL, aided by his 65% snap share, which is eighth amongst all running backs. Even by the time, we realized Robinson was going to be the guy in Jacksonville, we did not anticipate that kind of snap share. Only one other Jaguar running back has received a carry in the past three weeks, that being one single carry for Chris Thompson. Thompson has eaten into Robinson’s role a bit more in the passing game, but Robinson has still seen 34 targets to Thompson’s 23.

Robinson is not the fastest or shiftiest runner, but he is a patient runner with good vision. He is excellent at waiting for the holes to develop and finding them. He has a strong cutback and runs with good pad level, consistently running downhill, as evidenced below.

Even with the numbers Robinson is putting up, there is still one thing dragging him down: draft capital. After all, he has none, and there are many in this class who have strong draft capital. However, this report card does not care about draft capital, it cares about performance, and as Robinson sits at fourth in PPR and standard scoring amongst running backs, his performance is worthy of a high mark.

Grade: A+

Clyde Edwards-Helaire

It’s easy to forget how good CEH was to start the season after being held in check for the last three weeks. Having recorded rushing totals of 138 and 161 in the first half of the season, CEH has shown what he is capable of in this offense. He is a smaller shifty back with a quick burst but runs with good vision and finishes his runs. He has a low center of gravity, and his legs don’t stop until he is on the ground. The Brian Westbrook comparisons are fitting.

Even with the down few weeks, CEH finds himself as the ninth scoring running back in PPR and 10th in standard scoring. CEH’s touches have dropped significantly in the last three weeks, carrying the ball just 19 times across those three games, adding just seven receptions. His lowest snap share of the season was 60% prior to Week 7 but has been at 53%, 50%, and 40% the last three weeks. This is concerning, and it is not a coincidence that it coincides with Le’Veon Bell’s arrival. While Bell has not been overly effective himself, he is certainly a fly in the ointment of CEH truthers.

All that being said, CEH is still fourth in the NFL in rushing yards and is currently the better and more efficient player than Bell is. I suspect the past three weeks will be seen as outliers at seasons end, as the 32nd pick in the NFL draft will show why he was just that in the second half of the season.

Grade: A-

J.K. Dobbins

Dobbins finally got his chance to shine in Week 8 with Mark Ingram out, and boy did he deliver, carrying the ball 15 times for 113 yards. His overall production is minimal, as his usage has been somewhat head-scratching. In addition to that, the Ravens offense has been stuck in neutral since their divisional-round loss to the Titans in last season’s playoffs. While these factors have undoubtedly held Dobbins back, he has still flashed the potential that made him the 55th selection in the draft.

Dobbins has accounted for 297 rushing yards and two scores, and his chipped in 87 receiving yards. Those 297 rushing yards are fifth-best among this rookie class, and he has done it on just 52 carries, making him one of the more efficient backs of this class so far. While yards per carry can be misleading and only tell a portion of the truth, his 5.7 places him eighth in the NFL, seventh among running backs. The problem here is the aforementioned Mark Ingram, but Gus Edwards has also eaten up many of the backfield touches. In Ingram’s two-game absence, Dobbins and Edwards have split the carries evenly at 27 apiece, and neither has been a factor in the passing game.

I have seen many comparisons for Dobbins, from Zeke to Devonta Freeman to Ryan Mathews. I’m not sure exactly who he reminds me of, but I am sure that I like his contact balance, vision, and powerful lower half. The contact balance really stands out to me and what has allowed him 2.4 yards after contact per rush, good for 10th in the league. In Week 8 against the Steelers, Dobbins put this on display throughout the contest.

Of the comparisons listed above, he lies somewhere between Zeke and Freeman, but he has shown the ability to be a high-level feature back, with only his limited role standing in the way.

Grade: B+

Antonio Gibson

The wide receiver turned running back was selected in the third round by the Washington Football Team and was instantly compared to Christian McCaffery by new Head Coach Ron Rivera. While he has obviously not matched CMC’s production, he has been a versatile offensive weapon for the Football Team. Gibson is a multi-dimensional player who has notched a rushing total of 128 yards and a receiving total of 82 yards in separate games. Through eight NFL games, Gibson has toted the rock 90 times, nearly tripling his college rushing total of 33.

Gibson sits at 23rd in the NFL with 391 rushing yards but has 14 broken tackles on his resume thus far, good for fifth in the league. Considering that we expected him to be fighting for touches with Derrius Guice and Adrian Peterson, I’d say he is ahead of schedule. Crazy enough, he is still behind teammate J.D. McKissic in snap share, sitting at 44% compared to McKissic’s 50%. He is, however, out touching the scatback 112 to 69 on the season.

Gibson has good size at 6’0” and 225 pounds but is very explosive and has soft hands as a receiver. He is a bit of an upright runner, but I do appreciate his patience. While Coach Rivera was quick to compare him to CMC, he reminds me a bit of Le’Veon Bell, as they profile very similarly. Gibson is patient behind his blockers and is not afraid to bounce outside as he is fast enough to get the edge. If the Football Team improves its offense over the next few years, a Le’Veon Bell or CMC type output is in his range of outcomes, but his snap share will need to increase for that to happen.

Grade: B

D’Andre Swift

Many analysts pegged Swift as the best all-around back in the draft class, with the Chiefs being a popular landing spot amongst mock draft enthusiasts. While the latter portion did not come to fruition, the former is still possible. Swift has just 250 NFL rushing yards to his name through eight games but does have a 100-yard game under his belt, as he rolled the Jags for 116 rushing yards on 14 carries in Week 6. As has been the theme throughout this report, Swift has been hampered by the other backs surrounding him, with Adrian Peterson and Kerryon Johnson still hanging around. Swift is sporting a 38% snap share, which does best the other two backs, but he’s still not seeing enough touches to unlock his full potential.

Swift has tremendous burst and balance with the ability to hit one cut and go or bounce it the outside and beat the defense around the edge. One of my favorite runs of the season from any of these rookies comes on the play featured below. Swift shows the vision, cutting ability, burst, and power as he trucks the defender to fall forward for an extra couple of yards.

Swift has remained a consistent threat through the air, averaging 4.25 targets per game. His 207 receiving yards are the third most in the rookie class, ranking only behind Robinson and CEH, who have a much healthier snap share. Swift also paces the Detroit backfield with five touchdowns on the season. Once his usage increases, Swift has shown that he has what it takes to be a feature back.

Grade: B

Jonathan Taylor

Jonathan Taylor was a trendy breakout candidate, not just for dynasty but redraft as well. The expectations for the second-round pick were very lofty when he landed a role behind one of the best offensive lines in football. The hype increased as photos surfaced online of the running back, looking like a linebacker in his Colts gear, but the expectations became sky high once Marlon Mack’s season was lost to a torn Achilles.

While Taylor’s week one was forgettable, he broke out with 101 yards and a score in Week 2. Jonathan Taylor truthers were on cloud nine. Until they weren’t. The 5’10” 225 pound running back has since disappointed, displaying the vision reminiscent of Trent Richardson. Taylor is currently 20th in the NFL in rushing yards with 416 and has four touchdowns to his name, so he has been fine. His 3.9 yards per carry are not stellar, but he has received a fair amount of carries that are unfavorable to that statistic. However, looking beyond the stats, Taylor looks a step slower on Sundays than he did on Saturdays and has spent as much time running into the backs of his linemen than he has finding a crease and getting to the second level.

All of this is concerning for Taylor’s long-term value. Suddenly Jordan Wilkins has added another layer of concern. Nyheim Hines was already handling most of the passing work, but now Jordan Wilkins has become the Colts’ primary ball carrier. Wilkins received 31 carries the past two weeks combined, while Taylor received just 17. Taylor’s snap share was at 59% in Week 6 before the team’s bye, but was at 34% and 31% in weeks eight and nine, respectively.

While all of this is very unfavorable to Taylor, we have seen running backs struggle with their vision early on in their career, only to figure it out eventually. Melvin Gordon, another Wisconsin back, is a prime example. We’ll see where Taylor goes from here, but I think we were all expecting a better report card from him at the halfway point.

Grade: C

Zack Moss

For whatever reason, Moss was somewhat divisive in the dynasty community heading into the season. Some were very bullish on the third-round pick, while others were still high on the Bills’ third-round pick from last season, Devin Singletary. Whichever side of the fence you landed on, Moss’ performance to date probably hasn’t swayed you either way. Moss struggled out of the gate and then missed a couple of weeks with a toe injury, which seemed to stunt his development. Moss finally put a couple of good weeks together when he rushed 7 times for 47 yards in week 7 and 14 times for 81 yards with two touchdowns in week 8. Unfortunately, Moss fell back to earth in week nine with a measly 18 yards on nine carries.

At 5’9” and 223 pounds, Moss is a much bigger back than the 203 pound Singletary and thus profiled more like an early-down back. However, reports out of camp suggested that Moss was the superior pass catcher and would be the goal line back. Thus far, they have been used rather interchangeably except on the goal line, where Moss is the preferred option. Both backs have hovered around a 50% snap share from week to week, but Josh Allen’s rushing ability limits both backs’ upside, especially around the goal line.

Moss’ no-nonsense running style has translated to the NFL, but he doesn’t stand out on film. His low base, balanced, and powerful running style reminds me a bit of the muscle hamster Doug Martin, though he lacks the agility to truly succeed at the second level. Moss has a role in the NFL though I fear he will never truly break out, especially while he is sharing the backfield in Buffalo.

Grade: C-

(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Josh Kelley

Kelley had a somewhat surprising start to the season, rushing for over 60 yards in each of the first two weeks. Kelley received a whopping 23 carries in Week 2, out-touching Austin Ekeler 25 to 20. This, of course, was with Justin Jackson sidelined, but this was still a workload that nobody saw coming.

Kelley’s performance dropped off significantly as the weeks have gone on while Justin Jackson has seized the opportunity with Ekeler sidelined. In week eight, prior to another Justin Jackson injury, Jackson saw a 47% snap share while Kelley saw just 24 % of offensive snaps. While Kelley out-snapped Kalen Ballage in week 9, Ballage stole the show and outperformed Kelley.

Kelley has good speed and runs with a strong lower half but has looked like a JAG at certain points throughout the season. He is likely destined to be a committee back who could pop off in the right matchup. Kelley is unlikely to see consistent touches when Ekeler and Jackson are both in the lineup.

Grade: C-

Cam Akers

Akers, a second-round pick, seemed destined for immediate success stepping into the shoes of the departed Todd Gurley. However, if you listened closely, you could hear Head Coach Sean McVay talking about a committee approach. What we didn’t know is that this committee wouldn’t necessarily include Cam Akers. Akers received 14 carries in week one but has carried it just 21 times since. Akers did miss two games due to a rib injury but hasn’t seen a consistent role in the offense when he is available.

There is an argument to be made that Akers’ grade should be left as an incomplete, but when Malcolm Brown has a more consistent role in the offense, you must be downgraded. Akers has tallied 148 yards on 35 carries over the course of the season, showing signs of elusiveness at times. Akers is quick, dynamic, and packs a strong punch as a runner. He can juke a defender’s socks off or explode into and through contact with no problem. Perhaps the most upsetting part of Akers’ role through the first half is that he’s only received two receptions.

I hope and expect to see Akers’ role grow in the second half of the season, and I would peg him as a buy-low candidate as I believe he can be a good one. However, it’s tough to ignore his low usage and lack of impact on an offense that has needed juice.

Grade: D+

Incomplete grades who have a chance to make an impact in the second half of the season:
A.J .Dillon
Ke’Shawn Vaughn
DeeJay Dallas
Anthony McFarland
Darrynton Evans
Eno Benjamin

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