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Ranking the top rookie running backs for dynasty leagues

A lot of work goes into my dynasty rankings.

I'll say this to my editor, as he anxiously awaits an article to be filed, and he'll just nod his head and then walk away.

No, really. A lot of work goes into my dynasty rankings.

Early on, I try not to be influenced by subjective factors like industry mock drafts, rumors regarding 40-yard dash times, and so on. Instead, I focus solely on the objective — a player's cold, hard, brutally honest numbers. I'll run each player's college statistics through my model (which focuses only on the most predictive metrics for each position) for an initial ranking. Who leads their position in this class? How does that player compare to the leaders of previous classes?

Then, these rankings get updated after the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine. Each participant's numbers then get parsed through a second model that focuses only on the most predictive combine events for each position. This second model has a small (probably much smaller than imagined) but real impact on the first model.

The actual NFL Draft then has the biggest impact on these rankings, as draft position is the variable that has the single-most predictive power.

After that comes the subjective, and small tinkerings will be made. How enticing is this landing spot for a fantasy player? How accurate is the quarterback? How run-heavy (historically) is the offensive play-caller?

Countless hours will be spent watching post-draft press conferences with a team's head coach, offensive coordinator and/or general manager. Why did they draft this player? Do they think they can contribute immediately in Year 1?

In this series, I've been walking you through the first step in this process. I'll be breaking down my top tight ends, running backs and wide receivers according to my pre-combine prospect model. In today's article, after already looking at the tight end position, we'll be focusing on the top running backs of the 2020 NFL Draft class.

Top Fantasy Running Backs of the 2020 Class

Tier 1

Dec 7, 2019; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Wisconsin Badgers running back Jonathan Taylor (23) carries the ball for a touchdown against the Ohio State Buckeyes during the first half in the 2019 Big Ten Championship Game at Lucas Oil Stadium. Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
1. Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin (Age: 21.1)

Where he ranks: According to our model, Taylor is one of the top three running back prospects to come out since at least 2015. He ranks behind Melvin Gordon and Dalvin Cook and just ahead of Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley. Among all running backs in this class, Taylor ranked first in our overall model, first in our rushing model, and second in our receiving model.

Why he ranks here: Since 2000, there are only 25 instances of a running back exceeding 1,950 rushing yards in a single season. Taylor accounts for three of those and is the only player to make the list more than once. Of the remainder, we find 19 running backs who have already declared for the NFL Draft. Of those, eight were first-round draft picks, and all 19 were drafted in the first four rounds. Even more impressively, of those 19 running backs, 10 finished top-five in fantasy points in at least one NFL season.

The single most predictive variable in our model is total missed tackles forced, and Taylor ranked highly in this regard, averaging 76.3 missed tackles forced per season — the second-most in PFF College history (2014-2019). Taylor was even more dominant in terms of yards after contact, another valuable positive indicator of talent. Taylor finished first, second and fifth in yards after contact per attempt in each of the past three seasons. He exceeded 1,200 yards after contact three times and sported the best, third-best and fifth-best ever seasons in our database. For perspective, Derrick Henry, Melvin Gordon, Dalvin Cook and Chuba Hubbard are the only other running backs with at least 1,200 yards after contact in a single season, and none accomplished this feat more than once.

In addition to these ridiculous rushing numbers, Taylor also showed high competency as a receiver. He averaged 2.13 yards per route run in 2019, which ranked second-best among all 150-touch Power-5 running backs. Within this draft class, he leads all running backs in both yards per carry (6.67) and yards per route run (1.66) across his college career.

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