(Ben Fennell is an Emmy Award-winning producer, editor and researcher across several media platforms, including the NFL Network and ESPN College Football. He worked with Mike Mayock on the NFL Network’s draft coverage for five years, and has worked the last two years with Daniel Jeremiah. You can follow him on Twitter at @benfennell_NFL. For the second straight year, Ben is breaking down each position in the draft for The Inquirer. Today, in part 1 of our eight-part series, he looks at the running back and quarterback positions.)
When NFL teams eye the running-back crop in the 2020 draft, most of them aren’t looking for the next Derrick Henry.
They’re looking for the next Alvin Kamara or Christian McCaffrey or Austin Ekeler or Miles Sanders.
They’re looking for a versatile back who not only can provide a boost to a team’s ground game but also can play a vital role in the all-important passing game.
“Everybody wants that pass-game contributor,’’ NFL Network draft analyst Ben Fennell said. “There’s less demand for a scheme-specific guy like Henry. College football, in general, is really shying away from those types of players, and so is the NFL.’’
Fennell’s top three running backs in this draft — D’Andre Swift (Georgia), Jonathan Taylor (Wisconsin), and J.K. Dobbins (Ohio State) — all were prolific college runners. While they weren’t used a lot in the passing game — none of the three had more than 26 catches last season — NFL scouts are reasonably confident that all three are capable of being three-down backs at the next level.
Other players have had their draft stock pushed up by what they can bring to offenses as receivers.
“What Clyde Edwards-Helaire did at LSU and Cam Akers did at Florida State, or even some later-round guys that can contribute primarily through the pass game like an Eno Benjamin [Arizona State] in the screen game or a Ke’Shawn Vaughn [Vanderbilt] or a Lamical Perine [Florida], teams value that element now more than ever,’’ Fennell said.
Fennell doesn’t expect more than one — maybe two — running backs to be taken in the first round, and that would be at the back end of the round. In the last seven years, more than two running backs have been taken in the first round just once (three in 2018).
As for the quarterback position, LSU’s Joe Burrow is expected to be the first overall player taken, with Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama) and Justin Herbert (Oregon) taken shortly after that by teams desperate for a franchise quarterback. All three likely will be off the board by the fifth pick.
Fennell’s second tier of quarterbacks includes Jordan Love (Utah State), Jake Fromm (Georgia), and Jacob Eason (Washington).
“Fromm doesn’t have a whole lot of redeeming qualities, but has played in a lot of big games at Georgia,’’ Fennell said. “Eason is a strong-armed guy but incredibly inconsistent. And then, Love, he has all the tools but played at Utah State against some poor competition.''
All three will get pushed up because of the aforementioned desperation for somebody — anybody — with franchise-quarterback potential.
“This is kind of a top-heavy quarterback draft," Fennell said. "There aren’t really a lot of developmental guys on days 2 and 3. Some people like Cole McDonald [Hawaii] and James Morgan [Florida International]. Shea Patterson [Michigan], and Mason Fine [North Texas] are athletic guys that are intriguing pieces. And then there’s Nate Stanley [Iowa], who is more of a play-action, turn-your-back-to-the-defense type of guy.’’
D’Andre Swift, Georgia, 5-8, 212, 4.48
Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin, 5-10, 226, 4.39
J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State, 5-9, 209, N/A
Cam Akers, Florida State, 5-10, 217, 4.47
Clyde Edwards-Helaire, LSU, 5-7, 207, 4.6
Height: 5-8 Weight: 212
Hands: 9 inches
40 time: 4.48 seconds
Vertical jump: 35.5 inches
225 bench: N/A
Fennell’s take: “Swift is the perfect combination of pass-catcher, pass-protector, and downhill [running] ability. His ability to be loose and violent in the same package is very unique. And that allows him to get out of backfield trouble, to win in the open field, and to get the tough yards. In addition, he also has the home-run speed you want from a back.
“They don’t do the Todd Gurley thing anymore at Georgia where they give a guy 40 carries a game and get him beat up. Swift played 43 games and had 440 carries, including 196 last year. So you’re not getting a guy who’s coming to the NFL on borrowed time.
“Swift is a three-down back. He pass-protects very well, but personally, I feel the whole idea behind running backs and pass protection is wildly overrated. If you have a guy who can’t pass-protect, then make somebody guard him. That’s the reason we have scatbacks. Will LeSean McCoy block anybody? No. But you make somebody guard him. You don’t make him stay in and pass-protect. And he’s got, what, more than 500 career receptions? You’re playing right into the defense’s hands when you keep a guy in who can catch the ball. Make him be the [pass-catching] threat. But Swift can block.’’
Round projection: Middle of Round 1.
Height: 5-7 Weight: 207
Hands: 9 5/8 inches
40 time: 4.6 seconds
Vertical jump: 39.5 inches
225 bench: 15 reps
Fennell’s take: “As LSU rose this season, his draft stock and trajectory also rose. He didn’t blow anybody away with his [combine] workout, but he was solid. In my mind, this guy is an absolute Brian Westbrook clone. He can be a major contributor in the pass game out on the perimeter and catch the ball down the field. He led the nation with 25 first downs out of the backfield, so you know he can catch the ball really well.
“He’s able to hide behind those big guys up front on the offensive line, just like Westbrook did, and hit the hole before defenders can even locate him. He makes people miss really, really well.’’
Round projection: 2-3
Height: 5-11 Weight: 208
40 time: 4.59
Vertical jump: N/A
225 bench: N/A
Fennell’s take: “Jones wasn’t a combine invite, and because the pro days were canceled, teams don’t have workout numbers on him, which hurts him just like it does a lot of guys who didn’t get invited to Indy. He reminds me a lot of Devin Singletary, who the Bills took in the third round last year and who rushed for 775 yards and had 29 catches as a rookie.
“I just think Jones is a guy that nobody is talking about. He had 25 touchdowns this year as a senior. He had 12 runs of 20-plus yards. So he’s a productive, explosive player. A home-run hitter. He was productive in multiple years at SMU. He had 1,200 yards last year. He rushed for a thousand in 2017. He’s a really creative runner. They didn’t use him in the pass game a whole lot, but I think they will in the NFL. Just like a Singletary or a Tarik Cohen, I think he’s that type of juicy third-down back with a lot of home-run ability.’’
Round projection: 7-FA
Joe Burrow, LSU, 6-3, 221, N/A
Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama, 6-0, 217, N/A
Justin Herbert, Oregon, 6-6, 236, 4.68
Jake Fromm, Georgia, 6-2, 219, 5.01
Jordan Love, Utah State, 6-4, 224, 4.74
Height: 6-3 Weight: 221
Hands: 9 inches
40 time: N/A
Vertical jump: N/A
Fennell’s take: “Burrow is the clear-cut No. 1 and almost certainly will be the first player taken in the draft. He had probably the most prolific season of any college prospect in a long, long time. Particularly all of his ability on third down in a variety of ways. He can play from a phone booth in the pocket and move defenders. He has tremendous anticipation. He can extend the play to run or extend the play to pass. He doesn’t flinch when he’s under pressure. He’s effective on designed quarterback runs. And his mental processing is absolutely off the charts.
“The big knock on Burrow is his arm strength. But you only need a powerful arm on maybe one throw every other Sunday in the NFL. We’ve seen average arms win in the NFL. We’ve seen Peyton Manning win. We’ve seen Tom Brady win. Drew Brees literally can’t throw a comeback anymore, and he’s the most accurate quarterback in NFL history.
“You need an NFL mind, and this guy made so many throws with his mind, as far as knowing where his ‘hot’ outlets are, knowing where to move defenders to create alleys, knowing how to get through progressions all the way across the field.’’
Round projection: 1, likely first pick in the draft.
Height: 6-6 Weight: 236
Hands: 10 inches
40 time: 4.68 seconds
Vertical jump: 35.5 inches
Fennell’s take: “Herbert is extremely athletic for his size. He’s a really loose athlete with a loose arm in combination with his size. Typically, guys this size are the big, stiff, statue pocket passers. But he has a looseness to his game, kind of like the way big Ben [Roethlisberger] plays.
“While I said earlier you don’t need a big arm to succeed in the NFL, this kid’s got one. He can throw 65 yards flat-footed. There are some exciting things he brings to the table that you can’t teach. Now, what’s between the ears, what kind of a leader he is and all that other stuff, that’s what everybody is trying to figure out right now.
“There have been big guys that have been successful and there have been big guys that haven’t. We were pretty excited about Paxton Lynch a couple of years back, who also was a loose athlete with a big, strong arm. Went in the first round, and nothing. A bust.
“I have Herbert as my riser because I think he’s done everything right in all the postseason stuff, whether it was competing in the Senior Bowl or going to the combine and performing and competing. He had a ton of drops at Oregon. He got no help from his receivers. When you think of Oregon, you think lots of speed. They get all of those playmakers from Texas to go up there and wear the cool uniforms. But they had terrible receiving corps the last 2-3 years and it impacted Herbert’s production. So there’s a chance he ends up becoming a better pro than his win total and success in college show."
Round projection: 1, probably doesn’t make it past the 15th pick.
Height: 5-10 Weight: 191
40 time: 4.52 seconds
Vertical jump: N/A
Fennell’s take: “Fine was another combine snub. He’s a very athletic kid out of the Russell Wilson, Kyler Murray, Seneca Wallace mold. That type of body. He was the back-to-back Gatorade Player of the Year in high school in Oklahoma, which is extremely rare. He was the Conference USA [Offensive] Player of the Year his first two years at North Texas.
“He’s a three-year starter. North Texas had a disappointing season this year. Fine lost a lot of his upperclassman buddies and they finished 4-8. But individually, he was solid. He has a lot of upside as an athlete. He may be a guy that gets moved to another position. He could move to running back or he could move to defensive back. But he’s a guy with a lot of tools, a lot of athleticism.
“He’s a guy who is going to show up in a late preseason game and destroy somebody and everybody is going to say, ‘Who is this kid?’ He’s going to be the kid you don’t want to cut.
“He’s absolutely draftable because of what we’ve seen from guys like the Eagles’ Greg Ward and [former Auburn quarterback-turned-defensive back] Nick Marshall. Teams are going to look at him and say, ‘You know what, maybe he can play special teams for us. If we need a guy to play the slot, maybe he can step in there and help us.’ All of that extra-value stuff is how you get drafted in the seventh round.’’